World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward (more…)
A tense uncertainty hung over 2009, as the world waited to see what would become of a new American president, an economy in crisis, and a full deck of divisive social issues.
Popular music tends to respond to such charged societal circumstances in one of two ways: by confronting the issues and their ramifications head-on, or by cranking up the escapism to drown it all out for a bit. 2009 leaned heavily on the latter course, as the thumping sex-pop of Lady GaGa and the fluttery boy-centrism of Taylor Swift dominated the airwaves and the registers, offering listeners a chance to believe, if only for a few passing moments, that the world was as simple as a ride on a “disco stick” or the defeat of an evil cheer captain.
The tensions were certainly felt in country music, whose mainstream attempted to rally its casual fans against all the fallout by drumming up endless brain-optional reassurances of hometown value, God and gender identity, mostly with the volume at an attention-forcing 11 and the lyrical shrewdness averaging about 3. It made for a remarkably accessible year for that mainstream, but one which fewer fans ultimately cared much about, neutered as it was by its attempts to appease – rather than inspire – the mass public.
But let’s be positive: there were exceptions. For all its white lies and willful ignorances, country music in 2009 still told a great deal of truth. For all the loudness and brashness, the actual chart smashes – “Then”, “You Belong with Me”, “Big Green Tractor”, “Need You Now”, “Consider Me Gone” – were mostly non-exclamatory songs, songs that reflect a cherishing of simple, core ideals: Stability. Support. Romance. Appreciation. And of course, the alternative and independent artists hidden under country’s big tree continued to flourish in their own way, protected by the stability of the music’s thick roots and a less-tainted appreciation for its craft. Kinda like in the first two thirds of Avatar.
The countdown beginning below – our final country music retrospective of the past year and decade – contains albums from every spot on that big tree, from superstars squatting on the apples up top to upstart little sprouts on the middle branches to the legends holding down the withered bark at the base. It has been compiled by combination of equally weighed top-ten lists by Kevin, Leeann, William, Tara and myself, and features commentary from all five of us. Part 2 will come tomorrow, along with our individual singles and albums data. As always, we hope you enjoy the countdown and invite you to share your own top albums in the comments, along with any thoughts you may have as we close the book on 2009, if not on all the issues it brought forth.
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#20 One to the Heart, One to the Head Gretchen Peters & Tom Russell
Gretchen Peters is best-known as a singer-songwriter, and a successful one at that, having penned the CMA. Song Of The Year “Independence Day” in 1994 and scored a top five hit when Faith Hill recorded her song, “The Secret of Life” in 1999. It is surprising then that, with her seventh album, One to the Heart, One to the Head, she and Tom Russell would release an album consisting almost completely of covers. Reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s penchant for relaxed delivery, One to the Heart, One to the Head flows with subtle emotion and western imagery. – William Ward (more…)
Can’t say that I’m loving country music in its 2009 version, though my steadfast allegiance to the genre runs deep, so I hold out hope as a new decade is about to begin. Tonight, I’m recommending ten tracks from albums that were released this year. I’ve avoided singles so there’s some sense of discovery. I look forward to discovering music that I missed through the comments!
Recommend Ten Tracks: 2009 Edition
Lorrie Morgan, “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall” from A Moment in Time
I love the effect that was created by having this album recorded live in the studio. It’s like hearing her in a smoky nightclub. This is by far my favorite track on the album, a loser’s lament that was quite worthy of revival.
Aaron Tippin, “Prisoner of the Highway” from In Overdrive
He already has the default voice of the overworked working man, so his world-weary vocal is a perfect fit for this song about an imprisoned by the freedom of the road.
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” from Revolution
I find her new album to be a bit unwieldy as a whole, but I love this particular track about a woman asking the new owner of her childhood home to allow her some time alone with the place that raised her. Having just sold our family home of thirty years, this song has been resonating with me, as we truly can’t go home again.
Todd Snider, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)” from The Excitement Plan
The wry and witty folkster at his most wry and witty, yet still spilling out nuggets of brilliance from the corner of his mouth.
Carrie Underwood, “Someday When I Stop Loving You” from Play On
Don’t count me among the folks that wish that Underwood would just stick to simple songs like this with quiet arrangements that showcase her voice at its most tender. I like my pop-country and want some more, thank you very much. But for those of you who just want to hear that voice and the barest of accompaniment, this track is golden.
Patty Loveless, “When the Last Curtain Falls” from Mountain Soul II
Given the preference, I’ll take my Patty Loveless down from the mountain. I love that pure country voice contrasted against electric instrumentation. But the best reason to listen to Patty Loveless is to hear her wrap her voice around complicated and truly adult material that reflects the reality of life and love. This track could stand toe to toe with the best of her material to date.
Tim McGraw, “If I Died Today” from Southern Voice
It’s not nearly as accessible an assessment on one’s own morality as “Live Like You Were Dying”, but it’s a heck of a lot more believable than sixteen seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
Love and Theft, “Slow Down” from World Wide Open
He’s talking to life and it’s a sadly beautiful conversation.
Holly Williams, “Birds” from Here With Me
This song is hauntingly gorgeous, a requiem for a dying love and a wishful hope for the new love that has yet to come.
Keith Urban, “Thank You” from Defying Gravity
Urban’s explorations of his demons have produced some of his best tracks, like “You’re Not My God”, and this one is a winner, a love letter to the wife that helped pull him away from the precipice.