Tag Archives: Zac Brown Band

A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

high-cotton-tribute-to-alabama-2013

Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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Single Review: Zac Brown Band, “Sweet Annie”

Zac Brown Band Sweet AnnieZac Brown Band’s laid back approach can make it easy to miss when they are actually digging deeper with their lyrics.

Their music often sounds designed to fade into the background, particularly on their radio singles, which usually land somewhere between faceless and mildly interesting, but rarely compelling in any meaningful way.

“Sweet Annie” manages to break out of their normal groove in a surprising way:   Zac Brown’s vocal performance.  Usually, he sings in a way that is designed to blend in with the instruments and backing vocalists.  On “Sweet Annie”, he gets in touch with his inner Ronnie Milsap, pushing himself with an emotive vocal that reinforces the message of the song.

It’s a perfect fit, given that the song is all about a man who has been stuck in the same rut for too long, and is now trying to convince his love that he’s going to change his ways and leave the bottle behind.  When he really lets loose at the mic, the band follows his lead, with a surprisingly prominent fiddle playing two punch to Brown’s one.

Written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrett, Sonia Leigh and John Pierce

Grade: B+

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Single Review: Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kind of Night”

ThatsMyKindofNight_ Luke BryanLet’s start with the positives.

It has a banjo. I like banjo.

It has hand claps. I like hand claps.

It has an energetic vocal performance. I like that.

Unfortunately, it also has unabashedly dumb, mind-numbing lyrics that insult the history of the country genre and the intelligence of its fans, shamelessly recycling cliché after cliché right from the opening verse – as if the rest of the world should care about the narrator’s ice cold beer, jacked-up truck, hot country girlfriend, and his musical-whiplash-inducing country-hip-hop mix tape. Feeding on yesterday’s leftovers that were never any good to begin with is something that I do not like at all.

Sorry, Luke, but Zac Brown was right. Thanks for the dignified genre representation, Entertainer of the Year.

Written by Dallas Davidson, Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley

Grade: D-

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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

Listen here

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-

Listen here

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-

Listen here

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+

Listen here

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Single Review: Zac Brown Band, "Goodbye In Her Eyes"

zac brown band uncagedAfter narrowly missing the Top 10 with “The Wind,” Zac Brown Band returns to the summit of the country charts with “Goodbye In Her Eyes” – a release which fortunately shows the band able to get back into the good graces of country radio without stooping to compromise

or pandering.

“Goodbye In Her Eyes” is a simple, but undeniably effective rumination on an impending breakup.  The title hook is straightforward, yet memorable.  The arrangement is crisp, uncluttered, and best of all, in fine service to the song, creating a sense of foreboding that mirrors the narrator’s own approaching heartbreak.  Brown’s vocal delivery exudes sincerity while staying out of the way of the lyric.  Though the song comes to a dramatic crescendo near the end, it feels not like needless melodrama, but rather like a release of the tension that’s been mounting up to that point.

A competent performance of a well-crafted song, “Goodbye In Her Eyes” serves as a reminder that even amid the general banality of mainstream country music, sincerity and creativity can still be found even in a core radio act with a pair of platinum albums under the belt.  “Goodbye In Her Eyes” thus maintains Zac Brown Band’s standing as one of the few champions of quality on the FM country radio dial.

Written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Driskell Hopkins, and Sonia Leigh

Grade:  A-

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CU's Top Albums of 2012

As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe.  In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots.  What did we miss?  That’s where you, our readers, come in.  Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.

 

#40
The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake

Martha Redbone Roots Project

Individual rankings:  Sam – #12

The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper.  However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic.  Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs.  The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout.  For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”

#39
Morning Comes
 
Cuff the Duke

Individual rankings:  Sam #11

A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year.  Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album.  There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”

#38
New Wild Everywhere

Great Lake Swimmers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #9

Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio.  Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion.  “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”

#37
That’s Just Me
Teea Goans

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8

With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike.  She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.”  Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair.  What more could a country music lover ask for? - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”

#36
Fear Fun
Father John Misty

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7

Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana.  To that end, the album’s title is misleading:  What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”

#35
Voice of Ages

The Chieftains

Individual rankings:  Sam – #7

To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)

#34
Restless
Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #7

It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996’s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”

#33
Home
Dierks Bentley

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #11;  Sam #20

Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”

#32
Derelict
John Kraus and the Goers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5

When he’s

not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”

avett brothers carpenter

#31
The Carpenter

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4

The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”

#30
Unfinished Business
Wanda Jackson

Individual rankings:  Ben – #10;  Jonathan – #15

On 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”

#29
Nashville, Volume 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart

Individual rankings:  Sam – #6;  Ben – #19

Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition.  A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment.  - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”

#28
Original Soundtrack:  The Hunger Games –  Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Jonathan – #11

A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”

#27
Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters

Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #16

Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”).  Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”

#26
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith

Leeann – #6;  Dan – #10

Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project.  This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity.  In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of  straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs.  As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent.  Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”

#25
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #17

From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room.  On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun.  Simply delightful. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”

#24
And So It Goes
Don Williams

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Ben – #11;  Dan – #16

Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom.  Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier.  A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”

#23
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6;  Dan – #11;  Leeann – #20

A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee PusherCarry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”

#22
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;   Dan – #9

It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”

#21
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Dan – #6

Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music.  On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”

#20
AM Country Heaven
Jason Eady

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #5;  Dan – #12;  Ben – #12

Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”

#19
Edens Edge
Edens Edge

Individual rankings:  Tara – #6;  Kevin – #9;  Dan – #14

Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s.  The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances.  Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”

#18
Sun Midnight Sun
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #2;  Jonathan – #17;  Leeann – #18

It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”

#17
Bear Creek
Brandi Carlile

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #2;  Dan – #3

While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. - Leeann Ward

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

#16
Cabin Fever
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Jonathan – #4

Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ‘em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)

#15
Leaving Eden

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2;  Leeann – #10;  Dan – #15

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once.  Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result.  Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common.  In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing.  Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track.  Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”

#14
For the Good Times
The Little Willies

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Jonathan – #12;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #20

By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along.  The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Remember Me,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”

#13
Tornado
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Jonathan – #5;  Ben – #17

On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement.  Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.”  With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets.  While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”

#12
High, Wide & Handsome
The Trishas

Individual rankings:  Dan – #4;  Kevin – #6; Sam – #7

Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”

#11
Blown Away

Carrie Underwood 

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Tara – #5;  Ben – #16

The hardest-working woman in country music.  She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place.  She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album.  What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before.  She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being.  “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.”  Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”

#10
Up All Night
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Dan – #5;  Tara – #7

Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ‘em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”

 

#9
Long Ride Home
Darrell Scott

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Leeann – #7;  Dan – #7

It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music.  But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them.  A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties.  Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years.  His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material.  Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.”  Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly.  I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.”  Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio.  Fingers crossed. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”

#8
Uncaged
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Leeann – #12;  Ben – #15;  Sam – #19

Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with.  Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic.  In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”

#7
KIN:  Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #7

As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand.  After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on.  Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year.  While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is.  However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs.  Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)

#6
100 Proof
Kellie Pickler

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Ben – #7;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #18

Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal.  With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).”  With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. - Ben Foster

 Top Tracks:  “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”

#5
Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Kevin – #5;  Ben – #14;  Leeann – #19;  Jonathan – #19

Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision.  From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy.  Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. – Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”

#4
Wreck & Ruin
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

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

Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008’s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”

#3
Calling Me Home
Kathy Mattea

Individual rankings:  Ben – #1;  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #8;  Tara – #8;  Jonathan – #13

Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project.  Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree.  By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”


#2
Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Jonathan – #1;   Leeann – #3;  Ben – #6

She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”

#1
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Jamey Johnson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Ben – #3;  Leeann – #8;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10

Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault.  His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity.  Living for a Song, then, does something momentous:  It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.

Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once.  Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence.  Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.

Does it matter?  The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers.  Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012:  It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”

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Filed under Best of 2012

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

2012 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

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

Entertainer of the Year 

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Vocalist of the Year 

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male Vocalist of the Year

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocal Group of the Year 

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocal Duo of the Year

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

Will Win:

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

Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.

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

Dan: La la la.

Tara: So pointless.

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

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

New Artist of the Year

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

Jonathan: Absolutely not.

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

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

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song of the Year

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single of the Year 

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!

Musical Event of the Year 

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Video

of the Year

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

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

Musician of the Year 

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

Will Win:

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

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

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

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

Leeann: I continue to root for the steel guitar.

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Filed under CMA Awards

2012 CMA Nominations

The list of nominees for the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards has been released.  Eric Church had a big breakthrough this past year, and such is reflected in the nominee list – Church leads the pack with five nominations.  Power couple Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert follow with four each, including a shared Song of the Year nod for their co-write “Over You.”

What’s your take on this year’s field of CMA nominees? Whose nominations were deserved, and whose were not? Who got snubbed? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

The live presentation airs Thursday, November 1 at 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  The Country Universe Staff Picks & Predictions will be released the week of the show.  Feel free to join us on show night for some live-blogging fun!

Entertainer of the Year 

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift

Who’s in:  Kenny Chesney
Who’s out:  Keith Urban

No real surprises here.  This year we swapped out Urban for Chesney, but all of these nominees have been here at least once before.

Female Vocalist of the Year

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Who’s in:  Kelly Clarkson
Who’s out:  Sara Evans

Well, I was hoping for some new blood in this category, and that’s definitely what I got.  Pop crossover star Kelly Clarkson scores her first nomination in the Female Vocalist field, displacing Sara Evans.  There will likely be some amount of upset over Clarkson receiving such an accolade, as she had one #21-peaking country hit in the past year with “Mr. Know It All,” but has yet to release a full-length country album.  And…that makes her one of the top five leading female vocalists in the country format?  Okay…

Male Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Who’s in:  Luke Bryan, Eric Church
Who’s out:  Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley

Bryan and Church’s recent career strides are rewarded

with their first nominations in the always-competitive Male Vocalist race.

Vocal Group of the Year

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Zac Brown Band

Who’s in:  Eli Young Band
Who’s out:  Rascal Flatts (!!!)

Eli Young Band scores a pair of huge radio hits, and thus squeezes out a former staple of the Vocal Group race.

Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Big & Rich, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  Montgomery Gentry, Steel Magnolia

New Artist of the Year

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Lee Brice, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  The Band Perry (won), Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Chris Young (So, everyone except Thompson Square)

Album of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
    Produced by Jeff Stevens and Mark Bright
  • Eric Church, Chief
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
    Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
    Produced by Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten, and Jon Randall Stewart
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
    Produced by Paul Worley and Lady Antebellum

Song of the Year (Awarded to songwriters)

  • Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart”
    Written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Written by Dave Barnes
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Written by Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Single of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
    Produced by Michael Knox
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Produced by Scott Hendricks
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Produced by Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Produced by Jay Joyce

Musical Event of the Year

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

Music Video of the Year (Awarded to artist and director)

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Directed by Peter Zavadil
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
    Directed by Shaun Silva
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Directed by Trey Fanjoy
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Directed by Declan Whitebloom
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
    Directed by Michael Salomon

Musician of the Year

Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

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Album Review: Zac Brown Band, <i>Uncaged</i>

Zac Brown Band
Uncaged

Uncaged  may be the product of studio recording sessions, but it pulses with the energy of a live set.

That much is evident right from the bongo drums and whistle hook that open the album on “Jump Right In.”  Immediately afterward, the title track lays down a heavy arena-rock groove that was obviously made for a live setting.  Needless to say, the band’s eclectic musical stylings will not suit every listener’s personal taste, while traditionalist country music fans will find relatively little to celebrate on this record.   Regardless, it remains obvious that, of all the bands currently in heavy rotation on country radio, few are as fully developed as an actual band as Brown and his cohorts.

Yet Uncaged would not be the success that it is if not for the high quality of Brown’s songwriting, consistently characterized by unaffected sincerity, straightforwardness, and naturalness of flow.  “Goodbye In Her Eyes” begins with the line “I could tell that it was over when her lips met mine/ It was an emptiness in her voice, hesitation when she smiled” and heads from there to “She’d found what she’d been looking for, and I knew it wasn’t me,” while the backing instruments swell with a rising sense of urgency, making the track a clear standout in lyrical construction as well as overall song structure.

The weakest track on the album is called – wait for it – “Island Song,” and sounds like just about every other “island song” pervading country music.  It generally brings nothing new to the tiki bar, save for a painfully affected fake Jamaican accent on Brown’s part, while the aforementioned “Jump Right In” draws on similar reggae influences, but does so with a greater level of personality.  Likewise, “Sweet Annie” is a solid song on its own merits, but one that sounds a little too much like a retread of last year’s hit “Colder Weather,” both lyrically and melodically.

Lead single and current Top 20 hit “The Wind” is easily one of the best and coolest-sounding singles to make it to radio airwaves this year.  It’s one of the few tracks on the album that scans unmistakably as country music, but one that nods to genre conventions without compromising the band’s distinct sense of identity.  The band taps into a smooth jazz vibe with the Trombone Shorty collaboration “Overnight” – a sultry come-on lyric that could have scanned as embarrassingly campy if delivered through a lesser performance, but one that Brown manages to sell with infectious gusto.

While the band’s influences run the gamut from Alan Jackson to the Eagles to Jimmy Buffett to Bob Marley – and this album alone includes collaborations with Amos Leigh, Sonia Leigh, and Jason Mraz – Uncaged still manages to sound first and foremost like a Zac Brown Band album.  The effortless charm of Brown’s singing and songwriting, not to mention the energy of the band’s musicianship, creates a common unifying thread that runs throughout all the genre styles experimented with through the course of the set.

It’s consistently clear How do u buy propecia in canada that, according to the Zac Brown Band’s musical approach, it’s not about genres.  It’s not about radio formats.  It’s not about pleasing one’s chosen demographic.  It’s about music, plain and simple.  As a result, Uncaged is an unshakably confident, ambitious-sounding record that refuses to condescend to its listeners, and it thus may be just the thing to impart a shot of authenticity to mainstream country music.

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