Posts Tagged ‘Matraca Berg’

Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part One: #40-#21

Monday, December 30th, 2013

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!

Dan Grimm Ventucky

#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”

Avett Brothers Magpie and the Dandelion

#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”

Matraca Berg Loves Truck Stop

#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”

Sheryl Crow Feels Like Home

#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”

Gibson Brothers They Called it Music

#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”

Mando Saenz Studebaker

#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”

Sarah Jarosz Build Me Up From Bones

#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”

Peter Cooper Opening Day

#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”

Whiskey Gentry Holly Grove

#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

Recommended Tracks:  “Holly Grove”, “Particles”, “I Ain’t Nothing”

Rebecca Frazier When We Fall

#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”

4PAN1T

#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”

Brad Paisley Wheelhouse

#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”

John Moreland In the Throes

#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”

Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis Dos Divas

#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”

Julie Roberts Good Wine and Bad Decisions

#26
Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Julie Roberts

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”

Blue Sky Riders Finally Home

#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”

Willie Nelson To All The Girls

#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?”

Kim Richey Thorn in My Heart

#23
Thorn in My Heart
Kim Richey

Individual rankings: #15 – Kevin; #18 – Ben; #19 – Tara

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”

Lori McKenna Massachusetts

#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”

Caitlin Rose The Stand-In

#21
The Stand-In
Caitlin Rose

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”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

 

Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, <em>Old Yellow Moon</em>

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Old Yellow Moon

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The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?

Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.

In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.

Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.

Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid

cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.

The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”

“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.

The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.

Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”

“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.

“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.

But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.

CU's Top Singles of 2012

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

2012Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe:  We love country music.  A lot.  While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.

At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice.  We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.

Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself –  individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists.  Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles.  Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter.  Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section.  Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012.  We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.

 

#40
“Southern Comfort Zone”
Brad Paisley

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #13;  Leeann – #20

Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort.  But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and when that point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band.  No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe


#39
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  Sam – #8

The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak

#38
Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #14;  Leeann – #18

“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. - Leeann Ward

#37
“In Between Jobs”
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6

An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe

#36
“You Go Your Way”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #13;  Sam – #18

“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings.  It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak

#35
“Born to Be Blue”
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  Ben – #17;  Dan – #18;  Tara – #20

A slice of throwback 50′s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam

#34
“Closer”
Mindy Smith

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #12;  Dan – #14

Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs.  Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy.  The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward

#33
“Drunk On You”
Luke Bryan

Individual rankings:  Dan – #12;  Kevin – #14

In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.”  Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne

#32
“Cruise”
Florida Georgia Line

Individual rankings:  Dan – #3

Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken

#31
“When I’m Gone”
Joey + Rory

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #12;  Ben – #12

A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record.  While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo.  - Ben Foster

#30
“Postcard from Paris”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Ben – #11;  Sam – #13

In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”).  Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins.  - Ben Foster

#29
“When It Pleases You”
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #10;  Leeann – #17

With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back.  “I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken

#28
“Live and Die”

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2

The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010.  There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right- Sam Gazdziak

#27
“Is It Already Time?”
Wade Hayes

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Dan – #15

A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken

#26
“Safe & Sound”
Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #10;  Jonathan – #14

The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings.  The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward

#25
“I Like Girls That Drink Beer”
Toby Keith

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #9;  Leeann – #16

Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne

#24
“Plant White Roses”
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #1

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly

Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe

#23
“Good Girl”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #6;  Dan – #16

A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter.  A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne

#22
“Hello Cruel World”
Gretchen Peters

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8;  Sam – #12

An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.”  A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward.  - Ben Foster

#21
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4;  Jonathan – #18

Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper.  It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak

#20
“I’m a Mess”
Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #16

From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest.  With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000′s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward

#19
“Fly Over States”
Jason Aldean

Individual rankings:  Tara – #7;  Dan – #9

Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath.  It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that- Dan Milliken

#18
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Eli Young Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5;  Tara – #16;  Jonathan – #16;  Dan – #20

The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own.  Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak

#17
“Two Black Cadillacs”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Tara – #4;  Ben – #18

A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative.  Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam

#16
“Beer Money”
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Kevin – #11  Ben – #19

The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken

#15
“Better Dig Two”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7;  Leeann – #9;  Dan – #11;  Tara – #19

The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin.  But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse.  Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio?  Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing?  This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. - Jonathan Keefe

#14
“I Just Come Here for the Music”
Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss

Individual rankings:  Ben – #6;  Sam – #7;  Dan – #17;  Kevin – #20

Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself.  And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights.  His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak

#13
“The Dreaming Fields”
Matraca Berg

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #6;  Jonathan – #10

In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories.  “The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance.  I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory.  This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster

#12
“Springsteen”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Dan – #6;  Tara – #6;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #17;  Ben – #20

The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken

#11
“Blown Away”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Dan – #7;  Tara – #14;  Ben – #15

An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood.  Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne

#10
“The Wind”

Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Tara – #11;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #14;  Sam – #19

With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album.  While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.”  A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe

#9
“The Sound of a Million Dreams”
David Nail

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Kevin – #8;  Ben – #9;  Dan – #19

With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse.  Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope.  And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam

#8
“Creepin’”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Dan – #2;  Leeann – #8;  Tara – #15

With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre.  From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre.  When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak

#7
“Neon”
Chris Young

Individual rankings:  Tara – #3;  Dan – #5;  Leeann – #7;  Jonathan – #8;  Ben – #13

Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement.  But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment.  Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam

#6
“Takin’ Pills”
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;  Leeann – #5;  Sam – #9;  Tara – #10;  Ben – #10

Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country.  “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace.  It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe

#5
“Like a Rose”
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10;  Tara – #13

Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming.  While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it.  “Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem.  High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward

#4
“Drinkin’ Man”
George Strait

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Ben – #3;  Tara – #5;  Jonathan – #5;  Leeann – #11

There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year.  One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years.  “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits.  He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne

#3
“What Have I Done”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Leeann – #3;  Dan – #4;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #5

Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion.  “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality.  The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam

#2
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Ben – #1;  Jonathan – #4;  Tara – #8;  Sam – #11

Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is.  Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves.  A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be.  A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster

#1
“Merry Go ‘Round”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Leeann – #2;  Sam – #3;  Kevin – #7;  Ben – #7;  Tara – #12

In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really.  The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.

It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music.  That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries.  It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row:  Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken

Grammy Awards 2012: Staff Picks & Predictions

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

The 54th annual GrammyAdele Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Look for appearances by Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum as well as country-ish performances by Jason Aldean, Glen Campbell (with the Band Perry and Blake Shelton), Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – share your thoughts, and be sure to drop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, 21 -Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Will Win

  • Adele, 21 - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Ben: Adele made some of the best and most memorable music of the year, and met with across-the-board critical and commercial success, so it’s hardly a stretch to say that she should and will emerge victorious here.

Tara: I don’t often agree with Bob Lefsetz, but his case for why 21 has resonated so well is spot on: “music trumps everything.” How true, and how refreshing that an album that embraced the hell out of this theme made such a commercial splash.

Sam: Lady Gaga is the only one of the nominees who can rival her for publicity in 2011, but Adele’s record sales should put her over the top. Oh, and it was a great record — not that that means anything where Grammy voters are concerned.

Dan: It helps that this is an especially lazy pool of nominees. 21 is certainly a strong album and a commercial landmark, but I do wish something like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were here to help hold up the bar.

Kevin:  Adele made the best album by a wide margin.

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” -  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam 
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Will Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” -  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Ben: The dramatic build-up nature, the simmering intensity, the all-guns-blazing chorus…“Rolling In the Deep” is all but untouchable.

Tara: As rousing a Top 40 hit as we’ve heard in years. I think we all know Adele will sweep.

Sam: I’m a Mumford & Sons fan, but it’s hard to top “Rolling in the Deep.” Anyone who votes for a Katy Perry song in this category should lose their Grammy voting rights permanently.

Dan: Long after it became overplayed, it was still more refreshing to me than everything else on the radio.

Kevin:  Adele cut through the hype by being the best singer and the best songwriter.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Song of the Year

Should Win
  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West - Dan
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win

  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara

Tara: “Rolling in the Deep” shines more as a record than as a composition, but it’s still memorable enough to nab this award, and I think it will.

Dan: Here’s where I’d love to see some variation. “All of the Lights” is a poetic, layered micro-drama. Plus, from a songwriting standpoint, I’ve never fully gotten over how “Rolling in the Deep” cribs its chorus from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Kevin:  The British slang that the song is built around doesn’t stop “Rolling” from being the most universal of the five compositions. 

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • The Band Perry - Sam
  • Bon Iver
  • J. Cole – Tara
  • Nicki Minaj – Dan, Kevin
  • Skrillex

Will Win

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Bon Iver – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • J. Cole
  • Nicki Minaj
  • Skrillex

Tara: Bon Iver fits the Grammy mold the best. Personally, I’m not married to any of these acts, but I guess J. Cole piques my interest the most right now. This is totally one of those picks I’m going to regret in six months…

Sam: I think this one could be an upset win for the country world. “If I Die Young” was such an unexpected crossover hit, and I think it had more resonance than most other singles from the eligibility period. Plus the Band Perry is cuter than a basket full of puppies, which can only help them.

Dan: I think Bon Iver is the most fully realized act, and predict the band’s Song and Record nods will tip Grammy voters to vote for them like Adele’s did a few years ago. But Minaj’s potential excites me the most, and I had “Super Bass” on loop last year.

Kevin:  Minaj is the most refreshing of the five, though Bon Iver’s the most Grammy-friendly.

Best Country Solo Performance 

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” - Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Sam
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” - Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Ben: Swift outclasses the competition by miles.

Jonathan: A depressing line-up here, really. Swift’s single and performance are far and away the strongest of the five nominees, but she didn’t land the general field nominations that many people were expecting her to receive, so I do wonder if her support runs as deep this year as it did during the Fearless juggernaut. If she loses this one, I think it will be to the red-hot-but-I-don’t-get-it-at-all Aldean.

Tara: Embarrassing line-up. “Mean” is the only one that even comes close to Grammy worthy. I think Swift still has the voters on her side, but I could also see Aldean edging her out.

Sam: “Honey Bee?” “Dirt Road Anthem?” Really, Grammy voters? I guess we should be lucky they managed to put one good song in the category, even if it was probably an accident. However, I think voters are going to take a year off on the Swift love and give it to Aldean, because it’s the least country-sounding song in the category.

Dan: I could see Shelton’s familiarity prompting a win here, but suspect Grammy voters are still in Swift’s corner.

Kevin:  They should just make the genre categories line up perfectly with the big three. This is really a race for Country Record of the Year anyway.  Swift’s entry is the best.

Leeann: All of the songs on this are vanilla except for the Swift song, both in lyrics and execution. This is the inarguable standout song.

Best Country Duo / Group Performance

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Kevin, Leeann
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” -  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” -  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” – Kevin
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Ben: It’s a super tough call for me to choose between The Civil Wars and Chesney and Potter.  As much as I adore “You and Tequila,” I’m finally settling on The Civil Wars as my pick.  However, I expect that Aldean and Clarkson will likely triumph over both.

Jonathan: Had the Civil Wars scored the Best New Artist nomination that they seemed primed for, I would be more bullish on their chances here. They’re still the only of the four nominees I’d even consider voting for, but Clarkson is the only proven Grammy commodity in this lot, and this is probably the least credibility-straining place to recognize Aldean.

Tara: Confession: I don’t really see the sparkle that others see in “You and Tequila.” The swampy “Barton Hollow” has my heart, but I think Aldean & Clarkson will have the Grammy voters’ hearts. And I’m always OK with a little K. Clarkson love.

Sam: “Barton Hollow” kicks the ass of every other song on the list, including the excellent Chesney/Potter collaboration, and if Grammy voters actually listened to the songs they vote for, it would probably win. However, the Aldean/Clarkson screamfest has the benefit of Kelly Clarkson’s name recognition and Aldean’s current popularity.

Dan: The Civil Wars wail like mad dogs on their track. But Aldean and Clarkson are both having a moment right now.

Kevin:  The Civil Wars seem like Grammy catnip.

Leeann: My vote goes for the Chesney/Potter collaboration or The Civil Wars song, but I won’t be surprised if it goes to the powerhouse duet of Aldean and Clarkson based on crossover appeal. I hope, however, that  it turns out that I’m not giving the Grammy voters enough credit.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift -  Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian -  Kevin, Jonathan, Leeann
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Will Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift -  Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian – Sam
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Ben: Gill’s “Threaten Me with Heaven” is mature and beautifully written, but ultimately, my heart still belongs to “Mean.”

Jonathan: Gill has a real shot at this because it’s the Grammys so Gill always has a real shot at anything he’s nominated for. He’d be a worthy winner here, too, as would “You and Tequila” or the more likely winner, “Mean.”

Tara: I wrestle with this one, but I think the freshness of “Mean” gives it an edge over Gill’s track for me. Gill could easily take this given he’s Grammy royalty, but I’ll predict the voters will stick with Swift.

Sam: It’s Vince Gill in a Grammy category. That’s why.

Dan: I’d be happy with any of those last three. Honestly, I even half-like “Just Fishin’” and “God Gave Me You” as songs.

Kevin:  Can’t believe that Gill’s composition got a nod.  I like Swift’s record the most, but as a song, “Threaten Me With Heaven” is jaw-droppingly good.

Leeann: I’d love to see Vince win another grammy, but I won’t be surprised  or too disappointed if Swift takes this one.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Eric Church, Chief  - Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time - Kevin, Ben
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Sam

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan
  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night - Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Leeann, Sam

Ben: Church, Strait, and Swift have the three best albums, and of those three, Strait’s Here for a Good Time is the most fully realized, but I would expect that Swift’s crossover appeal and high sales numbers will lead voters to gravitate toward Speak Now.

Jonathan: The nomination for Lady Antebellum’s godawful album represents Grammy voting at its laziest. I don’t care how many people bought Own the Night: It’s terrible and, at some point, the over-rewarding of Lady A for their aggressively middlebrow, banal music has to stop. Church’s album would get my vote over Strait’s by just a hair and, even though I would’ve nominated it for Best Pop Album instead, Speak Now is Swift’s strongest set to date, so I won’t complain too loudly when she wins here.

Tara: Chief packs a killer, audacious punch…but I have this sinking feeling that Lady A will pull a repeat in this category. Look – I was (and probably still am) Lady A’s biggest advocate at Country Universe, but I can’t get behind the overblown success of their degenerating music. How will they ever be motivated to live up to the massive potential shown on Lady Antebellum if we keep rewarding them like this

Sam: Quality-wise, Speak Now edges out Chief, though I think Chief deserves some recognition for its ambition. Speak Now was a commercial and an artistic triumph, though the only concern is that it was released so long ago that its impact may have faded from the voters’ memories. That might open the door for Lady Antebellum to win, which would be a shame. While I actually kind of liked Own the Night, there are three albums better than it in the category.

Kevin: Strait just keeps getting better lately.  I think he’d win if it wasn’t for category crossover votes for Swift.

Leeann: I wish I cared about this category more this year than I actually do. It’s likely that either Strait or Swift will win the award, but I think Church’s album is the most interesting.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain - Jonathan
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed

Will Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman – Dan
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed  - Jonathan, Ben, Sam

Jonathan: Of the four veterans nominated, only Harris’ album is anywhere close to her best work, but that rarely matters much. The vitriol directed at Chorney and her exploiting of NARAS’s new social networking initiatives to garner her nomination has reflected very, very poorly on a whole lot of Americana fans and has perpetuated an ugly “us-versus-them” attitude, but there’s no dressing up how poor Chorney’s album actually is, either. But she’s also the only one of the five nominees that anyone has been talking about during the entirety of the voting period… I give the edge to Williams on sales stats alone, but there’s really no frontrunner here.

Sam: Should win: Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO and other American Stories (yeah, I know it wasn’t nominated). I actually kind of hope that Linda Chorney wins. For one thing, the outcry would be phenomenal. For another, it might shed some light on just how the voting is done, and is there a better way to do it. Do the voters know what Americana music is? Did they listen to any of the albums? I have nothing against any of the nominees, but Hayes Carll released one of the best albums of the year and had no chance in competing against legends like Emmylou, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm. Of the four legitimate nominees, Williams has gone the longest between Grammy wins, so maybe it’s her turn.

Dan: Levon has won for his last two albums. This one is a live set, so Lucinda could definitely unseat him, but still.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert – Sam
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open – Jonathan

Will Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane - Jonathan, Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Ben: I have no rationale for who should win, but I think we all know who will.

Jonathan: I can’t think of anything more foolhardy than betting against Alison Krauss at the Grammys.

Tara: What Ben said.

Sam: Honestly, I thought Krauss’ Paper Airplane was kind of tepid, while Rare Bird Alert was charming and energetic. Still, Krauss is the Jimmy Sturr of the Grammy bluegrass categories (all the polka fans should get that reference), so unless the voters decide to give Martin a lifetime achievement award of sorts, she’s got this one in the bag.

Dan: Steve Martin’s got a chance, but…

Best Folk Album

Should Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow – Leeann
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Jonathan, Sam
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Will Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow - Jonathan, Ben
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Dan
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs - Leeann, Sam
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Ben: If my prediction of an Aldean-Clarkson victory for Duo/Group Performance comes true, I would expect that this is where voters will recognize The Civil Wars.

Jonathan: If NARAS were really committed to the idea of reducing the number of categories, they’d merge the Americana and Folk Album categories with Best Country Album and, considering how fast and loose they’re already playing with genre tags, they probably should do just that and let the chips fall where they may. Welch’s album is the only one of the five that really scans as “folk” music in any traditional sense, so who wins here will depend on whether or not voters are looking for something more traditional or contemporary. I’m guessing it’s the latter case, to the benefit of the Civil Wars.

Sam: Steve Earle released his best album in years with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The love songs were tender, the topical songs were sharp and insightful, and there weren’t any love songs about Condoleezza Rice. Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, is in Pearl Jam, so clearly he’s the odds-on favorite. Actually, Ukelele Songs got some pretty good reviews, and if Vedder’s vocals didn’t remind me so much of Bob Dylan’s current voice crossed with an injured goat, I might be more inclined to like it.

Dan: I can imagine a Fleet Foxes or Civil Wars win, but in the end, I’m still guessing Earle, the proven Grammy favorite.

Leeann: It’s sad that I care about this category far more than the Country Album category this year. I love The Civil Wars album the most, but the Welch, Vedder and Earl albums are great too. I’ll be happy to see any of them win, but I have a strange feeling that Vedder will take it.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

The countdown concludes. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1

#10
Love Done Gone
Billy Currington

Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Jonathan; #13 – Tara

While many might get caught up in Billy Currington’s smoldering love songs, he’s really the most charming when he loosens up and has a little fun. While “Love Done Gone” is technically about lost love, Currington’s breezy performance along with the festive horns makes it seem more freeing than heartbreaking. As a result, the song turns out to be his most compelling since “Good Directions.” – Leeann Ward

#9
Amen
Edens Edge

Individual Rankings: #4 – Tara; #6 – Dan; #9 – Ben; #12 – Kevin

A 90′s-throwback gem, “Amen” shimmers in a different way than most of the songs on this list. There’s no striking life lesson or clever turn of phrase – just a fresh hook and an earnest, slightly unconventional love story between a preacher’s son and a farmer’s daughter. But there’s magic in its recipe: from the charmingly organic arrangement to the endearingly spirited performance to the adorably written story line – “whooped and hollered” tops my favorite phrases of 2011 – “Amen” is the sweetest package sent to country radio in years. – Tara Seetharam

#8
Sparks Fly
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #2 – Jonathan; #5 – Dan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Ben

Of all of the many, many things “Sparks Fly” proves that Taylor Swift understands, perhaps the most important is this: If you’re going to order someone to, “Drop everything now,” you’d better make sure they have reasons to want to. – Jonathan Keefe

#7
Threaten Me With Heaven
Vince Gill

Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #9 – Tara; #13 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan

Can anyone be this strong when facing down their rapidly approaching death? Perhaps only in song. For those who can pull this off in real life, their faith blows away those who can merely move mountains. – Kevin John Coyne

#6
Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars

Individual Rankings: #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Sam; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan

“Barton Hollow” may be a song about a dead man walking, but, with its stomping percussion line and force-of-nature vocal performances, it plays more like a determined march right to the front-line of a war zone. If the Devil’s going to follow the Civil Wars wherever they go, they sound more than ready to throw down. – Jonathan Keefe

#5
Colder Weather
Zac Brown Band

Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #6 – Jonathan; #7 – Sam; #9 – Leeann; #11 – Ben; #15 – Kevin

A piano, a wanderer’s tale and killer vocals are the bones of this song– none of which are unique to country music. And yet, “Colder Weather” pleads like the best country songs, hurts like the loneliest of country stories. It serves as an elegant reminder that while country music is sometimes marked by a fiddly sparkle, it can also turn up in the form of pure emotion – and how Brown emotes. His performance is both soulful and skillful, embodying the rambler’s spectrum of emotions with chilling accuracy – longing, regret, defeat, hunger – right down to the final line that rings hauntingly hollow: “It’s a shame about the weather / But I know soon we’ll be together / And I can’t wait til then.” – Tara Seetharam

#4
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter

Individual Rankings: #2 – Ben; #3 – Leeann; #3 – Dan; #9 – Kevin; #10 – Tara; #17 – Sam

“You and Tequila” is a great reminder of just how good Kenny Chesney can be when he’s not releasing the same song over and over again. In classic Matraca Berg fashion, “You and Tequila” is a deftly constructed lyric that displays intelligence and self-awareness, while the beautiful acoustic arrangement makes “Tequila” easily one of the year’s finest and most memorable singles. Grace Potter’s sweet harmony adds a delicious icing to the cake.- Ben Foster

#3
Hell on Heels
Pistol Annies

Individual Rankings: #2 – Leeann; #2 – Tara;  #4 – Jonathan; #8 – Kevin; #11 – Dan; #13 – Ben

For those of us who think that Miranda Lambert is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak mainstream country landscape these days, could there have been much more exciting news than that she would be hooking up with Ashley Monroe, somebody that we at Country Universe have previously lamented going under the radar, to form a trio with songwriter Angaleena Presley? Happily, the prospect of such an exciting trio did not disappoint, as the Pistol Annies turned out to be the most refreshing act of the year with any chance of mainstream success.

Their debut single, “Hell on Heels,” signaled that the group were a force to be reckoned with, both in attitude and artistry. From the beginning swampy guitar riffs, it’s obvious that the characters in this song are going to live up to the fiery title. Furthermore, the Annies turn in a performance that is so eerily calm that it effectively creates the intended aggression of the story. As a result, “Hell on Heels” is one of the most unique and refreshing singles to get anywhere near a radio playlist in 2011. – Leeann Ward

#2
Cost of Livin’
Ronnie Dunn

Individual Rankings: #1 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #6 – Tara; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Jonathan; #9 – Sam; #12 – Leeann

The toll of a corrupt, abusive economy, encapsulated in one man’s fractured personal account. If that sounds a bit like an “I am the 99%” speech, it’s a testament to how well “Cost of Livin’” – begun in 2008, long before mass havoc finally led to mass protest – found the pulse of present-day America. The brilliant choice to frame the song as a job interview allows it to explore both why Dunn’s character deserves the work he and his family needs, and why he likely won’t get it.

In short, the most frighteningly real song of 2011. – Dan Milliken

#1
Mean
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Ben; #3 – Tara; #4 – Dan; #8 – Sam; #10 – Leeann; #17 – Jonathan

You know what I love about Taylor Swift? She has a real knack for tapping into emotions and experiences that are personal to her, but conveying them in such a way that any listener can see it as his or her own story set to music. The deeper and more personal she gets, the more we feel it as listeners.

Some might write off “Mean” as a cheap comeback to the oft-heard criticism that “Taylor Swift can’t sing,” but to do so is to miss the full scope of feelings that the song addresses. It speaks to anyone who’s been insulted or disrespected by those who cross the line between constructive criticism and plain cruelty, doing so with some of Swift’s most raw and honest lyrics to date.

It all makes for a most delicious slice of musical catharsis. In addition to being one of the flat-out best lyrics Swift has written, the song features a Shania Twain-esque singalong melody, not to mention one of the coolest and countriest productions of any mainstream release this year. In multiple aspects, “Mean” is clearly the work of an artist who was willing to step outside the box, making it a standout achievement for Swift, and a definite standout moment on radio playlists.

I can see a few jaws dropping at this somewhat divisive selection, but we make no apologies for it. A case could be made for a number of other worthy songs taking this top spot, but for me there’s just no getting round the fact that “Mean” is the one 2011 single release that I will be replaying the most in years to come. Thus, it’s a great pleasure to name “Mean” our top single of 2011. – Ben Foster

Previous: Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Three: #20-#11

Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part Two: #10-#1

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

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
LeAnn Rimes

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
Hayes Carll

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
Suzy Bogguss

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”

#7
Lorraine
Lori McKenna

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

Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Dan; #7 – Ben

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

Individual Rankings:#4 – Kevin; #4 – Ben; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan

Recommended Tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Forget Me Not”

#5
Here For a Good Time
George Strait

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

Individual Rankings: #2 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #5 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan; #10 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’ Man”, “House Across the Bay”, “I’ll Always Remember You”

#4
Four the Record
Miranda Lambert

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

Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #3 – Leeann; #4 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “All Kinds of Kinds,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Dear Diamond”

#3
Guitar Slinger
Vince Gill

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

Individual Rankings: #4 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin; #6 – Tara; #6- Jonathan; #9 – Dan; #9 – Ben

Recommended Tracks: “The Lucky Diamond Hotel”, “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love with You”, “Buttermilk John”

#2
The Dreaming Fields
Matraca Berg

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

Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #3 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #7 – Jonathan; #8 – Tara

Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Wings,” “Racing the Angels,” “The Dreaming Fields,” “Oh, Cumberland”

#1
Hell on Heels
Pistol Annies

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

Individual Rankings:#2 – Jonathan; #3 – Tara; #6 – Ben; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #7 – Dan; #9 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “Lemon Drop,” “Beige,” “Housewife’s Prayer,” “Takin’ Pills”

2011 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

Monday, November 7th, 2011

It’s that time of year again!  The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.

We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be.  This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff.  Agree?  Disagree?  Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.

The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.

Ben:  It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees.  Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour.  That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.

Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.

Jonathan:   Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.

Kevin:  I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year.  But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse.  Mostly worse.

Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan:  Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.

Ben:  I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.

Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.

Jonathan:  Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.

Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”

Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans – Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift - Ben
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan:  Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.

Ben:  Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period.  I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010.  But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)

Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.

Jonathan:  There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.

Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed?  Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it.  For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.

Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Thompson Square

Dan:  Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.

Ben:  I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.

Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.

Jonathan:  Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.

Kevin:  Sugarland’s album was atrocious.  The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year.  Easy call for me.

Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin

Dan:  Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.

Ben:  It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.

Jonathan:  Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.

Kevin:  Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.

Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry - Ben
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young

Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.

Ben:  Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day.  Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.

Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.

Jonathan:  Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.

Kevin:  I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge.  I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.

Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now - Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give

Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.

Ben:  In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place).  To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album.  Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.

Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.

Jonathan:  Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.

Kevin:  “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work.  Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.

Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” - Jonathan, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Kevin
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” - Dan, Ben, Leeann

Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.

Ben:  “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.

Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.

Jonathan:  This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.

Kevin:  Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans.  But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Jonathan, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter - Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann

Dan:  “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.

Ben:  I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert.  I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award.  I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed.  Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.

Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.

Jonathan:  Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.

Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song.  I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year.  I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.

Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Will Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Dan:  The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”

Ben:  “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner.  The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.

Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.

Jonathan:  “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.

Kevin:  If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.

Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Ben
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama” - Dan, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Dan: It’s my least favorite Paisley video ever, though.

Ben:  Swift’s “Mean” is my personal favorite among these nominees, but I’m expecting that voters will show some Shelton love instead.

Jonathan:  Paisley has to win something, right? And this also gives the voters a chance to honor some beloved genre vets.

Kevin: I think the video splicing tricks will give Paisley and Alabama an additional edge.  Of the five clips, “Mean” is the one I like the most.

Tara: I love the whimsical video for “Mean” but think (and actually kind of hope) the voters will use this category to award the show co-host and his buddies.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) - Leeann, Jonathan
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Dan, Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Dan: Default underdog support.

Ben:  I would love to see this go to the steel guitar man (and preferably not to Dann Huff), but Mac McAnally tends to be the favorite here.

Leeann: I want the steel guitar to represent this year. So, I’ll will it to happen.

Jonathan:  Franklin’s the only nominee who hasn’t won previously, and being regarded as long overdue eventually helped McAnally score his first win, leading to his current three-year hot streak.

Kevin:  I’ll be rooting for Paul Franklin until he finally wins, but I won’t believe that he’ll win until he finally does.

Tara: What Ben and Kevin said.


Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Faith Hill

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

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.

#25

“The Way You Love Me”

Breathe, 1999

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.

#24

“Wild One”

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.

#23

“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.

#22

“Let Me Let Go”

Faith, 1998

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?”)

#21

“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.”

#20

“Love Ain’t Like That”

Faith, 1998

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.”

#19

 “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…”

#18                 

“Lost”

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.

#17

“What’s In It for Me”

Breathe, 1999

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.

#16

“The Secret of Life”

Faith, 1998

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.

#15

“Cry”

Cry, 2002

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.

#14

 “Breathe”

Breathe, 1999

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.

#13

“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

#12

“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.

#11

“Dearly Beloved”

Fireflies, 2005

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?”

#10

 “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.

#9

“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.”

#8

“Like We Never Loved At All”

Fireflies, 2005

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.

#7

“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?

#6

“When the Lights Go Down”

Cry, 2002

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.

#5

“You’re Still Here”

Cry, 2002

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.

 

#4

“Wish for You”

Fireflies, 2005

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.

#3

“If My Heart Had Wings”

Breathe, 1999

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.

#2

“This Kiss”

Faith, 1998

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.

#1

“Stealing Kisses”

Fireflies, 2005

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.

Someone Like You

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

I didn’t expect much.

I’ve had the Adele album for a good bit now, and “Someone Like You” is my favorite track on it.  I’d already heard how the song shot to #1 in the U.K. after she performed it on the Brit Awards.

I checked out that performance, and thought it was good. Not great, but good.

So when I heard all the buzz about her performance of the song on Sunday’s MTV Awards, I didn’t rush to check it out, and ended up just watching it last night out of boredom.

I can’t tell if it’s because she was a bit hoarse, or if she was trying to hold back her tears. Either way, it was so stunningly powerful that I was even a bit shaken up by the whole thing.

I know that there’s going to be the inevitable claims of authenticity and real talent and such, which makes sense given the pop landscape that she’s performing in.  But honestly, it’s been a really long time since anything has happened on a country music stage that’s even come close to what Adele pulled off that night.

It reminded me of Reba McEntire’s performance of “For My Broken Heart” on the 1991 CMA Awards.  She’s a seasoned pro who rarely misses a note, but she tears up so much in the final chorus that she can’t get the notes out, and imperfection that makes the performance timelessly perfect:

I can’t find the clip online, but it also reminded me of Vince Gill singing “The Key to Life” on the 1998 show, also breaking down in the final few lines of the song.  I miss moments like this in country music.

No wonder I’m so awfully disinterested in country this year.  Besides the usual mainstream drivel, I’ve also been disappointed by new albums from usually reliable folks like Dolly Parton, Todd Snider, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and even Emmylou Harris.   I’ve taken to pretending that The Civil Wars are somehow country so that I don’t write the genre off completely this year.

The only thing I’ve really loved so far?  Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields.  It’s got that same rawness that must be speaking to me for some reason these days.  There’s no chance of Berg making it back on the radio in 2011, but with all the shameless format-hopping that’s been allowed by country programmers in recent years, maybe we can get them to give a few spins to Adele.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss, American Folk Songbook

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Suzy Bogguss

American Folk Songbook

An accompanying press release explains how the idea came about for Suzy Bogguss to record an album of classic American folk songs (some of which sprang from European origins, and were later adopted into American culture):  “Suzy Bogguss had a revelation on stage with Garrison Keillor in 2008. Everyone loves to sing along on ‘Red River Valley’ -  except the children who somehow don’t know the song.”  That realization gave rise to concern over the possibility that such beautiful folk songs could be overlooked, particularly with music education fading from the public school system.  Thus, she set about to record an album of her favorite folk classics with updated-yet-reverent arrangements.  The resulting collection is an absolute delight.

Bogguss herself fills the producer’s shoes for the project, and she does an excellent job of carefully seeing that each song is given its ideal treatment.  When beloved folk songs meet Bogguss’s golden-throated vocals and soft acoustic instrumental backing, it’s a match made in heaven.  In recognizing the timelessness of these songs, Bogguss sees to it that they are never treated as museum pieces.  Instead, each song is interpreted in a manner that is updated, yet still true to the spirit of the original song.  Though their classic nature is emphasized, they are treated in a way that makes them feel relevant even today.

The songs are backed by a beautiful stripped-down instrumental arrangements, featuring the sounds of fiddle, mandolin, concertina, harmonica, banjo, and tin whistle, as well as other instruments.  Drums are used sparingly.  In addition, Bogguss’s talented partners in crime – Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters – can be heard singing background vocals.  Many distinctive creative touches are added, but Bogguss never resorts to cheap gimmickry.  Echoing background vocals at the end of “Banks of the Ohio” give the dark murder ballad an almost otherworldly feel, while subtle hopping-frog sound effects meld nicely with the sprightly arrangement on the ditty “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”  There are many instances in which the instrumental arrangements on their own are engaging enough to hold up as instrumental tracks.  One example is “Ol’ Dan Tucker” on which Richard Bailey’s banjo picking makes the familiar tune sound more catchy than ever before.  Meanwhile, Stuart Duncan’s fiddling makes “Sweet Betsy from Pike” a delightful sonic treat.

But a major part of what makes this collection so special is the fact that Bogguss clearly has a deep connection to these songs, and that connection is audible in her performances.  The once-platinum-selling Grammy winner is still in fine voice at age 54.  Through her ethereal vocals, she breathes new life into these familiar tunes.  One of her finest vocal turns comes at the beginning of the iconic “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” as she sings the opening lines a cappella, and then the gentle dobro-driven arrangement gradually kicks in.  On her broadly enjoyable version of “Erie Canal” she gives a loose, jazzy delivery as she eases into the musical tale of navigating the Erie Canal. 

A fine example of Bogguss’s deep emotional resonance comes in her performance of “Red River Valley” – the standard that inspired the recording of this album.  She injects deep emotion into the oft-heard lyrics “Do you think of the kind heart you’re breaking/ And the pain you are causing to me?”  Even if you’ve heard the song countless times, hearing Suzy Bogguss sing it is like hearing it for the very first time all over again.  Another highlight is “Shenendoah,” a song whose lilting melody fits Bogguss’s voice perfectly.  As the album reaches its final tracks, she sings “Beautiful Dreamer” in a half-whisper against a bare-bones acoustic arrangement, closing out the set on a high note.

Though the album weighs in at a hefty 17 tracks, Bogguss effectively holds our attention throughout.  Each track feels essential in its own way.  There is no filler material.  It feels cohesive without the tracks running together.  Through these stellar reinterpretations, Bogguss’s American Folk Songbook not only keeps these classic folk songs alive, but ends up an artistic achievement in its own right. 

Whether you’re a devoted fan who’s followed Suzy Bogguss’s career from the start, or a new convert just beginning to discover the riches of her music, Songbook is an album that’s well worth adding to your collection.  Now everyone can sing along to “Red River Valley”!

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