Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (2023)

The Queen of Country's best solo songs to date, from "9 to 5" to "Jolene."


Hannah Dailey, Chuck Dauphin

Since releasing her debut solo album, 1967’sHello, I’m Dolly, more than 50 years ago,Dolly Partonhas changed the face of the entertainment industry. Kicking down doors for female performers in both country and pop music, she has soared in the worlds of books, television, philanthropy and movies — and pretty much whatever else she tackled.

On top of it all, her expansive roster of hits reads like a “best of” list of the 1970s and 1980s, and it remains one of the strongest song catalogs of any singer-songwriter in any genre. As a writer, she has penned everything from poignant, detailed ballads about life in the Smoky Mountains, where she grew up, to some of the most defining love songs of all time.

Her prowess as a songwriter and performer is so great, it earned her a historic induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 — an accomplishment she almost didn’t accept, telling Billboard at the time that she didn’t feel like she “measured up” to past inductees. A legacy like hers, however, deserves the title of “rock star” no matter what style of music she makes, and the world agreed. She went on to become the second female country artist (after Brenda Lee) to be inducted in both the Rock & Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. (Parton has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.)

“People usually [say] ‘Dolly rocks’ or ‘you rock’ or ‘you’re a rock star,’” she said. “I thought they just meant that I was cool, and I took that as a great compliment. But now I’m going to have to take it literally!”

In choosing our favorite Dolly Parton songs, we settled on these 15. Many of them came from her own pen, and all of them will “Always” have staying power. To be fair, we could do a list of our favorite Dolly duets, too, but wanted to keep this one solo focused.

Keep reading to see Dolly Parton’s 15 best songs to date below.

  • "You’re The Only One"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (2)

    One of the four songs on this list not written by Parton, this heartbreaking ballad (written by Bruce Roberts and Carole Bayer Sager) was one of the centerpieces of the period when Parton’s music was beginning to gain favor with a wider audience beyond Nashville. At the timeit topped the charts in the summer of 1979, this was Parton’s fifth straight No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and also a top 20 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart.

    Listen here.

  • "Sweet Summer Lovin’"

    Another song not from the Parton pen (Blaise Tosti did the honors), this one featured some intriguing production that blurred the lines between country and disco, making for one of her more appealing departures of sound.

    Listen here.

  • "Yellow Roses"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (3)

    WithRicky Skaggstaking creative control of her 1989 albumWhite Limozeen, Parton returned to her country roots with her most traditional album in ages. At the heart of that project was this exquisite ballad, which brought her another Hot Country Songs chart-topper.

    Listen here.

  • "The Seeker"

    One of the more unlikely Dolly Parton songs to be a hit record, this was a straight-ahead spiritual number. Fans resonated with the message about a person putting one foot forward, though sometimes ending a couple feet back.

    Listen here.

  • "Tennessee Homesick Blues"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (4)

    Though the 1984 filmRhinestonedidn’t make any list of favorite films from critics that year, the movie’s breakout hit was one that Parton’s fans definitely latched on to. The melody and the instrumentation were very much influenced by her early, more Appalachian-infused work.

    Listen here.

  • "Two Doors Down"

    As a country hit, it barely made a ripple —only charting as a B-side to her No. 1hit “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right,” but this Parton composition about a woman wanting to break the chains of the pain of a previous relationship found an audience in the pop world with itsbouncy feel and sing-along chorus, giving her a rare top 20 entry on theHot 100that wasn’talso a country hit.

    Listen here.

  • "9 To 5"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (5)

    Parton’s trek to pop culture stardom was forever solidified with her performance in the 1980 film of the same name, where she matched wits withLily Tomlin,Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman. The song’s title cut was a tribute to all who slaved away too many hours for too little pay, ultimately striking a chord with both country and pop audiences, topping the Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Adult Contemporary.

    Listen here.

  • "Coat Of Many Colors"

    Sometimes, you have to write your ideas wherever you are at. In 1969, Parton was struck with the inspiration for this nostalgic ballad about a childhood memory, but she didn’t have any paper with her — so she wrote the song on a dry cleaning receipt. Two years later, she took the song to No. 4 on Hot Country Songs, but the song’s impact is still being felt over four decades later, serving as the inspiration for a pair of highly-rated NBC TV movies in 2015 and 2016.

    Listen here.

  • "Love Is Like A Butterfly"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (6)

    If Parton needed any affirmation that she was doing the right thing career-wise when she struck out on her own in 1974, this provided that feeling when it topped the chart in the fall of that year. It’s a luscious melody that stays in your head, and perhaps the Dolly Parton song that inspired a fan to go the distance to show his devotion — one fan reportedly had the album cover tattooed on himself.

    Listen here.

  • "Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You"

    While many detractors in country music were talking about Parton’s defection to the pop music world, this 1980 Hot Country Songs No. 1 showed that the singer could still be as “country” sounding as anybody. A song in which Parton is telling her lover not to be threatened by her past, she made this Patricia Sebert/Hugh Moffatt composition a classic.

    Listen here.

  • "Touch Your Woman"

    A 1972 hit for Parton, this was one of her first attempts to record a straight-ahead love song, rather than a nostalgic number dealing with her mountain roots. Some radio stations refused to play the song, deeming it too sexually suggestive. And, to be certain, it was no “Washday Blues,” but the Dolly Parton song definitely helped her to establish herself as one of the top singer-songwriters of her day.

    Listen here.

  • "Jolene"

    Two very different women helped to inspire this Hot Country Songs chart-topper. There was a little girl who came through Parton’s autograph line following a show —and also a bank teller whom the singer felt was flirting with her husband Carl early on in their marriage. However you look at it, this earnest plea to the other woman became a career-defining song for Parton — and one that she would revisit several times, doing collaborative versions with Pentatonix and goddaughter Miley Cyrus.

    Listen here.

  • "The Bargain Store"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (7)

    This 1975 jewel remains one of her most under-appreciated records. The lyrics — all about the emotional wear and tear of previous relationships, and how they are not going to hold her back from pursuing a new love — were pretty touchy for their time, and some radio stations resisted playing it at first. However, the appeal of the song was too much, giving her not only a No. 1 Hot Country Songs hit, but a top 40 crossover on the Adult Contemporary chart.

    Listen here.

  • "I Will Always Love You"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (8)

    Simply put, it’s one of the greatest love songs in music history. The inspiration for the song stems from Parton making the decision to cut the professional ties toPorter Wagonerin 1974. In doing so, she crafted a love song for the ages — one that was a hit three (1974, 1982, 1995) times for the singer, and also taken to new heights in 1992 byWhitney Houstonon the soundtrack ofThe Bodyguard. Houston’s version logged an astonishing 14 weeks atop the Hot 100.

    Listen here.

  • "Here You Come Again"

    Dolly Parton’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks (9)

    A rarity on several fronts: For starters, Parton didn’twrite the song, and she didn’teven record it first. Her producer at the time heard the song on aB.J. Thomasrecord, and the song was actually written withBrenda Leein mind. With all due respect to those legendary artists, Parton delivered a knockout punch to thisBarry Mann/Cynthia Weil song with her 1977 version. When you hear that signature keyboard intro, you’re hooked. Audiences agreed, sending the song to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs, No. 2 on Adult Contemporary and No. 3 on the Hot 100.

    Listen here.

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