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
Joey Feek is not a woman to be trifled with. Blow off a day with her to go fishing with your buddies, and be prepared for a holdout that would make the recent NBA lockout look like a bathroom break. Along with a steel guitar-centric, pure country sound, the song’s humor doesn’t wear thin after repeated listenings. (Are you paying attention, Brad “Camouflage” Paisley?) – Sam Gazdziak
Sweeney showed her vulnerable side with “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but here she reminds us that she still knows how to cut loose and have a good time. With “Drink Myself Single” Sweeney delivers an up-tempo track that’s rowdy and fun, with a jaunty electric-guitar-meets-steel-guitar arrangement.
Better yet, she does it without sacrificing lyrical intelligence, and even gets through the whole thing without having to resort to the crutch of citing ‘Ol’ Hank.’ With a seething undercurrent of hurt and anger echoing George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” “Single” shows an artist with one foot grounded in country music’s storied past, but also with an eye toward the future. – Ben Foster
Mary Was the Marrying Kind
Individual Rankings: #4 – Kevin; #9 – Dan
A song that manages to characterize eight different girls more believably than a lot of songs characterize one. As the narrator runs through his rocky dating history, you get why he wasn’t conditioned to appreciate Mary when they met, and you mourn with him now that he’s learned to too late. – Dan Milliken
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Individual Rankings: #2 – Dan; #10 – Ben
The quiet melancholy of Krauss and Robert Lee Castleman’s previous collaborations seems to come to a crescendo. “Here all alone and still wondering why,” Krauss sings in the soaring chorus, with yet another relationship crumbling around her. She’s resigned to a cycle of build-up and letdown, as lovers’ feelings and her own toss senselessly about. – Dan Milliken
The sassy “Teenage Daughters” was a refreshing departure from the inspirational songs and rangy vocal performances that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Martina McBride by now. Instead, with restrained vocals rife with personality, McBride slyly offers a realistic take on the frustrations of raising teenage daughters with honesty and without sap. More of that please, Martina! – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #2 – Sam; #5 – Leeann
“Home” sounds like a pretty love song. And it is. it’s an emotional love song to America from a respectful Dierks Bentley. As the best love songs tend to go, it realistically acknowledges ups and downs while ultimately declaring the strength of the ties that bind. Best of all, not only is it a love song to America, it manages to be patriotic without the jingoism or chest thumping that has all too often pervades patriotic songs in the last decade. – Leeann Ward
Another Like You
Hayes Carll with Bonnie Whitmore
Individual Rankings: #1- Sam; #6 – Leeann
A heated political discussion between a diehard conservative and a bleeding-heart liberal turns into a drunken makeout session in an elevator. If more political discussions in this country ended that way, there would be a heck of a lot more being accomplished in Washington. – Sam Gazdziak
Sunny Sweeney just gets the economy of the best country songwriting: There’s nothing flashy about the opening lines of “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but the weariness in her delivery of a simple aside (“Trust me, it’s really bad”) tells her character’s back-story in just a scant few words and gives her on-the-verge narrative real emotional heft. – Jonathan Keefe
As a portrait of the post-breakup healing process, Evans’ surprise comeback hit is striking in its simplicity, but nonetheless disarmingly effective. Simple vignettes of going through your daily routines with a smile on your face, changing the station when a song reminds you of your ex, coupled with the refrain of “I got a little bit stronger… just a little bit stronger” beautifully capture the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing journey.
Fittingly, Evans’ vocal begins on a hushed, tired-sounding note, building to a dramatic crescendo as the song progresses – a dynamic, layered performance from one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation. – Ben Foster
She’s heard through the grapevine what she needs to do to get her man back, a laundry list of every compromise under the sun. No wonder she reaches the conclusion that she just doesn’t need him that bad. – Kevin John Coyne
Our annual list concludes with a look at our ten favorite albums of 2011.
Check out Part One to see #11-#20, and look for our countdown of the year’s best singles tomorrow.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #10-#1
#10 Lady & Gentlemen
On the surface, Lady & Gentleman is a concept album, flying in the face of a genre whose gender bias sometimes feels like the elephant in the room. But as with the best concept albums, it’s not the concept that carries it. With her most thoughtful, vocally mature performances to date, Rimes herself is the heartbeat of the set, deftly navigating the songs with a blend of reverence and fearlessness.
And she has plenty of room to shine: rather than trying to rebirth a collection of classics, Rimes and her team tastefully reinvigorate the songs with production risks (“Swingin’”), lyrical twists (“Good Hearted Women”) and the occasional overhaul (“When I Call Your Name”). The result is an album that stands neither as a tribute nor as a statement, but as a unique body of work that earns its merits all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #2; Ben – #8; Leeann – #9; Kevin – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Blue,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
#9 KMAG YOYO
Texas has a long track record of producing talented, innovative songwriters, and The Woodlands native Carll is one of the best of his generation. With an eye for detail and a wry sense of humor, Carll proves to be a sympathetic narrator as he bemoans his fate in dealing with politics, the economy and relationships. And just when you think he’s pure smartass, he breaks out his sincerity with a song like “Grateful for Christmas.” – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Stomp and Holler”, “Another Like You”, “Bottle in My Hand”
#8 American Folk Songbook
Over the last two decades, Suzy Bogguss has ably covered a lot of musical ground, including classic country, western swing, pop country, adult contemporary and jazz. With the unplugged American Folk Songbook, she is able to add folk to the list. This expansive 17-track set of traditional folk songs is the most stunning of her genre specific projects.
Without a misstep on the album, it finds Bogguss firmly in her element as both an effortless singer and adept song interpreter. What’s more, Suzy’s crystal clear voice blends perfectly with her own crisp, engaging productions. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Ben
Recommended Tracks: “Shenandoah”, “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”
A somber coffeehouse album, which admittedly makes for a bit of a plodding listen-through. Hang around, though; McKenna is chronicling the experience of the working-class family woman with the kind of depth and character we usually associate with people named Dolly and Merle. And like those forebears, she transcends her persona by finding the universal in it: “My life is pieces of paper that I’ll get back to later,” the key line of “The Most,” could be the lament of anyone trying to manage in the real world. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “The Luxury of Knowing”, “The Most”, “Still Down Here”
#6 Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars
It’s almost scary how this duo just seems to get everything right. The level of emotional connectivity in their performances, not to mention their ethereal harmonies and stellar songwriting, is absolutely spellbinding. Just listen to the way they can repeat the refrain “I don’t love you, but I always will” in “Poison & Wine” such that each repetition successively rises in passion and urgency.
While they will most likely never be mainstream country stars, one would certainly hope that the excellent Barton Hollow is not the last we will hear from The Civil Wars. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Forget Me Not”
#5 Here For a Good Time
The best artistic choice that George Strait has ever made is taking more time between albums. Here For a Good Time is yet another high point in his ongoing 21st century renaissance. He’s tackling, even sometimes co-writing, compelling material that reflects the wisdom and life experience of the most distinguished voice that remains on country radio. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’ Man”, “House Across the Bay”, “I’ll Always Remember You”
#4 Four the Record
If Revolution was Lambert’s commercial crowning moment, Four the Record is her earned hissy fit – a foot stomp and a “my turn, folks.” That’s not to say her previous albums weren’t authentic; it’s just that Four the Record seems to be the most transparent reflection of Lambert the artist to date, flaws and all.
And that’s why it soars. Wonderfully weird, the collection of songs is best described as a tapestry of personalities, punctuated by some of the oddest –but coolest– production choices of the year. Where the album lacks in depth of songwriting, it makes up for in fiercely committed, layered performances.
She sneers old school style in “Fastest Girl In Town,” brilliantly spits in her mother’s face in “Mama’s Broken Heart” and eccentrically celebrates diversity in “All Kinds of Kinds.” But the album’s shining moments come in the form of palpable vulnerability: the trio of “Dear Diamond,” “Look at Miss Ohio,” and “Oklahoma Sky” is nakedly honest – the highest country music compliment. – Tara Seetharam
At age 54, Vince Gill’s voice shows absolutely no signs of deterioration. Moreover, his artistry continues to be as strong as it has ever been even after almost three-and-a-half decades in the business. Following his critically acclaimed and ambitious project, These Days, a box set of all original songs, Guitar Slinger somehow manages to stand up to Gill’s self-imposed high benchmark of excellence.
In fact, in a way, while this album is fresh, the sound of Guitar Slinger could also be a continuation of These Days, since many of its songs follow the genre variances of its predecessor, including rockers, easy listening and traditional country songs. As evidenced by this album, Gill is still at the top of his game both in musical talent and ability to capture a range of emotions with diverse themes and expert storytelling. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Lucky Diamond Hotel”, “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love with You”, “Buttermilk John”
#2 The Dreaming Fields
Matraca Berg has given us a good portion of country music’s most memorable compositions of the past twenty years, and her first new album since 1997 shows a pen still full of tricks. With a tight set of tracks that includes her own versions of songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood (“The Dreaming Fields”) and Kenny Chesney (“You and Tequila”), Berg displays the same subtle cleverness, instantly relatable emotional conflicts, and insightful perspective that have long been the hallmarks of her work.
She tenderly addresses such themes as spousal abuse (“If I Had Wings”) and the death of a loved one (“Racing the Angels”), but arguably the finest moment comes with the title track’s wistful meditation on the loss of a family farm that has remained for generations. Matraca Berg is nothing short of a musical treasure, and The Dreaming Fields reaffirms her status as the most talented singer-songwriter of her generation. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Wings,” “Racing the Angels,” “The Dreaming Fields,” “Oh, Cumberland”
#1 Hell on Heels
For all of the lip-service that contemporary country acts give to the idea that country music tells real stories about real people, precious little country music in 2011 seemed to be about anything at all. Whether jockeying for some kind of authenticity cred that their music just didn’t support or rattling off list after pointless list of rural signifiers without an actual narrative or a greater point to make, many of the biggest country stars of the past year seemed completely divorced from the experiences of the real world around them.
Enter Pistol Annies– ostensibly a one-off side project for Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley– and their debut album, Hell on Heels. Not only is it the finest and most detailed chronicle of the current recession, the album stands as a much-needed reminder of both the depth of insight that country music offers in its best moments and the expertly-crafted escapism country music provides when things get a little too real.
Sure, there’s an element of playing dress-up to what the Pistol Annies are doing, but that fits perfectly with the album’s focus on finding ways to escape from day-to-day drudgery. Songs like “Bad Example” and the tongue-in-cheek, gold-digging title track make it clear that Lambert, Monroe, and Presley are in full control of their charades: The way Presley drawls, “Whistle it, ‘Randy,” at the bridge of “Lemon Drop” should erase any doubt that they’re in on the joke. That sense of fun is reflected in the album’s light-handed production and in the Annies’ winning performances.
That said, a devastating gut-check of a line like, “I’ve been thinking about all these pills I’m taking/I wash ‘em down with an ice cold beer/And the love I ain’t been making,” from “Housewife’s Prayer,” doesn’t happen by accident. What elevates Hell on Heels into an album of real depth is that the Annies realize that escapism only has value when you know exactly what it is you’re trying to escape from.
The color of the bride’s dress in a shotgun wedding, the thrift-store curtains hanging in a house that the landlord owns, the dings and dents in the side of a trailer: Pistol Annies get all of these details right, and they employ them with both a swagger they can actually back up and a sense of purpose that speaks to something greater than simply proving their country bona fides. – Jonathan Keefe
http://www.nashvillescene.com/2009-01-15/news/the-ninth-annual-nashville-scene-country-music-critics-poll-jamey-johnson-captured-the-critics-taylor-swift-topped-the-charts-and-sugarland-conquered-them-both/”>Nashville Scene Country Music Critics’ Poll was released today, and the cover belonged to critical darling, Jamey Johnson. (The Scene wisely withheld the word “darling” from their description of the Artist of the Year.) This year’s 74 voters, including Kevin J. Coyne from Country Universe, named Johnson as Artist, Male Vocalist and Songwriter of the Year, and he claimed Album of the Year (That Lonesome Song) and Single (“In Color”) as well. Scene writer Geoffrey Himes applauds Johnson:
“He has a biker’s willingness to offend the tender sensibilities of preachers and radio programmers by singing about smoking pot in a Baptist church parking lot and about mowing down his ex-wife’s rose garden. But he also has a philosopher’s willingness to admit that daily intoxication and impulsive vengeance come with a price that’s often steeper than advertised.”
“…Johnson has pulled off the elusive trick of making the sound and intent of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson connect with a broad country audience in 2008.”
Other big winners included Lee Ann Womack (#3 album, #2 single, #1 female), Patty Loveless (#5 album, #2 female), Taylor Swift (#6 album, #6 female), Sugarland (#4 album, #1 group) and Hayes Carll (#2 album, #2 songwriter, #4 single).
1. “In Color,” Jamey Johnson
2. “Waitin’ on a Woman,” Brad Paisley
3. “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” Trisha Yearwood
4. “She Left Me for Jesus,” Hayes Carll
5. “What I Cannot Change,” Leann Rimes
6. “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack
7. “Anything Goes,” Randy Houser
8. “Dig Two Graves,” Randy Travis
9. “Please Read the Letter,” Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
10. “Fine Line,” Little Big Town
11. “Mockingbird,” Allison Moorer
12. “Crazy Arms,” Patty Loveless
13. “This Town Needs a Bar,” Jeremy McComb
14. “Just Got Started Loving You,” James Otto
15. “Takin’ off This Pain,” Ashton Shepherd
16. “Gold,” Emmylou Harris
17. “Every Other Weekend,” Reba McEntire & Skip Ewing
18. “You Look Good In My Shirt,” Keith Urban
19. “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert
20. “Love Don’t Live Here,” Lady Antebellum
Let’s do this, y’all. You’ll recognize some of these write-ups from our collective list, but others weren’t posted there or were cut down for that list. This is my “Director’s Cut” version, you might say – or maybe the “UNRATED!!” version, depending on your taste in films.
In any case, here are my favorite 20 things designated as country music singles in 2008 (that I picked up on, anyhoo):
Elizabeth Cook, “Sunday Morning”
Cook mines an abstract Velvet Underground song and halfway convinces you it was always meant to be a quiet country reflection. The production and vocal are a bit too buoyant to fully convey the song’s weariness, but they do flesh out its gentle message of hope, and that’s not too bad, either.
Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Silly and shallow it may be, but III’s turbo-campy lament of hard times + booze was also this year’s sweetest piece of hillbilly ear candy. I think it sounds like the fastest, most frivolous thing Johnny Cash never recorded, but maybe that’s just me.
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
What’s this? A contemporary country single with a traditional structure that skips on big choruses? A distinctive voice at the helm? Oh? It was the most played song of the year? Huh. So country music fans want to hear unique-sounding singers singing some semblance of actual country music on the radio? How perplexing.
In all seriousness, this smash really is a fine example of feel-good radio fluff that still manages to sound human. It’s impossible to evaluate honestly without the requisite (and very valid) comparison to Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” but honestly, I think Otto out-sexed his predecessor by a good margin. Turner gave a fine performance with his standard sweetness, but Otto opted for randy, slightly jagged cooing that ultimately sounds much more convincing coming from a man in this particular situation.
Joey + Rory, “Cheater, Cheater”
My soft spot for frivolity shows itself again. This tell-off ditty has a cute bite, and its malicious irrationality is delivered with a knowing wink that has been regrettably absent in many recent, like-minded harangues (cough cough, “Picture to Burn”). Still, it’s the frenetic bluegrass production and the couple’s palpable chemistry that ultimately sell the thing.
I’m always game for more regret on country radio, particularly when you’ve got two of the best singers in the biz on the job. The only thing holding it back for me is the melody, which is a bit too “Peabo Bryson goes country” for my taste.
Sugarland, Little Big Town & Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”
There is a certain kind of song whose impact simply defies logical explanation, which seems to tap something so primal in the human spirit that you don’t even want to try explaining it for fear you might belittle it somehow. You couldn’t ask for a better example of that phenomenon than this cover of Dream Academy’s surreal ode to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which resolves into a chorus of tribal “hey ma ma ma ma”s that somehow manage to say more (to me) than most actual words ever do.
It’s much more “Lion King soundtrack” than “country,” of course, but the union of all of these unique individual voices evokes the sort of grand communal warmth that you can normally only find in church or around a campfire. Personal favorite moment: Jake Owen’s solo, which he sings with such silky ease that it makes you pissed he hasn’t found better material for himself yet.
Country Universe has presented you with its top 40 singles of 2008, but as you know, singles rarely scratch the surface of a great album. Over the course of the past year, while listening to various albums, I made note of songs that stuck out for one reason or another. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of my favorite songs of 2008:
#1 “She Left Me For Jesus” (Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind)
Honestly, when is the last time you heard a song this slyly clever? This laugh-out-loud engaging? But not just anyone could pull off this song. Carll’s slow laughing drawl is absolutely perfect and he nails every punch line. He not only gets the joke, he assumes you do as well. Carll readily acknowledges that this song isn’t for everyone, but in my book, it’s an instant classic.
#2 “Red River Shore” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)
Bob Dylan, that enigmatic icon, continues to raise the bar for singer-songwriters. It’s nearly ridiculous at this point. This year, Dylan treated us to a grand smorgasbord of songs with the latest in his bootleg series. “Red River Shore” was one of the few previously unreleased songs on the set, and it’s perhaps the best on the album. I could spend hours ruminating over what Dylan intended with his lyrics about star-crossed lovers, but instead I’ll leave you with his opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live / In the moonlight shooting by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This is, as the album booklet suggests, an elegant summation of Dylan’s artistic credo. If only others took note.
#3 “I’ve Done Everything I Can” (Rodney Crowell, Sex and Gasoline)
On “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” Crowell acknowledges that incredibly delicate interplay between father and daughter; that difficult line a father must walk between wanting to protect his little girl, and preparing her for the real world. He sings: “The sun comes up tomorrow / But there are no guarantees / It can rock you like a baby / It can knock you to your knees / The path that lies between us / Is a rough and rocky rue / I’ve done everything I can / There’s nothing I can do.” This song reminds me rather poignantly of my own father, who occasionally walked that fine line with grace, but usually just blundered over it with good intentions.
Our top ten singles of the year represent the very best of what country music is and what country music can be. With a combination of rising stars and veteran artists, it’s clear that the genre has worthy guardians waiting in the wings, even as the current keepers of the flame show no signs of fading away.
Ashton Shepherd, “Takin’ Off This Pain”
I cheated a bit by throwing this one into the mix, since it was technically released last fall. But as it wasn’t on the site’s 2007 singles countdown and didn’t even peak until this past May, I’m going to take this opportunity to opine, quite simply, that this single paints the best kind of picture of everything contemporary country in the 2000’s can be. It’s not pure traditionalism, as some have suggested – there’s a lot more modern drive than old-school shuffle at work here – but few major-label artists this decade have updated the spirit of classic country more loyally or convincingly than Shepherd has with this debut. Even if you take away the whopping voice, you’ve got clear, focused storytelling with palpable personality and an unusually clever hook. Loretta Lynn is smiling to herself somewhere. – DM
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
James Otto has one of the most soulful voices in country music, comparable to Travis Tritt. In “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” he uses his vocal range to irresistible affect. While it’s often compared to Gary Allan’s “Nothin’ On But The Radio” and Josh Turner’s “Your Man”, this is a song that could have easily been delivered by Conway Twitty, as it’s in the grand tradition of steamy tracks like “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” - LW
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman”
Donn Sampson and Wynn Varble penned this moving piece, one centered around the (mostly correct) notion that the fairer sex exercises greater, ahem, patience than their male counterparts. A newlywed husband on a shopping trip with his young bride meets an elderly man at the local mall. Soon, he’s listening to the advice of the sage, one who sees the waiting as one of life’s sweet, simple pleasures. The corresponding video clip, featuring iconic television actor Andy Griffith, added gravitas to an already-compelling lyric that ponders mortality and the everlasting love in a healthy marriage. – BB
Belcourt Theatre/Nashville, TN December 10, 2008
With his rich baritone, Hayes Carll is perfectly suited to deliver the barroom and bedroom tales of a troubadour who’s a hard-luck, heartbroken case. But to balance his more serious moments, he possesses a wry wit and ample self-awareness that soothes his doubts and disappointment. On Wednesday night, he was a master of all emotions as he took the stage Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre to cap off the finest year of his career so far. An enthusiastic, but well-behaved, crowd hung on every word in Carll’s drowsy drawl.
On this year’s Trouble in Mind, Carll’s roots-country, sharpened with a rock edge delivered him on the precipice of Americana stardom. A pair of triumphs at the Americana Music Awards in September confirmed his status as a prime spokesman for an entire alt-country generation. Those with a nose for pretense have eschewed the contemporary country market, but in Carll, they’ve uncovered an artist on the fringe, a clever raconteur who’s poised to carry the torch for Texas singer-songwriters well into the next decade.
The first couplet ofHayes Carll’s Trouble in Mind is a fitting introduction to a common man’s intellectual. On the arresting “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” he croons, “I’ve got a woman, she’s wild as Rome/She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon.” In just a few short strokes, he’s proclaimed his love for women and the wilder side of life; what follows is a colorful assortment of songs, largely based on those desires, from a folk psychologist dressed up as a Texas singer-songwriter.
With Trouble in Mind, his first release with Lost Highway and third album overall, Carll’s music evokes the usual suspects in Lone Star musical lore, from Rodney Crowell to Guy Clark. Whether swallowing back the bitter taste of a romance gone sour, or swearing off bad habits of the past, Carll uses his emotional crises as fuel for a set filled with literate songs. On Trouble in Mind, Carll waxes poetic about hot-blooded women and heavy drinking, restless hearts and dashed hopes. His voice isn’t squeaky clean (much like the man), but just a dollop of Carll’s smoky Southern drawl delivers the goods.