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
I’m no purist, but there should be a lot more distance between what we call country music and this:
Kelly Clarkson’s got some powerful pipes, and she brings this track to life. Aldean acquits himself nicely. But the sheer volume of noise that invades the track with the first chorus takes us straight into Monster Ballads territory.
This isn’t country music. It just isn’t.
Written by Andy Gibbons, Paul Jenkins, and Jason Sellers
I’m a big Nintendo guy. They put out a console, I buy it.
I like their handhelds even more. Every time they upgrade one, I buy the new and improved version. Bigger and brighter screens, internet access, more comfortable design. All good reasons to trade in the old one and get the new.
But sometimes Nintendo just puts a handheld out in a few new colors. Some people buy a new one when they do this, but I never do. I don’t see the point in buying the same thing that’s just been made to appear a little different. It’s not actually better than what I already have.
“My Kinda Party” isn’t an improvement on “Johnny Cash”, “Hicktown”, or “She’s Country.” It’s the same basic song, dressed up to look like something new. It’s not particularly better, and not particularly worse. Just the same old baked beans in a brand new can.
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.
Country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll – mostly the lattter two – combine for a hearty serving of frat boy fun on Jack Ingram’s latest single. “Barbie Doll” has been a fan favorite since its initial release on Ingram’s 1999 set Hey You, but this latest iteration boasts a driving arrangement that may finally get the track on mainstream radio.
The song marries Ingram’s straightforward hook sense to Todd Snider’s rambling barroom-sage style, wringing as much talk as it can out of a pretty slight premise (“dude, that girl you’re checking out is a total B-word”) and culminating in a big group shout-a-long.
It would probably be annoying as hell coming from a Jason Aldean-type, but Ingram sells it, delivering the kind of loose, grinning performance that can only be honed by performing one’s art for untold numbers of drunk guys.
I must say that part of me misses the slow-burning spite of the song’s earlier arrangement, but this rocked-up reinterpretation works in its own way, and the track still sounds fresher than most Nashville product. Plus, this single edit omits the distracting Dierks Bentley cameo featured on the album. Plus, Todd Snider still co-wrote it.
So “Barbie Doll” 2.0 turns out, y’know, pretty darn fun. A little mindless, maybe a bit of a sellout, but hey – I’ll get drunk to it.
Look, Nashville’s got its issues. And a song that delves into its yin-yang core of image and art could be interesting, if not entirely original. It could be any combination of honest, clever, biting and entertaining. It could make sense.
Or, it could be sung by Jason Aldean, an artist who’s arguably risen to success not in spite of the industry’s flaws, but because of them. That’s not to say Aldean hasn’t put in the work to become a multi-platinum recording artist; it’s just that claiming to have conquered the evils of Music Row requires a decent amount of artistic credibility, separate and apart from the mass appeal that drives the careers of many Nashville artists. Aldean has shown glimmers of this, but his legacy thus far is a brand of pulsing country-rock that’s heavy on the production and light on the vocal and lyrical substance. Case in point: “Crazy Town.” The song, then, feels more like an ironic autobiography than a commentary.
But put artist context aside, and “Crazy Town” still fails to serve its purpose. A tribute to a love-hate relationship only works if you’re able to show that the love is worth the hate – that there’s a pay-off somewhere amidst the craziness. So what makes the years of free concerts, smoky bars, and “bang, bang, bang”-ing what one can only hope is a guitar worth it? A “honky tonk destiny,” sings Aldean, and we’re left to conjure our own image of the deep fulfillment such a destiny offers. The blanks certainly aren’t filled in by Aldean’s performance, which trades any specific emotion for smothering, empty aggression.
Any way you look at it, “Crazy Town” is an insubstantial miss.
Here are the top selling country albums of the calendar year 2009. The number in parentheses is the album’s rank on the overall list encompassing all genres. The totals are rounded to the nearest thousand:
Taylor Swift, Fearless (1) – 3,157,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation (15) – 1,243,000
Carrie Underwood, Play On (19) – 1,150,000
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable (21) – 1,123,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum (24) – 948,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open (27) – 940,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live (31) – 849,000
Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift (36) – 766,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity (38) – 715,000
Sugarland, Love On the Inside (41) – 678,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II (54) – 547,000
Tim McGraw, Southern Voice (55) – 547,000
George Strait, Twang (62) – 499,000
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night (69) – 462,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song (71) – 460,000
Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride (74) – 457,000
Taylor Swift, The Holiday Collection (79) – 425,000
After Part 1 and Part 2 , we’re wading further into the sea of mediocrity.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #30-#21
Terri Clark, “Dirty Girl”
Double entendres are a lot more enjoyable when the naughty meaning is the real one.
Jamey Johnson, “The Dollar”
Real kids don’t talk like this.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Love Will Always Win”
This treacly ballad is the nadir of Trisha’s career and one “It’s Midnight Cinderella” away from being Garth’s as well.
Darryl Worley, “Have You Forgotten?”
Featuring more straw men than a Wizard of Oz audition.
Clint Black, “I Raq and Roll”
“Have You Forgotten?” without all the nuance and subtlety.
Shania Twain and Billy Currington, “Party For Two”
Proof positive that spoken dialogue can ruin a song before it even begins.
Martina McBride, “God’s Will”
He was dressed as a bag of leaves? That’s his costume? Hey, at least she didn’t kill him off in the last verse.
Brooks & Dunn, “Play Something Country”
There are so many poorly written female characters in Brooks & Dunn songs, it’s hard to pick just one to represent them all. But I’ll give the nod to this one, simply because it has her howling the title to a melodic hook that’s a blatant rip-off of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Jason Aldean, “Johnny Cash”
The “country star as song name” trend hasn’t yielded anything worthwhile, but at least “Tim McGraw” and “Kristofferson” have some tenuous connection to their titular song. “Johnny Cash” is just shameless name-dropping.
Gretchen Wilson, “Red Bird Fever”
In retrospect, this should’ve been a huge red flag that Wilson wasn’t built to last. My personal favorite moment of this St. Louis Cardinals shout-out comes in the chorus, when she sings “Let me get a big ‘Go Cards!’ from the Red Bird fans like me. Go Cards!” and the backup singers answer back, “Hell yeah!” because they couldn’t be bothered to change the “Redneck Woman” backing track.