The country music umbrella stretched wider than ever this year, regardless of the fact that radio playlists seem shorter than ever.
Of course, it’s not just the Americana acts that can’t get radio play these days. Even top-selling albums by Scotty McCreery and Alison Krauss & Union Station weren’t embraced.
Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted a list of their ten favorite albums of 2011. 31 different albums were included on our lists, and over the next two days, we’ll share with you our collective top twenty.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11
#20 Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
His tenure with the Punch Brothers and his winning of the first annual “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010 both earned Noam Pikelny the clout to release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his second solo album and first since 2004. Joined by an all-star roster of fellow pickers, Pikelny’s mostly instrumental set is a showcase both for its lead artist’s extraordinary technical skills and for the banjo’s wide-ranging potential. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Fish and Bird” featuring Aoife O’Donovan, “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
#19 The King is Dead
The indie favorites take their hyper-literate brand of folk-rock for a rustic spin, achieving new concision in the process. Colin Meloy’s wild narratives and wilder lexical choices sound right at home in these short-and-sweet song designs, and the Americana field is richer for having them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: Dan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “June Hymn”
That solo women disappeared from country radio was one of 2011′s major talking points within the genre, but Sunny Sweeney’s Concrete provided some of the most compelling evidence that it wasn’t a lack of strong material that kept female artists off radio playlists. Balancing a keen traditionalist bent with a thoroughly modern point-of-view, Sweeney’s fully-drawn characters and clever spins on familiar country tropes proved that an album that sounds “radio friendly” doesn’t have to be light on actual substance or craft. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Ben – #3
Recommended Tracks: “Amy,” “From a Table Away,” “Fall for Me”
#17 It’s Already Tomorrow
Foster and Lloyd
Their first time around, Foster and Lloyd were one of the coolest country acts going, blending in a love of traditional country music with some ’60s post-British Invasion rock vibes. It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album in 20 years, shows an impressive return to form. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd have released some terrific solo albums, but there is a definite magic that happens when they record as a duo. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Picasso’s Mandolin,” “That’s What She Said,” “Can’t Make Love Make Sense”
#16 This is My Blood
The Dirt Drifters
As mainstream country music becomes increasingly slick and polished, it’s a refreshing change to hear something gritty and rough around the edges. The Dirt Drifters’ debut on Warner Bros. certainly qualifies. If you’re looking for country-rock that takes its cue from run-down country roadhouses instead of ’80s arena rock, this album is for you. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #3; Dan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” “Hurt Somebody”
#15 Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town
Hank III’s entire artistic persona is built on indulging in every type of excess he can think of, so it was hardly a shock when, for his first recordings after a less-than-amicable departure from Curb Records, he dropped four full-length albums of new material on the same day. While not all of his ideas are good ones– the less said about Cattle Callin’, the better– the double-album Ghost to a Ghost / Gutter Town proves that Hank III is driven to his spectacular highs not just by the various recreational drugs circulating through his bloodstream but also by a real fearlessness and creativity and a sense of respect for his bloodline. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #1
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Ya Wanna,” “Musha’s,” “Dyin’ Day”
#14 Ghost on the Canvas
A late-in-life swan song by an icon acutely aware of their own mortality. That’s a fitting description of so many of the best country albums in recent years. This is the best of that subgenre since Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #5; Dan – #6
Recommended Tracks: “There’s No Me…Without You”, “Ghost on the Canvas”
On the heels of an album that was largely a hit or miss affair, Church delivers a surprisingly electric third album, marked by its edgy sonic splash. But while its spin on country rock is undeniably enticing –a funky mix of swampy, trippy and punchy—the album’s soul is Church himself, a more believable artist this time around than most of his contemporaries. Because for all its hard ass sentiment, Chief actually walks the walk, as authentic as it is audacious. Outlaw in the making? Probably, but don’t tell Church I said so. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #4; Sam – #6; Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Keep On,” “Creepin’”
#12 Long Line of Heartaches
What more can you ask for? Purely straightforward and unadulterated country songs delivered by the finest vocalist the genre has ever been privileged to call its own. Smith’s own co-writes with husband and producer Marty Stuart (The title track, “I’m Not Blue,” “Pain of a Broken Heart”) sit comfortably alongside top-notch cover material penned by Harlan Howard, Johnny Russell, and Dallas Frazier, all backed by the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel aplenty. Long Line of Heartaches is a beautiful reminder of what country music once was, and could be again. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: Ben – #2; Jonathan – #5
Recommended Tracks: “Long Line of Heartaches,” “I’m Not Blue,” “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”
#11 Your Money and My Good Looks
Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
There was no chance that this collaboration of straight up country songs between Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent was going to garner any attention from mainstream country music outlets. However, thanks to memorable songs, pure country production and Watson and Vincent reverently following the spirit of classic country duet albums of the past, this project was surely one of the stand out albums of the year. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: Leeann – #2; Ben – #5
Recommended Tracks: “You Could Know as Much from a Stranger,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”
In this aggression-heavy era of Eric Church and Jason Aldean, it’s easy to take Keith Urban’s brand of swagger for granted. It’s a little smoother around the edges, a little less gritty – but when he finds the right song to marry it to, it’s as natural and dynamic as any in the field.
On “You’re Gonna Fly,” Urban trades his typical exuberance for this kind of cool confidence. He strips the title phrase of all its pomposity – just as he did with last decade’s “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me?” - but retains its punch with an assured performance. Even the song’s refreshing blackbird and songbird metaphors take the backseat to his delivery; his “Baby look at you now” in the second verse is so three-dimensional that it practically pulls you into the bed of his truck.
Like the whistle that kicks off the the first chorus, simple touches give the otherwise paint-by-number arrangement a sense of urgency. But there’s a deeper, transcendental quality to “You Gonna Fly” that floats quietly behind its metaphors and whistles – Urban hits on love’s ability to lift us –“fly” us– to a different plane, spiritually and emotionally. That he approaches this lofty notion with matter-of-fact breeziness (“One, two, three / Baby don’t think twice / Just like that you got a brand new life”) makes it all the more convincing.
Written by Preston Brust, Chris Lucas & Jaren Johnston
It’s that time of year again! The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.
We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be. This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff. Agree? Disagree? Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.
The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV. We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!
Entertainer of the Year
Jason Aldean – Kevin
Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.
Ben: It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees. Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour. That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.
Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.
Jonathan: Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.
Kevin: I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year. But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Dan: Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.
Ben: I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.
Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.
Jonathan: Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.
Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”
Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Sara Evans – Kevin
Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
Carrie Underwood – Tara
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Taylor Swift - Ben
Dan: Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.
Ben: Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period. I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010. But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)
Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.
Jonathan: There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.
Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed? Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it. For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.
Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.
Vocal Duo of the Year
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Civil Wars
Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Dan: Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.
Ben: I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.
Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.
Jonathan: Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.
Kevin: Sugarland’s album was atrocious. The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year. Easy call for me.
Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry
Lady Antebellum – Tara
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin
Dan: Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.
Ben: It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.
Jonathan: Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.
Kevin: Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.
Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.
New Artist of the Year
The Band Perry - Ben
Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.
Ben: Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day. Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.
Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.
Jonathan: Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.
Kevin: I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge. I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.
Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.
Album of the Year
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
Taylor Swift, Speak Now- Ben, Kevin
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give- Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.
Ben: In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place). To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album. Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.
Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.
Jonathan: Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.
Kevin: “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work. Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.
Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.
Single of the Year
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” - Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Kevin
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” - Dan, Ben, Leeann
Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.
Ben: “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.
Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.
Jonathan: This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.
Kevin: Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans. But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)
“If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
“Mean” – Taylor Swift - Kevin
“You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann
Dan: “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.
Ben: I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert. I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award. I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed. Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.
Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.
Jonathan: Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.
Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song. I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year. I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.
Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.
Musical Event of the Year
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Dan: The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”
Ben: “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner. The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.
Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.
Jonathan: “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.
Kevin: If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.
Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.
Music Video of the Year
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
This rocks – and, in its own way, countries – harder than anything else out there. Church navigates it with the ease of a NASCAR driver on a suburban highway, weaving and bobbing so charismatically that Luke, Blake and Dierks start to seem like uptight party-poopers by comparison. You believe him on multiple levels when he hollers that he’s “about to tear a new one in this old town.”
And yet, “Drink in My Hand” is also just a radio hit, no higher aspiration than to be a slightly cooler version of “All About Tonight.” And the secret’s out now: Church can do better. So wait a few months and check back in. In the meantime, let’s get him away from whoever approved “boss-man can shove that overtime up his can.” (Evidently, there’s such a thing as trying so hard to talk like the common man that you end up talking like no one.)
Written by Eric Church, Michael P. Heeney, Luke Laird
On his new album, Eric Church sings that we need “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all.”
Bear in mind that he’s singing these lines on an album loaded with distorted vocals and sound effects, guitar solos closer to Three Doors Down than Cash, and a song about Bruce Springsteen.
That’s not to say that Chief is a bad album, because there are a lot of keepers in its 11 tracks – some of them are even country songs. It just seems odd to be calling for Country Music Jesus when you’re acting like one of the money-changers in the temple.
Church’s willingness to incorporate different stylistic elements does keep things interesting. “Creepin’” kicks the album off with a swampy vibe and ends up being even catchier than “Smoke a Little Smoke.” “Homeboy” unexpectedly includes a harp flourish or two with the hard rock guitars, while “Springsteen” manages to capture that Springsteen sound without sounding like a ripoff of one of The Boss’ hits. On the flip side, “Keep On” attempts to blend the bravado from a Toby Keith song, a guitar lick possibly lifted from an episode of “CHIPs”, and some guy in the background repeating random words from the verses. It just doesn’t work on any level.
Fortunately, all the production tricks don’t often get in the way of a strong collection of songs. The two best ones, “Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up,” were written by Church and Luke Laird and tackle the aftermath of a failed relationship. In particular, “Over When It’s Over” nicely expresses the frustration of having a good thing fall apart.
“Homeboy,” written by Church and Casey Breathard, is the most interesting lyrically. In lesser hands, this could have been about a farmboy wooing his wayward brother back home with a list of wonderful things about country living (sweet tea, parties in the barn, etc. etc.). Instead, Church gives a much more realistic portrayal (“Ain’t a glamorous life but it’ll keep you out of jail”), and he and Breathard deserve credit for creating characters with depth and for avoiding a simplified happy ending.
Then there are the requisite drinking songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Jack Daniels.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they all have a retread feel about them and aren’t nearly as compelling as the other tracks. The lyrics have just enough of an edge to help bolster Church’s outlaw rep but not enough to be actually controversial. So expect to hear Church singing about shoving overtime up his boss’ can or how Jack Daniels kicked his ass on the radio soon.
If you’re looking for Country Music Jesus, Chief may not be the answer to your prayers. On the whole, though, Church has put together one of the most ambitious and interesting albums that mainstream country music has seen all year.
The Back to the Barroom album is best known for its raucous closing track, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” But the opening ballad sets the mood for the entire record, and sets the template for a whole bunch of George Strait hits to boot.
With as many cheating songs that there are in country music, there are at least just as many drinking songs. I love so many of them, but few more than Vern Gosdin’s “Set Em Up Joe”, to reach back a little. It’s even one of those prime examples of how to worthily drop a name.
I could choose from a couple dozen country favorites here. But they all come from an older perspective than mine. Ke$ha’s goofy trash-pop captures the experience of being twenty-one and living life tongue-in-cheek, trying to enjoy a last hurrah of irreverence and irresponsibility before proper adulthood.
“Homeboy” is an impassioned plea for a small town boy to reject the forces that are leading him down a path of no return, one where family is rejected, values are corrupted, and incarceration is likely the end of the road.
In small town America today, that force is crystal methamphetamine. In Eric Church’s “Homeboy”, that force is sagging pants and a “hip-hop hat.”
I don’t know if there’s ever been a stronger challenge to the myth of rural idyllicism than the proliferation of hometown, homemade drugs that are destroying the fabric of small towns across the country.
“Homeboy” miscasts the enemy as the other, instead of confronting the enemy within.
Our look back at the year’s best singles comes to a close, with unprecedented CU consensus at the top of the list. The top two singles of the year were ranked in that order by three of our four writers, and both appeared in the top ten of the fourth writer.
Here’s our ten best of 2010:
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1
Draw Me a Map Dierks Bentley
Bentley is getting a lot of deserved attention for sonically diverging from the mainstream to create a bluegrass-inspired album. It’s an excellent album, but to his credit, “Draw Me A Map” isn’t so far removed from some of the unreleased songs on his first two mainstream projects; It’s just that he gets to shine a finer focus on it for this album, and therefore, this seemingly subversive song for radio gets to be released. The inspired blend of Bentley’s ragged voice with Alison Krauss’ angelic one takes the song to an even sweeter level. – Leeann Ward
Broken Chely Wright
Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that “Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution.” He was talking, in context, about marriage. The truth is that no one enters a relationship completely free of burden, and only by submitting to the complications of that truth can we avoid being ruled by them. Wright, for her part, manages the task with simple, earnest grace, probably strengthening her relationship through mere acknowledgment of its weaknesses. – Dan Milliken
Drop On By Laura Bell Bundy
Unlike the year’s other booze-induced lover’s call, “Drop On By” isn’t rooted in emotional dependency; it’s fueled by Bundy’s earthy physical longing – and what a longing that is. Proving her masterful interpretative skills, Bundy churns out a slow-burning performance that’s both deftly controlled and achingly sensual, with just a tinge of playful warmth woven through. The song’s kicker, though, is the smoky throwback arrangement – a delicious mix of blues, jazz and country – that not only fits Bundy like a glove, but pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a great country record. – Tara Seetharam
Giddy On Up Laura Bell Bundy
The most interesting and surprising debut single that I can remember. So many creative and unexpected choices are made, but it is Bundy’s forceful personality that pulls it all together into something cohesive. In an era of country music that is little more than dull shades of gray, “Giddy On Up” is a Technicolor marvel. – Kevin Coyne
As She’s Walking Away Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
A young man just about chickens out of approaching the radiant girl across the bar, panicking that “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.” Luckily, Wise Older Man At Bar can see exactly what’s going on and nudges Junior into action. A bit silly, but the single radiates such warmth that you gobble it up. And if there was a more motivational moment in 2010 than Alan Jackson’s spoken “Go on, son,” well, I didn’t hear it. – DM
Smoke a Little Smoke Eric Church
Church finally puts his music where his mouth is, delivering an unapologetic, roguish (for country radio, anyway) ode to escapism by intoxication. The erratic musical flow evokes the very physical sensations the song celebrates, and Church’s swagger makes bumming sound almost appealing. Turns out that if you stop talking about being a badass for long enough, you may just manage to kinda be one. – DM
If I Die Young The Band Perry
“If I Die Young” arrives like a gift from an alternate universe, one where the public’s embrace of Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, and O Brother was treated as a road map for the genre’s future, not just a passing interest that needn’t be cultivated. – KC
Stuck Like Glue Sugarland
Every once and awhile, a piece of ear candy comes along that defies the term “ear candy.” That’s what “Stuck Like Glue” is, to be sure: an infectious acoustic-pop morsel, invigorated by Nettles’ insanely joyful performance and a genre-busting breakdown. But there’s something about the song that puts it on another plane. Maybe it’s the organic energy, or maybe it’s the lack of artistic inhibition. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that “Stuck Like Glue” doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It just is. And as a result, it’s that rare breed of song that taps into your spirit – that demands you to stop thinking, start feeling and have a damn good time. – TS
Little White Church Little Big Town
It probably owes some theme to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” but Little Big Town’s swampy sleeper hit is the coolest-sounding country single of the year all on its own. From handclaps to snarling electric licks, creepy whispers to gospel-esque call-and-response choruses, “Little White Church” is a potent reminder of all the creativity still bubbling under in Music City. – DM
The House That Built Me Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert’s career defining song is also our song of the year. Not much can be said about this gorgeous ode to childhood memories that hasn’t already been said better by countless writers before me, including our very own Dan Milliken, which helps make the case for what’s inevitably the song of the year on many 2010 countdowns.
Its all-acoustic, understated arrangement underscores the story of a woman who tries to find solace in the memories buried in a structure that was more than a house. Its descriptive lyrics move us as they detail memories from turning blueprints into the family dream home to the heartbreak of losing the family dog.
As it is always is with the best songs, “The House that Built Me” does not hit us over the head with its emotional resonance. It’s strong, it’s palpable, but it’s all done with gentleness, which is the most effective way to tug at the heartstrings. – LW
Sometimes – most of the time – I fall behind on my planned CU work and wind up with a backlog of opinions. And it can be so mentally taxing carrying all that around, you know? Gotta clean out the file sometime. So if you happen to be feeling nostalgic for, oh, five months ago, please join me in considering a bunch of singles which came out around then and pretending like they’re brand-new.
Rodney Atkins, “Farmer’s Daughter”
A warm production, likable vocal by Atkins. I just can’t bring myself to care about the story. Nothing about it feels urgent or revelatory. Grade: C
How this has crept up to become his first Top 30 single in eight years is beyond me, since it’s about as exciting as a dreamless nap. A true “sleeper hit,” yuk yuk. Oh! And does it not totally sound like that “Ooohhh, but I feel it” song from the 90′s? Anyway, a pleasant enough listen if you’re in the mood for it. Grade: C+
It sounds like what would happen if Taylor Swift listened to one Caroline Herring track – just one – and decided to come up with her own version. I mean that in a good way, mostly. Kimberly Perry has written and performed a very pretty-sounding record here, gratuitous “uh oh”s aside, and and Republic Nashville should be commended for releasing something with such ambitious subject matter as a second single.
I just wish the song itself had undergone some more revision first. The pieces are set for a sweet, eloquent hypothetical about premature death, but then that third verse comes and it sounds like she’s actually anticipating her demise and has an agenda for it. It’s muddling.
So, not the home run it could have been. But still an admirable effort. Grade: B-
It looks like this single has already fallen off the radar, which is a big shame. Bundy’s controlled performance demonstrates why she’s among the most promising new acts out there, and the song is a sweet sip of lounge-y countrypolitan.
What’s missing is a great hook. “Drop on By” is a kind of a ho-hum central phrase, and it isn’t matched with a memorable enough melody here to make it really stick. Then again, the tracks on Bundy’s album that do have good hooks (“Cigarette”, “If You Want My Love”) won’t fit radio anyway because they’re too sharp and unique. The gal can’t win. Grade: B
For a number of reasons – the biggest of which was “Love Your Love the Most” dancing on my gag reflex, but there were others – I passed altogether on listening to his sophomore album, and ignored this single’s existence for a good while.
Now I’ve heard it, though, and damn it, I can’t go back. This ode to substance-fueled escapism may be the most daring country single of the year, even without the “stash” reference in the album version. The record actually sounds like a weird high, with snaky acoustic guitars, jarring electrics, and creepy-cool effects on the vocals, yet it never sacrifices accessibility in pursuit of its aesthetic. It ain’t a country sound (check those Collective Soul-aping “yeah”s), but it’s serving a very country theme, and for once, Church’s frat-boy cockiness actually works. Grade: A-
More lightweight, breezy Strait-gazing. The chorus has a bit of an awkward meter, but I’ll deal. In earlier days, this might have been a bit boring compared to its company at radio. Today, it’s just refreshing. Grade: B
Don’t care for this guy’s name – sounds like a rodeo emcee’s or something – but what a cool-sounding debut single. Mournful guitar licks, propulsive beat, appealingly gritty vocal. If only the melody were as confident throughout as it is in the second half of the chorus (“The heaven we had / The hell that I’m going through / Other than that / There ain’t much left of lovin’ you”). Still, not too shabby. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “How I Got to Be This Way”
Strike three. Moore seems to have potential, and I don’t mean to pick on him or his writers, but his output since “Back That Thing Up” represents everything I don’t like about mainstream country today. This is loud, one-dimensional, and worst of all, uninteresting. Grade: D
I’ll say this for David Nail: he’s ambitious. Though his first two singles didn’t win me over, I found something bold to admire in each. “I’m About to Come Alive” cast him as a co-dependent loser – not exactly flattering – while “Red Light” aimed for psychological depth with its focus on the mundane nature of break-ups. Both were refreshingly moody for country radio, and both could have made great breakthrough hits were the songs themselves a bit more compelling.
From a compositional standpoint, “Turning Home” isn’t actually as risky or complex as those forerunners; in fact, it’s very much your typical nostalgic Kenny Chesney co-write. But it’s crisp and coherent enough to give Nail some interpretive room, and he reaches for the stars, delivering an emotional, octave-sweeping performance that goes a long way toward breathing new life into the well-trod themes.
He unfortunately has to do battle with a screechy electric guitar that surfaces in the instrumental break, and there’s no denying that this single owes much more to Elton John or Gavin DeGraw-type artists than it does to anyone in the realm of traditional country. Nevertheless, Nail’s ambition was well-spent here. Grade: A-
His ”Beer on the Table” was enjoyable, if a bit derivative-sounding, but I’ll pass on this one. It’s pretty much a less friendly, slightly wittier version of “Small Town U.S.A.”, of which I was never a fan in the first place. Grade: D+