If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination. For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites. But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.
As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!
#20 “Hangin’ Up My Heart” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin
What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward
The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken
“Railroad of Sin” Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “9,999,999 Tears” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe
“Salt” Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin
“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Bible on the Dash” Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak
The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward
A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory. - Tara Seetharam
“If I Loved You” Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham
Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe
This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak
Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after. As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time. When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne
“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road. - Leeann Ward
#8 “Gasoline and Matches” LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas
Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster
This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point. Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe
The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status. - Leeann Ward
Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself. - Tara Seetharam
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song. You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors. The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best. - Kevin Coyne
Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.
There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken
For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums. Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music. As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.
Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!
#40 Ventucky Dan Grimm
Individual rankings: #12 – Jonathan
The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”
#39 Magpie and the Dandelion The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: #12 – Sam
Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”
#38 Love’s Truck Stop Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: #11 – Kevin
Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011′s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
#37 Feels Like Home Sheryl Crow
Individual rankings: #11 – Leeann
It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “We Oughta Be Drinkin’”, “Stay at Home Mother”
#36 They Called it Music The Gibson Brothers
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben
On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”
#35 Studebaker Mando Saenz
Individual rankings: Sam – #11
The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”
#34 Build Me Up from Bones Sarah Jarosz
Individual rankings: #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben
On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”
#33 Opening Day Peter Cooper
Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam
eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”
#32 Holly Grove The Whiskey Gentry
Individual rankings: #8 – Sam
It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak
#31 When We Fall Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7
Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”
#30 Not Cool Tim Easton
Individual rankings: #7 – Jonathan
Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”
#29 Wheelhouse Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”
#28 In the Throes John Moreland
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan
A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”
#27 Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben
A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”
#26 Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara
Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”
#25 Finally Home Blue Sky Riders
Individual rankings: #4 – Dan
With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”
#24 To All the Girls… Willie Nelson
Individual rankings: #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann
Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”
#22 Massachusetts Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin
Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”
#21 The Stand-In
Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan
Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”
For the second year in a row, our seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster, Jonathan Keefe, and Sam Gazdziak – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of the year. It’s a diverse crop of singles, some of which dominated country radio, while others were primarily heard in the Americana, bluegrass, and alternative country worlds. Today, we present the first half of our singles list, with the conclusion to follow tomorrow. Share your favorites in the comments!
“Someone Somewhere Tonight” Kellie Pickler
Individual rankings: #16 – Ben; #19 – Tara
A sweeping power ballad anchored by an intimate chorus and Pickler’s pleading sincerity. - Tara Seetharam
“Strong” Will Hoge
Individual rankings: #10 – Sam
Yeah, it’s the Chevy song, but whatever it takes to get Will Hoge introduced to a larger audience can’t be a bad thing. His lyrics about a true salt-of-the-earth individual ring true without ever steering into maudlin territory, and the line, “he ain’t jut tough, he’s strong,” is a great hook. It probably moved a fair number of pickup trucks, too. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Bourbon in Kentucky” Dierks Bentley
Individual rankings: #9 – Leeann
Although Bentley vies for radio play, “Bourbon in Kentucky” still sounds unique enough to stand out from the generic bombast of the male players on current country radio. In service to the intense angst of the song, the wailing guitars and the mix of Bentley’s and Kacey Musgraves’ emotive vocals make this single a riveting sonic and emotional experience. - Leeann Ward
#37 “You and I” Laura Bell Bundy
Individual rankings: #8 – Jonathan
Laura Bell Bundy goes more-Shania-than-Shania on a cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I” that aches and shakes in equal measure. Bundy’s music is best when she embraces her campiest impulses, so it makes perfect sense for her to take a signature hit by the most theatrical star in pop and lasso it into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Can’t Make Old Friends” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Individual rankings: #7 – Kevin
After several attempts to recreate the youthful playfulness of the classic “Islands in the Stream”, Rogers and Parton embrace their age and confront their own mortality. It’s an obvious truth that no matter how great a new friend is, they can’t replace the shared memories of someone you’ve known for a long time. Even if you’ve since parted ways, you still share a part of the other’s identity. How fitting that these two old friends are ours as well, making the entire proceedings that much more poignant. - Kevin Coyne
“I’ll Be There” The SteelDrivers
Individual rankings: #7 – Leeann
It’s almost unheard of for a group to lose a lead singer as dynamic as Chris Stapleton and still be as strong as ever with a replacement. Gary Nichols, however, managed to seamlessly slip into the SteelDriver’s front spot with the newly revamped band’s first single, “I’ll Be There.” The song is deliciously haunting both in content and melody. - Leeann Ward
#34 “Want Me Too” Charlie Horsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Dan
Imagine if your favorite Keith Urban song and your favorite Diamond Rio song were to meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pi-i-iiine. You might end up with something like Worsham’s second single, a lovestruck tail-wagger with Urban drive and Rio harmonies. Show me a cuter line from this year than “My heart’s skippin’ like a stone on the water!” - Dan Milliken
#33 “Red” Taylor Swift
Individual rankings: #6 – Dan
“Red” is a curious mix of brilliant similes (“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer”), plain ol’ descriptions posing as similes (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”), and logical pretzels twisted against their will into similes (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met”—what!). But Swift’s passion and command of melody pull the disparate pieces together, resulting in one of the year’s most unique and compulsively listenable singles. - Dan Milliken
“All Over the Road” Easton Corbin
Individual rankings: #6 – Ben
A delicious slice of steel-heavy nineties-esque escapist country bliss – complete with a breezy melody and an infectious, laid-back vocal performance. More please. - Ben Foster
#31 “Beat This Summer” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben; #19 – Leeann
With a hooky sing-along melody, addictive guitar riff, and a unique genre-bending arrangement, Paisley proves that summer hits don’t have to suck. - Ben Foster
#30 “Pocket Change” Mando Seanz
Individual rankings: #5 – Sam
Texas radio stations jumped on this single when it was released, with good reason. Saenz has been known for his quiet, introspective ballads in the past, but “Pocket Change” starts with a slow burn before exploding into a full-blown rocker. “Where’s my Studebaker, I’m nobody’s pocket change,” he snarls as he walks/runs away from a bad love. - Sam Gazdziak
#29 “Weed Instead of Roses” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: #16 – Tara, Jonathan; #20 – Sam
One woman’s plea to pump some action into her deflated marriage – via weed, leather and whips. It pops because it’s provocative, but it works because Monroe blends delightful charm with tongue-in-cheek boredom like the pro that she is. - Tara Seetharam
“See You Again”
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin
“See You Again” combines three of my favorite things: death, positivity, and power vocals. The entire premise that a person can look past their grief because their faith tells them they’ll be reunited with their lost loved one is hardly new to country music, but it’s rarely presented with such confident bravado and so little melancholy. I can’t think of another singer who could pull that off as believably as Underwood, who by the end of these proceedings makes me hope that the choir of angels in heaven sound like her insanely catchy backup singers do here. - Kevin Coyne
#27 “Carry Me Back to Virginia” Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: #9 – Sam; #12 – Jonathan
For anyone who wants to discover Old Crow Medicine Show beyond “Wagon Wheel,” this song is an excellent primer. Lightning-fast fiddle and vocals from Ketch Secor with a song about the Civil War, and crack band of musicians that favor enthusiasm over the precision that is often found in bluegrass. They’ve been often imitated but never duplicated. - Sam Gazdziak
“Blowin’ Smoke” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: #7 – Ben; #15 – Sam
For three glorious minutes, the voice of the working class is heard once again on country radio. Musgraves suitably renders the song with a rundown sigh of a performance, while a gritty, rumbling arrangement places the listener right in the midst of the smoky haze. - Ben Foster
On the surface, it’s obvious that this is about an entangled dysfunctional relationship, but listening deeper reveals that the relationship is with an addictive substance. Encased in a deep melancholy, the song cleverly and astutely captures the parallels with the two types of relational embattlements. The observations acknowledge that while the sources may be different, many of the general effects are the same. - Leeann Ward
A smooth yet moody cocktail of country, folk, and soul that rides its long drawl into a sweet, simple chorus. Shoulda been a hit. - Dan Milliken
“DONE.” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan; #15 – Tara
At a time when most contemporary country acts are aspiring to sound like arena rock, metal, and post-grunge bands that were terrible in the first place, The Band Perry at least had the good taste to blatantly rip off one of the best rock singles of the last decade for their hit “DONE.” - Jonathan Keefe
#22 “I Know What You Did Last Night” Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Individual rankings: #10 – Kevin, Ben
They may be in their fifties, but make no mistake about it: Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan can still party down when they want to. Built around good-humored conversational interplay between two old friends, “I Know What You Did Last Night” is one of the freshest, most entertaining up-tempos sent to radio this year, and a reminder that Tillis and Morgan are still two of country music’s most vibrant talents. - Ben Foster
#21 “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)” Rhonda Vincent
Individual rankings: #9 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Rhonda Vincent is always supreme whether she’s singing traditional bluegrass or, in this case, a good ol’ country weeper. Supported with the best kind of country acoustic instrumentation, Vincent’s voice satisfyingly leans into the heartbreak and desperation of a woman who is gripping a relationship that is obviously already dead. She knows it’s over, but her heart says that it’s not over until he literally says it’s over. - Leeann Ward
Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price has passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 87.
Price was instrumental in two of the most significant historical periods in country music, leading the way in both the twin fiddle-dominated honky-tonk of the 1950′s and the Nashville Sound pop crossover sound in the 1970′s. While it was the former style that was dubbed the “Ray Price Shuffle”, it was the latter style that brought his greatest commercial success.
A touring artist well into his eighties, Price also recorded music right up until his illness, winning a Grammy in 2008 for his collaboration with fellow legend Willie Nelson.
This tremendous loss joins George Jones, Jack Clement, and Jack Greene in the ranks of country music legends who have passed away this year. 2013 also brought the tragic death of Mindy McCready, the near death scare for Randy Travis, and the heartbreaking news that Linda Ronstadt has lost her voice to Parkinson’s. For country music fans, 2014 cannot come soon enough.
Enjoy two classic Ray Price hits below, one from each of his definitive eras:
Country-rock pioneer and Country Universe favorite Linda Ronstadt will join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year.
She will enter popular music’s most elite company alongside fellow inductees Nirvana, Cat Stevens, Hall and Oates, Peter Gabriel, and KISS.
Ronstadt was last nominated seven years ago. During the seventies, Ronstadt was widely regarded as rock’s leading lady, while also commanding respect and success in the country market with her genre-bending Asylum records.
Congratulations to Linda Ronstadt and her fellow inductees.
Enjoy a clip of Ronstadt performing at the Rockpalast Festival in Germany in 1976:
While I waiting for the YouTube video to load, they played a 30-second commercial for the Duck Dynasty Christmas album, which apparently has the reality show stars singing Christmas standards while ducks quack along with them. It sounded better than “Stay.”
Cheap shot? Perhaps. The truth is, I’ve avoided writing about Florida Georgia Line as much as possible, as I can’t remember an act I felt so tremendously indifferent to. Ten years ago, I’d be angry about their prominence, but mainstream country music has lowered its standards so much at this point that it seems totally normal that a song written and sung this poorly could be a big hit by an award show dominating act.
The reigning CMA Vocal Duo of the Year have covered a mediocre track from a little known rock band called Black Stone Cherry*, and now it’s their latest single. I believe it’s already a hit. This is the new normal. Have fun.
I think I’ve discovered a virtue of rock bands that choose to go country. They feel a need to dial it back a bit, so we end up with a less cluttered, more straightforward performance.
There’s nothing distinguishingly country about “Carolina”, which makes it stand out among a lot of what’s on country radio right now. But here’s the rub. It stands out because it’s not as garishly loud as the rock wannabes up and down the radio dial right now. They don’t try as hard as Darius Rucker or even Sheryl Crow to make it at least sound like they’re seriously attempting country music, but maybe less loud rock music is the best we can hope for these days.
So, in case you’re pining for the days of Third Eye Blind and such, here you go. They’re called Parmalee.
Written by Rick Beato, Barry Knox, Joshua McSwain, Matt Thomas, and Scott Thomas
The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced. Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year. She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.
Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:
Album of the Year
Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Taylor Swift, Red
If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.) The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).
Record of the Year
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
“Royals” – Lorde
For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.
Song of the Year
“Just Give Me a Reason” – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
“Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
“Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
“Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
“Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield
For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.
Best New Artist
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997. Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).
Best Country Album
Jason Aldean, Night Train
Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
Taylor Swift, Red
Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category. She won in 2010 for Fearless. She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012). Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.
Best Country Solo Performance
Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”
Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”) Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”
There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category. In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”
Best Country Song
“Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
“I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
“Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
“Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan
It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.
Best American Roots Song
“Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
“Invisible” – Steve Earle
“Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
“Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant
This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.
Best Americana Album
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Allen Touissant, Songbook
Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners. Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Best Bluegrass Album
The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
James King, Three Chords and the Truth
Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore
Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep. Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton. This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.
Best Folk Album
Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize. None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.
Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category. It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.
Five years ago, if someone said that Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert were going to do a duet, there’d be good reason to be excited. An A-list superstar pairing with an up-and-comer, both of whom were making some of the most interesting and innovative music under the country umbrella? What could possibly go wrong?
So much has, a mere five years later. Interesting has morphed into overbearing. Innovative has become predictable. “We Were Us” showcases the worst excesses shared by both of these artists today. It’s this stubborn insistence that bigger means better, that louder vocals mean deeper meaning, that mixing vague feelings with trivial details somehow adds up to something that is…universally specific? Specifically universal?
The goodness is still there underneath it all, you know. That signature Urban banjo. Lambert’s distinctive edge in her vocal. But it’s like trying to find diamonds in a tornado. It’s simply more effort than it’s worth.
Written by Nicolle Galyon, Jon Nite, and Jimmy Robbins
Judge by the title, and you’ll think you’re getting just another mindless rave-up. Sure, it will be catchier than most of them because of Luke Bryan’s irrepressible vocal charm, but a mindless rave-up is a mindless rave-up.
It’s tempting to make the jump and think Bryan is deliberately playing against expectations here, recording a song with a predictable title that leads to the completely unexpected territory of grief and loss. But maybe it’s just that if drinking a beer is the way you celebrate with friends and loved ones, it’s the logical thing to do when you’re trying to cope with their unexpected departure.
Bryan’s sort of become the poster boy for the brozation of country music. I’ve got two problems with that. One is simply philosophical. The failure of country radio and the larger industry to present more diverse points of view lies with radio and the industry, not with those who have the one approach that’s being too prominently showcased. Blaming Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark’s lack of airplay on Luke Bryan makes about as much sense as when Shania Twain was blamed for radio not playing George Jones. Focus on the players, not the pieces, people.
But my second problem is that Luke Bryan shouldn’t be defined so narrowly in the first place. He’s not chasing trends. He’s completely genuine, and the music he started out with a few years ago hasn’t changed all that much. There’s just a lot more people being successful with it. They don’t do it as well as him, though.
“Drink a Beer” is a great reminder of how he’s a few steps ahead of his peers in song choice and vocal delivery. He’s good enough to keep it clean. No fancy arrangements, vocoder tricks, or arena beats are needed to distract from the guy at the mic. He’s in full command, singing a beautiful song about painful loss. Sounds almost like country music, doesn’t it?