The very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, two struggling solo artists came together in the nineties and became the most c0mmercially successful duo in country music history.
Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn both released solo work in the eighties to little fanfare, though they had encountered some success in other areas. Brooks earned many songwriting credits, including hits by John Conlee (“I’m Only in it For the Love”), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Modern Day Romance”), and Highway 101 (“Who’s Lonely Now.”) Dunn had recorded a few sides for Churchill records that received little attention, and won a nationwide talent contest in 1988 that earned him another shot to record in Nashville.
Arista Nashville founder Tim DuBois thought the two would work well together as a duo, and despite reservations on both their parts, the chemistry was immediately there. Upon release of their debut album Brand New Man in 1991, the duo instantly shot to the top of the charts. Thanks to a string of four #1 singles, their first album sold more than six million copies, beginning a remarkable run of success at both radio and retail.
With Dunn usually handling lead vocals and Brooks providing the most energy in their live shows, the duo had a mostly uninterrupted run, with all but their final album selling at least gold, and most selling platinum. They won dozens of industry awards, mostly in the Vocal Duo categories, but they were also named Entertainers of the Year twice at the ACM’s and once at the CMA’s.
As their career progressed, their critical acclaim largely dwindled, as their emphasis on rave-ups overshadowed their often remarkable ballads. Still, by the time they had broken up in 2009, they had accumulated 26 #1 hits and record sales in excess of 27 million, making them the top-selling duo in country music and second only to Simon & Garfunkel among duos of all genres. Both Brooks and Dunn are now pursuing solo careers, with Dunn already scoring a #1 country album and top ten single at radio.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
“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
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
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
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
The countdown continues. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments!
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21
Individual Rankings: #5 – Jonathan
It’s not for nothing that Tammy Wynette once claimed that Shelby Lynne had the best voice in country music, but, as Lynne has become increasingly subdued in the latter half of her career, she’s rarely explored the full range of her vocal talent. So when she unleashes that voice for the first time in a decade during the coda of “Revelation Road,” it may not be revelatory, but it sure is a most welcome return. – Jonathan Keefe
My Name is Money
Individual Rankings: Ben – #4
A clever lyrical personification of the Almighty Dollar. Sonia Leigh tears into the song with her gritty, powerful vocals while the snappy, genre-blending arrangement gives the single added spunk and sass. “My Name Is Money” is a delicious sonic confection from one of the 2011’s most dynamic and promising new talents. – Ben Foster
God Only Knows
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #11; Tara – #14
Why? Because she can sing, and she nails a song that’s great to begin with. It’s not quite Lorrie Morgan singing “Don’t Worry Baby”, but it’s close. – Kevin John Coyne
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Individual Rankings: #3 – Sam
One of the unlikeliest catchy songs of the year came from Jason Isbell. Sure, the content of the song is heartbreaking, but try listening to it and not singing along with “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine.”- Sam Gazdziak
Ghost on the Canvas
Individual Rankings: #10 – Kevin; #12 – Dan
Staring down his mortality, Campbell imparts a final message: Find me again in what I’ve left behind. In Campbell’s case – or Van Gogh’s, whose Wheatfield with Crows is referenced here – the remnants may be works of art. Others will have different sorts of canvases. One thing is universal: though most of the world will never see them, the ghosts will emerge for those who need them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #5 – Kevin; #17 – Dan
Why? Because he can sing, and he sounds rejuvenated to be doing it as a solo artist. It’s a great song, but in lesser hands, it would’ve been sappy. – Kevin John Coyne
Mumford & Sons
Individual Rankings: #5- Sam; #16 – Leeann
Pop radio has managed to incorporate Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift singles, to give just a couple examples. So would it kill country radio to add Mumford & Sons to the airwaves? Between Marcus Mumford’s hopeful lyrics (“But I will hold on hope/And I won’t let you choke/On the noose around your neck”) and Country Winston’s banjo, this song begged to be a crossover hit. – Sam Gazdziak
Very few artists could turn a borderline-trite hook into an invigorating anthem fit for the dance hall. Even fewer could do it so accessibly yet commandingly that you want to drop what you’re doing and have a Moonshine in his honor. Bottoms up, King George. – Tara Seetharam
When Wanda Jackson sings, “I’m wonderin’ where in the world could Jerry Lee be,” on her fantastic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” Jack White’s on-point rockabilly arrangement makes it sound like Jerry Lee Lewis himself is playing in Jackson’s ace backing band. Though her voice may have lost some of its punch, Jackson’s delivery on “Thunder on the Mountain” finds the Queen of Rockabilly as feisty as ever. – Jonathan Keefe
You Gonna Fly
Individual Rankings: #8 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan
Urban strips the title phrase of all its pomposity but retains its punch with an assured, coolly confident performance. The song’s kicker, though, is the way it handles love’s ability to “fly us” to another plane, spiritually and emotionally, with matter-of-fact breeziness. “One, two, three / Baby don’t think twice / Just like that you got a brand new life” – how refreshingly uncomplicated. – Tara Seetharam
Ronnie Dunn’s first post-B&D single might be a kiss-and-make up song. Or it could be a call for world peace and greater humanity. Maybe it’s the turmoil in Egypt that has me leaning toward the latter interpretation.
The production is surprisingly pop-flavored, and it starts to go in the big arena direction but never quite makes it there. It’s as if the raw power of Dunn’s voice keeps the musicians in check.
We’ve always known Dunn is a great singer, one of the finest country vocalists of the last quarter century. Since he was almost always the lead singer of Brooks & Dunn, I’d assumed that his solo career would just be a bunch more Brooks & Dunn records without Kix’s token vocals.
My assumption was wrong. If “Bleed Red” is any indication, Dunn has a whole new level of music inside of him. I can’t wait to hear more.
In a male-dominated industry, it’s often difficult to hear distinction in the plethora of male voices on mainstream country radio. We do not have such a challenge with Randy Houser, however. Instead, Houser has a voice that rivals the soul and strength of Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn. Regrettably, his debut album mainly suffered from production that detracted from his distinctive voice by placing heavy emphasis on the trending bombast of the times.
Houser’s promise was not completely absent, however, as demonstrated on strong songs like “Anything Goes”, “Something Real” and “How Many Times”, along with the playful “Lie”. Unfortunately, those moments were overshadowed by the larger raucous tone of the album, which, ultimately, made the disc uneven. So, in one of the small positive twists of 2010, Houser’s new album, They Call Me Cadillac, is a pleasant divergence from his previous effort.
Along with the jaunty title track that, apparently, refers to Houser’s nickname, “Out Here in the Country”, and “I’m All about It” help to fill the uptempo quota that is inarguably needed for a mainstream release. These songs are catchy with a certain level of cheeky charm to keep them enjoyable. Additionally, “A Man Like Me” is a pleasing throwback to a Waylon Jennings sound with a refreshing modern twist to it. On the mellower end of things, the slow burning “Addicted” and the pretty waltz, “If I Could Buy Me Some Time”, help to serve as a good counterbalance.
There are a couple of missteps on the album, however. “Whistlin’ Dixie”, the album’s lead single, is simply an intolerable wall of noise full of insufferable clichés for the express purpose of conjuring up southern imagery. The other notable stumble on the album is sonically pleasing, but lyrically troubling. “Will I Always Be This Way” is a self-indulgent lament of a man who doesn’t know if he can ever settle down. While the sentiment is a continual trope of country songs, it’s expressed especially distastefully in this one, as Houser asks, “Will I ever be the kind of guy / Who’s running home every night / To the little house / And doing right by the little wife?”
Luckily, the album is rarely interrupted by such inferior material. Instead, it’s largely comprised of solid songs with some standout gems, particularly the bone-chillingly spare “Lead Me Home”, a bluesy gospel song that Houser vocally nails with just the right mix of soul and restraint. Similarly, “Somewhere South of Memphis” is also impressively soulful, as its title rightfully suggests.
Randy Houser is now on the Toby Keith-owned label, Show Dog Universal. Interestingly, it seems that despite Keith’s reputation for in-your-face songs and productions, Houser has still been granted the freedom to dial back the loud that pervaded his freshman album to embrace a less cluttered, more organic sound for his sophomore project. Rather than the screaming guitars and pulsating rhythms that largely drove Anything Goes, this album manages to find a way to retain the energy from the first album while sounding relaxed and allowing Houser to seem more comfortable with his songs. Electric guitars and hooky drum beats are still a part of the equation, but fiddles, acoustic and steel guitars are just as present, which mercifully allows the two styles to positively coexist.