If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination. For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites. But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.
As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!
#20 “Hangin’ Up My Heart” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin
What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward
The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken
“Railroad of Sin” Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “9,999,999 Tears” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe
“Salt” Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin
“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Bible on the Dash” Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak
The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward
A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory. - Tara Seetharam
“If I Loved You” Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham
Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe
This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak
Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after. As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time. When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne
“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road. - Leeann Ward
#8 “Gasoline and Matches” LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas
Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster
This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point. Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe
The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status. - Leeann Ward
Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself. - Tara Seetharam
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song. You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors. The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best. - Kevin Coyne
Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.
There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken
For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums. Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music. As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.
Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!
#40 Ventucky Dan Grimm
Individual rankings: #12 – Jonathan
The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”
#39 Magpie and the Dandelion The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: #12 – Sam
Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”
#38 Love’s Truck Stop Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: #11 – Kevin
Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011′s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
#37 Feels Like Home Sheryl Crow
Individual rankings: #11 – Leeann
It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “We Oughta Be Drinkin’”, “Stay at Home Mother”
#36 They Called it Music The Gibson Brothers
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben
On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”
#35 Studebaker Mando Saenz
Individual rankings: Sam – #11
The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”
#34 Build Me Up from Bones Sarah Jarosz
Individual rankings: #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben
On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”
#33 Opening Day Peter Cooper
Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam
eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”
#32 Holly Grove The Whiskey Gentry
Individual rankings: #8 – Sam
It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak
#31 When We Fall Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7
Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”
#30 Not Cool Tim Easton
Individual rankings: #7 – Jonathan
Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”
#29 Wheelhouse Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”
#28 In the Throes John Moreland
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan
A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”
#27 Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben
A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”
#26 Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara
Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”
#25 Finally Home Blue Sky Riders
Individual rankings: #4 – Dan
With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”
#24 To All the Girls… Willie Nelson
Individual rankings: #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann
Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”
#22 Massachusetts Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin
Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”
#21 The Stand-In
Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan
Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: ”I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”
The “Pontoon” phenomenon may have been responsible for putting Little Big Town back on the map in such a big way, but it’s their new single “Sober” that deserves to be a career hit for the talented country quartet.
Though recent years have seen Karen Fairchild often tapped as the group’s go-to lead vocalist for single releases, “Sober” finally gives country radio listeners a chance to hear the distinctive vocal force that is Kimberly Schlapman. She interprets the song with poise and subtlety, bringing a sense of genuineness and humanity even to a line as simple as “I love being in love,” while her bandmates join in with their signature heavenly harmonies when the song comes to its chorus.
While today’s country radio all too often finds capable voices saddled with poor material, it’s a joy to hear these four gifted voices poured into such a worthy song. The writing team of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna build the ballad around an effective, accessible metaphor, elevated by a gorgeous piercing melody that lingers after the song’s end
“Sober” is one of those rare mainstream country releases in which everyone involved brings their A-game. Lindsey, Rose and McKenna write a gorgeous song, and Little Big Town proves to be the ideal act to bring it to full realization. Likewise, Jay Joyce’s elegantly restrained mandolin-driven production impresses in creativity, taste, and in overall effectiveness in supporting the song and performance without getting in the way.
Here’s hoping that country radio can still find a place for such a delicately polished gem as this. It’s a high-water mark for an act whose catalog is already more than respectable. Little Big Town has rarely if ever sounded better.
Written by Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna
Hunter Hayes just scored a decently big pop hit with “Wanted”, which was initially his first big country hit. Perhaps that's why he's taking a cue from the pop market, and re-releasing his first album in an expanded edition called (Encore) this summer.
That set will include a guest appearance from Jason Mraz, so it's easy to think that musically, he might start taking his cues from the pop scene as well. But “I Want Crazy”, the lead single from the expanded set, indicates that there's no need to jump t
If anything, “I Want Crazy” is insanely derivative of Golden Road-era Keith Urban, full of ridiculously catchy banjo riffs and melodies so light and breezy they practically float away. Not surprisingly, his lyrics haven't matured much, so even this new song's charm is mostly adolescent, a fact all the more remarkable given it is co-written by Lori McKenna.
But as I've written before, he's got the chops. If he keeps his feet firmly grounded in country music and keeps developing his songwriting craft, he could develop into quite the artist. For now, we have to settle for some radio filler that's worth cranking up the volume for.
Written by Hunter Hayes, Lori McKenna and Troy Verges
p>“Hearts don't fly, but they can run like hell when they have to.”
Lori McKenna's greatest gift as a writer is her ability to weave brilliantly constructed metaphors together with remarkably specific and often mundane details of small town, working class life.
“Salt”, the lead single from her upcoming album Massachusetts, perfectly showcases this talent of hers. There are so many vivid details that place the listener into the story of one particular breakup, and she slips them in so naturally that it sounds like it must be autobiography.
The best example of this comes in the second verse, where while recounting how she has nothing to show for the time given to this tortured relationship: “Six years of crying, that's all that you gave me. Not one more thing. Not even a baby. We were close one time…”
It's those vividly true details that ground her writing in reality, which in this particular song is a harsh reality. But the line this review opens with is in there as well. On its own, it would be little more than a beautiful turn of phrase, a set of words that lingers with you and you might quote in casual conversation to sound more insightful than you really are.
But when metaphors that beautiful are tied into the life stories of the most ordinary people, McKenna is able to achieve something so special and unique.
She finds the poetry and beauty hidden in the stories of people whose stories aren't usually considered important enough to share in the first place.
There are a lot of good writers out there, many of whom are writing big hits for themselves and for others. But I can't shake this feeling that Lori McKenna is the best out of all of them. Her gift is to get us to pay attention to people, places, and truths that are so easy to overlook. I hope more people start to do the same with her music.
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?
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
Friday, May 5, 2006 – The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan. For Faith Hill, it was just another stop on her Soul2Soul II tour with her superstar husband Tim McGraw. For young 14-year-old Ben Foster, it was my very first live concert experience (or at least the first that did not entail bringing a picnic blanket), and it was one that I never forgot. I still have the ticket stub.
I became a Faith Hill fan at a young age, and I became an even bigger fan as I grew older. As I set about acquiring all six of her Warner Bros. studio albums, my admiration for this talented artist only grew. To one who knows Faith Hill only for crossover pop hits like “Breathe,” “This Kiss,” and “The Way You Love Me,” it might come as a bit of a surprise what a strong album artist she was. Besides that, she possessed genuine country sensibilities in addition to the pop diva persona that she became so well known for.
As I continue to eagerly await Faith Hill’s return with her seventh studio album, I’m thrilled to share my 25 personal favorites out of her eclectic catalog of tunes. Many of these songs were substantial hits, but I’ve also left off a few well-known singles in favor of some lesser-known hidden treasures. As always, please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.
“The Way You Love Me”
Now, don’t give me that look. We’re all entitled to a little guilty pleasure time, aren’t we? Look, I still don’t know what “If I could grant you one wish, I wish you could see the way you kiss” is supposed to mean, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But what I do know is that Faith Hill somehow managed to craft a ridiculously catchy piece of pop-country nonsense that had me hopelessly hooked ever since I first heard it over a decade ago. I couldn’t not love it if I tried.
Take Me As I Am, 1993
Faith’s 1993 debut single is an enjoyable and fitting introduction to a major talent. The lyrics portray a free-spirited teenage girl who, in addition to having a rebellious streak a mile wide, is a proactive go-getter who takes life as it comes. “Life is hard,” but she says “That’s all right.” It’s an effortlessly charming record, and yet at the same time, it almost seems like an hors d’oeuvre in comparison to the deep and insightful material Faith would tackle in the future.
“Sleeping with the Telephone” (with Reba McEntire)
Reba McEntire – Reba Duets, 2007
With this fantastic collaboration from Reba’s 2007 duets project, Faith and Reba play the parts of two neighbors, each of whom is married to a man who risks his life on a daily basis. Their circumstances are different, with one husband being a soldier and the other being a police officer, but each wife copes with the same troubling feelings of deep worry and anxiety. But honestly, this track is a shoo-in just for the pure pleasure of hearing Hill and McEntire, two of country’s most dynamic vocal powerhouses, paired together – trading verses and blending their voices in harmony on the soaring chorus.
“Let Me Let Go”
A brokenhearted woman tries to move on in the wake of a break-up, but is unable due to the unshakable feeling that they really were meant to be together. (“If this is for the best, why are you still in my heart, are you still in my soul?”)
“Someone Else’s Dream”
It Matters to Me, 1995
The story of a young woman gradually discovering her own distinct identity, and discovering that her parents’ hopes and dreams will never be hers. When the song reaches its final bridge, the young woman has firmly made her decision: “She’s got twenty-seven candles on her cake, and she means to make her life her own before there’s twenty-eight.”
“Love Ain’t Like That”
In a clever composition with some classic Matraca Berg lines, Faith debunks a series of mistaken ideas about what love is really about, while also underscoring the importance of commitment in a lasting relationship. Favorite lines: “You can’t buy it at the store, try it on for size, bring it back if it don’t feel right.… You can’t trade it in like an automobile that’s got too many miles and rust on the wheels.”
“Let’s Go to Vegas”
It Matters to Me, 1995
The unshakable joyfulness of “Suds In the Bucket” meets the wide-eyed charm and innocence of “She’s In Love with the Boy.” From the light airy arrangement to Faith’s enthusiastic performance, “Let’s Go to Vegas” embodies all of the youthful romantic excitement found in that one little moment of “Hey, I just had a crazy thought…”
The Hits, 2007
This one might have come across as an attempt to re-visit the power ballad euphoria of “Breathe,” which it might have been, but it carries an extra air of mystery that gives it a distinct identity separate from its predecessor, while the melody and performance make the song captivating on its own merits alone.
“What’s In It for Me”
On the kickoff track of Faith’s runaway success of an album, her performance sounds like the release of an eternity’s worth of pent-up fury. The aggressive country-rock production, combining awesome guitar work with some mighty fierce fiddling, added up to a record that sounded truly ferocious.
“The Secret of Life”
In this philosophical number written by the ever-excellent Gretchen Peters, several men drinking in a bar ponder over the fabled “Secret of Life,” eventually concluding that “The Secret of Life is nothing at all.” Faith’s half-sung, half-spoken performance brought the conversational tone to life, taking a song that was hardly radio-friendly, and turning it into a Top 5 hit.
A full-on pop power ballad in which Faith strikes the delicate balance of exercising her powerful pipes in a fiery delivery, while still retaining the emotional connectivity of a great country record. Her formidable vocal prowess is on full display, but even the biggest power notes are still colored with a deep emotional quiver.
Faith Hill took the pop-country power ballad to new heights with this cross-genre career-defining hit.
Regardless of how overexposed the song might have been, it’s a memorable record for the way it combines physical attraction with the warmth and comfort found in true love, while also displaying the increased power and fullness that Faith’s voice had acquired over the years.
“I Can’t Do That Anymore”
It Matters to Me, 1995
This Alan Jackson-penned ballad puts into song the frustration, exhaustion, and hurt of a sunken housewife worn down from constantly striving to please her unappreciative husband
“I Need You” (with Tim McGraw)
Tim McGraw – Let It Go, 2007
Of all Faith’s collaborations with her famous husband, this is one of the best. This was only their second full-fledged duet single (with their first being “Let’s Make Love”). The restrained arrangement lends a deeply intimate romantic feel to the record, while both vocalists give killer performances. Tim McGraw digs deep into his lower register, while Faith’s soaring performance elevates the record to greatness. Never before or since had their chemistry been captured as effectively as it is here.
This track served as one of the lighter moments on the mature and compelling collection of songs found on Faith’s Fireflies album. The plucked-out, nearly-hillbillyish country-bluegrass arrangement sounds worlds removed from polished crossover number like “Breathe.” In a song ripe with clever and silly lines, Faith steps into the minister’s shoes at a backwoods white trash wedding. The flirt of a bride is three months late, and the groom is “checkin’ out the bridesmaids, thinkin’ that he might take the maid of honor’s honor.” Fittingly, Faith ices the cake with a closing line of “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”
“A Man’s Home Is His Castle”
It Matters to Me, 1995
Listening to this song is like peeking in the windows of a home torn apart by domestic violence. “Castle” takes on an added level of realism in that it gives a voice to the battered woman, and even gives the couple names (Linda and Jim). The victimized woman is hurt, angry, and desperate, and every tortured emotion is conveyed in the lyrics, which make no attempt to tamper the song’s impact with a manufactured happy ending.
“Take Me As I Am”
Take Me As I Am, 1993
Could it be? A love song that brings maturity and self-realization to the table without sacrificing the joy and
giddiness of newfound romance? Faith delivers exactly that with the title track to her debut album, which includes standout lines like “I’d trade a million pretty words for one touch that is real,” as well as romantic lines like “Baby, don’t turn out the light… I wanna see you look at me.”
“Like We Never Loved At All”
A delicate piano intro with strains of steel set the tone for a beautiful ballad of a woman who struggles to move on after a breakup, while her pain in increased by the realization of how easily her former flame seems to have moved on. The song is bolstered by Tim McGraw’s harmony vocal, while memorable visual images (“There… walking with your friend, laughing at the moon… I swear you looked right through me”) bring the narrator’s pain down to a strikingly relatable level.
“It Matters to Me”
It Matters to Me, 1995
An expression of hurt feelings that is all the more effective for its simplicity and straightforwardness: “When we don’t talk, when we don’t touch, when it doesn’t feel like we’re even in love… It matters to me.” How much more direct can you get?
“When the Lights Go Down”
Faith’s 2002 set Cry was criticized by some for going in a straight-up adult pop direction. But the detractors often missed the fact that Cry is a fantastic pop album, which includes some of the best songs Faith Hill has ever recorded. Exhibit A is “When the Lights Go Down” – a stunning musical testament to the clarity and inescapability of ultimate truth, elevated by Faith’s showstopping vocal performance. The song takes on a tone of positivity as it highlights the fact that life’s most turbulent experiences afford us the opporunity to discover our own inner strength. Easily one of the finest tracks on the Cry album, it’s a shame it wasn’t fully embraced by radio.
“You’re Still Here”
It’s hard to go wrong with a Matraca Berg/ Aimee Mayo song. In a similar vein to Trisha Yearwood’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” “You’re Still Here” is a tale of the love that’s long gone, most likely in death, but whom the narrator still sees in her dreams, in her baby’s eyes, and everywhere else. At one point she even says “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again, just once again.” It’s an achingly beautiful lyric, delivered in one of Faith’s finest and most emotionally-resonant performances on record, while the soft touches of oboe in the arrangement add layer of mystery to the track.
“Wish for You”
A mother’s expression of all that she wishes for her child. It’s made even more touching by the fact that she never once makes the wish that everything in life will go perfectly for her child. Instead, she simply wishes that, when things do go wrong, her child will pick herself back up, move on, and be a better person because of it. That keeps the song from coming across as cheesy, instead deepening its emotional impact, and keeping it firmly grounded in real life.
“If My Heart Had Wings”
Sometimes it irritates me when certain female artists constantly feel the need to belt out their songs at the top of their lungs. In the case of “If My Heart Had Wings,” however, I can’t imagine the song being sung any other way. Begging to be blared at high volume in one’s car with the windows rolled, “If My Heart Had Wings” is three and a half minutes of pure pop-country euphoria.
Does this song even need a caption? Probably not, but here it goes anyway. “This Kiss” is a perfect sonic encapsulation of all the joy and romantic giddiness of a newfound love (and yet it came out when Taylor Swift was still in grade school). There are few pop-country tunes that are able to achieve such high levels of catchiness, or to give the replay button a workout like this song does.
Mature, intelligent, and insightful – exactly the kind of material country radio is perpetually in need of, and yet all too often shies away from. “Stealing Kisses” plays like a sequel to the innocent youthful “Love Story”-esque material of artists such as Taylor Swift. As a young woman, the narrator is “stealing kisses from a boy” only to find herself a housewife “begging affection from a man” with the passage of time.
Lori McKenna writes a beautiful song, and Faith Hill beautifully sings it. The song was released as the fifth and final single from Fireflies, and though it only scraped the bottom of the Top 40, it offered one of those rare and special moments when the voice of the adult woman was heard on country radio. Faith Hill and her label are to be commended for having the guts to send it to radio in the first place. A definite career highlight, “Stealing Kisses” aptly demonstrates that, at her best, Faith Hill is just as capable of delivering deep, substantial material as she is capable of serving up a tasty morsel of ear candy.
I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked. Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.
Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself. She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.
Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.” Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering. If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.
The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place. It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites. Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments. If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over? Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel. Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery. At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.
Real Fine Place, 2005
It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is. Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks. As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life. Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”
The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core: “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.” Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.
“Momma’s Night Out”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often. She’s rarely been one to record party songs. But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls. Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track
No Place That Far, 1999
The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”). In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”
I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does. The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums. The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.
Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008
Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation. Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all. It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song; It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song. It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.
“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Fact: Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music. Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country. Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard. Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star. It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.
“Fool, I’m a Woman”
No Place That Far, 1999
This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it. In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind. She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.” Ouch!
“A Real Fine Place to Start”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target. Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows. A shining example of pop-country done well.
“Why Should I Care”
Born to Fly, 2000
A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place. While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.
A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder. The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning. Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys. By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”
Greatest Hits, 2007
Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best. With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings. The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.
“What That Drink Cost Me”
The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this. This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol. Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign. Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music: Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.
“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery. Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery. Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher. As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her. She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.
“No Place That Far”
No Place That Far, 1999
Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper. The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor. It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited. Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.
“I Learned That from You”
Born to Fly, 2000
Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly. A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.
Real Fine Place, 2005
The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences. A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.” This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.
“Three Chords and the Truth”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past. It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much. Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action. It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind. “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.
“Suds In the Bucket”
Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today. Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since. It never fails to make me feel happy.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it. After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in. But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.” Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.
“Born to Fly”
Born to Fly, 2000
Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable. “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world. It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses. Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person? We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”
In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it. Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth? It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work. The result? Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’
In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.
Simply put, one of the best songs of the year. A glorious rundown of the mundane – wine in jelly glasses, threadbare rugs, bathtub rings – which elevates the no-frills existence of a family with five kids to something beautifully divine.
Country music likes to pretend that it’s all about real people, but sometimes it really is. This record is about real people, and by celebrating the everyday, minute details that seem so meaningless, it manages to honor working class America more than anything I’ve heard in a long time. Plus, she sings the hell out of it and the production absolutely sparkles. What’s not to love?