One of the Christmas gifts I received this year is Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles. As you might guess, it’s the authors’ attempt to rank the 500 greatest singles in the long history of country music. As all of these lists are, it’s more a beginning than an end, but the essays that accompany each selection make the book a must have for any fan of country music. As a Texas music/alternative country fan, my favorite singers and bands get little mention, but that makes sense in the context of a list of best singles, rather than of best songs, singers, or performances. One nice thing about the book is that the authors take an expansive view of country music, so songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” take their place alongside country classics like Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Even if you disagree with every choice on the list, you’ll understand country music better after reading it, and you’ll hear new things in the songs that are listed. Great book.

For what it’s worth, the reviews at are what I expected. The book pays little attention to country music since 1990, and really, since 1980. That may not seem fair to some reviewers, but it seems right to me, since it’s hard to place recent singles in a proper historical context. Besides, I find that the value in all such projects is less about how the works in question are ranked and more in the discussion of the items that are included. In that regard, the book is excellent.

If country music isn’t your thing, you may like Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, the book upon which Heartaches by the Number is patterned.

One further note: one’s appreciation of a book like this is much enhanced by the availability of online music stores like the iTunes Music Store. The ability to find many of the songs on the list and listen to them at the drop of a hat is incredible. Sadly, I think that you’d have more luck with the Dave Marsh book than Heartaches by the Number; the selection of classic country music available throught iTMS is not that deep.