Tag Archives: The Band Perry

ACM Awards 2014: Final Thoughts

George StraitThis year’s ACM Awards were mediocre and broverwhemingly male-centric, despite women winning most of the major awards.  As with last fall’s CMA show, the best moment was the final one, when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year.

Here’s a rundown of all the major winners:

Entertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan

  • Miranda Lambert

  • Blake Shelton

  • George Strait

  • Taylor Swift

George Strait winning at the ACMs this year was even more surprising than at the CMAs last year, given how the fan-voted element of this award has favored stars with young fanbases in previous years.  King George, indeed. – KJC

While it’s disheartening to see Strait’s mainstream support dwindling, it’s great to see the fans come through for King George. – BF

Even if Strait did unintentionally but hilariously leave Miranda Lambert hanging on her attempted hi-five, it was nice to see the genuine support for Strait’s win among the other artists in attendance. Too bad radio seems to have turned their back on him.  - JK

jason-aldeanMale Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean

  • Lee Brice

  • Luke Bryan

  • Blake Shelton

  • Keith Urban

A repeat win for Jason Aldean helped both hosts go home empty handed, despite the big years both Bryan and Shelton had. – KJC

Miranda Lambert Over YouFemale Vocalist of the Year

  • Sheryl Crow

  • Miranda Lambert

  • Kacey Musgraves

  • Taylor Swift

  • Carrie Underwood

Has there ever been a female vocalist that the ACMs loved more?  Lambert’s fifth consecutive victory snaps Reba McEntire’s four in a row from 1985-1988, though she’d return to the winner’s circle three more times in the nineties.  But even McEntire didn’t dominate the other categories the way Lambert’s been doing. – KJC

Lambert officially owns this category for a half-decade. Can we please get a shake-up in the Female Vocalist race next year? – BF

As I said on twitter: If she’s in the building, Trisha Yearwood is the Best Female Vocalist (unless Connie Smith is also in the building, in which case Trisha would be runner-up). End of discussion. – JK

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 3Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich

  • Dan + Shay

  • Florida Georgia Line

  • Love and Theft

  • Thompson Square

Florida Georgia Line had the biggest year – actually, the only big year – of all the nominees, making their victory the least surprising win of the night. – KJC

Congratulations to Florida Georgia Line on their win for (Only Significantly Successful) Vocal Duo of the Year. – BF

The Band PerryVocal Group of the Year

  • Eli Young Band

  • Lady Antebellum

  • Little Big Town

  • The Band Perry

  • Zac Brown Band

The Band Perry won their first Vocal Group award, with all the votes in before a confetti backlash was able to sway the tally. – KJC

Justin MooreNew Artist of the Year

  • Brett Eldredge

  • Justin Moore

  • Kip Moore

Two Moores and a Brett walk into an ACM ceremony… – KJC

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different ParkAlbum of the Year

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…

  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party

  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times

  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

With the Grammys picking Musgraves and the CMAs picking Shelton, the ACMs broke the tie, picking the best album over the biggest.  Good call. – KJC

Musgraves’ well-deserved victory restores some ACM credibility, though it is ironic that she was the only nominee whom the producers did not grant a performance slot. – BF

She won for Album of the Year and co-wrote the winner of Single of the Year, so we can’t necessarily blame the ACM voters for Musgraves’ lack of a performance: Clearly, the producers of the show had adopted an ethos of “Bros Before Women Who Make Good Music.” – JK

Mama's Broken HeartSingle Record of the Year

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”

  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”

  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

True, a Song of the Year victory would’ve been sweeter.  But Lambert’s single was still the best of the five, and gave her a third win in this category in four years.  That feat was last accomplished by Willie Nelson, who picked up three in four years back in the eighties, for “Always on My Mind”, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, and “The Highwayman.” – KJC

The “Cruise” phenomenon promised to be hard to beat, but fortunately the voters chose to honor the best record over the biggest. – BF

I really wouldn’t have any reservations at all with Miranda having won this category three times for “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder and Lead,” and “The House That Built Me.” Hers was easily the best nominee of this line-up, though. – JK

IDriveYourTruck_lee_briceSong of the Year

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren

  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary

  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves

  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan

  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

With Grammy winner “Merry Go ‘Round” not in the running, the ACM chose to honor last fall’s CMA winner, “I Drive Your Truck.” – KJC

Props to Lee Brice for letting the songwriters have the spotlight for this win. Considering the Song of the Year award purports to honor the year’s best songwriting, it’s been disconcerting that recent years have seen the ACMs shifting the focus from the songwriters to the artists. – BF

Of note: Women won for Album of the Year, Single of the Year, and were two of the three co-writers of the Song of the Year. Yet the genre’s regressive gender politics are as problematic right now as at any point in recent memory. When will we reach a true tipping point with this? – JK

220px-TMG_-_Highway_Dont_Care_coverVideo of the Year

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”

  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”

  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”

  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs”

The high-octane collaboration between these three superstars earned several nominations, but their only win came in this category. – KJC

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 06:  Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban perform onstage during the 47th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)Vocal Event of the Year

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”

  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us”

Betting against Miranda Lambert at the ACM Awards is starting to look like a fool’s wager.  This is her first win in this category, and with the other awards she won last night, her total ACM count is now at fifteen. – KJC

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2014 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

And they’re back: The 2014 ACM Awards air live on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST, hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. They’re sure to be enraging or amusing, depending on your bro-country meter. In the meantime, we’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your thoughts!

Entertainer of the Year

Luke Bryan

Should Win

  • Luke Bryan 
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait - KJC, TS, BF
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win

  • Luke Bryan - KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Ben: No, Strait didn’t have the biggest year, but he’s still the only nominee whom I can truly endorse as the face of country music in 2014. At this point the Carrie Underwood snubs have ceased to surprise me.

Jonathan: If his fans’ votes were enough to give him the surprise win last year, there’s no reason to think Bryan won’t repeat, given that his profile only seems to have grown throughout 2013. All five of the nominees are equally sort-of deserving of a win based on relative metrics of commercial stats and quality of their output, while the most obvious, most deserving winner of this award was yet again left off the ballot.

Tara: Strait’s putting on a heck of a farewell tour, and I appreciate the CMA voters for recognizing that last year. I’m doubtful he’ll have that effect on the ACM voter demographic, though; this one’s Bryan’s to lose … but really, truly, belongs to Underwood.

Kevin: Strait’s victory at last year’s CMA Awards was the highlight of the night. But I agree with the consensus. Fan votes have this thing locked up for Bryan.

Male Vocalist of the YearBlake Shelton2

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean – TS
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Ben: Bryan seems to have had the biggest year, but I’m not personally invested in any of these choices.

Jonathan: I’d be more excited about seeing new blood in this line-up if I were in any way impressed with Brice. Just looking at mainstream stars who had hits during the eligibility period, a superior slate of nominees could be culled from Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Easton Corbin, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young.

Tara: I’ll be damned if Aldean hasn’t grown on me over the past few years. His material is still too uneven for me to get behind, but I’ve come to begrudgingly respect his appeal. My guess is his crown will go to Bryan, though.

Kevin: I like the fact that after the endless streak from Paisley, we’ve gotten different winners in the past two years. The only two who haven’t won yet are Brice and Bryan. The latter is the only one at the level to warrant a win at this time.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kacey Musgraves

Should Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – TS

Will Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert – TS, BF, JK
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Ben: Lambert’s status as one of this year’s leading nominees indicates that voters still have the hots for her. Her reign will end eventually, but I won’t bet on it happening this time around.

Jonathan: Brandy Clark LeAnn Rimes Ashley Monroe Kellie Pickler Julie Roberts Holly Williams No? On the brightside, Crow managed to snag the fifth slot instead of either of Blake Shelton’s overpraised “The Voice” winners, but that’s really where the good news ends. It seems premature for Musgraves to win this award, and I’m honestly still not all that enamored of her beyond “Follow Your Arrow.” I’ve been pulling for Underwood of late, but both she and Swift ended this eligibility period with two of their worst singles, so I’d have reservations about seeing either of them win. Lambert seems poised to repeat based on her haul of nominations; as fun as “Mama’s Broken Heart” is, I’d feel better about this streak of hers had it spanned her far superior Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution eras.

Tara: I’m sticking with Underwood for one more cycle, mostly because Musgraves’ charming “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t really make its (relatively small) impact until after the eligibility period. It’s hard to swallow how many of these awards Lambert is racking up between the ACM’s and the CMA’s, but I suspect the trend will continue.

Kevin: Go big or go home. Musgraves is the ACM’s opportunity to definitively position itself as the more substantive country awards show, a status they’ve been flirting with as the CMA’s have moved in the opposite direction. I think she’ll pull it off, and I’ll be happy to see her do it.

Vocal Duo of the YearFGL

Should Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line - KJC
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square – TS, JK

Will Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Ben: This category remains lame and pointless as ever, but at least I can give credit for the fact that they finally stopped shoehorning in Sugarland.

Jonathan: Thompson Square is the only one of these five acts who released a single that I didn’t absolutely hate during the past year. While that’s an accomplishment of sorts, it’s hardly one that should keep this category from being combined with the Vocal Group race.

Tara: I don’t mind Thompson Square. That’s the best thing I can say about this line-up.

Kevin: I’m not really a fan of any of these acts, so again, I’ll root for variety. Thompson Square has two wins already. Florida Georgia Line had a great year. Give them their due, and then perhaps we can forget they ever happened.

Vocal Group of the YearLittle Big Town

Should Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – TS, JK
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – KJC

Will Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • The Band Perry – KJC, TS, JK, BJF
  • Zac Brown Band

Jonathan: I couldn’t vote against Little Big Town during a year when they released “Sober,” but Zac Brown Band continues to release solid material and remains overdue for recognition. The Band Perry have a run of huge hit singles– the first two of which were as clever and progressive as anything country radio has touched in a minute– to their credit during the eligibility period. Momentum seems to be on their side at the moment, and I think they’ll score the night’s only real upset.

Tara: The Band Perry are walking a skillful line between commercial and creative, and I think they’ll be rewarded. As for me, I’m clinging to Little Big Town at least until the exquisite “Sober” becomes old news.

Kevin: I think that The Band Perry is best positioned to win, but Zac Brown Band is the most overdue.

Ben: I’m torn between picking The Band Perry for having had such a strong year, and picking Little Big Town for releasing one of my favorite singles of 2013. But despite Little Big Town’s recent hot streak, I expect The Band Perry’s commercial stats will net them their first win in this category.

New Artist of the Year2012 CMT Music Awards Rehearsals - Day 1

Should Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore
  • Kip Moore – KJC, TS, BF

Will Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore – TS, JK, BF
  • Kip Moore

Jonathan: Of these three, Justin Moore has been building his fanbase for the longest period of time, so it seems logical that he’ll win based on the fan vote.

Tara: I’ve been in Kip Moore’s corner for a few years now, but doubt he’ll take this. True story: Sometimes I think Justin Moore and Brice are the same person.

Album of the Year

Same Trailer

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story… JK
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – TS, KJC, BF
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Ben: Musgraves is the only one deserving of a nomination, let alone a win.

Jonathan: 2013 was an extraordinary year for country music, and that is in no way reflected in this appalling slate of nominees. Musgraves’ album is the only one that belongs in any conversation about the best of contemporary country. But there seems to be some growing consensus that Shelton is owed something more than his own celebrity status, so he’s the most likely winner.

Tara: A  part of me thinks the voters will ride the 2013 Musgraves fan train and use this as an opportunity to show some relevance. But that’s a gamble of a guess, considering the atrocious other nominees.

Kevin: They’ve been more supportive of good art in this category than the CMA’s lately, so I’m thinking Musgraves has this wrapped up, and the ACM will be the tiebreaker between the Grammys and the CMA’s.

Single Record of the YearMama's Broken Heart

Should Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – KJC, BF, TS, JK
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Jonathan: A case could be made for any of these five singles actually winning, but I’ll let my pessimism about the overall nominations carry the most weight here and say that “Cruise” will win. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is only Lambert’s fifth-or-sixth-best single, but it’s easily the class of this field.

Tara: “Cruise” is too big for the voters to ignore, and that’s both depressing and funny. I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Rucker or Brice singles won, but Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” is clearly a cut above the rest with its sharp songwriting and spitting, bullet of a performance.

Kevin: Love the Lambert track, but the star power of McGraw/Swift/Urban seems hard to deny.

Song of the Year

WagonWheel

Should Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, TS, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – JK

Will Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – TS, JK
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

Jonathan: “Wagon Wheel” has become as close to a standard as any song in recent memory, and that generally doesn’t happen just by accident. This is one of the few times when Brandy Clark would be my second choice for a winner. The success of “I Drive Your Truck” propelled Brice to a surprising haul of nominations this year, though, and it’s clear that the song has resonated with a sizable bloc of voters.

Tara: This isn’t an awful line-up. I personally get the most kicks out of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but I could make a case for all five songs, even the somewhat underrated “Mine Would Be You.” I have a gut feeling “I Drive Your Truck” will win on emotional heft, though.

Kevin: Perhaps it’s overly wishful thinking, but with “Merry Go Round” not in the running, voters have a clear path to rewarding both Musgraves and Clark, along with sending some more hardware Lambert’s way.

Video of the YearTwo Black Cadillacs

Should Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC, TS, BF, JK

Will Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – BF
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – JK, TS
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC

Jonathan: The video for “Blowin’ Smoke” looks like a reel of B-roll footage from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which was an interesting aesthetic choice but was still nowhere near as fun as the Christine homage in “Two Black Cadillacs.”

Tara: I dig the tongue-in-cheek realism of Musgraves’ video and the whimsy of Lambert’s, but Underwood makes the most unexpected, imaginative choice.

Kevin: They’ve got to give Underwood something, right?  I’m not a huge fan of the video, really. The song is awfully suggestive, but doesn’t come right out and say that the two ladies killed the guy. So the video takes that opening and decides, “The car did it!” But at least it’s a video. The others are just YouTube fodder.

Vocal Event of the YearHighway Don't Care

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, JK, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel” – TS
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us – TS, JK

Jonathan: Hillary Scott’s shrill attempts at singing harmony are the worst part of Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel,” and hopefully the two hip-hop-circa-2003-inspired singles will split votes. “We Were Us” is the worst sounding track of the five– which is really saying something about how we’ve forever lost the Loudness War– but it seems like Lambert is going to have a big night.

Tara: I’ll go with “Wagon Wheel” by default, though its collaboration does it absolutely no favors, as Jonathan said. Even still, it’s far above these other middling to obnoxious (so loud!) singles.

Kevin: Fair warning. If Florida Georgia Line/Nelly win, I’m out. Done. No live blog for me after that!

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Single Review: The Band Perry, “Chainsaw”

The Band Perry ChainsawA cool sounding record that is ultimately undermined by a juvenile delivery.

As is often the case with the Band Perry, the arrangement is interesting.  This is one of their more distinctive records in that sense, with enough changes in mood and sonics to give you aural whiplash.

But the vocal is so childish that it makes “Picture to Burn” sound like restrained maturity.  They’ve got the vocal chops, and they’ve got the creativity, but they don’t seem to be able to balance the two very well.  So yes, it’s interesting.  But it’s not very enjoyable to listen to.

Written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Ramsey

Grade: C

 

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

For the second year in a row, our seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster, Jonathan Keefe, and Sam Gazdziak –  individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of the year. It’s a diverse crop of singles, some of which dominated country radio, while others were primarily heard in the Americana, bluegrass, and alternative country worlds. Today, we present the first half of our singles list, with the conclusion to follow tomorrow. Share your favorites in the comments!

untitled (63)

#40
“Someone Somewhere Tonight”
Kellie Pickler

Individual rankings:  #16 – Ben; #19 – Tara

A sweeping power ballad anchored by an intimate chorus and Pickler’s pleading sincerity.  - Tara Seetharam

Will Hoge Strong
#39
“Strong”
Will Hoge

Individual rankings: #10 – Sam

Yeah, it’s the Chevy song, but whatever it takes to get Will Hoge introduced to a larger audience can’t be a bad thing. His lyrics about a true salt-of-the-earth individual ring true without ever steering into maudlin territory, and the line, “he ain’t jut tough, he’s strong,” is a great hook. It probably moved a fair number of pickup trucks, too. - Sam Gazdziak

Dierks Bentley Bourbon in Kentucky

#38
Bourbon in Kentucky”
Dierks Bentley

Individual rankings: #9 – Leeann

Although Bentley vies for radio play, “Bourbon in Kentucky” still sounds unique enough to stand out from the generic bombast of the male players on current country radio. In service to the intense angst of the song, the wailing guitars and the mix of Bentley’s and Kacey Musgraves’ emotive vocals make this single a riveting sonic and emotional experience. - Leeann Ward

Laura Bell Bundy You and I

#37
“You and I”
Laura Bell Bundy

Individual rankings: #8 – Jonathan

Laura Bell Bundy goes more-Shania-than-Shania on a cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I” that aches and shakes in equal measure. Bundy’s music is best when she embraces her campiest impulses, so it makes perfect sense for her to take a signature hit by the most theatrical star in pop and lasso it into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe

Kenny Rogers Dolly Parton Old Friends

#36
“You Can’t Make Old Friends”
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

Individual rankings: #7 – Kevin

After several attempts to recreate the youthful playfulness of the classic “Islands in the Stream”, Rogers and Parton embrace their age and confront their own mortality. It’s an obvious truth that no matter how great a new friend is, they can’t replace the shared memories of someone you’ve known for a long time. Even if you’ve since parted ways, you still share a part of the other’s identity. How fitting that these two old friends are ours as well, making the entire proceedings that much more poignant. - Kevin Coyne

Steeldrivers; Rounder Records; Photo: David McClister

#35
“I’ll Be There”
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #7 – Leeann

It’s almost unheard of for a group to lose a lead singer as dynamic as Chris Stapleton and still be as strong as ever with a replacement. Gary Nichols, however, managed to seamlessly slip into the SteelDriver’s front spot with the newly revamped band’s first single, “I’ll Be There.” The song is deliciously haunting both in content and melody. - Leeann Ward

Charlie Worsham Want Me Too

#34
“Want Me Too”
Charlie Horsham

Individual rankings:  #7 – Dan

Imagine if your favorite Keith Urban song and your favorite Diamond Rio song were to meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pi-i-iiine. You might end up with something like Worsham’s second single, a lovestruck tail-wagger with Urban drive and Rio harmonies. Show me a cuter line from this year than “My heart’s skippin’ like a stone on the water!” - Dan Milliken

Taylor Swift Red

#33
“Red”
Taylor Swift

Individual rankings:  #6 – Dan

“Red” is a curious mix of brilliant similes (“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer”), plain ol’ descriptions posing as similes (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”), and logical pretzels twisted against their will into similes (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met”—what!). But Swift’s passion and command of melody pull the disparate pieces together, resulting in one of the year’s most unique and compulsively listenable singles. - Dan Milliken

Easton Corbin All Over the Roa

#32
“All Over the Road”
Easton Corbin
Individual rankings:  #6 – Ben

A delicious slice of steel-heavy nineties-esque escapist country bliss – complete with a breezy melody and an infectious, laid-back vocal performance. More please. - Ben Foster

Brad Paisley Beat This Summer

#31
“Beat This Summer”
Brad Paisley

Individual rankings: #11 – Ben; #19 – Leeann

With a hooky sing-along melody, addictive guitar riff, and a unique genre-bending arrangement, Paisley proves that summer hits don’t have to suck.  - Ben Foster

Mando Saenz Pocket Change

#30
“Pocket Change”
Mando Seanz

Individual rankings:  #5 – Sam

Texas radio stations jumped on this single when it was released, with good reason. Saenz has been known for his quiet, introspective ballads in the past, but “Pocket Change” starts with a slow burn before exploding into a full-blown rocker. “Where’s my Studebaker, I’m nobody’s pocket change,” he snarls as he walks/runs away from a bad love. - Sam Gazdziak

Ashley Monroe Weed instead of roses

#29
“Weed Instead of Roses”
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #16 – Tara, Jonathan; #20 – Sam

One woman’s plea to pump some action into her deflated marriage – via weed, leather and whips. It pops because it’s provocative, but it works because Monroe blends delightful charm with tongue-in-cheek boredom like the pro that she is.  - Tara Seetharam

Carrie underwood see you again

#28
“See You Again”

Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  #1 – Kevin

“See You Again” combines three of my favorite things: death, positivity, and power vocals. The entire premise that a person can look past their grief because their faith tells them they’ll be reunited with their lost loved one is hardly new to country music, but it’s rarely presented with such confident bravado and so little melancholy. I can’t think of another singer who could pull that off as believably as Underwood, who by the end of these proceedings makes me hope that the choir of angels in heaven sound like her insanely catchy backup singers do here. - Kevin Coyne

Old Crow Medicine Show Carry Me Back to Virginia

#27
“Carry Me Back to Virginia”
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings: #9 – Sam; #12 – Jonathan

For anyone who wants to discover Old Crow Medicine Show beyond “Wagon Wheel,” this song is an excellent primer. Lightning-fast fiddle and vocals from Ketch Secor with a song about the Civil War, and crack band of musicians that favor enthusiasm over the precision that is often found in bluegrass. They’ve been often imitated but never duplicated. - Sam Gazdziak

Kacey Musgraves Blowin' Smoke

#26
“Blowin’ Smoke”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings: #7 – Ben; #15 – Sam

For three glorious minutes, the voice of the working class is heard once again on country radio. Musgraves suitably renders the song with a rundown sigh of a performance, while a gritty, rumbling arrangement places the listener right in the midst of the smoky haze. - Ben Foster

Ashley Monroe You Got Me

#25
“You Got Me”
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings: #14 – Kevin; #15 – Ben; #16 – Leeann

On the surface, it’s obvious that this is about an entangled dysfunctional relationship, but listening deeper reveals that the relationship is with an addictive substance. Encased in a deep melancholy, the song cleverly and astutely captures the parallels with the two types of relational embattlements. The observations acknowledge that while the sources may be different, many of the general effects are the same. - Leeann Ward

Amos Lee Chill in the Air

#24
“Chill in the Air”
Amos Lee

Individual rankings:  #14 – Tara; #15 – Dan; #16 – Kevin

A smooth yet moody cocktail of country, folk, and soul that rides its long drawl into a sweet, simple chorus. Shoulda been a hit. - Dan Milliken

The Band Perry DONE

#23
“DONE.”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan; #15 – Tara

At a time when most contemporary country acts are aspiring to sound like arena rock, metal, and post-grunge bands that were terrible in the first place, The Band Perry at least had the good taste to blatantly rip off one of the best rock singles of the last decade for their hit “DONE.” - Jonathan Keefe

Tillis Morgan I Know What You Did Last Night

#22
“I Know What You Did Last Night”
Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan

Individual rankings: #10 – Kevin, Ben

They may be in their fifties, but make no mistake about it: Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan can still party down when they want to. Built around good-humored conversational interplay between two old friends, “I Know What You Did Last Night” is one of the freshest, most entertaining up-tempos sent to radio this year, and a reminder that Tillis and Morgan are still two of country music’s most vibrant talents.  - Ben Foster

Rhonda Vincent I'd Rather Hear I Don't Love You

#21
“I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)”
Rhonda Vincent

Individual rankings:  #9 – Ben; #10 – Leeann

Rhonda Vincent is always supreme whether she’s singing traditional bluegrass or, in this case, a good ol’ country weeper. Supported with the best kind of country acoustic instrumentation, Vincent’s voice satisfyingly leans into the heartbreak and desperation of a woman who is gripping a relationship that is obviously already dead. She knows it’s over, but her heart says that it’s not over until he literally says it’s over.  - Leeann Ward

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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2013 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

CU

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: American Young, “Love is War”

American Young Love is WarThere’s a country radio station in NYC proper for the first time in nearly twenty years. The last one went off the air before I was old enough to drive, so when I found out it existed, I immediately checked it out.

Then I immediately checked out. It’s not listenable to me. It’s playing all of today’s hits and those from the past couple of years, and sometimes a song that I like will come on, but it’s always sandwiched between filler that hurts my ears.

The thing about filler is it’s always been around, even in any of the handful of golden eras the genre has seen. My favorite era had “Independence Day” and “Gone Country” on the air at the same time, but you were gonna hear “Wink” and “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)” in between.

Today’s hits aren’t all that great to begin with, but the filler is plum terrible, and it’s so jarringly loud that it won’t allow you to let it fade into the background.  I’ve heard Justin Moore’s “Point at You” twice while getting into the car this week, and if I hadn’t switched to my iPod before switching from park to drive, my road rage would be notable even by New York City standards.

I say all this because American Young’s new single, “Love is War”, is the kind of filler that would keep me tuned into the country station, waiting to hear what was played next.  It sounds good from a distance.  Awesome arrangement, great instrumentation, twangy in a Civil Wars on their game/Band Perry on their meds kind of way.

It’s a really bland song though, with generic lyrics that don’t really say anything new or anything interesting about a topic that requires that you have new and interesting things to say if you’re going to write about it at all.   Love is war, it’s a battle, it’s a battlefield, yada, yada, yada.  George Jones and Pat Benatar noticed that, too.

But I would totally be on board with more of country radio sounding like this, even if it’s just the filler.

Grade: B

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Single Review: The Band Perry, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”

The Band PerryFor any other artist,  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” would be just as forgettable as it is for the Band Perry.  But given the unhinged creativity they usually show, it’s befuddlingly conventional.

Part of the trouble is the material itself.  There’s a really great lyric early on  that should serve as the foundation of the song’s message: “When you’re young you can fly, but we trip on clouds ’cause we get too high.  We grow up and then it’s gone. God only knows what we become.”    The rest of the song should be about the a-ha! moment that informs that lyric, and there are moments that get there.

But the song is weighed down by a chorus and hook that suggests that our narrator is looking more for the company of a one night stand, not someone to help figure out the meaning of life and time and all of that. It’s kinda like someone dropped “Need You Now” down in the middle of “Someone Somewhere Tonight.”

To make it work, the singer would really have to sell it.  Kimberly Perry doesn’t sell it, and the odd contours that usually make her sound so distinct and interesting are nowhere to be found.  The bland production doesn’t help matters, either.

The Band Perry’s weirder experiments don’t always work, but they’re always interesting.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” doesn’t work, but it’s not even interesting.

Written by Sarah Buxton, Rodney Clawson, and Chris Tompkins

Grade: C

 

 

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Single Review: Brandy Clark, “Stripes”

Brandy-ClarkBrandy Clark has many times shown that she’s one heck of a songwriter.  Recently, her writing talents have been heard on respectable cuts such as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,”  while her name appears all over the co-writer credits on Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Mercury Records debut Same Trailer Different Park.  Now we get to hear the woman get behind the mic herself with her recently released Brandy Clark EP and her debut single and video “Stripes” – a brash up-tempo number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Miranda Lambert album.

The song begins with a bang, opening line “You were lying in there with nothin’ on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde” reeling the listener in quickly.  Next thing we know, the narrator is cocking a pistol, and we’re beginning to wonder if we’re in for a murder ballad.

But she stops short of doing the deed – not in a display of mercy or conscience, but because our fashion-conscious narrator bristles at the thought of having to don a prison uniform, with Clark singing “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color, and if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearin’ one or the other.”  It’s a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme as Clark entertainingly captures the moment of catching one’s partner in the act.

Fortunately, “Stripes” doesn’t go so far as to fall into novelty territory, thanks in part to Clark’s fierce, simmering vocal rendering.  The fresh, engaging David Brainard-helmed production is a delight, with a jaunty drumbeat and honky-tonk piano lending added grit and punch to the song’s tale.

As the first radio bid from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, “Stripes” does not disappoint.  It’s an ambitious, energetic debut single that makes the prospect of a full-length Brandy Clark album (to be released later this year) even more enticing.

Grade:  A

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Singles Roundup – Band Edition: ZBB, The Henningsens, The Band Perry, The Steeldrivers, Train

zac brown band uncaged

Zac Brown Band, “Jump Right In”

“The Southern wind sings again an island lullaby!”  What a fun way to say, “Here’s the token ‘tropical’ single from this ZBB album!” But whatever. It sounds like Mario Party.

Written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durette, and Jason Mraz

Grade: B

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Henningsens American Beautiful

The Henningsens, “American Beautiful”

The long: It’s awesome to see a two-generation family band score a hit. And the potential is there: the song has a tight melody, and they wrote basically half of The Band Perry’s first album. But they sound like a Lady A tribute band here, and the lyrics are generic to the point of parody. Sorry; I’m tired of odes to That Special Girl – that anonymous one who’s sweet but fiesty! God-fearin’ but hell-raisin’! Pretty in a black dress OR blue jeans! Country as sweet tea!  It feels like a weird, heavy-handed ego stroke for the listener, who is naturally supposed to imagine herself as this exalted Supergirl-next-door. And things don’t get any better when Superguy takes over in the second verse.

The short: It’s called “American Beautiful.”

Written by Brett Beavers, Aaron Henningsen, Brian Henningsen, and Clara Henningsen

Grade: C-

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Band Perry Done

The Band Perry, “Done”

Speaking of them, I’m digging the upgraded ‘tude. This kiss-off can’t touch the craft or creative spark of “Better Dig Two,” but it’s got a dose of the same fire in the performance and production. Hopeful about the album.

Grade: B

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Steeldrivers Hammer Down

The SteelDrivers, “I’ll Be There”

I’m missing the fire from these reliables, though, particularly on a song with so much tasty spite. It kind of plods along; I wish they’d punched up the arrangement and lead vocal a bit. But you can’t argue with the harmonies when they hit the wailin’ B section.

Grade: B-

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Train Bruises

Train featuring Ashley Monroe, “Bruises”

Ohhh, TrainI believe this is crack #3 at the country market? After the Martina duet version of “Marry Me” and that banjo remix of “Hey, Soul Sister”? So many gifts, Train. We thank you.

Actually, I’d be fine if this one did find an audience – and not just because it’s got Ashley Monroe, although there’s no easier way to imbue your record with some extra warmth and humanity. It’s just a feel-good number. The production thumps along pleasantly, the interplay of voices is fun, and the premise feels real and relatable. You can’t take it too seriously, since this is a band that routinely fills sincere songs with lyrics like “Good to see you’re still beautiful; gravity hasn’t started to pull!” or “Leaving you makes me want to cry!” or “Looooses the vibe that separates!” (…?) But there’s still a lot to like.

Written by Patrick Monahan, Espen Lind, and Amund Björklund

Grade: B+

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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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Filed under Best of 2012