Tag Archives: Sturgill Simpson

Starter Kit: Jason Isbell

JasonIsbellcolorbyMichaelWilsonIn early February, Zac Brown Band kicked off a brief cycle of Twitter Outrage when they performed a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” which they are rumored to have cut for their upcoming album, during a high-profile ESPN gig. Some of Isbell’s devoted fans were livid that a mainstream country performer had covered Isbell’s song, insisting that it should be Isbell with the multi-platinum stats and sold-out arena tours.

There’s something to that line of thinking, of course: Were commercial music a strict meritocracy, then Isbell would be an international superstar on the strengths of his one-of-a-kind songwriting and intuitive, soulful singing. Isbell, to his credit, responded to the uproar with a level-headed and fundamentally correct statement about how people who clamor for more substance in mainstream country shouldn’t be attacking artists who are interested in cutting songs like “Dress Blues.”

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2015 Grammy Awards: Predictions & Personal Picks

57th Grammy AwardsThis year’s Grammy Awards air on Sunday, February 8, and country music will be represented with performances Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, and the tantalizing pairing of Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam.   Most of the awards will be handed out before the show, and we will post the relevant winners here, as part of a Grammy Open Thread where CU readers and writers can share their thoughts on this year’s awards.

Four CU writers, including myself, have shared our predictions and personal picks for the general and country-related categories below.  Of course, one of the coolest things about the Grammys is that it celebrates a wide range of music from the past year, and as you’ll see by our varying levels of participation, our tastes here at CU run the gamut.

This year, I’m as excited about the performances by Madonna, Kanye West (twice!), and that Hozier and Annie Lennox duet as I am about any of the country performers, and I’ll be rooting for West and Childish Gambino to sweep the Rap and Hip-Hop categories.

Who do you think will be the big winners on Sunday night, and who are you hoping will win and looking forward to seeing perform?  As always, share your thoughts in the comments!

Meghan Trainor All About That BassRecord of the Year

Will Win:

  • Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”
  • Sia, “Chandelier”
  • Sam Smith, “Stay With Me” (Darkchild Version) – Kevin, Leeann, Jonathan, Ben
  • Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”
  • Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass”

Should Win:

  • Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”
  • Sia, “Chandelier” – Jonathan
  • Sam Smith, “Stay With Me” (Darkchild Version)
  • Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”
  • Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass” – Kevin, Leeann

Kevin: In a decent year for pop music, any one of these records could credibly represent the year.  I think Sam Smith is Grammy catnip, so I expect him to win big.  I think “All About That Bass” was the most creative and interesting record of the five.

Leeann: I’m a fan of the Sam Smith song, but I agree with Kevin that “All About That Bass” is the most creative and interesting, not to mention the catchiest.

Jonathan: I actually thought it was a weak year for mainstream pop, as reflected by this fairly poor slate of nominees. Smith is right in that Adele / Norah Jones adult-pop wheelhouse that Grammy voters love, so he’s the most likely winner.  Sia’s “Chandelier” is the most progressive take on pop music among the five, though, if “Shake it Off” were to win anything, this would probably be the least egregious place to recognize Swift’s hit. I would have gladly rooted for the mash-up between Iggy Azalea’s and Reba’s respective takes on “Fancy.”

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Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson Dominate Nashville Scene Critics Poll

Nashville Scene Country Music Critics' PollThe results are in:

Nashville Scene’s 15th Annual Country Music Critics Poll

Miranda Lambert and Sturgill Simpson dominated this year’s results, with Maddie & Tae topping the Singles list for their progressive and timely hit, “Girl in a Country Song.”

Be sure to check out the Critic’s Comments, which feature some choice quotes from our very own Sam Gazdziak!

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The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was a banner year for country music albums.   In addition to the predictably solid entries from the Americana, folk, and bluegrass scenes, some excellent albums also surfaced from the unlikeliest of sources: mainstream, radio-friendly contemporary country artists!

Here are our twenty favorite albums from 2014.   Fingers crossed that 2015 is as good or better than this year has been.

Jennifer Nettles That Girl

#20
Jennifer Nettles
That Girl

KJC #8 | LW #16

A confident, intelligent solo project that washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine.  Nettles manages to remind us what was so appealing about the trio-turned-duo in the first place, while also staking out her own musical territory that has room for independence anthems alongside wry, humorous commentary on society and, of course, palpably vulnerable heartbreak numbers.  – Kevin John Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Me Without You”, “Know You Wanna Know”, “Jealousy”

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The Best Singles of 2014, Part 1: #40-#21

fiddle3.jpgDoes failure to reach a consensus indicate a year that lacked quality, or a year that had enough interesting singles that subjective taste is enough to prevent a consensus?

This was the dilemma faced by the Country Universe staff as we compiled our Best Singles of 2014 feature.   We followed our usual routine.  Each writer submitted their list of the twenty best singles of the year, and our numbers guru Jonathan Keefe used his time-test algorithm to produce a collective ranking.

But this year, there was only one single that appeared on four out of five lists.  The rest: three or less.  Rather than shorten the list to showcase only those songs chosen by multiple writers, we decided to stick to the usual forty slots, and let quite a few songs embraced only by one writer to have their place in the sun.

The result is probably the most diverse singles list we’ve ever published, and provides a great counterpoint to our upcoming albums list, which showed far more consensus than any previous albums list has.

Today, we start with the lower half of our top forty singles.  Look for the upper half tomorrow, and our albums list on Wednesday.

Parker Millsap Parker Millsap

#40
“Truck Stop Gospel”
Parker Millsap

JK #12

Raspy-voiced newcomer Parker Millsap takes it to church on one of the year’s best-drawn character sketches, adopting the persona of a truck driver whose cab doubles as his pulpit. – Jonathan Keefe

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2015 Grammy Nominations

Updated:

Little Big TownBest Country Duo/Group Performance

  • The Band Perry, “Gentle on My Mind”
  • Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad”
  • Little Big Town, “Day Drinking”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”
  • Keith Urban featuring Eric Church, “Raise ‘Em Up”

Nickel Creek DestinationBest American Roots Performance

  • Greg Allman & Taj Mahal, “Statesboro Blues”
  • Rosanne Cash, “A Feather’s not a Bird”
  • Billy Childs featuring Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, “And When I Die”
  • Keb’ Mo’ featuring the California Feet Warmers, “The Old Me Better”
  • Nickel Creek, “Destination”

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterBest Country Solo Performance

  • Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”
  • Hunter Hayes, “Invisible”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water”
  • Keith Urban, “Cop Car”

 

Brandy Clark StripesBest New Artist includes last year’s actual best new artist!

  • Iggy Azalea
  • Bastille
  • Brandy Clark  (!!!!)
  • HAIM
  • Sam Smith

rosanne-cash_12Best Americana Album

  • Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread
  • John Haitt, Terms of My Surrender
  • Keb’ Mo’, Bluesamericana
  • Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line
  • Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

glencampbellBest Country Song

  • “American Kids” – Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally
  • “Automatic” – Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert
  • “Give Me Back My Hometown” – Eric Church and Luke Laird
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” -Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
  • “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” – Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, and Jeffrey Steele

The best lineup for Best Country Album that we can remember:

Best Country Album

  • Dierks Bentley, Riser
  • Eric Church, The Outsiders
  • Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
  • Miranda Lambert, Platinum
  • Lee Ann Womack, The Way I’m Livin’

Record of the Year includes a former country artist and a CMA Awards duet partner:

Record of the Year

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

2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year.  Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.

Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#20
Rubberband
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann

Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#19
Silver Bell
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan

It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released.  Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.)  For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic.  She finds a happy medium  between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red.  Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002.  Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of  “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#18
Honky Tonk
Son Volt

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

As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. – Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

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

In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. – Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#16
My Favorite Picture of You
Guy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann

Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. – Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”

Holly Williams The Highway

#15
The Highway

Holly Williams

Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann

Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.”  – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

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

It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks.  – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#13
High Top Mountain
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam

Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. – Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

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

Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.

From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

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

Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was.  His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”)  Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place.  – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”

The Mavericks

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

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

The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

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

Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50’s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? – Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

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

It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. – Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

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

The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”

From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends.  – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

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

The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin'” and sigh along with me. – Dan Milliken

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

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

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

The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time.  There are very few anti-heroes to be found here.  Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.

Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers.  The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed.  – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

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

Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.

The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.

In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.– Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

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

A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. – Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#2
Spitfire
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan

Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year.  – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#1
12 Stories
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam

Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.

Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.

Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.

As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five.  The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind.   – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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

If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination.  For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites.   But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.

As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's "Hanging Up My Heart" is popular on XPN2: Singer-Songwriter Radio.

#20
“Hangin’ Up My Heart”
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin

What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. – Leeann Ward

Gary Allan It Ain't the Whiskey

#19
“It Ain’t the Whiskey”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  #10 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan; #18 – Kevin

The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken

Sturgill Simpson Railroad of Sin

#18
“Railroad of Sin”
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013.  – Sam Gazdziak

Kelly Willis Bruce Robison 9,999,999 Tears

#17
“9,999,999 Tears”
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #9 – Jonathan; #18 – Ben; #19 – Sam; #20 – Tara

Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. – Jonathan Keefe

Lori McKenna Salt

#16
“Salt”
Lori McKenna

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin

“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. – Dan Milliken

Corb Lund Hayes Carll Bible on the Dash

#15
“Bible on the Dash”
Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. – Sam Gazdziak

Billie Joe + Norah Long Time Gone

#14
“Long Time Gone”
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leann; #17 – Tara; #19 – Kevin

The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. – Leeann Ward

Charlie Worsham Could It Be

#13
“Could it Be”
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #10 – Tara, Jonathan; #12 – Sam; #14 – Dan

A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory.  – Tara Seetharam

Delta Rae Lindsey Buckingham If I Loved You

#12
“If I Loved You”
Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Dan

Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. – Jonathan Keefe

Miranda Lambert All Kinds of Kinds

#11
“All Kinds of Kinds”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Sam; #11 – Leeann, Tara; #12 – Dan

This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. – Sam Gazdziak

Alan Jackson Blue Ridge Mountain Song

#10
“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #8 – Kevin, Leeann, Ben; #9 – Tara

Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after.   As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time.  When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne

Holly Williams Drinkin

#9
“Drinkin'”
Holly Williams

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #6 – Tara; #13 – Kevin; #17 – Dan; #19 – Jonathan

“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road.  – Leeann Ward

LEann Rimes Rob Thomas Gasoline and Matches

#8
“Gasoline and Matches”
LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas

Individual rankings:  #1 – Leeann, Ben; #13 – Dan; #17 – Jonathan

Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. – Ben Foster

Jason Isbell Traveling Alone

#7
“Traveling Alone”
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #4 – Sam; #5 – Dan; #6 – Kevin; #8 – Tara; #13 – Leeann

This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point.  Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. – Kevin Coyne
Chris Stapleton What Are You Listening To

#6
“What are You Listening To”
Chris Stapleton

Individual rankings:  #2 – Tara; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #12 – Leeann; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Sam

Simply the most cathartic song about songs in years, layering blues and soul with the kind of crushing anguish only a master class vocal can convey. – Tara Seetharam

LEAnn Rimes Borrowed

#5
“Borrowed”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #3 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #7 – Tara, Jonathan; #11 – Dan

LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. – Jonathan Keefe

Brandy Clark Stripes

#4
“Stripes”
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #6 – Leeann; #7 – Sam; #8 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #15 – Kevin

The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status.  – Leeann Ward

Little Big Town Sober

#3
“Sober”
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara, Jonathan; #2 – Ben; #4 – Dan; #16 – Sam; #18 – Leeann

Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself.  – Tara Seetharam

Miranda Lambert Mamas Broken Heart

#2
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Dan; #3 – Sam; #4 – Tara, Ben; #15 – Leeann; #20 – Jonathan

Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song.  You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors.  The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best.   – Kevin Coyne

Kacey Musgraves Follow Your Arrow

#1
“Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #1 – Dan, Sam; #3 – Tara; #4 – Kevin, Jonathan; #5 – Ben; #14 – Leeann

Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.

There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. – Dan Milliken

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