On a list where women get the short shrift, this brief section achieves gender parity.
Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
#1 | 1986
JK: The drama of this single feels so quintessentially 80s; it wouldn’t have worked outside of the era of Dallas and Dynasty. Which is one reason I don’t think it’s aged well at all. It belongs on the list based upon its impact at the time and on Reba’s overall career arc, moreso than as a timeless single on its own merit. About Right
KJC: This was the record that elevated Reba McEntire into superstar status. The music video, her first, has often been credited for her commercial breakthrough. Part of the reason that video worked so well, however, was the theatricality of both the lyric and McEntire’s performance of it. For the first time in her career, Reba went big, and it paid off. About Right
Taylor Swift, “Back to December”
#3 | 2010
KJC: Taylor Swift is such a massive pure pop star now that her country origin story seems like a distant memory. This is a good representation of her country years, although the country elements are muted at best. About Right
JK: She has a few better-written album tracks, but this is my pick for Swift’s best-written single. “When your birthday passed, and I didn’t call,” is such a perfectly-observed line, and it’s indicative of Swift’s strengths as a writer. Too Low
Loretta Lynn, “Blue Kentucky Girl”
#7 | 1965
JK: A rarity: A signature Loretta Lynn single that she didn’t actually write. You’d never know it from the conviction in her performance, though. About Right
KJC: You can credit Emmylou Harris for bringing this incredible single to lasting prominence. Harris brought more life to the verses, but Lynn’s Kentucky drawl make her take on the chorus the most effective one. About Right
Chris Young, “The Man I Want to Be”
#1 | 2009
KJC: A pure country performance that captures Young’s full potential, which arguably has gone unrealized in the decade since. About Right
JK: I seriously question if the Young who recorded this would feel this way about 2019 Young. A single that brims with promise he would quickly squander. Too High
Jo Dee Messina, “Stand Beside Me”
#1 | 1998
JK: Messina’s thin voice rarely pulled off ballads convincingly: swap this one, with its awkward meter and stilted phrasing, for the spirited “I’m Alright,” which was squarely in her wheelhouse as a performer. So Wrong (This Song)
KJC: I think that awkward meter and stilted phrasing are in service to the song, and the conflicting emotions of its narrator. This as close to “working class blues” as country got in the late nineties, with details like “I worked two jobs and I moved three times” capturing as much about the woman’s lived experience as her declarations of heartache and determined survival. Too Low
Ray Price, “Under Your Spell Again”
#5 | 1959
KJC: Fifties honky tonk Ray Price is always welcome. About Right
JK: I honestly didn’t know Price’s recording of this song prior to this list, but it’s a winner. How the Sirius XM crew decided to include it is a mystery, as are so many aspects of this whole endeavor. About Right
Carrie Underwood, “Cowboy Casanova”
#1 | 2009
JK: Underwood’s career will eventually be revisited through the lens of baffling choices of singles by her record labels. She’s recorded far, far better songs than this and has performed those songs with far more depth. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
KJC: Play On truly was the peak of baffling single choices. This one works well enough as a kickoff for the project, I guess, but she’d do this same idea a lot more effectively with “Good Girl,” which rendered this track completely unnecessary. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
Conway Twitty, “Fifteen Years Ago”
#1 | 1970
KJC: Conway Twitty wasn’t playing around when he first went country. He’d later incorporate more pop and soul elements after he was firmly established in the genre, but this one is as twangy as anything Hank Williams ever recorded. About Right
JK: Twitty deserves more credit for how effortlessly he can move between styles while still remaining definitively country; he was rarely so traditional as on this single, but he sounds perfectly natural. About Right
Dwight Yoakam, “Little Ways”
#8 | 1987
JK: Second-tier Yoakam is better than Aldean or Swindell at their peaks, so it’s not that “Little Ways” shouldn’t be here per se. But I’d bump this one for some of the exquisite singles of Yoakam’s post-radio era: “The Back Of Your Hand,” especially, or maybe “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” So Wrong (This Song)
KJC: Dwight Yoakam had a formula on his early records that got old quickly. A waste of an entry for a Hall of Famer in waiting. So Wrong (This Song)
Justin Moore, “Small Town USA”
#1 | 2009
KJC: He’s got a great twang and he’s singing about his genuine experiences, I’m sure. It’s just been done so many times before. So much better, too. Listen to “Small Town Saturday Night” and then this, and you’ll get a quick course on the importance of specificity in song lyrics. So Wrong (This Song)
JK: I literally just gave a mixed-to-favorable review of Moore’s new album, but this song is all of the demographic-baiting, trend-chasing nonsense that he’s spent the first part of his career recording. So Wrong (This Song)
I’ll note that the video of country music through the decades that plays on a loop at the Country Music Hall Of Fame includes a clip of this Reba McEntire selection. As your review states, there’s a “quintessentially 80s” vibe here. I’d rate this one higher.
“Back to December” is trash. It isn’t country and Taylor is ineffective at portraying herself in the wrong. She sounds fake. Which, admittedly, she is.
Do not take this the wrong way CountryKnight, as I get not liking the song but I don’t get going after Taylor Swift herself personally by calling her fake. Disliking the song and an artist’s music is fine, but I don’t get hating a music artist as a person.
Anyways,this is probably one of the better sets of 10. Nothing to out of place, and by that I mean there is nothing where I am pissed it made the list. Even if the appeal of Justin Moore is somewhat lost for me. Nice guy, I just find his music somewhat boring.
CountryKnight’s shtick is to trash female artists up and down at every opportunity. Not sure why he’s hanging around Country Universe, of all places. Perhaps he got lost on his way to an MRA meeting.
Glad to see your name pop up in the comments for the first time in a while!
Re. “Back To December”: This is one of two songs that Taylor has done (the other being “Begin Again”) where there’s a certain acoustic folk/country influence in there, a style where I wish she had gone some more, because it could be more artistically productive. It is also where she could up her game in terms of songwriting, and especially her voice, which elsewhere I still find very irritating to listen to.
At the risk of sounding like a “hater”, or expecting Taylor to be another Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt (a fool’s errand), I do think she can be better than she is; and subliminally, I think she probably knows it.
Thank you Jonathan. Been busy. Love this series, definitely fun to revisit some songs I loved and remember some other songs and why I did not like them.
I see Country Universe hasn’t changed much. Still no room for thoughts outside of groupthink. Anyone who does so is classified in ist terms and roundly mocked.
I like plenty of female country singers and my comments in past years have reflected that. I don’t just care for Swift, Twain, or the martyred Dixie Chicks. I also don’t like Aldean and the dozens of generic male singers. I have high country standards.
But that fact doesn’t fit your narrative. You could never handle dissension here. Cutting the Treacle was chased off for that reason.
And I do enjoy a good meeting about magnetic resonance angiogram. Who doesn’t?
Of course, that is a strange insult to use. How does one gets lost to a meeting (something that generally takes place in a physical location and that was certainly your intent) while commenting on a rarely updated website?
Everyone likes different viewpoints until an opposing one shows up. Especially those who thinks themselves the most enlightened. I noticed how you didn’t try to refute my points instead you attacked and slandered me. Real friendly.
Don’t beat around the bush. You know what you are saying. Just be brave and admit it.
I don’t hate Taylor Swift. Calling her fake doesn’t equal hate. I actually like a few of her post country music songs once she finally stopped pretending and embraced her musical muse. “Look at What You Made Me Do” is a jam.
Those who know me know I’ve been “mildly” obsessed with Taylor Swift ever since I first heard “Our Song.” But, I wholeheartedly agree with Erik’s comment: “I do think she can be better than she is; and subliminally, I think she probably knows it.”
Taylor Swift’s largest fan base has always been teenage girls, or at least that’s been my observation. In 13 years they’ve stuck by her through generational shifts. I’ve always thought she plays to this crowd to a large extent, at the expense of her age. She dumbs down her music for this audience opposed to growing and maturing as she ages. The Kanye West stuff hasn’t helped matters either, and dedicating the majority of an album to that feud a full year after it ended seemed to me to be a little too late. But she had to do it, in order to move on from the unfortunate situation.
Going pop hasn’t helped her at all. I was shocked when I first heard “Welcome To New York,” like, I couldn’t believe how thin it was lyrically. Like, why did it have to be so bad and beneath her? She’s a smarter and more articulate songwriter than some of what she’s done in collaboration with Jack Antonoff (I know he didn’t co-write or produce WTNY with her). Together they mostly create hooks, with annoying repetition, and not real songs.
She’s done some great work since going pop, but this move has led to some of the least mature and thinnest music she’s released to date. Would she love to write songs like she did in the Speak Now or Red eras? I think she probably would, but I get the sense she can’t. Like she’s not allowed to or whatever. If she had the freedom, I bet she would write more songs solo opposed to getting assistance from whoever produced the track.
It will be interesting to see where she goes from here. Will she continue to chase superstardom or go in a more artistic direction? Even she has said she wants to tour LOVER differently, more intimately, than her past few albums. We’ll see. Her BBC Radio 1 set last week was gorgeous. Her cover of Phil Collins’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is a revelation.
I’m also surprised no one has written a think-piece on comparing the LGBTQ references in “You Need To Calm Down” with the way she used the word gay in “Picture To Burn,” which was in such poor taste it had to be removed when the song was sent to country radio.
Thank you, Erik, for getting the gears turning in my head! I love Taylor Swift, a lot, but she’s not without some frustrating artistic shortcomings. She’s shown us she can do better.
@ Jon Pappalardo:
I think the ability to write more grown-up material and expand her vocal range and pitch are probably there for Taylor; and she could make use of them. Indeed, I think she would almost have to start using them with her very next album if she wants her career to last well into her thirties (she turns the big Three-O on December 13th). The real question, it seems to me, is whether the image marketer and businesswoman in her will let the potential Joni Mitchell/Linda Ronstadt artist in her out of the bag, and whether her fans will be able to accept such artistic growth. The business, such as it is now, always seems to want the Sure Thing, which Taylor is at the moment. But as the late, great film director Stanley Kubrick once said, “Nothing is as dangerous as a ‘sure thing’.”
“Stand Beside Me”: a secret anthem for gay men of a certain generation.
I remember at a specific point in time that you could tell someone was “family” if they included text from this song in their AOL profile.