2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year. Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.
Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.
#20 Rubberband Charlie Worsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann
Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”
#19 Silver Bell Patty Griffin
Individual rankings: #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan
It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released. Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.) For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic. She finds a happy medium between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red. Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002. Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”
#18 Honky Tonk Son Volt
Individual rankings: #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan
As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”
In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: ”Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
#16 My Favorite Picture of You Guy Clark
Individual rankings: #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”
#15 The Highway Holly Williams
Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann
Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.” - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”
It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”
#13 High Top Mountain Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam
Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”
Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.
From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”
Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was. His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”) Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”
The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”
Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50′s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”
It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”
#7 Old Yellow Moon Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”
From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”
The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin’” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken
The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time. There are very few anti-heroes to be found here. Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.
Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers. The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”
Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.
The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.
In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”
A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”
#2 Spitfire LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan
Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””
#1 12 Stories Brandy Clark
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam
Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.
Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.
Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.
As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five. The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”
As a general rule, you can scan the credits of any new country album and assume that if Brandy Clark is a writer on one of the songs, it’s the best song on the album. As Clark readies the release of 12 Stories, her debut album as an artist, it’s a great time for fans of that remarkable set to get caught up on Clark’s work to date.
Believe the hype. Clark really is as good as everyone is saying she is. Possibly even better, as these twenty tracks suggest. Scroll down to the bottom, and you can listen to snippets from all of them as you read along.
Even if you’re only a casual fan of country radio, you’ve probably already heard Clark’s distinctive brand of songwriting. She’s penned huge hits for the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert in the past year, along with a should’ve-been hit for LeAnn Rimes and the upcoming release from frequent collaborator Kacey Musgraves.
Here’s a rundown of her radio releases so far.
“Better Dig Two”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen
from The Band Perry album, Pioneer
The production nearly overwhelms the sharpness of the lyric here, but after a few listens, it’s easier to get past the clutter and enjoy the wicked wordplay.
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the LeAnn Rimes album, Lady & Gentlemen
That Aqua Net reference at the beginning was flagged by us upon release as “the best opening line in recent memory.” It still holds up well today, sounding just as fresh and clever on Clark’s debut album.
“Follow Your Arrow”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
Arguably the strongest song on Musgraves’ remarkable debut set, “Follow Your Arrow” is a remarkably progressive anthem of tolerance and individual expression. It is slated to be the third single and in a perfect world, Musgraves will use that as a reason to perform it on the CMA Awards next month.
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Miranda Lambert album, Four the Record
Easily the best thing Lambert’s done in years, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a whole lotta crazy without feeling even a little bit forced. It manages to slip in some sly feminist commentary, too.
“Things a Mama Don’t Know” (with Toby Keith)
written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore, and Liz Rose
from the Mica Roberts EP, Days You Live For
The debut single from Mica Roberts featured her Show Dog label head, Toby Keith. It’s a potent song about a woman who follows the wrong man across the country and doesn’t want to let her mother know how much she’s suffering as a result of this poor choice. It’s always nice to hear Keith’s voice, but his presence gets in the way of the lyric, making for an odd switch between third and first person during the second verse.
The Album Cuts
Many of Clark’s best songs have never been sent to radio. Here are some of her lesser-known tracks.
“The Boy Never Stays”
written by Brandy Clark, Sarah Darling, and Josh Osborne
from the Sarah Darling album, Angels & Devils
Clark’s songs reel you in early, usually with an opening line that immediately grabs your attention. “He’s the first taste of something you shouldn’t have. He’s the first lie you tell to your mom and dad.” Her masterful use of pathos is what sets Clark apart from most of her peers.
“Boys and Buses”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
digital download track from Season One of Nashville
There’s an incredible irony to the fact that Hayden Panettiere’s character on Nashville is supposed to be a flashy pop singer making disposable music for tweens. The songs she actually sings on the show are often top-notch, better than much of what’s on the radio today. “Boys and Buses” may have a chorus that would make Julie Roberts swoon, but it’s chock full of clever details and turns of phrase that are Clark’s hallmarks.
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
A sweetly mournful song about love gone wrong, built around the false hope of wishing on a weed.
“The Day She Got Divorced”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Mark D. Sanders
from the Reba McEntire album, All the Women I Am
When we reviewed this album three years ago, this track was noted as among the strongest. We called it “vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.” One of the few great McEntire performances this century, it’s especially impressive that Clark’s own reading on her debut album is even better than McEntire’s reading of this dark and dreary divorce number.
“Get Outta My Yard”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Gretchen Wilson album, Right on Time
Wilson’s latest album opens with this cut. It practically screams for a more aggressive performance, the latest reminder what Wilson’s outlaw image never really shows up at the mic. If Lambert’s looking for another rave-up, she might want to anchor her next set with this one.
“It is What it is”
written by Brandy Clark, Luke Laird, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
The late night phone call concept has been done well before, but never quite this emotion-free. She doesn’t need him now and isn’t likely to hate herself in the morning for loving him tonight. “Maybe I love you,” she wonders, or “maybe I’m just kinda bored.” This is the best track on Musgraves’ album that hasn’t been flagged as a single yet.
“Last Night’s Make Up”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis album, Dos Divas
You know that a writer is capturing universal truth when a song can be as convincing by a voice weathered by time as it would be if sung by someone as young as the writer herself. This tale of morning after regret is one of Morgan’s finest moments, on par with her signature ballads from the nineties.
“Love Without You” (featuring Sheryl Cr0w)
written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally
from the Darius Rucker album, True Believers
The Crow backing vocal is easy to miss until she starts singing some of the lines in the end, but Rucker hasn’t had his own talent showcased this well too often, so it helps that she stays out of the way for most of the track. The subtlety of the lyric and the quiet production allow him to shine as an interpreter.
“The Maker of Them All”
written by Brandy Clark and Billy Montana
from the Guy Penrod album, Breathe Deep
A stunning and uplifting celebration of how all of us are creations of God, using sharp contrasts to make the point of how many diverse and seemingly contradictory things are part of a greater plan designed by one maker. “The hands that have to fight. The hands that pray for peace at night. The Lord is the maker of them all.”
“Something Worth Stealing”
written by Brandy Clark and Jill King
from the Jill King album, Rain on Fire
“There’s love,” King sings, “and then there’s runaway desire.” There are a lot of songs about the actual cheating, but they usually document the heat of the moment. This indiscretion is coldly calculated, no matter how hot the flames of passion underlying it might be.
“That’s How I’ll Remember You”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Madeleine Slate
from the David Nail album, The Sound of a Million Dreams
“Summertime in Brooklyn, mustard on your lip. I knew I loved you by the bottom of the fifth.” Not too many country songs capture moments that perfectly detailed, and this has got to be the only one where the moment takes place at a Brooklyn Cyclones game.
“Tryin’ to Go to Church”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Ashton Shepherd
from the Ashton Shepherd album, Where Country Grows
One of the most charming tracks from Shepherd’s second set, she rattles off the reasons she can’t quite make it to church in her exaggerated twang. My personal favorite: “Here comes that husband-stealin’ heifer and I reckon I’m gonna have to fight.”
“Waitin’ on a Train”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the Buffy Lawson album, I’m Leaving You For Me
The debut solo album from former Bomshel Buffy Lawson features this gem that compares waiting for a man to love her in return to “standing in an airport, waiting on a train.”
“When I Find Me That Mountain”
written by Brandy Clark and Trent Jeffcoat
from the Trent Jeffcoat album, When I Find Me That Mountain
Clark doesn’t engage her faith much on her debut album, but if this and “The Maker of Them All” are any indication, she’s got a great country gospel album waiting inside of her.
“You Can Come Over”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Mark Narmore
from the Craig Campbell album, Never Regret
A true hidden gem, this one tells the heartbreaker in question, “You can come over but you can’t come in.” A talk on the front porch, a ride in the truck. Those are just fine. But walking through his front door will just lead to her leaving again.
The debut single from The Voice Season 4 winner Danielle Bradbery has one of best productions you’re likely to hear on terrestrial country radio, heavy on the sweet sounds of fiddle and mandolin. ”The Heart of Dixie” also boasts an effective melody which rises and dips in a manner most fitting for a story about a woman leaving an unsatisfying life and finding newfound freedom on the open road. And while the interpretive abilities of an artist still in her teens are often limited (see early LeAnn Rimes as an example), Bradbery at least sounds genuinely engaged in the story she’s telling.
That said, it’s hard not to wish that the story itself were a bit more compelling. The protagonist “Dixie” doesn’t feel real as a character, and it doesn’t help that she’s named Dixie merely for the sake of a titular pun. You can tell a bit too easily that she’s the brainchild of three hired-gun Nashville songwriters, and her story begs to be fleshed out with greater dimension and detail. It’s the kind of story that’s definitely worth telling, but also one that’s been told better and more interestingly in the past.
The single has enough strong points to generate interest in the artist and her future efforts, but as it is, we’re left with a single that is an enjoyable listen, but uninspiring overall.
Written by Brett James, Caitlyn Smith and Troy Verges
As you may have noticed, the Country Universe staff loves to find ways to participate in joint writing projects. So, while it won’t be the exclusive way that we review albums, we thought we would give a new, more collaborative album review format a try. As an offshoot of our Round Table Single Reviews, which could become repetitive when we all agreed on a particular track, we are test-driving Round Table Album Reviews, which will give us all a chance to weigh in on different tracks and aspects of a single album. With this format, even if we all generally positively (or negatively) agree on an album, as happens to be the case here, we still have room for a variety of perspectives.
LeAnn Rimes Spitfire
It’s certainly no secret that LeAnn Rimes has lived a tumultuous life, a fact which has been sensationalized by various media outlets throughout her career. While her male counterparts are frivolously singing about cruising backroads, partying life away and generic love, Rimes has channeled her life circumstances into an emotional and fiery work of art, just as true artists tend to do. As a result, music critics have taken notice and have rewarded her efforts with high praise and acclaim.
As Dan observed in his review of the album’s lead release, Rimes is “an artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year.” Rimes’ Spitfire demonstrates that the trend continues with the best album of her career and, certainly, what will be one of the shining albums of 2013. - Leeann Ward
“Gasoline and Matches” (with Rob Thomas, featuring Jeff Beck)
In an album rife with weighty reflection and introspection, the nearly frenetic “Gasoline and Matches”, originally written and performed by Buddy and Julie Miller, is a welcome reprieve. It’s as intense as the rest of the album, but in a decidedly different way.
Lyrics like “You pull my pin and you trip my wire/Yeah, well, you come in and set my heart on fire/You knock me out, you rock me off my axis” signal that this isn’t just some run-of-the mill love song, but rather, a cleverly constructed, fiery romper. What’s more, is there a more endearing proposal line than “Baby, we should get related”? Maybe so, but it perfectly fits the cheekiness of this song.
Furthermore, along with the addicting bass riff and bluesy guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Rimes and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas rise to the song’s proverbial gauntlet with a rousing performance where they match each other’s intensity phrase for phrase, which all culminates into a truly riveting listening experience. - Leeann Ward
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist’s entire “reason to be” shift so dramatically over the course of one career. When Rimes first surfaced, the novelty was she was a young girl with amazing pipes who could belt out classics past and present. Her success was based on the very opposite of song interpretation, with the focus being completely on the singer – “Wow, can you believe a little girl just hit that note!” The songs were incidental, and usually better interpreted by other artists in years gone by. In that sense, she foreshadowed what would make most of the “American Idol” also-rans popular while on the show, but irrelevant once they were voted off.
“Who We Really Are” perfectly illustrates how she’s become something else entirely: a subtle, nuanced singer who gets out of the song’s way, allowing the writing to take center stage. This only works if a singer is able to pick (or write) great material in the first place, and is able to communicate the song’s meaning in a way that is clarifying for the listener. She succeeds wildly here, earning what might be the greatest compliment a singer can get when recording outside material: It sounds like she wrote it. - Kevin John Coyne
What music fan hasn’t had this experience? You heard a song as a kid, fell in love with the feeling and melody, grew up ten years and suddenly realized, “Oh; this is about heroin addiction.”
That’s not quite Rimes’s character here, thankfully. But in one of the most upbeat admissions of wrongdoing since “Dang Me,” she does fess up to her share of cheating and drinking, all while bopping around to a beat so groovy that they had to give it a 50-second solo at the top of the track. Turns out Rimes used to find the classic Hank and Merle weepers pretty groovy, too – until she started living through them.
But you can’t keep a good girl down: even after she’s driven away her man, then alienated everyone else trying to drink away her shame, she manages to get her act together, coming full circle to a new love who helps set her free, just like in the oughta-be classic “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Getting older and wiser can mean seeing more of the darkness in the world, Rimes seems to acknowledge – but if you hold out for it, you get see more of the light, too. - Dan Milliken
Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & Dan Wilson
The most obvious choice LeAnn Rimes could have made for her performance on “God Takes Care of Your Kind” would have been a vengeful, “woman scorned” act, turning the song into a tale of fiery accusations and Old Testament style retribution. But Rimes has spent her last four albums avoiding those obvious choices that most of her contemporaries likely would – and far too often do – make. What makes the final kiss-off of “God Takes Care of Your Kind” so cutting isn’t the rusty barbs knotted in its lyrics but the fact that Rimes’ delivery couldn’t be more casual in its dismissal.
She references deep betrayal in the chorus (“I let you in where I never let anyone/You cut me open just to watch the blood run,” for those wondering if modern country songs could still trade in sexually loaded metaphors). But, drawling out her lines over a slinky rhythm section, she doesn’t sound the least bit pressed by any of it. Instead, she’s relaxed and confident, resting easy in the blessed assurance that the Good Lord has her back. - Jonathan Keefe
Written by Darrell Brown, LeAnn Rimes and Dean Sheremet
Amidst all the astute, specific storytelling on Spitfire, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” sticks out for its broad strokes of emotion. There’s no vivid thought process to trace here; it’s just a lament about the cost of foolishly ignoring love, built around a turn-of-phrase that sits dangerously close to contrived.
But its craft is elsewhere: Like the potent country song it recalls, it drowns the narrative in emotion – through the swell of the melody, the cry of the steel guitar, the guilt in Rimes’ voice – until the words becomes an accessory. Rimes plays into this effect with a performance that’s as stirring as the arrangement it complements, restrained and self-loathing all at once. If Spitfire is an indication of the vision-driven artist we weren’t sure Rimes could become, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” is a reminder of the artist whose voice could always light fire and relevance under the most classically constructed country songs. - Tara Seetharam
Written by David Baerwald, Darrell Brown and LeAnn Rimes
Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe: We love country music. A lot. While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.
At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice. We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.
Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists. Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles. Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter. Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section. Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012. We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.
“Southern Comfort Zone” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #13; Leeann – #20
Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort. But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and whenthat point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band. No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” Gary Allan
Individual rankings: Sam – #8
The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Goodbye In Her Eyes” Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #14; Leeann – #18
“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. - Leeann Ward
#37 “In Between Jobs” Todd Snider
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6
An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Go Your Way” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #13; Sam – #18
“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings. It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak
“Born to Be Blue” The Mavericks
Individual rankings: Ben – #17; Dan – #18; Tara – #20
A slice of throwback 50′s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam
#34 “Closer” Mindy Smith
Individual rankings: Leeann – #12; Dan – #14
Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs. Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy. The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward
#33 “Drunk On You” Luke Bryan
Individual rankings: Dan – #12; Kevin – #14
In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.” Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne
“Cruise” Florida Georgia Line
Individual rankings: Dan – #3
Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken
#31 “When I’m Gone” Joey + Rory
Individual rankings: Kevin – #12; Ben – #12
A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record. While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo. - Ben Foster
#30 “Postcard from Paris” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Ben – #11; Sam – #13
In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”). Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins. - Ben Foster
#29 “When It Pleases You” Sara Watkins
Individual rankings: Dan – #10; Leeann – #17
With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back. ”I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken
“Live and Die”
The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #2
The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010. There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right. - Sam Gazdziak
#27 “Is It Already Time?” Wade Hayes
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Dan – #15
A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken
“Safe & Sound” Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars
Individual rankings: Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #14
The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings. The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward
#25 “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” Toby Keith
Individual rankings: Kevin – #9; Leeann – #16
Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne
“Plant White Roses” Kelly Hogan
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #1
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly
Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#23 “Good Girl” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #6; Dan – #16
A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter. A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne
#22 “Hello Cruel World” Gretchen Peters
Individual rankings: Ben – #8; Sam – #12
An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.” A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward. - Ben Foster
#21 “Dig Gravedigger Dig” Corb Lund
Individual rankings: Sam – #4; Jonathan – #18
Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper. It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak
#20 “I’m a Mess” Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: Leeann – #4; Kevin – #16
From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest. With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000′s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward
#19 “Fly Over States” Jason Aldean
Individual rankings: Tara – #7; Dan – #9
Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath. It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that? - Dan Milliken
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” Eli Young Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #5; Tara – #16; Jonathan – #16; Dan – #20
The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own. Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “Two Black Cadillacs” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Tara – #4; Ben – #18
A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative. Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam
“Beer Money” Kip Moore
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Tara – #9; Kevin – #11 Ben – #19
The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Better Dig Two” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7; Leeann – #9; Dan – #11; Tara – #19
The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin. But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse. Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio? Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing? This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. - Jonathan Keefe
#14 “I Just Come Here for the Music” Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss
Individual rankings: Ben – #6; Sam – #7; Dan – #17; Kevin – #20
Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself. And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights. His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak
#13 “The Dreaming Fields” Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #6; Jonathan – #10
In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories. ”The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance. I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory. This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster
“Springsteen” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Dan – #6; Tara – #6; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #17; Ben – #20
The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken
#11 “Blown Away” Carrie Underwood
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Dan – #7; Tara – #14; Ben – #15
An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood. Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Tara – #11; Leeann – #13; Ben – #14; Sam – #19
With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album. While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.” A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe
#9 “The Sound of a Million Dreams” David Nail
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Kevin – #8; Ben – #9; Dan – #19
With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse. Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope. And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam
#8 “Creepin’” Eric Church
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2; Leeann – #8; Tara – #15
With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre. From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre. When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak
“Neon” Chris Young
Individual rankings: Tara – #3; Dan – #5; Leeann – #7; Jonathan – #8; Ben – #13
Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement. But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment. Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam
#6 “Takin’ Pills” Pistol Annies
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Leeann – #5; Sam – #9; Tara – #10; Ben – #10
Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country. “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace. It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe
#5 “Like a Rose” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #5; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10; Tara – #13
Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming. While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it. ”Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem. High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward
#4 “Drinkin’ Man” George Strait
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Ben – #3; Tara – #5; Jonathan – #5; Leeann – #11
There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year. One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years. “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits. He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne
#3 “What Have I Done” LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Leeann – #3; Dan – #4; Ben – #4; Kevin – #5
Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion. “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality. The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam
#2 “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” Alan Jackson
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Ben – #1; Jonathan – #4; Tara – #8; Sam – #11
Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is. Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves. A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be. A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster
#1 “Merry Go ‘Round” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Leeann – #2; Sam – #3; Kevin – #7; Ben – #7; Tara – #12
In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really. The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.
It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music. That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries. It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row: Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken
Long lost in the torrent of tabloids, lost in the fickle four-lady shuffle of country radio, is the truth that LeAnn Rimes – whatever her circumstances – is an exceptional country artist. An artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year, as her natural talent imbibes the wisdom and weather of age. The chipper tween who Patsy-parroted through “Blue” was charming, but nowhere near as compelling as the guarded optimist of “What I Cannot Change.” And even she, in turn, sounds a little simplistic compared to the woman we now encounter in “What Have I Done.”
That title should tip off the song’s subject matter to anyone familiar with Rimes’s personal history. But that’s where the easy answers in this release end. Far from a one-note PR push, “What Have I Done” explores every gray shade of Rimes leaving “the only man that’s ever loved me,” painting a strikingly three-dimensional picture of the event and its aftermath.
It could be unwieldy. But the song manages to unfold all this reality gently, each line like a carefully measured breath in a meditation. There’s hardly a wasted word in “What Have I Done,” hardly a note of ornament. Even when Rimes curls the word “loved” at the end of the chorus, it doesn’t feel like a stunt. It feels like what the folk tradition demanded – what the song’s craft demanded. It’s as if in confronting her worst demons yet, Rimes has tapped into the life-spring of classic country: clean, composed catharsis.
Does it all still seem…a bit calculated? Of course; how could any release under such circumstances not? It also seems achingly sincere – and maybe the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If there’s anything “What Have I Done” has to teach, it’s that the truth is complicated. We don’t get to go through life having pleased everyone, or even having convinced everyone of our good intent, or even having convinced ourselves, at times. We just get to try, tugged at each moment by the thoughts and circumstances of the day, and watch what happens. The final judgment on Rimes’s attempts remains to be seen. But as for the judgment on her art – there’s no question.
Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & David Baerwald
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
A new covers album from LeAnn Rimes would likely draw comparisons to her 1999 self-titled effort, which found her covering the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. But this time, there’s a twist: All of the songs she’s covering were originally recorded by male artists. Thus, Rimes is re-interpreting them in a female perspective.
And while 1999′s LeAnn Rimes album might have given you a feeling that you were listening to really good karaoke singer, as her versions seldom strayed far from the originals, Rimes’ new collection Lady and Gentlemen finds her taking substantial liberties with these classic hits. She even alters lyrics on Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (re-titled as “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”). The songs are given modern, yet reverent, production arrangements, with Rimes adding her own personal style to each one, resulting in a uniquely creative effort.
Besides the obviously strong song material, what really makes Lady and Gentlemen a keeper is the fact that, although she covers everyone from Jennings to Jones to Haggard, the project remains first and foremost a LeAnn Rimes album. She sounds entirely in her element – After all, she grew up listening to these songs – and the result is a strong set of performances that sound natural, sincere, and unaffected.
Rimes and her co-producers Vince Gill and Darrell Brown craft arrangements that sound simultaneously vintage and modern, never treating the songs as museum pieces. The albums kicks off with Rimes’ cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin,” which was released as the project’s first single last year. Though it barely made a ripple on the charts, it easily ranked as one of the best singles of the year.
While everything about the original Anderson recording screamed “eighties,” LeAnn speeds up the tempo, and transforms the über-cheesy hit into a modern-day jam session. In listening to Rimes’ vocal delivery, you’d think she chugged down a pot of espresso before heading into the recording studio. Like an auctioneer at the county fair, Rimes calls out the verses in rapid-fire succession, while the band furiously plucks away behind her.
The better part of the album finds Rimes backed with simple acoustic and steel guitar-driven arrangements, such as on the Freddy Fender cover “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” – worth hearing for her Spanish accent alone. She utilizes a similar sonic approach on Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” notable also for a vocal that sounds deeply plaintive, while also casting a feminine tone over the classic lyric. While her version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” carries a deep retro vibe, she adds an extra layer of sass to the lyric, which makes the song one of the album’s most interesting tracks.
She deviates from the vintage approach with her cover of Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name,” and instead puts a blue-eyed country soul spin on the nineties hit. Such an approach accents the deep bluesy tone in her voice, but the unnecessary addition of a gospel choir distracts from the raw emotion that came through in Gill’s original recording. Though interesting, her take on “When I Call Your Name” is less satisfying than many of the album’s other tracks.
Perhaps the song that gives her the biggest shoes to fill is the classic Bobby Braddock/ Curly Putman composition “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a hit for George Jones in 1980, and widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time. Appropriately, Rimes and Gill’s approach places the classic lyric front and center, with no superfluous bells or whistles. Rimes is backed by little more than an acoustic guitar as she recounts the dark tale of a man who loved his woman until the very end, even when his love was no longer requited. She gives a remarkably moving performance of the familiar ballad, even when delivering the spoken-word portion. Vince Gill adds his distinctive harmony touch to the track, and the result sounds absolutely haunting, making “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a strong contender for being the album’s best track.
The album closes with the original songs “Crazy Women” and “Give,” both of which have seen release as singles. “Crazy Women” sounds like something out of a Broadway musical (or a Laura Bell Bundy album, for that matter), and Rimes deftly pulls it off with a broadly entertaining performance of the wickedly snarky tune. Current single “Give” returns Rimes to a fully modern pop-country style. While the philosophical song – a call for proactivity and benevolence in the world – is a strong composition, the musical styling is an awkward fit for an album that is largely retro in style. It’s a good song – It just sounds like it belongs on a different album.
As a special treat for her fans, Rimes offers a re-recorded version of her classic 1996 debut single “Blue,” commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of the song’s release. The new version sounds even more traditional than the original, which is saying a lot, while also displaying Rimes’ growth as a vocalist and lyrical interpreter. She gives a performance with more restraint than the original, connecting with the underlying emotions on an even deeper level than before, while the simpler, twangier arrangement highlights the timeless nature of the Bill Mack composition. It’s impressive to note the ease with which “Blue” fits in among all these revered classics. As one who’s known and loved the song “Blue” for years, I do not say this lightly: The new version of “Blue” rivals the original.
A binding thread running throughout the set is the palpable reverence Rimes displays for these songs, which makes Lady and Gentlemen one of the most intriguing and wholly satisfying releases of 2011, and of Rimes’ own career output. It all comes together so well that the project’s success seem perfectly natural. LeAnn Rimes is a great singer, and these are great songs, so in her tackling these timeless tunes, it logically follows that a great album would result.
As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.
My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.
I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:
1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)