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2013 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

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They’re as hope-dangling and ridiculous as they’ve ever been, those Country Music Association voters, and the CU staff has picked and predicted their 2013 awards below. Let us know what you think, and check back for our live blog on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Dan: Sadly, it’s become hard to care about the night’s biggest prize. Swift and Strait are the two I can stomach right now, and neither of them actually had much to do with the country scene this past year—the former because she was flexing her pop muscles, the latter because he’s winding down.

Ben: I want to care, but I really don’t. There’s only one artist whom I could have supported unequivocally, and she didn’t get a nomination.

Jonathan: The CMAs have a tendency to lag a few years behind peak commercial trends, so I think Bryan will have to wait another year or two before he takes this award. While Bryan, Aldean, and Shelton could split votes among the bro contingent (presumably, to the benefit of Strait), I think Shelton’s visibility will be enough to earn him another win here.

Tara: This was Carrie Underwood’s year. I’m angry, unsurprised and completely apathetic about the rest of these contenders.

Kevin: Shelton won last year and if anything, his star has only shone brighter this year.  That being said, if I was a CMA voter, I’d leave this category blank.  Carrie Underwood was this year’s Entertainer of the Year.

churchMale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Kevin
  • Eric Church – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Dan
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton – Kevin
  • Keith Urban

Dan: Again, pretty indifferent here.

Ben: Church was between albums this year, but he’s the one whom I feel has represented country music the best. With Urban being past his commercial peak, I’m going to give the edge to Luke Bryan for his current red-hot momentum, but I honestly couldn’t care less which of the three dudebros gets it.

Jonathan: I’d replace four-fifths of this lineup with Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young. If Bryan won’t win Entertainer of the Year, this will be his consolation prize.

Tara: I feel a little guilty rewarding Church’s residual awesomeness from Chief over Aldean’s admittedly solid year, but I’m still one redeeming single away from getting over “She’s Country.” Like Jonathan said, though, I think this is where the voters will reward Bryan.

Kevin: I’d give it to Bryan simply because he’s had a good year and has a good voice.  Another Shelton win seems inevitable to me.

KMFemale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves – Tara
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: Who knows? Voters could give Lambert a record-tying (with Reba McEntire) four-peat, or maybe give Underwood her fourth trophy instead, or maybe give Swift a second one just to be zany, or dismiss the stats entirely and make a surprise investment in Musgraves. I can imagine any of those scenarios playing out.

Ben: I’ll probably be 100% Team Kacey at next year’s ACMs, but right now I want to see Underwood recognized for her incredible Blown Away era. As Dan noted above, this category is difficult to predict this year. I’m going to play it safe and bet on Lambert, but Kelly Clarkson is the only one without a shot.

Jonathan: Since there are far stronger albums than Blown Away in contention for Album of the Year, this is where I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for the artistic gains she’s made during her current era. Lambert basically told voters to do just that during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year during the ACMs a few months back, but it seems doubtful that they will. She seems poised to repeat, even though she’s coming off the most poorly received and lowest selling run of her career. Based on the quality of what was released during the eligibility period, I would have preferred to see Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, and LeAnn Rimes squaring off against Underwood.

Tara: Just going out on a limb here with Musgraves; it feels like this category is due for a change. Or maybe that change will be a throwback to Underwood? One can hope.

Kevin:  I think Lambert will win out of force of habit, with bonus votes for having the good taste to cover Musgraves and Clark before they both became breakout artists this year. Underwood made the best music and, as always, sang it better than the rest.

lbtVocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Kevin
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band

Dan: I suppose that Little Big Town will repeat—but with “Your Side of the Bed” having doused their white-hot momentum, it’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps voters will finally throw Zac Brown Band the bone, if Brown’s Luke Bryan comments didn’t ruffle too many feathers. [Update: And ditto what Kevin says below.]

Ben: Little Big Town may have lost some steam with “Your Side of the Bed,” but they’re still going into the ring with a platinum album and two big hit singles, and they’re one of the only groups with multiple nominations this year. The trophy is theirs to lose.

Jonathan: Had The Band Perry scored more across-the-board support, I’d say they might have been able to pull off the upset here, but this remains Little Big Town’s to lose. Hopefully, a repeat victory will lend “Sober,” one of the year’s finest singles and arguably a new career-best for LBT, greater momentum at radio.

Tara: Cheers to that, Jonathan. Agreed.

Kevin: The Band Perry had a new album this year that was well-received.  My personal pick is Zac Brown Band, only because I want last year’s Little Big Town win to start a new era in this category of acknowledging the overdue.  Having the Dixie Chicks rack up four wins in five years is one thing.  Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum dominating in the same way robbed the award of its luster.  Last year, it got a little back. Let’s keep it going.

tcwVocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Dan: After years of sluggish Sugarland and shruggish Thompson Square, at least this year’s winning duo will have clear commercial heft behind them. Too bad I’m talking about Florida Georgia Line and not the also-quite-successful Civil Wars.

Ben: Whatever.

Jonathan: Same as it ever was: This category is years overdue to merge with Vocal Group. And the nomination for Sugarland is absurd.

Tara: I can’t decide what’s more amusing: Sugarland’s nomination or Florida Georgia Line’s inevitable win. (Although it does kind of feel like Sugarland is still haunting country radio with that new Band Perry single, no?)

Kevin:  The Civil Wars.  I swear they’re only nominating them so we can feel extra bad when they lose to Florida Georgia Line. (See: Rascal Flatts over Alison Krauss & Union Station, Martina McBride over Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless…)

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 3New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Kacey Musgraves – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben
  • Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Dan: Musgraves is class valedictorian, and Moore’s a solid B+ student, but expect the boys of Florida Georgia Line to cruise in on baseball scholarship and come out on top.

Ben: Musgraves has a chance, but I don’t know if her critical clout will be enough to compete with the “Cruise” phenomenon.

Jonathan: That Musgraves is the night’s leading nominee gives me hope that she can overcome Florida Georgia Line’s commercial heft. That she had the balls to push “Follow Your Arrow” as a proper single puts me firmly in her corner.

Tara: Moore is my personal favorite here, but Musgraves outclasses them all. I’ll throw my optimism in with Jonathan and Kevin.

Kevin:  This is a defining moment for the CMA’s.  Musgraves will help restore their credibility. Florida Georgia Line will destroy what’s left of it.  FWIW, Ricky Skaggs beat Lee Greenwood and Mark Chesnutt beat John Michael Montgomery.  Then again, Rascal Flatts beat Nickel Creek and Terri Gibbs beat Rosanne Cash…

bsalbumAlbum of the Year

Should Win:

  • Little Big Town, TornadoJonathan
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Ben
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown AwayTara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Little Big Town, Tornado – Ben, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Jonathan
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…Dan
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown Away –  Kevin

Dan: Tough call. In recent years, the CMA has coalesced around the album with the most “story” value, whether that story was total domination (Fearless, My Kinda Party) or a respected artist finally hitting pay dirt (Revolution, Chief). Tornado seems like a fit for that second grouping, except that Little Big Town’s pay dirt was already last year. So the field seems open.

Ben: Of the four albums that have any real business being nominated for country awards, I consider the Musgraves set to be the strongest, but my gut says that it’s going to come down to either Shelton or Little Big Town. I’m going to be optimistic and predict an LBT victory.

Jonathan: I’m not nearly as bullish on Musgraves’ album as many others are, but it seems like this is safest place for voters to recognize her distinctive, critically acclaimed work. Tornado is my pick for the most consistently excellent set of this line-up; Red hits some glorious highs, but it’s also wildly uneven and has little business being recognized as a country album.

Tara: Tornado has some really fantastic production, and Blown Away is a stand-out showcase of Underwood’s interpretive abilities. Personal investment puts me in Underwood’s camp, but based on momentum and the fact that Musgraves is new, I think Little Big Town will take this.

Kevin: Musgraves has the most critical support, but Underwood made a much better album, in my opinion. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Underwood will win.  My logic is that she had an incredible year and this is the best category to acknowledge that in.  Also, a debut album has never won this award. There’s always a first time, but Musgraves has a lot of history up against her here.

MirandaMamasBrokenHeartSingle of the Year

Should Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” – Dan, Ben
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – Dan, Jonathan, Ben
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” – Tara, Kevin

Dan: “Cruise” is the behemoth here, and behemoths tend to win Single.

Ben: Dan said it.

Jonathan: I’d like to think that a record-setting run atop Billboard’s ridiculous mongrel chart would be its own reward, but it probably won’t be.

Kevin:  There have been some goofy winners in the past.  “Elvira.” “Achy Breaky Heart.” “Bop.”  But there aren’t any in the recent past.  I think that “Wagon Wheel” allows the CMA to pick a big mainstream hit that has a bit of alt-country cred, should they decide against a Musgraves sweep.

Tara: I agree with Kevin that “Wagon Wheel” seems like a nice compromise for the voters. I’d be cool with any of the latter three winning, but to me, “Mama’s Broken Heart” has the most momentum from start to finish.

wwSong of the Year

Should Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Dan, Ben, Tara
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary - Dan, Jonathan
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor 

Dan: “Wagon Wheel” is a proven standard, but voters will probably want to go with something newer, and I guess I do, too. There’s a decent chance that Musgraves will get acknowledged here with “Merry Go ‘Round,” but with two co-writes in the pool, her danger is vote-splitting—and if that does happen, I defer to Jonathan’s logic below. Plus, frankly, CMA voters love songs about deceased loved ones.

Ben: It’s definitely possible that vote-splitting may be turn out to be Musgraves’ undoing in this category, but my guess is that “Merry Go ‘Round” will ultimately overshadow “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that this will be where she gets her trip to the podium.

Jonathan: I’m all-in for the idea of recognizing brilliant songs that should have been hits a decade ago. Next year, can we get Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit” or Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” please? This year, I just can’t see the CMA giving an award to Bob Dylan, and, as much as I’d love to see Brandy Clark win, I think the Musgraves co-writes will split votes. Which leaves a frivolous holdover from last year to face off against the only “truck” song in years that’s worth even half a damn. I think the latter pulls off the night’s only real upset.

Tara: Lots of solid choices here; even “Pontoon” has a melody worth respecting. “Merry Go ‘Round” just edges out “Mama’s Broken Heart” for me, but I think the voters will be more pointed with their choice and reward Musgraves for her breakout song.

Kevin: “Merry Go ‘Round” fits in well with previous female writer wins. Distinct point of view, attention to details, and some quiet feminist commentary. My pick is “Mama’s Broken Heart”, which I think is just brilliant. “Line your lips and keep them closed.”  Wow.

blownawayMusic Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” 

Dan: The Underwood clip was made to win this award, but I find it silly. Why does she have lie around all sexily on that bed in the tornado shelter?

Ben: Little Big Town’s “Tornado” is also a worthy contender, but Underwood’s “Blown Away” video is an absolute tour de force.

Jonathan: The idea that this could be how the Pistol Annies win a CMA award just makes my teeth hurt. As big a fan of hers as I may be, Miranda’s mugging in the video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes her laughable acting gig on Law & Order: Perverts Unit seem measured and subtle by comparison.

Kevin:  Because why shouldn’t there be two winners in this category that give homage to Oz?

Tara: Tornadoes scares the crap out of me.

highwaydon'tcareMusical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” – Jonathan, Ben, Tara
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Dan, Kevin
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” 

Ben: Clarkson and Gill made the best record of the lot, but it doesn’t have the commercial muscle to pull off a victory, so I’m giving the edge to McGraw and Company.

Jonathan: Cosigning Ben’s comment, word for word.

Dan: “Highway Don’t Care” is kinda weird and meh, but it’s not “Boys ‘Round Here” and “The Only Way I Know”. For this, I am grateful.

Tara: I swear I’m not throwing this to Clarkson and Gill just because they’re Clarkson and Gill – I can stomach not one of these other songs. Part of me thinks Aldean and co. might take this, but McGraw and co. seems more likely.

Kevin:  “Highway Don’t Care” made me enjoy both McGraw and Swift as singers, not just song pickers/songwriters.  For that alone, the win.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin) – Jonathan, Ben
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin)
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Jonathan, Ben, Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Ben: I’ll be all for Paul Franklin next year thanks to Bakersfield, but this year I would like to see Sam Bush get his due.

Jonathan: Bush may not have a MacArthur fellowship like Chris Thile, but his progressive mandolin work is certainly overdue for recognition. Hard to begrudge Franklin, though, as Bakersfield is one of the year’s best albums.

Kevin: Until he wins. I will pick him until he wins. 

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Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Red”

Taylor Swift RedBeing a great songwriter can be just as much about being distinctive and unique as it is about writing great songs.  Being a great songwriter that records her own material requires not getting in the way of your own song.

“Red” isn’t necessarily a great song, but it is a song that could only be written by Taylor Swift. It has a lot of lines that would be awkward on their own but somehow make sense when thrown together.  She makes fairly benign observations throughout, but they gather meaning as she goes along. Her writer’s voice is so authoritative that she can compare a lover’s quarrel to a difficult crossword puzzle, with the punchline being that “there’s no right answer”, and it sounds like such an obvious metaphor that you’re surprised no one thought of it before.

I really do like the song, and I think that I’d put in heavy rotation if it wasn’t for the bewildering echo effect on the title word when it ends the chorus.  I’m totally baffled. I happen to like a lot of electronic music, and the effect itself is somewhat interesting, if not particularly compelling.  It feels like a gimmicky flourish that you’d use to cover up the weakness of a song, rather than undermining the strength of a very good one.

I’ve been around enough to know the difference between a sound that’s progressive and forward-thinking, and one that’s a novelty that will soon be dated. “Red” as a record would hold up a bit better over time if the song had been allowed to stand on its own.

Written by Taylor Swift

Grade: B+

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Single Review: Jana Kramer, “I Hope it Rains”

Jana Kramer I Hope it RainsThe coolest thing “I Hope it Rains” has going for it is a piano melody that is mildly reminiscent of Bonnie Tyler’s cover of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”

As for the rest of it, Jana Kramer’s newest effort is mediocre and suffers from being not quite enough of everything it’s trying to be.  It’s twangy, but not twangy enough to suggest an authentic country pedigree.   It’s adolescent, but not adolescent enough to rank among even the lesser Taylor Swift “I’m done with you now wait until the next song about the next guy I’m done with” kiss-off numbers.  It’s a vindictive fantasy, but nothing nearly as vindictive as what Jaron and the Long Road to Love would pray for.

All in all, Kramer would’ve been better off just covering Dolly Parton’s “I Don’t Want to Throw Rice.”  She would’ve accomplished all three tasks in one fell swoop.

Written by Jerry Flowers, Kelley Lovelace, and Rachel Proctor

Grade: C

Listen:

 

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Single Reviews Round-Up: Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, & Kip Moore

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Rascal Flatts, “Changed”

Like “I Won’t Let Go” a few years back, “Changed” is built on a sweeping sentiment, rousing melody and very little else. That’s not an inherently bad thing; despite an ounce of detail about the confessor, “Changed” feels like a confession –it pleads and swells and submits. Add in an earnest and relatively restrained performance, and the song has legs.

Written by Gary LeVox, Wendell Mobley & Neil Thrasher

Grade: B

Listen

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Toby Keith, “Hope on the Rocks”

There’s something slightly jarring about the patrons’ terribly depressing hardships when the only payoff in the song is alcohol-infused hope. Maybe that’s the point, or maybe the bartender’s storyline is just a pinch undercooked. Regardless, it’s hard to knock the lovely, retro-Keith vocals and arrangement.

Written by Toby Keith

Grade: B

Listen

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Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

In theory, this is a cool track: Swift’s removed, floating performance makes sense in a song about loneliness, and Urban’s vigorous guitar work could mirror the discord in any relationship. But the melody just isn’t as driving as the three artists think it is, and the pairing of McGraw and Swift doesn’t have much grit, sonically or romantically. There’s little to grab onto past the second or third listen.

Written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, & Brad and Brett Warren

Grade: C+

Listen

Kip-Moore-Up-All-Night-2012-Album-Tracklist

Kip Moore, “Hey Pretty Girl”

No, love isn’t always as simple as the six-step journey that’s traced here, but the bittersweet melody and Moore’s naturally urgent delivery give the

story subtle dimension. Best of all is the jolt that comes from one ever-relevant line in the chorus, smartly directed at the listener: “Happiness don’t drag its feet” is as sage a piece of advice as any given by our favorite ’90s storytellers.

Written by Dan Couch & Kip Moore

Grade: A-

Listen

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Album Review: Tim McGraw, <i>Two Lanes of Freedom</i>

Tim_McGraw_Two_Lanes_of_Freedom

Tim McGraw
Two Lanes of Freedom

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Though Tim McGraw's music was among the best to be heard on country radio in the late nineties and early two thousands, recent years have seen his choice of material embarking on a gradual downward slide before bottoming out entirely with last year's Curb Records swan song Emotional Traffic.  With McGraw's recent output being what it is, and with him now being in the clutches of  Scott Borchetta, it's hard to approach Two Lanes of Freedom with high expectations.

Produced by McGraw with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, Two Lanes of Freedom is several degrees better than Emotional Traffic, but still heavily bogged down by cheap gimmickry, and by McGraw's increasing tendency to over-dramatize.  The opening title track, for instance, could have been enjoyable by virtue of melody and performance, but it's all but leveled by distorted “Oh-oh-oh” chants that surface in each chorus, and that comprise a bloated, self-indulgent ending fade-out.  Love-gone-wrong ballads “Friend of a Friend” and the Taylor Swift duet “Highway Don't Care” (featuring Keith Urban on guitar) are decent songs, but both are marred by over-the-top string sections and gaudy electric guitar solos.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Two Lanes of Freedom includes serious lapses in songwriting quality, with the nadir of the project being the indefensible “Truck Yeah,” and the middling current single “One of Those Nights not faring significantly better.  “Southern Girl” is plain sloppy, recycling pandering formulas similar to those behind “Southern Voice,” and capping it off with auto-tuned chants of “Southern girl, rock my world….”  Can any songwriter expect to be taken seriously when rhyming “girl” with “rock my world”?

At its best, Two Lanes of Freedom offers sporadic glimpses of the subtlety and sincerity that marked McGraw's best work.  But even when McGraw brings the goods as a vocalist, the quality of the song material often comes up frustratingly short.  Though a paean to the country music industry and its history could in theory be great, it's unfortunate that “Nashville Without You” leans on the clutch of listing classic country song titles from “Crazy” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Fancy” – particularly considering that it's one of the album's most tastefully produced cuts.  “Book of John” is a bit better, telling a finely detailed story of a character poring over photo album memories of a deceased loved one, but its title hook grasps at a gratuitous connection to the Biblical gospel of John, to which the bulk of the song's content is unrelated.  The best-written song of the lot is “Number 37405,” which explores the consequences of a man's decision to drink and drive with the gentle plainspoken tone of “Red Ragtop,” and without the preachy condescension of “Nothin' to Die For.”  The lyric smartly refrains from offering an ultimate resolution to the story, while McGraw and Gallimore mercifully dial back the production.  It's the closest representation the album has to offer of the Tim McGraw that once was.

Though Two Lanes of Freedom has its moments that are genuinely not half bad, the unevenness of the project as a whole offers little reason to believe that the Tim McGraw who gave us Everywhere, Set This Circus Down, and Live Like You Were Dying is likely to fully resurface anytime soon – and even if Tim McGraw were to make a return to form, it's highly unlikely that Scott Borchetta would be the one to facilitate it.

Top Tracks:  “Book of John,” “Number 37405″

Buy:  Two Lanes of Freedom

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Grammy Pre-Telecast Winners

55th Grammy Awards

Grammy Pre-Telecast Winners

Here are the winners in country and country-related categories, including all-genre categories that include a

country-related nominee:

Best Long Form Music Video: Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros & Old Crow Medicine Show, Big Easy Express

Song Written for Visual Media:  T Bone Burnett, Taylor Swift, John Paul White & Joy Williams, “Safe and Sound”

Americana Album:  Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream

Bluegrass Album: Steep Canyon Rangers, Nobody Knows You

Folk Album: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile,  The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Country Duo/Group Vocal Performance: Little Big Town, “Pontoon”

Country Song: Josh Kear & Chris Tompkins, “Blown Away”

 

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Single Review: Lady Antebellum, "Downtown"

lady antebellum downtownCredit where credit is due:  After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.

But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.

What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.

It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little”  just a few lines later.

The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin’” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”  At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which

nods toward the B-52s, is kind of fun.

An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer:  A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.

Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.

Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally

Grade: C+

Listen: Downtown

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Filed under Single Reviews

CU's Top Singles of 2012

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

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

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

 

#40
“Southern Comfort Zone”
Brad Paisley

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

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


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

Individual rankings:  Sam – #8

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

#38
Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Zac Brown Band

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

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

#37
“In Between Jobs”
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6

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

#36
“You Go Your Way”
Alan Jackson

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

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

#35
“Born to Be Blue”
The Mavericks

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

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

#34
“Closer”
Mindy Smith

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

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

#33
“Drunk On You”
Luke Bryan

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

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

#32
“Cruise”
Florida Georgia Line

Individual rankings:  Dan – #3

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

#31
“When I’m Gone”
Joey + Rory

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

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

#30
“Postcard from Paris”
The Band Perry

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

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

#29
“When It Pleases You”
Sara Watkins

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

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

#28
“Live and Die”

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2

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

#27
“Is It Already Time?”
Wade Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#24
“Plant White Roses”
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #1

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

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

#23
“Good Girl”
Carrie Underwood

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

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

#22
“Hello Cruel World”
Gretchen Peters

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

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

#21
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
Corb Lund

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

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

#20
“I’m a Mess”
Rodney Crowell

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

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

#19
“Fly Over States”
Jason Aldean

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

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

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

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

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

#17
“Two Black Cadillacs”
Carrie Underwood

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

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

#16
“Beer Money”
Kip Moore

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

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

#15
“Better Dig Two”
The Band Perry

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

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

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

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

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

#13
“The Dreaming Fields”
Matraca Berg

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

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

#12
“Springsteen”
Eric Church

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

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

#11
“Blown Away”
Carrie Underwood

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

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

#10
“The Wind”

Zac Brown Band

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

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

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

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

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

#8
“Creepin’”
Eric Church

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

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

#7
“Neon”
Chris Young

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

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

#6
“Takin’ Pills”
Pistol Annies

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

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

#5
“Like a Rose”
Ashley Monroe

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

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

#4
“Drinkin’ Man”
George Strait

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

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

#3
“What Have I Done”
LeAnn Rimes

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

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

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

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

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

#1
“Merry Go ‘Round”
Kacey Musgraves

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

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

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

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2012 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

While the rest of the country fixates on “Nashville,” the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards air live from Music City with equal drama and ridiculousness November 1 at 7 p.m. CST. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Thursday night!

Entertainer of the Year 

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Dan: I’ll probably never be able to fully embrace Aldean, but his impact on the genre remains undeniable, and once in a while he releases something like “Fly Over States” that lends some dimension to his hick-rock formula.

Tara: “Fly Over States” will land on my best-of-2012 list (I’m as surprised as you are), but I just can’t get behind Jason Aldean’s overall brand of country, regardless of his impact. That leaves me with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, and only the latter put out music to match her star in the eligibility period. Boring category.

Ben: Sadly, this category just keeps getting harder and harder for me to care about.  I could still see Swift taking it, but an Aldean victory is almost certain to happen sooner or later, and I’m thinking this could be his year.  Blake’s turn will come eventually, but not until after Aldean has had his.

Jonathan: Aldean has yet to release anything I’ve liked even a little bit, but this award has increasingly turned into Nashville’s way to say “thank you” to whoever is bringing the most cash back to Music Row, so Aldean is likely due for a pat on the back. On some level, Shelton’s heightened media presence is its own reward, but he’s the most likely spoiler here, since pop crossover stars like Swift rarely pull off repeat wins.

Kevin: Should win: Carrie Underwood. But since she’s not nominated, I’ll go with Jason Aldean, who has been the biggest country artist this past year. I expect he’ll win, too.

Leeann: While it’s completely baffling to me that Jason Aldean has taken off as he has, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won this award. I, however, feel that it’s far more likely that Taylor Swift will win again.

Female Vocalist of the Year 

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Tara: I still believe Underwood’s best is yet to come, but she deserves respect from the industry and critics alike for taking the kind of creative, thematic and interpretive risks she took with Blown Away. Maybe come next year she’ll have more influence; this year, the award is still Lambert’s to lose. (And shout out to homegirl Clarkson, who may have no place in this category, but who gave us the best cover of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” that I’ve ever heard.)

Ben: In my perfect world, Carrie Underwood’s solid new music (which was released within this year’s eligibility period) would nab her the trophy.  Miranda had the most radio success this year, and will almost surely emerge victorious, but I simply can’t endorse the idea of rewarding her for releasing two singles that were easily the worst duds of her career.  Footnote:  Country radio seriously needs to start supporting more female artists.

Jonathan: I adore Kelly Clarkson, and, based upon nearly a decade’s worth of concert performances, I’d argue that she has the best taste in country material of any of the women nominated, and I look forward to the day when she finally records a proper country album. But her nomination here is absurd. Fortunately, she’s not really in the running to win. This likely comes down to Lambert and Underwood. In the past, I’ve championed Lambert for her fearless artistic vision, and I’ve been highly critical of Underwood’s grossly over-praised and over-rewarded output. But, this year, I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for what is far and away her career-best work than to see Lambert win for what is quite obviously her worst. I doubt the voters will agree.

Dan: Ditto the others, pretty much. Underwood’s taste in material has deepened, but what excites me most is that her interpretive abilities have, too. I never used to feel comfortable with those comparisons to the Trishas and Connies of the world. Now I do.

Kevin: It’s all been said. Underwood’s reached new heights of artistry while still maintaining her commercial relevance. I’d call her one of the best,  but that would imply there’s anyone else in her league right now.

Leeann: Miranda Lambert is still my favorite out of these choices and Kelly Clarkson’s nomination is still confusing to me. I think the award is a toss up between Taylor and Carrie in all actuality though.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Dan
  • Eric Church – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Tara: Unlike last year’s crop of men, these five at least put out memorable if not entirely thoughtful material in the eligibility period. But Church is the only one who’s had a consistent vision, and what a difference that makes. I don’t see the voters dethroning Shelton, though.

Ben: I expect that the CMA is going to continue shoving the whole “Blake and Miranda are the new Tim and Faith!” idea down our throats, but Eric Church made the best music of the field by far, and country radio finally decided to get on board with it.  Eric Church deserves this.

Jonathan: Church is the only one of the five who has released any strong material during the eligibility period, though I generally remain a fan of Urban’s. It’s hard to see either of those two men winning, though. Urban’s past his commercial peak, and Church is still too divisive a persona. I also think Aldean’s vocal limitations play against him here – see Chesney, Kenny, and his track record in Male Vocalist races – especially since he’s likely to be recognized elsewhere. That leaves Crest WhiteStrips to take on Shelton. I think Shelton gets another win before Bryan’s inevitable coronation here.

Dan: CMA has developed a bad habit of just voting for the incumbent. But Bryan has the most momentum right now, so what the hey; I’ll mix things up and call it Crest Whitestrips 2012.

Kevin: Gonna go out on a limb and say the best one takes it home this year. They’ve got to be itching to finally acknowledge Eric Church, right? Right???

Leeann: Blake Shelton has had a good year. I suppose he has a good, high profile chance of being rewarded for it.

Vocal Group of the Year 

Should Win:
  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

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

Dan: Little Big Town’s album is too new, but their sudden momentum could power them to a spoiler win here anyway, depending on who Capitol gets behind. I’ll support them come ACM time; for now, give Zac Brown Band their freakin’ due.

Tara: Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town both put out stellar new music; the only major difference is timing. I support a ZBB win but won’t be disappointed if/when the “Pontoon”-fueled LBT steals this from the most complacent group in country music.

Ben: Zac Brown Band should win.  Lady Antebellum will win. Déjà vu?

Jonathan: As much as logic points to another indefensible win for the most useless act in popular music, and as much as I want to see Zac Brown Band finally earn their long-overdue recognition, I’m calling this one an upset for the also-long-overdue Little Big Town. That karaoke video for “Pontoon” showed off just how deeply likedthey are by their peers, and now that they have the commercial stats, I think that that pervasive goodwill gives them the edge here.

Kevin: I think the red-hot momentum of Little Big Town could put them over the top. Zac Brown Band’s been my pick for a couple of years, but I really think they’re just treading water at this point.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band is far and away my favorite group of the nominees here, but Little Big Town’s talent is undeniable. I’d be happy if either of them won. I’m afraid Lady A will still win though.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:
  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • The Civil Wars  – Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.

Jonathan: Per usual: Merge this category with Vocal Group to trim the fat. The only act here deserving of the recognition is the one with the longest of long-shots to win.

Dan: La la la.

Tara: So pointless.

Kevin: I’m going out on another limb, this time by thinking that the whole “massive commercial success without radio” thing will give the Civil Wars a Mavericks-style victory. I’d honestly rather be wrong in my predictions than be depressed before the show even airs.

Leeann: I don’t think Sugarland has had a particularly active year, but I think they might still win based on name recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Lee Brice – Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan
  • Hunter Hayes – Kevin, Leeann, Tara
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Dan: Since none of these artists do it for me, I’d shrug it over to the technically skilled Hayes, who I think could be interesting in the future if he challenges himself to become more than a one-man boy-band. As Sawyer Brown and Keith Urban have proven, sometimes an artist earns their win in this category retroactively.

Tara: Hunter Hayes needs to rein it in a bit, but his chops have potential. Lee Brice needs to find better material, but his performances are believable. “Hard To Love” is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year, so I guess I’ll go with the latter?

Ben: Lee Brice strikes me as having the most potential of these nominees, but right now, I think the Brantley Gilbert virus has already spread too far.

Jonathan: Absolutely not.

Kevin: Hunter Hayes is the musical equivalent of those memes that show cats doing people things. He’s putting out real country music, and it’s adorable! All joking aside, I’m pulling for real country music wherever I can find it. Hayes is all I’ve got to work with here.

Leeann: I’m really not fond of any of these choices.

Album of the Year
Should Win:
  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the RecordBen, Tara
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the NightJonathan, Leeann

Dan: Everyone but Bentley’s got a shot, but my hopeful guess is that this is where the CMA will reward Church.

Tara: Chief and Four the Record both made big impressions on me last year, but only the former has held up with time. I’ll be optimistic and predict the CMA will reward its reigning Female Vocalist of the Year over its reigning Group of the Year. (I still can’t get over Own the Night winning a Grammy, y’all. Unbelievable.)

Ben: Church’s Chief is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, but my gut is still predicting a Lambert and Shelton sweep, though there’s still a chance the voters may decide to reward that dreadful Lady A album instead.

Jonathan: Bright side: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night is eligible to win. Downside: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night will win, at the expense of far more deserving competition.

Kevin:  I think Chief really made an impression, and I’m betting it was enough of one to win.

Leeann: I  reflexively assume Lady A will win this award at this point, but I’m hoping for a Dierks Bentley or Eric Church win. Dierks Bentley’s album is quality and I feel Eric Church’s album is interesting and fresh.

Song of the Year

Should Win:
  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers – Kevin, Leeann
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Ben

Will Win:

  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes – Leeann
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell  – Kevin

Dan: I think I’m just being optimistic, but maybe the earnest Hoge/Paslay story of struggling for an artistic life will resonate with enough music-industry vets to overcome the bait-ishness of “Over You” and “Home.” Maybe?

Tara: I’d be fine with three of these five winning — and would even argue that, as a composition, “God Gave Me You” is solid — but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has the most soul. I’m not entirely sure where the votes will fall on this one, but maybe pop culture’s spotlight on Nashville will mean a win for the songwriters’ anthem?

Ben: I can’t picture this going to anyone but Lambert and Shelton. If the CMA intends to keep working this ridiculous power-couple nonsense, they have created a golden opportunity here, and I highly doubt the song’s awfulness will be any hindrance.

Jonathan: If knowing a song’s tragic backstory is a requirement for finding “meaning” in that song, then its songwriters have failed.

Kevin: I’m hoping the CMA voters sing Shelton and Lambert’s song back to them when filling out their ballots, and pick the strongest singer-songwriter in this race. Bentley’s cut is my personal favorite.

Leeann: I just have a feeling that the bland love song will win, but I’m hoping that the thoughtful  “Home” will prove me wrong.

Single of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Ben, Leeann
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Dan: Feels like a toss-up, actually. I’d figure “Home” and “Springsteen” to duke it out, but remember that year when “I Saw God Today” randomly won?

Tara: “Home”’s graceful approach to patriotism is lovely and especially appreciated during this infuriating election season, but the song itself lacks spark. “Springsteen” is the better all-around record, and I think it’ll hold up with time, which is a lot more than I can say about the remaining three songs in the category.

Ben: I think “Springsteen” is going to be the song with the most staying power.

Jonathan: As fine a single as “Springsteen” is, I just can’t see the CMA rallying behind a song inspired by the Boss, especially not in an election year. Bentley’s thoughtful and relatively subtle brand of patriotism seems like a far safer bet.

Kevin: I think that Aldean’s track is the coolest sounding record of the five. Surface pleasures will suffice.

Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!

Musical Event of the Year 

Should Win:
  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Ben, Kevin, Leeann
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Will Win:

  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw – Ben, Jonathan, Leeann
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Dan: “Roll Me Up” is a little hoot. But “Safe and Sound” had a higher profile, and it gives CMA a chance to be like, “See? We do appreciate the Civil Wars!”

Tara: Every song but “Roll Me Up” feels like it’s lacking something (in Chesney/McGraw’s case, taste), but I think “Safe and Sound” will have enough commercial clout to nab this one.

Ben:  While I’m always happy to see some Alan Jackson love, “Dixie Highway” just doesn’t match the simple charm of Jackson and ZBB’s previous collaboration.  “Safe and Sound” is just such a cool, haunting record – one that brings out the best in both of the acts involved.  But since “Feel Like a Rock Star” has the biggest names attached, I think it’s an easy call that it’s going to win.

Jonathan:“Safe and Sound” is my favorite track here, but not necessarily because it’s a great collaboration. “Roll Me Up,” on the other hand, is a fun standalone cut that feels like a real event, and I appreciate the self-awareness with which the artists toy with their public personas. But it’s hard to imagine more conservative voters being on-board with the phrase, “CMA award winner Snoop Dogg.” The Chesney and McGraw duet quite rightfully bricked at radio, but it’s still the most likely winner here on star power alone.

Kevin: “Safe and Sound” succeeded in pushing the most  mainstream of artists into an alternative country sound without sacrificing the identity of the duo that helped her get there. Plus it actually worked as a theme song to a movie that didn’t exactly lend itself to easy theming.

Leeann: I’d be fine with any of these except for the one that will probably win.

Music Video

of the Year

Should Win:
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Dan: The “Springsteen” video is pretty neato. Oh well.

Tara: The video for “Springsteen” is haunting. I dig it.

Jonathan: The Twilight-hued video for “Over You” is every bit as narrativeless, cloying, and shallow as the song itself, so I’m just going to pretend this is a retroactive win for “Kerosene.”

Kevin:  (…Goes to YouTube to watch videos for first time…) Lambert, you had me until the horse. I’m going with Church, mostly because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Poltergeist for some reason.

Musician of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Sam Bush – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Paul Franklin – Ben, Leeann
  • Dann Huff
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush
  • Paul Franklin
  • Dann Huff – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally – Ben, Leeann

Ben: It’s Paul Franklin’s turn… and it has been for years now.

Jonathan: It’s not as cool as Chris Thile’s winning a MacArthur Fellowship, but Sam Bush’s nomination for his extraordinary mandolin work is my favorite thing on the entire CMA ballot this year.

Kevin: I can’t vote against the mandolin. I just can’t.

Leeann: I continue to root for the steel guitar.

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Single Review: Madonna, "Love Spent"

viagra cheapest online

-Spent-150×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />Thirty years ago, Madonna released her first single. In the years that followed, she dominated radio formats across the dial, but never released a single targeting the country market. Until now.

“Love Spent” opens with a banjo riff that recalls the Dixie Chicks at their twangiest. That countriest of country sounds plays alongside the synthesizers and strings that are more typical of a Madonna record. But much like everyone’s favorite country crossover artist, what’s most revealing are the lyrics that target a past beau. In this case, it’s an ex-husband, not an ex-boyfriend, who made off with her money and

left the love behind.

“You played with my heart, ’till death do we part, that’s what you said,” she pleads, after wryly noting that “if my name was Benjamin, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.” It fits so neatly into the well-worn themes of love gone wrong that have always defined the genre, making it an instant country classic.

It may seem a stretch to imagine Madonna finding favor at country radio. Not because of her pop sound, of course, but because of her age. At 54, she’s a quarter-century older than the handful of female artists that get country radio airplay, despite being able to run rings around them in terms of talent. Her facing off against those whippersnappers should produce enough drama to make network television scribes green with envy.

I know, I know. It’s a stretch to pretend that Madonna could realistically compete on the country charts. Despite any surface similarities between the throbbing dance beats of “Love Spent” and, say, the current #1 country single, there’s one key difference that’s certain to sink Madonna’s chances in today’s country market.

Her record has a banjo on it.

Written by Madonna, William Orbit, Jean-Baptiste, Priscilla Hamilton, Alain Whyte, Ryan Buenida, and Michael McHenry

Grade: A

Listen: Love Spent

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