A Tale of Four Hits Collections

by

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.

Alan Jackson
34 Number Ones

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.

Tim McGraw
Number One Hits

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.

Dixie Chicks
The Essential Dixie Chicks

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?

Brad Paisley
Hits Alive

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.

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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    This was a great post. Loved it. And WHO did you say was the site’s weakest writer?

    This post was a very accurate summary of the strong points and shortcomings of each of these artists, and I’d say it’s the last straw in convincing me to go buy the new AJ collection.

    It’s always nice to read about the Dixie Chicks, and you do a much better job at doing them justice than I could. It was very smart of them to do a “Best Of” album instead of the typical “Greatest Hits” collection, since only a small portion of their legacy rests on their radio hits. I often wonder what course mainstream country music would have taken if “The Incident” had not ended the Chicks’ hitmaking streak.

    I usually like Paisley’s sound in general, though his guitar solos tend to all sound the same after while, but his material just keeps getting worse. I swear if I hear one more “Water” or “This Is Country Music”…!

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I hope Granna and Gail read this.:)

  3. BobNo Gravatar says:

    While I enjoyed reading the writeups, I won’t be buying any of these collections since I have all the Chicks and Paisley cds and 2 AJ greatest hits collections. For McGraw, I have his best album – Live Like You Were Dying – and his first GH, so anything else I’ve liked I bought individually on i-Tunes.

    Good point about AJ being a significant songwriter. He’s not one of those artists getting a credit for minimal wiiting contributions. Some of his solo writing efforts include “livin on love”, “the little man”, “I’ll try”, “remember when”, “drive” and “where were you …” which may get more play this year with the 10th anniversary coming up.

  4. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    Paisley’s material is getting worse? This despite his most recent album being critically hailed. His most recent single is not very good but it follows, “Anything Like Me,” which is a great song. If you’re contention is that his singles are getting worse that is one thing (and something I wouldn’t agree with) however for most artists their singles are the weakest cuts off the album. Normally because they are designed specifically for a large audience.

    Also, his guitar solos don’t start to sound the same. You’re probably noticing his style of play which is distinct, and really every great guitar player has a distinct sound. If you played me a bunch of solos from well known guitarists I guarantee I could tell you who played what.

    On the part about Paisley’s album. I don’t think “Little Moments,” is misogynistic in nature, nor do I think any of his songs are. They are goofy, and some of the lyrics play off stand-up comic material about the sexes but do you really think Paisley hates women? He’s playing on stereotypes at times, but those stereotypes permeate through all genres of music. Doesn’t make it acceptable, but it makes it harder for me to hammer one guy over it.

  5. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    “Little Moments” is the 21st Century “Honey.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59BZxgohr9g

    At least Paisley doesn’t kill her off.

    Still, it begs for an answer song. Miss those days.

  6. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Good write ups and I basically agree with the ratings of AJ and Chix being five star albums -there are more songs I like on the AJ collection so I would place it first among this group.I don’t agree that the Chix could have randomly taken any 30 songs off their CDs and had a five star collection – there are some lesser tracks on their albums – but the tracks selected do constitutute a five star album

    I think that the Paisley collection is better than the McGraw collection but it could easily have been a four star effort with a few more of the studio hit tracks being included. To describe any of the songs as being “condescending and slightly misogynist love songs” is ridiculous.

    Brad Paisley is a master of video so a double set CD/DVD with about twenty tracks on the CD and seven or eight of Brad’s best videos (“He Didn’t Have To Be” , “Online”, “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “When I Get Where I’m Going”)would have easily been a five star effort

    Curb needs to let someone who actually knows something about music to put together a decent Tim McGraw collection. While Tim has had his moments, this collection misses too many of them

  7. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I would call “Little Moments” rather condescending, but I’d also say that women fall into talking about men as if they’re cluess too. Neither is good. I’m not big on the stereotype of “Waitin’ on a Woman” either, but the point of view from an older generation softens that one. I do have a couple of female friends who think that “Little Moments” is the sweetest song, but it kind of sounds like a “isn’t she cute” complaining session to me. I’m guessing that Paisley intended “Little Moments” to be sweet though, like my friends think it is, so I think it’s sincere (there’s that word again). Either way, it’s the dull melodies for both songs that is my biggest problem with them.

  8. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    PS. Like Bob, I don’t tend to purchase GH collections unless I don’t like an artist enough to collect their entire discographies or if they’re legends with such deep catalogs that it’s nearly impossible to collect their work at a reasonable pace due to the backlog.

  9. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    You couldn’t print the response that any given woman in my family would give to one of those “isn’t she cute” observations in “Little Moments.”

  10. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Brian, I was mainly referring to Brad’s radio singles – sorry if there was a misunderstanding. “Water” was pretty mediocre, and “This Is Country Music” is even worse, so my statement was primarily based on those two, though Brad’s singles have generally not been of consistently high quality. (Granted, he has had a few good moments) “Anything Like Me” was okay, but it did seem a lot like a safe holding pattern. The comment about all his guitar solos sounding the same was merely my own personal reaction.

  11. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Re. the Chicks “hit” collection:

    To me, the Dixie Chicks were always more of a full album group (like the Eagles) than a band that merely put songs on an album for the explicit goal of getting hit after hit. This sets them apart from almost every other country group, especially with Taking The Long Way, because they see an album as a complete portrait and not a paint-by-numbers job. Compiling a hits collection, especially after Nat’s Bushwhacking, would indeed be an impossible task–and why should that be done anyway? They’re not a mere hit-making factory, and they never were.

  12. My problem with the AJ set is that it strikes me that there really isn’t enough new material added to cover the years since his Greatest Hits Volume II collection. Also, I’m still greatly disappointed that Like Red on a Rose was so ignored; it’s easily my favorite album in his discography. Still, at some point I’ll get it just to have the earlier material re-mastered so that there isn’t a dramatic difference in sound quality when I play them on my iPod.

    As for The Essential Dixie Chicks I’m disappointed that it was all chronological; I’d have rather seen a more artistic sequencing. It also would have been nice if they’d tossed in at least one of their non-album cuts, like their cover of “Stand by Your Man.” (A case could be made that would have been more appropriate on the Playlist compilation and I’d agree.)

    Like the AJ set, though, I’ll eventually pick it up just to have the early recordings in a fuller-sounding version.

  13. ZackNo Gravatar says:

    Despite the chronological sequencing on the Chicks compilation (like Travis, I am not too crazy over), it is great to have a collection that I can easily offer to one who wants to explore the Chicks or great country music in general, without trying to narrow down selections from every album to label as ‘their best.’

    I got the Paisley compilation, but didn’t care much for it.

    I like to get a greatest hits compilation of an artist if I don’t want to explore his/her albums of material (especially if they have a LONG career, like Dolly, where I just cherry-pick certain albums and try to find a hits compilation that encompasses their career well). Part of the reason why I love the “Essential” series is that it offers the best (rather than all successful) material from the artist. The Mary Chapin Carpenter Essential set that was released before her Between Here And Gone set remains one of my favorite hits compilation I’ve ever had.

  14. Hoggy from OzNo Gravatar says:

    Great reviews :)

  15. KatieRNo Gravatar says:

    love your Chicks review :) I agree, and I love this compilation so much better than their previous “best of” that was released earlier in the year. And while I think the Chicks could pick 30 random songs off their albums and it would be better than most other artists “essentials”, they do have a few weaker songs. “Cold Day in July” is an odd song in a strange situation, b/c when you listen to the radio version it’s rather bland and boring, BUT when you listen to the version off their live cd, the song jumps to life and grabs your attention and won’t let go, imho. (Although I think their live versions of every song are much better than the studio versions).

    I’m not surprised you gave Brad’s compilation a 3-star. Beyond a few songs, I don’t think most of his material stands up to landing on any “essential hits” album, even if they did get a #1.

    I agree with your Tim McGraw review too. Love him, but he does have a few questionable hits in his catalog.

  16. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Hmmm…”Cold Day in July” is on my favorites Chicks list.

  17. LibbyNo Gravatar says:

    “and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw”. Is there any doubt about them doing this? Probably several times…

    Of these I thnk I need to get AJ’s. I’m not as familiar with his catalog as I should be considering he has some of my favorite songs. Drive, Remember When, Where Were You are a few, but I suspect I’m missing a lot and if you think this is a good representation then it’s time I got it.

  18. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I liked “Cold Day In July” too. I’ve found that when I’m first discovering a past hitmaker whom I’m not very familiar with, I might tend to gravitate toward the compilation album and purchase it as an introduction. But if I develop a strong affinity for the artist, that’s when I might go back and start mining the studio albums in their catalog.

  19. Soul Miners DaughterNo Gravatar says:

    Brad Paisley = BORING!

    As for the Dixie Chicks, it’s a shame what happened with them as we can only imagine where they would have gone. They were such an incredibly welcomed group on so many levels.
    As for the infamous Bush statement… if any Urban artist were to make a similar statement about our current President, they would receive THE. SAME. treatment by Urban radio and listeners.
    It’s all about having an inkling of intelligence to know who is paying your bills, ie. “common sense”.

  20. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I’m just glad to see you’ve come to your senses about “Southern Voice,” Kevin. That might get my vote for worst single of his career. I think “Felt Good on My Lips” is at least kind of fun in the “oh oh oh” parts without lyrics.

    I like for compilations to do chronological sequencing, because it helps me develop a historical perspective. So I wish the Chicks’ set was done normally instead of in reverse. But whatever.

  21. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I didn’t like “Southern Voice” much to begin with, but wow, does it sound worse alongside his best work.

  22. Really dude? You’re calling Brad Paisley mediocre? If anybody is mediocre in today’s country music it’s Blake Shelton. It’s incredible how blind and offensive some folks are.

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