Today, we introduce a new recurring feature that merges the roundtable discussion format of our Sirius 1000 posts with our long-running commitment to single reviews.
We’ve noticed that as time has gone on, our year-end lists have been featuring more and more entries that were never discussed on the site during the year. Even us writers realize we’ve missed some great stuff when the lists are published. It’s also gotten harder to keep up with mainstream singles.
So this feature works like this: each participating writer nominates two songs for consideration, and all of the entry’s writers give a review and letter grade. This week, I nominated singles from Kane Brown and Keith Urban, while Jonathan nominated singles from Miranda Lambert and Amythyst Kiah, and Zack nominated singles from Hailey Whitters and Ian Noe.
Amazingly, each writer had one of their nominations receive straight As.
We are open to suggestions from readers as well, so feel free to nominate singles for consideration in the comments section or via email.
Let’s get started!
New Single Roundup: January 31, 2022
Written by Adam Craig, Jaxson Free, and Josh Hoge
KJC: It’s early in 2022, but I will be surprised if I love another single more than this by the end of the year. If a better one comes along, it will have to top this line, which I still can’t quite get over, dozens of listens later: “I’ve never been a somber soul, but part of me ain’t here no more, and I’ve been trying to find him ever since.”
“Whiskey Sour” is a pure country ballad in the tradition of Alan Jackson, with sparse country instrumentation and lyrics that prioritize emotional impact over exact rhyming. His heartbroken vocal is largely restrained until the dam bursts in the bridge, but you can hear his pain and vulnerability throughout the song. It’s the best effort yet from an artist I enthusiastically support, and it makes my anticipation for Kane Brown’s upcoming studio album even stronger than it already was. A.
JK: The line Kevin highlighted is the moment on which “Whiskey Sour” transforms from a surprising but effective trad-country pivot into an all-timer. This is as extraordinary a record as any country A-lister has released in the 18 years I’ve been writing about country music. If, say, Jason Isbell or Joshua Ray Walker had written that exact line, there are an awful lot of people who’d be falling over themselves to hail their songwriting brilliance as a fait accompli once again. Brown didn’t write the line, but he had the wherewithal to record it and to deliver it with a real sense of weight that few, if any, of his contemporaries on country radio could hope to match, not that they’d ever bother to record a song like this in the first place. A month in, “Whiskey Sour” is my most-played song of 2022, and if anything in the remainder of the year betters it, somehow? Wow. A
ZK: Yep, going to have to echo the consensus with this one. Kevin made an Alan Jackson comparison, and I think the conversational tone and restrained approach could warrant one to Randy Travis, as well. Warm neotraditional country music that feels familiar in tone and content, but pulls from a tried and true formula that’s comforting and just, well, really damn great. I can’t really add much beyond that – Brown proved he could deliver modern greatness with “One Mississippi,” and “Whiskey Sour” is a nice tribute to what paved the way for it. A.
“Y’all Means All”
Written by Luke Dick, Miranda Lambert, and Shane McAnally
JK: Damning with the faintest of praise, perhaps, to say that this is Lambert’s best single since “Tin Man,” “Y’All Means All” never fully makes up its mind as to whether or not it’s meant to be taken at face value. Since there’s no such thing as intentional camp, that, “Yasss kween / Go, queen / Dip it like a Dairy Queen,” line is a bridge too far, but the actual hook (“Out here in the country, honey / Y’all means all”) is perfectly constructed, and Lambert sings it in a way that suggests she means it. But I also wonder about how Laura Bell Bundy would have absolutely nailed this assignment.
While she’s taken some heat over problematic comments about appropriating Mexican culture for profit, the effort Lambert has put into creating an anthem for inclusion here matters from an A-list country star. That it’s catchier and better produced than anything off Wildcard makes it something of a rebound for her, and that matters, too. B+.
ZK: She’s been all over the map these past few years … in terms of her contributions to both her solo and collaborative efforts and the quality of them. As Jonathan states, certain lines put this a bit over the top, but the delivery is surprisingly underplayed to get the message and hook across effectively. If nothing else, it’s one of her most infectious and groove-heavy tunes in quite some time. I always welcome more harmonica. This would have passed me by otherwise; I’m glad it didn’t. B.
KJC: I am thrilled that this song exists and I am happy for the strength and encouragement it will lend to those who need to hear it. I echo Jonathan’s comment that Laura Bell Bundy would’ve nailed this, but I’m not sure anyone who needed to hear it would’ve heard it. Lambert’s positioning in the industry as a mainstream artist without notable leanings to the left gives this a better chance of it being heard by someone who needs to.
The Dairy Queen line is cringe but I don’t think anyone has ever captured the simplicity of affirming gender identity better than this: “If you’re torn between the Y’s and X’s, you ain’t gotta play with the hand you’re dealt.” B.
“Everything She Ain’t”
Written by Bryan Simpson, Ryan Tyndell, and Hailley Whitters
ZK: I normally loathe songs like these – ones where a protagonist clearly still holds feelings for a party who’s moved on and tries to encourage them to break up with their new partner, because reasons. It’s often toxic, petty, and not the least bit endearing to listen through. Old Dominion’s “Break Up With Him” is an example of how not to approach the theme.
This feels different, however, even if I’m still not that wild about the premise. Hailey Whitters’ more noticeably straightforward yet still slightly melancholic presentation makes this all feel more like wishful thinking, if anything. And the songwriting is clever enough to be tow the line between playful and regretful over what might have been. I’m not quite sold on Whitters as an actual singer, but all you really need is the song sometimes, right? B.
KJC: It does feel like a melancholy spin on “You Belong With Me,” doesn’t it?
But as Roger Ebert once said about film, I always say about music: “It’s not what a song is about, but how it is about it.”
Whitters is suitably sad and adrift in her delivery of the lyric. For me, it feels like she’s making a case that she fully expects to be dismissed out of hand, if she ever makes it to him at all. B.
JK: What’s interesting to me about this song is it comes across as fully interior to Whitters’ narrator: I don’t buy for a second that she ever intends to say a word of this out loud to another soul. The lyrics are clever in a self-conscious way– what a delight to hear literally any country music couple other than Johnny and June name-checked– that suggests what we’re hearing comes at the tail end of weeks upon weeks of rehearsal by her inner monologue, and this is just today’s iteration of how she’s framing her own insecurities as a reaction to the woman who was chosen instead of her. I like that well enough as a spin on this dead-and-buried trope, to the extent that it makes me wish I liked Whitters’ flat singing voice a whole lot more than I do. Maybe if Little Big Town or Mickey Guyton covered this, it’d be stronger. As is, a solid B.
Written by Eric Paslay, Brad Tursi, Keith Urban, and Jennifer Wayne
KJC: If nothing else, “Wild Hearts” is a reminder of how captivating a singer Keith Urban can be. He’s more than two decades into his recording career at this point, and he still sounds fantastic.
The material itself is generic here. Guy follows his dream, becomes a star, and encourages others to do the same. It lacks the specificity to make it as compelling and inspirational as it wants to be, despite a bit of effort early on about going to a concert with his dad.
It’s not the return of the artist that I once found so innovative and engaging, but it’s better than most of his recent efforts. B-.
JK: Oh, the talk-singing in the second verse of this is just so cringe. As much as I’ve gone to bat for him in the past, his Questionable Taste Era has now lasted far longer than his artistic peak in the early-to-mid aughts. At this point, records like this one, not “Somebody Like You” and “Making Memories of Us,” are actually the norm in his overall catalogue. This one at least has a fairly robust melody, so it’s not as inert as some of his recent hits, but there’s no shape to the arrangement or dynamics here. Intensity-wise, it starts at an 8 and just stays there for what feels a hell of a lot longer than three minutes. C-.
ZK: This has grown on me since my initial review; I think it’s just nice to hear a Keith Urban song with some actual guitar work again. And for fluff, this is certainly passable … but I remember when he used to knock this kind of song out of the park on charisma alone, be it in the delivery or the writing. It’s far better than anything he’s released since maybe the Fuse era, but I’m still not quite feeling that wild spark just yet. B-
“Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Written by Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner
JK: A song that’s often cited as the best single of the 80s– I’d have it in my top 20, but the correct answer to that is “9 to 5” and always has been– shouldn’t be a surprising choice for a cover, but I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming from Amythyst Kiah. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Thematically, this is right in her considerable wheelhouse, and her approach to the arrangement places the focus on her delivery of the anguished lyrics. What an absolute wonder this woman is. A
Oh, and if you thought this was the extent of her mastery of mopey alt-rock covers? Try this one.
ZK: Another gem that would have passed me by, if not for this feature! I think what I find most interesting is how well this works naturally within Amythyst Kiah’s wheelhouse, especially coming off of last year’s Wary + Strange. It’s a song that doesn’t feel like a cover, which, I think, is among the highest of compliments one can say about these endeavors. That entire album was a contemplative mindwarp meant to return to some form of normalcy, and that’s the same principle applied here – just filtered through a more universal scope. She’s just too good. A
KJC: I have some musical blind spots, where my knowledge of something’s significance can’t override the fact that I don’t enjoy listening to it. Led Zeppelin fall into that category, alongside most seventies rock cut from that cloth. So do The Clash and Joy Division. They get my respect, but they don’t get my listening time.
But oh, how I love Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven.” And when Dwight Yoakam covered “Train in Vain,” the song made sense to me for the first time. But I never, ever thought someone could do something with “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Amythyst Kiah did. I’m in awe that there was an achingly beautiful acoustic ballad waiting underneath the layers of early eighties industrial indie rock or whatever the hell Joy Division was. In the hallmark of a great cover, it’s even made me revisit the original with a new understanding and appreciation for it.
God, she’s good. A
Written by Ian Noe
ZK: Ian Noe has stated that his sophomore project is slated to be far more upbeat than its predecessor – the grizzly and absolutely essential Between the Country from 2019 – and, right off of that excellent, slow-rolling, well-defined groove driven by the bass and pedal steel and further bolstered by the barroom piano and organ, if “Pine Grove” is his idea of that, I’m all onboard thus far. Content-wise, I don’t want to say this is yet another song to draw inspiration from events of recent years, but when I hear a song about isolating one’s self on the mountains with a few close friends and family away from civilization … I mean, I have to wonder.
I will say it’s a song that will likely work better in context as the album opener above all else, but it also helps that this doesn’t take itself that seriously. It’s playful, self-aware and even a little humorous overall in its approach, and coming off that aforementioned debut, I’m actually surprised he pulled it off this well. My favorite track of the new year thus far. A.
KJC: Oh, so we’re going to do a John Prine vocal over a 400 Unit backing track and knock it the hell out of the park. I’m in.
The steel on this record is fantastic, and the track as a whole does a great job of capturing that cabin fever feeling of the pandemic’s isolation, which could be quite oppressive for those of us lucky enough to work from home and decent enough to follow the restrictions in place.
Noe hasn’t been on my radar before this, but I suspect he’ll be alongside Brown and Kiah on my 2022 list. What a good start to the new year. A
JK: I had Noe’s debut album in the top 10 on my year-end ballot, so his new one is one of my most anticipated for this year. And “Pine Grove” has only stoked that excitement further. As Zack noted, it’s at least something of a departure from what made Noe’s first album so exhilarating, but the knottiness of his songwriting is still fully present here. Obviously, he’s not an artist who’s bidding for mainstream radio play, but I’m also struck by how much more accessible– daresay catchy— “Pine Grove” is than anything Noe’s hinted at prior. There will surely be folks who view that as a liability, but I’m never mad at an actual hook, and it turns out Noe can write a strong one. This is my silver medalist, behind Brown’s single, for the year’s best thus far. A.
I’m so behind on country music that I hadn’t heard any of these songs yet. I’m actually loving the Miranda Lambert single. It makes me think of this Q&A from 2019 that I was happy to read:
I’m looking forward to checking out these other songs!