Archive for the ‘Country Music Coutdowns’ Category

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists: Taylor Swift

January 2, 2015

10858588_10152594659633196_3607573155036106459_nOver the course of the last decade, no artist has been scrutinized and debated more than Taylor Swift. Large swaths of music fans don’t understand the appeal citing either weak vocals, the fact they’re out of her target demographic, or both in their critiques. But through it all Swift has grown into a one woman machine who’s become the heart and soul of the music industry. The first genuine superstar of the social media age, she connects with fans at a level never before seen. Her impact and influence cannot be understated.

On some level Swift is a brilliant business woman. You don’t sell a million copies of your last three albums – Speak Now (2010), Red (2012) and 1989 (2014) – in the first week by accident. Swift knows her audience inside and out, thus giving them exactly what they want.

I’ve loved Swift ever since “Our Song” was released to country radio in the summer of 2007. Her five albums have constantly been some of my favorite records during the years they were released. In fact, no other artist has gotten me more excited for new product than Swift. Why? Simply put, her songwriting speaks to me. No one crafts lyrics like her, framed impeccably in the melody and instrumentation that best suits the song. Taylor Swift has it all figured out – haters be damned – and is laughing all the way to global domination.

Ranking my 25 favorite songs of hers was a challenge. I finally got it down to list I could live with, which you see here, complete with commentary. These truly are my favorite songs by a favorite artist, a singer who’s grown from a teenager to a fully fledged woman before our eyes.

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#25

The Way I Love You

Fearless (2008)

Written By: Taylor Swift & John Rich

I was obsessed with this thumper in the early days of the Fearless era, stomping to the infectious drumbeat and screaming along as she belted the lyrics. Swift rarely expands her co-writing circle, but she let in Rich, if only for a one-off. My ears find this a bit cluttered now, but how I loved it back then.

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The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013 Part I: 20-11

December 4, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. Here’s part I, 20-11:

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20. That Girl – Jennifer Nettles

Back in “Stay” mode, Nettles is once again the other woman. Sequels often pale in comparison to the original, as “That Girl” does, but Nettles scores points for writing the first answer song to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” and pulling it off with ease.

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19. Someone, Somewhere Tonight – Kellie Pickler

Treading hallowed ground, Kellie Pickler tackles one of Pam Tillis’ greatest vocal performances ever by covering one of the best songs she’s ever recorded. Finally stripped of her caricature image thanks to Dancing With The Stars, Picker plays it smart by making “Someone Somewhere Tonight” her own. While it pails in comparison to Tillis’ brilliant rendition, Pickler more than makes up for it with a mature performance that marks her growth as a singer and a person.

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18. Your Side of the Bed – Little Big Town 

So what if the third single from Tornado is a rip-off of a Gretchen Wilson album cut? Husband-and-wife Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook bring stunning conviction to this tale of a relationship breaking down from both sides of a king sized bed.

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17. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – The Band Perry

This must be a trend – when The Band Perry’s debut album came out, they placed one single apiece on both my best and worst lists. They’ve done the same again. Their best? This little ode to spreading your wings when you’re young. It’s a bit too loud towards the middle, but it works for me nonetheless.

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16. Enough – Joey + Rory

Originally written by Rory for a Kraft commercial, “Enough” is a sweet tale about family values and having “just enough to get by on.” There’s nothing revelatory about its sentiment (especially after “That’s Important To Me”) but it exudes charm nonetheless.

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15. Hush, Hush – Pistol Annies

How many of us have been there? You’re at the dreaded family reunion and just as you expected, no one is speaking to anyone. Brother is just out of rehab, daddy’s obsessed with the end of the world, and mom is sneaking vodka just to cope with it all. “Hush, Hush” is family dysfunction at it’s best with some vivid characters to boot.

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14. Travelin’ Alone – Jason Isbell

The best truckin’ song of the year is Isbell’s ode to loneliness on the road. He just wants someone to share it all with. Is that really too much to ask?

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13. Blowin’ Smoke – Kacey Musgraves

The shortsighted working poor come roaring back to life courtesy of Musgraves and her team of diner waitresses who are dreaming of a better life. Kelly may’ve gotten out, and hitched a ride to Vegas, but the others will forever be blowing smoke, and not just what comes from their cigarettes. It’s mystifying how fully formed Musgraves’ perspective on life is for a twenty-four year old.

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12. Mama’s Broken Heart – Miranda Lambert

Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves’ greatest success in 2013 came from writing this biting look at breakups from the standpoint of a generational gap between a mother and daughter. She’s cutting her bangs, screaming his name, and contemplating revenge while mom, who raised her better, wants her to “Cross [her] legs and dot [her] eyes and never let ‘em see [her] cry.” Lambert has never played this type of conflict so well.

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11. Like Jesus Does – Eric Church 

Another example of Church proving he’s an artist, not just a puppet of the country music industry. I will always reward those who show some effort and Church pulls out the effort in spades here. One of his finest singles.

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part II: 10-1

December 3, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen of Vulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Compiling this list was easy, with ten reasons why most people cannot even stomach mainstream country anymore:

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10. Parking Lot Party – Lee Brice

is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

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9. Days of Gold – Jake Owen

One of the benchmarks of a great country song is the ability to be drawn in by the story through production and vocals that help, not hinder, the listener’s ability to understand the lyrics. That simple logic has been thrown out the window here, which in part is smart given the vapid nature of this song. There’s nothing here but summertime cliché after summertime cliché sung in rapid-fire succession behind a wall of irritating sound. Owen wants more substance in his music, but if he keeps playing to radio, he’s not going to achieve that goal anytime soon.

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8. Southern Girl – Tim McGraw

Twenty years into his career, Tim McGraw proves he’s a master at curtailing his music to fit whatever trend will help him score huge radio hits. “Southern Girl” isn’t as nonsensical as “Truck Yeah” but with dumb rhyming schemes and irritating echoes, it’s just as annoying.

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7. Aw Naw – Chris Young

Like it or not, Chris Young’s traditional country career ended the second “Neon” stalled at radio. In the course of three singles songs like “The Man I Want To Be” and “Tomorrow” were out of fashion as the new wave of bro-country swept in like a tsunami. So what’s a twenty-something guy to do? Make like Dierks Bentley and suppress his artistic sensibilities in an effort to stay in the good graces of country radio. “Aw Naw” is the first, and certainly not the last, example of the theory working wonders for Young. Oh, how I miss the days when an artist could record quality songs and be rewarded with big hits.

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6. DONE. – The Band Perry

Imagine my immense disappointment when the group that gave us my favorite country song so far this decade (“If I Die Young”) churns out this mess as their new single. “Done” is an appeal-to-the-tweens breakup anthem that’s too loud and would’ve even been immature coming from Taylor Swift on her debut album seven years ago. This is just another example of a worthy talent being compromised by the commercial country machine in order to make their label (once again run by Borchetta) millions.

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5. 1994 – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

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4. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton

As evidenced by the massive success of Duck Dynasty there’s a redneck craze sweeping America that songs like this buy right into. Shelton is pandering like never before making him the most successful he’s ever been in his ten+ years as a recording artist.

Shelton’s embrace of the culture isn’t the problem here, it’s that he’s doing at the expense of country music. He’ll clearly do anything to stay popular including rap and chant cliché after cliché. Worst of all, though? He’s recruited a cast of fellow singers (Miranda Lambert Ashley Monroe, Josh Turner, etc) to join him in saluting his forbearers with a big ‘ol middle finger while he laughs all the way to the bank. Just thinking about it makes me sick.

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3. Cruise – Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more then ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

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2. That’s My Kind of Night – Luke Bryan 

Zac Brown dubbed it ‘the worst song he’d ever heard’ and it’s hard to disagree. An obvious attempt at pandering to trends in order to stay relevant, “That’s My Kind of Night” is one of the laziest pieces of drivel ever recorded by a superstar in their supposed commercial prime. With the eyes of the world on him, Bryan should be using his platform to record good quality country music – not this faux-rap garbage.

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1. Redneck Crazy – Tyler Farr

Who would’ve thought we’d see the day when an up and coming country singer would score their first major (i.e. top 5) hit with a song about a guy who stalks his ex-girlfriend after she’s moved on with another man? He’s also about to get violent declaring, “I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight, you know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy.”

Farr has defended the track, saying every woman wants a man who loves them that much while Martina McBride has squashed comparisons to “Independence Day” saying the domestic abuse in her 1994 hit is in no way comparable to the unhinged man at the center of Farr’s hit. In any event this tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part I: 20-11

December 2, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen ofVulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Not all of these constitute bro-country, but they do help get the list started:

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20. He Loves to Make Me Cry – Kristen Kelly

An attempt at torch singing. I give Kelly credit for trying, but she holds the notes too long. Better luck next time.

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19. Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About – Thompson Square

I hear the generic mid-90s single they’re going for here, I do. But as it stands, this is a mess. The production, generic, loud, and way too rock erases any enjoyment I could have of this song.

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18. I Hold On – Dierks Bentley 

I’ve always wondered why Bentley has yet to score big at country award shows. It’s because of songs like this – dark and gravelly rambles that have little redeeming value. I’m holding on for the day he finally gets his act together and his head out of the gutter.

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17. Chillin’ It – Cole Swindell 

How bro can one be?

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16. Power of a Love Song – Tate Stevens

Want an obvious reason why X Factor ratings are in the toilet? It’s because of winners like Tate Stevens, who are cardboard cutouts instead of promising talents. Stevens fills the role of country singer just fine, if this were 1992. Even then it was dated. Worse? He’s given bland and forgettable songs like this to croon. Biggest waste of $5 million I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes.

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15. Radio – Darius Rucker

“Wagon Wheel” > “Radio” and is that really saying much?

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14. When I See This Bar – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #1 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

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13. Drunk Last Night – Eli Young Band

More generic bro-country, yuck.

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12. Pirate Flag – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #2 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

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11. Jump Right In – Zac Brown Band

An island wind sings again, a lonesome lullaby” has to be about the most grating refrains in music history. The line itself isn’t bad, but to hear Zac and the boys sing it, it’s downright annoying. So is everything about this song.

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 10-1

December 6, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 10-1, enjoy!

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10. Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master, it’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

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9. Various Artists 

Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

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8. Jamey Johnson and Friends

Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fieriest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

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7. The Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

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6. Kellie Pickler

100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham bam thank you maimtake no prisoners unapologetic classic country tore de force that finally matches the music to the talent and for the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, makes a statement. A giant leap forward.

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5. Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vein to pull of a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revaluation, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

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4. Marty Stuart

Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by penning originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

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3. Punch Brothers 

Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

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2. Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home

1. Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

So, how musically healthy am I?

May 20, 2012

Last week the good folks at Country California issued a mid-year battle cry – “You’re overdue for your seasonal music check-up.”

The exam is as follows, in these simple steps:

1) grab your media player of choice

2) turn your head to the left

3) Shuffle 20 times

In doing so, and without any editing of embarrassing results, my returns are as follows:

  1. Miranda Lambert – “Guilty In Here”
  2. Don Williams – “The Flood (Wish I Was In Nashville)”
  3. Connie Smith – “I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again”
  4. Patty Loveless – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me”
  6. Connie Smith – “Blue Little Girl”
  7. Jamey Johnson – “Lonely At The Top”
  8. Tracy Lawrence – “If The Good Die Young”
  9. Randy Travis – “Forever Together”
  10. Rosanne Cash – “Big River”
  11. Patty Loveless – “Feelings Of Love”
  12. Rosanne Cash – “707”
  13. Emmylou Harris – “Ooh Las Vegas”
  14. Bradley Gaskin – “I’m All About It”
  15. Tanya Tucker – “Down To My Last Teardrop”
  16. Garth Brooks – “Shameless”
  17. Nickel Creek – “Scotch and Chocolate”
  18. Sugarland – “Something More”
  19. Eric Church – “Like Jesus Does”
  20. Collin Raye – “I Think About You”

I was amazed, actually, at what my iPod spit back. This could’ve gone in so many ways and yet the random shuffle actually showcased some of the better tunes in my collection. It’s never a bad day when the likes of Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker show up in the same random 20 song sampling.

At least my copies of Kip Moore’s Up All Night and Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic were no where in sight.

My “Chaos Theory” playlist

December 26, 2011

Last week C.M. Wilcox of Country California posted his “chaos theory” playlist for 2011. In essence, he mixed all the music he purchased in 2011 into one playlist on iTunes and hit shuffle. The first 20 entries comprised the list.

A couple of commenters did the same, adding their lists to the conversation. I thought it might be fun to see what 20 songs iTunes would pick if I used the same method. My list is below:

1. Alone – Kelly Clarkson

2. Mr. Know It All – Kelly Clarkson

3. NASCAR Party – Julie Roberts

4. The Dreaming Fields – Matraca Berg

5. My Opening Farewell – Alison Krauss and Union Station

6. Honestly – Kelly Clarkson

7. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert

8. Away In A Manger – Joey+Rory

9. Love’s Looking Good On You – Randy Travis featuring Kristin Chenoweth

10. Wildwood Flower – Suzy Bogguss

11. Modern Love – Matt Nathanson

12. You Don’t Have To Be A Baby – Del McCory Band and The Prevention Hall Jazz Club

13. Stronger – Julie Roberts

14. Don’t You Wanna Stay – Jason Aldean feat. Kelly Clarkson

15. It Wrecks Me – Sunny Sweeney

16. Blue Velvet – Tony Bennett and k.d. Lang

17. My Name is Emmett Till – Emmylou Harris 

18. Kept – Matt Nathanson

19. Don’t Throw It Away – Foster & Lloyd 

20. Guitar Slinger – Vince Gill

There is some extremely well-crafted music here from some very talented individuals who released new records in 2011. The Emmylou Harris and Suzy Bogguss entires were much better than almost anything getting mainstream exposure and my appreciation for Vince Gill knows no bounds.

While I do wish there was a bit more diversity, whatever popped up is what I went with. In any event it makes for a fun exercise and I enjoyed seeing what iTunes spit back at me on random shuffle.

Favorite Country Albums of 2011

December 21, 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

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Top 45 favorite country singles of 2011

December 21, 2011

Here’s my picks for the best of the best, the cream of the crop for country singles in 2011. See, the year wasn’t all bad, now was it?

45. Steel Magnolia – “Last Night Again”

A flirty romance tale finding a couple eyeing each other from across the room is made even sweeter  knowing Megan Lindsay and Joshua Scott Jones are an item in real life.

44. Terri Clark – “Northern Girl”

How refreshing is it to hear a singer singing about where they’re from and instead of a bunch of cliches, it relays to personal experience? Clark, from Canada, sings lovingly of her homeland here and shows just how great her voice still is after more than fifteen years in the industry. If you haven’t paid Clark much attention in a while, she’s worth checking out.

43. Miranda Lambert – “Baggage Claim”

A Beyonce inspired ditty that says everything Reba McEntire wished she could’ve said in “Who’s Ever In New England.” This guy ain’t got a place to come back to.

42. Jacob Lyda – “I’m Doing Alright”

This light and breezy tale is an exercise in being comfortable in your everyday life, something we could use more of in our world. Lyda co-wrote it with legendary songwriter Paul Overstreet (whose son Chord is Sam Evans on Glee) and it has that old-time feel of a great country song. Lyda didn’t make waves in 2011, but he sure deserved to.

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Top 40 Worst Country Singles of 2011

December 21, 2011

Here you go. My least favorite country singles of 2011. You’ll see some huge hits here. But remember it isn’t about chart performance, but rather about quality:

40. Ronnie Dunn – “Bleed Red”

On his solo debut Dunn could’ve worn any hat. But he choose to go down the route of being over-produced and turned into a pop balladeer. And “We all bleed red” is such a statement of the obvious, it hardly bares drugging up in a song.

39. Jason Michael Carroll – “Numbers”

This is exactly why people hate country music. A laundry list of numerical symbols? Seriously, just how lazy can songwriting get?

38. Keith Urban – “You Gonna Fly”

On its own this isn’t a bad song. But I’m including it here for the simple fact it showcases an artist continuing to coast on their merits with yet another sound alike rocker that has become the norm. Urban will always be hailed for his guitar playing and entertaining abilities but not for his diversity in song selection. He just isn’t exciting anymore.

37. Luke Bryan – “I Don’t Want This Night To End”

A guy and a girl are rockin’ in a truck as if no other modes of transportation exist. Of course, she’s “so damn hot” he can’t stand it. He may not want this night to end, but this song surely can.

36. Jake Owen – “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”

A marriage of 80s rock with banjos coupled with a disposable tale of having fun with not only your buddies but the requisite hot babe, too. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up may be the smartest line in a country song all year.

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Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists – Martina McBride

August 23, 2011

Started by country blogger Leeann Ward from Country Universe, Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists (FSBFA) is a rundown of a writer’s 25 favorite songs by an artist. I felt compelled to compile a list of my own after going to see Martina in concert earlier this month.

Martina McBride is a singer easy to take for granted. She’s been a consistent hit maker for the last 18 years wrapping her booming voice around everything she touches.

Her career began selling t-shirts for Garth Brooks before she got sly and sent a purple envelope to the offices of RCA records containing her demo tape. Since they only heard submissions they approved, she wrote “requested material” across the bottom. Needless to say it all worked and she was quickly singed to the label, her home until late last year.

Her first album The Time Has Come didn’t spawn any major hits and was largely ignored by country radio. The follow-up, The Way That I Am put her on the national map. Lead single “My Baby Loves Me” quickly shot to #2 and “Life #9” followed suit. But it was the release of “Independence Day,” a tune about domestic violence told from the point of view of an eight-year-old, that really grabbed attention. The controversial subject matter kept the song from reaching the top ten, but it still became her career record.

Her next album Wild Angles would contain her first #1 hit in the title track and she hasn’t looked back since. A 4 time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year winner, McBride is one of the most beloved vocalists of her generation.

And McBride has used that voice to tell many a tale mostly about various stages of relationships. In looking back over her career, I was pleasantly surprised to discover most of her best tunes cast her in various relationship roles whether it be a woman whose dreams are shattered by her man or a woman begging for what she wants to hear from a man who’s checked out of the relationship. She’s played the strong woman, a woman blinded by love, and even turned introspective in wondering if she’s the reason the love isn’t working out. While most of her songs tell a similar story, all add another layer to the various roles women play in their love lives.

While she hasn’t seen the top 10 since 2007, McBride keeps plugging away at her brand of country music. A new album Eleven (her 11th album consisting of 11 tracks) is due in stores October 11. Here’s my list:

25. “Everybody Does”

2007 – Waking Up Laughing

An above-avarage album track from Waking Up Laughing, “Does” is an instant mood enhancer with an feel good melody and production choices. What I love is that McBride isn’t striving for anything here but rather letting lose and having a good time. Some of her best songs are when she relaxes and moves with the groove, and “Does” is a perfectly executed example.

24. “Learning to Fall”

2003 – Martina

Sure it’s one of her pop-leaning songs, but it’s actually more country than most of what passes for country music these days. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the steel guitar shining through.

What won me over with “Fall” was the chorus – like all great choruses, it’s fully-developed and instantly memorable due to its sing-songy nature. I love the guitar solo-bridge as well, it calls attention to the less is more approach to the production of this song.

23. “If I Had Your Name”

2007 – Waking Up Laughing

An example of where a killer hook is worth the weight of a song – “If I Had Your Name/I’d Be Changing It By Now.” It’s a fresh spin on a tale of seeing the writing on the wall before you jump in too far. This “prevention” approach is a change of pace from McBride who usually has to be hit upside the head before seeing the error of her ways.

22. “The Time Has Come”

1992 – The Time Has Come

The title track to her largely ignored debut album, “Come” opens with a nice mid-90s groove and steel guitar riff. This was one of the first instances of McBride’s infatuation with relationship songs and while the production is sunny and bright, the lyrics tell the story of a woman declaring that the time has come to end her current relationship. And unlike forthcoming hits like “Whatever You Say,” she’s able to see the writing on the wall – they’ve had their moment in the sun but that moment has now passed and it’s time to move on. And like the end of the relationship, the song passes like a feather in the wind, long enough to convey the message yet short enough to convey the fact she’s moving on without looking back.

21. “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”

2009 – Shine

It took me a bit before I warmed up to this song. But the groove and less is more approach to the vocal and production is a huge selling point. She might have gone through a period of inconsistency with her overall albums, but there were real gems if you dug deep enough. “Wrong Baby Wrong” is one of those songs. The more I listen to it, the more I dig everything it has to offer. Too bad it stalled out at #11 last year.

20. “It’s My Time”

1999 – Emotion

Another instance of McBride playing a strong woman, “Time” finds her on the road, 100 miles out of her hometown, on the phone with the man she’s leaving in the dust. He asks where his dinner is, she’s replays she’s too far gone care because there’s a time to stand, fly, let go forever, grow, and discover that every second of life is precious. And for this woman, that time is now.

A blink and you missed it single from 1999, “Time” isn’t as polished as some of her other hits but the hurried nature of the track perfectly compliments her rush to be out with the old and in with the new. She isn’t getting any younger and she knows she better start living before any more of her life passes her by.

19. “Teenage Daughters”

2011 – Eleven 

Here’s a little twist – a relationship song from McBride that doesn’t cast the light on the couple but rather the kids. “Teenage Daughters” is the next evolution in her story – now in her 40s she’s singing about the challenges of raising teenage girls. Instead of running from or playing down her age she embraces it and succeeds in creating an anthem for anyone who is going through or has been through raising 13-18 year olds.

But most important of all she’s realized a simple truth – she’s been there before, herself. “At seventeen she’s just like me when I was seventeen so I don’t blame her” sings McBride will all the wisdom that comes with a full circle moment. The children might not be able to see it at the time, but their mom fully understands what they’re going through even if it might not seem that way at the time.

18. “Still Holding On (Duet with Clint Black)”

1997 – Evolution Nothing But The Taillights

A coming together of two talents at their commercial peak didn’t exactly burn up country radio, it peaked at #11, but always made an impression on me. I love how well both singers work together and the easiness in which they convey the story of still holding on to a love that’s slowly dying. McBride sings rings around Black on this one, but how could she not? When she lets loose on the bridge, there isn’t many who could match her.

17. “Over The Rainbow”

2003 – Martina

A closing concert staple and live bonus track from Martina, “Rainbow” is a moment easy to mess up – you’ve heard this song so many times before that to hear it again is almost overkill. But to hear McBride sing it, is to hear the song in a new light, like you’ve never heard it before. The way she comes in A Cappella and builds to the final boom is outstanding. I’ll never grow tired of hearing this one.

16. “Concrete Angel”

2001 – Greatest Hits

A tale of ignoring the signs right in front of you left “A little girl caught in the hands of fate.” She was dead by morning, all at the hands of her parents. How could it not have fully registered – this little girl walked to school with a lunch she packed herself in the same dress she wore the day before with linen and lace to hide her bruises.

Unless you’re without a soul, you can’t help but feel for the little girl, a nameless victim who, through no fault of her own, was raised by people unfit to parent and protect her. Of all her moments of social commentary this was easily her best and the strongest song on country radio at time of its release. It’s an unassuming masterpiece and the best modern example of the three part story arc done correctly. Plus, it’s one of my favorite videos she’s ever made.

15. “A Broken Wing”

1997 – Evolution

She has dreams, he just shoots them down. She wants to fly, and he tells her she’ll never leave the ground. But she loves him like he’s the last man on earth because she needs his protection. Imagine his shock when she doesn’t leave for church that Sunday morning. He finds a note and a blowing curtain, and she reveals her true strength.

The best of McBride’s ballads are tinged in sadness and touch upon a truth buried deep in America. She may be nameless in song but she’s out there in our suburbs and in our cities being told she isn’t good enough. But when she finally grasps the reality that real love doesn’t hurt, there’s no stopping her from soaring into the heavens.

14. “When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues”

2001 – Greatest Hits

The lead-off single to McBride’s Greatest Hits disc was a great departure upon its release in 2001. Coming off of the sappy “There You Are,” she needed something to either elevate her career to the next level or make an artistic statement. In the end she chose the latter, releasing a rocking warning to “lock up your husbands/lock up your sons/lock up the whiskey cabinets/girls lock up your guns” because a god-fearing woman has the blues.

Drenched in dorbro and steel guitar it’s hard to believe just ten years ago a song this country could get airplay on country radio let alone climb to #8. Even more amazingly, Dan Tyminski sings harmony on this track – which had McBride proclaiming in the liner notes of the album how excited she was to have a Soggy Bottom Boy on her record.

13. “I Just Call You Mine”

2009 – Shine

My favorite single from Shine, “Mine” might not be among McBride’s best loved hit singles even though it’s the best thing she’s released to country radio in years. I love everything – her vocal and the steel guitar laced production – about this song. It’s rare to hear a love song from her, but she can be convincingly romantic just like the best of them.

12. “Help Me Make It Through The Night”

2005 – Timeless

An exercise in restraint, this cover of the Kris Kristofferson classic is a modern gem. McBride uses a quiet whisper to bring the story of desperation to life that ranks among her best vocals ever on record.

11. “My Baby Loves Me”

1993 – The Way That I Am  

Arguably the most important single of her career, it turned the tide in her relationship with country radio and proved her staying power as a country singer in the 90s.

What’s remarkable is, “Love Me” still sounds fresh eighteen years later and sounds like it could’ve been on McBride’s last album. It’s a testament to her ability to choose great songs and Paul Worley’s timeless production values. And who wouldn’t their baby to love them just they way they were?

10. “I Love You”

1999 – Emotion

A perfectly timed summer smash, “I Love You” took McBride to the next level – it was the first song to sway the Country Music Association to award her Female Vocalist of the Year, an honor she would have four times throughout her career. With Trisha Yearwood out of the way, and Faith Hill still receiving a cold shoulder, there was no other clear winner that year.

With all the attention usually placed on her power ballads, it’s easy to forget that McBride can be sunny, cute, and approachable just like all her pop-country contemporaries. And when she does go up-tempo the results, as proven here, can be very good indeed.

9. “Blessed”

2001 – Greatest Hits

My favorite moment of optimism on record, “Blessed” is self-congradulatory without being self-indulgent. McBride sings about finding her way, thanking God for what she’s been given and being blessed with more than she deserves. After a career filled with relationship songs, it’s a nice change of pace to hear McBride take a moment to reflect on her own journey and put her sense of contentment into words. She might not have written this, her last #1 hit to date, but she could’ve very easily. That’s the mark of a well-chosen song.

8. “Anyway”

2007 – Walking Up Laughing

The first single of her career McBride had a hand in writing, “Anyway” is about doing it no matter what, even if it seems like it won’t matter in the end. A cooky concept that’s been done before, McBride seems to keep it fresh in her phrasing and delivery. Sure it’s another ballad to showcase the big voice, but it manages to pack a great deal of substance into the lyrics and a whole lot of passion into the vocal performance.

7. “Independence Day”

1993 – The Way That I Am

The career record that stalled at #12 became the video that turned any skeptic into a McBride believer. A rare moment of clever wordplay, “Independence” isn’t about the holiday it’s set during, but the release of an innocent eight-year-old girl, taken to the county home when her father blows up the family house taking him and her mother with him.

McBride would veer into social commentary mode a lot in her career, and even score some big hits in this vein, but little can top the words out of Gretchen Peters’ pen. This is her most played recurrent hit and one I could go without hearing for a while, but it shows where McBride can go when everything falls into place.

6. “Whatever You Say”

1997 – Evolution

Another relationship gone sour song, “Say” is a woman unable to get through to her husband. They both know how to talk, and she knows he can hear her, but nothing seems to be getting through.

She’s fed up and wants to leave, but is waiting for what’ll never come – his plea for her to stay. Unfortunately, her weakness is prevailing here. How long can you harp at someone just to get what you want before your spirit is compromised? If you’re relationship his diminished to the point  where you’re begging your man to say he needs and will never leave you, than you’re about as blind as they come. The writing is on the wall and you just have to walk out the door. But when love is at stake, the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Until this write-up, I never really listened to the words of this song. I’ve spent the last twelve years caught up in her vocal – the way it builds from the verses to the choruses. But underneath the sheen is a lot of substance that makes you think about the choices you’ve made in your life for love.

5. “Reluctant Daughter”

2003 – Martina

Arraigned by Ricky Skaggs, this gem from Martina is a pure country delight. A story of a woman confessing to Jesus that she feels like a reluctant daughter to God, has everything – killer harmonies, fantastic mandolin and fiddle work, and spiritual undertones. It took me some getting used to, but unlike most of her album cuts, “Daughter” hasn’t aged a day and will be as timeless twenty years from now as it was in 2003. Couldn’t this “Daughter” have been released to radio instead of the prodding “In My Daughter’s Eyes?”

4. “Where Would You Be”

2001 – Greatest Hits

By the time “Where Would You Be” surfaced in 2001, it came off as another in a long line of love done wrong songs in McBride’s catalog. While the story line follows the familiar path (fighting for a man who isn’t pulling his own weight in the relationship), it strike a different tone with the booming chorus. She wraps her voice around those notes so well, you can’t believe a human being can pull that off.

But like all of her relationship songs, “You Be” adds another layer to the fold. She hasn’t yet taken off and realized it’s her time nor is she begging for her man to say what she wants to hear. Instead she’s wondering if maybe she’s been the problem all along – “Have I become the enemy?” she asks aloud in the bridge. “Is it hard to be yourself in my company?” she wonders always wanting to know the simple truth – where would he be if not with her.

3. “Wild Angles”

1995 – Wild Angles

It’s easy to see why “Wild Angles” a love song trying to explain how two people can stay together even though they still break each other’s hearts and spend nights on the jagged side, was McBride’s first chart-topping single. A mid-90s classic, “Angles” gets it all right – an opening guitar riff and infectious melody to draw the listener in, a perfectly orchestrated vocal that hits all the right notes, and an overall package that’s nothing but delightful. It’s no wonder it’s a fan favorite to this day.

2. “Swinging Doors”

1995 – Wild Angles

A largely forgotten low charting single, “Swinging Doors” is one of my favorite of McBride’s songs both lyrically and melodically, and has been since it’s release to radio in 1996.

This strong woman is done playing games with her ex and forcefully proclaims, “I won’t be leaving my heart open anymore” for a man who comes and goes whenever he pleases. It may be wrapped in an infectious package, but there’s much to uncover underneath the sunny sheen.

1. “Strangers”

1993 – The Way That I Am

The best song of her career never released to country radio, is one I never would have discovered had it not been resurrected on her Greatest Hitsalbum ten years ago, despite the fact I’ve owned the original album since 1995.

The story of the couple coming full circle from strangers on the street to strangers getting a divorce is the essence of a great country song. It’s easy to forget a time when lyrics made you think and singers put just the right emotion into their vocal performance to sell a story (and it also helps that Bobby Braddock, a 2011 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee wrote this song). She would go on to score big hits in this vein, but her first power ballad is easily the best she has ever reordered.

Top nine country albums of 2010

December 29, 2010

Nine. Nine! That’s all I could come up with for my favorite albums of the year. Any more and I would be lying, just to fill up a list. In fact, I don’t have a single album where I love every song from this year and that’s a first. 2010 was a singles year over a year of outstanding albums. Below is my list, the nine country albums I feel are of highest quality in 2010.

Let us all hope that 2011 brings some masterful albums. It looks like new music is on the way from Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, and Lori McKenna while Carrie Underwood should have album #4 ready by years end. And maybe, just maybe, that long awaited new release from Faith Hill will see the light of day. Anyway, here is my list. My #2 surprised even me, but when another blog listed “I Put My Ring Back On” as one of the best singles of 2010, I gave the album another listen and fell in love with it all over again.

Now, unlike with the singles, there will not be a worst albums of the year list. At some point, year end countdown lists are overkill. I do have one more post regarding country music in 2010, and that’s my year-end assessment. That’ll be ready in a few days time. Until then check out these nine albums. You won’t be disappointed.

9. Various Artists – Crazy Heart Soundtrack

While nothing in the legion of O, Brother, Heart is T-Bone Barnett’s showcase for classic country music. Well-chosen songs from the likes of Waylon Jennings, Kitty Wells, and George Jones sit comfortably next to originals from Jeff Bridges and Ryan Bingham.

It isn’t flashy nor upbeat but it does its job of creating a backdrop for the movie. If you’re only going to spend your money on one film soundtrack this year, let it be this one – you won’t find a better collection of songs anywhere on the big screen.

8. Marty Stuart Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions

Stuart’s mission in recording Ghost Train was to create a traditional country album like those from the golden age of the genre. After assisting the late Porter Wagoner and Kathy Mattea with their latest efforts, he returns with a collection of songs unlike anything being turned out in 2010 Nashville.

His mission has been accomplished; these songs are everything a purist is dreaming of – an argument against the death of traditional country music. It isn’t flashy nor will it spawn a hit single, but it still an important album none the less. Plus, anytime Connie Smith puts her voice to record (the duet “I Run To You”), is a cause for celebration (and a Grammy nomination).

7. Sugarland The Incredible Machine

When I was reviewing the top albums of the decade last December I commented saying, “following this (Love On The Inside), will be no easy feat.” While this isn’t quite what I had in mind, it does have its modest charms.

I like this album more than most. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles adds a cutesy quality to many of the tacks including “Every Girl Like Me,” a song that just makes you feel good when you listen to it. Lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” is an infectious dose of pop confection while “Little Miss” is down home country at its best. The gospel closer, “Shine The Light” showcases all of Jennifer Nettles’ gifts and “Wide Open” perfectly captures the energy of a live Sugarland show.

The rest of this album is very much a miss but the great moments more than out way the bad. This is an album worthy of the listener forming his or her own opinion and taking the critical reception with a grain of salt.

6. Little Big Town The Reason Why

In a year that saw Lady Antebellum soar to new heights and Zac Brown Band cement themselves as a band to watch, Little Big Town had a lot riding on their fourth album. Could they come back strong and, maybe, get their piece of the action?

For the most part, the answer is yes. While they’ve done far better in the past, The Reason Why has shining moments that put them ahead of their closest competitors. Songs like “The Reason Why,” “Shut Up Train,” and “Why Oh Why” show why they are the best harmonizing group around. When she’s singing lead, singer Karen Fairchild cannot be beaten – she’s a far better (and much more underrated) singer than either Hillary Scott or Zac Brown. She has an earthy quality to her voice that elevates anything she is singing.

For the men, Phillip Sweet is king. His vocal on “Kiss Goodbye,” the best ballad of their career to date, is a revelation and showcases the other somewhat hidden asset of the group. They deserve to be huge and with material this carefully constructed they are well on their way. It isn’t perfect, but it beats those getting far more attention.

5. Zac Brown Band You Get What You Give

This second set of songs proves that The Foundation was just that – a foundation to a long career in country music. While they’re not charting any new ground here, Zac and the boys are doing what they do best, which is coupling classic country sensibilities with a modern edge.

Songs like “As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather” are some of the freshest, if not the best songs, being played on country radio. While this isn’t a masterpiece, You Get What You Give is a solid collection of mainstream country that lives up to all the hype.

4. Jamey Johnson The Guitar Song

In an era marked by infectious ear candy and singles over albums, who would have the guts to release a 25 song double album filled with traditional country – a seemingly dying medium? Only Johnson, who has defied all expectation and won.

Song is 2010’s musical tour-de-force – the only gutsy country album of the year. Johnson infuses each tune with his signature wit and angst and proves he can let loose and brood with the best of them.

He speaks the truth better than anyone and you know he’s lived each lyric he sings. That’s the mark of a true country singer – someone not afraid to spill his or her life in song, no matter how gritty.

Song is Johnson’s reality and what a dark place that can be.  If you only take one musical journey this year, let it be this one – nothing is more fulfilling or satisfying.

3. Taylor Swift Speak Now

The more I listen to Taylor’s new record the more I peel away the layers of complication hidden inside most of the songs. This is not just a great record – it’s outstanding. Her growing maturity is showcased on each of this album’s fourteen tracks and the romantic entanglements are deeper and more complex.

If Fearless brought fourth her playful side than Speak Now is her lament – the chance to write the wrongs of love and put people firmly in their place. Swift is best when she’s screaming out (“Dear John,” “Innocent”) at those who caused her pain but she isn’t afraid to admit when her own emotions got in the way (“Back To December”).

But the truly remarkable thing about Swift is, for the first time, she’s attacking her shortcomings and thoroughly enjoying the last laugh. With “Mean” she lashes out at her critics – including those who pounced on her Grammy Performance with Stevie Nicks – and wins. She’s bold, says what’s on her mind, and leaves nothing (and no one) unscathed.

By writing each song solo she also proves she doesn’t need the help of co-writers to bring her songs to life. Just give Swift pen and paper – and room to create. She may not be the most country but it doesn’t matter; when music is this good (and important) the barriers of genre deserve to be torn down.

2. Mary Chapin Carpenter The Age of Miracles

After a three-year recording hiatus and an embolism that nearly cost Carpenter her life, she’s back with her best collection of songs since Stones In The Road. To listen to Carpenter these days is to listen to an artist mellowed by time and the perils of existence.

She barely emotes above a whisper on many of this album’s tracks and has created a project that showcases everything that makes her stand legions above the pack. Her best songs are when she lets loose (“I Put My Ring Back On,” “The Way I Feel”) but the quieter moments, requiring a deeper listen, are what makes this album shine.

With The Age of Miracles Carpenter has reached a new platform in her storied recording career. Ever the teacher she’s schooling those half her age in the art of introspective songwriting and analytical lyrics. Carpenter’s is a rich, satisfying record that proves you don’t need much to pack a powerful punch.

1. Dierks Bentley Up On The Ridge

The boldest country album of 2010 comes from one of the genre’s slickest hit makers. It’s also the year’s best because, like Bentley, it isn’t afraid to stand out and be different.

While leaning on his Bluegrass roots, Bentley has made his first statement album and left the radio-friendly crap (“Sideways”) that propelled him to the top, in the dust. He isn’t afraid to go the other way and stay firmly within the country genre.

With Ridge Bentley has made a complete album worthy of all its praise. By surrounding himself with expert pickers and acoustic protégés he’s assembled an excellent collection of songs that more than prove his worth.

Unlike the Dixie Chicks’ similarly styled Home, Ridge was largely ignored by country radio – a fact that’ll likely limit Bentley from further experimentation in the near future. As cruel as that may sound I’m enjoying his return to glory while it lasts. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of wonderful music to come from this modern day drifter.

The 18 Worst Country Singles of 2010

December 17, 2010

Here it is. My list of the worst country songs for 2010. I am fully aware that “Hillbilly Bone” was released to radio back in October 2009 but it impacted this year more than it did last year. All these songs aren’t just marginally bad, they represent some of the worst country music ever created. Most of the acts are artists who have stopped caring about finding quality material to record and have settled for mediocre trash riddled with clichés.

Each song below helped to make 2010 live in country music infamy. Sit back and enjoy the best of the worst, the truly abominable crap that stunk up the airwaves over the last twelve months.

18. Trace Adkins – “This Ain’t No Love Song”

Adkins has one of country music’s most powerful voices yet he never uses it to any effect. His last good song, “Till The Last Shot’s Fired,” wasn’t even released as a single. “Love Song” proves Adkins doesn’t care anymore and will record just about anything. What a waste of a good talent.

17. Billy Currington – “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer”

Billy Currington is pretty good at many things besides drinking beer. He knows how country boys roll and how to give good directions. He enjoys parties for two (and with Shania Twain who wouldn’t?) and he’s got a feeling that he and his girl must be doing somethin’ right.

Problem is, who really cares? He sure knows the hit-making formula (he’s had three straight number one hits) but he wouldn’t know a truly great song if it nipped him in the behind. Plus, he’s far from an outstanding vocalist. He showed the world promise with the outstanding “People Are Crazy” but has nose-dived ever since. In the case of Billy Currington, quantity far exceeds quality.

16. Steel Magnolia – “Just By Being You (Halos and Wings)”

Honestly, I don’t get it. Halos and Wings are two of the oddest objects to sing about in a song. I cannot take this song seriously nor do I understand its meaning.

While “Keep On Lovin’ You” was the start of something promising, “Just By Being You” proves their inconsistency. To make it big at radio and to connect with fans, each song has to be great. This one is a bombastic mess.

15. Brad Paisley – “Water”

The country music world needs another novelty song from Paisley as much as the Gulf Coast need more oil. It’s as if Paisley isn’t even trying anymore; he’s sucked the freshness, and originality, right out of his act. With its nod to wet tee-shirt contests and spring break shenanigans, “Water” is the worst of  Paisley’s not-so-serious ditties.

14. Joey + Rory featuring the Zac Brown Band – “This Song’s For You”

Why would a duo born to sing classic country music waste their time on a song like this? It’s great they want to salute everyone and their mother and I applaud the sentiment, but there really is no point.

“This Song’s For You” only underscores the problem with Joey + Rory and country radio – this is not hit material and if they release any more songs in this vain, they will quickly fade into obviation.  Songs about songs rarely ever work, anyways. Get your act together, guys.

13. Darius Rucker – “This”

A sound-alike to his previous drivel “Come Back Song,” Rucker is quickly becoming indistinguishable and he’s lost all artistic credibility as far as I’m concerned. Every song sounds the same and covers the same tired ground we’ve heard forever and far better. I still think he belongs in country music, but not by singing songs like “This.”

12. Darius Rucker – “Come Back Song”

There isn’t any doubt that Rucker belongs in country music. Problem is, he’s pandering to the mainstream country audience and radio. To call “Come Back Song” bad is an understatement. It’s a piece of fluff where something of substance was needed. He’s shown before he’s capable of great songs, so why would he waste his time with something like this?

11. Lady Antebellum – “Hello World”

I’ve called this song many things – bombastic, a Charles Kelley solo number gone wrong – but it really is worse than the sum of its parts. It grates on you the more you hear it and never fully explains itself. What does this song really mean? Thank goodness they didn’t write this one.

10. Kenny Chesney – “Ain’t Back Yet”

“Yet” is what happens when an artist records any song that comes their way just to have a single at radio. His time would’ve been better spent extending his absence from the road to the radio airwaves and relaunching his career with the far superior “Boys of Fall.” In a career filled with many terrible singles, this is the worst yet, even if it’s the most aptly titled.

9. Tim McGraw – “Felt Good On My Lips”

By the time an artist begins releasing singles like “Lips,” they either have lost all motivation for greatness in their career or they are being very badly advised. A forgettable mess, this is the worst single of McGraw’s long career. Let’s hope he can turn things around mighty quickly.

8. George Strait – “I Gotta Get To You”

I don’t care if you’re considered “The King” or if you’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame. There is no excuse for Strait to record or release such a bland and vanilla song. He does justice to no one when he mails it in, and instead of being a teacher to all the newcomers about the power of great country music; he succumbs to the pressure to stay relevant.

Thankfully it’s just one misstep in a sea of great recent singles, a world in which George Strait stops trying is a very sad day for country music.

7. The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”

With the line, “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yah,” “Heart” takes its place in country music infamy. Neither original nor clever, it’s the worst debut single this year. And this from the same band responsible for  “If I Die Young.” Consistency is not their strong suit.

6. Toby Keith – “Every Dog Has It’s Day”

When an artist of Keith’s stature progresses to horse manure like this forgettable flop, the chances of a career revival are slim to none. A clichéd mess, “Dog” represents the worst of country music in 2010, lazy songwriting and an awful hook. The record exec or execs responsible for letting this see the light of day should be out of a job.

5. Rodney Atkins – “Farmer’s Daughter”

Packaged around a semi-traditional arraignment, “Daughter” is yet another ode to life on a farm. This time it’s the romantic entanglements between a hired hand and his boss’s little girl. With a feeling of been-there-done-that, Atkins isn’t charting any new ground here, and surprise, radio is eating it up. It’s time to grow up and move on.

4. Jewel – “Stay Here Forever”

How on earth could one of the best singer/songwriters write a song this bad? More importantly, how could her label (Valory Music Co) allow its release? Whoever is advising Jewel on her career needs to be fired. Of course it is fitting that her worst song would be associated with one of the worst romantic comedies (Valentine’s Day) ever made.

Her magic lays with songs like “The Shape Of You,” the gorgeous ballad she debuted on the Primetime Emmy telecast in August (Video is below). That song should’ve been the single. Get your act together, Jewel.

3. Blake Shelton with Trace Adkins – “Hillbilly Bone”

Any song rhyming “city” with “Twitty,” in the first half of the first verse, needs serious help. A waste of two very formidable talents, Shelton and Adkins are worthy of so much more. To think that this is the song that finally gave Shelton the artistic credibility he deserves isn’t just shameful; it’s downright cringe worthy.

2. Gretchen Wilson – “I Got Your Country Right Here”

Easily the most grotesquely despicable piece of drivel in Wilson’s singles catalog to date, “Here” marks an artist screaming for an identity and failing miserably. With all hope of artistic integrity lost, Wilson deserves her place in the scrap heap of desperate has bins.

1. Jason Aldean – “Crazy Town”

Another in a long line of amped up travesties for Aldean, “Town” is nothing more than an abysmal attempt at rock, an overproduced arena thumper gone haywire. He may actually have something worthwhile to say, but the message is lost in a sea of noise. This is bad, even for Aldean, but it’s a new low for country music.


The 14 Best Country Songs of 2010

December 15, 2010

2010 saw the release of many truly wonderful additions to the country music songbook. Below are fourteen I’m selecting as my favorites for the year. Each has a little something hat helped it to stand out and even garner some radio airplay along the way.

Of course, and we all should remember, radio only tells a tiny piece of the story. In my upcoming post regarding the worst songs of the year, you’ll see some of the year’s biggest hits. While most of my selections do trend toward the mainstream culture, its not to say there weren’t some fantastic independent releases worthy of attention. There are my fourteen favorite country songs for 2010 ranked in descending order.

I’m starting with the praise first this year. Its counterpart (the worst country songs of 2010) is scathing and leaves no stone unturned. Enjoy the best of the good and consider yourself forewarned about what’s to come.

14. Sugarland – “Stuck Like Glue”

Easily the most infectious single of the year, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have created the best non-country, country single ever. Unmistakable in it’s charms, and controversial in its bridge, you’ll be singing along well after this tune finishes its run at radio.

13. Laura Bell Bundy – “Drop On By”

If nothing else, Bundy’s second single showcases her true potential. A tale about a woman waiting for her man to show up at her house, Bundy infuses her performance with true classic country charm. A modern day Dolly Parton, Bundy proves she goes far deeper than “Giddy On Up”

12. George Strait – “The Breath You Take”

Strait has always scored when singing about the relationship between fathers and sons (“Love Without End, Amen,” “The Best Day”), and this gem from Twang is no exception. One of his best vocals in recent memory, Strait gives what a lesser singer could only pull off as preachy. He’s back in the male vocalist race with this one.

11. Taylor Swift – “Back To December”

An elegant apology to a mishandled love affair, “December” is Swift’s shining moment, her fully developed artistic statement, and a sign of her developing maturity. A step in the right direction, Swift proves she is far more than a teenybopper.

10. Dierks Bentley Feat. Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson – “Bad Angel”

Hands down, the best duet of the year finds Bentley singing about temptation in the same tradition as “Long Black Train.” Brining Lambert and Johnson along for the ride was a smart move – they add the richness that takes this song to the next level. If only it were released a single and radio would play it.

9. Zac Brown Band Feat. Alan Jackson “As She’s Walkin’ Away”

The first chapter in Brown’s guide of how to pick up women, “Away” finds him warning men against falling for women as they walk out of their lives in a bar. A song about taking chances and seizing opportunities, it accomplishes the impossible task of making Alan Jackson cool again.

8. Dierks Bentley – “Draw Me A Map”

“Map” is the sad truth about country radio – it’s the best single released this year they didn’t play. An acoustic gem, Bentley is finally coming into his own and the results are gorgeous. This is the kind of song Bentley was born to sing and almost puts the memory of “Sideways” out of sight and mind.

7. Court Yard Hounds – “Ain’t No Son”

One of the harshest songs released this year; “Son” chronicles a father’s bigotry toward his gay child. It’s also the best Dixie Chicks song that doesn’t feature Natalie Maines. “Don’t expect to get my love for free,” the father tells his little boy with all the hurt and anger he can muster. At least he warns the ladies (“Forget it girls, there ain’t no use in trying”) they have no chance.

6. Easton Corbin – “Roll With It”

A cool, laid-back, ode to the simple joys of summertime, Corbin scored his second consecutive chart topper while reminding everyone how to sing country music. It may be forgotten in the years to come, but it shined through loud and clear amidst a sea of slick pop.

5. Craig Morgan – “This Ain’t Nothin’”

No matter how bad your current situation may be, it isn’t anything compared to events of your past. Loosing your wife after fifty years of marriage and your father when you were eight is far worse than loosing your home to a tornado.

Great country songs strike a nerve and hit you where it hurts. The best country songs hit that nerve but also stop you dead in your tracks and make you think about your life. “This Ain’t Nothin’” ranks among the best.

4. Zac Brown Band – “Colder Weather”

He’s begging for another chance but she’s done with his unchanging ways. Country music at its emotional best, “Weather” is the rare delight that knocks you upside the head and throws you for a loop. It’s also the best song Zac Brown has ever written and their career record.

3. Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me”

An ode to finding yourself within the walls of your childhood home, Lambert’s walk down memory lane is an instant classic. I just wish she had written it herself.

2. Sunny Sweeney – “From A Table Away”

Lying only works until you get caught red-handed. When you have to make a choice between your wife and your mistress, don’t bring the wife out dinner as the mistress may see it all (the dancing, the ring still on her hand, and your confessions of love) from a table away. When the jig is up…

1. The Band Perry – “If I Die Young”

In 2010, “Young” cements itself as the best country song regarding mortality since “Whiskey Lullaby” seven years ago. An instruction manual of sorts; lead singer Kimberly Perry tells of how she’d wish to be sent off to the next life if she should have to leave the world a young woman – buried wearing satin in a bed of roses to the words of a love song.  After all, it’s when you’re dead that people start listening. Magic.

Best Country Albums of the 2000s:

December 10, 2009

This is the time of year when best of lists are compiled, usually of the best of everything from the past year. This being 2009, it’s also reflection time on the decade. Here is my list of best country albums of the 2000’s:

10. Lee Ann Womack Call Me Crazy

Coming off of her CMA win for Album of the year, Lee Ann Womack took three years to craft her flawless follow-up. Featuring a nice mix of both contemporary and traditional, Lee Ann crafted her true artistic statement.

Appealing to everyone, and featuring the best vocals around, Lee Ann made a standout album that showed why she is one of the most important singers of her day.

Essential Listening: “Either Way,” “Solitary Thinkin,” “Have You Seen That Girl”

9. Sugarland Love On The Inside

Capitalizing on the success of “Stay,” Sugarland made the single best contemporary record of the last decade featuring a whopping 17 tracks that justify their place among country music elite. Without a bad song in the bunch, they crafted one heck of a complete and well-rounded record that gave fans everything and more. Following this, will be no easy feat.

Essential Listening: “Love,” “Joey,” “It Happens”

8. Porter Wagoner Wagonmaster

Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner was largely forgotten by the mainstream audience when this Marty Stuart produced disc hit store shelves in 2007. In fact, every label in Nashville passed on releasing the album; it finally came out on a small hip-hop label showing Nashville’s ability to shun its living legends when they can no longer produce a buck.

Fueled by the deeply personal “Committed to Parkview,” a song written by Johnny Cash about a mental hospital they were both patients of, the album was staged as though the old Poter Wagoner show had been put to record. Featuring everything from special guests to old fiddle tunes, the record is a reminder of country music’s rich past and should serve as a textbook for those wanting to make it in the business today.

Essential Listening: “Eleven Cent Cotton,” “My Hurried Southern Trips,” and “Committed to Parkview”

7. Dixie Chicks Home

Masterpiece. Flawless from start to finish. A truly realized artistic statement. The Chicks’ 2002 release is easily one of the decade’s strongest albums and one of its best. Diving head first into bluegrass for the first time, the Chicks let their musicianship shine  and show their uncanny ability to choose thoughful and insightful songs that strike a chord with everyone.

Unfortunately, the CD pales in comparison to its follow-up Taking The Long Way. Without much by the way of writing credits the CD feels less like an artistic statement and more a really nice covers album sung Dixie Chicks style. On its own, the CD acts as an introduction to 21st century bluegrass, but next to its brilliant successor, it seems puny and weak.

Essential Listening: “Long Time Gone,” “Truth No.2,” “Top of the World”

6. Loretta Lynn Van Lear Rose

Easily the greatest single disc of her legendary career, Lynn shines in a project that pairs her with White Stripes lead vocalist Jack White. Mixing his rock sensibilities with her down home country grit, the disc brings Lynn a fresh sound and shows how at 70, Loretta Lynn is just as fiesty as she was back in her 60s/70s glory.

Essential Listening: “Van Lear Rose,” “Portland Oregon,” “Woman’s Prison,” and “Miss Being Mrs”

5. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Raising Sand

The unlikely pairing of the rock god and the princess of Bluegrass just works on every level, creating an album worthy of mention with the likes of Thriller and Rumors. Never before has a fusion between blues and American Roots sounded this good and it might never again. This is the album you didn’t know you were waiting for and the one you cannot imagine living without.

Essential Listening: “Killing The Blues,” “The Long Journey,” “Please Read The Letter”

4.  Jamey Johnson That Lonesome Song

Without a doubt, Johnson has crafted the antidote to the slick pop country during the latter part of the decade. Easily the greatest traditional country album of the decade, Johnson pays tribute to his musical hero Waylon Jennings by covering two of Jennings’s iconic songs (“Dreaming my Dreams” and “The Door is Always Open”)

But the truly remarkable aspect of the record lies in Johnson’s ability to write the most truthful and honest songs to come out of Nashville in the last twenty years. His “High Cost of Living” pours more truth and real life experience into four and a half minutes than most of the current Nashville teeny boppers will ever have in a lifetime. And his “In Color” makes me proud to call myself a life-long country music fan.

The bar is so high, to follow this up will be a an epic feet. Good luck with that one Jamey.

Essential Listening: “High Cost of Living,” “Place Out on the Ocean,” “The Door is Always Open,” “In Color,” “That Lonesome Song,” “Dreaming my Dreams with You,” “Women,” “Stars in Alabama,” and “Between Jennings and Jones”

3. Johnny Cash American IV: The Man Comes Around

Never before has a person looked death square in the face and wrote their own eulogy. This, the last album released during his lifetime, is his best since his prison concert days. A mix of reflection, regret, and promise of a life after this, Cash captures those final moments of life and embraces their arrival wholeheartedly.

Essential Listening: “Hurt,” “The Man Comes Around,” “We’ll Meet Again”

2. Patty Loveless Mountain Soul

It is a very rare occasion when a singer can match the material they are singing. In no other record this decade did a singer sound so comfortable nor did material fit a singer so well as it did here. This is the style of music Patty Loveless was born to sing and she brings such an authenticity and freshness to it that it makes even the biggest non-believer into a bluegrass fan.

This is the greatest album of Patty Loveless’s career and her masterpiece. Though she’s come extremely close, Loveless has yet to top the artistry she possesses on these fifteen perfectly chosen tracks. Thank goodness for the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack for making roots music popular again and making a record like this one possible.

To prove my point go listen to “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The Kentucky twang of Loveless’s voice is the perfect backdrop for telling this rich story of  the coal mines where she grew up. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” makes the daily pain of Appalachia concrete for the average listener. The poignant vocal comes from experience, Loveless’s father died of black lung disease in 1979.

Skip the 2009 sequel Mountain Soul II, as with most sequels it adds nothing to continue what is found here and shows that this level of magic cannot be duplicated.

Essential Listening: “Daniel Prayed,” “Pretty Little Miss,” “Rise Up Lazarus,” “Cheap Whiskey,” “Sorrowful Angels,” “You’ll Never Leave Harlen Alive”

1. Dixie Chicks Taking The Long Way

Home would have easily made the top spot, if this album had never been created. Simply the finest album of the decade in any genre, The Chicks dazzle with a mix of real emotion and raw honesty. Filled with anger towards an unforgiving and senseless world, and with the hope of a better tomorrow, Taking the Long Way marks a turning point for not only the Chicks but for music itself. Albums rarely get better than this or more complicated.

The Dixie Chicks refused to rest on their laurels and wrote an album from the heart. Home was a masterpiece. Taking The Long Way is in a league of its own.

Essential Listening: “Not Ready to Make Nice,” “Voice Inside my Head,” “Bitter End,” “Easy Silence”