For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.
Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.
Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year. 59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty. You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.
A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.
Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13
Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton
Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19
Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam
The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan
It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara
Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam
Fixin’ to Die
Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan
One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers
Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam
The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan
Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken
Down by the Water
Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann
As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward
I’m getting tired of the dime store theology in country music today. It’s officially reached pandemic proportions.
Up for airplay are two new singles in which religion is just a decorative prop used to elevate a human role to something divine. Instead of achieving that impossible goal, all they do is cheapen the divine into something that is only human.
I must admit, I was excited by the title “Soldiers and Jesus.” Fan of “He’s Alive” that I am, I assumed this song had something to do with the final days of Christ before the death and resurrection.
Wrong. It’s about how soldier and Jesus both die for us, so they’re basically the same. It’s a false equation that manages to minimize both of them. It cheapens the unique singularity of Christ’s sacrifice, along with His commitment to nonviolence in the face of violence being used against him by…soldiers. See the problem here?
American soldiers are not Roman soldiers. Most of them sign up voluntarily and with the admirable goal of protecting our country’s freedom and liberty. But they’re not doing the same thing Christ did. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And it trivializes their very different, very human sacrifices to blur the line between them and the divine.
So “Soldiers and Jesus” is a failure, but not nearly as spectacular a failure as the Due West release, “The Bible and the Belt.” This time, I knew what I was getting before I heard the song, but even the title couldn’t prepare me for just how clumsy and intelligence insulting this comparison would be.
Here, mom and the preacher use scripture to teach a young man right from wrong, but it’s dad beating him with a belt that really keeps him on track. All I can say is that anybody who accepts this song’s message as valid should not be allowed near children.
Country is the genre of music that produced “Why Me”, “Three Wooden Crosses”, and “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine.)” I suggest that country songwriters looking to tread down the same thematic path use those classics as their road map, or they’ll keep producing dead-ends like these two duds.
Grade: Soldiers and Jesus: C | The Bible and the Belt: F
There’s been many a discussion this past month about what makes an artist most effective: is it vocal nuance or personal connection? Is it songs with explicit absolute truth or implicit absolute emotion? They’re interesting topics to explore, but somewhere in between the analyses, we’ve lost sight of –and perhaps even appreciation of– the artists who have the potential to make our analyses futile. Because some artists actually have it all.
Let’s be real: “Groovy Little Summer Song” isn’t near James Otto’s most memorable, well-written material. It’s not as infectious as his mega-hit, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” nor as impassioned as the lesser-known “For You,” and his soulful phrasing seems to eat up some of the words. But “Groovy Little Summer Song” is an incredibly refreshing re-introduction to an artist who can deliver both rich, distinctive vocals and pure, raw sentiment. Otto may be simply asking a DJ to crank up a cool summer tune, but he still manages to color his performance with shades of believable soul, technical substance (the falsetto is a treat) and authentic summer bliss.
It helps that country radio rarely hears groovy little summer songs, making this one a breath of fresh air against its island-flavored and often one-dimensional peers. Otto’s summer is a little slower-burning and smoother than that of Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band, Jack Ingram or…Rascal Flatts. It’s a little more contemplative and a little more intoxicating. Country radio’s tried-and-true themes could stand to gain a splash of emotive soul.
As we sift through the crop of mainstream country acts this year, let’s remember to keep an eye on Otto. Like Sunset Man, his upcoming album has the potential to make him a contemporary example of an artist whose strengths are multi-faceted. And we need more of the kind.
Written by Al Anderson, Carson Chamberlain, and James Otto
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 5: #120-#101
#120 “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
A chillingly frank portrait of loneliness, awkward reference to “All By Myself” notwithstanding. Few mainstream vocalists today could pull off something this intense. – Dan Milliken
#119 “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
Peak: Did not chart
If you can take a healthy dose of dirty rock ‘n’ roll in your country, this is one of the coolest-sounding records of the decade, a classic one-night-stand duet. That it’s a very cross-generational pairing singing it would be creepy if not for the goofy smiles shining through Lynn’s and White’s performances. – DM (more…)
McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine
Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment
The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW
Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”
James Otto, Sunset Man
On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living
Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”
It’s time for an album sales update, our first since May 23. Brad Paisley is off to a strong start with American Saturday Night, selling 130k in its first week. That’s about 70k less than his previous two studio albums – Time Well Wasted and 5th Gear – opened with, but not a terrible drop-off, considering the state of the music market.
Meanwhile, the new studio albums by Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban are slowing down considerably, now being outpaced on a weekly basis by 2008 releases by Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum.
Among younger acts with a new album in 2009, the most impressive sales are coming from Jason Aldean, while 2008 releases from Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington, and Randy Houser are showing new signs of life.
Biggest disappointments? It’s hard not to look in the direction of Martina McBride, who has barely cleared the 100k mark on her new studio set. Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 set just made it over that mark, too. Then again, one only needs to have sold 455 copies to make the chart this week, with the anchor position going to Wynonna with that total. Her covers album Sing – Chapter 1 has sold 41k to date.
Here are the latest totals for albums released over the past three years that are still charting:
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable – 842,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity – 452,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open – 384,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II – 281,000
Dierks Bentley, Feel That Fire – 219,000
Martina McBride, Shine – 104,000
John Rich, Son of a Preacher Man – 103,000
Eric Church, Carolina – 94,000
Rodney Atkins, It’s America – 88,000
Jake Owen, Easy Does It – 81,000
Randy Travis, I Told You So: Ultimate Hits – 78,000
Montgomery Gentry, For Our Heroes – 64,000
Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel, Willie & The Wheel – 56,000
Steve Earle, Townes – 47,000
Colt Ford, Ride Through the Country – 45,000
Jason Michael Carroll, Growing Up is Getting Old – 45,000
Wynonna, Sing – Chapter 1 – 41,000
Hank Williams Jr. – 127 Rose Avenue – 34,000
Ryan Bingham, Roadhouse Sun – 15,000
Tracy Lawrence, Rock – 11,000
Darryl Worley, Sounds Like Life – 8,000
Holly Williams, Here With Me – 5,000
Charlie Robison, Beautiful Day – 3,000
Tanya Tucker, My Turn – 3,000
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 3,464,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,683,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 914,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 869,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 754,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 721,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 681,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 – 680,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 674,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 652,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 509,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 403,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 374,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 314,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 261,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits – 255,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 247,000
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie – 208,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 206,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 191,000
Trace Adkins, X – 185,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 184,000
Joey + Rory, Life of a Song – 167,000
Blake Shelton, Startin’ Fires – 165,000
Eli Young Band, Jet Black and Jealous – 108,000
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy – 102,000
Craig Morgan, Greatest Hits – 81,000
Hank Williams III, Damn Right Rebel Proud – 80,000
Despite a good album in 2008, James Otto’s only hit to date has been his smash single, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.” It’s strong, sultry vibe, provided by both Otto’s soulful vocal delivery and an addictive baseline hook, easily got into people’s heads and pushed the song to the top. Since no other songs from the album received such support, it’s no wonder that Otto has reverted to releasing another song to try to capture those same elements.
“Since You Brought It Up” is basically a cutesy back and forth, via the telephone, between a man and woman who want to get together, but d
on’t quite have the courage to be straightforward about it. Instead, “since you brought it up” is used as the not so sly pick up line with “Since you brought it up, why don’t you bring it over?”
“Since You Brought It Up” employs many of the same features of “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but does not quite match its strength. Otto’s vocal is strong and as soulful as ever, but it, somehow, manages to lack some of the life and character of its predecessor. Likewise, nothing about the production is especially memorable or interesting. Ultimately, Otto gave it a good try, but it’s hard to recreate past success with an inferior duplication.
The winners have been announced for three of the Top New Artist categories at this year’s ACM Awards:
Top New Male Vocalist: Jake Owen
Top New Female Vocalist: Julianne Hough
Top New Vocal Duo or Group: Zac Brown Band
Jake Owen’s victory is something of an upset, as he was nominated against James Otto and Jamey Johnson, two men who received multiple Grammy nominations. Johnson still has a shot at some ACM awards this year, as he’s nominated in three other categories: Single, Song and Album of the Year. Owen is nominated for Vocal Event for his part in Sugarland’s multi-artist “Life in a Northern Town.”
Julianne Hough was chosen over Sarah Buxton and Ashton Shepherd, while Zac Brown Band won over the Eli Young Band and the Lost Trailers.
Owen, Hough and Zac Brown Band will compete for the Top New Artist award during the three-hour telecast on Sunday, April 5. We’ll be live-blogging, of course. Look for our predictions and personal picks later this week.