11. “Islands in the Stream” (Eyes That See in the Dark, 1983)
This list is 11 songs and not a nice round ten because of this one. It would be a sacrilege to leave out her biggest hit. Written by the venerable Bee Gees, co-sung by Kenny Rogers, and destined for karaoke machines around the world, it’s a sparkling, lovey-dovey pop monster as only the Brothers Gibb could write. It only makes it to the 11-spot on our list because Parton’s catalog of solo hits is just too rich on its own. Longtime pals and collaborators Rogers and Parton got together again this year to sing “You Can’t Make Old Friends” off of Blue Smoke.
10. “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That?” (White Limozeen, 1989)
If you thought the phrase “painted-on jeans” was a recent country western ideal for women, think again. Way back in 1989, Parton used it to describe her cruel, flirtatious beau. And he looks seriously good in those things.
Though the song was written for her by two men, it still impressively flips the script. It’s usually men who sing about women who can stop traffic during a night on the town, but Parton can’t peel her eyes off her dreamy cowboy. It’s a fun, lighthearted ode to jealousy in a way that is distinctly Dolly. The track’s upbeat, cut-time drive and happy, bouncing fiddle are enough to make you want to throw on some tight jeans and cowboy boots and cut a rug of your own.
9. “9 to 5” (9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, 1980)
Who among us can’t sympathize? A ragtime piano drives away on a dark, major chord while Parton comes to grips with yet another day as a workaday wage slave. Country music is — or at least used to be — the balm of the working class. Her distinctive voice reminding you that “You’ve got a dream he’ll never take away” is about the sweetest medicine there is.
It’s impressive how Parton — who’s enjoyed a successful performing career since her teen years, maybe never working a 9 to 5 job in her life — can get away with performing this song with a straight face. But, as we’ll discover as this list unfolds, Parton’s warmth and sincerity are key to her appeal. You feel the conviction in her voice, which goes down as smooth and invigorating as the morning “cup of ambition” she describes in the first verse.
Oh, and the typewriter percussion is pure genius.
8. “Blue Smoke” (Blue Smoke, 2014)
More than 45 years since her first top 10 country single, “Blue Smoke” is pure, distilled, raw country. With bluegrass instrumentation and momentum, it trundles ahead like a locomotive, eager and earnest. You can hear her age manifesting itself in raspy, throaty tones when she sings the first several lines — which only makes the song better. It lends itself well to a song about a long-suffering, mistreated lover who declares over the bridge, “I’ve had just about all the heartbreak I can stand!”
7. “Down From Dover” (The Fairest of them All, 1970)
Today, it must be hard to believe that country music — with its rock and hip-hop collaborations, songs about beer, parties, trucks, and more beer — used to be notoriously depressing. “Down From Dover” is old-school country, one of the darkest songs you’ll ever hear.
Parton’s warbling soprano mourns as she tells the tale of a young girl, pregnant and jilted by the father, who is turned away by her family. With nowhere to turn and nothing to cling to but the hope her lover will return from Dover, the baby is stillborn. And oh yeah, the father still isn’t coming home. Ouch.
“Down From Dover” is Parton’s songwriting at its most visceral, a story song in the country tradition that starts sad and only becomes sadder. Her ability to paint the emotions of her protagonists is richly on display.
6. “A Better Place to Live” (Coat of Many Colors, 1971)
Parton can craft songs that depress the hell out of you, then lift you right back up again on the next track. The impressive diversity of her epic catalog attests to this.
John Lennon’s thematically similar “Imagine” was released that same year, but 1971’s “A Better Place to Live” is easily the better song. Parton envisions a better world, attainable “if we’d love one another instead of finding faults.” Lennon’s song is wistful and apathetic, while Parton wields optimism and joy. She blends the shining, happy sounds of Americana and gospel with the ideals of the hippies they were so at odds with. It all comes together perfectly, including the kind of “la-la-las” that even the flower children could groove on.