By now, Katie Armiger’s country music career comprises six years, four studio albums, and still zero bona fide radio hits. Her label Cold River Records has nonetheless stuck with her since 2007, with her previous outing, 2010’s Confessions of a Nice Girl, producing her first chart singles in the #55 “Kiss Me Now” and the #42 “Best Song Ever.” Her new album Fall Into Me has yet to reverse her fortunes at radio – Lead single “Better In a Black Dress” topped out at #42 on Billboard Country Airplay – but it no doubt contains more than enough tasteful, likeable pop-country material to keep current fans interested.
At its best, Fall Into Me combines effective melodies with clever lyrical turns of phrase and colorful vocal readings. By such rights, “Man I Thought You Were” is arguably the album’s finest track, casting Armiger as a jilted young woman who’s had her heart broken by a man who didn’t fulfill expectations. She turns the song’s concept on its head in the second verse, musing that she wishes she could hate the woman she lost her love to, but can’t because she knows that the same outcome awaits her successor. The song’s story is enhanced by a compelling melody, and a performance that exudes vulnerability. A similar interplay of elements is heard on “Merry Go Round,” in which a frantic melody and performance pulse in a way that mirrors the tumult of the relationship chronicled by the lyric.
The album is produced by Chad Carlson, who also produced Confessions of a Nice Girl. Though the musical stylings often skew heavily toward the pop side of the country-pop spectrum, the album largely steers clear of the over-audacious pop arrangements that at times pervaded Confessions (with the noisy “So Long” being the glaring exception). The project boasts several standout instrumental hooks and clever production touches, as well as some increased stylistic variety. A brisk tempo and hand-clap section underscores the sense of urgency in album opener “He’s Gonna Change,” in which Armiger warns a woman not to hang her hopes on a man who will never grow to fully appreciate and respect her. A prominent bazouki and harmonica imbue a swampy feel to the single woman anthem “Better In a Black Dress.” Though “Merry Go Round” has the misfortune of sharing a title with one of the best songs currently on country radio, it boasts a catchy guitar hook anchoring a crisp, lightly infectious pop-country arrangement.
While Armiger has often shown herself to be a gifted vocalist worthy of rubbing shoulders with Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood on country radio, Fall Into Me finds the 21-year-old continuing to make artistic strides as a songwriter. The themes of empowerment and belief in self recur throughout the album, evident in the cautious optimism of “Okay Alone,” and in the straight-up swagger of “Better In a Black Dress.” Unfortunately, though the album serves up a generous fourteen songs, it doesn’t quite fill them out with fourteen songs’ worth of content. Armiger appears as a co-writer on every track, but some benefit might have been derived by interspersing her own cuts with some quality outside material. Though the figurative “A” side is fairly solid, the album loses steam around the tenth track, and starts serving up some filler. The rather bland love song “Baby You’re Everything” hardly warrants explanation, while the forced thematic concept of “Stealing Hearts” comes off as something like the poor woman’s “Hell On Heels.” There are also moments when she creates a solid foundation for a great song, but doesn’t quite tie it together with an effective hook. A biting line such as “Look down on me and criticize/ It’s easy to do from up on high” seems to call for a greater payoff than “I’m free, free/ Like a raging wildfire through the trees,” and a refrain of “I’ll find a way to be okay alone” doesn’t quite match the potency of Armiger’s nuanced, falsetto-enhanced delivery.
Even though Katie Armiger has three albums already behind her, one doesn’t generally become a fully realized country artist by age 21. At this point, she sounds like she’s flexing her creative muscles and having fun doing so. Fall Into Me continues to hint at Armiger’s lofty potential as a creative force – at times wanting for consistency, but not for lack of heart. Furthermore, it finds Armiger continuing to develop her own point of view as a songwriter, acting as a voice for strong, independent young women, which may very well blossom further with future releases. Without a doubt, there is much that Fall Into Me gets right, even if it does feel like a fourteen track album that should have been a ten track album.
Top Tracks: “Man I Thought You Were,” “Better In a Black Dress,” “Merry Go Round”
As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe. In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots. What did we miss? That’s where you, our readers, come in. Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.
#40 The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake Martha Redbone Roots Project
Individual rankings: Sam – #12
The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper. However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic. Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs. The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout. For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”
#39 Morning Comes Cuff the Duke
Individual rankings: Sam #11
A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year. Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album. There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: ”Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”
#38 New Wild Everywhere Great Lake Swimmers
Individual rankings: Sam – #9
Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio. Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion. “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”
#37 That’s Just Me Teea Goans
Individual rankings: Ben – #8
With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike. She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.” Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair. What more could a country music lover ask for? - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”
#36 Fear Fun Father John Misty
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7
Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana. To that end, the album’s title is misleading: What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”
#35 Voice of Ages The Chieftains
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)
#34 Restless Sweethearts of the Rodeo
Individual rankings: Leeann – #7
It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996′s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”
#33 Home Dierks Bentley
Individual rankings: Leeann – #11; Sam #20
Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”
not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”
#31 The Carpenter The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #4
The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”
#30 Unfinished Business Wanda Jackson
Individual rankings: Ben – #10; Jonathan – #15
On 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”
#29 Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down Marty Stuart
Individual rankings: Sam – #6; Ben – #19
Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition. A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”
#28 Original Soundtrack: The Hunger Games – Songs from District 12 and Beyond Various Artists
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Jonathan – #11
A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. - Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”
#27 Hello CruelWorld Gretchen Peters
Ben – #5; Jonathan – #16
Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”). Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”
#26 Mindy Smith
Leeann – #6; Dan – #10
Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project. This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity. In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs. As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent. Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”
#25 The Time Jumpers The Time Jumpers
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #17
From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room. On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun. Simply delightful. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”
#24 And So It Goes Don Williams
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Ben – #11; Dan – #16
Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom. Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier. A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”
#23 Carry Me Back Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6; Dan – #11; Leeann – #20
A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee Pusher, Carry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”
#22 Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables Todd Snider
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Dan – #9
It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. - Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”
#21 I Like to Keep Myself In Pain Kelly Hogan
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Dan – #6
Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music. On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: ”Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”
#20 AM Country Heaven Jason Eady
Individual rankings: Leeann – #5; Dan – #12; Ben – #12
Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”
#19 Edens Edge Edens Edge
Individual rankings: Tara – #6; Kevin – #9; Dan – #14
Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s. The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances. Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. - Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”
#18 Sun Midnight Sun Sara Watkins
Individual rankings: Dan – #2; Jonathan – #17; Leeann – #18
It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. - Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”
Bear Creek Brandi Carlile
Individual rankings: Leeann – #2; Dan – #3
While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: ”Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
#16 Cabin Fever Corb Lund
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Jonathan – #4
Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ‘em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)
#15 Leaving Eden Carolina Chocolate Drops
Individual rankings: Sam – #2; Leeann – #10; Dan – #15
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once. Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result. Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common. In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing. Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track. Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”
#14 For the Good Times The Little Willies
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Jonathan – #12; Leeann – #13; Ben – #20
By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along. The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. - Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Remember Me,” ”Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”
#13 Tornado Little Big Town
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Jonathan – #5; Ben – #17
On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement. Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.” With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets. While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. - Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”
#12 High, Wide & Handsome The Trishas
Individual rankings: Dan – #4; Kevin – #6; Sam – #7
Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. - Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”
#11 Blown Away Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Tara – #5; Ben – #16
The hardest-working woman in country music. She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place. She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album. What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before. She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being. “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.” Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. - Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”
#10 Up All Night Kip Moore
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Dan – #5; Tara – #7
Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ‘em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. - Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”
#9 Long Ride Home Darrell Scott
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Leeann – #7; Dan – #7
It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music. But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them. A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties. Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years. His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material. Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.” Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly. I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.” Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio. Fingers crossed. - Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”
#8 Uncaged Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #8; Tara – #9; Leeann – #12; Ben – #15; Sam – #19
Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with. Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic. In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”
#7 KIN: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell Various Artists
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #4; Kevin – #7
As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand. After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on. Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year. While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is. However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs. Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. - Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)
#6 100 Proof Kellie Pickler
Individual rankings: Tara – #4; Ben – #7; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #18
Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal. With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).” With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”
#5 Thirty Miles West Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Tara – #4; Kevin – #5; Ben – #14; Leeann – #19; Jonathan – #19
Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that. At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision. From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy. Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. - Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”
#4 Wreck & Ruin Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
Individual rankings: Sam – #3; Leeann – #9; Ben – #9; Tara – #10; Jonathan – #10
Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008′s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. - Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”
#3 Calling Me Home Kathy Mattea
Individual rankings: Ben – #1; Leeann – #4; Kevin – #8; Tara – #8; Jonathan – #13
Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project. Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree. By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. - Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”
#2 Sing the Delta Iris DeMent
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Jonathan – #1; Leeann – #3; Ben – #6
She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. - Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: ”Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”
#1 Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran Jamey Johnson
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Ben – #3; Leeann – #8; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10
Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault. His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity. Living for a Song, then, does something momentous: It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.
Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once. Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence. Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.
Does it matter? The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers. Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012: It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. - Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”
Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe: We love country music. A lot. While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.
At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice. We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.
Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists. Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles. Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter. Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section. Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012. We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.
“Southern Comfort Zone” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #13; Leeann – #20
Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort. But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and whenthat point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band. No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” Gary Allan
Individual rankings: Sam – #8
The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Goodbye In Her Eyes” Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #14; Leeann – #18
“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. - Leeann Ward
#37 “In Between Jobs” Todd Snider
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6
An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Go Your Way” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #13; Sam – #18
“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings. It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak
“Born to Be Blue” The Mavericks
Individual rankings: Ben – #17; Dan – #18; Tara – #20
A slice of throwback 50′s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam
#34 “Closer” Mindy Smith
Individual rankings: Leeann – #12; Dan – #14
Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs. Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy. The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward
#33 “Drunk On You” Luke Bryan
Individual rankings: Dan – #12; Kevin – #14
In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.” Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne
“Cruise” Florida Georgia Line
Individual rankings: Dan – #3
Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken
#31 “When I’m Gone” Joey + Rory
Individual rankings: Kevin – #12; Ben – #12
A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record. While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo. - Ben Foster
#30 “Postcard from Paris” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Ben – #11; Sam – #13
In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”). Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins. - Ben Foster
#29 “When It Pleases You” Sara Watkins
Individual rankings: Dan – #10; Leeann – #17
With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back. ”I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken
“Live and Die”
The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #2
The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010. There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right. - Sam Gazdziak
#27 “Is It Already Time?” Wade Hayes
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Dan – #15
A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken
“Safe & Sound” Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars
Individual rankings: Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #14
The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings. The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward
#25 “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” Toby Keith
Individual rankings: Kevin – #9; Leeann – #16
Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne
“Plant White Roses” Kelly Hogan
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #1
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly
Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#23 “Good Girl” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #6; Dan – #16
A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter. A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne
#22 “Hello Cruel World” Gretchen Peters
Individual rankings: Ben – #8; Sam – #12
An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.” A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward. - Ben Foster
#21 “Dig Gravedigger Dig” Corb Lund
Individual rankings: Sam – #4; Jonathan – #18
Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper. It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak
#20 “I’m a Mess” Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: Leeann – #4; Kevin – #16
From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest. With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000′s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward
#19 “Fly Over States” Jason Aldean
Individual rankings: Tara – #7; Dan – #9
Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath. It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that? - Dan Milliken
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” Eli Young Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #5; Tara – #16; Jonathan – #16; Dan – #20
The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own. Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “Two Black Cadillacs” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Tara – #4; Ben – #18
A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative. Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam
“Beer Money” Kip Moore
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Tara – #9; Kevin – #11 Ben – #19
The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Better Dig Two” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7; Leeann – #9; Dan – #11; Tara – #19
The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin. But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse. Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio? Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing? This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. - Jonathan Keefe
#14 “I Just Come Here for the Music” Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss
Individual rankings: Ben – #6; Sam – #7; Dan – #17; Kevin – #20
Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself. And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights. His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak
#13 “The Dreaming Fields” Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #6; Jonathan – #10
In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories. ”The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance. I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory. This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster
“Springsteen” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Dan – #6; Tara – #6; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #17; Ben – #20
The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken
#11 “Blown Away” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Dan – #7; Tara – #14; Ben – #15
An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood. Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Tara – #11; Leeann – #13; Ben – #14; Sam – #19
With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album. While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.” A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe
#9 “The Sound of a Million Dreams” David Nail
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Kevin – #8; Ben – #9; Dan – #19
With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse. Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope. And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam
#8 “Creepin’” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2; Leeann – #8; Tara – #15
With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre. From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre. When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak
“Neon” Chris Young
Individual rankings: Tara – #3; Dan – #5; Leeann – #7; Jonathan – #8; Ben – #13
Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement. But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment. Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam
#6 “Takin’ Pills” Pistol Annies
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Leeann – #5; Sam – #9; Tara – #10; Ben – #10
Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country. “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace. It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe
#5 “Like a Rose” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #5; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10; Tara – #13
Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming. While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it. ”Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem. High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward
#4 “Drinkin’ Man” George Strait
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Ben – #3; Tara – #5; Jonathan – #5; Leeann – #11
There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year. One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years. “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits. He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne
#3 “What Have I Done” LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Leeann – #3; Dan – #4; Ben – #4; Kevin – #5
Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion. “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality. The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam
#2 “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Ben – #1; Jonathan – #4; Tara – #8; Sam – #11
Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is. Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves. A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be. A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster
#1 “Merry Go ‘Round” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Leeann – #2; Sam – #3; Kevin – #7; Ben – #7; Tara – #12
In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really. The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.
It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music. That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries. It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row: Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken
After three weak singles from Four the Record, ranging from mediocre to flat-out dud, the Miranda we know and love is back.
Ever since her “Kerosene” days, Miranda Lambert cialis buy has built a calculated image as country music pistol-packing bad girl, but that image works best when it’s not beating us over the head a la “Fastest Girl In Town.” When she’s able to further her chosen persona without sacrificing her art, and to enhance it with a sense of underlying vulnerability, that side of Miranda can be the driving force behind some truly great music.
Songwriters Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kasey Musgraves give Lambert a most striking character to work with in the verses of “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Right from the angst-ridden sigh with which she begins her delivery, Lambert inhabits said character with style and spunk, turning in one of her most dynamic interpretive performances to date. Ripe with clever lines such as “I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver,” the lyric details this scorned woman’s self-destructive means of catharsis, while wisely leaving her ultimate revenge for the listener to imagine.
Nowhere does ”Mama’s Broken Heart” indulge in empty audacity. It even manages to weave in subtext commentary touching on generational gaps – with the narrator’s mother coming from a “softer generation where you get a grip and bite your lip just to save a little face“ - as well as the sexual double-standard seen in society’s tendency to tolerate rage in men, while expecting the woman to “Powder your nose, paint your toes, line your lips and keep ‘em closed.”
Alongside the song’s deceptively deep lyrics, the off-beat arrangement is an engaging listen in itself, with light drum tapping and clipped, sneaky-sounding guitar licks leading up to an explosive chorus. On one of my grumpy days, I might have called out the chorus for being too loud, but on a song that already amounts to a musical hissy-fit, even that aspect feels darkly appropriate.
“Mama’s Broken Heart” playing alongside Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” will no doubt impart a much-welcome blast of drama to country radio in the new year. Miranda Lambert thus sets the musical bar high for 2013, and delivers her best single since “The House That Built Me.”
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
Carrie Underwood with Hunter Hayes
The Blown Away Tour
December 1, 2012
There’s a desirable sweet spot in every big performer’s career where they finally have a large number of hits to fill out a two-hour show, a compelling enough current album to sustain audience interest between the hits, and the appropriate level of earned confidence to take some bold risks in staging and presentation.
Carrie Underwood just hit that sweet spot. Her Blown Away Tour hit Newark on Saturday, playing to an arena packed with fans of all ages. It’s an arena show, too, filled with pyrotechnics and
special effects and a backing band that shook the cheap seats on the more rocking numbers. Opening with “Good Girl”, Underwood tore through an opening section which included a healthy mix of hits from all four of her studio albums.
But the show didn’t hit its stride until the second section, when she surprised the audience with the appearance of a choir from local elementary school P.S. 22. They supported her in a touching rendition of “So Small” that lived up to its name, stripping the bombast from the studio recording and letting the lyric shine over the sweet harmonies that only bewilderingly talented tots can produce in unison. The arena felt as intimate as a sitting room as she sang “Temporary Home”, which seemed to have her on the verge of tears by the third verse.
After a few more hits, the show peaked with an ingenious third act that had Underwood floating above the audience on a moving platform. Why was it ingenious? It solved a few arena show dilemmas at once, keeping the entire audience riveted while the artist sang unfamiliar album cuts. At the point of the set list usually designed for bathroom breaks, Underwood had the entire arena on their feet, cheekily waving to and interacting with the audience members all around her, and even those directly under her. These are the benefits of a clear plexiglass floor, you see.
At times, the staging was a bit too ambitious. The video screens that were used so effectively for visual songs like “Two Black Cadillacs” were a glaring distraction for much of the show, with random patterns that looked more like late nineties Windows screen savers than anything else. Transitional interludes featured some interesting animation, but it was interrupted by glamour shots of Underwood, as if they were afraid we’d forget about her while she was changing costumes backstage. But the opening and closing projections centered around “Blown Away” were executed brilliantly, among the best I’ve seen in an arena show.
Vocally, Underwood was nearly flawless, never missing a note but occasionally losing her breath while she enthusiastically engaged the audience. At times, she seemed a little overwhelmed by her band, most notably during a painfully loud cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” When the arrangements were slower or simpler, with her voice accompanied by only a handful of instruments, she sounded better than I’ve ever heard a powerhouse vocalist sound in concert.
When you combine her precision with the very few liberties the band took with the studio arrangements, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an actual studio recording. She really is that good. She somehow elevated the fan favorite “I Know You Won’t” to staggering new heights, and that’s a song that seemed superhuman even as a studio recording. I repeat, she really is that good. But most impressive was when she revisited older tracks like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Wasted”, and actually improved on them, showing how much she has grown in interpretive skill and vocal nuance since the beginning of her career.
Those hits from the first album, along with the pre-encore closer “Before He Cheats”, where absolutely the biggest crowd-pleasers, giving anecdotal evidence to the theory that Underwood’s greatest competition has been herself. Those early hits have overshadowed everything she’s done since, successful as she’s been. But I discovered something when she closed the show with “Blown Away.” The audience roared at the opening notes, after having been teased mercilessly with clips from the video all night. There was more energy and excitement during that performance than at any other moment. It’s her first career record in years.
Underwood was classy and thoroughly charming throughout. That light shines through even when her material’s at its darkest. It was a minor annoyance for me that I was surrounded by tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings that stood for the whole show and sang along with far too many songs. But seeing a whole row of those tweens in Carrie Underwood t-shirts, clearly at their first big concert and hanging on every word that their idol sang, I was struck with a deep appreciation for this artist. I’ve always been grateful that she respected the genre’s traditions and institutions, but I’m always worried about preserving the genre’s past. She’s also securing its future, as perhaps the only artist in country music history who can pack an arena that is equal parts tween, young adult, and the rest of us. In that sense, she just might be the most significant country artist of her time, in addition to being the flat-out best singer.
I missed the first couple of songs by opening act Hunter Hayes, but judging by the piercing adolescent screams that permeated the arena, he won’t be an opening act for much longer. I must say that he’s remarkably talented. I expected the country arrangements and the solid vocals, but his prowess with both the guitar and the piano took me by surprise. He’s somewhere between Keith Urban without the gravitas and Gary LeVox without the nasal drip. Hopefully, he’ll keep honing his songwriting skills and his audience will stick around as he develops. He’s got more promise than most of his contemporaries.
Carrie Underwood Set list:
I Told You So
Two Black Cadillacs
So Small (with P.S. 22 Student Choir)
Jesus, Take the Wheel
Get Out of This Town
Nobody Ever Told You
Thank God for Hometowns
Do You Think About Me
One Way Ticket
Flat on the Floor
Leave Love Alone (with Hunter Hayes)
Remind Me (with Brad Paisley via Video Screen)
Cupid’s Got a Shotgun
Before He Cheats
I Know You Won’t
He’s widely hailed as the leader of the new traditionalist movement of the mid-eighties, but his impressive sales numbers made him something the genre had never seen before: a traditionalist superstar.
Travis was born Randy Traywick in a town just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. His youth was marked by two distinguishing features: a prodigious talent for music and a dangerous rebellious streak. As a teenager, he played clubs with his older brother Ricky, but when the elder Traywick was jailed after a car chase, Randy moved to Charlotte proper to launch his own career at age sixteen.
Randy won a talent contest at a club owned by Lib Hatcher, who took him under her wing and soon under her guardianship, after he barely evaded jail for what he was warned would be the last time. Hatcher took on the role of manager, and managed to land an independent record deal that resulted in a minor hit in the early eighties. A stint at the Nashville Palace and a well-received independent live album helped him land a deal with Warner Bros. Records.
The label convinced him to change his performing name to Randy Travis, and in 1986, his star took off. He released the seminal album Storms of Life, arguably the most significant country album of the decade. Its stunning multi-platinum success made Travis a household name, and destroyed the conventional wisdom that country must abandon its traditional sound to cross over to mainstream popularity.
Travis dominated the singles and albums charts for the next ten years, selling out arenas and racking up major industry awards. But as significant as his own success was, he was just as important for creating the climate that allowed future legends
like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Garth Brooks to reach massive sales heights without the help of pop radio. Though he was soon overshadowed by those giants, his sound remained the blueprint for mainstream country music well into the nineties.
Travis continued to score hits after leaving Warner Bros. for Dreamworks Records, but by the turn of the century, he was focusing his attention on country gospel music. Even this detour produced a surprise country hit, with “Three Wooden Crosses” returning him to the top of the country charts in 2002, after an eight-year absence from the penthouse. While he still remains primarily focused on the Christian market, his legacy continues to reverberate. Most recently, Carrie Underwood revived his self-penned hit “I Told You So”, and invited him to record a duet version for the radio that peaked at #2.
Thankfully, this should be the last single this year from Carrie Underwood.
I say thankfully because a good “Best Singles of the Year” list needs some variety. Underwood’s been stacking the deck this year, putting out one outstanding single after another, and it’s really bad form to leave no room at the top for the rest of the competition.
“Two Black Cadillacs” revives the Southern Gothic murder ballad subgenre that was once far more prominent in country music. This is not to be confused with the wrongfully abused variety of murder ballad, which has only surfaced in the past twenty years.
A pure revenge fantasy mind you, as unbelievable and fantastical as anything Porter Wagoner ever dreamed up. Underwood’s the perfect narrator for the tale, her pithy descriptions punctuated by melancholy strings that would sound just as comfortable on American Horror Story as they do accompanying our favorite American Idol.
She lets her bias slip with a giddy “bye bye,” revealing she’s fully on board with the just desserts being served. It works because the scenario is simply implausible, which allows the listener to indulge in the darkness that would horrify us if it was actually reality.
It’s a testament to Underwood’s versatility as a singer and her credibility as a public persona that she can pull off something so wicked and not get an ounce of dirt on her squeaky clean image. But most of all, it’s a credit to her ambition as an artist. For someone so frequently accused of getting to the top without having to
While the rest of the country fixates on “Nashville,” the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards air live from Music City with equal drama and ridiculousness November 1 at 7 p.m. CST. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Thursday night!
Entertainer of the Year
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Tara, Leeann
Dan: I’ll probably never be able to fully embrace Aldean, but his impact on the genre remains undeniable, and once in a while he releases something like “Fly Over States” that lends some dimension to his hick-rock formula.
Tara: “Fly Over States” will land on my best-of-2012 list (I’m as surprised as you are), but I just can’t get behind Jason Aldean’s overall brand of country, regardless of his impact. That leaves me with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, and only the latter put out music to match her star in the eligibility period. Boring category.
Ben: Sadly, this category just keeps getting harder and harder for me to care about. I could still see Swift taking it, but an Aldean victory is almost certain to happen sooner or later, and I’m thinking this could be his year. Blake’s turn will come eventually, but not until after Aldean has had his.
Jonathan: Aldean has yet to release anything I’ve liked even a little bit, but this award has increasingly turned into Nashville’s way to say “thank you” to whoever is bringing the most cash back to Music Row, so Aldean is likely due for a pat on the back. On some level, Shelton’s heightened media presence is its own reward, but he’s the most likely spoiler here, since pop crossover stars like Swift rarely pull off repeat wins.
Kevin: Should win: Carrie Underwood. But since she’s not nominated, I’ll go with Jason Aldean, who has been the biggest country artist this past year. I expect he’ll win, too.
Leeann: While it’s completely baffling to me that Jason Aldean has taken off as he has, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won this award. I, however, feel that it’s far more likely that Taylor Swift will win again.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Leeann
Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Leeann
Tara: I still believe Underwood’s best is yet to come, but she deserves respect from the industry and critics alike for taking the kind of creative, thematic and interpretive risks she took with Blown Away. Maybe come next year she’ll have more influence; this year, the award is still Lambert’s to lose. (And shout out to homegirl Clarkson, who may have no place in this category, but who gave us the best cover of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” that I’ve ever heard.)
Ben: In my perfect world, Carrie Underwood’s solid new music (which was released within this year’s eligibility period) would nab her the trophy. Miranda had the most radio success this year, and will almost surely emerge victorious, but I simply can’t endorse the idea of rewarding her for releasing two singles that were easily the worst duds of her career. Footnote: Country radio seriously needs to start supporting more female artists.
Jonathan: I adore Kelly Clarkson, and, based upon nearly a decade’s worth of concert performances, I’d argue that she has the best taste in country material of any of the women nominated, and I look forward to the day when she finally records a proper country album. But her nomination here is absurd. Fortunately, she’s not really in the running to win. This likely comes down to Lambert and Underwood. In the past, I’ve championed Lambert for her fearless artistic vision, and I’ve been highly critical of Underwood’s grossly over-praised and over-rewarded output. But, this year, I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for what is far and away her career-best work than to see Lambert win for what is quite obviously her worst. I doubt the voters will agree.
Dan: Ditto the others, pretty much. Underwood’s taste in material has deepened, but what excites me most is that her interpretive abilities have, too. I never used to feel comfortable with those comparisons to the Trishas and Connies of the world. Now I do.
Kevin: It’s all been said. Underwood’s reached new heights of artistry while still maintaining her commercial relevance. I’d call her one of the best, but that would imply there’s anyone else in her league right now.
Leeann: Miranda Lambert is still my favorite out of these choices and Kelly Clarkson’s nomination is still confusing to me. I think the award is a toss up between Taylor and Carrie in all actuality though.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Eric Church – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Blake Shelton – Leeann
Luke Bryan – Dan
Eric Church – Kevin
Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
Tara: Unlike last year’s crop of men, these five at least put out memorable if not entirely thoughtful material in the eligibility period. But Church is the only one who’s had a consistent vision, and what a difference that makes. I don’t see the voters dethroning Shelton, though.
Ben: I expect that the CMA is going to continue shoving the whole “Blake and Miranda are the new Tim and Faith!” idea down our throats, but Eric Church made the best music of the field by far, and country radio finally decided to get on board with it. Eric Church deserves this.
Jonathan: Church is the only one of the five who has released any strong material during the eligibility period, though I generally remain a fan of Urban’s. It’s hard to see either of those two men winning, though. Urban’s past his commercial peak, and Church is still too divisive a persona. I also think Aldean’s vocal limitations play against him here – see Chesney, Kenny, and his track record in Male Vocalist races – especially since he’s likely to be recognized elsewhere. That leaves Crest WhiteStrips to take on Shelton. I think Shelton gets another win before Bryan’s inevitable coronation here.
Dan: CMA has developed a bad habit of just voting for the incumbent. But Bryan has the most momentum right now, so what the hey; I’ll mix things up and call it Crest Whitestrips 2012.
Kevin: Gonna go out on a limb and say the best one takes it home this year. They’ve got to be itching to finally acknowledge Eric Church, right? Right???
Leeann: Blake Shelton has had a good year. I suppose he has a good, high profile chance of being rewarded for it.
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Kevin
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Leeann
Little Big Town – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Zac Brown Band
Dan: Little Big Town’s album is too new, but their sudden momentum could power them to a spoiler win here anyway, depending on who Capitol gets behind. I’ll support them come ACM time; for now, give Zac Brown Band their freakin’ due.
Tara: Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town both put out stellar new music; the only major difference is timing. I support a ZBB win but won’t be disappointed if/when the “Pontoon”-fueled LBT steals this from the most complacent group in country music.
Ben: Zac Brown Band should win. Lady Antebellum will win. Déjà vu?
Jonathan: As much as logic points to another indefensible win for the most useless act in popular music, and as much as I want to see Zac Brown Band finally earn their long-overdue recognition, I’m calling this one an upset for the also-long-overdue Little Big Town. That karaoke video for “Pontoon” showed off just how deeply likedthey are by their peers, and now that they have the commercial stats, I think that that pervasive goodwill gives them the edge here.
Kevin: I think the red-hot momentum of Little Big Town could put them over the top. Zac Brown Band’s been my pick for a couple of years, but I really think they’re just treading water at this point.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band is far and away my favorite group of the nominees here, but Little Big Town’s talent is undeniable. I’d be happy if either of them won. I’m afraid Lady A will still win though.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Big & Rich
Love and Theft
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland – Leeann
The Civil Wars – Kevin
Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.
Jonathan: Per usual: Merge this category with Vocal Group to trim the fat. The only act here deserving of the recognition is the one with the longest of long-shots to win.
Dan: La la la.
Tara: So pointless.
Kevin: I’m going out on another limb, this time by thinking that the whole “massive commercial success without radio” thing will give the Civil Wars a Mavericks-style victory. I’d honestly rather be wrong in my predictions than be depressed before the show even airs.
Leeann: I don’t think Sugarland has had a particularly active year, but I think they might still win based on name recognition.
New Artist of the Year
Lee Brice – Ben, Tara, Leeann
Hunter Hayes – Dan, Kevin
Love and Theft
Brantley Gilbert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan
Hunter Hayes – Kevin, Leeann, Tara
Love and Theft
Dan: Since none of these artists do it for me, I’d shrug it over to the technically skilled Hayes, who I think could be interesting in the future if he challenges himself to become more than a one-man boy-band. As Sawyer Brown and Keith Urban have proven, sometimes an artist earns their win in this category retroactively.
Tara: Hunter Hayes needs to rein it in a bit, but his chops have potential. Lee Brice needs to find better material, but his performances are believable. “Hard To Love” is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year, so I guess I’ll go with the latter?
Ben: Lee Brice strikes me as having the most potential of these nominees, but right now, I think the Brantley Gilbert virus has already spread too far.
Jonathan: Absolutely not.
Kevin: Hunter Hayes is the musical equivalent of those memes that show cats doing people things. He’s putting out real country music, and it’s adorable! All joking aside, I’m pulling for real country music wherever I can find it. Hayes is all I’ve got to work with here.
Leeann: I’m really not fond of any of these choices.
Album of the Year
Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief – Dan, Kevin
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record – Ben, Tara
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night – Jonathan, Leeann
Dan: Everyone but Bentley’s got a shot, but my hopeful guess is that this is where the CMA will reward Church.
Tara: Chief and Four the Record both made big impressions on me last year, but only the former has held up with time. I’ll be optimistic and predict the CMA will reward its reigning Female Vocalist of the Year over its reigning Group of the Year. (I still can’t get over Own the Night winning a Grammy, y’all. Unbelievable.)
Ben: Church’s Chief is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, but my gut is still predicting a Lambert and Shelton sweep, though there’s still a chance the voters may decide to reward that dreadful Lady A album instead.
Jonathan: Bright side: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night is eligible to win. Downside: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night will win, at the expense of far more deserving competition.
Kevin: I think Chief really made an impression, and I’m betting it was enough of one to win.
Leeann: I reflexively assume Lady A will win this award at this point, but I’m hoping for a Dierks Bentley or Eric Church win. Dierks Bentley’s album is quality and I feel Eric Church’s album is interesting and fresh.
Song of the Year
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
“God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
“Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers – Kevin, Leeann
“Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
“Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Ben
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Tara
“God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes – Leeann
“Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
“Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan
“Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Kevin
Dan: I think I’m just being optimistic, but maybe the earnest Hoge/Paslay story of struggling for an artistic life will resonate with enough music-industry vets to overcome the bait-ishness of “Over You” and “Home.” Maybe?
Tara: I’d be fine with three of these five winning — and would even argue that, as a composition, “God Gave Me You” is solid — but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has the most soul. I’m not entirely sure where the votes will fall on this one, but maybe pop culture’s spotlight on Nashville will mean a win for the songwriters’ anthem?
Ben: I can’t picture this going to anyone but Lambert and Shelton. If the CMA intends to keep working this ridiculous power-couple nonsense, they have created a golden opportunity here, and I highly doubt the song’s awfulness will be any hindrance.
Jonathan: If knowing a song’s tragic backstory is a requirement for finding “meaning” in that song, then its songwriters have failed.
Kevin: I’m hoping the CMA voters sing Shelton and Lambert’s song back to them when filling out their ballots, and pick the strongest singer-songwriter in this race. Bentley’s cut is my personal favorite.
Leeann: I just have a feeling that the bland love song will win, but I’m hoping that the thoughtful ”Home” will prove me wrong.
Single of the Year
Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Leeann
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Ben, Leeann
Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Dan: Feels like a toss-up, actually. I’d figure “Home” and “Springsteen” to duke it out, but remember that year when “I Saw God Today” randomly won?
Tara: “Home”’s graceful approach to patriotism is lovely and especially appreciated during this infuriating election season, but the song itself lacks spark. “Springsteen” is the better all-around record, and I think it’ll hold up with time, which is a lot more than I can say about the remaining three songs in the category.
Ben: I think “Springsteen” is going to be the song with the most staying power.
Jonathan: As fine a single as “Springsteen” is, I just can’t see the CMA rallying behind a song inspired by the Boss, especially not in an election year. Bentley’s thoughtful and relatively subtle brand of patriotism seems like a far safer bet.
Kevin: I think that Aldean’s track is the coolest sounding record of the five. Surface pleasures will suffice.
Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!
Musical Event of the Year
”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Ben, Kevin, Leeann
”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw – Ben, Jonathan, Leeann
”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Dan, Kevin, Tara
”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
Dan: “Roll Me Up” is a little hoot. But “Safe and Sound” had a higher profile, and it gives CMA a chance to be like, “See? We do appreciate the Civil Wars!”
Tara: Every song but “Roll Me Up” feels like it’s lacking something (in Chesney/McGraw’s case, taste), but I think “Safe and Sound” will have enough commercial clout to nab this one.
Ben: While I’m always happy to see some Alan Jackson love, “Dixie Highway” just doesn’t match the simple charm of Jackson and ZBB’s previous collaboration. “Safe and Sound” is just such a cool, haunting record – one that brings out the best in both of the acts involved. But since “Feel Like a Rock Star” has the biggest names attached, I think it’s an easy call that it’s going to win.
Jonathan:“Safe and Sound” is my favorite track here, but not necessarily because it’s a great collaboration. “Roll Me Up,” on the other hand, is a fun standalone cut that feels like a real event, and I appreciate the self-awareness with which the artists toy with their public personas. But it’s hard to imagine more conservative voters being on-board with the phrase, “CMA award winner Snoop Dogg.” The Chesney and McGraw duet quite rightfully bricked at radio, but it’s still the most likely winner here on star power alone.
Kevin: “Safe and Sound” succeeded in pushing the most mainstream of artists into an alternative country sound without sacrificing the identity of the duo that helped her get there. Plus it actually worked as a theme song to a movie that didn’t exactly lend itself to easy theming.
Leeann: I’d be fine with any of these except for the one that will probably win.
Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Tara, Kevin
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
Dan: The “Springsteen” video is pretty neato. Oh well.
Tara: The video for “Springsteen” is haunting. I dig it.
Jonathan: The Twilight-hued video for “Over You” is every bit as narrativeless, cloying, and shallow as the song itself, so I’m just going to pretend this is a retroactive win for “Kerosene.”
Kevin: (…Goes to YouTube to watch videos for first time…) Lambert, you had me until the horse. I’m going with Church, mostly because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Poltergeist for some reason.
Musician of the Year
Sam Bush – Jonathan, Kevin
Paul Franklin – Ben, Leeann
Dann Huff – Jonathan, Kevin
Mac McAnally – Ben, Leeann
Ben: It’s Paul Franklin’s turn… and it has been for years now.
Jonathan: It’s not as cool as Chris Thile’s winning a MacArthur Fellowship, but Sam Bush’s nomination for his extraordinary mandolin work is my favorite thing on the entire CMA ballot this year.
Kevin: I can’t vote against the mandolin. I just can’t.