Posts Tagged ‘The Steeldrivers’

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

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

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

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

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#20
Rubberband
Charlie Worsham

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

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

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

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#19
Silver Bell
Patty Griffin

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

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

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

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#18
Honky Tonk
Son Volt

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

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

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

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

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

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

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

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#16
My Favorite Picture of You
Guy Clark

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

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

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

Holly Williams The Highway

#15
The Highway

Holly Williams

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

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

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

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

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

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

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

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#13
High Top Mountain
Sturgill Simpson

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

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

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

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

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

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

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

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

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

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

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

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

The Mavericks

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

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

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

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

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

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

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

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

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

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

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

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

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

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

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

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

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

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

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

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

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

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

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

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

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

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

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

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

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

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

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

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

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

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

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

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

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#2
Spitfire
LeAnn Rimes

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

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

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

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#1
12 Stories
Brandy Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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

Monday, December 30th, 2013

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:

Single Review: Chris Stapleton, “What Are You Listening To?”

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

chrisstapletonBest known as the former frontman of The SteelDrivers and a prolific songwriter, Chris Stapleton is carving out an impressive niche on country radio, far from the band’s bluegrass sound. His first single blends blues and soul, nodding to the record era with Tony Brown’s subdued, crackling production.

Songs about songs are common these days, but this one twists the formula. While music serves as catharsis for both characters, it mostly helps materialize Stapleton’s desperation over that painful distance – figuratively and literally – between him and the emotions of someone who’s no longer his. It’s a clever way to convey heartbreak, and an impassioned one in his hands. With his voice alone, he spins the bridge’s simple question of whether his ex is on an outbound plane or a sunny interstate into striking anguish.

That’s Stapleton’s real offering to country radio: a reminder that the power of a vocal performance can’t be underestimated, even in a genre whose heart and soul is so closely tied to narrative. Hum the base melody of “What Are You Listening To?” and it’s as mild as a children’s lullaby. Hear it with Stapleton’s embellishments, and it’s as crushing as his pain – dipping and breaking and pulling and surging until you’re right there inside his circling thoughts.

Stapleton isn’t the first to bring vocal heft to modern country radio – see: Zac Brown, Chris Young and Randy Houser - but his attempt feels more honest and less tainted by the parameters of his audience, especially in the acoustic performance below. In a year lacking smart, thoughtful releases by male artists, that authenticity makes “What Are You Listening To?” all the more remarkable.

Written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton  

Grade: A-

Listen: What Are You Listening To?

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

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

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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Grammy Awards 2011: Staff Picks & Predictions

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time of year again: the 2011 Grammy Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Country music has its hand in the Grammy pot via major nominations for Lady Antebellum, performances by Miranda Lambert, Lady A and Martina McBride, and appearances by Keith Urban, Zac Brown, Blake Shelton and Kris Kristofferson. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your own thoughts, and stop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs - Dan
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Will Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Kevin: In a field of newer artists, Eminem is the established veteran that is overdue for this award. It helps that he also made the best album of his career, as well as of the five nominees.

Dan: I could actually see Lady A coming out on top, since they’ve moved a lot of units and are the least divisive act here. But Recovery was a big comeback, and NARAS likes to use this award as a lifetime achievement thing. I don’t like that tendency, though; I’d rather we just reward the best set. To me, that was Arcade Fire’s ambitious concept album.

Tara: I really respect The Suburbs and really dig Recovery. Both are deserving, but Eminem probably has the edge with NARAS for the reasons stated above. (PS – I’m still not over it. TEENAGE DREAM?)

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You” - Dan, Tara
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” - Kevin
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”

Will Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You”
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: Perhaps it’s an instinctual reaction as a native New Yorker, but I still get chills every time I hear “Empire State of Mind.” Jay-Z’s casual “Long live the World Trade” in the second verse perfectly captures how our city moved briskly forward after 9/11 like we always do, but we haven’t forgotten it.

No Urban or Hip-Hop record has ever won this award, so it pains me to predict that Lady Antebellum will triumph over four better records. I hope I’m wrong.

Dan: Cee Lo’s viral novelty hit was one of last year’s biggest delights. I could see this award going to any track but “Nothin’ On You,” but suspect voters will probably go with the least edgy track.

Tara: I could make an argument for four of the five songs here, but I can’t peel myself away from Green’s personality-packed throwback hit that practically begs you to love it. And do I. I agree with Dan and Kevin, though, that Lady A will take this.

Song of the Year

Should Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: I think the biggest hurdle for “The House That Built Me” was getting the nomination. It really stands out in this field. It used to be rare for the Song victor to not be nominated for Record, but it has happened three times in the last seven years, including last year.

Tara: I’d honestly be happy to see any of these songs win. I’ll back “The House That Built Me” and just take a guess that the voters will, too.

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons - Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Esperanza Spalding

Will Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Esperanza Spalding

Kevin: I dig Mumford & Sons the most, but Drake seems to be the guy to beat.

Dan: I think Mumford has the most potential going forward. They’re got a dark-horse shot at the win, too, though Drake does seem like the most logical choice. Bieber’s by far the biggest name right now, but NARAS didn’t give it to tween-fave forerunners Hanson or Jonas Brothers, so…

Tara: Ditto. Although I have an unexplainable inkling that the Bieber might nab the award.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song - Dan
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution

Will Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now – Dan
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution - Kevin, Tara, Leeann

Kevin: I think Bentley made the best record, and perhaps the slew of collaborators will help raise its profile with voters. Usually the country album nominated for overall Album wins this award, but I’m thinking that Lambert’s recent awards streak will continue here.

Dan: I pick Johnson by a nose, but genuinely like every album here besides Need You Now. Hoping Kevin’s right about that one.

Leeann: Like Kevin said, Bentley deserves to win and I hope he does, but I think Lambert’s album may win due to accessibility and her reputation for artistic integrity.

Tara: Up on the Ridge and Revolution both hit my sweet spot: they straddle the line between reverent and relevant and make me genuinely excited about country music’s future. Bentley’s album is the better of the two (and the best of the bunch) – but I think Lambert’s will pick up the most votes.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Will Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Kevin: This is Lambert’s best shot at a Grammy. Underwood will threaten, as always, but I think the strength of this song makes it tough to beat.

Leeann: Lambert’s signature song is the strongest and likely most long-lasting of the bunch.

Tara: Lambert and Underwood turn in two of the most emotive, powerful performances of their careers, but “The House That Built Me” is undeniably the better song. Since Underwood’s Grammy streak seems to be up for now, I think the voters will side with Lambert.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)” - Kevin, Leeann
  • David Nail, “Turning Home” - Dan
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around”
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”  - Tara

Will Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)”
  • David Nail, “Turning Home”
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”

Kevin: I am not going to complain about Urban winning again for my favorite single from his last two albums. But Toby Keith is way overdue in this category, and he’s nominated for one of his best vocal performances to date.

Dan: Nail’s nuanced performance brought what could have been a very rote song to life. And his career could use the boost.

Leeann: I think the Grammy voters will reflexively give the award to Keith Urban, but Toby Keith’s song is the most poignant of the nominees.

Tara: Urban’s got his hold on this category, but I’m in Young’s corner. His slow-burning hit is as charming as it is sexy, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off. And that voice.

Best Duo/Group Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”- Tara
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die” - Kevin, Leeann

Will Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die”

Kevin: I think it’s a race between Lady Antbellum and Zac Brown Band, with LA in the lead. But the SteelDrivers get the annual “song I discovered because it was nominated for a Grammy and fell in love with after hearing it” award from me.

Leeann: The SteelDriver’s song is my favorite with Little Big Town at a close second, but I suspect that Lady A won’t be shut out for such a hugely popular radio hit across the board.

Tara: Dear NARAS: since “Single Ladies” got screwed over for ROTY last year, please show Little Big Town some love for their crazy awesome countrified version. It’s just as good…maybe even better?

Best Country Collaboration with Vocals

Should Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Will Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Kevin: Best collaboration in a very long time. Love hearing an artist from my youth playing elder statesman so well.

Leeann: It’s difficult for me to imagine that “As She’s Walking Away” won’t be rewarded for both its popularity and the significance of the still active veteran, Alan Jackson, dispensing wisdom to the up-and-coming bright stars of country music in the Zac Brown Band.

Tara: I love the groove of “Bad Angel,” but its collaboration isn’t nearly as dynamic nor as fitting as that of “As She’s Walking Way.” I can’t imagine any “wise man” but Jackson pulling up a stool next to Brown in this song.

Best Country Instrumental Performance

Should Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” – Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Will Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Kevin: Punch Brothers are approaching Nickel Creek levels of awesomeness. Possibly exceeding them.

Leeann: Kevin’s right. Even as someone who isn’t typically fond of instrumentals, I dig those of the Punch Brothers.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — written by Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — written by Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — written by Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — written by Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — written by Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — written by Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: My heart is owned by “If I Die Young”, but I think that “The House That Built Me” is objectively the best song.

Leeann: While The Band Perry’s song sounds the coolest, the writing for “The House That Built Me” is clear frontrunner for the best song of the year.  It deserves and likely will be recognized as such, especially since it was both very critically acclaimed and successful as a single.

Tara: No question “The House That Built Me” is the best written song of the group, and I think it’ll be recognized as such.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless – Kevin

Will Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle – Kevin
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless

Kevin: Kudos to Loveless for her nomination, but I like the SteelDrivers set more.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music – Dan, Kevin
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

Will Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone - Kevin

Kevin: So I think Staples is nominated for an awesome gospel album and Nelson for an awesome country album. This category is confusing.

The Steeldrivers, The Steeldrivers

Monday, December 1st, 2008

The SteelDrivers
The SteelDrivers

With their eponymous debut, The Steeldrivers have delivered a stirring symphony of haunting rhythms and clever stories that are classified as bluegrass.  But the five-piece band, a collection of veteran musicians based in Nashville, isn’t constricted by that genre’s time-tested strategies. In the spirit of bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe, their work transcends labels, borrowing liberally from Americana, blues and country in an mix that alters the direction of contemporary bluegrass.

The band’s central figure is Chris Stapleton, one of Music Row’s finest songwriters and a gripping vocal talent.  He’s an imposing figure on record with a bluesy howl that uncovers the brilliance in every murder ballad and forlorn love song that it meets. Joined with these stringband stylings, his voice is free to roam. The Steeldrivers is filled with pessimism, drenched in the rich, resonant harmonies of Stapleton and his bandmates.

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