Posts Tagged ‘Chris Young’

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

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

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:

Single Review: Chris Stapleton, “What Are You Listening To?”

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

chrisstapletonBest known as the former frontman of The SteelDrivers and a prolific songwriter, Chris Stapleton is carving out an impressive niche on country radio, far from the band’s bluegrass sound. His first single blends blues and soul, nodding to the record era with Tony Brown’s subdued, crackling production.

Songs about songs are common these days, but this one twists the formula. While music serves as catharsis for both characters, it mostly helps materialize Stapleton’s desperation over that painful distance – figuratively and literally – between him and the emotions of someone who’s no longer his. It’s a clever way to convey heartbreak, and an impassioned one in his hands. With his voice alone, he spins the bridge’s simple question of whether his ex is on an outbound plane or a sunny interstate into striking anguish.

That’s Stapleton’s real offering to country radio: a reminder that the power of a vocal performance can’t be underestimated, even in a genre whose heart and soul is so closely tied to narrative. Hum the base melody of “What Are You Listening To?” and it’s as mild as a children’s lullaby. Hear it with Stapleton’s embellishments, and it’s as crushing as his pain – dipping and breaking and pulling and surging until you’re right there inside his circling thoughts.

Stapleton isn’t the first to bring vocal heft to modern country radio – see: Zac Brown, Chris Young and Randy Houser - but his attempt feels more honest and less tainted by the parameters of his audience, especially in the acoustic performance below. In a year lacking smart, thoughtful releases by male artists, that authenticity makes “What Are You Listening To?” all the more remarkable.

Written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton  

Grade: A-

Listen: What Are You Listening To?

Single Review: Chris Young, "Aw Naw"

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Chris Young Aw NawIt's hard not to root for Chris Young.   He can really sing and his music would sound identifiably country if it was released twenty years ago, making it sound like Hank Williams in comparison to what's passing for it these days.

But he's got to pay the bills, I guess.  “Aw Naw” is a typical 2013 country party song that is easier to tolerate than most of the others because it's sung really well and at least sounds like it's been written and

performed by people of legal drinking age.

Now, even the greatest country artists pandered to the trends of the times.   Check out the hillbilly humor tracks that even Alan Jackson and Pam Tillis recorded in the nineties, or the string-drenched crossover pap that even George Jones and Loretta Lynn succumbed to when Nashville went uptown in the seventies and eighties.

Those songs don't make their way to the essential collections that surface when a great act's radio days are done.   Hopefully, this one won't make it to Chris Young's when his time comes.

Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley and Chris Young

Grade: B-

Listen:

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CU's Top Singles of 2012

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

2012Something 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.

 

#40
“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 when that 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


#39
“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

#35
“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

#32
“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

#28
“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

#26
“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

#24
“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

#18
“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

#16
“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

#12
“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

#10
“The Wind”

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

#7
“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

Single Review: Chris Young, "I Can Take It from There"

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

In some aspects, Chris Young’s hook-heavy new single may come off as a calculated bid to regain the airplay he unjustly lost from country radio’s tepid response to the excellent but underappreciated “Neon.”  Unfortunately, it’s hard to call him out for peddling safe material when I can’t get my toe to stop tapping.

“I Can Take It from There” illustrates how solid song structure and an inspired performance can lift standard country radio fodder from rote to memorable.  The magic lies neither in Young’s come-on of “Grab a couple of glasses and a bottle of wine… Baby while you’re at it you might as well let down your hair,” nor in the song’s namedrop of Conway Twitty - both somewhat standard Peach Picker song fare - but in the way Young effortlessly makes the song his own.  His energetic performance brings out an organic quality in the song’s pulsing melody, while cheeky-sounding fiddle hooks rip through the song, making “I Can Take It from There” a most delicious nugget of catchiness.

Of course, “I Can Take It from There” might not seem to hold up well against the brilliance of “Neon,” but it’s worth noting that while “Neon” was a piece of country heartbreak poetry, “I Can Take It from There” serves

the purpose of simple escapism.  That’s a worthwhile end in itself, and Young tears into “I Can Take It from There” with just enough infectious abandon to make the song soar.

Written by Chris Young, Rhett Akins, and Ben Hayslip

Grade:  B+

Listen:  I Can Take It from There 

Single Review: Greg Bates, "Did It for the Girl"

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Sonically, newcomer Greg Bates’ debut hit is a pleasant, infectious slice of nineties-esque contemporary country with a moderate traditionalist bent.  It’s the kind of song that country star Chris Young has made his calling card.

The lyrics fit snugly into

the ‘smooth sexy’ category that has been going over well at country radio lately.  Though the song is fairly tame and inoffensive, Bates eases into its hook with just the right blend of sincerity and subdued swagger.  He delivers cheeky rhyme schemes such as “I did it for the moonlight, slow ride, slidin’ over by my side…” with just the ideal amount of gusto.

Overall, it’s the straightforward, unpretentious simplicity that makes “Did It for the Girl” an oddly endearing tune – finished off with a vocal delivery refreshingly devoid of bells and whistles.  The inviting warmth of all that steel guitar certainly doesn’t hurt either.  I would like to hear Bates’ tackle more challenging lyrical material in the future, but for now, this pleasant country toe-tapper will do just fine.

Written by Greg Bates, Lynn Hutton, and Rodney Clawson

Grade:  B+

2012 CMA Nominations

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

The list of nominees for the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards has been released.  Eric Church had a big breakthrough this past year, and such is reflected in the nominee list – Church leads the pack with five nominations.  Power couple Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert follow with four each, including a shared Song of the Year nod for their co-write “Over You.”

What’s your take on this year’s field of CMA nominees? Whose nominations were deserved, and whose were not? Who got snubbed? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

The live presentation airs Thursday, November 1 at 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  The Country Universe Staff Picks & Predictions will be released the week of the show.  Feel free to join us on show night for some live-blogging fun!

Entertainer of the Year 

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift

Who’s in:  Kenny Chesney
Who’s out:  Keith Urban

No real surprises here.  This year we swapped out Urban for Chesney, but all of these nominees have been here at least once before.

Female Vocalist of the Year

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Who’s in:  Kelly Clarkson
Who’s out:  Sara Evans

Well, I was hoping for some new blood in this category, and that’s definitely what I got.  Pop crossover star Kelly Clarkson scores her first nomination in the Female Vocalist field, displacing Sara Evans.  There will likely be some amount of upset over Clarkson receiving such an accolade, as she had one #21-peaking country hit in the past year with “Mr. Know It All,” but has yet to release a full-length country album.  And…that makes her one of the top five leading female vocalists in the country format?  Okay…

Male Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Who’s in:  Luke Bryan, Eric Church
Who’s out:  Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley

Bryan and Church’s recent career strides are rewarded

with their first nominations in the always-competitive Male Vocalist race.

Vocal Group of the Year

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Zac Brown Band

Who’s in:  Eli Young Band
Who’s out:  Rascal Flatts (!!!)

Eli Young Band scores a pair of huge radio hits, and thus squeezes out a former staple of the Vocal Group race.

Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Big & Rich, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  Montgomery Gentry, Steel Magnolia

New Artist of the Year

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Lee Brice, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  The Band Perry (won), Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Chris Young (So, everyone except Thompson Square)

Album of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
    Produced by Jeff Stevens and Mark Bright
  • Eric Church, Chief
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
    Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
    Produced by Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten, and Jon Randall Stewart
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
    Produced by Paul Worley and Lady Antebellum

Song of the Year (Awarded to songwriters)

  • Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart”
    Written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Written by Dave Barnes
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Written by Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Single of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
    Produced by Michael Knox
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Produced by Scott Hendricks
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Produced by Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Produced by Jay Joyce

Musical Event of the Year

  • Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band, “Dixie Highway”
  •  Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star”
  •  Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
  •  Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound”
  •  Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker, “Stuck on You”

Music Video of the Year (Awarded to artist and director)

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Directed by Peter Zavadil
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
    Directed by Shaun Silva
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Directed by Trey Fanjoy
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Directed by Declan Whitebloom
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
    Directed by Michael Salomon

Musician of the Year

Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

Single Review: Chris Young, "Neon"

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

Chris Young’s third single off of Neon continues to position him as an artist with a skill so few of his contemporaries possess: the ability to gracefully tread the line between vintage and current.

It's easy to compare this title track to Brooks & Dunn’s dance hall classic, for example, but Young’s ode to a bar has legs all its own. “Neon” puts a different spin on melancholy – less aching and more content in defeat. If there’s a broken heart in the mix, Young’s too deep into his sweet escape (on the rocks) to care.

That’s not to say “Neon” drifts into drowsiness. As effectively as “Neon Moon” had us wallowing in Dunn’s loneliness, “Neon” has us reveling in a blissful swirl of booze, Santa Fe sunsets and Texas sunflowers. Its imagery is both vibrant and slyly playful, packing little punches like: “The sun can do the job in the daytime / But the moon ain’t quite bright enough / To light up the way to playtime for people like us.”

But no amount of clever prose could make “Neon” soar the way Young’s instrument does when paired with the neo-traditional arrangement. His voice sinks into the groove of the song so effortlessly you’d think he was singing in his sleep, skating around the melody with an appropriate blend of conviction and restraint. By the time the last chorus hits, he's melted the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation – a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights.

Written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne & Trevor Rosen

Grade: A-

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2012 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Throw on your bedazzled boots – the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards air live from Las Vegas this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. The show promises to be a melting pot of performances, with oddball duets like Rascal Flatts and Steve Martin - and no, that’s not an April Fools joke. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Tell us your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Sunday night!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Kevin, Ben

Ben: Okay, so I was going to go with Aldean based on his massive success… but Swift’s music has just been too dang good lately.

Jonathan: Swift is the only one of the five who has released any music I really liked during the eligibility period; that fan voting is part of whatever mysterious algorithm is used to determine the winner of this award helps her case. I recognize that Aldean has a good look at this, too, but I’ll admit to just digging my heels in and refusing to get on board with the idea that he’s considered the standard-bearing artist in country music.

Tara: Swift released some of the best material of her career in the eligibility period, and her star seems as bright as it’s ever been. And while I can’t picture her losing something fan-voted, I wouldn’t be shocked if Aldean snuck up on her, especially given the secret fan / academy vote ratio. I just hope that this time next year, there are a few shake-ups in this category. I’m bored.

Dan: I like Swift the best, but can’t muster the energy to root actively against Aldean like I did with, say, Rascal Flatts.

Kevin:  Aldean vs. Swift, with me erring on the side of the one who made more music that I liked this year.

Sam: Just a hunch, but the Taylor Swift voters might be as fanatical as usual because Carrie Underwood isn’t nominated for this award. That might give Aldean the chance to sneak in.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Kevin, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Chris Young – Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Chris Young

Dan: Aldean remains the hottest guy out there by a huge margin, and occasionally puts out something decent like “Fly Over States.” I’ll just keep picking him to win this until he does. La la la.

Ben: Aldean’s success speaks for itself, but I would really like to see Chris Young take this. He released a solid new album, remained a consistent hitmaker at radio, and has made the most music that I’ve actually cared about. But seeing as the industry award voters have been showing a lot of excessive Shelton love as of late, my gut says that Blake Shelton is going to get this. (There are no awards for TV Judge of the Year or Newlywed of the Year, so the ACM will probably give him this one instead)

Jonathan: So let’s talk about Chris Young for a minute. The guy has a fantastic voice, one of the strongest and most distinctive instruments to come down Music Row in a minute, and that alone is enough to elevate him above most of the other men who have scored major airplay in the past couple of years. But the discrepancy between the quality of Young’s vocal performances and the quality of the songs he’s performing is a problem, and here’s yet another instance of an artist with the potential to be really and truly great receiving a thumbs-up from the industry for work that’s just occasionally on the better side of okay. Where’s the incentive for someone like Young to be even better if he’s being recognized now? And what does it say that, despite his wildly uneven material, he’s far and away the class of this particular field of nominees?

Tara: I have to disagree with Jonathan on this one; I find Neon to be a refreshing, neo-traditional gem, more organic than it is uneven. In this stage of Young’s career, I view his body of work as a stepping stone and an indication of potential, and I have no issue with it being rewarded. But it won’t be; Mr. Lambert’s got the entertainment industry on lockdown. And I can’t say I really mind.

Kevin: Picking Aldean as the “should win” solely because he had the biggest year, though I suspect Shelton will win anyway.

Sam: I get the love for Miranda Lambert, but the Blake Shelton love is largely lost on me. Not a fan of Aldean either, but he’s due for this award.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: I think Swift has been the strongest solo act this past year, but Lambert released a decent fourth album and a terrific group one. With no place on the ballot to reward Pistol Annies (fix that, CMAs?), this’ll do.

Ben: Swift put out a string of very good singles, but… Four the Record + Pistol Annies = The Miranda Lambert love will be fully justified.

Jonathan: If we’re counting Pistol Annies, then I can absolutely see the case for Lambert and could be convinced to vote accordingly, and I think she still has the momentum to win here. If we’re just looking at solo material, though, I’m unapologetically sticking with Swift’s “Mean” and “Sparks Fly,” which trump anything that the other four women in the category released during the eligibility period. With Underwood having a new album to support and, hopefully, Kellie Pickler getting the recognition she deserves for her latest work, this category should be a hell of a lot more interesting and competitive come CMA time.

Tara: Swift delivered the better material, but Lambert delivered the better performances, Hell On Heels notwithstanding. By my definition of FVOTY, this should go to Lambert. (And I’m stoked for the fall award season, too.)

Leeann:  I have no real reason to believe that the Academy would take this from Lambert this year.

Kevin:  Can you believe that Swift is the only nominee who hasn’t won this yet?  I know Lambert should be the favorite, especially given the ACM’s fondness for her.  But I can’t shake the feeling that she’s lost some momentum with her latest project.

Sam: Miranda will continue to own this category until someone like Carrie Underwood steps up with a new album.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Jonathan, Tara, Sam

Ben: The Civil Wars are really the only duo I’ve cared about this past year, but they have been stupidly excluded in favor of Love and Theft (who only released one mediocre single in the past year), so I’m going with Thompson Square instead. They’ve been doing well at radio, and their music has not been terribly grating, but I’m pretty sure that the ACM will remain stuck on Sugarland.

Dan: With The Civil Wars absent from ACM’s roster and Sugarland having a messy year across the board, Thompson Square seems like the last band standing. And they’re cute, right?

Jonathan: The song remains the same: This category should’ve been merged with Vocal Group of the Year eons ago to trim the fat. Given that the ACMs are still ostensibly more radio-oriented than the CMAs and that Sugarland have actively alienated radio with the god-awful singles from their god-awful album, I’m going to say that Thompson Square pull off the upset here. Just don’t ask me to hum or even to name more than one of their songs…

Tara: I honestly can’t muster an opinion. What’s Sugarland been up to these days, anyway?

Leeann:  This category isn’t even worth comment this year.

Kevin: Saying somebody should win implies that I think there’s a worthy winner, so I’m just going to say that Sugarland will win.

Sam: No Bellamy Brothers nod? You mean country music actually had five legit nominees for a Duo award this year? Artistically, The Civil Wars and Foster & Lloyd would be the most deserving this year.

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

Ben: I’ve tried to hold out hope that the award industries would lay off the ridiculous Lady A adoration, but the CMAs and Grammys have shown me otherwise.

Jonathan: No reason to think the ACMs will break the trend of giving unearned trophies to the C students in the class.

Tara: I remain firmly in ZBB’s corner; the band produced my favorite single of 2011. But I would much, much prefer this award to go to the flavor of the month Eli Young Band than the flavor of the year Lady Antebellum.

Dan: I miss Little Big Town, but this is the first time in recent memory that this category has had five competitive groups. Like Aldean in the Male Vocalist race, Zac Brown Band sell as well as anyone and haven’t won yet, so I’ll probably keep picking them until they do, too. La la la x2.

Leeann: I’d love to see Zac Brown Band take it this year, but I don’t have enough faith that Lady A won’t just keep the award.

Kevin:  Always gonna root for ZBB.  Just losing hope that they’ll ever actually win.

Sam: ZBB is operating on a higher level than any other vocal group, but I’m alright with The Band Perry’s quirkiness getting some recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Tara
  • Scotty McCreery

Will Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Scotty McCreery – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Dan: Of the three, I think Hayes has the most raw talent (played every instrument on his album!) and could one day be an interesting artist. So, vote of optimism! ;D

Ben: I think this will be between Gilbert and McCreery. My gut says Scotty McCreery “will” win, but this line-up is just too depressing for me to make a case for who “should” win. Dan makes a good point about Hunter Hayes though…

Jonathan: I can’t.

Tara: Uh…I guess this is as good a time as any to confess my love for “Storm Warning.”

Leeann: I don’t even have the heart to choose who I think should win, but I’m guessing the “American Idol” winner will win.

Kevin: New Coke >>>> New Artist of the Year.

Sam: This is fan voted, right? Well, if McCreery’s fans can vote him to win “American Idol”…

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The Night

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda PartyDan, Ben, Sam
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The NightJonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin

Ben: Eric Church edges out Miranda as my pick, but I’m fairly sure this will go to Aldean, and I refuse to predict that Lady Antebellum will win this.

Jonathan: I liked Lambert’s album exponentially less each time I listened to it, so I stopped listening to all but two of its tracks (“Fine Tune” and “Dear Diamond”) months ago to preserve at least some degree of fondness for it. Church’s album has some significant limitations of its own, but, song-for-song, it’s the strongest set in this line-up. I have no idea what I would ever actually say to a person who believes that Richard Marx’s Repeat Offender Amy Grant’s House of Love Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night scans as a country album in any substantive way, or that it’s the best country album of this or any year. But clearly there are people who do believe that, and recent history says there are enough of them for Lady A to win this.

Tara: It’s a toss up between Lambert and Church for me, with Church’s realized hard-assness giving Chief a slight edge. But it’s Lady A’s to lose – and I’m not sure anything in the industry has frustrated me more than their wins as of late. It’s worse than laughably unfair; it’s potential-threatening. And it has to stop.

Dan: When Church is bad, he’s cringe-worthy. When he’s good, he kicks most of the ass he told you he’d kick.

Leeann: I won’t be surprised if Lady A wins, but I’d love to see Eric Church win for the most interesting album of the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miranda Lambert win either.

Kevin: I just hope I’m wrong a lot this year.

Sam: Pretty sad when a “good for a Jason Aldean album” album beats out two superior albums from Church and Lambert, but I think that will be the case.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Ben, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Ben: “Tequila” outclasses most of the field, though “Tomorrow” is also a solid contender. I get the novelty value of “Red Solo Cup,” but Single Record of the Year? Nah…

Jonathan: Even for a novelty song, I thought “Red Solo Cup” was poorly constructed and lazily written, but I kind of hope it wins, if only to prove that this year’s ACMs are just a straight-up farce.

Tara: I don’t love any of these, but “You and Tequila” is the only one I can imagine holding up in ten years.

Dan: Whatever.

Leeann: I can’t even believe “Red Solo Cup” is a contender! I’d love to see Kenny win for one of his best recordings, though I suspect Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win due to their cross genre appeal and all.

Kevin: Please let me be wrong a lot this year.

Sam: I will be rooting for “Red Solo Cup” and its inspired idiocy, but this could be part of Jason Aldean’s big night at the ACM.

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Leeann
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Dan, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leeann

Dan: “Home” has felt like awards bait to me since I first heard it. Me, I’m a “Tequila” guy.

Ben: Ditto to Dan.

Jonathan: As much as I’d like to see Berg and Carter pick up some new hardware, I’d still give the edge to Gill’s song. When “Home” does win, which I agree it will, I’ll just pretend it means that Jason Isbell has finally won a major industry award.

Tara: “Threaten Me With Heaven” is gorgeously written, but I won’t mind if (and when) “Home” takes the award. Country music could use a shot of graceful patriotism.

Leeann: I’m pleased to have three songs that I’d be happy to see win the award this year. I feel like either Chesney or Bentley will rightfully win…I hope so at least.

Kevin:  Pretty please?

Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Kevin
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Ben: I could actually live with “Red Solo Cup” winning this, but I still enjoy “Mean” quite a bit more.  Plus I kind of hate Lady Antebellum’s video for being nothing more than a glorified iPad commercial.  I also think “Mean” deserved a nomination for Single Record of the Year, so I would like to see it acknowledged here.  Still, I don’t think I can bet against “Red Solo Cup.”

Jonathan: That “Mean” didn’t score the Single and Song of the Year nominations with the ACMs that it has elsewhere seems revealing, with “Red Solo Cup” as the most likely beneficiary. I just hope that the faux gravitas of the “Homeboy” clip doesn’t give it any footing.

Tara: I’m equally disappointed that “Mean” didn’t snag a nomination for Single or Song of the Year. With the video almost as freshly produced as the single, it’s an easy one to root for in this category. I have no inkling as to who will win, but I’ll piggyback off of my co-bloggers on the frat party anthem.

Dan: I could do without how the “Mean” clip ends with a little girl idolizing Taylor Swift, but am I gonna vote against the country music video that had the anti-gay-bullying message? No, I’m not.

Kevin: I think the Swift clip has enough pizazz to triumph in the end over Toby’s YouTube video.

Vocal Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Kevin, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Dan, Jonathan, Leeann, Sam

Will Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jonathan, Dan, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Jonathan: The Lewis track is one of the worst singles of the past five years or more, and its nomination is an indication of how deeply modern country music hates the actual traditions and values of the genre.

Tara: As middle-of-the-road as it is, something in the melody of “Remind Me” intrigues me. And I have a random feeling the voters will use this category to reward their dethroned male and female vocalists of the year.

Dan: It’ll be interesting to see if “Remind Me” can unseat “Don’t You Wanna St– oh, who am I kidding. Nothing is interesting anymore.

Leeann: Ugh. I pretty much know that Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win, but I’d love to be wrong. Meanwhile, I continue to faithfully root for the Chesney/Potter collaboration.

Kevin: I like my Vocal Events to be full-out Vocal Events, so I’m going for Paisley/Underwood over Chesney with backing vocals from Potter.  The latter pair made the better record, though.

Ben:  I’m with Tara and Kevin.  “You and Tequila” is the best record overall, but that has more to do with Berg and Carter’s songwriting than with Potter’s contributions.  “Remind Me” is the one that feels like an actual event.

Sam: Aldean & Clarkson outscreamed Paisley & Underwood, so they lay claim to the trophy. Chesney and Potter, what were you two thinking by just going out there and singing? Next time, I want to hear some wailing and primal screams, because that’s what makes for a successful duet these days.

Single Review: Clay Walker, “Like We Never Said Goodbye”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

As the title suggests, Clay Walker’s latest single plays out like the alternate ending to Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s fiery “Like We Never Loved At All.” Whereas the latter finds the woman agonizing over her ex moving on, “Like We Never Said Goodbye” tackles a smaller, more predictable range of emotions as its characters rekindle their relationship over wine. On paper, it’s the less interesting road taken.

But it’s not the story that carries this song – it’s the storytelling, done expertly by both Walker himself and the lovely, fitting arrangement. From the first line, Walker is endearingly earnest, using an imperfect vocal to draw out his character’s equal parts eagerness and vulnerability. He glides through the story with playful ease, delivering its simple details with just enough purpose to make them pop. Only a veteran storyteller like Walker could breathe new life into otherwise colorless lyrics –“How you been? / Been awhile / Tell me how’s your mama?”— with nakedly sincere phrasing.

No matter how sweet the delivery, though, this story wouldn’t shine without its subtly compelling arrangement. Long before the lure of Billy Currington, Chris Young and Josh Turner, Walker was making music soaked in a different brand of sensuality, out in full rhythmic swing on “Like We Never Said Goodbye.” As with the best Walker singles, there’s an intangible sparkle somewhere within its melody, pulse and sparse piano lines – evocative enough to match the magnitude of rediscovered love, but gentle enough to remind us that country music is about finding the magic in the simplest of stories.

Written by Cory Batten & Tiffany Goss

Grade: A-

Listen: “Like We Never Said Goodbye”

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