NPR “Turning the Tables” List: A Conversation, Part Three: NPR #81-#100

Part Three: NPR #81-#100

83. Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie Joe

NPR said:

All of the songs are complex and abstract, full of bright detailsa checkered feed-sack dress, two postcards from Californiaand few of them tell you the whole story. Dramatized by Jimmie Haskell’s cinematic string arrangements, Ode to Billie Joe is a compendium of intriguing, evocative scraps of poetry that always hint at something more lingering just outside the frame, in the dark. Alison Fensterstock

Jonathan: I couldn’t be happier that NPR included Gentry on their list; she’s such an extraordinary, singular talent, and she’s something of a godmother figure for alt-country and Americana artists. In terms of her overall impact, Ode to Billie Joe was the obvious choice, and there’s no denying that it’s a terrific album. But her Delta Sweete is even stronger, with knottier narratives and a truly Southern Gothic POV. I would have loved for that should-be classic to have found its way onto the list.

Kevin: My experience with Bobbie Gentry is through compilations only, but the NPR selection and Jonathan’s recommendation will be a great starting point for her catalog!

88. k.d. lang, Ingénue

NPR said:

Big ballads with sweeping choruses were not mainstream fare in 1992, but Ingénue turned out to be the album that got lang all over the radio. The awards followed, as did the media storm over her Vanity Fair cover photo with Cindy Crawford, in which the model, in a high femme leotard, shaved the face of the besuited lang. Bold, butch and beautiful, k.d. lang made an album that was never of its time, and as such, is timeless. Rita Houston

Kevin: Her country albums were very good, but paled in comparison to her first pop opus. She never reached the dizzying heights of Ingénue again, but to get up there even once is to breathe rarefied air.

Jonathan: I do love her early country stuff; listen to “Trail of Broken Hearts” and tell me mainstream country wouldn’t have been better off had it made room for lang. I wouldn’t have voted it into my top 150 or anything, but this is as good a time as any to plug case/lang/veirs, the terrific adult-pop album she made last year with Neko Case and Laura Veirs.

89. Shania Twain, Come On Over

NPR said:

Her songs about equality in marriage (her “9 to 5” update “Honey, I’m Home”), femininity that was never passive (“Men’s shirts, short skirts, oh, really go wild,” she sang in “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” perfecting the Southern gal-on-a-bender trope that persists throughout country to this day), and mutually satisfying sex (“If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” she sang, lending her trademark positivity to the feminist idea of consent). With Come on Over, Twain’s third album, she and Lange got her balance of home truths and forward thinking totally right and shipped 40 million copies worldwide, making this the best-selling country album of all time. Ann Powers

Jonathan: Full disclosure: Twain is someone I fundamentally respect as an artist who has very little music that I truly enjoy listening to. I only have a handful of her singles on my iPod, and 4 of those 6 are from The Woman In Me. It makes perfect sense to include Come On Over here, though, for its massive cultural impact and Twain’s version of pop-country that no one has ever been able to imitate with nearly the same panache.

Kevin: Up! is my favorite Shania Twain album. Come On Over is necessary for this list, as it is both the biggest female album and biggest country album of all time. But The Woman in Me should also be on this list, and higher, as it permanently shifted the female point of view in country music from one of submission to one of independence. Yes, it built on the foundation of what other women were doing in country music in the late eighties and early-to-mid nineties. But after Twain, there was no going back to the victim queen archetype, best exemplified by Reba McEntire’s dominance as the biggest female country artist for the decade leading up to Twain’s blockbuster release.

91. Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Favorite

NPR said:

Krauss, a former fiddle champion, did not reject bluegrass’s characteristic grit so much as she synthesized it into something new, channeling the talents of her band’s superlative pickers in service to the songs. That approach changed the landscape of the genre, and you can hear its influence in practically every contemporary bluegrass act today, from Punch Brothers to Sarah Jarosz. With New Favorite, Krauss showed, once and for all, that she had nothing to prove. Amelia Mason

Kevin: I agree that Krauss has cast a long shadow over contemporary bluegrass, but I don’t see New Favorite as a turning point or particularly significant album in her career, with or without Union Station. Her work has been remarkably consistent, so I can’t quibble with this pick, but I think that the album that shines just a bit brighter than the rest is Lonely Runs Both Ways.

Jonathan: Agreed: This is a strange choice for Krauss. It’s fine in the way that even her lesser albums are always fine– she’s never less than thoughtful and classy– but it isn’t a particularly noteworthy selection of songs or performances. Chalk it up to recency bias, but I’d be inclined to vote for Windy City, which I’ve been returning to frequently this year. Thinking about the representation of Bluegrass and folk artists on the NPR list just now, I realized that Hazel Dickens isn’t anywhere to be found, so that’s another addition to our “Notably Missing” post!

99. Taylor Swift, Fearless

NPR said:

At its simplest, Fearless displays Swift as a brilliant songwriter. At its truest, the album shines with an explosive voice, an ineffable gift. No one can question Swift’s success now, and Fearless proved it then. Just ask a girl. Maria Sherman

Jonathan: Oh, hell. One of the things I love about the NPR feature is the quality and passion of the writing. Knowing how fiercely Swift’s fans champion her work, this blurb for Fearless strikes me as half-hearted and thin. Granted, that could just be because I’m on record as not thinking this is a good album at all… But I do get why this album, which was her pop breakthrough and an awards-show juggernaut (care to chime in, Kanye?), is the one they selected. I just don’t think the writing is anywhere nearly as strong as the best moments of Speak Now or especially Red, on which she embraced the pop-star ambitions that truly play to her considerable strengths as a writer and a performer. And I don’t think it’s mean to point any of that out…

Kevin: Somewhere along the line, Taylor Swift took a page from the Madonna playbook and started using criticisms of her as a challenge to get better. Fearless showcases the worst of her excesses as a songwriter and her then-crippling limitations as a vocalist. She’s been getting consistently better on both fronts ever since, and I’d pick 1989 as the best representation of her talents at this point. Some artists are just better when they abandon any pretense of being country ones and go full blown pop. She’s one of them.

5 Comments

  1. Always liked “Ode to Billie Joe”. Wiki says it was released Aug 21, 1967. It must have been played on pop/rock radio since I wasn’t listening to any country stations back then. Tricia Walker covered “Ode” on her “Heart of Dixie” album.

    Re Alison Krauss, I’ll go with “Windy City”. Love it. I have a live album of hers but I skip the songs when the Union Station guys sing. Most frequently played AK songs on i-tunes: “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” w Shenandoah and “How’s the World Treating You” w James Taylor.

  2. I’m only familiar with two songs from Ode To Billie Joe – the title track and Mississippi Delta (M,I, double S, I, double S, I double P, I) – so I can’t comment on the album. My uncle was a DJ when Ode To Billie Joe came out and he said every time they played it, they were bombarded with phone calls wanting to know why he jumped and what did they throw off the bridge. It was a phenomenon.

    I love k.d. Lang’s Ingénue and I’m so glad it made the list. It should’ve been much higher IMO.

    New Favorite was the first cd of Allison Krauss + Union Station’s that I ever bought and I still love it. Is it their best? Probably not, but it’s a good record. I love The Lucky One.

    Never understood the craziness over Shania or Swift but you cannot deny they are both extremely popular so it’s understandable that they would be represented on this list.

  3. The AKUS album is the only one of these I have, though I’ve heard the Shania one (whose inclusion I wouldn’t quibble with, given its popularity and how many hit singles it spawned).

    Much as I like ‘New Favorite’ (especially “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You for Awhile”), I get the feeling it was picked simply because — like the Gillian Welch selection higher up on the list — it was her first project after ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (which raised both ladies’ profiles in the larger popular culture). But while I couldn’t argue with the Welch pick, I agree with Kevin that if Krauss’ work with Union Station must be represented, ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’ was an overall stronger collection of tunes. :)

  4. Oh yes, this was the one I was waiting for. Bobbie’s Ole To Billy Joe is a great album. K.D. Lang’s Ingenue is her best album IMO. She got everything right with Ingenue. Alison has been constantly good for her whole career, it’s hard to pick her best album. I like New Favorite, but I much prefer Lonely Runs Both Ways and Forget Get It albums. For the longest time, I didn’t get the hype about Taylor until I hear Speak Now. Her songwriting was finely tuned on Speak Now and Taylor got everything right. While I enjoy Red and 1989, I don’t think Taylor will ever top Speak Now. I always been in the minority that feels Shania’s talents as a singer and songwriter get underrated and misunderstood. IMO, she got criticized unfairly because her image and sound, but in reality, she had all the quality of a country artist (relatability and self-awareness). When I heard Come On Over for the first time, it blew me away. For me, I still think Come On Over is Shania’s masterpiece. It’s pop-country perfection. It open the doors for every female country artists to either crossover on the charts or add a another layer to their music (Faith Hill, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Dixie Chicks, and Lee Ann Womack). Plus, Come On Over has the perfect balance of her classic radio friendly tracks and great album cuts. I can listen to Come On Over straight through. I wouldn’t argue if anyone said that The Woman In Me or Up! is Shania’s best album. From a pure writing standpoint, you can argue The Woman In Me is Shania’s best album or from a personal deep standpoint, you can pick Up! Shania last three studio albums are fantastic, it hard to choose which ones is her best because they bring something different to the table. And from what I heard so far, I have a feeling her upcoming Now album will be a very good album. Great analysis, guys, I’m enjoying Turning The Tables. I wish you guys would of made their list because your list so much better.

  5. For someone in the limelight for such a relatively short period of time, Bobbie Gentry had a number of memorable songs. I much preferred her take on “Fancy” to Reba’s overwrought later version

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