Usually with country records, you know what to expect after the first twenty seconds.
“Good Girl” toys brilliantly with those expectations.
It starts off as a typical Carrie “attitude” song, but even in the opening section, something’s different. Her voice is raw and gritty, lacking the typical polish that made earlier songs in this vein sound a bit forced. It leads into a fairly typical country chorus, and as that’s coming to an end, you’re ready for the second verse.
But it doesn’t come just yet. Instead, the hand claps stop, the band slows down, and she lets the melody hang, repeating “go” and “he’s low” in a hypnotizing, almost soothing way. Just as you’re being lulled into submission, the record snaps back to life, as she rattles off the reasons a good girl wants to believe in that no-good man.
Familiarity sets in, and as the chorus runs into the bridge, I was reveling in that “go”/”he’s low” construct the second time around, until the rug was pulled out from me again. Instead of completing the bridge this time, a blistering guitar solo tears through, leading up to a ferocious rock vocal that would make Janis proud.
As the song reaches its climax, I braced for the inevitable. A song that builds up this much energy always ends up crossing the line, ending with a loud and cluttered bang. Once again, she zags. Instead of escalating, the band drops out entirely, and the final ten seconds of the song is just Carrie – no backup singers, no band, not even a hand clap. It actually ends with ten seconds of unadorned a cappella.
In three-and-a-half minutes, Underwood surprised me more than any country recording since “Giddy On Up”, and without any of the accompanying camp. I’ve always been a fan of hers, because Glory to God in the Highest That Voice, but I never suspected that she’d be this relentlessly creative.
An absolutely exhilarating record.
Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley, and Carrie Underwood
There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look. Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio. Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:
#10 Easton Corbin Easton Corbin
With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Freight Train Alan Jackson
Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
Our look back at the year’s best singles comes to a close, with unprecedented CU consensus at the top of the list. The top two singles of the year were ranked in that order by three of our four writers, and both appeared in the top ten of the fourth writer.
Here’s our ten best of 2010:
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1
Draw Me a Map Dierks Bentley
Bentley is getting a lot of deserved attention for sonically diverging from the mainstream to create a bluegrass-inspired album. It’s an excellent album, but to his credit, “Draw Me A Map” isn’t so far removed from some of the unreleased songs on his first two mainstream projects; It’s just that he gets to shine a finer focus on it for this album, and therefore, this seemingly subversive song for radio gets to be released. The inspired blend of Bentley’s ragged voice with Alison Krauss’ angelic one takes the song to an even sweeter level. – Leeann Ward
Broken Chely Wright
Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that “Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution.” He was talking, in context, about marriage. The truth is that no one enters a relationship completely free of burden, and only by submitting to the complications of that truth can we avoid being ruled by them. Wright, for her part, manages the task with simple, earnest grace, probably strengthening her relationship through mere acknowledgment of its weaknesses. – Dan Milliken
Drop On By Laura Bell Bundy
Unlike the year’s other booze-induced lover’s call, “Drop On By” isn’t rooted in emotional dependency; it’s fueled by Bundy’s earthy physical longing – and what a longing that is. Proving her masterful interpretative skills, Bundy churns out a slow-burning performance that’s both deftly controlled and achingly sensual, with just a tinge of playful warmth woven through. The song’s kicker, though, is the smoky throwback arrangement – a delicious mix of blues, jazz and country – that not only fits Bundy like a glove, but pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a great country record. – Tara Seetharam
Giddy On Up Laura Bell Bundy
The most interesting and surprising debut single that I can remember. So many creative and unexpected choices are made, but it is Bundy’s forceful personality that pulls it all together into something cohesive. In an era of country music that is little more than dull shades of gray, “Giddy On Up” is a Technicolor marvel. – Kevin Coyne
As She’s Walking Away Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
A young man just about chickens out of approaching the radiant girl across the bar, panicking that “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.” Luckily, Wise Older Man At Bar can see exactly what’s going on and nudges Junior into action. A bit silly, but the single radiates such warmth that you gobble it up. And if there was a more motivational moment in 2010 than Alan Jackson’s spoken “Go on, son,” well, I didn’t hear it. – DM
Smoke a Little Smoke Eric Church
Church finally puts his music where his mouth is, delivering an unapologetic, roguish (for country radio, anyway) ode to escapism by intoxication. The erratic musical flow evokes the very physical sensations the song celebrates, and Church’s swagger makes bumming sound almost appealing. Turns out that if you stop talking about being a badass for long enough, you may just manage to kinda be one. – DM
If I Die Young The Band Perry
“If I Die Young” arrives like a gift from an alternate universe, one where the public’s embrace of Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, and O Brother was treated as a road map for the genre’s future, not just a passing interest that needn’t be cultivated. – KC
Stuck Like Glue Sugarland
Every once and awhile, a piece of ear candy comes along that defies the term “ear candy.” That’s what “Stuck Like Glue” is, to be sure: an infectious acoustic-pop morsel, invigorated by Nettles’ insanely joyful performance and a genre-busting breakdown. But there’s something about the song that puts it on another plane. Maybe it’s the organic energy, or maybe it’s the lack of artistic inhibition. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that “Stuck Like Glue” doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It just is. And as a result, it’s that rare breed of song that taps into your spirit – that demands you to stop thinking, start feeling and have a damn good time. – TS
Little White Church Little Big Town
It probably owes some theme to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” but Little Big Town’s swampy sleeper hit is the coolest-sounding country single of the year all on its own. From handclaps to snarling electric licks, creepy whispers to gospel-esque call-and-response choruses, “Little White Church” is a potent reminder of all the creativity still bubbling under in Music City. – DM
The House That Built Me Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert’s career defining song is also our song of the year. Not much can be said about this gorgeous ode to childhood memories that hasn’t already been said better by countless writers before me, including our very own Dan Milliken, which helps make the case for what’s inevitably the song of the year on many 2010 countdowns.
Its all-acoustic, understated arrangement underscores the story of a woman who tries to find solace in the memories buried in a structure that was more than a house. Its descriptive lyrics move us as they detail memories from turning blueprints into the family dream home to the heartbreak of losing the family dog.
As it is always is with the best songs, “The House that Built Me” does not hit us over the head with its emotional resonance. It’s strong, it’s palpable, but it’s all done with gentleness, which is the most effective way to tug at the heartstrings. – LW
Sometimes – most of the time – I fall behind on my planned CU work and wind up with a backlog of opinions. And it can be so mentally taxing carrying all that around, you know? Gotta clean out the file sometime. So if you happen to be feeling nostalgic for, oh, five months ago, please join me in considering a bunch of singles which came out around then and pretending like they’re brand-new.
Rodney Atkins, “Farmer’s Daughter”
A warm production, likable vocal by Atkins. I just can’t bring myself to care about the story. Nothing about it feels urgent or revelatory. Grade: C
How this has crept up to become his first Top 30 single in eight years is beyond me, since it’s about as exciting as a dreamless nap. A true “sleeper hit,” yuk yuk. Oh! And does it not totally sound like that “Ooohhh, but I feel it” song from the 90′s? Anyway, a pleasant enough listen if you’re in the mood for it. Grade: C+
It sounds like what would happen if Taylor Swift listened to one Caroline Herring track – just one – and decided to come up with her own version. I mean that in a good way, mostly. Kimberly Perry has written and performed a very pretty-sounding record here, gratuitous “uh oh”s aside, and and Republic Nashville should be commended for releasing something with such ambitious subject matter as a second single.
I just wish the song itself had undergone some more revision first. The pieces are set for a sweet, eloquent hypothetical about premature death, but then that third verse comes and it sounds like she’s actually anticipating her demise and has an agenda for it. It’s muddling.
So, not the home run it could have been. But still an admirable effort. Grade: B-
It looks like this single has already fallen off the radar, which is a big shame. Bundy’s controlled performance demonstrates why she’s among the most promising new acts out there, and the song is a sweet sip of lounge-y countrypolitan.
What’s missing is a great hook. “Drop on By” is a kind of a ho-hum central phrase, and it isn’t matched with a memorable enough melody here to make it really stick. Then again, the tracks on Bundy’s album that do have good hooks (“Cigarette”, “If You Want My Love”) won’t fit radio anyway because they’re too sharp and unique. The gal can’t win. Grade: B
For a number of reasons – the biggest of which was “Love Your Love the Most” dancing on my gag reflex, but there were others – I passed altogether on listening to his sophomore album, and ignored this single’s existence for a good while.
Now I’ve heard it, though, and damn it, I can’t go back. This ode to substance-fueled escapism may be the most daring country single of the year, even without the “stash” reference in the album version. The record actually sounds like a weird high, with snaky acoustic guitars, jarring electrics, and creepy-cool effects on the vocals, yet it never sacrifices accessibility in pursuit of its aesthetic. It ain’t a country sound (check those Collective Soul-aping “yeah”s), but it’s serving a very country theme, and for once, Church’s frat-boy cockiness actually works. Grade: A-
More lightweight, breezy Strait-gazing. The chorus has a bit of an awkward meter, but I’ll deal. In earlier days, this might have been a bit boring compared to its company at radio. Today, it’s just refreshing. Grade: B
Don’t care for this guy’s name – sounds like a rodeo emcee’s or something – but what a cool-sounding debut single. Mournful guitar licks, propulsive beat, appealingly gritty vocal. If only the melody were as confident throughout as it is in the second half of the chorus (“The heaven we had / The hell that I’m going through / Other than that / There ain’t much left of lovin’ you”). Still, not too shabby. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “How I Got to Be This Way”
Strike three. Moore seems to have potential, and I don’t mean to pick on him or his writers, but his output since “Back That Thing Up” represents everything I don’t like about mainstream country today. This is loud, one-dimensional, and worst of all, uninteresting. Grade: D
I’ll say this for David Nail: he’s ambitious. Though his first two singles didn’t win me over, I found something bold to admire in each. “I’m About to Come Alive” cast him as a co-dependent loser – not exactly flattering – while “Red Light” aimed for psychological depth with its focus on the mundane nature of break-ups. Both were refreshingly moody for country radio, and both could have made great breakthrough hits were the songs themselves a bit more compelling.
From a compositional standpoint, “Turning Home” isn’t actually as risky or complex as those forerunners; in fact, it’s very much your typical nostalgic Kenny Chesney co-write. But it’s crisp and coherent enough to give Nail some interpretive room, and he reaches for the stars, delivering an emotional, octave-sweeping performance that goes a long way toward breathing new life into the well-trod themes.
He unfortunately has to do battle with a screechy electric guitar that surfaces in the instrumental break, and there’s no denying that this single owes much more to Elton John or Gavin DeGraw-type artists than it does to anyone in the realm of traditional country. Nevertheless, Nail’s ambition was well-spent here. Grade: A-
His ”Beer on the Table” was enjoyable, if a bit derivative-sounding, but I’ll pass on this one. It’s pretty much a less friendly, slightly wittier version of “Small Town U.S.A.”, of which I was never a fan in the first place. Grade: D+
In the Entertainer and Male Vocalist races, I’ve been making the case for fresh blood. In those categories, the routine nominees are mostly past their peaks, and there’s room to let some rising stars in on the action.
Oh, to be able to make the same case for the Female Vocalist race. Let’s take a look at last year’s nominees:
For the first time in this category’s history, I believe voters are facing a dilemma that plagued the Vocal Duo category for most of the nineties: there just aren’t enough worthy nominees to finish out the category.
Even earlier in this decade, when radio was barely playing any women at all, there were women like Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless who earned nominations for their critically acclaimed roots records. Krauss was even a regular in this category for a good chunk of the decade, and despite being largely absent from radio, she sold more records than some of her fellow nominees.
This year, there isn’t even a woman who could step forward and claim that mantle. So my picks don’t bring anything new to the table. Maybe some of you can make the case that I’m unable to, and suggest new blood in the comments.
Picks for Female Vocalist
She deserves her fourth consecutive nomination, and on the strength of Revolution and its hit single “The House That Built Me”, I think that she deserves the win this year.
In any other year, this would be the slot that should be up for grabs. McBride didn’t release a new album, and while she had some success at radio with “Wrong Baby Wrong”, it didn’t crack the top ten or reignite album sales. Still, who is standing in her way? Kellie Pickler? Gretchen Wilson? Laura Bell Bundy? I fully expect her to earn her thirteenth consecutive nomination, matching Reba McEntire’s record run from 1983-1995.
Speaking of McEntire, she’s been popping up in this category again in recent years. After those thirteen consecutive nominations ended in 1995, the race was far too competitive for a good while. She’s earned three nominations since then, in 2004, 2006, and 2009. Her massive hit “Consider Me Gone” and surprisingly strong record sales mean that this won’t be a filler nomination. She’s earned it.
Yes, I know the idea of her winning vocalist awards makes many wince, but c’mon now. There’s no denying she’s one of the top female artists today. Until Eminem’s recent comeback, she was the biggest star in all of music, period. And she’s got a shot at reclaiming that title with her third album, if initial reaction to “Mine” is any indication.
The three-time winner is radio’s favorite artist and her album sales have remained strong. If Lambert hadn’t surged with “The House That Built Me”, I think that Underwood would be ahead in the race this year. If she makes the final ballot for Entertainer, I suspect that voters will reward her in that category and give Female Vocalist to Lambert. There’s good precedent for this, as Dolly Parton (1978), Barbara Mandrell (1980), and Shania Twain (1999) won Entertainer without winning Female Vocalist that night. It’s happened even more in the Entertainer/Male races, given that the big prize has gone to men far more frequently.
Female artists dominated this year’s ACM Awards in a way that would have been unimaginable just five years earlier, with nearly all of the major winners of the evening coming from a female solo artist or a band that prominently features a female vocalist. More significantly, this year’s ACM dissented from the CMA this fall in the marquee categories of Entertainer and Female Vocalist, which makes this fall’s CMA Awards that much more unpredictable.
Here’s my spin on the show’s highlights:
Carrie Underwood wins Entertainer of the Year
Perhaps we should have known not to underestimate the fan base of Ms. Underwood, who helped deliver the singing siren her second consecutive win for Entertainer of the Year. With Taylor Swift dominating the Grammys and CMAs, it was easy to forget that Underwood has continued to do quite well in her own right. Her string of hits at radio – eleven consecutive top two hits, nine of which reached #1 – is unprecedented. She’s also had ten gold singles, three of which have sold platinum or better. Her third album, Play On, has moved her cumulative album sales past eleven million.
She’s consistently proven herself as a live vocalist and entertainer as well, with her once-awkward stage presence now a distant memory. She remains the genre’s most constant and dedicated ambassador, shown again with her heartfelt acceptance speech for the quite silly Triple Crown Award. So while I’m surprised by her win, I can’t say that I’m disappointed or that there’s another person who deserved it more.
Miranda Lambert wins Female Vocalist, Album, and Video
I suppose it shouldn’t be too shocking, since Lambert’s won Album at this show before and the ACM was the first to award Patty Loveless in the Female Vocalist category, proving that the CMA doesn’t always get it right before the ACM does. “The House That Built Me” is shaping up to be a career record for her, making Lambert the presumptive favorite at this year’s CMA Awards. Much can happen between now and then, but it’s not difficult to imagine her repeating in these categories and adding Single and Song to boot.
Lady Antebellum wins Single, Song, and Vocal Group
Rascal Flatts had quite the run, but it’s clear that Lady Antebellum is now the group to beat. “Need You Now” is arguably more deserving of the hardware it won than its predecessor “I Run to You”, which earned Lady Antebellum a CMA and a Grammy. This group is a force to be reckoned with, and has the potential to dominate its Vocal category for a long time.
Brooks & Dunn win Vocal Duo
I should’ve seen this coming, as all of my colleagues at CU were able to. The ACM has always loved these guys, giving them two Entertainer wins and sticking with them when the CMA switched over to Montgomery Gentry and Sugarland. It helped that Sugarland was completely off the radar this year, clearing the way for a sympathy vote. But as I watched them perform “My Maria”, the cover song picked by fans over two excellent originals, it felt like 1996 all over again. They’re good at what they do, but it’s hard not to notice that their music never evolved much over the twenty years they spent in the spotlight.
Brad Paisley wins his fourth Male Vocalist trophy
It’s funny that the guy who waited forever to finally win this race has now become so dominant in it that nobody’s been able to take it from him. I can’t picture somebody else getting this in the fall. Can you?
Taylor Swift shut out
Our predictions for Swift varied, with all of us expecting her to win both Entertainer and Video, and some of us expecting similar victories in her other categories. But the shut-out makes sense. “You Belong With Me” lost to “Need You Now” in the big races, and to belle of the ball Miranda Lambert in Video and Female Vocalist. Her speed dialers just couldn’t keep up with Underwood’s in the night’s biggest category, resulting in the first Swift-free country awards show since the 2008 CMA Awards, I believe. It felt rather abrupt after her CMA and Grammy sweeps, but it also felt good not having to wince at her being named a standard-bearer after yet another mediocre performance.
Laura Bell Bundy, Kenny Chesney, and live music
Though at least Swift sang live, and she wasn’t the only one to sound less than great while doing so. Chesney lip-synched his heart out without moving a step on stage, while Bundy did an amazing song-and-dance number with a live mic that recalled the very best of Reba McEntire’s showstoppers from the nineties. The Broadway background helped her command the stage in the way that our B-listers simply couldn’t, and let’s be honest: the genre is mostly B-listers these days.
I’ve gotten so used to being bored by mainstream country music that listening to “Little White Church” was a bit of a jolt. Thematically, it’s essentially the country spin on “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, though it could hardly be called derivative.
I’m having trouble singling out what I like about the song the most. First, it’s refreshing to hear those harmonies again, which quite frankly make Lady Antebellum sound like amateurs in comparison. But the instrumentation is just as fresh as the harmonies. They both zig when you expect them to zag. Hand claps appear out of nowhere but don’t sound out of place. There’s a guitar riff before the final verse that just sounds so frickin’ cool, but before you can fully digest it, the vocals are back and suddenly incorporating a dry whisper. It sounds pretty frickin’ cool, too.
And how about the lyrics? A woman refusing to allow her man to “ride the gravy train”, quipping that “I might be cheap but I ain’t free.” It’s hard to imagine a more audacious rhyme than pairing up “no more chicken and gravy” with “ain’t gonna have your baby,” though I’d be happily entertained by attempts to beat it.
A few more records like Laura Bell Bundy’s and this one, and country radio just might get interesting again.
The debut country offering by Broadway star Bundy is one of those weird critical anomalies: a single that dares you to hate it, and thereby ends up being – though you’ll never admit it to anyone in person – kind of charming. It wears its campy garishness more boldly than possibly any country release since “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” which isn’t so surprising coming from the former lead of Legally Blonde: The Musical, but is certainly big news in a format as dependent on the tried-and-true as mainstream country.
That’s not to say “Giddy On Up” (commiserate with me for a sec on that title?) is a completely odd duck. In plot terms, it’s just another cutesy girl-power kiss-off song, the likes of which have been standard fare since the Shania boom and will probably be for some time to come. This one can stand proudly among the most lyrically bland of its kin, too, with the most interesting line being a little knock on Bath & Body Works in the second verse. (more…)