Tag Archives: The Avett Brothers

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

For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums.  Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music.  As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.

Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow.  As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!

Dan Grimm Ventucky

#40
Ventucky

Dan Grimm

Individual rankings:  #12 – Jonathan

The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”

Avett Brothers Magpie and the Dandelion

#39
Magpie and the Dandelion
The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Sam

Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”

Matraca Berg Loves Truck Stop

#38
Love’s Truck Stop

Matraca Berg

Individual rankings:  #11 – Kevin

Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011’s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”

Sheryl Crow Feels Like Home

#37
Feels Like Home
Sheryl Crow

Individual rankings:  #11 – Leeann

It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “We Oughta Be Drinkin'”, “Stay at Home Mother”

Gibson Brothers They Called it Music

#36
They Called it Music
The Gibson Brothers

Individual rankings:  #11 – Ben

On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”

Mando Saenz Studebaker

#35
Studebaker

Mando Saenz

Individual rankings:  Sam – #11

The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks:  “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”

Sarah Jarosz Build Me Up From Bones

#34
Build Me Up from Bones
Sarah Jarosz

Individual rankings:  #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben

On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”

Peter Cooper Opening Day

#33
Opening Day
Peter Cooper

Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam

eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”

Whiskey Gentry Holly Grove

#32
Holly Grove
The Whiskey Gentry

Individual rankings: #8 – Sam

It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak

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

Rebecca Frazier When We Fall

#31
When We Fall

Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7

Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”

4PAN1T

#30
Not Cool
Tim Easton

Individual rankings:  #7 – Jonathan

Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”

Brad Paisley Wheelhouse

#29
Wheelhouse
Brad Paisley

Individual rankings:  Sam – #7

Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song.  - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks:  “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”

John Moreland In the Throes

#28
In the Throes
John Moreland

Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan

A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”

Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis Dos Divas

#27
Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis

Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben

A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”

Julie Roberts Good Wine and Bad Decisions

#26
Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Julie Roberts

Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara

Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”

Blue Sky Riders Finally Home

#25
Finally Home
Blue Sky Riders

Individual rankings:  #4 – Dan

With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”

Willie Nelson To All The Girls

#24
To All the Girls…
Willie Nelson

Individual rankings:  #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann

Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”

Kim Richey Thorn in My Heart

#23
Thorn in My Heart
Kim Richey

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

Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters.  - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”

Lori McKenna Massachusetts

#22
Massachusetts
Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin

Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today.  - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”

Caitlin Rose The Stand-In

#21
The Stand-In
Caitlin Rose

Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan

Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

 

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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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Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.

Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.

Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year.  59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty.   You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

#40
The Road
Emmylou Harris

Individual Rankings: #18 – Kevin; #18 – Ben; #20 – Jonathan

A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.

Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster

#39
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town

Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13

Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne

#38
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton

Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19

Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken

#37
Ours
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam

The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak

#36
Shanghai Cigarettes
Caitlin Rose

Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan

It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe

#35
You
Chris Young

Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara

Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam

#34
Fixin’ to Die
G. Love

Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan

One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe

#33
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers

Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam

The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak

#32
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Jake Owen

Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan

Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken

#31
Down by the Water
The Decemberists

Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann

As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward

Next:  Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21

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