The festivities begin at 8 PM EST. Refresh for updates and check for winners above the fold:
Entertainer: George Strait
Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Vocal Group: Little Big Town
Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
Single: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line
Music Video: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban; director: Shane Drake
Musical Event: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban
Live Blog (EST):
7:04 First two wins go to “Highway Don’t Care” for Music Video and Vocal Event. First wavering of previously held sentiment: I totally want George Strait to win Entertainer of the Year for his farewell tour. – KJC
8:01 It’s 8:01 and Luke Bryan is wearing a glittery shirt. I’m already confused. – KJC
8:03 And the show starts with two of the most insufferable songs of the year (to me). Where’s the money shot of Zac Brown’s face? -TS
8:06 Weird how we can go from such a horrible representation of the genre to such a charming one. Carrie/Brad >>>Luke/FGL. – KJC
8:08 Brad and Carrie shining as always. This feud sketch is stellar. Thoughts on the Julianne Hough dig? – TS
8:09 It would be nice if there was someone other than Darius Rucker to hand the name to. – KJC
8:10 A bunch of rich people with insurance making health care jokes. Privilege goes down smooth with “Amarillo by Morning.” – KJC
8:10 “Cruise” is only one of the biggest crossovers of all time because they changed the chart rules. Boo. – KJC
8:12 I thought that was Blake Shelton in a costume. Turns out it’s the real Duck Dynasty guys. Wow. – KJC
8:15 SINGLE OF THE YEAR: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line. (That is not a typo.)
8:17 I can’t think of anything quippy, I’m so disgusted by this FGL win! – LW
8:20: CMA Awards 1992: The feud is Billy Ray Cyrus vs. Travis Tritt, and “Achy Breaky Heart” wins Single of the Year over “Maybe it Was Memphis”, “I Feel Lucky”, “Love, Me” and “Look at Us.” The more things change… – KJC
8:23 Jason Aldean singing “Night Train” is the best actual performance so far. We’re reaching a point where last year’s nadir is this year’s apex. Where’s Kacey Musgraves? – KJC
8:25 There she is. Singing a Brandy Clark co-write. Now we’re talking. -KJC
8:28 Can we take a moment to reflect on how awesome this chick’s mainstream success is? She’s looking and sounding fab here. Love this song. – TS
8:30 Always nice to hear some actual audible steel guitar on the CMAs for a change. – BF
8:34 Who else feels like a giddy 14-year-old listening to this new Lady Antebellum song? I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. – TS
8:35 Lady Antebellum with “Compass,” a song which is really growing on me. It sounds like it was made for a live setting. – BF
8:37 Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
8:38 Lee Brice wins Song of the Year with “I Drive Your Truck.” I’m not complaining. - TS
8:41 I feel like “I Drive Your Truck” is a surprise win…but maybe that just shows how much I’m out of the mainstream these days. – LW
8:42 As truck songs go, it’s not a bad one. But wow, there was so much more compelling material to choose from this year. – KJC
8:44 “Sober.” YES. – BF
8:45 Every year, there’s at least one performance that makes it clear that it’s not the sound system’s fault that everyone sounds bad. This year, it’s Little Big Town. They sound fantastic. – KJC
8:46 I’ll say it again: I always love LBT live, even if I don’t love the recorded version of the same song. – LW
8:45 LBT nailing “Sober” with a sparse and spiritual performance. – TS
8:46 LBT sounding fantastic as usual. This is one of those performances that makes me glad I tuned in in spite of all the drivel. – BF
8:47 Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
8:48 For one brief moment, I was clinging to a tiny shred of hope that The Civil Wars would get it. I don’t know why. – BF
8:53: Keith and Miranda with “We Were Us.” I actually think I’m liking this performance better than the studio version. It’s one of those songs that I like well enough, but would like better if it had a better production. – BF
9:00 Having Vince Gill and Alison Krauss onstage doesn’t exactly invite favorable comparison to Taylor Swift’s vocal abilities, but I am enjoying this performance. I love hearing the cheers for Vince and Alison.
9:02 Incidentally, I may be going crazy, but I actually think T-Swift is sounding quite decent tonight. – BF
9:02 The R-eh-eh-ed hook doesn’t work in this setting. – KJC
9:01 I feel like the TS collaboration with Vince and Alison could be good, but my sound must be messed up, because it’s not working for me… – LW
9:02 Even when Taylor isn’t sounding as bad as she usually does, it’s pretty daring of her to sing with two of the best voices in country music! – LW
9:04 Florida Georgia Line performing “Round Here.” – BF
9:10 Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz with “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me.” I’m actually enjoying this so far. – BF
9:12 Hunter Hayes channeling Gary LeVox with this messy live performance. This kid has so much potential, though. – TS
9:12 New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
9:13 Woohoo! I could not be happier for Kacey. This is one that the CMA got very, very right. – BF
9:14 I liked that Hayes/Mraz performance – LW
9:14 Eric Church performing “The Outsiders.” – BF
9:16 I don’t think Eric Church’s backup singers are actually making those sounds – KCJ
9:17 I wonder what the aforementioned Tom Petty thinks of this one. Me, I kinda dig it. - TS
9:18 Does that bass breakdown in the Church song remind anyone else of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? – LW
9:19 It would be hilarious if this segued right into the George jones tribute. – KJC
9:23 The Band Perry performing “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.” – BF
9:24 I’m half expecting Jennifer Nettles to walk out during this Sugar Land-lite tune. Really, though, that would be kind of awesome. – TS
9:28 Sheryl Crow presenting Album of the Year. – BF
9:29 Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
9:29 Blech. So much for my optimism is predicting an LBT win here.
9:31 This is pretty much the worst slate of winners I can remember. – KJC
9:31 Tim McGraw performing “Southern Girl.” – BF
9:32 I’ve decided the CMA voters are just trolling now. – KJC
9:33 This song gets on my nerves so bad. I can’t believe the songwriters have the bad taste to rhyme “girl” with “rock my world.” – BF
9:35 And there’s glitter on Tim’s hat. – KJC
9:35 Nashville fans, do you get a 90s Rayna James vibe from this song? Have I lost my mind? – TS
9:35 What is with all the glitter? – KJC
9:40 Nice to hear some acknowledgement for Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare.
9:40 Blake Shelton performing “Mine Would Be You.” – BF
9:44 Not one part of me can get behind a Blake Shelton AOTY win, but this is a decent song and performance. – TS
9:47 Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, George Strait, and Rascal Flatts presenting Taylor Swift with the CMA Pinnacle Award.
9:48 Leeann: I would like to hear George Strait do a Swift song. – LW
9:49 LOL to Keith Urban describing Taylor Swift’s contribution to country music while “22″ plays in the background. – TS
9:50 LOL at Ellen’s “Pineapple Award” quip! – BF
9:51 ”The Pinnacle Award?” Okay ,they’re just making things up now. No time for the Hall of Fame inductees, but time for this. And stop acting so shocked. They announced this beforehand. – KJC
9:54 This is like the first husband who knows his wife is leaving and tries to keep her by giving a really shiny piece of jewelry. – KJC
9:56 But it’s not on her. It’s on them. We got a stupid award made up in 2005 for Garth Brooks, with Mick Jagger and Julia Roberts shout-outs, and nothing but a three-second wave for Bobby Bare. Too much. – KJC
10:01 Carrie Underwood highlight reel from the past year leading up to her Entertainer of the Year award… Oh, wait – KJC
10:05 So Tim McGraw got a standing O but Carrie polite applause? Huh. – KJC
10:05 Disappointed in her team for taking the lazy route with this medley, but nonetheless proud of Carrie for, ahem, following her own arrow during this Blown Away era. My EOTY. – TS
10:05 So weird that Carrie’s doing a medley. It’s usually what people do when they’re not big anymore… – LW
10:05 I really enjoy Carrie’s voice these days. – LW
10:07 Vocal Group: Little Big Town
10:07 Can’t complain about LBT. Though they still look like ABBA to me. – KJC
10:08 Beautiful shout-out to Nancy Jones. – KJC
10:09 Loving the George Jones tribute with George Strait and Alan Jackson. I cannot think of two guys better qualified for this job. – BF
10:11 First time tonight I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Just lovely. – TS
10:12 So much history. So much love. – KJC
10:14 Kinda weird how the Opry can be just like a digital backdrop, given how many years the show was aired from the actual Opry. It feels sometimes like the arena has swallowed the CMA show like arena rock has swallowed country music. - KJC
10:14 The Jones tribute was wonderful. I felt a bit emotional during. I’m such a wimp. – LW
10:17 Zac Brown Band with Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters debuting a new song, “Day of the Dead.” – BF
10:21 Between this and Eric Church’s “The Outsiders,” I’m all kinds of confused and happy. – TS
10:22 Brad Paisley performing “The Mona Lisa.” – BF
10:31 The Kenny Rogers tribute begins with Jennifer Nettles. – BF
10:32 Jennifer Nettles is certainly doing her best Dolly Parton impression. – KJC
10:32 Rascal Flatts singing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” – BF
10:33 Darius Rucker singing “The Gambler.” This I can take, but if given a choice, I would just as soon hear Kenny Rogers sing it himself. – BF
10:35 Kenny Rogers singing “Islands In the Stream.” I love this song. Unashamedly. – BF
10:35 The audience sing-along to these Kenny Rogers tunes is my favorite part of the night so far. – TS
10:35 I’m enjoying hearing Jennifer Nettles sing this, but I can only imagine the warm fuzzies I would be getting if Dolly were onstage singing it. – BF
10:36 Wow. Darius did a rough job on “The Gambler.” Nettles and Rogers doing “Islands in the Stream” works for me! - LW
10:39 Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
10:40 Eh. Not my choice this year, but she’s being classy as ever in her acceptance speech. – BF
10:42 Very sweet of Miranda to recognize the other females in the category. Don’t agree with it, but there are worse things than her fourth FVOTY trophy (see: basically every other award given out today). – TS
10:44 Miranda is always classy when she accepts these awards. – LW
10:44 Given how the night’s gone so far, can we just call Male and Entertainer for Blake now? – KJC
10:46 Luke Bryan performing “Drink a Beer” (“a very personal and meaningful song dedicated to the memory of his brother and sister”). – BF
10:49 Leeann: I’ll admit that as much as I hate Luke’s music these days, I soften when I think of how he lost two siblings within a short span. I’m just a sap that way, I guess. – LW
10:49 It’s so easy to forget what a good vocalist Luke Bryan is these days. Wish that weren’t the case. His voice deserves better material. – TS
10:50 It’s nice to hear Luke Bryan singing in a quieter setting. – BF
10:50 This is a great song that is being sung well…on the set of Once Upon a Time. ABC sure is good with the corporate synergy. – KJC
10:50 Seriously? He even turns a song about his deceased siblings into a beer-drinking song? That takes…something. – LW
10:50 Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
10:51 Can we just get over Blake Shelton already? – BF
10:51 Blake Shelton, however, is not in the same league as the other two men who won four of these at the time that they won. – KJC
10:53 Other two: Vince Gill and George Strait. – KJC
10:53 I can’t even. – TS
10:56 Blake Shelton, Vince Gill and George Strait: One of these things is not like the other. – TS
10:57 I’ve learned to accept that ABC is going to use the CMA Awards to shamelessly plug their programming. I just wish that they’d leave the Entertainer of the Year award out of it. – BF
10:57 Entertainer: George Strait
10:58 That just saved the whole night. – KJC
10:59 I share Kevin’s remorse for not picking George Strait for Entertainer. Was he on the top of his game this year? No. But he’s still the only nominee whom I can be genuinely happy for their winning. – BF
11:00 Keith Urban’s arms in the air is the best reaction to George Strait’s EOTY win. I had the privilege of seeing and reviewing his farewell concert earlier this year, and he is an entertainer indeed. – TS
11:01 Go King Gentleman George Strait!! I’m so, so happy for George Strait right now! Strait is so classy. – LW
10:03 Thanks so much for hanging with us, y’all. Not a bad show, in all honesty. All props to Ben for keeping this post alive in the midst of technical difficulties! – TS
10:03 That was almost worth the three hours. Almost! – KJC
10:04 I’m relieved that that didn’t wind up another Blake Shelton victory. – BF
10:04 Thanks, all! This was a blast. Rough show as usual, but we had a few great moments. – BF
They’re as hope-dangling and ridiculous as they’ve ever been, those Country Music Association voters, and the CU staff has picked and predicted their 2013 awards below. Let us know what you think, and check back for our live blog on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST!
Entertainer of the Year
Blake Shelton – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Dan: Sadly, it’s become hard to care about the night’s biggest prize. Swift and Strait are the two I can stomach right now, and neither of them actually had much to do with the country scene this past year—the former because she was flexing her pop muscles, the latter because he’s winding down.
Ben: I want to care, but I really don’t. There’s only one artist whom I could have supported unequivocally, and she didn’t get a nomination.
Jonathan: The CMAs have a tendency to lag a few years behind peak commercial trends, so I think Bryan will have to wait another year or two before he takes this award. While Bryan, Aldean, and Shelton could split votes among the bro contingent (presumably, to the benefit of Strait), I think Shelton’s visibility will be enough to earn him another win here.
Tara: This was Carrie Underwood’s year. I’m angry, unsurprised and completely apathetic about the rest of these contenders.
Kevin: Shelton won last year and if anything, his star has only shone brighter this year. That being said, if I was a CMA voter, I’d leave this category blank. Carrie Underwood was this year’s Entertainer of the Year.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Luke Bryan – Kevin
Eric Church – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Dan
Luke Bryan - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton – Kevin
Dan: Again, pretty indifferent here.
Ben: Church was between albums this year, but he’s the one whom I feel has represented country music the best. With Urban being past his commercial peak, I’m going to give the edge to Luke Bryan for his current red-hot momentum, but I honestly couldn’t care less which of the three dudebros gets it.
Jonathan: I’d replace four-fifths of this lineup with Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young. If Bryan won’t win Entertainer of the Year, this will be his consolation prize.
Tara: I feel a little guilty rewarding Church’s residual awesomeness from Chief over Aldean’s admittedly solid year, but I’m still one redeeming single away from getting over “She’s Country.” Like Jonathan said, though, I think this is where the voters will reward Bryan.
Kevin: I’d give it to Bryan simply because he’s had a good year and has a good voice. Another Shelton win seems inevitable to me.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Kacey Musgraves – Tara
Dan: Who knows? Voters could give Lambert a record-tying (with Reba McEntire) four-peat, or maybe give Underwood her fourth trophy instead, or maybe give Swift a second one just to be zany, or dismiss the stats entirely and make a surprise investment in Musgraves. I can imagine any of those scenarios playing out.
Ben: I’ll probably be 100% Team Kacey at next year’s ACMs, but right now I want to see Underwood recognized for her incredible Blown Away era. As Dan noted above, this category is difficult to predict this year. I’m going to play it safe and bet on Lambert, but Kelly Clarkson is the only one without a shot.
Jonathan: Since there are far stronger albums than Blown Away in contention for Album of the Year, this is where I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for the artistic gains she’s made during her current era. Lambert basically told voters to do just that during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year during the ACMs a few months back, but it seems doubtful that they will. She seems poised to repeat, even though she’s coming off the most poorly received and lowest selling run of her career. Based on the quality of what was released during the eligibility period, I would have preferred to see Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, and LeAnn Rimes squaring off against Underwood.
Tara: Just going out on a limb here with Musgraves; it feels like this category is due for a change. Or maybe that change will be a throwback to Underwood? One can hope.
Kevin: I think Lambert will win out of force of habit, with bonus votes for having the good taste to cover Musgraves and Clark before they both became breakout artists this year. Underwood made the best music and, as always, sang it better than the rest.
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Kevin
The Band Perry – Kevin
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Zac Brown Band
Dan: I suppose that Little Big Town will repeat—but with “Your Side of the Bed” having doused their white-hot momentum, it’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps voters will finally throw Zac Brown Band the bone, if Brown’s Luke Bryan comments didn’t ruffle too many feathers. [Update: And ditto what Kevin says below.]
Ben: Little Big Town may have lost some steam with “Your Side of the Bed,” but they’re still going into the ring with a platinum album and two big hit singles, and they’re one of the only groups with multiple nominations this year. The trophy is theirs to lose.
Jonathan: Had The Band Perry scored more across-the-board support, I’d say they might have been able to pull off the upset here, but this remains Little Big Town’s to lose. Hopefully, a repeat victory will lend “Sober,” one of the year’s finest singles and arguably a new career-best for LBT, greater momentum at radio.
Tara: Cheers to that, Jonathan. Agreed.
Kevin: The Band Perry had a new album this year that was well-received. My personal pick is Zac Brown Band, only because I want last year’s Little Big Town win to start a new era in this category of acknowledging the overdue. Having the Dixie Chicks rack up four wins in five years is one thing. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum dominating in the same way robbed the award of its luster. Last year, it got a little back. Let’s keep it going.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Big & Rich
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Florida Georgia Line
Love and Theft
Big & Rich
The Civil Wars
Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Love and Theft
Dan: After years of sluggish Sugarland and shruggish Thompson Square, at least this year’s winning duo will have clear commercial heft behind them. Too bad I’m talking about Florida Georgia Line and not the also-quite-successful Civil Wars.
Jonathan: Same as it ever was: This category is years overdue to merge with Vocal Group. And the nomination for Sugarland is absurd.
Tara: I can’t decide what’s more amusing: Sugarland’s nomination or Florida Georgia Line’s inevitable win. (Although it does kind of feel like Sugarland is still haunting country radio with that new Band Perry single, no?)
Kevin: The Civil Wars. I swear they’re only nominating them so we can feel extra bad when they lose to Florida Georgia Line. (See: Rascal Flatts over Alison Krauss & Union Station, Martina McBride over Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless…)
New Artist of the Year
Florida Georgia Line
Kacey Musgraves – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben
Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Dan: Musgraves is class valedictorian, and Moore’s a solid B+ student, but expect the boys of Florida Georgia Line to cruise in on baseball scholarship and come out on top.
Ben: Musgraves has a chance, but I don’t know if her critical clout will be enough to compete with the “Cruise” phenomenon.
Jonathan: That Musgraves is the night’s leading nominee gives me hope that she can overcome Florida Georgia Line’s commercial heft. That she had the balls to push “Follow Your Arrow” as a proper single puts me firmly in her corner.
Tara: Moore is my personal favorite here, but Musgraves outclasses them all. I’ll throw my optimism in with Jonathan and Kevin.
Kevin: This is a defining moment for the CMA’s. Musgraves will help restore their credibility. Florida Georgia Line will destroy what’s left of it. FWIW, Ricky Skaggs beat Lee Greenwood and Mark Chesnutt beat John Michael Montgomery. Then again, Rascal Flatts beat Nickel Creek and Terri Gibbs beat Rosanne Cash…
Album of the Year
Little Big Town, Tornado – Jonathan
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Dan, Ben
Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
Taylor Swift, Red
Carrie Underwood, Blown Away – Tara, Kevin
Little Big Town, Tornado – Ben, Tara
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Jonathan
Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story… – Dan
Taylor Swift, Red
Carrie Underwood, Blown Away – Kevin
Dan: Tough call. In recent years, the CMA has coalesced around the album with the most “story” value, whether that story was total domination (Fearless, My Kinda Party) or a respected artist finally hitting pay dirt (Revolution, Chief). Tornado seems like a fit for that second grouping, except that Little Big Town’s pay dirt was already last year. So the field seems open.
Ben: Of the four albums that have any real business being nominated for country awards, I consider the Musgraves set to be the strongest, but my gut says that it’s going to come down to either Shelton or Little Big Town. I’m going to be optimistic and predict an LBT victory.
Jonathan: I’m not nearly as bullish on Musgraves’ album as many others are, but it seems like this is safest place for voters to recognize her distinctive, critically acclaimed work. Tornado is my pick for the most consistently excellent set of this line-up; Red hits some glorious highs, but it’s also wildly uneven and has little business being recognized as a country album.
Tara:Tornado has some really fantastic production, and Blown Away is a stand-out showcase of Underwood’s interpretive abilities. Personal investment puts me in Underwood’s camp, but based on momentum and the fact that Musgraves is new, I think Little Big Town will take this.
Kevin: Musgraves has the most critical support, but Underwood made a much better album, in my opinion. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Underwood will win. My logic is that she had an incredible year and this is the best category to acknowledge that in. Also, a debut album has never won this award. There’s always a first time, but Musgraves has a lot of history up against her here.
Single of the Year
Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” – Dan, Ben
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – Dan, Jonathan, Ben
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” – Tara, Kevin
Dan: “Cruise” is the behemoth here, and behemoths tend to win Single.
Ben: Dan said it.
Jonathan: I’d like to think that a record-setting run atop Billboard’s ridiculous mongrel chart would be its own reward, but it probably won’t be.
Kevin: There have been some goofy winners in the past. “Elvira.” “Achy Breaky Heart.” “Bop.” But there aren’t any in the recent past. I think that “Wagon Wheel” allows the CMA to pick a big mainstream hit that has a bit of alt-country cred, should they decide against a Musgraves sweep.
Tara: I agree with Kevin that “Wagon Wheel” seems like a nice compromise for the voters. I’d be cool with any of the latter three winning, but to me, “Mama’s Broken Heart” has the most momentum from start to finish.
Song of the Year
“I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
“Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin
“Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Dan, Ben, Tara
“Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
“Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor – Dan, Jonathan
“I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary - Dan, Jonathan
“Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Ben, Tara, Kevin
“Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
“Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor
Dan: “Wagon Wheel” is a proven standard, but voters will probably want to go with something newer, and I guess I do, too. There’s a decent chance that Musgraves will get acknowledged here with “Merry Go ‘Round,” but with two co-writes in the pool, her danger is vote-splitting—and if that does happen, I defer to Jonathan’s logic below. Plus, frankly, CMA voters love songs about deceased loved ones.
Ben: It’s definitely possible that vote-splitting may be turn out to be Musgraves’ undoing in this category, but my guess is that “Merry Go ‘Round” will ultimately overshadow “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that this will be where she gets her trip to the podium.
Jonathan: I’m all-in for the idea of recognizing brilliant songs that should have been hits a decade ago. Next year, can we get Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit” or Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” please? This year, I just can’t see the CMA giving an award to Bob Dylan, and, as much as I’d love to see Brandy Clark win, I think the Musgraves co-writes will split votes. Which leaves a frivolous holdover from last year to face off against the only “truck” song in years that’s worth even half a damn. I think the latter pulls off the night’s only real upset.
Tara: Lots of solid choices here; even “Pontoon” has a melody worth respecting. “Merry Go ‘Round” just edges out “Mama’s Broken Heart” for me, but I think the voters will be more pointed with their choice and reward Musgraves for her breakout song.
Kevin: “Merry Go ‘Round” fits in well with previous female writer wins. Distinct point of view, attention to details, and some quiet feminist commentary. My pick is “Mama’s Broken Heart”, which I think is just brilliant. “Line your lips and keep them closed.” Wow.
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Little Big Town, “Tornado”
Dan: The Underwood clip was made to win this award, but I find it silly. Why does she have lie around all sexily on that bed in the tornado shelter?
Ben: Little Big Town’s “Tornado” is also a worthy contender, but Underwood’s “Blown Away” video is an absolute tour de force.
Jonathan: The idea that this could be how the Pistol Annies win a CMA award just makes my teeth hurt. As big a fan of hers as I may be, Miranda’s mugging in the video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes her laughable acting gig on Law & Order: Perverts Unit seem measured and subtle by comparison.
Kevin: Because why shouldn’t there be two winners in this category that give homage to Oz?
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Kevin, Tara
Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”
Ben: Clarkson and Gill made the best record of the lot, but it doesn’t have the commercial muscle to pull off a victory, so I’m giving the edge to McGraw and Company.
Jonathan: Cosigning Ben’s comment, word for word.
Dan: “Highway Don’t Care” is kinda weird and meh, but it’s not “Boys ‘Round Here” and “The Only Way I Know”. For this, I am grateful.
Tara: I swear I’m not throwing this to Clarkson and Gill just because they’re Clarkson and Gill – I can stomach not one of these other songs. Part of me thinks Aldean and co. might take this, but McGraw and co. seems more likely.
Kevin: “Highway Don’t Care” made me enjoy both McGraw and Swift as singers, not just song pickers/songwriters. For that alone, the win.
Musician of the Year
Sam Bush (Mandolin) – Jonathan, Ben
Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Kevin
Dann Huff (Guitar)
Brent Mason (Guitar)
Mac McAnally (Guitar)
Sam Bush (Mandolin)
Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Jonathan, Ben, Kevin
Dann Huff (Guitar)
Brent Mason (Guitar)
Mac McAnally (Guitar)
Ben: I’ll be all for Paul Franklin next year thanks to Bakersfield, but this year I would like to see Sam Bush get his due.
Jonathan: Bush may not have a MacArthur fellowship like Chris Thile, but his progressive mandolin work is certainly overdue for recognition. Hard to begrudge Franklin, though, as Bakersfield is one of the year’s best albums.
Kevin: Until he wins. I will pick him until he wins.
To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
Various Artists High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
Yes, I get it. The boys of Florida Georgia Line have got to make their $$$, and the way to do that these days is to give radio what they want. But if you’re going to serve up radio filler, you could at least serve up a different variety of radio filler than what you’ve previously been putting out.
Case in point: ”Round Here” is the third consecutive rural party anthem that Florida Georgia Line has released, and of those three, “Cruise” is the only one that has been any good at all.
Yes, I still believe the hook and melody of “Cruise” had something great going for it – even though the song’s place in country music history is being blown grossly out of proportion by Billboard’s nutty new chart rules. But the same cannot be said for “Round Here,” which grasps at a trite, overused phrase for its title, and burrows down into the usual formulas. Bloated production and affected vocals only make things worse.
The bottom line: Kiss some radio butt if you must, but don’t make a one-trick pony out of yourself. Remember Gretchen Wilson?
Written by Rodney Clawson, Thomas Rhett and Chris Tompkins
Love it, hate it, or tolerate it, the one thing “Cruise” undeniably had going for it was a mighty hook. Not just a catchy one, either; as in all great sing-alongs, there was a universal quality to it; it captured a certain moment in the human experience. Yes, I really do think “Baby, you a song / You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise” speaks to something substantial – kind of like “Oh, play me some mountain music / Like Grandma and Grandpa used to play” or ”You and me goin' fishin' in the dark!” – or, to hew closer to Florida Georgia Line's probable influences, “I don't ever wanna feel like I did that day” and “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you want it, you better never let it go.”
So it's a good'un. Unclasp that magic hook, though, and everything wrong with this duo's current approach becomes all the more obvious.
First: they desperately need a new production M.O., as Joey Moi has rendered “Get Your Shine On” – as he did with “Cruise,” and has done with every other track on their debut album – with a super-loud, super-compressed, super-exhausting assault of arena-country blah.
Second: they desperately need to aim higher than soundtracking tailgate parties – or at least need to sneak some smarts and heart into that theme, if they're set on it. I really think they could pull it off, too; if you can endure this thing long enough to pay attention to the lyrics, you'll see that they've got a sharp way with details to go along with their strong melodic sense. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley can craft songs; they just have to aspire to more than musical junk food. Songs like “Cruise” that tap into universal feelings can last; songs like this that mean almost nothing will be forgotten like so many 'shine-drunk nights.
Third: I encourage a frank, lusty detail here or there, but the line is fine between that and gross objectification. Careful, fellas.
Written by Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins
Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe: We love country music. A lot. While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.
At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice. We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.
Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists. Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles. Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter. Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section. Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012. We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.
“Southern Comfort Zone” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #13; Leeann – #20
Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort. But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and whenthat point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band. No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” Gary Allan
Individual rankings: Sam – #8
The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Goodbye In Her Eyes” Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #14; Leeann – #18
“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. - Leeann Ward
#37 “In Between Jobs” Todd Snider
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6
An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Go Your Way” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #13; Sam – #18
“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings. It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak
“Born to Be Blue” The Mavericks
Individual rankings: Ben – #17; Dan – #18; Tara – #20
A slice of throwback 50′s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam
#34 “Closer” Mindy Smith
Individual rankings: Leeann – #12; Dan – #14
Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs. Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy. The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward
#33 “Drunk On You” Luke Bryan
Individual rankings: Dan – #12; Kevin – #14
In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.” Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne
“Cruise” Florida Georgia Line
Individual rankings: Dan – #3
Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken
#31 “When I’m Gone” Joey + Rory
Individual rankings: Kevin – #12; Ben – #12
A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record. While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo. - Ben Foster
#30 “Postcard from Paris” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Ben – #11; Sam – #13
In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”). Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins. - Ben Foster
#29 “When It Pleases You” Sara Watkins
Individual rankings: Dan – #10; Leeann – #17
With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back. ”I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken
“Live and Die”
The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #2
The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010. There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right. - Sam Gazdziak
#27 “Is It Already Time?” Wade Hayes
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Dan – #15
A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken
“Safe & Sound” Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars
Individual rankings: Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #14
The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings. The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward
#25 “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” Toby Keith
Individual rankings: Kevin – #9; Leeann – #16
Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne
“Plant White Roses” Kelly Hogan
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #1
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly
Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#23 “Good Girl” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #6; Dan – #16
A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter. A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne
#22 “Hello Cruel World” Gretchen Peters
Individual rankings: Ben – #8; Sam – #12
An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.” A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward. - Ben Foster
#21 “Dig Gravedigger Dig” Corb Lund
Individual rankings: Sam – #4; Jonathan – #18
Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper. It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak
#20 “I’m a Mess” Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: Leeann – #4; Kevin – #16
From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest. With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000′s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward
#19 “Fly Over States” Jason Aldean
Individual rankings: Tara – #7; Dan – #9
Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath. It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that? - Dan Milliken
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” Eli Young Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #5; Tara – #16; Jonathan – #16; Dan – #20
The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own. Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “Two Black Cadillacs” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Tara – #4; Ben – #18
A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative. Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam
“Beer Money” Kip Moore
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Tara – #9; Kevin – #11 Ben – #19
The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Better Dig Two” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7; Leeann – #9; Dan – #11; Tara – #19
The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin. But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse. Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio? Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing? This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. - Jonathan Keefe
#14 “I Just Come Here for the Music” Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss
Individual rankings: Ben – #6; Sam – #7; Dan – #17; Kevin – #20
Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself. And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights. His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak
#13 “The Dreaming Fields” Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #6; Jonathan – #10
In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories. ”The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance. I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory. This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster
“Springsteen” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Dan – #6; Tara – #6; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #17; Ben – #20
The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken
#11 “Blown Away” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Dan – #7; Tara – #14; Ben – #15
An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood. Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Tara – #11; Leeann – #13; Ben – #14; Sam – #19
With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album. While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.” A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe
#9 “The Sound of a Million Dreams” David Nail
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Kevin – #8; Ben – #9; Dan – #19
With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse. Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope. And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam
#8 “Creepin’” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2; Leeann – #8; Tara – #15
With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre. From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre. When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak
“Neon” Chris Young
Individual rankings: Tara – #3; Dan – #5; Leeann – #7; Jonathan – #8; Ben – #13
Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement. But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment. Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam
#6 “Takin’ Pills” Pistol Annies
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Leeann – #5; Sam – #9; Tara – #10; Ben – #10
Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country. “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace. It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe
#5 “Like a Rose” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #5; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10; Tara – #13
Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming. While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it. ”Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem. High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward
#4 “Drinkin’ Man” George Strait
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Ben – #3; Tara – #5; Jonathan – #5; Leeann – #11
There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year. One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years. “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits. He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne
#3 “What Have I Done” LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Leeann – #3; Dan – #4; Ben – #4; Kevin – #5
Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion. “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality. The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam
#2 “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Ben – #1; Jonathan – #4; Tara – #8; Sam – #11
Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is. Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves. A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be. A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster
#1 “Merry Go ‘Round” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Leeann – #2; Sam – #3; Kevin – #7; Ben – #7; Tara – #12
In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really. The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.
It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music. That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries. It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row: Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken
My natural inclination is to hate any song that employs the word “bikini” right in the opening verse, but there might actually be a decent feel-good country rock jam in here somewhere.
The 80′s drum machines need to go. They do not sound good. But the generous amounts of dobro and banjo seem to add a lot to it, with both instruments being well-suited to the relaxed good-time vibe the song attempts to create. As literal and one-dimensional as the lyrics may be, they don’t necessarily preclude a song’s ability to connect on a ‘fun fluff’ level, and even a mediocre song can be easier to take if the artist delivering it sounds like he believes in it.
The boys of Florida Georgia Line here sound like they honest-to-God can’t wait to roll those windows down and do some cruising. The song likewise connects solidly on a melodic level. The production may be a little too much, and the lyrics may be rudimentary, but between the absorbing singalong-friendly melody and lively performance, the song has a couple of big things going in its favor.