Posts Tagged ‘Miranda Lambert’

Single Review: Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away”

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

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t/uploads/2012/07/Carrie-Underwood-Blown-Away-Single-150×150.png” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />Four albums into her career, Carrie Underwood’s career growth has been fairly stunning.

It’s hard to imagine that the talent-show winner who sang “Jesus Take the Wheel” would morph into a fully fledged pop superstar with speaker-rattling pop-rock songs like “Good Girl” and “Blown Away.”

While the evolution has been fascinating to watch, the problem is that someone who was thought of as the next female country superstar has effectively left country music behind and moved on to bigger things, and it’s a loss for the genre.

“Blown Away,” Underwood’s new single, has some of the most interesting lyrics she’s had to work with in some time, courtesy of writers Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins. It borrows a little from the Miranda Lambert songbook, where an abusive father is made to account for his sins with death by tornado. While it’s a bit more passive than a Lambert song (she would have shot the SOB a few times before letting the twister carry him away), there is a satisfying sense of Old Testament-style vengeance to it.

Many of the main story elements are absent – the age of the narrator, exactly what the father did that was so awful – but there’s still plenty create some vivid imagery. Much like Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” never reveals the actual fate of the mother, “Blown Away” lets listeners fill in their own details.

As noted though, this is not being sung by Carrie Underwood, Country Singer. Instead, this is Carrie Underwood, International Pop Diva, and the song is glitzed up and glossed over to make it pop radio-ready. It’s been so thoroughly produced and sanitized that there isn’t a trace of a country song left in “Blown Away.” There have been “country” remixes of Kelly Clarkson singles that sound more traditional than this one.

The frustrating thing is that the gloss is so uncalled for. The altered vocals, the bombastic instrumentation, those things just take away from the vocals. It’s all well and good if the singer is Katy Perry or Ke$ha, as they need all the help they can get. But Carrie Underwood? Aside from a few impressive and effortless high notes that serve as a reminder of her capabilities, her vocal abilities are effectively buried.

Pop music today is very restrictive – possibly more so than country music – and a certain type of sound is needed to get significant airplay. So if the idea behind the song was to make Underwood sound like every other pop singer out there, then it’s a success. The downside, though, is that everything that made her special in the first place is getting lost in the process.

Written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins

Grade: B-

Listen: Blown Away

Single Review: Miranda Lambert, "Fastest Girl in Town"

Friday, June 29th, 2012

I want Taylor Swift to write a song about Miranda Lambert: “Why ya gotta be so loud?”

Everything about “Fastest Girl in Town” is a disaster.  It's one of those rare songs that manages to try too hard and be too lazy at the same time.

The production and the “look at me, I'm so tough and wild” vocal?  They try too hard. Thrashing guitar solos that never go anywhere, grit and growl that don't match the off-the-Wal-Mart-rack lyrics.  She's trying to top the energy of “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Kerosene”, but the underlying tension that made those records work is nowhere to be found here.

That's because of the lazy songwriting, which is no longer the exception when it comes to Miranda Lambert.  It's the rule.  This fastest girl in town is a mere caricature of the rough-edged down-home image that Lambert's managed to box herself in with.  Even Gretchen Wilson wouldn't have tried to get one over on us with lines like “You’ve got the bullets, I’ve got the gun. I’ve got a hankering for getting into something”, and she built an entire song around a Skoal ring.

Lambert showed such promise in her early work, which peaked creatively with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an album that still sounds fresh and vital today.   I stand by my assertion that “The House that Built Me” was a beautiful distraction from the fact that her music went seriously downhill on Revolution.    And this, like most of her latest album, is just a mess.

I am tired of the mediocrity, country music, but I'm even more tired with mediocrity being celebrated and elevated with unwarranted praise.  Can we please stop telling our artists that their not nearly good enough is better than the best?  Maybe they might, you know, work a little bit harder for that slot on radio and that CMA trophy if they actually had to earn it.

Written by Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley

Grade: F

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Listen: Fastest Girl in Town

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2012 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Throw on your bedazzled boots – the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards air live from Las Vegas this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. The show promises to be a melting pot of performances, with oddball duets like Rascal Flatts and Steve Martin - and no, that’s not an April Fools joke. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Tell us your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Sunday night!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Kevin, Ben

Ben: Okay, so I was going to go with Aldean based on his massive success… but Swift’s music has just been too dang good lately.

Jonathan: Swift is the only one of the five who has released any music I really liked during the eligibility period; that fan voting is part of whatever mysterious algorithm is used to determine the winner of this award helps her case. I recognize that Aldean has a good look at this, too, but I’ll admit to just digging my heels in and refusing to get on board with the idea that he’s considered the standard-bearing artist in country music.

Tara: Swift released some of the best material of her career in the eligibility period, and her star seems as bright as it’s ever been. And while I can’t picture her losing something fan-voted, I wouldn’t be shocked if Aldean snuck up on her, especially given the secret fan / academy vote ratio. I just hope that this time next year, there are a few shake-ups in this category. I’m bored.

Dan: I like Swift the best, but can’t muster the energy to root actively against Aldean like I did with, say, Rascal Flatts.

Kevin:  Aldean vs. Swift, with me erring on the side of the one who made more music that I liked this year.

Sam: Just a hunch, but the Taylor Swift voters might be as fanatical as usual because Carrie Underwood isn’t nominated for this award. That might give Aldean the chance to sneak in.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Kevin, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Chris Young – Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Chris Young

Dan: Aldean remains the hottest guy out there by a huge margin, and occasionally puts out something decent like “Fly Over States.” I’ll just keep picking him to win this until he does. La la la.

Ben: Aldean’s success speaks for itself, but I would really like to see Chris Young take this. He released a solid new album, remained a consistent hitmaker at radio, and has made the most music that I’ve actually cared about. But seeing as the industry award voters have been showing a lot of excessive Shelton love as of late, my gut says that Blake Shelton is going to get this. (There are no awards for TV Judge of the Year or Newlywed of the Year, so the ACM will probably give him this one instead)

Jonathan: So let’s talk about Chris Young for a minute. The guy has a fantastic voice, one of the strongest and most distinctive instruments to come down Music Row in a minute, and that alone is enough to elevate him above most of the other men who have scored major airplay in the past couple of years. But the discrepancy between the quality of Young’s vocal performances and the quality of the songs he’s performing is a problem, and here’s yet another instance of an artist with the potential to be really and truly great receiving a thumbs-up from the industry for work that’s just occasionally on the better side of okay. Where’s the incentive for someone like Young to be even better if he’s being recognized now? And what does it say that, despite his wildly uneven material, he’s far and away the class of this particular field of nominees?

Tara: I have to disagree with Jonathan on this one; I find Neon to be a refreshing, neo-traditional gem, more organic than it is uneven. In this stage of Young’s career, I view his body of work as a stepping stone and an indication of potential, and I have no issue with it being rewarded. But it won’t be; Mr. Lambert’s got the entertainment industry on lockdown. And I can’t say I really mind.

Kevin: Picking Aldean as the “should win” solely because he had the biggest year, though I suspect Shelton will win anyway.

Sam: I get the love for Miranda Lambert, but the Blake Shelton love is largely lost on me. Not a fan of Aldean either, but he’s due for this award.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Dan: I think Swift has been the strongest solo act this past year, but Lambert released a decent fourth album and a terrific group one. With no place on the ballot to reward Pistol Annies (fix that, CMAs?), this’ll do.

Ben: Swift put out a string of very good singles, but… Four the Record + Pistol Annies = The Miranda Lambert love will be fully justified.

Jonathan: If we’re counting Pistol Annies, then I can absolutely see the case for Lambert and could be convinced to vote accordingly, and I think she still has the momentum to win here. If we’re just looking at solo material, though, I’m unapologetically sticking with Swift’s “Mean” and “Sparks Fly,” which trump anything that the other four women in the category released during the eligibility period. With Underwood having a new album to support and, hopefully, Kellie Pickler getting the recognition she deserves for her latest work, this category should be a hell of a lot more interesting and competitive come CMA time.

Tara: Swift delivered the better material, but Lambert delivered the better performances, Hell On Heels notwithstanding. By my definition of FVOTY, this should go to Lambert. (And I’m stoked for the fall award season, too.)

Leeann:  I have no real reason to believe that the Academy would take this from Lambert this year.

Kevin:  Can you believe that Swift is the only nominee who hasn’t won this yet?  I know Lambert should be the favorite, especially given the ACM’s fondness for her.  But I can’t shake the feeling that she’s lost some momentum with her latest project.

Sam: Miranda will continue to own this category until someone like Carrie Underwood steps up with a new album.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Jonathan, Tara, Sam

Ben: The Civil Wars are really the only duo I’ve cared about this past year, but they have been stupidly excluded in favor of Love and Theft (who only released one mediocre single in the past year), so I’m going with Thompson Square instead. They’ve been doing well at radio, and their music has not been terribly grating, but I’m pretty sure that the ACM will remain stuck on Sugarland.

Dan: With The Civil Wars absent from ACM’s roster and Sugarland having a messy year across the board, Thompson Square seems like the last band standing. And they’re cute, right?

Jonathan: The song remains the same: This category should’ve been merged with Vocal Group of the Year eons ago to trim the fat. Given that the ACMs are still ostensibly more radio-oriented than the CMAs and that Sugarland have actively alienated radio with the god-awful singles from their god-awful album, I’m going to say that Thompson Square pull off the upset here. Just don’t ask me to hum or even to name more than one of their songs…

Tara: I honestly can’t muster an opinion. What’s Sugarland been up to these days, anyway?

Leeann:  This category isn’t even worth comment this year.

Kevin: Saying somebody should win implies that I think there’s a worthy winner, so I’m just going to say that Sugarland will win.

Sam: No Bellamy Brothers nod? You mean country music actually had five legit nominees for a Duo award this year? Artistically, The Civil Wars and Foster & Lloyd would be the most deserving this year.

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

Ben: I’ve tried to hold out hope that the award industries would lay off the ridiculous Lady A adoration, but the CMAs and Grammys have shown me otherwise.

Jonathan: No reason to think the ACMs will break the trend of giving unearned trophies to the C students in the class.

Tara: I remain firmly in ZBB’s corner; the band produced my favorite single of 2011. But I would much, much prefer this award to go to the flavor of the month Eli Young Band than the flavor of the year Lady Antebellum.

Dan: I miss Little Big Town, but this is the first time in recent memory that this category has had five competitive groups. Like Aldean in the Male Vocalist race, Zac Brown Band sell as well as anyone and haven’t won yet, so I’ll probably keep picking them until they do, too. La la la x2.

Leeann: I’d love to see Zac Brown Band take it this year, but I don’t have enough faith that Lady A won’t just keep the award.

Kevin:  Always gonna root for ZBB.  Just losing hope that they’ll ever actually win.

Sam: ZBB is operating on a higher level than any other vocal group, but I’m alright with The Band Perry’s quirkiness getting some recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Tara
  • Scotty McCreery

Will Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Scotty McCreery – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Dan: Of the three, I think Hayes has the most raw talent (played every instrument on his album!) and could one day be an interesting artist. So, vote of optimism! ;D

Ben: I think this will be between Gilbert and McCreery. My gut says Scotty McCreery “will” win, but this line-up is just too depressing for me to make a case for who “should” win. Dan makes a good point about Hunter Hayes though…

Jonathan: I can’t.

Tara: Uh…I guess this is as good a time as any to confess my love for “Storm Warning.”

Leeann: I don’t even have the heart to choose who I think should win, but I’m guessing the “American Idol” winner will win.

Kevin: New Coke >>>> New Artist of the Year.

Sam: This is fan voted, right? Well, if McCreery’s fans can vote him to win “American Idol”…

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The Night

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda PartyDan, Ben, Sam
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The NightJonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin

Ben: Eric Church edges out Miranda as my pick, but I’m fairly sure this will go to Aldean, and I refuse to predict that Lady Antebellum will win this.

Jonathan: I liked Lambert’s album exponentially less each time I listened to it, so I stopped listening to all but two of its tracks (“Fine Tune” and “Dear Diamond”) months ago to preserve at least some degree of fondness for it. Church’s album has some significant limitations of its own, but, song-for-song, it’s the strongest set in this line-up. I have no idea what I would ever actually say to a person who believes that Richard Marx’s Repeat Offender Amy Grant’s House of Love Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night scans as a country album in any substantive way, or that it’s the best country album of this or any year. But clearly there are people who do believe that, and recent history says there are enough of them for Lady A to win this.

Tara: It’s a toss up between Lambert and Church for me, with Church’s realized hard-assness giving Chief a slight edge. But it’s Lady A’s to lose – and I’m not sure anything in the industry has frustrated me more than their wins as of late. It’s worse than laughably unfair; it’s potential-threatening. And it has to stop.

Dan: When Church is bad, he’s cringe-worthy. When he’s good, he kicks most of the ass he told you he’d kick.

Leeann: I won’t be surprised if Lady A wins, but I’d love to see Eric Church win for the most interesting album of the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miranda Lambert win either.

Kevin: I just hope I’m wrong a lot this year.

Sam: Pretty sad when a “good for a Jason Aldean album” album beats out two superior albums from Church and Lambert, but I think that will be the case.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Ben, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Ben: “Tequila” outclasses most of the field, though “Tomorrow” is also a solid contender. I get the novelty value of “Red Solo Cup,” but Single Record of the Year? Nah…

Jonathan: Even for a novelty song, I thought “Red Solo Cup” was poorly constructed and lazily written, but I kind of hope it wins, if only to prove that this year’s ACMs are just a straight-up farce.

Tara: I don’t love any of these, but “You and Tequila” is the only one I can imagine holding up in ten years.

Dan: Whatever.

Leeann: I can’t even believe “Red Solo Cup” is a contender! I’d love to see Kenny win for one of his best recordings, though I suspect Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win due to their cross genre appeal and all.

Kevin: Please let me be wrong a lot this year.

Sam: I will be rooting for “Red Solo Cup” and its inspired idiocy, but this could be part of Jason Aldean’s big night at the ACM.

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Leeann
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Dan, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leeann

Dan: “Home” has felt like awards bait to me since I first heard it. Me, I’m a “Tequila” guy.

Ben: Ditto to Dan.

Jonathan: As much as I’d like to see Berg and Carter pick up some new hardware, I’d still give the edge to Gill’s song. When “Home” does win, which I agree it will, I’ll just pretend it means that Jason Isbell has finally won a major industry award.

Tara: “Threaten Me With Heaven” is gorgeously written, but I won’t mind if (and when) “Home” takes the award. Country music could use a shot of graceful patriotism.

Leeann: I’m pleased to have three songs that I’d be happy to see win the award this year. I feel like either Chesney or Bentley will rightfully win…I hope so at least.

Kevin:  Pretty please?

Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Kevin
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Ben: I could actually live with “Red Solo Cup” winning this, but I still enjoy “Mean” quite a bit more.  Plus I kind of hate Lady Antebellum’s video for being nothing more than a glorified iPad commercial.  I also think “Mean” deserved a nomination for Single Record of the Year, so I would like to see it acknowledged here.  Still, I don’t think I can bet against “Red Solo Cup.”

Jonathan: That “Mean” didn’t score the Single and Song of the Year nominations with the ACMs that it has elsewhere seems revealing, with “Red Solo Cup” as the most likely beneficiary. I just hope that the faux gravitas of the “Homeboy” clip doesn’t give it any footing.

Tara: I’m equally disappointed that “Mean” didn’t snag a nomination for Single or Song of the Year. With the video almost as freshly produced as the single, it’s an easy one to root for in this category. I have no inkling as to who will win, but I’ll piggyback off of my co-bloggers on the frat party anthem.

Dan: I could do without how the “Mean” clip ends with a little girl idolizing Taylor Swift, but am I gonna vote against the country music video that had the anti-gay-bullying message? No, I’m not.

Kevin: I think the Swift clip has enough pizazz to triumph in the end over Toby’s YouTube video.

Vocal Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Kevin, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Dan, Jonathan, Leeann, Sam

Will Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jonathan, Dan, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Jonathan: The Lewis track is one of the worst singles of the past five years or more, and its nomination is an indication of how deeply modern country music hates the actual traditions and values of the genre.

Tara: As middle-of-the-road as it is, something in the melody of “Remind Me” intrigues me. And I have a random feeling the voters will use this category to reward their dethroned male and female vocalists of the year.

Dan: It’ll be interesting to see if “Remind Me” can unseat “Don’t You Wanna St– oh, who am I kidding. Nothing is interesting anymore.

Leeann: Ugh. I pretty much know that Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win, but I’d love to be wrong. Meanwhile, I continue to faithfully root for the Chesney/Potter collaboration.

Kevin: I like my Vocal Events to be full-out Vocal Events, so I’m going for Paisley/Underwood over Chesney with backing vocals from Potter.  The latter pair made the better record, though.

Ben:  I’m with Tara and Kevin.  “You and Tequila” is the best record overall, but that has more to do with Berg and Carter’s songwriting than with Potter’s contributions.  “Remind Me” is the one that feels like an actual event.

Sam: Aldean & Clarkson outscreamed Paisley & Underwood, so they lay claim to the trophy. Chesney and Potter, what were you two thinking by just going out there and singing? Next time, I want to hear some wailing and primal screams, because that’s what makes for a successful duet these days.

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”

Single Review: Miranda Lambert, “Over You”

Monday, December 12th, 2011

First, a disclaimer.

I like Miranda Lambert.  I really do like her.  She is a talented vocalist, and a smart, insightful songwriter.  She is among the most interesting and credible artists currently favored by country radio, and I await each of her new releases with a significantly higher level of interest than I do with many of her contemporaries.

And now the inevitable truth:  “Over You” is a really boring song.

I’m aware of the back story behind it.  Yes, it was inspired by the death of husband Blake Shelton’s brother.  That alone doesn’t automatically make it a great song.  “Over You” is clogged up with superficial, cliché phrasing and awkward, juvenile rhyme schemes (“February/scary, December/remember”) set to a clunky, uninspired melody.

There’s only one bit in the song that carries much poignancy: it’s when Lambert sings about the deceased one’s favorite records, musing “I know you didn’t mean to give them to me.”  Beyond that, the song offers precious little insight into the scenario, with the bland chorus vaguely declaring “But you went away.  How dare you?  I miss you.  They say I’ll be okay, but I’ll never get over you.”

This is Lady Antebellum-boring.  Miranda Lambert is so, so much better than this.  The fact that she wrote the song herself along with Shelton only adds to the disappointment.  Miranda’s songs are supposed to pop.  They’re supposed to stick with you – to have you attacking the replay button and scanning the lyric sheet to get the full meaning of the lyric.  This song is so forgettable that you can listen to it twice without it leaving any substantial dent in your memory.  I have to be honest here.  If Blake Shelton were the one singing, I would have panned this to the wall – I can’t give Miranda a free pass just because she’s Miranda.

There’s no point in dancing around it.  This is just a poorly written song.

Written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton

Grade:  D+

Listen:  Over You

Deep Down in 2011

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…

What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?

If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.

If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.

If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.

But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.

This same post could’ve been written about  “Nothin’ But the Wheel”, “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”, “Aces”, “Is It Over Yet”, “I Guess You Had to Be There” or “Standing Knee Deep in a River.”

Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.

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.


Single Review: Miranda Lambert, “Baggage Claim”

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

A swing and a miss.

Give Lambert her usual credit for adventurousness: the production on this kiss-off number is rustic and snappy, like some lost 70′s folk-rock nugget. And “Baggage Claim” is an artist’s work, not an assembly-line knock-off; we certainly haven’t heard this central metaphor before.

But it’s not a clever enough metaphor to deliver the good dis it means to, nor is it silly enough to earn points for camp. It’s just kind of…lame.

Throw in a pinched vocal, and the thing just sounds like a throwaway ditty that no one was clear-eyed enough to throw away.

Grade: C

Listen: Baggage Claim

Album Review: Blake Shelton, Red River Blue

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Blake Shelton

Red River Blue

It’s hard to dispute that Blake Shelton possesses one of the strongest and distinctive male voices in country music today. Likewise, he has proven to be a more than capable interpreter of the songs that he writes and chooses to record. He knows when to sing with soft sensitivity and he knows when to sing loud and hard.

However, his interpretive abilities and vocal prowess does not always translate into the highest quality songs, as has been the major weakness of his last few projects, particularly Startin’ Fires and his two “six-paks.” The trend continues with Red River Blue, even though this album is a solid improvement.

The album wisely kicks things off with the popular lead single, the mid-tempo “Honey Bee.” The positive tune sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which reflects where Shelton is in his life thanks to a finally-exploding career and newly-married status to Miranda Lambert.

Among the other mid-tempos, the bluesy “Ready to Roll” is the most straight arrow. Its rolling baseline is pleasant, infectious and completely inoffensive. “Drink on It” is also a bit bluesy, but carries the line “He sounds like such a prick,” which turns out to be the song’s only memorable aspect. Continuing on the status quo scale, “Good Ole Boys” is pretty much summed up by its title: “Where did all the good ole boys go?” Apparently, good ole boys are synonymous with country boys who are the only people who are polite and hold doors for women and say “Yes, Ma’am.” Shelton’s infamous offbeat humor shows up at the end of the track when he banters, “I’ll even go pick up some of those feminine products for you. That’s what a good ole boy would do.” While the lyrics are inane, the Jennings-influenced arrangement is one of the most sonically satisfying on the album.

As he’s proven on previous albums, some of Shelton’s most memorable and brightest moments are when he fully embraces the ridiculous, which shows up in the form of “Hey” and “Get Some” this time around. Both songs have delightfully funky lyrics and interesting productions. “Hey” more successfully illustrates country living than many other songs of its ilk, the random “baby Jesus” reference notwithstanding. The premise of the charming “Get Some” is reminiscent of Toby Keith’s “Getcha Some”, but with a toned down, tasteful production that showcases engaging honky tonk piano and acoustic guitar solos.

While Shelton has proven capable of elevating substandard songs to higher levels in the past, he is not able to work his magic on most of the ballads on this album. Despite reliably stellar vocals on songs like the quality “Over,” decent comeuppance ballad “I’m Sorry” and the schmaltzy “God Gave Me You,” the tracks are all but ruined by tasteless eighties guitar solos and drum machines that turn them into power ballads rather than good country songs.

Not all of the ballads are mired in bombastic productions, however. In fact, not only does “Red River Blue” make a cool album title, the song with its name happens to be the standout track as well. Because it’s the quietest song on the album, tucked away at the end (not counting the two bonus tracks that include the island-flavored “Chill” and a cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted), it’s easy to overlook its strength. Along with a subtle production, Miranda Lambert’s quiet background support helps to solidify the song’s mournful tone.

The songs on this album are more than well performed, but the album as a whole is weighed down by some blandness and far too many overwrought productions. While this album is a definite step back in the right direction from Shelton’s last three projects, it still has a long way to go to equal the quality of his first four.

Single Review: Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels”

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Oh, they think they’re soooo cool.

.

(They’re right.)

.

(But they do need new percussion.)

.

Grade: B

Listen: Hell on Heels

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