January 1, 2011
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.