Tag Archives: Luke Bryan

Single Review: Luke Bryan, “I See You”

Luke Bryan I See You

“I See You”
Luke Bryan

Written by Luke Bryan, Ashley Gorley, and Luke Laird

This is the sound of an artist that’s struggling against the confines of the niche he’s been assigned, but not being willing to give up enough of the trappings to completely break free.

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2015 ACM Awards: Nominations & Analysis

The third most prestigious country music industry award nominations – but the most important ones handed out in the spring – have been announced.  Here’s a rundown of all the major categories, along with some back-of-the-envelope analysis:

Garth Brooks 3Entertainer

  • Jason Aldean
  • Garth Brooks
  • Luke Bryan
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Miranda Lambert

Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Garth Brooks, Florida Georgia Line

Who’s Out: Blake Shelton, George Strait, Taylor Swift

Last year’s winner, George Strait, didn’t get a return invitation, but Garth Brooks, who has won this award six times before, returns to the competition.  Much like Strait’s farewell tour was a reminder of his extensive popularity, Garth’s ability to sell out several dates per city overshadows the lukewarm reception to his new material at radio and retail.   Taylor Swift’s exit is directly tied to her cutting ties with the genre. Jason Aldean’s return makes logical sense, but it’s quite the mystery to see Blake Shelton gone and Florida Georgia Line in.

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CMA Awards 2014: Staff Predictions and Picks

Despite the Grammys and even the ACM’s demonstrating more consistent taste over the past few years, the CMA’s remain the most significant industry awards that honor country music.  This year’s slate of nominees gives the organization an opportunity to build on the credibility of last year’s George Strait victory.  His win for Entertainer saved a dismal show in its closing minutes.

Here’s our take on this year’s contenders:

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Jonathan, Kevin, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

Kevin:  I’d settle for a Miranda Lambert victory, as she had an amazing year.  But my first choice is George Strait, who deserves a fourth trophy for that record-breaking final concert.   The rest of these nominees have either won before or still seem to have their best days ahead of them.  There will never be another George Strait again.

Jonathan: The appalling sense of entitlement Jason Aldean has shown in his seemingly endless campaign of adult temper-tantrums disguised as interviews since these nominees were announced makes it all the more satisfying that the voters didn’t exclusively consider commercial and touring stats when voting for this award. I think that will likely continue with the final ballots, giving Strait the win here as a final send-off– a win that, as Kevin said, Strait’s last concert fully justifies based on even Aldean’s logic.

Tara: I have a feeling I’ll be pulling for Lambert next year, but 20 months after seeing it, I’m still high on Strait’s phenomenal farewell show. He deserves this.

Ben: Why not? Miranda will have plenty more shots at it, but this could be our last chance to see George Strait accept a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Let the cowboy ride away in style.

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2014 CMA Nominations

This year’s CMA nominees are the best in years, with multiple nominations for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark.  Country radio may still be shunning women, but their embrace by CMA voters suggests that the industry knows who is really leading the way in the genre these days.

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Who’s In:  Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban

Who’s Out: Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift

George Strait, a surprise winner last year, is nominated again in a year that includes his record-shattering final concert.   Miranda Lambert’s domination of this year’s nominations extends to the big category, where she competes for the first time since 2010.

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2014 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

And they’re back: The 2014 ACM Awards air live on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST, hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. They’re sure to be enraging or amusing, depending on your bro-country meter. In the meantime, we’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your thoughts!

Entertainer of the Year

Luke Bryan

Should Win

  • Luke Bryan 
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – KJC, TS, BF
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win

  • Luke Bryan – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Ben: No, Strait didn’t have the biggest year, but he’s still the only nominee whom I can truly endorse as the face of country music in 2014. At this point the Carrie Underwood snubs have ceased to surprise me.

Jonathan: If his fans’ votes were enough to give him the surprise win last year, there’s no reason to think Bryan won’t repeat, given that his profile only seems to have grown throughout 2013. All five of the nominees are equally sort-of deserving of a win based on relative metrics of commercial stats and quality of their output, while the most obvious, most deserving winner of this award was yet again left off the ballot.

Tara: Strait’s putting on a heck of a farewell tour, and I appreciate the CMA voters for recognizing that last year. I’m doubtful he’ll have that effect on the ACM voter demographic, though; this one’s Bryan’s to lose … but really, truly, belongs to Underwood.

Kevin: Strait’s victory at last year’s CMA Awards was the highlight of the night. But I agree with the consensus. Fan votes have this thing locked up for Bryan.

Male Vocalist of the YearBlake Shelton2

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean – TS
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Ben: Bryan seems to have had the biggest year, but I’m not personally invested in any of these choices.

Jonathan: I’d be more excited about seeing new blood in this line-up if I were in any way impressed with Brice. Just looking at mainstream stars who had hits during the eligibility period, a superior slate of nominees could be culled from Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Easton Corbin, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young.

Tara: I’ll be damned if Aldean hasn’t grown on me over the past few years. His material is still too uneven for me to get behind, but I’ve come to begrudgingly respect his appeal. My guess is his crown will go to Bryan, though.

Kevin: I like the fact that after the endless streak from Paisley, we’ve gotten different winners in the past two years. The only two who haven’t won yet are Brice and Bryan. The latter is the only one at the level to warrant a win at this time.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kacey Musgraves

Should Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – TS

Will Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert – TS, BF, JK
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Ben: Lambert’s status as one of this year’s leading nominees indicates that voters still have the hots for her. Her reign will end eventually, but I won’t bet on it happening this time around.

Jonathan: Brandy Clark LeAnn Rimes Ashley Monroe Kellie Pickler Julie Roberts Holly Williams No? On the brightside, Crow managed to snag the fifth slot instead of either of Blake Shelton’s overpraised “The Voice” winners, but that’s really where the good news ends. It seems premature for Musgraves to win this award, and I’m honestly still not all that enamored of her beyond “Follow Your Arrow.” I’ve been pulling for Underwood of late, but both she and Swift ended this eligibility period with two of their worst singles, so I’d have reservations about seeing either of them win. Lambert seems poised to repeat based on her haul of nominations; as fun as “Mama’s Broken Heart” is, I’d feel better about this streak of hers had it spanned her far superior Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution eras.

Tara: I’m sticking with Underwood for one more cycle, mostly because Musgraves’ charming “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t really make its (relatively small) impact until after the eligibility period. It’s hard to swallow how many of these awards Lambert is racking up between the ACM’s and the CMA’s, but I suspect the trend will continue.

Kevin: Go big or go home. Musgraves is the ACM’s opportunity to definitively position itself as the more substantive country awards show, a status they’ve been flirting with as the CMA’s have moved in the opposite direction. I think she’ll pull it off, and I’ll be happy to see her do it.

Vocal Duo of the YearFGL

Should Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line - KJC
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square – TS, JK

Will Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Ben: This category remains lame and pointless as ever, but at least I can give credit for the fact that they finally stopped shoehorning in Sugarland.

Jonathan: Thompson Square is the only one of these five acts who released a single that I didn’t absolutely hate during the past year. While that’s an accomplishment of sorts, it’s hardly one that should keep this category from being combined with the Vocal Group race.

Tara: I don’t mind Thompson Square. That’s the best thing I can say about this line-up.

Kevin: I’m not really a fan of any of these acts, so again, I’ll root for variety. Thompson Square has two wins already. Florida Georgia Line had a great year. Give them their due, and then perhaps we can forget they ever happened.

Vocal Group of the YearLittle Big Town

Should Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – TS, JK
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – KJC

Will Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • The Band Perry – KJC, TS, JK, BJF
  • Zac Brown Band

Jonathan: I couldn’t vote against Little Big Town during a year when they released “Sober,” but Zac Brown Band continues to release solid material and remains overdue for recognition. The Band Perry have a run of huge hit singles– the first two of which were as clever and progressive as anything country radio has touched in a minute– to their credit during the eligibility period. Momentum seems to be on their side at the moment, and I think they’ll score the night’s only real upset.

Tara: The Band Perry are walking a skillful line between commercial and creative, and I think they’ll be rewarded. As for me, I’m clinging to Little Big Town at least until the exquisite “Sober” becomes old news.

Kevin: I think that The Band Perry is best positioned to win, but Zac Brown Band is the most overdue.

Ben: I’m torn between picking The Band Perry for having had such a strong year, and picking Little Big Town for releasing one of my favorite singles of 2013. But despite Little Big Town’s recent hot streak, I expect The Band Perry’s commercial stats will net them their first win in this category.

New Artist of the Year2012 CMT Music Awards Rehearsals - Day 1

Should Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore
  • Kip Moore – KJC, TS, BF

Will Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore – TS, JK, BF
  • Kip Moore

Jonathan: Of these three, Justin Moore has been building his fanbase for the longest period of time, so it seems logical that he’ll win based on the fan vote.

Tara: I’ve been in Kip Moore’s corner for a few years now, but doubt he’ll take this. True story: Sometimes I think Justin Moore and Brice are the same person.

Album of the Year

Same Trailer

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story… JK
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – TS, KJC, BF
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Ben: Musgraves is the only one deserving of a nomination, let alone a win.

Jonathan: 2013 was an extraordinary year for country music, and that is in no way reflected in this appalling slate of nominees. Musgraves’ album is the only one that belongs in any conversation about the best of contemporary country. But there seems to be some growing consensus that Shelton is owed something more than his own celebrity status, so he’s the most likely winner.

Tara: A  part of me thinks the voters will ride the 2013 Musgraves fan train and use this as an opportunity to show some relevance. But that’s a gamble of a guess, considering the atrocious other nominees.

Kevin: They’ve been more supportive of good art in this category than the CMA’s lately, so I’m thinking Musgraves has this wrapped up, and the ACM will be the tiebreaker between the Grammys and the CMA’s.

Single Record of the YearMama's Broken Heart

Should Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – KJC, BF, TS, JK
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Jonathan: A case could be made for any of these five singles actually winning, but I’ll let my pessimism about the overall nominations carry the most weight here and say that “Cruise” will win. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is only Lambert’s fifth-or-sixth-best single, but it’s easily the class of this field.

Tara: “Cruise” is too big for the voters to ignore, and that’s both depressing and funny. I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Rucker or Brice singles won, but Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” is clearly a cut above the rest with its sharp songwriting and spitting, bullet of a performance.

Kevin: Love the Lambert track, but the star power of McGraw/Swift/Urban seems hard to deny.

Song of the Year

WagonWheel

Should Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, TS, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – JK

Will Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – TS, JK
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

Jonathan: “Wagon Wheel” has become as close to a standard as any song in recent memory, and that generally doesn’t happen just by accident. This is one of the few times when Brandy Clark would be my second choice for a winner. The success of “I Drive Your Truck” propelled Brice to a surprising haul of nominations this year, though, and it’s clear that the song has resonated with a sizable bloc of voters.

Tara: This isn’t an awful line-up. I personally get the most kicks out of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but I could make a case for all five songs, even the somewhat underrated “Mine Would Be You.” I have a gut feeling “I Drive Your Truck” will win on emotional heft, though.

Kevin: Perhaps it’s overly wishful thinking, but with “Merry Go Round” not in the running, voters have a clear path to rewarding both Musgraves and Clark, along with sending some more hardware Lambert’s way.

Video of the YearTwo Black Cadillacs

Should Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC, TS, BF, JK

Will Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – BF
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – JK, TS
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC

Jonathan: The video for “Blowin’ Smoke” looks like a reel of B-roll footage from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which was an interesting aesthetic choice but was still nowhere near as fun as the Christine homage in “Two Black Cadillacs.”

Tara: I dig the tongue-in-cheek realism of Musgraves’ video and the whimsy of Lambert’s, but Underwood makes the most unexpected, imaginative choice.

Kevin: They’ve got to give Underwood something, right?  I’m not a huge fan of the video, really. The song is awfully suggestive, but doesn’t come right out and say that the two ladies killed the guy. So the video takes that opening and decides, “The car did it!” But at least it’s a video. The others are just YouTube fodder.

Vocal Event of the YearHighway Don't Care

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, JK, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel” – TS
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us – TS, JK

Jonathan: Hillary Scott’s shrill attempts at singing harmony are the worst part of Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel,” and hopefully the two hip-hop-circa-2003-inspired singles will split votes. “We Were Us” is the worst sounding track of the five– which is really saying something about how we’ve forever lost the Loudness War– but it seems like Lambert is going to have a big night.

Tara: I’ll go with “Wagon Wheel” by default, though its collaboration does it absolutely no favors, as Jonathan said. Even still, it’s far above these other middling to obnoxious (so loud!) singles.

Kevin: Fair warning. If Florida Georgia Line/Nelly win, I’m out. Done. No live blog for me after that!

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Single Review: Luke Bryan, “Play it Again”

Luke Bryan Play it AgainTrite an uninspired, “Play it Again” is a Luke Bryan record without any of the  aw-shucks earnestness that can make even his mediocre songs somewhat enjoyable.

Not much more to say than that, other than “songs about songs” are one of my favorite categories of songs, but this isn’t one of the better ones.  There are a lot of great ones, but that’s another post.

Written by Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley.

Grade: C-

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Single Review: Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”

Eric Church Give Me Back My Hometown“The Outsiders,” the title track and lead single from Eric Church’s new album, may have strayed too much into the realm of metal for its own good, but it served as a strong mission statement. Like him or not, Church is one of the few male country singers today who are willing to stray from the country-party-dude template, and even his songs that don’t quite hit the mark are more interesting than most singles currently on the radio.

His new song, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” is much more melodic than the first single, though it too stretches the boundaries of country in its own way. “Hometown” starts off simple enough, but it builds up steadily in both volume and drama in a way that’s reminiscent, if anything, of U2’s “With or WithoutYou.”

The song, written by Church and Luke Laird, is well-written and nuanced, as Church laments that the memories of a small town that have been tainted by the absence of a loved one. It also gives Church a chance to stretch his vocals to the top end of his range, and while that may not necessarily be one of his strong suits, it’s encouraging to hear someone acknowledge that small-town living isn’t for everyone.

With songs like “The Outsiders,” “Drink in My Hand” and that unfortunate collaboration with Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean that will not be named here, Church has carved out a reputation as a hell-raising outlaw. While he sings those anthems well enough, he really separates himself from the competition by his willingness to dive into mature, serious topics as well. It’s a nice change of pace to hear something other than a perpetually partying, small-town man-child every now and again.

Written by Eric Chuch and Luke Laird

Grade: A-

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Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

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.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#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”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#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”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#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”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Ben; #15 – Tara, Sam; #20 – Jonathan

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”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#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”

Holly Williams The Highway

#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”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  #9 – Tara, Sam; #15 – Ben; #19 – Kevin

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”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#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”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #10 – Jonathan; #12 – Kevin; #13 – Leeann; #18 – Tara; #20 – Ben

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”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #7 – Kevin, Dan; #9 – Ben; #11 – Tara; #20 – Leeann

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

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  #1 – Sam; #10 – Tara, Ben; #18 – Kevin, Leeann

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”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings: #4 – Kevin, #5 – Leeann, #6 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #14 – Jonathan

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”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #5 – Ben, Jonathan; #6 – Tara; #16 – Kevin

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”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin, Ben; #14 – Sam; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Tara

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”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #5 – Dan; #9 – Leeann, Jonathan; #10 – Sam; #14 – Kevin, Tara; #17 – Ben

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

Recommended Tracks:  “Cheater’s Game”, “Waterfall”, “Dreamin'”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Jonathan; #3 – Sam; #5 – Tara; #8 – Dan

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 Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #4 – Ben; #6 – Sam; #8 – Leeann, Tara; #10 -Kevin

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”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Tara; #6 – Leeann; #8 – Ben; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #13 – Sam

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”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#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””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#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”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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Single Review: Chase Rice, “Ready Set Roll”

He may have been the runner-up on one of the weakest seasons of Survivor (finishing second to
this strategic powerhouse), but Chase Rice has beaten tough competition from the likes of Jason Aldean’s “1994,” Parmalee’s “Carolina,” Ashton Shepherd’s “This is America,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” Krystal Keith’s “Daddy Dance with Me,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” for the title of 2013’s worst country single.

For all of the countless complaints about the rise of “bro country” during the past year, what much of the criticism of this trend has ignored is its fundamental anonymity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion of songs that champion tailgate parties or casual weekend hookups, as the kinds of experiences characterized in songs like Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or “Ready Set Roll” are familiar to an audience that is not insignificant in size or purchasing power.

The problem, then, with this glut of frat-boys in their Ed Hardy gear and pick-ups– and what Rice and “Ready Set Roll” epitomize– is their interchangeability. Rice and his co-writers (usual suspects Rhett Akins and Chris Destefano) write almost entirely in clichés (“Yeah, we can run this town / I can rock your world / We can roll ‘em down, fog ‘em up / Cruise around and get stuck”), such that none of the experiences they’ve written about here are the least bit distinctive. But for a deeply gross line that goes farther in the objectification of women than do most songs of this ilk (“Get ya fine little ass on the step / Shimmy up inside / And slide girl, by my side girl”), there isn’t a single line in “Ready Set Roll” that couldn’t be exchanged word-for-word with lines from “Cruise” or Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” or Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” or Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night” without changing those songs in any meaningful or even noticeable way.

Setting aside the shallowness of the subject matter and Rice’s struggles with even basic syntax, it’s that lack of any discernible point-of-view that makes “Ready Set Roll” such appalling poor songwriting, the nadir of a trend that has quite rightly drawn the ire of those who value country music for its history of distinctive narratives, personal insight, and pure escapism that is still respectful of both craft and its audience.

And, thanks to a dated, cheap-sounding production job and Rice’s limited vocal ability, “Ready Set Roll” doesn’t even work as a throwaway, escapist single. The use of a digitized text-reader voice to bookend the single is jarring and adds nothing of value to the track. The most pedestrian of hip-hop beats drowns out the requisite handful of rote country signifiers, and the mixing sounds like it was made on a circa-2004 version of Winamp.

As he sort-of-raps his way through the track, Rice affects a throaty growl that unfavorably recalls Brantley Gilbert, and he dutifully emphasizes every syllable on the 2 and 4 counts without regard for whether or not native speakers of American English would emphasize those syllables. As co-writer for “Cruise,” Rice proved that he might be capable of writing a memorable hook, but there’s not one thing he and his alliance of bros do well on “Ready Set Roll.”

Written by Chase Rice, Rhett Akins, and Chris Destephano

Grade: F

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Single Review: Luke Bryan, “Drink a Beer”

Luke BryanJudge by the title, and you’ll think you’re getting just another mindless rave-up.  Sure, it will be catchier than most of them because of Luke Bryan’s irrepressible vocal charm, but a mindless rave-up is a mindless rave-up.

It’s tempting to make the jump and think Bryan is deliberately playing against expectations here, recording a song with a predictable title that leads to the completely unexpected territory of grief and loss.  But maybe it’s just that if drinking a beer is the way you celebrate with friends and loved ones, it’s the logical thing to do when you’re trying to cope with their unexpected departure.

Bryan’s sort of become the poster boy for the brozation of country music.  I’ve got two problems with that.  One is simply philosophical. The failure of country radio and the larger industry to present more diverse points of view lies with radio and the industry, not with those who have the one approach that’s being too prominently showcased.  Blaming Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark’s lack of airplay on Luke Bryan makes about as much sense as when Shania Twain was blamed for radio not playing George Jones.   Focus on the players, not the pieces, people.

But my second problem is that Luke Bryan shouldn’t be defined so narrowly in the first place.  He’s not chasing trends.  He’s completely genuine, and the music he started out with a few years ago hasn’t changed all that much.  There’s just a lot more people being successful with it.    They don’t do it as well as him, though.

“Drink a Beer” is a great reminder of how he’s a few steps ahead of his peers in song choice and vocal delivery.  He’s good enough to keep it clean. No fancy arrangements, vocoder tricks, or arena beats are needed to distract from the guy at the mic.  He’s in full command, singing a beautiful song about painful loss.   Sounds almost like country music, doesn’t it?

Written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton

Grade: A

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