Tag Archives: Faith Hill

Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “You’ve Got a Way”

1999 | #13

“You’ve Got a Way” is a beautiful showcase of the unique set of gifts Shania Twain brought to the table as a vocalist.

Her detractors often maligned her vocal abilities, dismissing her as a subpar talent, as she did lack the range and power possessed by several of her contemporaries (such as Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood).  Many failed to appreciate the fact that Twain had a strong talent for exuding sincerity in her performances, whichs adds more to a song’s impact than even the highest power notes.

Though having just conquered the world with a succession of hook-heavy pop crossover hits, Twain abruptly changed the rules with “You’ve Got a Way,” instead unplugging with a soft acoustic ballad.  Twain does all of the heavy lifting with her vocal delivery, and does so beautifully – with restraint, and a bit of an emotional quiver.  It’s a perfect fit for a lyric that is a simple, straightforward expression of love and appreciation.

I would recommend steering clear of the gaudy pop remix used in the film Notting Hill, as it interrupts the flow of emotion with unnecessary echo effects, an intrusive beat, and other distractions.  The original country version, however, ranks among Twain’s best work.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A (country version); B- (remix)

Previous:  Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

Next:  Come On Over

Original country version:

Notting Hill mix:

1 Comment

Filed under Retro Single Reviews

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

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

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

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

Written by Cory Batten & Tiffany Goss

Grade: A-

Listen: “Like We Never Said Goodbye”

Buy:

9 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, “It’s Your Love” (with Faith Hill)

1997 | #1

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s first studio collaboration is still one of their best (“one of” – “I Need You” is even better).  I’ve never been a huge fan of power ballads, but I probably would be if they all sounded as great as this.

Lyrics like “It’s your love/ It just does something to me/ It sends a shock right through me/ I can’t even get enough” might come across as paint-by-number if given a simple by-the-book vocal treatment.  But McGraw turns in a top-notch vocal performance – restrained in all the right places, but rising high when the time is appropriate.  Thus, the lyrics do not ring vague at all, but instead are heard to spring from a deep place of sincerity.  The song itself is good, but it’s the vocals that push the song to greatness.

In essence, Faith Hill does what is typically referred to as “singing background vocals,” but her contributions are prominent enough that her voice clearly comes across as that of the narrator’s lover.  More importantly, the depth and color of their harmonies gave fans their first taste of the powerful chemistry that became the hallmark of the McGraw-Hill vocal pairing.

To quote Tara, who says it better than I could, “‘It’s Your Love’ represents the moment in country music history when we were introduced to one of its definitive couples.”  Tim McGraw’s singles had been largely hit-or-miss up to this point, but as the precursor to one of his strongest studio albums, “It’s Your Love” announced that McGraw had found his mojo.

Written by Stephony Smith

Grade:  A

Next:  Everywhere

Previous:  Maybe We Should Just Sleep On It

4 Comments

Filed under Retro Single Reviews, Single Reviews

Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”

1998 | #1

As the story goes, “You’re Still the One” was inspired by media speculation that Shania Twain’s marriage to Robert John “Mutt” Lange would not last.  Twain and Lange decided to respond to the criticism in song.  The result was a song that would become a monster crossover hit, a staple for weddings and anniversaries for years to come, an instant standard of nineties country and pop music, and one of the songs that would go on to define Twain’s unique and outstanding career.

The song was remixed into a massive international pop hit, and was a major factor in powering the Come On Over album to such staggering sales numbers.  Still, the song is best heard in its original country form for one simple reason:  Any song celebrating an enduring relationship deserves steel guitar backing.

Like many a classic country song, “You’re Still the One” utilizes simple and straightforward lyrics to tap into varying emotions.  “You’re Still the One” is a song of joy, triumph, satisfaction, and most of all, a celebration of endless love.  Though it’s likely a song of personal nature to Twain, it’s constructed in a way that allows any couple to hear the song as their own story set to music.

It’s Twain’s performance, however, that lifts the song into the heavens.  Twain was never known for being a powerhouse vocalist like contemporaries such as Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Faith Hill (and was even dismissed as a sub-par vocalist by some detractors).  But “You’re Still the One” demonstrates the fact that Twain brought her own unique set of gifts as a vocalist.  She invests deep shades of emotions into her lower register throughout her hushed delivery of the opening verses.  Two choruses and one steel guitar solo later, she lets her voice rise as if releasing every ounce of the deep love and triumph that was previously conveyed understatedly.  Such a layered dynamic rendering is a fine example of Twain’s formidable, yet often overlooked skills as a vocal interpreter, as well as a testament to everything she got right as a songwriter and vocalist.

Sadly, Twain and Lange’s marriage eventually did dissolve a decade later.  Regardless, the song’s deep impact is untempered.  “You’re Still the One” remains an anthem for any couple who has ‘beaten the odds together,’ with my own parents being one such couple.  Songs become hits, and songs fade into obscurity, but this one has been around for thirteen years, and still shows no signs of ever being forgotten.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A

Next:  From This Moment On

Previous:  Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)

The video below features the International version of the song.  Click here to hear the country radio version.

7 Comments

Filed under Retro Single Reviews, Single Reviews

Pop Goes Country – A Cover Song Report Card

Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time.  We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed.  Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.

Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget.  My criteria is simple:  A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre.  This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.

 

Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.

 

Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1

Where it goes right:  Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect.  Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling.  I’ll take it!

Grade:  B+

Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1

Where it goes wrong:  It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer.  Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad?  It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune.  The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers.  The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.

Grade:  D

 

Dixie Chicks, “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac)
2002 | #2

Where it goes right:  The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics.  The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies.  As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original.  It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.

Grade:  A

 

Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2

Where it goes right:  Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.

Where it goes wrong:  The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song.  Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?

Grade:  B

 

Faith Hill, “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin, Janis Joplin)
1994 | #1
faith hill piece of my heart video Pictures, Images and Photos
(Watch the video)

Where it goes right:  The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling.  You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.

Where it goes wrong:  Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling.  Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.

Grade:  B-

 

Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49

Where it goes right:  Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics.  In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving.  The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station.  The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Grade:  A

 

Reba McEntire, “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Brothers)
1989 | #1

Where it goes right:  It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective.  Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?

Where it goes wrong:  The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.

Grade:  B+

 

Pam Tillis, “When You Walk In the Room” (Jackie DeShannon)
1994 | #2

Where it goes right:  Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music.  She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.

Grade:  A

 

Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21

Where it goes right:  The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album.  The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.

Grade:  A

 

Conway Twitty, “The Rose” (Bette Midler)
1983 | #1

Where it goes right:  Nowhere.

Where it goes wrong:  Everywhere. (Can you say bad karaoke?)

Grade:  D

 

Jimmy Wayne, “Sara Smile” (Hall and Oates)
2009 | #31

Where it goes wrong:  To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.”  The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.

Grade:  D+

 

Mark Wills, “Back at One” (Brian McKnight)
1999 | #2

Where it goes wrong:  If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version.  It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection.  The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards.  Seriously, dude?

Grade:  C-

 

Dwight Yoakam, “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
1992 | #35

Where it goes right:  Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least.  The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.

Grade:  A

 

What’s your take on these tunes?  What are your favorite cover songs?  What are your least favorite cover songs?

40 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous Musings

Single Review: Faith Hill, “Come Home”

What a voice this woman has.   Hearing it again, with just a few more shades of age-earned wisdom and range, is a revelation.

That being said, it’s a OneRepublic cover.  It would fit nicely on an action movie soundtrack, maybe playing over the end credits.

As a lead single to a studio album, it’s a bit discouraging, especially for an artist who has produced killer lead singles in the past.

Maybe I’d like it a whole lot more if it didn’t get so loud toward the end.  Sometimes I wonder if they even try to take a few elements out and hear if it’s any better.

Written by Ryan Tedder

Grade: C+

Listen: Come Home

 

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Faith Hill

Friday, May 5, 2006 – The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan.  For Faith Hill, it was just another stop on her Soul2Soul II tour with her superstar husband Tim McGraw.  For young 14-year-old Ben Foster, it was my very first live concert experience (or at least the first that did not entail bringing a picnic blanket), and it was one that I never forgot.  I still have the ticket stub.

I became a Faith Hill fan at a young age, and I became an even bigger fan as I grew older.  As I set about acquiring all six of her Warner Bros. studio albums, my admiration for this talented artist only grew.  To one who knows Faith Hill only for crossover pop hits like “Breathe,” “This Kiss,” and “The Way You Love Me,” it might come as a bit of a surprise what a strong album artist she was.  Besides that, she possessed genuine country sensibilities in addition to the pop diva persona that she became so well known for.

As I continue to eagerly await Faith Hill’s return with her seventh studio album, I’m thrilled to share my 25 personal favorites out of her eclectic catalog of tunes.  Many of these songs were substantial hits, but I’ve also left off a few well-known singles in favor of some lesser-known hidden treasures.  As always, please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.

#25

“The Way You Love Me”

Breathe, 1999

Now, don’t give me that look.  We’re all entitled to a little guilty pleasure time, aren’t we?  Look, I still don’t know what “If I could grant you one wish, I wish you could see the way you kiss” is supposed to mean, and I’m guessing you don’t either.  But what I do know is that Faith Hill somehow managed to craft a ridiculously catchy piece of pop-country nonsense that had me hopelessly hooked ever since I first heard it over a decade ago.  I couldn’t not love it if I tried.

#24

“Wild One”

Take Me As I Am, 1993

Faith’s 1993 debut single is an enjoyable and fitting introduction to a major talent.  The lyrics portray a free-spirited teenage girl who, in addition to having a rebellious streak a mile wide, is a proactive go-getter who takes life as it comes.  “Life is hard,” but she says “That’s all right.”  It’s an effortlessly charming record, and yet at the same time, it almost seems like an hors d’oeuvre in comparison to the deep and insightful material Faith would tackle in the future.

#23

“Sleeping with the Telephone” (with Reba McEntire)

Reba McEntire – Reba Duets, 2007

With this fantastic collaboration from Reba’s 2007 duets project, Faith and Reba play the parts of two neighbors, each of whom is married to a man who risks his life on a daily basis.  Their circumstances are different, with one husband being a soldier and the other being a police officer, but each wife copes with the same troubling feelings of deep worry and anxiety.  But honestly, this track is a shoo-in just for the pure pleasure of hearing Hill and McEntire, two of country’s most dynamic vocal powerhouses, paired together – trading verses and blending their voices in harmony on the soaring chorus.

#22

“Let Me Let Go”

Faith, 1998

A brokenhearted woman tries to move on in the wake of a break-up, but is unable due to the unshakable feeling that they really were meant to be together. (“If this is for the best, why are you still in my heart, are you still in my soul?”)

#21

“Someone Else’s Dream”

It Matters to Me, 1995

The story of a young woman gradually discovering her own distinct identity, and discovering that her parents’ hopes and dreams will never be hers.  When the song reaches its final bridge, the young woman has firmly made her decision:  “She’s got twenty-seven candles on her cake, and she means to make her life her own before there’s twenty-eight.”

#20

“Love Ain’t Like That”

Faith, 1998

In a clever composition with some classic Matraca Berg lines, Faith debunks a series of mistaken ideas about what love is really about, while also underscoring the importance of commitment in a lasting relationship.  Favorite lines:  “You can’t buy it at the store, try it on for size, bring it back if it don’t feel right.… You can’t trade it in like an automobile that’s got too many miles and rust on the wheels.”

#19

 “Let’s Go to Vegas”

It Matters to Me, 1995

The unshakable joyfulness of “Suds In the Bucket” meets the wide-eyed charm and innocence of “She’s In Love with the Boy.”  From the light airy arrangement to Faith’s enthusiastic performance, “Let’s Go to Vegas” embodies all of the youthful romantic excitement found in that one little moment of “Hey, I just had a crazy thought…”

#18                 

“Lost”

The Hits, 2007

This one might have come across as an attempt to re-visit the power ballad euphoria of “Breathe,” which it might have been, but it carries an extra air of mystery that gives it a distinct identity separate from its predecessor, while the melody and performance make the song captivating on its own merits alone.

#17

“What’s In It for Me”

Breathe, 1999

On the kickoff track of Faith’s runaway success of an album, her performance sounds like the release of an eternity’s worth of pent-up fury.  The aggressive country-rock production, combining awesome guitar work with some mighty fierce fiddling, added up to a record that sounded truly ferocious.

#16

“The Secret of Life”

Faith, 1998

In this philosophical number written by the ever-excellent Gretchen Peters, several men drinking in a bar ponder over the fabled “Secret of Life,” eventually concluding that “The Secret of Life is nothing at all.”  Faith’s half-sung, half-spoken performance brought the conversational tone to life, taking a song that was hardly radio-friendly, and turning it into a Top 5 hit.

#15

“Cry”

Cry, 2002

A full-on pop power ballad in which Faith strikes the delicate balance of exercising her powerful pipes in a fiery delivery, while still retaining the emotional connectivity of a great country record.  Her formidable vocal prowess is on full display, but even the biggest power notes are still colored with a deep emotional quiver.

#14

 “Breathe”

Breathe, 1999

Faith Hill took the pop-country power ballad to new heights with this cross-genre career-defining hit.
Regardless of how overexposed the song might have been, it’s a memorable record for the way it combines physical attraction with the warmth and comfort found in true love, while also displaying the increased power and fullness that Faith’s voice had acquired over the years.

#13

“I Can’t Do That Anymore”

It Matters to Me, 1995

This Alan Jackson-penned ballad puts into song the frustration, exhaustion, and hurt of a sunken housewife worn down from constantly striving to please her unappreciative husband

#12

“I Need You” (with Tim McGraw)

Tim McGraw – Let It Go, 2007

Of all Faith’s collaborations with her famous husband, this is one of the best.  This was only their second full-fledged duet single (with their first being “Let’s Make Love”).  The restrained arrangement lends a deeply intimate romantic feel to the record, while both vocalists give killer performances.  Tim McGraw digs deep into his lower register, while Faith’s soaring performance elevates the record to greatness.  Never before or since had their chemistry been captured as effectively as it is here.

#11

“Dearly Beloved”

Fireflies, 2005

This track served as one of the lighter moments on the mature and compelling collection of songs found on Faith’s Fireflies album.  The plucked-out, nearly-hillbillyish country-bluegrass arrangement sounds worlds removed from polished crossover number like “Breathe.”  In a song ripe with clever and silly lines, Faith steps into the minister’s shoes at a backwoods white trash wedding.  The flirt of a bride is three months late, and the groom is “checkin’ out the bridesmaids, thinkin’ that he might take the maid of honor’s honor.”  Fittingly, Faith ices the cake with a closing line of “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”

#10

 “A Man’s Home Is His Castle”

It Matters to Me, 1995

Listening to this song is like peeking in the windows of a home torn apart by domestic violence.  “Castle” takes on an added level of realism in that it gives a voice to the battered woman, and even gives the couple names (Linda and Jim).  The victimized woman is hurt, angry, and desperate, and every tortured emotion is conveyed in the lyrics, which make no attempt to tamper the song’s impact with a manufactured happy ending.

#9

“Take Me As I Am”

Take Me As I Am, 1993

Could it be?  A love song that brings maturity and self-realization to the table without sacrificing the joy and
giddiness of newfound romance?  Faith delivers exactly that with the title track to her debut album, which includes standout lines like “I’d trade a million pretty words for one touch that is real,” as well as romantic lines like “Baby, don’t turn out the light… I wanna see you look at me.”

#8

“Like We Never Loved At All”

Fireflies, 2005

A delicate piano intro with strains of steel set the tone for a beautiful ballad of a woman who struggles to move on after a breakup, while her pain in increased by the realization of how easily her former flame seems to have moved on.  The song is bolstered by Tim McGraw’s harmony vocal, while memorable visual images (“There… walking with your friend, laughing at the moon… I swear you looked right through me”) bring the narrator’s pain down to a strikingly relatable level.

#7

“It Matters to Me”

It Matters to Me, 1995

An expression of hurt feelings that is all the more effective for its simplicity and straightforwardness:  “When we don’t talk, when we don’t touch, when it doesn’t feel like we’re even in love… It matters to me.”  How much more direct can you get?

#6

“When the Lights Go Down”

Cry, 2002

Faith’s 2002 set Cry was criticized by some for going in a straight-up adult pop direction.  But the detractors often missed the fact that Cry is a fantastic pop album, which includes some of the best songs Faith Hill has ever recorded.  Exhibit A is “When the Lights Go Down” – a stunning musical testament to the clarity and inescapability of ultimate truth, elevated by Faith’s showstopping vocal performance.  The song takes on a tone of positivity as it highlights the fact that life’s most turbulent experiences afford us the opporunity to discover our own inner strength.  Easily one of the finest tracks on the Cry album, it’s a shame it wasn’t fully embraced by radio.

#5

“You’re Still Here”

Cry, 2002

It’s hard to go wrong with a Matraca Berg/ Aimee Mayo song.  In a similar vein to Trisha Yearwood’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” “You’re Still Here” is a tale of the love that’s long gone, most likely in death, but whom the narrator still sees in her dreams, in her baby’s eyes, and everywhere else.  At one point she even says “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again, just once again.”  It’s an achingly beautiful lyric, delivered in one of Faith’s finest and most emotionally-resonant performances on record, while the soft touches of oboe in the arrangement add layer of mystery to the track.

 

#4

“Wish for You”

Fireflies, 2005

A mother’s expression of all that she wishes for her child.  It’s made even more touching by the fact that she never once makes the wish that everything in life will go perfectly for her child.  Instead, she simply wishes that, when things do go wrong, her child will pick herself back up, move on, and be a better person because of it.  That keeps the song from coming across as cheesy, instead deepening its emotional impact, and keeping it firmly grounded in real life.

#3

“If My Heart Had Wings”

Breathe, 1999

Sometimes it irritates me when certain female artists constantly feel the need to belt out their songs at the top of their lungs.  In the case of “If My Heart Had Wings,” however, I can’t imagine the song being sung any other way.  Begging to be blared at high volume in one’s car with the windows rolled, “If My Heart Had Wings” is three and a half minutes of pure pop-country euphoria.

#2

“This Kiss”

Faith, 1998

Does this song even need a caption?  Probably not, but here it goes anyway.  “This Kiss” is a perfect sonic encapsulation of all the joy and romantic giddiness of a newfound love (and yet it came out when Taylor Swift was still in grade school).  There are few pop-country tunes that are able to achieve such high levels of catchiness, or to give the replay button a workout like this song does.

#1

“Stealing Kisses”

Fireflies, 2005

Mature, intelligent, and insightful – exactly the kind of material country radio is perpetually in need of, and yet all too often shies away from.  “Stealing Kisses” plays like a sequel to the innocent youthful “Love Story”-esque material of artists such as Taylor Swift.  As a young woman, the narrator is “stealing kisses from a boy” only to find herself a housewife “begging affection from a man” with the passage of time.

Lori McKenna writes a beautiful song, and Faith Hill beautifully sings it.  The song was released as the fifth and final single from Fireflies, and though it only scraped the bottom of the Top 40, it offered one of those rare and special moments when the voice of the adult woman was heard on country radio.  Faith Hill and her label are to be commended for having the guts to send it to radio in the first place.  A definite career highlight, “Stealing Kisses” aptly demonstrates that, at her best, Faith Hill is just as capable of delivering deep, substantial material as she is capable of serving up a tasty morsel of ear candy.

34 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

A Tale of Four Hits Collections

Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star.  Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.

Alan Jackson
34 Number Ones

In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.

Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.

Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.

Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.

Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.

Tim McGraw
Number One Hits

Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.

At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.

But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.

For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.

If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.

Dixie Chicks
The Essential Dixie Chicks

The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and 1999’s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.

Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.

As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.

And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.

An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.

And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?

Brad Paisley
Hits Alive

If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.

And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.

Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.

The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.

Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.

Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.

22 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

CMA 2010: Female Trouble

It’s pretty rare that the CMA nominations garner much attention outside of the country music press, but the always excellent Whitney Pastorek at Entertainment Weekly has a lengthy article trying to rationalize the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from the Entertainer category.

It’s amazing that in a year where a record was set for the most nominations by a female artist, there can still be a valid accusation of gender bias among the nominations.  Women have been poorly represented in the Entertainer category for pretty much the entire history of the CMA Awards.  Even when you include duos or groups with female members, there have never been more than two out of five nominees that are women.

Never. Think about that for a minute. If this category’s nominees are to be considered reliable, the CMA is essentially saying that there has never been a time in the past 44 years that more than two of the genre’s top five acts have been female, and in the past decade, there’s never been more than one.

Why is this coming to a head this year, when it’s been a problem all along?  Because there is no rational argument that exists, in this era of decreased record sales and economic downturn, for the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from this category.  Ironically, the inclusion of another female artist – Miranda Lambert – makes the oversight even more obvious.  By any historical standard for this category, Lambert would be jockeying for fourth or fifth place, at best.

With all due respect to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, their success this year would not get them into this category if they were women. Yet two women who have far exceeded them this year by every measurable standard, two women who are more immediately recognizable and widely beloved than Paisley and Urban have ever been, are left off of the list.

There’s a bias here, and it’s hurting the credibility of the CMA. How is it possible that acts long past their prime, like Brooks & Dunn or Vince Gill, were still getting Entertainer nominations regularly, yet superstars like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift only made the cut once?  Has there truly been no woman besides Reba McEntire in the last 25 years who has been one of the five top entertainers more than once?

Even if you strain your reason to justify Swift’s exclusion because she was a little less visible during the last three months of the eligibility period, the Underwood snub is the most blatantly unfair this category has seen since the days of Shania Twain, who somehow only earned one nomination while she was absolutely destroying the competition at an international level that has never been matched.

Perhaps the voting methodology of the CMA awards, which allows voters to pick up to five nominees in each category, has exacerbated the “token female” dilemma.  I don’t know, and I really don’t care. Because in an era where even the ACM Awards are showing better taste than the CMA’s, the flagship organization of country music needs to address its female trouble while it still has a single shred of credibility left.

85 Comments

Filed under CMA Awards, Miscellaneous Musings

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26

The themes of love and loss have permeated country music for as long as it’s been in existence.  This second-to-last batch of great nineties hits contains songs that are direct descendants of well-known classics like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, along with a Shania Twain hit that would  have made Roba Stanley smile.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26

#50
Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)
Travis Tritt
1991 | Peak: #2

Listen

From the first forceful guitar strum on, this kiss-off number somehow manages to seem unusually cool and collected in its own aggression. You get the impression that Tritt’s character has been anticipating this moment, and has already made up his mind that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken

#49
I’ve Come to Expect it From You
George Strait
1990 | Peak: #1

Listen

This is about as dark and bitter as George Strait gets. It’s a coat that he wears well. – Kevin Coyne Continue reading

16 Comments

Filed under Back to the Nineties