Loveless’ Bluegrass and White Snow is one of the best Christmas albums around and a staple of my holiday soundtrack. This song boasts background vocals from Jon Randall and Emmylou Harris, which proves that if you want to make a great song even better, get Emmylou to sing on it.
Leeann’s Pick: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
I am not familiar with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors outside of the Christmas album on which this song can be found, but I can say that the album is a mix of fun and warmth and this song is just one example of that.
In my opinion, “Silent Night” is the most beautiful of all Christmas carols. Here, the traditional Celtic band does a lovely interpretation of it, sung in both English and Gaelic. Former lead singer Heidi Talbot has a simply stunning voice, and the Ladies’ On Christmas Night is a worthwhile purchase for anyone who likes and few jigs and reels mixed in with their Christmas standards.
Leeann’s Pick: House of Heroes
I happened upon this version thanks to Amazon’s 25 Days of free Christmas downloads, but I don’t know anything about House of Heroes beyond this song. Incidentally, however, their rendition has turned out to be my favorite version of “Silent Night” because of the relaxed vibe. Being somewhat of an audiophile, I especially appreciate the crisp separation of the vocals and instruments of the production that becomes more evident as the track builds and progresses.
Sam’s Pick: Garth Brooks – For the ultimate version of this song, it’s hard to go wrong with Bing Crosby. But Garth’s jazzy, laid-back take on “White Christmas” is pretty excellent too. Fun fact: This song loses a lot of its charm once you’ve spent a Christmas night with your heart in your throat driving home after a blizzard but before the salt trucks have come out.
Leeann’s Pick: Bing Crosby
I’ve searched high and low for a superior version, but no one can top the ultimate version of “White Christmas”. It’s beautiful, it’s calming and it’s perfect.
Jonathan Keefe: Lari White
One of the reasons I’m not crazy about Christmas music is that so much of it ends up produced in the same vanilla, tasteful-to-a-fault kind of soft rock manner, and White’s rendition does have that problem. Fortunately, it does get points for a prominent steel guitar line and for having an over-the-top, campy choir kick in during the second verse.
But, more importantly, it’s also a showcase for White’s incomparable voice: In terms of power, range, control, and richness of tone, she’s easily one of the finest singers country music has ever been lucky enough to claim. The catastrophically poor taste of the “Wild at Heart” video pretty well killed her career, but her version of this holiday standard does still score her some seasonal recurrent airplay.
When they’re not focusing on steampunk imagery and incorporating reggae interludes into their songs, Sugarland can make some quite nice music, as evidenced by this track from its Gold and Green album. Jennifer Nettles’ and Kristian Bush’s voices blend well together, particularly on a folky, banjo-driven track like this one.
Leeann’s Pick: John Berry
John Berry’s powerhouse voice singing this powerful song is pure Christmas perfection. In fact, I never even appreciated this song until I heard Berry’s version. Now, thanks to this version, not only do I appreciate many versions, it’s turned into one of two favorite Christmas songs of mine.
If there ever was a song where traditional country perfectly mixes with honky tonk blues, here it is.
This mid-tempo gem, written by Jackson and Randy Travis, showcases production that still sounds vibrant almost twenty years later. With steel guitar and honky tonk piano aplenty, “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues)” is simply a two-and-a-half minute sonic delight.
Furthermore, the song’s concept is accentuated by its clever title and Jackson’s amusingly mournful delivery, including a pitiful “Yee haw” that ends up sounding more funny than sad, which ultimately describes the song as a whole, despite the theme of lost love.
If you’re looking for a genuinely spooky song for the Halloween season, look no further than Alan Jackson’s chilling “Midnight in Montgomery.”
From the very first strains of the downbeat acoustic guitar followed by the eerie steel intro, it’s evident that this is no typical country love song or drinking ditty. Instead, it’s set at Hank Williams’ grave at midnight whereupon the narrator, presumably Alan Jackson, sees Hank’s ghost.
The song’s story is fascinating in and of itself, but equally impressive is the recording as a whole package. Along with the ominous production and chilling story, Jackson’s performance strays from its usual smooth reliability and picks up its own haunting quality, which perfectly adds to the overall darkness of the song.
What’s more, much like a Hitchcock thriller, the parts of the song that capture this compositional masterpiece is not violence and blood, but rather, masterful storytelling that is thanks to the lyrics, production and performance that forms a psychologically thrilling listening experience rarely captured in country music.
Over jaunty acoustic guitar strums, Shania Twain reflectively sings, “Am I dreamin’ or stupid? I think I’ve been hit by Cupid, but no one needs to know right now.”
While that first stanza reasonably acknowledges that something might be amiss, Twain matter-of-factly plows ahead to reveal all the plans that she’s been making regarding the future with the special someone that she’s found, which includes the intimate details of wedding plans, kids and even pets.
The only hitch is that she’s the only one who needs to know right now; the man whose compliance is necessary in order for the plans to materialize doesn’t even need to know now. And if such a presumptuous situation isn’t amusing enough to ponder already, the added layer of the secret fantasies being real enough to keep her from being lonely at night is surely enough to seal the deal.
Written by Twain and her former producer/husband, “Mutt” Lange, this is not a song manufactured by committee, but rather, an example of a pair of songwriters who created a delightfully quirky song that, incidentally, still sounds both refreshing and even organic today thanks to a compelling scenario and a crisp acoustic production.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
Despite the dated keys, light swells of synthesizers and layered background vocals, “Can’t Be Really Gone” manages to be McGraw’s most compelling single to that point in his career both in content and performance.
Unlike “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Can’t Be Really Gone” doesn’t have to pull out any stops of overwrought heartstring pulls to pack a good punch. In fact, it straightforwardly captures the feeling of disbelief that accompanies a surreal event like having somebody in your life one minute and then the next minute trying to comprehend the knowledge that he or she is gone. In this case, little details of everything still in their places, including a book that is almost completely read, only heighten the disbelief and denial of this man’s situation.
Until this single, McGraw sang with an exaggerated twang that often threatened to sound more silly than serious. His quiet, melancholy vocal performance on this record, however, demonstrates that he is capable of properly interpreting a song when it is necessary, which is something that he gets even better at proving as his career progresses.
As wrong as it may be, the consistently gorgeous arrangements and Kimberly Perry’s compelling vocals almost make up for the lyrical deficiencies found on The Band Perry’s debut album. As it has been with all their singles so far, The Band Perry’s story of style being greater than substance continues with this promising group’s latest single as well.
With its acoustic based instrumentation, Kimberly’s pretty vocals and a sing-able melody, “All My Life” sounds like a typical love song on the surface. The girl isn’t asking for everything, just that the object of her obsession (check out the song’s bridge) loves her all his life. As it was with “If I Die Young”, however, the sentiment of the song makes perfect sense, but the nitty gritty of the lyrics are somewhat distorted or, perhaps, too fanciful. While there’s nothing wrong with asking if someone will love you all your life, it’s baffling how jars of sand or fireflies in a lamp delivered by someone in a tux proves anything. Grade: B
Not unlike the band’s previous three singles, “All Your Life” has an earthy sparkle that makes it hard to easily dismiss: it feels as earnest as a Taylor Swift song and sounds as charmingly simple as a Dixie Chicks song circa 1999. But the lyrics teeter between sleepy and trite, with Kimberly’s sprightly vocal nuances –at once natural, textured and emotive– serving as the most interesting part of the “love” story.
That is, until the vanilla turns to rocky road two and a half minutes in. Just as the piano-driven breakdown of “You Lie” is enough to keep me from switching the station, “All Your Life” delivers a sucker punch with an eerie, twisted bridge, sonically and lyrically: “You could be the centerpiece of my obsession if you would notice me at all.” In retrospect, the confession gives the rest of the song an intriguing and slightly psychotic undertone – you get the feeling Kimberly wants to follow up benign lyrics like “Would you walk to the end of the ocean just to fill my jar with sand?” with “Well, would you? WOULD YOU?”
And just like that, with a little injection of campiness, the song comes to life. Grade: B
Their singles have really been all over the place, haven’t they? “Hip to My Heart” was just wretched, but “If I Die Young” was a once-in-a-career kind of hit. “You Lie” fell on the wrong side of just all right, and now “All Your Life” is a bit better than average.
The melody, especially in the refrain, is the real selling point here, and the light-handed arrangement and solid vocal harmonies help to make this one a pleasant listen. Still, a couple of nicely turned phrases in each verse aren’t enough to overcome the song’s fundamental cliches, and Kimberly Perry wanders off pitch more than a couple of times.
The bigger issue for me is that the single lacks a strong hook: “All Your Life” needed one standout line or distinctive production flourish to make it something more than just kind-of pretty. Grade: B-
Kevin John Coyne:
There are a lot of things that work about the Band Perry. I’m not hearing much of them on this particular track.
I love the bridge breakdown that recalls Nickel Creek at their trippiest, and I genuinely appreciate a country single actually sounding country.
But the lyrics and the vocal performances? Pure amateur hour. Grade: C-
As others are noting, two things click: 1) The organic arrangement; 2) The cool bridge, which uses minor tonality better than any country single in recent memory.
Otherwise, though, it sounds like something Colbie Caillat would have written as a teenager. The case of Kimberly is a weird matter, too – certainly she’s got range, but you get a lot of ungainly pronunciations like “o-SHUH–hun.” Eh. Grade: C+
I love The Band Perry’s sound and style, as well as Kimberly’s voice, so I would definitely like to be pulling for them. The lyrics are where they tend to lose me. In this case, the deficiencies don’t come in the form of the wonky, off-beat “I oughta kill you right now and do the whole wide world a service” Band Perry kind of way. It’s just kind of blah, and a bit on the cheesy side. The bridge is more interesting, but I still don’t like how the song lets me sit through two boring verses before it makes any real attempt to engage me in the lyrics.
And yet, I still find the restrained country-bluegrassy arrangement so absorbing. While Kimberly’s vocal performance is not technically perfect, I still find it compelling and believable in its own way (and preferable to the buzzy, processed auto-tune effects that I hear on other artists’ records). Overall, the single is good enough that I’ll probably come back to listen periodically, but I would still like to see the band making greater artistic strides with their lyrics on future releases. Without a solid lyric that’s strong from start to finish, they’re still one base shy of a home run. Grade: B-
From his upcoming fall album release, Guitar Slinger, Vince Gill releases a quiet song that gorgeously portrays a man who is at peace with his impending death. While his loved ones are distraught from the thought of losing him, he assures them that he is not afraid of the prospect and, in fact, welcomes it:
“What’s the worst thing that can happen / What’s the worst that they can do?/ Threaten me with Heaven / It’s all they can do / Threaten me with Heaven / if they want to / Threaten me with Heaven, I believe that it’s true / Threaten me with Heaven, I’ll be waiting on you.”
His wife, Amy Grant, may be the official Christian/gospel singer in the family, but Brother Vince could easily stand right alongside her in such a capacity of he so chose, as his rousing “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” and “Rock of Ages” performances with Grant, from her hymns albums, can legitimately testify. While “Threaten Me with Heaven” is much more understated than those gospel favorites, it’s a powerful testament of faith to which people can either possibly relate or envy.
Similar in sound to his inspiring “What You Give Away”, “Threaten Me with Heaven” hosts a heartfelt vocal, tasteful guitar support and a gospel choir that enriches the tone of the song. As a result, the single is more adult contemporary than pure country, but it is beautifully sung and arranged nonetheless.
Written by Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Dillon O’Brien & Will Owsley