Here’s hoping you haven’t gotten completely burned out on countdowns yet. 2009 was hardly a favorite musical year for many of us, but amid each year’s glut of throwaway items, there’s always a good’un or two (or forty). The following is the first installment of our Best Singles of 2009 list, which will conclude tomorrow morning. Best Albums will follow next week.
As with the Singles of the Decade feature, this countdown has been compiled through combination of four equally weighed Top 20 lists by Kevin, Leeann, Tara and myself. An inverted point system was applied to the individual rankings (#1 on a list meant 20 points, while #20 on the list meant 1 point). The songs were then ranked together by number of total points, greatest to least. The final result is another rather stylistically diverse set.
As always, we hope you enjoy the countdown, and welcome all the feedback you can muster. Happy New Year!
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
The trio puts a country spin on an old school pop sound, but without forsaking raw emotion. The highlight of the song is Hillary Scott’s smoky performance, which draws out all the anguish and regret you’d expect from a desperate, 1 AM lover’s call. – Tara Seetharam
Joey + Rory, “Play the Song”
While Joey + Rory’s image appears to be squeaky-clean, it is fascinating that their songs have displayed some of the most attitude in the mainstream country music world. After releasing the sassy “Cheater, Cheater”, they have appealed to radio (the very people holding part of the duo’s career in their hands) to stop limiting their playlists with safe choices and to just “play the song.” – Leeann Ward (more…)
Emily West’s latest single “That Kind of Happy” genuinely makes me “that kind of happy” while somehow managing not to be “fake happy” (i.e., “country radio happy”) in the process. Finally, someone got it right. West shows us that a fun song, a fascinating vocal performance chalk full of personality and genuine talent are not mutually exclusive. This is far and away my favorite single of the year so far.
I wasn’t sold on West’s music with her last single “Rocks in Your Shoes,” but I was sold on the artist. Her personality was infectious. This time around, I’m sold on the music as well. Her appreciation for older artists isn’t superficial and that comes across in her production and vocal choices. This single is very modern, yet at the same time feels surprisingly traditional. It’s a good combo and it works very well for West.
This is the kind of song that initially drew me into country music in the 90s. If you feel like country has lost its spark in the past few years, download “That Kind of Happy” and join the unofficial Emily West fan club by requesting this song on your local station. For those who need help finding their local radio stations – perhaps you’ve forgotten about them in the past few years – try this: Radio Locator.
Here are my favorite singles of 2008. As Dan has done, I lifted the entries that I had already written from our collective list for this article.
#20: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Please Read The Letter”
The album from which this song comes seems like an unlikely collaboration. It, however, somehow works as one of the best albums of the decade and any song from it would make my top twenty singles list this year.
#19: Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Hank Williams III is known for relishing a rebel persona and this attitude is often reflected in his music.More often than not, his songs contain observations wrapped in harsh lyrics that cause me to wince, but his production and voice, which are both more comparable to Hank Sr. than Hank III’s father, still draws me to his music, nonetheless. This song, however, is simply pure ear candy. There’s nothing in it that makes me feel like I have to turn it down in mixed company as is the case with so many other Hank III songs. It’s nice sometimes.
#18: Jason Michael Carroll, “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead”
I’m not much of a Jason Michael Carroll fan, but there’s just something about this song that is infectious. The rapid and frenzied production matches its premise, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
#17: Gary Allan, “Learning How To Bend”
As Dan has pointed out, these aren’t words that most men would say without feeling extremely awkward. The intriguing thing about Gary Allan is that he can get away with it without anyone unfairly questioning his masculinity. He sings this song with fine vocal execution and hits those falsetto notes with incredible ease.
#16: Carrie Underwood, “Just A Dream”
While I could live with a more understated melody that sounded less like it was written by Diane Warren, I can’t help recognize that Underwood’s performance is just right for this intense song. I can only imagine that it aptly captures both the hazy confusion and blunt pain that accompanies the sudden loss of a significant other. I know it’s how I would feel.
Let’s do this, y’all. You’ll recognize some of these write-ups from our collective list, but others weren’t posted there or were cut down for that list. This is my “Director’s Cut” version, you might say – or maybe the “UNRATED!!” version, depending on your taste in films.
In any case, here are my favorite 20 things designated as country music singles in 2008 (that I picked up on, anyhoo):
Elizabeth Cook, “Sunday Morning”
Cook mines an abstract Velvet Underground song and halfway convinces you it was always meant to be a quiet country reflection. The production and vocal are a bit too buoyant to fully convey the song’s weariness, but they do flesh out its gentle message of hope, and that’s not too bad, either.
Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Silly and shallow it may be, but III’s turbo-campy lament of hard times + booze was also this year’s sweetest piece of hillbilly ear candy. I think it sounds like the fastest, most frivolous thing Johnny Cash never recorded, but maybe that’s just me.
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
What’s this? A contemporary country single with a traditional structure that skips on big choruses? A distinctive voice at the helm? Oh? It was the most played song of the year? Huh. So country music fans want to hear unique-sounding singers singing some semblance of actual country music on the radio? How perplexing.
In all seriousness, this smash really is a fine example of feel-good radio fluff that still manages to sound human. It’s impossible to evaluate honestly without the requisite (and very valid) comparison to Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” but honestly, I think Otto out-sexed his predecessor by a good margin. Turner gave a fine performance with his standard sweetness, but Otto opted for randy, slightly jagged cooing that ultimately sounds much more convincing coming from a man in this particular situation.
Joey + Rory, “Cheater, Cheater”
My soft spot for frivolity shows itself again. This tell-off ditty has a cute bite, and its malicious irrationality is delivered with a knowing wink that has been regrettably absent in many recent, like-minded harangues (cough cough, “Picture to Burn”). Still, it’s the frenetic bluegrass production and the couple’s palpable chemistry that ultimately sell the thing.
I’m always game for more regret on country radio, particularly when you’ve got two of the best singers in the biz on the job. The only thing holding it back for me is the melody, which is a bit too “Peabo Bryson goes country” for my taste.
Sugarland, Little Big Town & Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”
There is a certain kind of song whose impact simply defies logical explanation, which seems to tap something so primal in the human spirit that you don’t even want to try explaining it for fear you might belittle it somehow. You couldn’t ask for a better example of that phenomenon than this cover of Dream Academy’s surreal ode to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which resolves into a chorus of tribal “hey ma ma ma ma”s that somehow manage to say more (to me) than most actual words ever do.
It’s much more “Lion King soundtrack” than “country,” of course, but the union of all of these unique individual voices evokes the sort of grand communal warmth that you can normally only find in church or around a campfire. Personal favorite moment: Jake Owen’s solo, which he sings with such silky ease that it makes you pissed he hasn’t found better material for himself yet.
The consensus builds with the next set of ten singles. While there is still some lesser known singles and artists in the mix, more than half of these entries come from top-selling albums. Of course, radio still didn’t play all of those, either, but record buyers heard them anyway.
Emily West, “Rocks in Your Shoes”
A burst of country-poptimism that manages to sound both sunny and smart. Eat your heart out, “Red Umbrella.” – DM
Sugarland, “Already Gone”
Perhaps leaving takes place in two stages. The heart and mind go first, then the body catches up with them later on. “Already Gone” explores this concept thoroughly, with keen attention to detail. “Pictures, dishes and socks. It’s our whole life down to one box.” Months after my first listen, I still find myself playing that final verse over and over again. – KJC
Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney or Skip Ewing, “Every Other Weekend”
Two divorced parents contemplate the unfulfilling aftermath of their split and the lingering feelings they have for one another in intimate detail (“First thing in the morning / I turn the T.V. on to make the quiet go away”). Neither Chesney nor co-writer Skip Ewing was able to match McEntire’s combination of technical and interpretive skill, but you don’t get this kind of song everyday. – DM
I fell in love with Broadway musicals at age 6 when my parents took me to see “Camelot”. It was a truly magical experience, and over the years I’ve often wondered if my early love of musicals contributed to my discovery of country music, as both rely on the emotional connection developed through story songs.
In recent years, a number of mainstream musical artists have ventured onto “The Great White Way.” Among them former American Idol contestants and pop stars. For the most part country music stars have stayed away, but Reba McEntire stands out as a noteworthy exception. In 2001, she starred in “Annie Get Your Gun” to great acclaim. Even as a mid-run replacement she was given a special Drama Desk award, among others. She also gave a memorable turn as Nellie Forbush in the Carnegie Hall production of “South Pacific” in 2006.
While I do believe the experience may be beneficial for some artists in learning how to interpret lyrics and connect with the audience, most country artists will likely never perform on Broadway. So mostly for fun, and out of appreciation and love for both genres, I cast some of today’s country artists in various Broadway roles:
Carrie Underwood as Cosette in “Les Miserables”
Kellie Pickler as Ado Annie Carnes in “Oklahoma”
Emily West as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”
Julianne Hough as Glinda in “Wicked”
Toby Keith as Jud Fry in “Oklahoma”
Taylor Swift as Wendla Bergmann in “Spring Awakening”
John Rich as Harold Hill in “Music Man”
Ashton Shepherd as Jo March in “Little Women”
Keith Urban as Roger Davis in “Rent”
Brad Paisley as Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors”
Charles Kelley as Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”