Tag Archives: Brandy Clark

Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year.  Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.

Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#20
Rubberband
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann

Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#19
Silver Bell
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan

It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released.  Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.)  For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic.  She finds a happy medium  between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red.  Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002.  Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of  “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#18
Honky Tonk
Son Volt

Individual rankings:  #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan

As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Ben; #15 – Tara, Sam; #20 – Jonathan

In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#16
My Favorite Picture of You
Guy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann

Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”

Holly Williams The Highway

#15
The Highway

Holly Williams

Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann

Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.”  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  #9 – Tara, Sam; #15 – Ben; #19 – Kevin

It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#13
High Top Mountain
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam

Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #10 – Jonathan; #12 – Kevin; #13 – Leeann; #18 – Tara; #20 – Ben

Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.

From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #7 – Kevin, Dan; #9 – Ben; #11 – Tara; #20 – Leeann

Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was.  His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”)  Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place.  - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”

The Mavericks

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  #1 – Sam; #10 – Tara, Ben; #18 – Kevin, Leeann

The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings: #4 – Kevin, #5 – Leeann, #6 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #14 – Jonathan

Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50’s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #5 – Ben, Jonathan; #6 – Tara; #16 – Kevin

It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin, Ben; #14 – Sam; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Tara

The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”

From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends.  - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #5 – Dan; #9 – Leeann, Jonathan; #10 – Sam; #14 – Kevin, Tara; #17 – Ben

The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin'” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Cheater’s Game”, “Waterfall”, “Dreamin'”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Jonathan; #3 – Sam; #5 – Tara; #8 – Dan

The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time.  There are very few anti-heroes to be found here.  Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.

Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers.  The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed.  – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #4 – Ben; #6 – Sam; #8 – Leeann, Tara; #10 -Kevin

Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.

The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.

In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Tara; #6 – Leeann; #8 – Ben; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #13 – Sam

A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#2
Spitfire
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan

Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#1
12 Stories
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam

Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.

Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.

Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.

As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five.  The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind.   - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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2014 Grammy Nominees

The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced.   Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year.  She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.

Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:

Taylor Swift RedAlbum of the Year

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.)  The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).

daft-punk-get-lucky-612x612Record of the Year

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde

For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.

Pink Nate Reuss Just Give me a ReasonSong of the Year

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield

For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-ParkBest New Artist

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Ed Sheeran

Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997.  Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).

Tim_McGraw_Two_Lanes_of_FreedomBest Country Album

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category.  She won in 2010 for Fearless.  She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012).   Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.

darius wagon wheelBest Country Solo Performance

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”)  Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.

Kenny Rogers Dolly Parton Old FriendsBest Country Duo/Group Performance

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”

There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category.  In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”

MirandaMamasBrokenHeartBest Country Song

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.

Sarah Jarosz Build Me Up From BonesBest American Roots Song

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow MoonBest Americana Album

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook

Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners.  Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.

James King Three Chords and the TruthBest Bluegrass Album

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep.   Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton.  This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.

The Greencards Sweetheart of the SunBest Folk Album

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize.  None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.

Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category.  It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.

 

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Single Review: Luke Bryan, “Drink a Beer”

Luke BryanJudge by the title, and you’ll think you’re getting just another mindless rave-up.  Sure, it will be catchier than most of them because of Luke Bryan’s irrepressible vocal charm, but a mindless rave-up is a mindless rave-up.

It’s tempting to make the jump and think Bryan is deliberately playing against expectations here, recording a song with a predictable title that leads to the completely unexpected territory of grief and loss.  But maybe it’s just that if drinking a beer is the way you celebrate with friends and loved ones, it’s the logical thing to do when you’re trying to cope with their unexpected departure.

Bryan’s sort of become the poster boy for the brozation of country music.  I’ve got two problems with that.  One is simply philosophical. The failure of country radio and the larger industry to present more diverse points of view lies with radio and the industry, not with those who have the one approach that’s being too prominently showcased.  Blaming Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark’s lack of airplay on Luke Bryan makes about as much sense as when Shania Twain was blamed for radio not playing George Jones.   Focus on the players, not the pieces, people.

But my second problem is that Luke Bryan shouldn’t be defined so narrowly in the first place.  He’s not chasing trends.  He’s completely genuine, and the music he started out with a few years ago hasn’t changed all that much.  There’s just a lot more people being successful with it.    They don’t do it as well as him, though.

“Drink a Beer” is a great reminder of how he’s a few steps ahead of his peers in song choice and vocal delivery.  He’s good enough to keep it clean. No fancy arrangements, vocoder tricks, or arena beats are needed to distract from the guy at the mic.  He’s in full command, singing a beautiful song about painful loss.   Sounds almost like country music, doesn’t it?

Written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton

Grade: A

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2013 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

CU

They’re as hope-dangling and ridiculous as they’ve ever been, those Country Music Association voters, and the CU staff has picked and predicted their 2013 awards below. Let us know what you think, and check back for our live blog on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Dan: Sadly, it’s become hard to care about the night’s biggest prize. Swift and Strait are the two I can stomach right now, and neither of them actually had much to do with the country scene this past year—the former because she was flexing her pop muscles, the latter because he’s winding down.

Ben: I want to care, but I really don’t. There’s only one artist whom I could have supported unequivocally, and she didn’t get a nomination.

Jonathan: The CMAs have a tendency to lag a few years behind peak commercial trends, so I think Bryan will have to wait another year or two before he takes this award. While Bryan, Aldean, and Shelton could split votes among the bro contingent (presumably, to the benefit of Strait), I think Shelton’s visibility will be enough to earn him another win here.

Tara: This was Carrie Underwood’s year. I’m angry, unsurprised and completely apathetic about the rest of these contenders.

Kevin: Shelton won last year and if anything, his star has only shone brighter this year.  That being said, if I was a CMA voter, I’d leave this category blank.  Carrie Underwood was this year’s Entertainer of the Year.

churchMale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Kevin
  • Eric Church – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Dan
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton – Kevin
  • Keith Urban

Dan: Again, pretty indifferent here.

Ben: Church was between albums this year, but he’s the one whom I feel has represented country music the best. With Urban being past his commercial peak, I’m going to give the edge to Luke Bryan for his current red-hot momentum, but I honestly couldn’t care less which of the three dudebros gets it.

Jonathan: I’d replace four-fifths of this lineup with Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young. If Bryan won’t win Entertainer of the Year, this will be his consolation prize.

Tara: I feel a little guilty rewarding Church’s residual awesomeness from Chief over Aldean’s admittedly solid year, but I’m still one redeeming single away from getting over “She’s Country.” Like Jonathan said, though, I think this is where the voters will reward Bryan.

Kevin: I’d give it to Bryan simply because he’s had a good year and has a good voice.  Another Shelton win seems inevitable to me.

KMFemale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves – Tara
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: Who knows? Voters could give Lambert a record-tying (with Reba McEntire) four-peat, or maybe give Underwood her fourth trophy instead, or maybe give Swift a second one just to be zany, or dismiss the stats entirely and make a surprise investment in Musgraves. I can imagine any of those scenarios playing out.

Ben: I’ll probably be 100% Team Kacey at next year’s ACMs, but right now I want to see Underwood recognized for her incredible Blown Away era. As Dan noted above, this category is difficult to predict this year. I’m going to play it safe and bet on Lambert, but Kelly Clarkson is the only one without a shot.

Jonathan: Since there are far stronger albums than Blown Away in contention for Album of the Year, this is where I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for the artistic gains she’s made during her current era. Lambert basically told voters to do just that during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year during the ACMs a few months back, but it seems doubtful that they will. She seems poised to repeat, even though she’s coming off the most poorly received and lowest selling run of her career. Based on the quality of what was released during the eligibility period, I would have preferred to see Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, and LeAnn Rimes squaring off against Underwood.

Tara: Just going out on a limb here with Musgraves; it feels like this category is due for a change. Or maybe that change will be a throwback to Underwood? One can hope.

Kevin:  I think Lambert will win out of force of habit, with bonus votes for having the good taste to cover Musgraves and Clark before they both became breakout artists this year. Underwood made the best music and, as always, sang it better than the rest.

lbtVocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Kevin
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band

Dan: I suppose that Little Big Town will repeat—but with “Your Side of the Bed” having doused their white-hot momentum, it’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps voters will finally throw Zac Brown Band the bone, if Brown’s Luke Bryan comments didn’t ruffle too many feathers. [Update: And ditto what Kevin says below.]

Ben: Little Big Town may have lost some steam with “Your Side of the Bed,” but they’re still going into the ring with a platinum album and two big hit singles, and they’re one of the only groups with multiple nominations this year. The trophy is theirs to lose.

Jonathan: Had The Band Perry scored more across-the-board support, I’d say they might have been able to pull off the upset here, but this remains Little Big Town’s to lose. Hopefully, a repeat victory will lend “Sober,” one of the year’s finest singles and arguably a new career-best for LBT, greater momentum at radio.

Tara: Cheers to that, Jonathan. Agreed.

Kevin: The Band Perry had a new album this year that was well-received.  My personal pick is Zac Brown Band, only because I want last year’s Little Big Town win to start a new era in this category of acknowledging the overdue.  Having the Dixie Chicks rack up four wins in five years is one thing.  Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum dominating in the same way robbed the award of its luster.  Last year, it got a little back. Let’s keep it going.

tcwVocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Dan: After years of sluggish Sugarland and shruggish Thompson Square, at least this year’s winning duo will have clear commercial heft behind them. Too bad I’m talking about Florida Georgia Line and not the also-quite-successful Civil Wars.

Ben: Whatever.

Jonathan: Same as it ever was: This category is years overdue to merge with Vocal Group. And the nomination for Sugarland is absurd.

Tara: I can’t decide what’s more amusing: Sugarland’s nomination or Florida Georgia Line’s inevitable win. (Although it does kind of feel like Sugarland is still haunting country radio with that new Band Perry single, no?)

Kevin:  The Civil Wars.  I swear they’re only nominating them so we can feel extra bad when they lose to Florida Georgia Line. (See: Rascal Flatts over Alison Krauss & Union Station, Martina McBride over Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless…)

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 3New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Kacey Musgraves – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben
  • Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Dan: Musgraves is class valedictorian, and Moore’s a solid B+ student, but expect the boys of Florida Georgia Line to cruise in on baseball scholarship and come out on top.

Ben: Musgraves has a chance, but I don’t know if her critical clout will be enough to compete with the “Cruise” phenomenon.

Jonathan: That Musgraves is the night’s leading nominee gives me hope that she can overcome Florida Georgia Line’s commercial heft. That she had the balls to push “Follow Your Arrow” as a proper single puts me firmly in her corner.

Tara: Moore is my personal favorite here, but Musgraves outclasses them all. I’ll throw my optimism in with Jonathan and Kevin.

Kevin:  This is a defining moment for the CMA’s.  Musgraves will help restore their credibility. Florida Georgia Line will destroy what’s left of it.  FWIW, Ricky Skaggs beat Lee Greenwood and Mark Chesnutt beat John Michael Montgomery.  Then again, Rascal Flatts beat Nickel Creek and Terri Gibbs beat Rosanne Cash…

bsalbumAlbum of the Year

Should Win:

  • Little Big Town, TornadoJonathan
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Ben
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown AwayTara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Little Big Town, Tornado – Ben, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Jonathan
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…Dan
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown Away –  Kevin

Dan: Tough call. In recent years, the CMA has coalesced around the album with the most “story” value, whether that story was total domination (Fearless, My Kinda Party) or a respected artist finally hitting pay dirt (Revolution, Chief). Tornado seems like a fit for that second grouping, except that Little Big Town’s pay dirt was already last year. So the field seems open.

Ben: Of the four albums that have any real business being nominated for country awards, I consider the Musgraves set to be the strongest, but my gut says that it’s going to come down to either Shelton or Little Big Town. I’m going to be optimistic and predict an LBT victory.

Jonathan: I’m not nearly as bullish on Musgraves’ album as many others are, but it seems like this is safest place for voters to recognize her distinctive, critically acclaimed work. Tornado is my pick for the most consistently excellent set of this line-up; Red hits some glorious highs, but it’s also wildly uneven and has little business being recognized as a country album.

Tara: Tornado has some really fantastic production, and Blown Away is a stand-out showcase of Underwood’s interpretive abilities. Personal investment puts me in Underwood’s camp, but based on momentum and the fact that Musgraves is new, I think Little Big Town will take this.

Kevin: Musgraves has the most critical support, but Underwood made a much better album, in my opinion. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Underwood will win.  My logic is that she had an incredible year and this is the best category to acknowledge that in.  Also, a debut album has never won this award. There’s always a first time, but Musgraves has a lot of history up against her here.

MirandaMamasBrokenHeartSingle of the Year

Should Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” – Dan, Ben
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – Dan, Jonathan, Ben
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” – Tara, Kevin

Dan: “Cruise” is the behemoth here, and behemoths tend to win Single.

Ben: Dan said it.

Jonathan: I’d like to think that a record-setting run atop Billboard’s ridiculous mongrel chart would be its own reward, but it probably won’t be.

Kevin:  There have been some goofy winners in the past.  “Elvira.” “Achy Breaky Heart.” “Bop.”  But there aren’t any in the recent past.  I think that “Wagon Wheel” allows the CMA to pick a big mainstream hit that has a bit of alt-country cred, should they decide against a Musgraves sweep.

Tara: I agree with Kevin that “Wagon Wheel” seems like a nice compromise for the voters. I’d be cool with any of the latter three winning, but to me, “Mama’s Broken Heart” has the most momentum from start to finish.

wwSong of the Year

Should Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Dan, Ben, Tara
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) – Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) – Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary - Dan, Jonathan
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) – Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) – Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor 

Dan: “Wagon Wheel” is a proven standard, but voters will probably want to go with something newer, and I guess I do, too. There’s a decent chance that Musgraves will get acknowledged here with “Merry Go ‘Round,” but with two co-writes in the pool, her danger is vote-splitting—and if that does happen, I defer to Jonathan’s logic below. Plus, frankly, CMA voters love songs about deceased loved ones.

Ben: It’s definitely possible that vote-splitting may be turn out to be Musgraves’ undoing in this category, but my guess is that “Merry Go ‘Round” will ultimately overshadow “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that this will be where she gets her trip to the podium.

Jonathan: I’m all-in for the idea of recognizing brilliant songs that should have been hits a decade ago. Next year, can we get Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit” or Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” please? This year, I just can’t see the CMA giving an award to Bob Dylan, and, as much as I’d love to see Brandy Clark win, I think the Musgraves co-writes will split votes. Which leaves a frivolous holdover from last year to face off against the only “truck” song in years that’s worth even half a damn. I think the latter pulls off the night’s only real upset.

Tara: Lots of solid choices here; even “Pontoon” has a melody worth respecting. “Merry Go ‘Round” just edges out “Mama’s Broken Heart” for me, but I think the voters will be more pointed with their choice and reward Musgraves for her breakout song.

Kevin: “Merry Go ‘Round” fits in well with previous female writer wins. Distinct point of view, attention to details, and some quiet feminist commentary. My pick is “Mama’s Broken Heart”, which I think is just brilliant. “Line your lips and keep them closed.”  Wow.

blownawayMusic Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” 

Dan: The Underwood clip was made to win this award, but I find it silly. Why does she have lie around all sexily on that bed in the tornado shelter?

Ben: Little Big Town’s “Tornado” is also a worthy contender, but Underwood’s “Blown Away” video is an absolute tour de force.

Jonathan: The idea that this could be how the Pistol Annies win a CMA award just makes my teeth hurt. As big a fan of hers as I may be, Miranda’s mugging in the video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes her laughable acting gig on Law & Order: Perverts Unit seem measured and subtle by comparison.

Kevin:  Because why shouldn’t there be two winners in this category that give homage to Oz?

Tara: Tornadoes scares the crap out of me.

highwaydon'tcareMusical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” – Jonathan, Ben, Tara
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Dan, Kevin
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” 

Ben: Clarkson and Gill made the best record of the lot, but it doesn’t have the commercial muscle to pull off a victory, so I’m giving the edge to McGraw and Company.

Jonathan: Cosigning Ben’s comment, word for word.

Dan: “Highway Don’t Care” is kinda weird and meh, but it’s not “Boys ‘Round Here” and “The Only Way I Know”. For this, I am grateful.

Tara: I swear I’m not throwing this to Clarkson and Gill just because they’re Clarkson and Gill – I can stomach not one of these other songs. Part of me thinks Aldean and co. might take this, but McGraw and co. seems more likely.

Kevin:  “Highway Don’t Care” made me enjoy both McGraw and Swift as singers, not just song pickers/songwriters.  For that alone, the win.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin) – Jonathan, Ben
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin)
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Jonathan, Ben, Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Ben: I’ll be all for Paul Franklin next year thanks to Bakersfield, but this year I would like to see Sam Bush get his due.

Jonathan: Bush may not have a MacArthur fellowship like Chris Thile, but his progressive mandolin work is certainly overdue for recognition. Hard to begrudge Franklin, though, as Bakersfield is one of the year’s best albums.

Kevin: Until he wins. I will pick him until he wins. 

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Filed under CMA Awards

Round Table Album Review: Brandy Clark, 12 Stories

Brandy-Clark-12-stories

Brandy Clark
12 Stories

stars-412.gif

Our Brandy Clark coverage continues with a round table review of her hotly anticipated debut album, which is out today.

She teased us earlier this year with “Stripes,” which I proudly awarded an A in my review of the song, calling it “a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme.” It was more than enough to whet our appetites for the album to follow, which ended up going so far as to supersede expectations.

A foremost theme on the aptly-titled 12 Stories is the near-universal desire to escape from something, whether it’s an unhappy marriage, a dead-end job or the everyday stresses of life – even if the respite is only momentary. The stories are laced with striking first-person attention to detail, while often using surprisingly plainspoken language to tap into deep wells of emotion. Though Clark’s songwriting gifts are already well documented – see Kevin’s recent feature – it’s a special treat to finally get to hear what a strong singer she is, her songs beautifully realized through moving, expressive performances.

While the entire album warrants a recommendation, we at Country Universe are pleased to share some favorite tracks from one of our favorite releases of the year.

“Pray to Jesus”

So many of the hired-gun songwriters in Nashville today have adopted a “write what you know” ethos and have then shown a perverse kind of pride in proving that they know absolutely nothing of real value. In stark contrast, “Pray to Jesus,” the first of Clark’s 12 Stories, packs enough into its scant running time and plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth imagery that it probably merits a good 3000 words to delve into what, exactly, Clark knows. Shattering any lingering illusions of upward social mobility in modern America, she delivers a withering cultural commentary that’s noteworthy not for its irony or class condescension but for its empathy and bleak but still good-natured humor. - Jonathan Keefe

Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally

Listen

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”

Ultimately, the factor that makes Clark’s album so accessible is the realistic nature of each song. The stories are raw, real and relatable in one way or another–whether it’s being able to personally relate, knowing somebody who can, or at least being able to imagine the predicament. While it may not be about contemplating cheating, we can all relate to a black and white situation that still feels grey somehow. If not that, Clark’s portrayal of such a scenario manages to invoke sympathy for the song’s focal character, even as you’re mentally willing her not to carry out the act.

Every element of “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, including Clark’s intimate performance and a sympathetic production, works  perfectly together to create  the vulnerability  imperative for a believable cheating song. Vince Gill’s always winning background support is just the icing on the cake. - Leeann Ward

Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones

Listen

“Hold My Hand”

12 Stories is a snapshot of life –dirty, messy, redeeming life—taken by a woman with a keen appreciation for its grey areas. Against that backdrop, “Hold My Hand” feels like the exception, a quiet moment of ex-girlfriend-fueled insecurity that isn’t all that complicated. But it’s no less observant: Clark brings to the song a visceral understanding of the female psyche, gently giving weight to the smallest of gestures. Her request for reassurance is a vulnerable one, of course, but leave it to her to make it with such purpose. - Tara Seetharam

Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones

Listen

“Take a Little Pill”

Nashville has become pretty flippant about recreational drug use in recent years, but Clark’s take on self-medicating is much more harrowing. It’s a delicate topic if you try to approach it seriously, but she deftly shows sympathy for people trapped in a spiral of addiction while offering some barbs toward a society that encourages pill-popping as a solution for any problem. - Sam Gazdziak

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders

Listen

“Hungover”

There’s a thread of hope and optimism in this song that makes you root for the woman who is slowly taking control of her life, in spite of the love she still has for the man she is slowly leaving behind.  The triumph of her just buying a ticket and going to her sister’s feels like an “Independence Day”- level climax, simply because the character was drawn so perfectly from the beginning. - Kevin John Coyne

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon

Listen

“The Day She Got Divorced”

This song feels like the lazy choice off Clark’s album, since, hey, even “Turn on the Radio”/”If I Were a Boy”-era Reba couldn’t ignore its greatness. Still, out of all the colorful women sketched on 12 Stories, I keep coming back to the one drinking extra-strong coffee, shrugging off household cleaning, and humoring an empty fling with her married boss. Perhaps it’s because of how impressively the song marries simple craft to complex feeling, arranging its crisp, little details into a vivid picture of mid-life disillusionment. Or maybe it’s all the fun quirks that mark a writing team in confident control of their powers: “dirty dinner dishes,” “wudn’t that sorry, wudn’t that sad,” and of course, the delicious, dramatic title phrase. I guess it’s all of the above, though. “The Day She Got Divorced” is like if a primetime soap like Nashville were written with the precision of a Mad Men and the personality of a Buffy. It’s the best. - Dan Milliken

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders

Listen

“Just Like Him”

For all the bold, in-your-face fun of “Stripes” and “Crazy Women,” Clark’s characters are often disarmingly vulnerable. With “Just Like Him,” Clark gives voice to a woman who has grown up with a neglectful, overbearing alcoholic father, only to find her adult self in a relationship with the same sort of man. Arguably, the song’s most potent moment is when Clark heaves a heavy sigh and concludes “I can’t do this again” – a credit to her abilities as an interpretive singer.

The tale is beautifully augmented by a fully realized melody and by David Brainard’s near flawless production job, with strains of harmonica, piano and cello echoing the narrator’s hurt and disappointment. It’s a testament to the fact that the right melody, vocal reading, and production possess a power to elevate something already great into something truly unforgettable. - Ben Foster

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon

Listen

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Filed under Album Reviews, Roundtable Reviews

Getting to Know Brandy Clark

Brandy ClarkAs a general rule, you can scan the credits of any new country album and assume that if Brandy Clark is a writer on one of the songs, it’s the best song on the album.  As Clark readies the release of 12 Stories, her debut album as an artist, it’s a great time for fans of that remarkable set to get caught up on Clark’s work to date.

Believe the hype.  Clark really is as good as everyone is saying she is.  Possibly even better, as these twenty tracks suggest.  Scroll down to the bottom, and you can listen to snippets from all of them as you read along.

The Singles

Even if you’re only a casual fan of country radio, you’ve probably already heard Clark’s distinctive brand of songwriting.  She’s penned huge hits for the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert in the past year, along with a should’ve-been hit for LeAnn Rimes and the upcoming release from frequent collaborator Kacey Musgraves.

Here’s a rundown of her radio releases so far.

The Band Perry Pioneer

“Better Dig Two”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen

from The Band Perry album, Pioneer

The production nearly overwhelms the sharpness of the lyric here, but after a few listens, it’s easier to get past the clutter and enjoy the wicked wordplay.

Leann Rimes Lady & Gentlemen

“Crazy Women”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the LeAnn Rimes album, Lady & Gentlemen

That Aqua Net reference at the beginning was flagged by us upon release as “the best opening line in recent memory.”   It still holds up well today, sounding just as fresh and clever on Clark’s debut album.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“Follow Your Arrow”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

Arguably the strongest song on Musgraves’ remarkable debut set, “Follow Your Arrow” is a remarkably progressive anthem of tolerance and individual expression.  It is slated to be the third single and in a perfect world, Musgraves will use that as a reason to perform it on the CMA Awards next month.

Miranda Lambert Four the Record

“Mama’s Broken Heart”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Miranda Lambert album, Four the Record

Easily the best thing Lambert’s done in years, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a whole lotta crazy without feeling even a little bit forced.  It manages to slip in some sly feminist commentary, too.

Mica Roberts Days You Live For

“Things a Mama Don’t Know” (with Toby Keith)

written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore, and Liz Rose

from the Mica Roberts EP, Days You Live For

The debut single from Mica Roberts featured her Show Dog label head, Toby Keith.  It’s a potent song about a woman who follows the wrong man across the country and doesn’t want to let her mother know how much she’s suffering as a result of this poor choice.  It’s always nice to hear Keith’s voice, but his presence gets in the way of the lyric, making for an odd switch between third and first person during the second verse.

The Album Cuts

Many of Clark’s best songs have never been sent to radio.  Here are some of her lesser-known tracks.

Sarah Darling Angels & Devils

“The Boy Never Stays”

written by Brandy Clark, Sarah Darling, and Josh Osborne

from the Sarah Darling album, Angels & Devils

Clark’s songs reel you in early, usually with an opening line that immediately grabs your attention.  “He’s the first taste of something you shouldn’t have.  He’s the first lie you tell to your mom and dad.”  Her masterful use of pathos is what sets Clark apart from most of her peers.

Nashville Boys and Buses

“Boys and Buses”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne

digital download track from Season One of Nashville

There’s an incredible irony to the fact that Hayden Panettiere’s character on Nashville is supposed to be a flashy pop singer making disposable music for tweens.  The songs she actually sings on the show are often top-notch, better than much of what’s on the radio today.  “Boys and Buses” may have a chorus that would make Julie Roberts swoon, but it’s chock full of clever details and turns of phrase that are Clark’s hallmarks.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“Dandelion”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

A sweetly mournful song about love gone wrong, built around the false hope of wishing on a weed.

Reba McEntire All the Women I Am

“The Day She Got Divorced”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Mark D. Sanders

from the Reba McEntire album, All the Women I Am

When we reviewed this album three years ago, this track was noted as among the strongest.  We called it “vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.”   One of the few great McEntire performances this century, it’s especially impressive that Clark’s own reading on her debut album is even better than McEntire’s reading of this dark and dreary divorce number.

Gretchen Wilson Right on Time

“Get Outta My Yard”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Gretchen Wilson album, Right on Time

Wilson’s latest album opens with this cut.  It practically screams for a more aggressive performance, the latest reminder what Wilson’s outlaw image never really shows up at the mic.  If Lambert’s looking for another rave-up, she might want to anchor her next set with this one.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“It is What it is”

written by Brandy Clark, Luke Laird, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

The late night phone call concept has been done well before, but never quite this emotion-free.  She doesn’t need him now and isn’t likely to hate herself in the morning for loving him tonight.  “Maybe I love you,” she wonders, or “maybe I’m just kinda bored.”   This is the best track on Musgraves’ album that hasn’t been flagged as a single yet.

Pam-Tillis-Lorrie-Morgan-2013-Cover

“Last Night’s Make Up”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis album, Dos Divas

You know that a writer is capturing universal truth when a song can be as convincing by a voice weathered by time as it would be if sung by someone as young as the writer herself.  This tale of morning after regret is one of Morgan’s finest moments, on par with her signature ballads from the nineties.

Darius Rucker True Believer

“Love Without You” (featuring Sheryl Cr0w)

written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally

from the Darius Rucker album, True Believers

The Crow backing vocal is easy to miss until she starts singing some of the lines in the end, but Rucker hasn’t had his own talent showcased this well too often, so it helps that she stays out of the way for most of the track.  The subtlety of the lyric and the quiet production allow him to shine as an interpreter.

Guy Penrod Breathe Deep

“The Maker of Them All”

written by Brandy Clark and Billy Montana

from the Guy Penrod album, Breathe Deep

A stunning and uplifting celebration of how all of us are creations of God, using sharp contrasts to make the point of how many diverse and seemingly contradictory things are part of a greater plan designed by one maker.  “The hands that have to fight.  The hands that pray for peace at night. The Lord is the maker of them all.”

Jill King Rain on Fire

“Something Worth Stealing”

written by Brandy Clark and Jill King

from the Jill King album, Rain on Fire

“There’s love,” King sings, “and then there’s runaway desire.”   There are a lot of songs about the actual cheating, but they usually document the heat of the moment.  This indiscretion is coldly calculated, no matter how hot the flames of passion underlying it might be.

David Nail the sound of a million dreams

“That’s How I’ll Remember You”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Madeleine Slate

from the David Nail album, The Sound of a Million Dreams

“Summertime in Brooklyn, mustard on your lip. I knew I loved you by the bottom of the fifth.”   Not too many country songs capture moments that perfectly detailed, and this has got to be the only one where the moment takes place at a Brooklyn Cyclones game.

Ashton Shepherd Where Country Grows

“Tryin’ to Go to Church”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Ashton Shepherd

from the Ashton Shepherd album, Where Country Grows

One of the most charming tracks from Shepherd’s second set, she rattles off the reasons she can’t quite make it to church in her exaggerated twang.  My personal favorite: “Here comes that husband-stealin’ heifer and I reckon I’m gonna have to fight.”

Buffy Lawson I'm Leaving You For Me

“Waitin’ on a Train”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the Buffy Lawson album, I’m Leaving You For Me

The debut solo album from former Bomshel Buffy Lawson features this gem that compares waiting for a man to love her in return to “standing in an airport, waiting on a train.”

Trent Jeffcoat When I Find Me That Mountain

“When I Find Me That Mountain”

written by Brandy Clark and Trent Jeffcoat

from the Trent Jeffcoat album, When I Find Me That Mountain

Clark doesn’t engage her faith much on her debut album, but if this and “The Maker of Them All” are any indication, she’s got a great country gospel album waiting inside of her.

Craig Campbell Never Regret

“You Can Come Over”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Mark Narmore

from the Craig Campbell album, Never Regret

A true hidden gem, this one tells the heartbreaker in question, “You can come over but you can’t come in.”  A talk on the front porch, a ride in the truck.  Those are just fine.  But walking through his front door will just lead to her leaving again.

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Album Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan, Dos Divas

Pam-Tillis-Lorrie-Morgan-2013-Cover

Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Dos Divas

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If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement.  With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.

There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous.  Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex.  The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.

But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own.  The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.”  It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.

And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance.  She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”

In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed.  “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either).  While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.”  Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.

But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices.   The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.”  It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel.  The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.

Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos.  The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets.  There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity.  Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.”  The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin'” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted.  A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.

Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better.  At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off.  It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.

Top Tracks:  “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin'”

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Single Review: Brandy Clark, “Stripes”

Brandy-ClarkBrandy Clark has many times shown that she’s one heck of a songwriter.  Recently, her writing talents have been heard on respectable cuts such as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,”  while her name appears all over the co-writer credits on Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Mercury Records debut Same Trailer Different Park.  Now we get to hear the woman get behind the mic herself with her recently released Brandy Clark EP and her debut single and video “Stripes” – a brash up-tempo number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Miranda Lambert album.

The song begins with a bang, opening line “You were lying in there with nothin’ on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde” reeling the listener in quickly.  Next thing we know, the narrator is cocking a pistol, and we’re beginning to wonder if we’re in for a murder ballad.

But she stops short of doing the deed – not in a display of mercy or conscience, but because our fashion-conscious narrator bristles at the thought of having to don a prison uniform, with Clark singing “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color, and if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearin’ one or the other.”  It’s a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme as Clark entertainingly captures the moment of catching one’s partner in the act.

Fortunately, “Stripes” doesn’t go so far as to fall into novelty territory, thanks in part to Clark’s fierce, simmering vocal rendering.  The fresh, engaging David Brainard-helmed production is a delight, with a jaunty drumbeat and honky-tonk piano lending added grit and punch to the song’s tale.

As the first radio bid from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, “Stripes” does not disappoint.  It’s an ambitious, energetic debut single that makes the prospect of a full-length Brandy Clark album (to be released later this year) even more enticing.

Grade:  A

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Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, <i>Same Trailer Different Park</i>

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park

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In just over half a decade, the now-24-year-old Texan Kacey Musgraves has gone from placing seventh on the 2007 season of Nashville Star and releasing a trio of independent albums to finally being granted some well-deserved mainstream exposure.  It was beyond a pleasant surprise when her beautifully written, critically lauded debut single “Merry Go ‘Round” became an honest-to-goodness Top 10 hit at country radio – a format not known for being friendly to intelligent, honest women.  Whether the industry will continue to support her remains to be seen, but Kacey Musgraves’ major label debut effort positions her as a ray of hope for country music at a time when such are very few – an artist who, if given the platform, just might have the potential to change country music for the better.

Appearing as a co-writer on every track along with a co-writer pool that consists of Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Luke Laird, Musgraves displays a songwriting voice characterized by clear-eyed insight and a tone of simple, plainspoken honesty.  She neither preaches nor judges; she simply observes.  “Merry Go ‘Round” foreshadowed this trait quite accurately.  On her debut hit, Musgraves mused on the human tendency to try to escape heartache through a variety of vices such as drug use or illicit sex, but noting that ultimately that “same hurt in every heart” still remains – each distraction is like a medicine that covers up the symptoms, but doesn’t cure the cold.  On “Follow Your Arrow,” she  sneers at small-town gossip while laying bare the futility of living to please others, noting that “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”  On the witty upcoming single “Blowin’ Smoke,” she takes on the voice of a working class woman who chats with her co-workers on a smoke break about plans to leave her current line of work in pursuit of bigger dreams, but admits that “We’re just blowin’ smoke.”  The set is ripe with a strong sense of self-awareness that country radio has been sorely lacking for years now.

Musgraves clearly understands the value of escapism in country music, as evidenced by songs like opening track “Silver Lining,” in which she makes creative use of familiar metaphors to illustrate the point that if one wants good things to happen, one must accept the bad things that come along with it.  “My House” is a delightful ode to life on a house with four wheels, and to having someone with which to share it.  “Any place beside you is the place that I call home,” Musgraves sings, backed by a charming harmonica-laced arrangement.  Every bit as enjoyable is the witty “Step Off,” which plays like a Jason Mraz song with a banjo.

But oh, how rewarding it is when Musgraves channels pure vulnerability – a gift that finds its fullest expression in the pleading ballad “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves begs a former lover to let her move on, the lyric anchored by a melody that pierces deeply.  And while “It Is What It Is” has been nicknamed The Slut Song, such a moniker says nothing of the raw desperation that Musgraves conveys through her quivering performance.

Same Trailer Different Park sets itself apart from the pack by honoring genre traditions while slyly subverting modern conventions.  For a genre that takes pride in being the realm of “real” music, Kacey Musgraves is

one of precious few mainstream country artists to actually live up to that ideal, and for country radio programmers to let her slip through their fingers now would be an awful shame.  To call Same Trailer Different Park one of the year’s best mainstream country albums would not do it justice – it’s one of the year’s best albums period.

Top Tracks:  “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep It to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow”

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Single Review: Joanna Smith, "We Can't Be Friends"

Listening to the new Joanna Smith single, I’m reminded of when Lee Ann Womack first hit it big. I was impressed by

her taste in material and I thought the production of her records was impeccable.

But on those early hits like “The Fool” and “A Little Past Little Rock”, I always had the nagging feeling that the songs would’ve been better if they’d been recorded by Pam Tillis, who has a similar vocal style but more power and range.

Over time, Womack perfected her vocal technique and created her own distinctive style, one that is best showcased by simple arrangements and tasteful restraint.  The power of later hits like “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Last Call” comes from her ability to accentuate an understated vocal will little punches of twang and power that create a dramatic effect.

So now, fifteen years after Womack first surfaced, I find myself listening to the new single by Joanna Smith and wishing it was being sung by Lee Ann Womack.   Smith’s got a great song, and she sings it well, following Patty Loveless’ golden rule: “Don’t get in the way of the song.”

But she stays out of the way of the song just a little too much, and there aren’t enough moments of twang or power to make the record interesting.    I still hope it gets a shot at radio, as it would be the best breakthrough single for a new female artist in a good long while.   I want to hear more from Smith, so I can hear more of Smith as she hones her style over time.

Grade: B+

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Shelley Skidmore

Listen: We Can’t Be Friends

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