It’s about time somebody did a Favorite Songs feature on Shania, isn’t it? I was going to save this article for after we finished covering Shania in our Retro Single Review series, but I decided I just couldn’t wait that long.
Her astounding commercial success speaks for itself, as does her heavy impact on popular music, but I remain of the opinion that Shania Twain doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the artist she was – as a songwriter, or as a vocalist. Her songs were clever, sassy, fun, and often tapped into deep wells of substance underneath all the catchiness. Her distinct perspective was revolutionary for her time. As an interpretive singer, she had a strong knack for finishing off her lyrical creations through her nuanced, dynamically layered performances. Twain's remarkable talent combined with Mutt Lange's musical vision made her one of the biggest record sellers in history. Ever since her heyday, countless young female stars have attempted to emulate her, but the magic Twain herself created with her delicious pop-country confections remains unreplicated.
I tend to become obsessed with one favorite Shania Twain song, and then move rapidly to another, so it’s not easy to assess which songs are my all-time favorites. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll be doing a lot of second-guessing after this article runs (though I’m fairly confident that my top three selections are set in stone). At any rate, it will still be a fun look back on all the memorable tunes Shania gave us over the years, while also shining a spotlight on a few lesser-known tracks that we might have forgotten about. As always, feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.
“Party for Two” (with Billy Currington)
Greatest Hits – 2004
I have at times referred to this song as a “guilty pleasure,” but then I realized that it’s such a great fun record that I don’t really feel guilty at all about loving it. Silly “sexy in your socks” line aside, “Party for Two” is fun flirty tune that Twain and Currington sell with charm and enthusiasm. Though more of a pop song than a country song, “Party for Two” is best heard in its country mix, as the pop version with Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath tries a little too hard to sound pop, demonstrating that Shania often sounded best when still keeping a toe in country territory. “Party for Two” served as Twain’s last Top 10 country hit to date.
“Blues Eyes Crying In the Rain” (with Willie Nelson)
Willie Nelson & Friends – Live and Kickin’ – 2003
Twain’s pop sensibilities certainly have no ill effect on her ability to tackle a traditional country classic with grace and ease, as evidenced by her beautiful cover of this beloved Willie Nelson hit, accompanied by the man himself.
Up! – 2002
Though largely known for her lighthearted frivolous side, “Ka-Ching!” – a deft takedown of commercial materialism – shows that Twain was still perfectly capable of addressing relevant social themes.
“It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing”
Up! – 2002
Though known for her positivity, Twain could still be surprisingly effective at conveying heartbreak. Such is demonstrated by this Top 20 hit in which the protagonist strives to maintain optimism as she moves on after a breakup. Still, the title hook shows that her heavy emotional pain remains constant.
“Love Gets Me Every Time”
Come On Over – 1997
Hey, if you’re going to write a silly, cheesy song, you might as well do it thoroughly and shamelessly. “Love Gets Me Every Time” combines a hillbilly catchphrase with an unshakable two-step-friendly musical hook to make a delightful ditty that just never seems to get old.
“Coat of Many Colors” (with Alison Krauss & Union Station)
Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton – 2003
It’s easy to see how Twain’s own impoverished upbringing might give her a special connection to this classic song, and to its timeless theme of love and family being worth far more than material possessions. Indeed, “One is only poor only if they choose to be.” Twain delivers the revered Dolly Parton lyric with authenticity and deep sincerity, while the unique touch of Alison Krauss’s backing vocal elevates the record further.
“You Win My Love”
The Woman In Me – 1995
Written by Twain’s then-husband/producer Mutt Lange, this is the only song on Twain’s last three studio albums that she didn’t have a hand in writing. The lyric is full of clever automobile-related metaphors, while the driving arrangement and the “Rev it up, rev it up ‘til your engine blows” hook practically beg to be blasted out one’s car windows.
“That Don’t Impress Me Much”
Come On Over – 1997
The sentiment is clear: Shania Twain is not impressed by guys who are overly impressed with themselves. One part sing-along, one part spoken word, with some steel guitar and cowbell hooks thrown in, it all adds up to one heck of a fun record.
Desperate Housewives soundtrack – 2005
It may have been recorded for a soundtrack, but make no mistake about it: A song that compares finding the right man to finding the ideal footwear, noting that “Some you can’t afford, some are real cheap, some are good for bummin’ around on the beach” is classic Shania. A clever song loaded with humorous double entendres, “Shoes” is good for a chuckle any day.
“(If You’re Not In It for Love) I’m Outta Here!”
The Woman In Me –1995
The dance-friendly beat is hooky and infectious, but the content runs deeper. At the heart of the song is a confident female protagonist who refuses to be taken advantage of. If the guy’s not in it for love… she’s outta here. This chart-topping hit established Twain’s distinct songwriting point of view, while helping to power her The Woman In Me album to 12x platinum sales.
“I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”
Up! – 2002
Not really much to say about this one except that, as far as great pop-country hooks go, they don’t come much catchier than this.
Up! – 2002
A kiss-off tune that’s not nearly as bitter as such songs usually are, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. Twain almost seems to casually enjoy the moment of letting her no-good ex know that she’s done being mistreated by him. She admits “I miss you now and then, but would I do it all again?” The band abruptly stops playing as if to await her answer: “Nah!” Ouch.
“Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)”
The Woman In Me – 1995
It’s a shame this song didn’t make a bigger dent in history. I’ve always considered it one of Twain’s most subtly moving performance as the female narrator mourns the deteriorating state of her marriage; while the song offers no full resolution of the story, save for Twain hoping “If we could only find that feeling once again… If we could only change the way the story ends.”
“Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)”
Come On Over – 1997
Because it makes me happy. So there.
“Leaving Is the Only Way Out”
The Woman In Me – 1995
The only song on any of Twain’s albums on which she takes sole writer’s credit, this is one of her best songs, as well as one of her countriest. The refrain “If cryin’ is the only way into your arms, then leavin’ is the only way out” is nothing short of heartbreaking.
“You’ve Got a Way”
Come On Over – 1997
Though I would recommend steering clear of the hokey Notting Hill pop remix, “You’ve Got a Way” remains one of Twain’s most beautifully understated, sincere performances on record, with the acoustic arrangement allowing her to positively shine.
“Forever and For Always”
Up! – 2002
A gem of a love song with an effortlessly endearing melody and a deeply heartfelt performance on Twain’s part. Though the song was remixed into an international pop smash, it remains best heard in its country form, in which Twain’s sentiments are driven home by subtle, beautiful strains of banjo and steel.
“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under”
The Woman In Me – 1995
Right out of the starting gate, Shania’s first major hit, and first Lange-produced single release, delivers a powerful punch of her priceless personality. With a bouncy fiddle-driven production, silly rhyme schemes involving the names of the cheating lover’s mistresses, and the delightfully cheesy bridge (“So next time you’re lonely/ Don’t call on me/ Try the operator/ Maybe she’ll be free”), “Whose Bed” is both shamelessly campy and tons of fun as a result.
“Is There Life After Love”
The Woman In Me – 1995
A rare thematic venture on Twain’s part to the wrong side of cheating. She regrets her tryst, but regrets coming forward and confessing it even more, bemoaning “You gave me forgiveness, but you could not forget/ I should never have told you what I’ll live to regret.”
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
Come On Over – 1997
Well of course! Who could leave out one of Shania’s most energetic, free-spirited, entertaining performances of her career?
“Dance with the One That Brought You”
Shania Twain – 1993
An early Twain record from the days before she was singing her own self-written material, “Dance with the One That Brought You” marries twain’s beautifully nuanced vocal performance to a charming Gretchen Peters lyric and a gorgeous piano and steel-driven waltz of an arrangement. It just might be one of Twain’s best moments on record, and yet Mutt Lange had absolutely nothing to do with it. Who’da guessed?
“You’re Still the One”
Come On Over – 1997
I love this song so, so much. An unabashedly sincere vocal, shimmering production, and a lyric that encapsulates the firm commitment, pride in having overcome obstacles, and deep, genuine love of a couple that has remained together against all odds and expectations. While I’ve long believed that commercial success does not equate to quality, I still say that this song was a massive hit because it deserved to be a massive hit. A timeless, universal sentiment that touched pop fans and country fans alike, “You're Still the One” is pure pop-country perfection.
“No One Needs to Know”
The Woman In Me – 1995
The best country songs are those that rely, not on words themselves, but on the feelings that the words and melodies tap into. “No One Needs to Know” absolutely radiates with the giddiness and joy of a newfound love that only the narrator herself is to know of (which suggests that Taylor Swift is not kidding when she cites Twain as a major influence). The infectious, stripped down acoustic arrangement, complete with dobro and steel chords, is a pure and simple delight.
Up! – 2002
Twain has long been known for her incessant positivity – a consistent thread that ran throughout the Come On Over and Up! albums in particular, but was nowhere more concentrated than on the title track of Up! It comes as a fist-pumping pop-anthem on the red disc; a sprightly banjo rocker on the green disc. “Up!” is a hugely lovable ball of energy either way. The production pulses with urgency as it underscores Twain’s spirited performance. No matter what it is that’s got you down, Twain shouts “Up! Up! Up! There’s no way but up from here!” until she has you believing it too.
“Any Man of Mine”
The Woman In Me – 1995
Is there any other song in her catalog that so thoroughly sums up everything one could love about Shania Twain? The energy of this performance leaps out your speakers, along with boot-stomping rhythm, the awesome fiddling, and all the signature Twain wit in the humorous lyrics. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that the line dance breakdown just might be my favorite part.
It was a bold artistic move and a substantial risk at the time of its release, yet it helped blaze a trail that female country artists are still following today. But even when bringing it down to a personal, individual level, there are simply few other Shania Twain songs, hits or not, that put a skip in my step like this one does. Shania's cheeky delivery makes me smile. The lyrics make me laugh. The beat makes me want to dance. Any way you look at it, this song hits me just right.
The critic in me respects it. The fan in me adores it. Now if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for some kicking, turning, and stomp-stomping…
Song of the Year: Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth, “Rolling in the Deep”
Best New Artist: Bon Iver
“Best” Country Album: Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
Best Pop Vocal Performance: Adele, “Someone Like You”
Best Country Solo Performance: Taylor Swift, “Mean”
Best Country Duo/Group Performance: The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”
Best Country Song: Taylor Swift, “Mean”
Best Americana Album: Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman
Best Bluegrass Album: Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane
Best Folk Album: The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
- – - – -
11:33 Ben: I had a blast. Big thanks to Dan for doing a bang-up job leading the live blog, and thanks to everyone who partipated in the comments. See y’all at ACM season!
11:32 Tara: Thanks for hanging out, y’all! Tonight’s show kind of grew on me, with its surprising focus on the music (how quaint). And lest we forget: when Adele wins, we all win.
11:27 Dan: And we close the show with a spirited “Carry that Weight” with Paul McCartney, The Boss, Dave Grohl, and a bunch of guitar dudes I’m ashamed to say I don’t recognize. Slow night, but some really nice moments!
11:24 Dan: “A little bit o’ snot” is literally the best thing I’ve ever heard in an acceptance speech. I don’t know how you could hate Adele.
11:22 Ben: Does Adele need to come up with her own version of the Surprised Face?
11:21 Dan: So many upsets tonight!
Album of the Year: Adele, 21
11:20 Ben: I love the chirpy way Diana Ross talks.
11:13 Ben: “Still to come: Will Diana Ross present the Grammy for Album of the Year to Adele…” or to someone who is not Adele. Gotta love how they at least attempt to build supense.
11:11 Ben: “Thank you so much. This is ridiculous.” Oh, how she makes me smile.
Record of the Year: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
11:1o Ben: Go ahead, Lady A. Remind us of all the undeserved awards you won last year.
11:10 Dan: I wish I had liked that song more on first listen. Nicki’s a great talent, but that felt self-indulgent.
11:10 Ben: It’s…interesting.
11:08 Tara: From a visual standpoint, this is the coolest performance of the night. Jury’s still out on the song. I’m kind of scared?
11:06 Dan: I can’t believe the Grammys let Nicki Minaj get away with this “Roman’s Revenge” “Exorcism” spectacle. God bless ‘em.
10:53 Ben: Oh gosh. Kill the AutoTune. Please.
10:52 Dan: I have one word to the Grammys for each Chris Brown performance tonight: 1) F*** 2) you.
10:49 Tara: Stunning performance by J Hud. As frustrated as I am with some of the nominations and wins, tonight’s shining moments have come in the form of naked voices – and that’s really refreshing.
10:46 Ben: So genuine. So sincere. So…wow.
10:44 Ben: Jennifer Hudson is the right person for the job.
10:43 Dan: Jennifer Hudson’s Whitney tribute starting now. Looking and sounding awesome on “I Will Always Love You.”
10:36 Ben: He’s clearly putting on no airs here. Very down-to-earth.
10:35 Dan: I was rooting for Nicki, but this is well deserved. Justin Vernon is the real deal.
Best New Artist: Bon Iver
10:33 Ben: The first hour was blah, but this show has picked up a heck of a lot of steam. I am loving this Bennett-Underwood duet.
10:33 Tara: Carrie proving why she won this award five years ago. That voice.
10:31 Dan: Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood on “It Had to Be You” now. Quality, as you’d expect. I have to wonder how these old-guy-young-girl duets usually manage to avoid sounding creepy.
10:26 Ben: The Adele performance and the Glen Campbell tribute are, so far, this year’s “Grammy moments.”
10:23 Tara: Very sincere, sweet tribute. If we ignore the Lady A win, country music is cleaning up tonight.
10:22 Ben: My heart has a happy.
10:22 Dan: Glen sounds lively and buoyant, rephrasing “Rhinestone Cowboy” as a career retrospective and advice to the young ones. And between-line commentary. Just wonderful.
10:21 Dan: Blake Shelton does justice to “Southern Nights.” But here comes the man!
10:20 Ben: I think they’re sounding really great tonight. Love hearing that mandolin!
10:17 Dan: Thank goodness – they’re sounding nice and string-bandish on “Gentle on My Mind.” I usually find Kimberly’s vocal style a little shouty, so it’s good they’re performing a song with a quick, percussive feel.
10:09 Tara: Adele looking as gorgeous as she sounds. The nuance in her performance is just incredible.
10:09 Ben: Adele is looking great tonight. That new haircut suits her well. Oh yeah… sounding great too.
10:08 Ben:At least we can enjoy the long-awaited Adele performance as I’m reeling from the Lady A victory.
10:04 Ben: I already knew that Lady A’s new music was ovverrated as heck, but honestly… This isn’t even funny anymore.
9:59 Tara: I told you guys I had a feeling about this. What a disappointment, and what a waste of sheer talent.
9:59 Kevin: They must own the accounting firm that tabulates the votes.
9:59 Ben: Oh gosh. This is the part where I start throwing things at the TV.
9:59 Dan: AGGGGH
“Best” “Country” Album: Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
9:58 Ben: Country Album now. Let it be anyone but Lady A.
9:57 Tara: Katy Perry reminding me that I’ll take sleepy performances by legends over dynamic performances by substance-less pop stars any day.
9:57 Ben: Still lip-synching, I think.
9:55 Well, this second song maybe sounds a little more raw and pitchy. Maybe it was just on “E.T.”
9:54 And the most obvious lip-synching of the night: Katy Perry.
9:52 Ben: Happy face for Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth!
Song of the Year: Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth, “Rolling in the Deep”
9:37 Ben: I hate how the host network away has to stick the stars of their current programs in random spots just like ABC does with the CMAs. I know they want to drive ratings, but it seems to take the focus off the music.
9:50 Ben: I must have missed the “OMG!” face. Either that or I’m so used to it that it goes by without notice.
9:46 The Taylor Swift “OMG!” face returns. It was so ridiculous that you had to laugh.
9:46 Ben: My favorite performance so far by a long shot. A wonderful and unabashedly fun performance.
9:44 Tara: A lovely 60 seconds of “Barton Hollow” followed by Taylor Swift’s best live performance in a while on one of 2011’s best country singles. Country music victory on the Grammys. Wonder what Lefsetz is thinking right now?
9:42 This is kind of surreal, seeing her perform the song that was probably inspired by the backlash over her last Grammy performance.
9:42 Ben:It’s great to see a Taylor Swift performance that actually feels representative of the country music genre.
9:41 Ben: Yay! It’s our jam! “Mean”!
9:40 Ben: I can’t get over how much John Paul White looks like Johnny Depp.
9:38 Ben: Finally! The Civil Wars are here to restore order.
Best R&B Album: Chris Brown, F.A.M.E.
9:34 Paul McCartney crooning some very Valentine’s-Day-ish song. The Grammys are determined to send us to an early sleep.
9:35 Tara: I’m so in, Dan. I can’t even pinpoint why the show is dragging so much – the performances haven’t been awful.
9:31 It’s only an hour and a half in and I think everybody is already super-duper bored. You guys wanna play Never Have I Ever?
9:20 Tara: The Beach Boys make my heart smile. But this is oh so sleepy…
9:20 Foster the People are faring slightly better with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but…this could be any bar band, really.
9:18 Maroon 5 start off the Beach Boys tribute/reunion with a rather tepid “Surfer Girl.” They need to turn up Adam Levine’s mic, but this just isn’t the right song choice, either.
9:15 Terrific acceptance speech from Krohl about keeping music organic and craft-centered.
Best Rock Performance: Foo Fighters, “Walk”
9:12 However it ends up going, I’m really excited to see the Glen Campbell tribute. Really cool of the Grammys to honor him and his music on the telecast.
9:09 Tara: Y’all, I paid more attention to the countrified Chipotle commercial than anything on the show so far. True story.
From Twitter: Have a Pavlovian response to Coldplay. Gotta go fail to make out with a gay guy in my dorm room. Bye.@JillMorris
9:01 Tara: Chris Brown: 0, Rihanna: 1. No?
8:59 Kevin: Rihanna’s Tina Turner look is a brilliant way to acknowledge Brown’s presence on the show.
8:58 Whatever your feelings about Rihanna’s music, she usually sounds really solid live.
8:52 Wasn’t wild about the audio job on that Foos performance, but it’s great to see they’re still on top of their game. Dave Grohl really is an icon.
8:48 Jack Black introducing the Foo Fighters is just the injection of life this show needs after that sleepy duet.
8:45 Ben: I like “Don’t You Wanna Stay” for what it is, but I don’t like the way it sounds in a live setting. I have an acoustic version in my iTunes, and I so much prefer listening to it in that form.
8:42 Ben: Yeah, leave Kelly’s mic on. Turn Jason’s off. Works for me.
8:41 Kevin: For the blog: I think they turned off Jason’s mic. Thanks for that.
8:41 Tara: “Don’t You Wanna Stay” isn’t an awful representation of country music on the Grammys, I suppose. I just. Don’t. Get. Jason Aldean.
8:39 I like “Don’t You Wanna Stay” but this performance does have a little of that “Ooo is that paint drying over there?” quality.
8:37 Ben: Yay, Reba! Nice little speech about how music brings people together.
8:37 Well okay. Hey, Reba’s here!
Best Rap Performance: Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
8:30 Tara: Not particularly impressed by this infamous Chris Brown comeback performance. All I know is Ken Ehrlich’s “victim” statement is deplorable.
8:27 Chris Brown performing now. Have y’all read this yet?
8:25 Ben: I love how she thanks her doctors for bringing her voice back. She’s so adorable.
8:24 Ben: Adele. Surprised? No. Happy? Yes.
Best Pop Vocal Performance:Adele, “Someone Like You”
8:23 Ben:Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt make a very interesting musical pairing. I enjoyed that performance.
8:23 Tara: Love the simplicity of this tribute. And damn, Alicia Keys can wail.
8:22 Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt (!) paying awesome tribute to Etta James with “Sunday Kind of Love.” No complaints here!
8:21 Ben: Snippet of “Something to Talk About.” My toe instantly begins tapping.
8:19 Ben: I’m pumped. Excited for The Civil Wars, and for Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” Very well-deserved wins
8:19 Tara: So I’m pretty pumped about the pre-telecast country awards. Y’all?
8:15 Bruno Mars just wrapped up the second performance. Some nice mention of people getting off their “rich asses.” Hey, did you guys see Nicki Minaj and Japanese Taylor Swift?
8:11 Tara: I’m digging this “family of musicians” theme of the night. “Music is universal and healing,” says LL Cool J – absolutely.
8:10 Ben: That was cool how they showed the clip of Whitney singing “I Will Always Love You.”
8:10 “Are we excited to hear Adele’s beautiful voice tonight?!” They’re not even going to pretend this isn’t her show, y’all.
8:06 L.L. Cool J is the first Grammy host in several years, and he’s kicking off the night in beautiful fashion with a prayer in memory of Whitney. “There is no way around this; there’s been a death in the family.”
8:01 Kicking off with Bruce Springsteen is not the worst idea. Sounding lively on “We Take Care of Our Own.” It’s hard for that sentiment to set off some thoughts about last night’s events – I wonder if the whole night will be like this.
7:51 Watching this 60 Minutes on Adele. It’s really cool. I don’t have anything else to say about it, really – I just missed you guys!
7:05 Howdy, guys. Dan here. I’ll be running the blog tonight, though a lot of us CU writers will be chiming in. After last night’s loss, should be an especially dynamic show. It’s a good occasion to remember what a special gift music is. Show starts at 8 PM/7 Central – hope you can join us!
Whenever we get new music from Alison Krauss & Union Station, there are two things we can generally count on: stellar musicianship, and pure, naturally beautiful vocals. Still, one variable is whether or not the music builds on the group’s tried-and-true musical formula of modern-bluegrass-meets-adult-pop, and moves it forward such that the approach does come across as merely business-as-usual. Last year’s set Paper Airplane contained the usual goods, but suffered to some extent from what one might call the plodding midsection syndrome – a cluster of competent but not particularly memorable tracks bookended by moments of brilliance.
In the context of the album, new single “My Love Follows You Where You Go” comes at a point at which things are just beginning to lose a little shine. It begins on a pedestrian-sounding note with a repetitive melody, and a first verse composed of a string of vague metaphors. But then the chorus comes, and the song gradually hits its stride. The melody rises, and the lyrics take on added specificity. At this point, we learn that the narrator’s lover is leaving her. The chorus rings quietly poignant by isolating the climactic moment in which her signficant other faces the outside world, preparing to depart. Though not attempting to deter him, Krauss’s character expresses grave awareness that her lover will one day “wake up, and the world is cruel and cold,” while simultaneously reaffirming her undying love – both in the titular phrase, and in the resolve of “I won’t pretend that it’s not killing me watching you walk away slow.”
The fourth verse is superfluous, not adding to or detracting from the story in any significant way. As a whole, the song doesn’t necessarily advance the group’s art, but it is an enjoyable variation on a reliable formula. Though the lyric could benefit from added straightforwardness, we are nevertheless left with a very good single, if not a great one.
Joey Feek is not a woman to be trifled with. Blow off a day with her to go fishing with your buddies, and be prepared for a holdout that would make the recent NBA lockout look like a bathroom break. Along with a steel guitar-centric, pure country sound, the song’s humor doesn’t wear thin after repeated listenings. (Are you paying attention, Brad “Camouflage” Paisley?) – Sam Gazdziak
Sweeney showed her vulnerable side with “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but here she reminds us that she still knows how to cut loose and have a good time. With “Drink Myself Single” Sweeney delivers an up-tempo track that’s rowdy and fun, with a jaunty electric-guitar-meets-steel-guitar arrangement.
Better yet, she does it without sacrificing lyrical intelligence, and even gets through the whole thing without having to resort to the crutch of citing ‘Ol’ Hank.’ With a seething undercurrent of hurt and anger echoing George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” “Single” shows an artist with one foot grounded in country music’s storied past, but also with an eye toward the future. – Ben Foster
Mary Was the Marrying Kind
Individual Rankings: #4 – Kevin; #9 – Dan
A song that manages to characterize eight different girls more believably than a lot of songs characterize one. As the narrator runs through his rocky dating history, you get why he wasn’t conditioned to appreciate Mary when they met, and you mourn with him now that he’s learned to too late. – Dan Milliken
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Individual Rankings: #2 – Dan; #10 – Ben
The quiet melancholy of Krauss and Robert Lee Castleman’s previous collaborations seems to come to a crescendo. “Here all alone and still wondering why,” Krauss sings in the soaring chorus, with yet another relationship crumbling around her. She’s resigned to a cycle of build-up and letdown, as lovers’ feelings and her own toss senselessly about. – Dan Milliken
The sassy “Teenage Daughters” was a refreshing departure from the inspirational songs and rangy vocal performances that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Martina McBride by now. Instead, with restrained vocals rife with personality, McBride slyly offers a realistic take on the frustrations of raising teenage daughters with honesty and without sap. More of that please, Martina! – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #2 – Sam; #5 – Leeann
“Home” sounds like a pretty love song. And it is. it’s an emotional love song to America from a respectful Dierks Bentley. As the best love songs tend to go, it realistically acknowledges ups and downs while ultimately declaring the strength of the ties that bind. Best of all, not only is it a love song to America, it manages to be patriotic without the jingoism or chest thumping that has all too often pervades patriotic songs in the last decade. – Leeann Ward
Another Like You
Hayes Carll with Bonnie Whitmore
Individual Rankings: #1- Sam; #6 – Leeann
A heated political discussion between a diehard conservative and a bleeding-heart liberal turns into a drunken makeout session in an elevator. If more political discussions in this country ended that way, there would be a heck of a lot more being accomplished in Washington. – Sam Gazdziak
Sunny Sweeney just gets the economy of the best country songwriting: There’s nothing flashy about the opening lines of “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but the weariness in her delivery of a simple aside (“Trust me, it’s really bad”) tells her character’s back-story in just a scant few words and gives her on-the-verge narrative real emotional heft. – Jonathan Keefe
As a portrait of the post-breakup healing process, Evans’ surprise comeback hit is striking in its simplicity, but nonetheless disarmingly effective. Simple vignettes of going through your daily routines with a smile on your face, changing the station when a song reminds you of your ex, coupled with the refrain of “I got a little bit stronger… just a little bit stronger” beautifully capture the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing journey.
Fittingly, Evans’ vocal begins on a hushed, tired-sounding note, building to a dramatic crescendo as the song progresses – a dynamic, layered performance from one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation. – Ben Foster
She’s heard through the grapevine what she needs to do to get her man back, a laundry list of every compromise under the sun. No wonder she reaches the conclusion that she just doesn’t need him that bad. – Kevin John Coyne
The country music umbrella stretched wider than ever this year, regardless of the fact that radio playlists seem shorter than ever.
Of course, it’s not just the Americana acts that can’t get radio play these days. Even top-selling albums by Scotty McCreery and Alison Krauss & Union Station weren’t embraced.
Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted a list of their ten favorite albums of 2011. 31 different albums were included on our lists, and over the next two days, we’ll share with you our collective top twenty.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11
#20 Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
His tenure with the Punch Brothers and his winning of the first annual “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010 both earned Noam Pikelny the clout to release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his second solo album and first since 2004. Joined by an all-star roster of fellow pickers, Pikelny’s mostly instrumental set is a showcase both for its lead artist’s extraordinary technical skills and for the banjo’s wide-ranging potential. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Fish and Bird” featuring Aoife O’Donovan, “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
#19 The King is Dead
The indie favorites take their hyper-literate brand of folk-rock for a rustic spin, achieving new concision in the process. Colin Meloy’s wild narratives and wilder lexical choices sound right at home in these short-and-sweet song designs, and the Americana field is richer for having them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: Dan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “June Hymn”
That solo women disappeared from country radio was one of 2011′s major talking points within the genre, but Sunny Sweeney’s Concrete provided some of the most compelling evidence that it wasn’t a lack of strong material that kept female artists off radio playlists. Balancing a keen traditionalist bent with a thoroughly modern point-of-view, Sweeney’s fully-drawn characters and clever spins on familiar country tropes proved that an album that sounds “radio friendly” doesn’t have to be light on actual substance or craft. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Ben – #3
Recommended Tracks: “Amy,” “From a Table Away,” “Fall for Me”
#17 It’s Already Tomorrow
Foster and Lloyd
Their first time around, Foster and Lloyd were one of the coolest country acts going, blending in a love of traditional country music with some ’60s post-British Invasion rock vibes. It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album in 20 years, shows an impressive return to form. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd have released some terrific solo albums, but there is a definite magic that happens when they record as a duo. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Picasso’s Mandolin,” “That’s What She Said,” “Can’t Make Love Make Sense”
#16 This is My Blood
The Dirt Drifters
As mainstream country music becomes increasingly slick and polished, it’s a refreshing change to hear something gritty and rough around the edges. The Dirt Drifters’ debut on Warner Bros. certainly qualifies. If you’re looking for country-rock that takes its cue from run-down country roadhouses instead of ’80s arena rock, this album is for you. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #3; Dan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” “Hurt Somebody”
#15 Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town
Hank III’s entire artistic persona is built on indulging in every type of excess he can think of, so it was hardly a shock when, for his first recordings after a less-than-amicable departure from Curb Records, he dropped four full-length albums of new material on the same day. While not all of his ideas are good ones– the less said about Cattle Callin’, the better– the double-album Ghost to a Ghost / Gutter Town proves that Hank III is driven to his spectacular highs not just by the various recreational drugs circulating through his bloodstream but also by a real fearlessness and creativity and a sense of respect for his bloodline. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #1
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Ya Wanna,” “Musha’s,” “Dyin’ Day”
#14 Ghost on the Canvas
A late-in-life swan song by an icon acutely aware of their own mortality. That’s a fitting description of so many of the best country albums in recent years. This is the best of that subgenre since Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #5; Dan – #6
Recommended Tracks: “There’s No Me…Without You”, “Ghost on the Canvas”
On the heels of an album that was largely a hit or miss affair, Church delivers a surprisingly electric third album, marked by its edgy sonic splash. But while its spin on country rock is undeniably enticing –a funky mix of swampy, trippy and punchy—the album’s soul is Church himself, a more believable artist this time around than most of his contemporaries. Because for all its hard ass sentiment, Chief actually walks the walk, as authentic as it is audacious. Outlaw in the making? Probably, but don’t tell Church I said so. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #4; Sam – #6; Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Keep On,” “Creepin’”
#12 Long Line of Heartaches
What more can you ask for? Purely straightforward and unadulterated country songs delivered by the finest vocalist the genre has ever been privileged to call its own. Smith’s own co-writes with husband and producer Marty Stuart (The title track, “I’m Not Blue,” “Pain of a Broken Heart”) sit comfortably alongside top-notch cover material penned by Harlan Howard, Johnny Russell, and Dallas Frazier, all backed by the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel aplenty. Long Line of Heartaches is a beautiful reminder of what country music once was, and could be again. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: Ben – #2; Jonathan – #5
Recommended Tracks: “Long Line of Heartaches,” “I’m Not Blue,” “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”
#11 Your Money and My Good Looks
Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
There was no chance that this collaboration of straight up country songs between Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent was going to garner any attention from mainstream country music outlets. However, thanks to memorable songs, pure country production and Watson and Vincent reverently following the spirit of classic country duet albums of the past, this project was surely one of the stand out albums of the year. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: Leeann – #2; Ben – #5
Recommended Tracks: “You Could Know as Much from a Stranger,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”
Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time. We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed. Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.
Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget. My criteria is simple: A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre. This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.
Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1
Where it goes right: Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect. Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling. I’ll take it!
Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1
Where it goes wrong: It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer. Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad? It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune. The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers. The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.
Where it goes right: The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics. The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies. As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original. It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.
Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2
Where it goes right: Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.
Where it goes wrong: The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song. Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?
Where it goes right: The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling. You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.
Where it goes wrong: Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling. Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.
Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49
Where it goes right: Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving. The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station. The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Where it goes right: It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective. Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?
Where it goes wrong: The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.
Where it goes right: Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music. She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.
Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21
Where it goes right: The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album. The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.
Where it goes wrong: To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.” The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.
Where it goes wrong: If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version. It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection. The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards. Seriously, dude?
Where it goes right: Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least. The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.
What’s your take on these tunes? What are your favorite cover songs? What are your least favorite cover songs?
I can’t tell if it’s because she was a bit hoarse, or if she was trying to hold back her tears. Either way, it was so stunningly powerful that I was even a bit shaken up by the whole thing.
I know that there’s going to be the inevitable claims of authenticity and real talent and such, which makes sense given the pop landscape that she’s performing in. But honestly, it’s been a really long time since anything has happened on a country music stage that’s even come close to what Adele pulled off that night.
It reminded me of Reba McEntire’s performance of “For My Broken Heart” on the 1991 CMA Awards. She’s a seasoned pro who rarely misses a note, but she tears up so much in the final chorus that she can’t get the notes out, and imperfection that makes the performance timelessly perfect:
I can’t find the clip online, but it also reminded me of Vince Gill singing “The Key to Life” on the 1998 show, also breaking down in the final few lines of the song. I miss moments like this in country music.
No wonder I’m so awfully disinterested in country this year. Besides the usual mainstream drivel, I’ve also been disappointed by new albums from usually reliable folks like Dolly Parton, Todd Snider, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and even Emmylou Harris. I’ve taken to pretending that The Civil Wars are somehow country so that I don’t write the genre off completely this year.
The only thing I’ve really loved so far? Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields. It’s got that same rawness that must be speaking to me for some reason these days. There’s no chance of Berg making it back on the radio in 2011, but with all the shameless format-hopping that’s been allowed by country programmers in recent years, maybe we can get them to give a few spins to Adele.
Dan Milliken: “Restless” – Robert Lee Castleman (performed by Alison Krauss & Union Station)
No one writes individualist cud-chew better than Castleman, and no one sings it better than Krauss. Each new pairing of theirs is a gift to all over-thinkers with secret over-feeling streaks, those who revel in connection but resent constraint, who ask only for honesty because that’s all they themselves can promise sometimes.
I don’t really have a favorite songwriter, but I guess Marcus Hummon is the closest thing. I won’t even try to speak more poignantly about this song than Dan did back when we counted down the greatest singles of the 90s; he nails its transcendental sparkle that makes it more than just another love song.
This husband-wife duo’s sound is mega-soothing, the perfect match for a song which gently nudges the listener to persevere through reality’s burdens and chores. When I need relaxation, it’s usually because I’ve stopped feeling like I can. This one helps me realign.
As melodramatic as it sounds, no song is truly “relaxing” for me because I have a hard time separating my emotion from music. The best I can come up with is a song that’s “comforting” – and what’s more comforting than signature Alan Jackson?
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)