Author Archives: Tara Seetharam

Single Review: Kenny Chesney, “Somewhere With You”

Following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift’s “Mine” and Tim McGraw’s “Felt Good On My Lips,” Kenny Chesney’s latest single sheds its country coat for, in his case, a mellow, strictly-rock groove. Though it’s a little edgier than usual, “Somewhere With You” finds Chesney doing what he’s built half his career doing: brooding. And it all looks and sounds a little “haven’t I heard this before?”…until the chorus hits.

It’s the kind of chorus that feels more like an experience than a string of lyrics. Chesney takes you through an intoxicating whirlwind of memories, outlining the specific moments –on a carnival ride, in a cheap hotel room, on a rain-soaked beach– that built his bond with the girl he can’t seem to shake. There’s a palpable intensity to his monologue, with its potent rhythm and mix of literal and emotionally-charged details.

The kicker is that, though Chesney’s character is clearly tortured by his lingering feelings, you’re left with the inkling that the two didn’t share a pure, selfless love – but, rather, a love that filled holes and fed an addiction. The searing couplet “I hate my life/hold onto me” hints at a darker aspect of their love, and Chesney’s signature monotone delivery serves as a chilling backdrop to this sentiment. It’s an intriguing take on Chesney’s tried-and-true theme of nostalgia.

Written by J.T. Harding & Shane McAnally

Grade: B

Listen: Somewhere With You

Buy:

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2010 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

When the nominees were announced in August for the 44th annual CMA Awards, they sparked a firestorm of headlines –and thoughtful commentary by critics and fans alike– thanks to the CMA voters’ surprisingly bold moves. It’s all about change this year, as the voters revamped the ballot with a slew of fresh faces in almost all of the big categories.

How will it all play out? We’ll know for sure on Wednesday at 8pm Eastern, but before Gwenyth Paltrow throws on her cowboy boots, check out our staff picks and predictions and join the discussion in the comments below. And be sure to drop by Wednesday night for all of the CU live blog madness!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin:  Among the five nominees, Miranda Lambert has best represented the genre this year.

Leeann: I’m torn between Lambert and the Zac Brown Band as most deserving this year. I recently saw Lambert’s show and wasn’t incredibly impressed, however. While I have not yet attended a ZBB show, theirs is one of the few spots that I look forward to at awards shows these days. Moreover, I’m impressed by how much of a following they had even before they made any mainstream records.

Dan: Of these five, Zac Brown Band had the second-most success this year (after Lady A) and made the second-best music (after Lambert), so that’s pretty good standing. And I feel like giving this award to a grassroots act would be a good way for the industry to greet the future.

Tara: I’m consistently impressed by Zac Brown Band’s live performances, and it would be really refreshing to see them win – so I’ll go with them. (But I’m still disappointed that the first year my head and heart align on Carrie Underwood deserving an EOTY award, I can’t support her. I’m holding out for 2012…)

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Tara
  • Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: I’ve probably learned nothing from last year’s Swift sweep by going with Paisley again, but he’s the only nominee of veteran stature who hasn’t won yet.

Leeann: I can’t imagine that Paisley won’t finally win this one.

Dan: I was going to guess Lady A, since they’re sort of 2010’s “flavor of the year” the way Taylor Swift was 2009’s. But when I think about it, Swift’s ascent was greater and more gradual, and she stood in contrast to the rest of her nominee pool (four male veterans) in a way Lady A don’t with theirs (in which they’re one of three new competitors). So, Paisley.

Tara: I have no rationale. My gut says Lambert.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: Bentley made the best music this year.

Leeann: Bentley may not have the best technical voice out of these nominees, but he has the most interesting and distinctive of them, which is always something that I gravitate toward. Also, I agree with Kevin that he’s made the best music this year.

Dan: Shelton and Bentley are the only ones in this pool who made significant career strides this year – Shelton at radio, and Bentley creatively. Since I’m backing someone else in the Album category, this is where I’d like to see Bentley recognized for following his muse.

Tara: I guess Up on the Ridge is as good a reason as any to fall off the Brad-for-MVOTY bandwagon. He’s a close second for me, though.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Dan
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann, Tara
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: I can see the roots album giving Bentley an edge. Then again, Paisley could just repeat again, or Shelton may suddenly have deep support among voters. I say, Bentley by a nose.

Leeann: I think that voters will reflexively give this one to Paisley again.

Dan: I’ll ditto Kevin.

Tara: I can’t really see Paisley losing this one, but I think if he does lose to Bentley, it’ll be a telling moment.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Kevin: Underwood and McEntire are the women who made my favorite singles from the eligibility period, but Lambert’s the only one who hasn’t won this award.  She’s not overdue, but she’s due.

Leeann: Kevin’s right that Lambert is due to win this award now, not to mention that she’s my favorite female singer out of the bunch.

Dan: Lambert still isn’t at Underwood’s sales level, much less Swift’s, and I don’t see her catching up before traditional music sales die out altogether. Doesn’t matter, though: her habit of making creative music will sustain her regardless of industry conditions, and will elevate the genre in the long run. It’s time to look ahead.

Tara: I’m 50/50 on Lambert and Underwood. I’m not sure how to balance Lambert’s long overdue mega-year against Underwood’s continuous stream of solid success, ambassadorship and artistic growth. I’ll be happy either way, but personal investment’s got me in Underwood’s camp.

Will Win:

  • Miranda Lambert - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood- Leeann

Kevin: I’d be shocked if Lambert lost, and can’t even make a guess as to who she’d lose to, should she somehow lose.

Leeann: It’s between Lambert and Underwood, but I give Underwood the edge, especially since it’s somewhat surprising that she didn’t get an Entertainer nomination. Although Lambert has gained popularity in the past year, Underwood is still one of the two biggest females in the business and I refuse to predict that Swift will win the award.

Dan: Lambert’s had enough mainstream success this year to give tasteful voters an excuse to give her some props.

Tara: The voters love them some Lambert this year, and I think of all her nominations, this is the one she’s got in the bag.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland

Kevin: I’m assuming “Stuck Like Glue” was after the eligibility period, so I think actually making some music over the year is important. Joey + Rory are the only duo I like who have yet to win.

Leeann: I simply like them the most, but I know they don’t have a chance.

Dan: I mean, why not? Nobody on this ballot has done much but tour.

Tara: I’m not very excited about any of these acts right now, to be honest. It would just be heartwarming to see Joey + Rory pick this one up.

Will Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn – Kevin, Dan
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann, Tara

Kevin: Sugarland’s year off helped guarantee a B&D victory lap, which would probably have happened anyway.

Leeann: It’s between Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland. I should just pick B&D because of their retirement, but I’m still going with Sugarland because of their popularity.

Dan: Brooks & Dunn, unless voters ignore the eligibility period and stick with Sugarland.

Tara: Isn’t the Brooks & Dunn retirement thing kind of old news by now, or am I just out of touch?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan

Kevin: Let’s start getting some variety in this category, instead of having Lady A own it for five years.

Leeann: They’re the only group that I like right now.

Dan: I’ll probably be rooting for Little Big Town come ACM season, but for now…

Tara: I don’t want Lady A to own this for five years, either, but I do think they deserve to win this year. At least in my opinion, their huge success on the charts and with album sales can be attributed much to their ability to (I know, I know – I’m a broken record) hone in on specific emotion and deliver it in a way that people can really connect with. There’s some meat (and a heck of a lot of potential) behind their success that tends to go unnoticed.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: Lady A and Zac BB are both very popular with voters, but I’m thinking that this is the only race where voters can reward Lady A for dominating at retail this year.

Leeann: Ditto to Kevin.

Dan: New Artist will be ZBB’s consolation prize.

Tara: …And I think the voters will agree with my pick, if not for the same reasons.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young – Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is in another league, which makes me wish they still called this the Horizon Award.

Leeann: It’s weird to see ZBB here considering their nominations elsewhere, so I think that Chris Young has the most potential of the remaining nominees.

Dan: I’d love to see Young take this, but ZBB can’t be denied.

Tara: This is a great line-up, but there’s no question that ZBB deserves this win.

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is nominated for Entertainer of the Year, much like Ricky Skaggs was when he won Horizon in 1982. (Skaggs also won Male Vocalist, which means I may have to rethink my pick for Vocal Group, too.)

Leeann: Kevin’s argument is too compelling not to follow. Also, they are the most popular of the nominees, therefore, probably the most deserving.

Dan: Everyone here but Niemann has had a significant breakthrough. With ZBB in the mix, though, it’s no contest.

Tara: It’s a funky set-up to have ZBB nominated for both the top and bottom (figuratively) prizes, and I think this one will play out exactly the way Kevin explained it.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the RidgeLeeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play OnKevin

Kevin: I have all five of these albums, and Underwood’s is the one that I listen to the most, with Strait a not-too-close second. In 2010, of course, “listening to an album” really means “how many songs do I pull off the album and put on a play list,” which has Underwood ahead by three tracks.

Leeann: If I follow Kevin’s test, Bently wins with Lambert as a close second. Bentley’s is, hands down, my favorite album of these choices. I’d love to see something this different from the mainstream win.

Dan: Also employing Kevin’s test, I flip-flop Leeann’s first and second choices. Only about two thirds of Revolution click for me a year later, but those two thirds have helped redefined what I thought modern country could be (still flipping about “Me and Your Cigarettes”), and the stray third at least tried.

Tara: I’m not going to follow Kevin’s test: I don’t play Revolution quite as much as three of the other albums on here, but I feel it’s the most deserving. It’s sharp, smart and an excellent example of an artist taking her potential by the horns.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, RevolutionKevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play On

Kevin: I really do think Lambert will sweep. I think she should’ve won for her last album, which wasn’t even nominated, but I’m not going to complain about an ambitious album getting the prize.

Leeann: I’m guessing either Lambert or Underwood. Although Lambert has the better album, Underwood has the slight edge because it sold better. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if Lady A takes it though.

Dan: Seems to me like a toss-up between Lady A’s commercial favorite and Lambert’s critical one. Lambert?

Tara: This is Lambert’s to lose, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Lady A (or maybe Bentley?) snatched it.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: It’s the big chunk of meat in a category of mashed potatoes and candied apples.

Leeann: Kevin just made me really hungry, therefore, kind of distracted. It’s a good thing that my choice doesn’t need justification then.

Dan: “Need You Now” had the biggest impact, of course, but “The House That Built Me” was no slouch either – four weeks at #1 – and was arguably the riskiest, most rewarding release. Also of note: she sang it real pretty.

Tara: “Need You Now” and “The House That Built Me” are performed equally well, but “House” is the better-written song. I’ll go with “House” on the basis of that, but I do think country music will be represented justly either way. Both songs resonate with pure, compelling sentiment.

Will Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think Lady A would have a better shot if they hadn’t won last year for “I Run to You.”

Leeann: It’s simply the clear winner.

Dan: Again, somewhat for diversity’s sake, I’ll guess that many voters have already forgotten about “I Run to You” – I certainly have – and will use this category to recognize the biggest hit, while they use Song to recognize the best one.

Tara: I’m jumping on Dan’s train…

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Overall, I think that “Need You Now” is a better Single than Song, and that “The House That Built Me” is a better Song than Single, but “House” is better than “Need” on both counts.

Leeann: I’m just being repetative now. It’s the best single and song of the year.

Dan: It’s the deepest-cutting of the five and the most unique.

Tara: “The House That Built Me” is, quite simply, beautifully written.

Will Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Here’s where they can honor “Need You Now” without shortchanging Lambert.

Leeann: I just see “House” sweeping in all possible categories.

Dan: They often manage to pick the actual best song of the five, especially when that song is also the most “serious.”

Tara: This just seems way to obvious; I don’t see how the voters could bypass the most clearly deserving song.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel” – Tara
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End” – Leeann, Dan
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone” – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: I don’t find any of these five songs particularly compelling, so I’ll go with the two artists who are longest overdue for some CMA love.

Leeann: I’m not big on any of these either, but the Jackson/Womack collaboration is the one I like the most if I have to choose.

Dan: I’d be fine with either “Til the End” or “Bad Angel”. Whatevs.

Tara: The Jackson/Womack song falls squarely within my typical taste, but “Bad Angel” gets under my skin – in a good way. It’s just a really cool record.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel”
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”- Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: Its presence in the Single category makes “Hillbilly Bone” the most likely winner.

Leeann: It’s the most mainstream of all the choices.

Dan: “Bad Angel” could play a welcome spoiler, since all three of the artists behind it command a lot of respect right now. I still see this going to the hit, though.

Tara: I’m predicting the big boys will win this one. It’s a decent song, but it makes me laugh that it gets as much love as it does – I mean, this is the song that has Adkins admitting that he’s “always wanted to sing a bone song”…!

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: Lambert made the two best clips, with the humor of “Liar” outpacing the literalism of “House.”

Dan: The “House” video is beautifully conceived and directed, but somehow the “White Liar” one just sticks out more. Maybe it’s because “White Liar” is a thinner song, so the video has more of a chance to establish its own identity.

Tara: The “White Liar” video is the brightest and most creative of the bunch.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think “White Liar” has won all the video awards this year, so I guess it will win again.

Dan: This is the logical place to reward the other Lambert single the CMA liked this year.

Tara: One of Lambert’s videos will win for sure. My best guess is “White Liar” since it’s won before, like Kevin said.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Paul Franklin is the nominee I’m rooting for the most this year. Give the man, and the steel guitar, some long overdue recognition!

Leeann: It’s the steel guitar for heaven’s sake! It should be a no-brainer, even though it’s clearly not.

Dan: I won’t pretend I know what’s going on. I’m just going to root for the guy who hasn’t won yet until he finally does.

Tara: How can you pass up the steel guitar?

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar)
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Mac McAnally won the last two years, so I guess he’s the favorite. Did I mention that Franklin is 0-for-17 going into this year’s ceremony?

Leeann: I suppose its a habit to give it to McAnally at this point. So, why should I be so bold as to predict anyone else?

Dan: No justice!

Tara: Just going off of pattern here.


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Single Review: The Judds, “I Will Stand By You”

In theory, Wynonna Judd has the gravitas to pull off a feisty inspirational song like “I Will Stand By You,” the kind that builds on momentum and resolve instead of hope and compassion. And the lyrics, though clichéd, aren’t necessarily enough to kill the song’s spirit – because who better than Wynonna to breathe fire and energy into nondescript lyrics?

Only she doesn’t. Her performance misses the mark on all accounts: she blasts her notes with so much splashy aggression that they can barely find their pitch, and her phrasing is painfully affected (what’s with the varying pronunciations of the word “you”?). Gone is her soulful conviction and unshakeable control; in its place is a voice that begs for a recharge. And then there’s Naomi Judd’s harmony vocals, which manage to be both barely there and glaringly off-key.

The vocals are so off-putting that they almost completely mask the semi-cool arrangement, which weaves in a tinge of Celtic flavoring – a little Mary Chapin Carpenter, a little Keith Urban. Some vocal fine-tuning might have allowed this driving production to make a more powerful impact.

Given that this is The Judds’ first single in over a decade –charity single or not– it’s a shame you have to wonder how many times the ladies went through this in the studio. What’s your guess? I know mine.

Written by Steven Lee Olsen, Robert Ellis Orrall & Angelo Petraglia

Grade: D+

Listen: I Will Stand By You

Buy:

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Single Review: Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”

Few mainstream singles this year have displayed the fine musicianship of “As She’s Walking Away,” the first single off the Zac Brown Band’s upcoming album, You Get What You Give. Sparsely produced, the song leaves ample breathing room for the equally gorgeous fiddle and full harmonies to make their respective impacts. More notably, the song is ripe with earnestness, from the sweet interplay between Brown and Jackson to the charming, honest performances. Even the energizing melody feels sincere.

In many ways, “As She’s Walking Away” is reminiscent of the shuffling, understated ditties about life’s little truths that soared in the 90s, many of which belonged to Jackson himself. But make no mistake: this is a distinct Zac Brown Band product, marked by the band’s signature charisma and Brown’s effective (and underrated) vocals. Just as he adds a layer of soul to “Highway 20 Ride,” Brown brings a spot-on, fresh vigor to this song, a delightful complement to Jackson’s even-keeled confidence. The two couldn’t play their roles better as the older Jackson coolly nudges Brown to ask the girl he’s been eying to dance.

Underneath this simplistic story, though, is a deeper nugget of wisdom, outlined in the chorus: “May have lost this battle/live to fight another day” suggests that life isn’t necessarily about that one defining moment, but rather, a vignette of moments that become what you make of them. There are no spectacular details about the girl in “As She’s Walking Away” because the pay-off isn’t so much the dance as it is the reward of taking that chance – or rolling the dice, as they put it.

Here’s to hoping the rest of You Get What You Give is as well-crafted as its debut single.

Written by Zac Brown & Wyatt Durrette

Grade: B+

Listen: As She’s Walking Away

Buy:

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Single Review: Rascal Flatts, “Why Wait”

Maybe it’s a product of their new home, Big Machine Records, or maybe it’s their way of responding to the monster success of Lady Antebellum – but the Flatts boys are back on their game.

For five years and three albums, we’ve heard only a watered-down brand of Rascal Flatts: their signature tight harmonies have been masked by overblown production, and their typically well-crafted melodies have seemed stale. Their music as of late has generally lacked the spark that turned their early 2000s hits into gems.

Not so with “Why Wait,” a tasteful, vintage-Flatts track marked by an infectious rush of joy. By staying true to what it is –a slice of pop-country, nothing more, nothing less– the song gets everything right, from its effective, building melody to its surprisingly balanced arrangement (Dann Huff: is that you?). Gary LeVox does a particularly skillful job of following the emotional groove of the song, a welcome change from his usual tact of using vocal gymnastics to force emotion into a song.

And for all the untamed fervor that comes with convincing someone to elope, there’s some real meat behind the sentiment of “Why Wait”: “Love don’t need a reason/Baby I don’t see how I could love you any more than I do today/So why wait?” That’s not irrational fluff; that’s honesty, and LeVox sells it with exhilarating conviction.

My favorite thing about the Flatts boys has always been their shameless pride in their artistry. They own it. They embrace it. They enjoy it. And when they’re able to pair that kind of genuineness with a quality record, the result is wholly rewarding.

Written by Neil Thrasher, Tom Shapiro & Jimmy Yeary

Grade: B+

Listen: Why Wait

Buy:

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iPod Check: Back to the Nineties

To continue Country Universe’s celebration of the nineties, I’m throwing in a nineties edition of iPod Check. The rules are simple: put your iPod on shuffle and list the first ten songs to pop up that were released in the nineties. They don’t have to be singles, and they don’t have to be country.

I’ve listed my ten songs below. Share yours in the comments, and check your shame at the door! (I’ve got 1994’s “Hakuna Matata” on my iPod, but sadly, it did not come up in shuffle.)

1. Sara Evans, “There’s Only One”

2. Michael Jackson, “Remember the Time”

3. Shania Twain, “You Win My Love”

4. Martina McBride, “O Come All Ye Faithful”

5. Dixie Chicks, “Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way?)”

6. Original Broadway Cast of Rent,  “Seasons of Love”

7. Clay Walker, “Live, Laugh, Love”

8. Tracy Chapman, “Give Me One Reason”

9. Alan Jackson, “If I Had You”

10. Blues Traveler, “Run-Around”

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Single Review: Darius Rucker, “Come Back Song”

There’s a small pool of mainstream country artists whose careers I watch intently, patiently awaiting the day their material catches up to their incredible talent. Darius Rucker falls into this pool, but if “Come Back Song” is any indication of his sophomore album, due out in October, it’ll be another few years before he hits that magic moment.

Sonically, “Come Back Song” is refreshingly groovy with a mostly acoustic arrangement, and the melody in the chorus has some serious spice. That’s enough context for Rucker, a skilled and intuitive vocalist, to pump life into the song. He brings to it a rich performance  and a blast of personality, much like he’s done with all of his previous singles.

But I ask of you, lady readers: would you take back a man who apologizes with the words “my bad” and “get back,” or who laments the fact that he has to now sleep alone on his king-sized bed? Would you even take him seriously? Surely not after he compares himself to the “backside of a mule.”

It’s hilarious and disheartening all at once.

Written by Darius Rucker & Chris Stapleton

Grade: C+

Listen: Come Back Song

Buy:

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Single Review: Lady Antebellum, “Our Kind of Love”

Lady Antebellum’s key strength is delivering gritty, tangible emotion that can breathe life into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.

“Our Kind of Love” has no such redeeming quality. Scott and Kelley’s performance is uncharacteristically dull, lacking the kind of chemistry and energy needed to sell a song about loving with reckless abandon. The lyrics are trite to the point of silly (“You wear a smile like a summer sky just shining down on me and you”) and unlike most songs in the trio’s catalogue, the production and melody are uninspired and oddly disconnected from the artists. And while I still think Scott’s vocal imperfections do more as a whole to help than hurt her, I have no tolerance for the dissonance you hear in the third chorus on “never knowing what we’re gonnna find,” especially in a studio recording. To that point, the whole song feels a little bit like a half-hearted demo.

The most frustrating thing about this choice of single is the oversight of three far superior up-tempo songs on Need You Now, the best of which is “Perfect Day”. In it, the trio skillfully blends the breezy joy missing from “Our Kind of Love” with just a tinge of wistfulness – a delicious, potent combination. More of that and less of this, please.

Written by Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott & Busbee

Grade: C-

Listen: “Our Kind of Love”

Buy:

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2010 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

Nashville takes over Vegas this Sunday for the 45th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, and it could actually be an interesting night. Eight acts are vying for Entertainer of the Year, one trio is poised to sweep the show, and a certain artist’s performance may solidify her as Music Row’s Lady Gaga. We’ll find out for sure Sunday at 8 pm Eastern, but in the meantime, we’ve picked ‘em and predicted ‘em. Sound off in the comments below.

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley – Tara
  • George Strait – Kevin
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: While I suspect that this will be the end of her impressive awards show victory lap, Swift should easily win this award. Does she deserve it? Probably. If I was an ACM voter (traditional member or willing to go vote online), I guess that I’d vote for George Strait, though my favorite among those with a real shot at this is Carrie Underwood.

Leeann: I predict Swift, though I don’t know if the backlash against her will thwart my prediction. Then again, the fan voting debacle will likely still work in her favor. I’ll throw my personal vote to Zac Brown Band, since I’ve really dug their live performances that I’ve seen on television. They seem like natural entertainers.

Dan: Fan-voted = Taylor Swift, with a possible Underwood repeat. But Swift hasn’t been as interesting post-Grammys. So I’ll also go with our resident grassroots heroes, ZBB.

Tara: One of the most rewarding aspects of being a five-year Underwood fan has been watching her stage presence gradually become as killer as her vocals, resulting in a powerful combination. I’d love for this to be properly recognized, and rationale seems pointless now that the EOTY race is a glorified internet fan war…but I can’t ignore that Underwood spent most of 2009 off stage. I’m going with Paisley.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley – Tara, Dan, Leeann
  • Darius Rucker
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban – Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann
  • Darius Rucker – Dan
  • George Strait – Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan: It feels like Paisley’s winning streak may be just about up, which is a shame, since this year has actually been stronger material-wise for him than the years for which he’s won. Honestly, as much as I hate to say it, Jason Aldean had a bigger year than any of these guys.

Tara: Paisley and Strait were the only two who impressed me in 2009, and Paisley’s material feels fresher and more interesting. But I agree with Dan that his winning streak has probably run its course, so I’ll go out on a limb and say Strait will be the one to edge him out.

Kevin: I agree with Dan but suspect that there isn’t another nominee with enough momentum to upset the status quo in this race. If I’m wrong, I hope it’s because Urban or Strait pull it off.

Leeann: I think Paisley just might have another year of winning left in him.

Top Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann
  • Reba McEntire – Kevin
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara
  • Lee Ann Womack

Will Win:

  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift – Dan
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara
  • Lee Ann Womack

Tara: It’s really a toss-up between Lambert and Underwood for me, with personal preference and investment swaying me towards the latter artist. I’m eerily optimistic that the ACM voters will stick to the truest sense of the award’s title – as I adamantly believe they should – and sidestep Swift.

Kevin: This is the first time in my twenty years as a country fan that I’m rooting for Reba McEntire to win Female Vocalist, though I wanted her to win Entertainer every year she was nominated in the nineties. Consider me smitten by “Consider Me Gone.” As always, I’d be happy with an Underwood victory and I wouldn’t mind Womack or Lambert, either. I’m guessing that Lambert will actually win, given her widespread appeal among ACM voters and the fact that she’s had a big radio and retail breakthrough during the voting period.

Leeann: The Academy seems to like Lambert pretty well. Since this has been her biggest year to date, it’s hard for me to imagine that she won’t be rewarded for it.

Dan: I’m going to cautiously predict that Swift’s CMA win will carry over to ACM, but Underwood has been reliably successful, and Lambert’s got stronger momentum than ever. The latter is also my favorite mainstream act at the moment, so it’s a no-brainer that I’m rooting for her to take it.

Top Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Randy Rogers Band
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Little Big Town
  • Randy Rogers Band
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

Leeann: Lady A has the hype and momentum that makes it impossible for me to bet against them. I’d sure love to see ZBB prove me wrong ,though.

Dan: Little Big Town’s new single has me thinking I’ll probably be gunning for them again soon, but for now, I’m with Zac Brown Band.

Tara: I have a feeling the coming year(s) is going to be Lady Antebellum’s year o’ accolades, so I’d like to see the equally deserving Zac Brown Band pick this one up while they still have some momentum.

Kevin: This is becoming a habit. Predict LA, root for ZBB. This was so much easier when the Dixie Chicks were in the running.

Top Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Kevin, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn – Dan, Tara, Leeann
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Kevin

Kevin: A sympathy vote might give B&D one more trophy, but it seems that both the CMA and ACM see this award as one that is passed down from one duo to the next, and not very often at that. I wonder if they will be calling this “The Sugarland Award” like it was once called “The Judds Award” and “The Brooks & Dunn Award.”

Leeann: I’d love to see Joey + Rory win, but I know it wouldn’t actually be fair if they did. So, I’m not officially picking them here. I’m pretty sure this one will go to Brooks & Dunn as a parting gift, though they’d be totally undeserving at this point. Really, Sugarland is probably the duo that makes most sense. It’s just too bad I’m not more personally invested in them, though I’ve warmed up a bit.

Dan: Sugarland have been off the radar since “Joey” trailed off months ago, and I still remember how ACM stuck with Brooks & Dunn that one year even after CMA had passed the torch. So I see the veteran duo winning again in a shrug. I’m indifferent, personally.

Tara: I keep going back on forth on this one. I want Brooks & Dunn to win, but I can’t rationalize it. I think the ACM voters may feel the same.

Top New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Joey + Rory – Kevin, Dan, Tara, Leeann
  • Gloriana

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan – Kevin, Dan
  • Joey + Rory
  • Gloriana – Tara, Leeann

Kevin: It’s categories like this that make me feel out of touch with contemporary country music. I love Joey + Rory, but can’t see them winning. Who’s bigger now, Bryan or Gloriana? I’m taking a guess here.

Leeann: I’m like Kevin. I love Joey + Rory, but don’t imagine they’ll have enough votes to win. So, between Bryan and Gloriana, I’ll flip a coin and predict the latter.

Dan: Given the fan vote, I imagine this award will boil down to whether or not Taylor Swift has been urging her peoples to back Gloriana like she did with the AMAs. She hasn’t tweet-commanded it, and that’s as much research as I’m willing to do on the subject. So I’ll go with Bryan.

Tara: My best guess is that there’s enough fan overlap for Swift’s votes to lift Gloriana to victory.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
  • Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert, RevolutionTara, Dan, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood, Play OnKevin
  • Zac Brown Band, The Foundation

Will Win:

  • Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
  • Lady Antebellum, Lady AntebellumKevin, Dan, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, RevolutionTara
  • Carrie Underwood, Play On
  • Zac Brown Band, The Foundation

Kevin: I’m expecting a Lady Antebellum sweep. They’re just ridiculously popular right now. But I could see any one of these five winning. I revisit the Underwood set more than any of the others.

Leeann: I can’t ignore Lady A’s popularity right now, but I’d love to see Lambert be recognized for one of my two favorite albums on this list, Paisley’s album being the other one.

Dan: Revolution doesn’t have the punch or consistency of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but it’s got some brains, and I like that. I’m expecting a Lady A sweep too, though.

Tara: If my co-bloggers are right about a Lady A sweep, I’ll be pleased to see the trio’s underrated debut album take this award. But frankly, every album in this line-up is substantial, authentic and layered. I’m backing Revolution because it’s the sharpest of them all, created by the artist who has the firmest grasp on her potential.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” – Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
  • David Nail, “Red Light”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Toes” – Dan
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” – Tara, Dan, Kevin, Leeann
  • Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
  • David Nail, “Red Light”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”

Kevin: There’s only one career-changing single in the running here.

Leeann: Ditto to Kevin. But also, it’s my favorite in terms of melody.

Dan: I swear I’m not just being a spoilsport. I know “Need You Now” sounds great, and in many respects it was the single of the year. But I can’t get past how boring Lady A’s lyrics always are. There’s just not a single original phrase in that song, and it puts a damper on my experience listening to it.

Tara: It’s never been my personal favorite, but “Need You Now” finds the trio excelling at what it does best – honing in on specific, raw emotion and expressing it potently and believably. In a category as weak as this one, and with a performance as haunting as Scott’s, “Need You Now” is the clear winner.

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Cowboy Casanova” – Mike Elizondo, Brett James & Carrie Underwood
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • “People Are Crazy” – Bobby Braddock & Troy Jones
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert
  • “You Belong With Me” – Liz Rose & Taylor Swift – Dan

Will Win:

  • “Cowboy Casanova” – Mike Elizondo, Brett James & Carrie Underwood
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Dan
  • “People Are Crazy” – Bobby Braddock & Troy Jones
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert
  • “You Belong With Me” – Liz Rose & Taylor Swift – Tara, Kevin, Leeann

Kevin: I like the writing of “Need You Now” more than the performance, even if it’s just a college dorm knock-off of “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” I range from indifference to active dislike for the rest of these entries.

Leeann: I think Lady A will sweep these awards, but I doubt that Swift will walk away with nothing. Since she’s most lauded for her songwriting skills, I predict that the Academy will continue the trend in this category.

Dan: “You Belong with Me” combines a memorable melody with telling details. Subject matter notwithstanding, it’s the only one of these songs I take seriously as a composition.

Tara: Unlike Kevin, I think “Need You Now” is better performed than written, but it’s still a great composition. I wouldn’t mind if Swift took this award, though.

Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Randy Houser, “Boots On”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” - Kevin
  • Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me” – Dan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Randy Houser, “Boots On”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me” – Dan, Tara, Kevin

Tara: The “You Belong With Me” video is brilliant in that it embodies everything that makes Swift relevant and appealing. I just really wish Paisley’s video had been better directed, because its message is so compelling.

Dan: That Swift video is mega-charming. But Lambert’s is a close second.

Kevin: I’m rooting for the only video I don’t reflexively skip past while channel surfing.

Vocal Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton feat. Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”
  • Brooks & Dunn feat. Billy Gibbons, “Honky Tonk Stomp”
  • Carrie Underwood feat. Randy Travis, “I Told You So” – Tara, Kevin, Dan, Leeann
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Jack Ingram with Patty Griffin, “Seeing Stars”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton feat. Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone” – Dan, Tara
  • Brooks & Dunn feat. Billy Gibbons, “Honky Tonk Stomp”
  • Carrie Underwood feat. Randy Travis, “I Told You So” – Kevin, Leeann
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Jack Ingram with Patty Griffin, “Seeing Stars”

Kevin: Nice to see Griffin on the ballot, but “I Told You So” is among both my favorite Underwood and favorite Travis singles.

Leeann: Frankly, I’m not crazy about any of them, as long as the B&D collaboration doesn’t get the token vote.

Dan: Wish I liked “Seeing Stars” more. I’d actually probably go with presumptive favorite “Hillbilly Bone” if the song itself didn’t feel like such a Music Row toss-off. There’s charm in the idea and performances, but again, limp lyrics.

Tara: Underwood and Travis’ collaboration is the strongest and most exquisite of the bunch, but it feels a little like old news, with the news of the day being the inescapable (but nonetheless solid) “Hillbilly Bone.”

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Single Review: Jason Aldean, “Crazy Town”

Look, Nashville’s got its issues. And a song that delves into its yin-yang core of image and art could be interesting, if not entirely original. It could be any combination of honest, clever, biting and entertaining. It could make sense.

Or, it could be sung by Jason Aldean, an artist who’s arguably risen to success not in spite of the industry’s flaws, but because of them.  That’s not to say Aldean hasn’t put in the work to become a multi-platinum recording artist; it’s just that claiming to have conquered the evils of Music Row requires a decent amount of artistic credibility, separate and apart from the mass appeal that drives the careers of many Nashville artists. Aldean has shown glimmers of this, but his legacy thus far is a brand of pulsing country-rock that’s heavy on the production and light on the vocal and lyrical substance. Case in point: “Crazy Town.” The song, then, feels more like an ironic autobiography than a commentary.

But put artist context aside, and “Crazy Town” still fails to serve its purpose. A tribute to a love-hate relationship only works if you’re able to show that the love is worth the hate – that there’s a pay-off somewhere amidst the craziness. So what makes the years of free concerts, smoky bars, and “bang, bang, bang”-ing what one can only hope is a guitar worth it? A “honky tonk destiny,” sings Aldean, and we’re left to conjure our own image of the deep fulfillment such a destiny offers. The blanks certainly aren’t filled in by Aldean’s performance, which trades any specific emotion for smothering, empty aggression.

Any way you look at it, “Crazy Town” is an insubstantial miss.

Written by Rodney Clawson & Brett Jones

Grade: D

Listen: Crazy Town

Buy:

 

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