If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination. For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites. But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.
As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!
#20 “Hangin’ Up My Heart” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin
What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward
The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken
“Railroad of Sin” Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “9,999,999 Tears” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe
“Salt” Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin
“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Bible on the Dash” Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak
The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward
A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory. - Tara Seetharam
“If I Loved You” Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham
Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe
This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak
Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after. As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time. When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne
“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road. - Leeann Ward
#8 “Gasoline and Matches” LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas
Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster
This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point. Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe
The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status. - Leeann Ward
Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself. - Tara Seetharam
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song. You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors. The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best. - Kevin Coyne
Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.
There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken
like it was bumped from the space between “Trying to Matter” and “Half of My Mistakes” on Living Hard, his combination of technical and interpretive skill – the golden tone, the rasp that scratches just the right places, the way he bounces off some words and grips into others – feels so natural that you wonder why every other singer can’t achieve it.
Set that to some nice, punchy Jay Joyce drums, and even a little “meh” factor can’t derail the listening experience. It’s not the best he’s ever had…but it’s not so bad.
Written by Gary Allan, Odie Blackmon & Sarah Buxton
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
Gary Allan’s in fine form on what could be a pretty big comeback single. It hits that inspirational sweet spot that Martina McBride’s built her recent career around, but his gravely voice lends it just the right amount of gravitas.
I wish the verses were stronger, and that it didn’t make the influence of “Every Rose has its Thorn” so
The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.
Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.
Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.
What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.
Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:
“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine
“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe
“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513
“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe
“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513
“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang
He started off as a new traditionalist with only his raspy voice making him distinctive. But when he embraced his California country roots, he became one of the defining male vocalists of the early 21st Century.
Gary Allan Herzberg hails from California. He grew up in a musical family, and by age thirteen, he was playing honky-tonks at night with his father. His talent was evident even at that young age, and at age fifteen, he turned down his first opportunity at a major label record deal, opting to finish school instead.
He quickly became a big draw on the local concert scene, playing to overcrowded rooms but refusing to move up to bigger venues that wouldn’t allow him to play the traditional country covers that made up a big chunk of his set. He cut some demos in a small California studio in the early nineties, and the tape caught the interest of BNA Records in Nashville. But restructuring at the label prevented him from being signed.
So Allan continued with his day job: selling cars. In an incredible act of fortune, he left a demo tape in a car that was then sold to a wealthy couple. They enjoyed the tape so much that they gave him $12,000, which he then used to make professional demos in Nashville. Soon, there was interest from several major labels, but Decca offered him a contract first, so he signed with them.
He was an immediate critical success, though radio would bite on only the lead singles of his first two studio albums. “Her Man” from his 1996 debut Used Heart For Sale and the title track from his 1998 follow-up It Would Be You each peaked at #7. Both albums were heavy on the traditionalism but didn’t fully embrace the California country sound that he’d fully explore on his third album.
Smoke Rings in the Dark, released in 1999, struck a deep chord with country music listeners. The title track, reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, only made it to #12, but it sold him more records than his previous two top ten hits combined. As the album powered its way to platinum, radio finally embraced Allan, as the final single from the set, “Right Where I Need to Be”, became his first top five hit.
Thus began Allan’s hit streak at country radio, which continued unabated despite him embracing a sound that was nothing like the rest of country radio. His next two albums, Alright Guy and See If I Care, produced three #1 hits between them, but as the final chart-topper “Nothin’ On But the Radio” was climbing the charts, tragedy struck.
On October 24, 2004, Allan’s wife Angela committed suicide. The tragedy devastated Allan, who briefly suspended his music career in the wake of the event. When he returned to the studio, he crafted his masterpiece to date, Tough All Over, which fully explored his anger and grief over his wife’s death. Interestingly, the album’s lynch pin was a cover of the Vertical Horizon pop hit, “Best I Ever Had.” The lyrics of love lost took on new dimensions with Allan’s haunting performance.
Since that landmark album in 2005, Allan has continued to be a regular presence at country radio. A subsequent hits package and the 2007 studio album Living Hard were both certified gold. “Watching Airplanes”, from the latter set, is his most recent top ten single, but additional selections from that set and the 2010 release Get Off On the Pain, have reached the top twenty. He is currently touring the country in support of this album.
When you build a song around what is essentially a pun, you have to do one of two things. Either sell the pun so well that it overcomes its inherent corniness, or build such a strong song around it that the pun doesn’t make a lasting impact.
“Kiss Me When I’m Down” tries to do both, and is mostly successful. Allan sings it so well that the focus is as much on the pain in his voice as it is on the lyrics he’s singing. Plus, the title is used so infrequently that it can’t really diminish the song as a whole. But it doesn’t elevate it, either.
So we’re left with what is a fairly typical Gary Allan record these days. Decent song, sung well, arranged tastefully. A bit of California flavor here and there. It doesn’t have the fiery intensity of his earlier work, but it’s been clear for a while now that Allan has already peaked. “Kiss Me When I’m Down” certainly won’t accelerate his current downward slope, but he’ll need stronger material if he hopes to reverse the slide.
Written by Andrew Dorff, Josh Kear, and Chris Tompkins
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
If turnover has been slow in the Entertainer category, it’s been nothing less than glacial in the Male Vocalist race. Over the past ten years, only eleven men have received nominations. Four of those eleven – Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, and Josh Turner – have been nominated only once.
Now, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were regularly invited to the party in the first half of the last decade, with four and three nominations, respectively. But the race has essentially been dominated by the same five men: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, George Strait, and Keith Urban, who combine for forty nominations in just one decade.
The recent history has been pretty boring. After two consecutive wins by Alan Jackson, we’ve had three consecutive wins each by Keith Urban and reigning champ Brad Paisley.
Will there be a new winner this year, or even a new nominee? Should there be?
Let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Darius Rucker was the new face to enter the race last year. No brand new nominee has been nominated again in this category since Keith Urban earned his first nomination in 2004. He’s been in the race ever since. I’d say Rucker’s close to a lock, along with Paisley. But just like in the Entertainer race, a case could be made for a decent shake-up, especially some of this category’s veteran acts have dipped at radio and retail.
Here’s who I would nominate this year. Share your picks in the comments:
Anybody else notice that this guy’s outselling the rest of the male solo artists? All the while, he’s been completely ignored at the country awards shows for his last two projects. He’s not overdue just yet, but he’s due.
He went out of his comfort zone to release a bluegrass-flavored album that was pretty darn good.
He just missed my list for preferred Entertainer nominees, but he’s at the head of the pack in this category. With his domination at radio, not to mention a stronger studio album than his previous two, I wouldn’t be shocked for him to become the third artist in history to win four of these.
His hit-making has certainly been kicked up a notch as of late. He may be destined to toil just under the radar of this category like Trace Adkins and Gary Allan before him, but it would be nice to see him get a nod.
A decent comeback at radio and retail, coupled with him being a great singer who’s been overlooked, makes me hope he finishes out this category.
I left off previous nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Darius Rucker because they haven’t put out new albums during the eligibility period, so it seems like a good time to let some new folks get a chance. I left off Kenny Chesney because he’s been doing nothing but stopgap releases for the past year, none of which sold to his normal standards. I left off Tim McGraw, even though he’s made some music I really like lately, because he hasn’t been doing as well as usual at radio and retail.