Here’s my list:
- Dan Seals, “One Friend”
- Vince Gill, “That Friend of Mine”
- Don Williams, “You’re My Best Friend”
- Tracy Lawrence, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are”
- Garth Brooks, “A Friend to Me”
Here’s my list:
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.
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”
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”
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”
That’s Just Me
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”
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”
Voice of Ages
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)
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”
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”
John Kraus and the Goers
Individual rankings: Sam – #5
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”
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”
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”
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
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”
Original Soundtrack: The Hunger Games – Songs from District 12 and Beyond
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”
Hello Cruel World
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”
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”
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”
And So It Goes
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”
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”
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
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”
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
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”
AM Country Heaven
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”
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”
Sun Midnight Sun
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”
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”
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)
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”
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”
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”
High, Wide & Handsome
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”
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”
Up All Night
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”
Long Ride Home
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)”
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”
KIN: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
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)
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”
Thirty Miles West
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”
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”
Calling Me Home
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”
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”
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
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”
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
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
“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
“In Between Jobs”
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
“You Go Your Way”
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”
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
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
“Drunk On You”
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
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
“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
“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
“When It Pleases You”
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
“Is It Already Time?”
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
“I Like Girls That Drink Beer”
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”
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
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
“Hello Cruel World”
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
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
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
“I’m a Mess”
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
“Fly Over States”
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
“Two Black Cadillacs”
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
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
“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
“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
“The Dreaming Fields”
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
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
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
“The Sound of a Million Dreams”
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
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
Individual rankings: Tara – #3; Dan – #5; Leeann – #7; Jonathan – #8; Ben – #13
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
“Like a Rose”
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
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
“What Have I Done”
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
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
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
“Merry Go ‘Round”
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
A musical pairing that combines two of the most beautifully understated, comforting voices in country music. How could it not be good? Happily, songwriters John Ramey, Bobby Taylor, and Doug Gill turn out a fine piece of hillbilly poetry worthy of both talents.
“I Just Come Here For the Music,” from Williams excellent new album And So It Goes, is laced with simple, easily envisioned details that practically place the listener right in the midst of that smoky barroom as the scene plays out before the eyes. Williams narrates the story of a man who has recently seen a longtime relationship come to an end, and is tentatively beginning to feel out new romantic prospects. It’s a character that he inhabits with authority as well as the same quiet sincerity that has long characterized his musical persona.
The woman in the story is no less vividly drawn. She “doesn’t mean to be so cold” in receiving such attention, but like the protagonist in Pam Tillis’ “In Between Dances,” she is clearly recovering from a heartbreak of her own, and buy steroids in usa is not yet prepared to take a step that could potentially lead to further hurt. Upon the woman’s being asked to dance, the line “Lord knows her body’s willing, but her heart can’t take that chance” is as fine and concise a description of such a pivotal emotional point as I’ve ever heard in a country lyric.
Though the second chorus finds the woman beginning to gradually lower her guard, the story ends on an unresolved note. Do the two ever get together? We are left the guess the outcome. Ultimately, the story doesn’t need to be given a fully resolved happy ending. Its true value is in its presentation of a simple yet colorful snapshot of the point at which its two characters begin taking the first steps in their healing journey – an experience which many a listener can relate to.
How refreshing it is to hear a record characterized by such pure, elegant simplicity. There are no cheesy pick-up lines, no gimmicks, and no condescending cliché stereotypes – just naked honesty and sincerity, making “I Just Come Here For the Music” a beautiful example of country storytelling at its finest.
Written by John Ramey, Bobby Taylor, and Doug Gill
Listen: I Just Came Here For the Music
As soft-spoken off the record as on, Don Williams became known as the Gentle Giant, as he quietly racked up dozens of hits over the course of two decades.
The native Texan played guitar from a young age, and dabbled in many different genres while searching for his own definitive style. His first professional break was as a member of the pop group the Pozo-Seco Singers in the mid-sixties. The group had a handful of minor hits before disbanding in 1971.
Williams moved to Nashville to pursue songwriting, but eventually emerged as a solo artist. He first recorded for JMI Records, but broke through on ABC/Dot, scoring several top ten hits, including many #1 singles. His most notable hits in the seventies included “Tulsa Time” and “It Must Be Love.” He switched to the MCA roster when it acquired ABC/Dot as its own.
Despite his humble nature, the industry took notice of his talents, awarding him the CMA Male Vocalist trophy in 1979. By that time, he was an international star, becoming a major presence in the European market while also racking up hits at home. Recording for MCA in the eighties, the big hits continued, with his signature song, “I Believe in You”, pushing the album of the same name to platinum sales and another CMA trophy, this time for Album of the Year.
Williams continued to record for major labels after leaving MCA in 1986. He scored his final #1 single for Capitol the same year, “Heartbeat in the Darkness.” A stint with RCA brought him critical acclaim. His 1991 album, True Love, produced a trio of top ten hits, but its follow-up, Currents, received no support at radio and failed to crack the album chart, in spite of excellent reviews.
His recording and touring both slowed down after he left the major label world, but he continued to put out albums sporadically. He even did a farewell tour in 2006, which was intended to mark his retirement. Thankfully for fans, 2012 has brought an artistic resurgence for Williams, as his new album for Sugar Hill Records, And So it Goes, features appearances from Alison Krauss and Vince Gill. An international tour is underway in support of the record.
Next: #49. Toby Keith
Previous: #51. Sonny James
A Great Song That You Discovered After Everybody Else Already Heard It.
Here are the staff picks:
Dan Milliken: “Lord I Hope This Day is Good” – Don Williams
What can I say? I like to think I have a strong overview-type knowledge of country music, but I guess everyone’s got some inexplicable holes in their cultural patchwork. I’ve known of this classic by name for years and have listened through a fair amount of other Don Williams, but I’d never actually bothered to fire the song up until Leeann used it as her pick for one of these categories the other day. Good stuff, though.
Tara Seetharam: “Amen” – Edens Edge
This song was released months ago, but I just heard it for the first time on the radio the other week. There’s something about it – between the 90s-esque melody and the adorably written storyline – that totally hits my sweet spot.
Kevin Coyne: “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele
I don’t know how I missed this one, but in the last two weeks, I’ve played it more than all but seven songs on my iPod.
Leeann Ward: “Chasing Pavements” – Adele
Well, as indicated by their respective titles, her first album was recorded when she was 19 and her second album was released very recently at age 21, so it’s taken roughly 2 years for me to discover Adele, even though the rest of you have known about her for a while by now. Since I don’t live under a rock, I’ve of course heard her name, just not her music.
.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Don-Williams-Lord-I-Hope-This-Day-is-Good-150×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />Today’s category is…
A Song That Describes You.
Here are the staff picks:
Leeann Ward: “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good” – Don Williams
There might be a song that technically describes me better than this one, but this is the song that perfectly describes how I feel each morning before I start my day. I don’t know why, but I relate to it on a guttural level.
Dan Milliken: “Get Me Through December” – Natalie MacMaster with Alison Krauss
Her heart has grown cold, her love stored away. But she hungers to feel that love again, and wanders the world in search of things to rekindle it, even as she knows that some types of peace can only come from within. Now she’s anticipating another season of dragging herself through the doldrums, her feelings ever unsettled; but she still holds onto some kind of faith, some hope for tomorrow. All she wants is a good reboot, another chance to set her course a little righter. “Just get me through December,” she pleads, “so I can start again.”
Tara Seetharam: “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind” – Vince Gill
As most of you know by now, I connect with music via melody and vocal performance more so than via lyric. Though I’ve yet to identify with the story of this song, the first time I heard it, I remember thinking it immediately felt like “home” – like I had found an extension of myself in the song. it just…fits me.
Kevin Coyne: “Rocking Horse” – Sara Evans
That’s how I live my life. I’m not wired to do it any other way.
I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this
I wouldn’t be a man if a woman like you
Was anything I could resist
I’d have to be from another planet
Where love doesn’t exist
I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this
Well, this is kind of an unusual situation: a modern country singer choosing to resurrect an old country song…that was never that good to begin with.
Give Josh Turner credit for trying, at least. A lot of the current guys just pay lip service to Johnny and Willie, then maybe do a rawked up snippet of “Family Tradition” at their show. Turner’s going all the way with this obscure-ish Don Williams single; he must really believe in it.
It’s just an odd shame, then, that “I Wouldn’t Be a Man” happens to be such a sloppy composition.
The song is about makin’ love. And the verses relish the little details and sensations of that endeavor, making this particular evening, and this particular connection, sound truly special. That’s until, out of nowhere, that chorus comes in and inadvertently declares all the sexy magic, well, kind of ordinary. “I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this. I wouldn’t be a man if I woman like you was anything I could resist.” It’s a jarring shift in focus that even the song’s steady, sensual groove can’t fully mask.
More significantly, though, it’s a bungled compliment to the woman – a mood-killer. Imagine being in bed with someone who seduces you with pretty nothings about how great you look in the moonlight, then abruptly adds, “of course, it’s only biologically normal that I should be so aroused by how good you look right now. I mean, it’s not like I’m an alien from another planet or something! Haha! …But seriously, I’m not.” If I were the woman, I’d probably respond, “I thought we were talking about me.”
Then there’s this unintentional awkwardness: if taken literally, the chorus’ lyrics dismiss the reality that there a lot of people who are rightfully called “men” – and not “aliens from a loveless planet” – who don’t find attractive women attractive. Not such a weird issue for a country song from the 80’s, of course, but for a 2011 release, it feels like a dated perspective.
So it’s all just a bit…kooky.
Of course, it’s easy to see why the record will still appeal to people. Despite an uncharacteristically detached vocal, Turner sounds both masculine and sweet, an appealing romantic combo. He even repeatedly identifies himself by the word “man,” probably further reminding you subconsciously of his primal, sexual identity. This track is engineered to turn you – or someone you know – on. And on an aesthetic level, it works.
But much like the act it celebrates, it doesn’t always make much sense.
Written by Rory Burke & Mike Reid
Listen: I Wouldn’t Be a Man
As we reach the halfway point of the countdown, seventies stars like Tanya Tucker and Don Williams prove just as relevant to the decade as newbies like Terri Clark and and Clay Walker. But it’s eighties original George Strait that dominates this section with three additional entries.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #225-#201
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1992 | Peak: #4
A lightweight wish list/love ditty that somehow seems to tap into a deep well of truth. Credit Carpenter’s soulful vocal, which digs in and finds the cohesive character written between the song’s separate cute lines. – Dan Milliken
Lacy J. Dalton
1990 | Peak: #15
The electric guitar line sounds cribbed from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, but the sentiment couldn’t be much more different. Dalton is tense all over, as bad omens seem to stack on top of each other while she waits in anticipation of one big let-down. – DM Continue reading
As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year. There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.
As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.
There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years. This year, it’s David Nail. Good for him! Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it. With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.
Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award. He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.
“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record. Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.
George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit. Underwood won at the CMAs later that year. “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.
In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood. Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”
Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005. McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”
Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.
Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.
Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.
Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening. Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.
As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”
Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.
While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.
It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you. That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.
There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.
Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.
Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.
This was Jackson’s first major industry award.
Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that year.
Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.
Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.
Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.
This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982” under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.
So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.
Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.
Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?
Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.
This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.
Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.
West Coast represent!
In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.
All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.
A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.
Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.
Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.
Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.
This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.
Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.
Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.
Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.
A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.
Facts & Feats:
Most Nominations Without a Win
Singles that Won Both the ACM and CMA Award: