For the first time in roundup history, every entry gets an A from every writer.
Written by Autumn Nicholas
JK: Thinking about two of my favorite contemporary artists, Jason Isbell and Brandy Clark, what I’d tag as each of their weakest songs actually share the same structure: Both Isbell’s “Anxiety” and Clark’s “Dear Insecurity” have narrators who personify their uncomfortable emotional states and then address those emotions directly in the broadest, most literal terms possible. Autumn Nicholas’ “Made Yet” stands in contrast, then, as something I find far more interesting and effective. Here, Nicholas uses those same two emotions to craft a singular narrative and character sketch, in what’s a classic example of, “show, don’t tell,” as quality advice for writers.
“Made Yet” finds Nicholas on the cusp of profound life changes, including the possibility of committing to a new love, but she’s thrown into limbo by her anticipation of how she might screw it all up. She’s like the inverse of “The Dance”: “I’ve been scared of all the pain from the mistakes / That I haven’t made yet.” In a wonderful structural flourish, the melody of the chorus rises and the dynamics increase to a mezzo forte, as though the song itself is trying to help Nicholas push past these self-created obstacles. The result is a single– one of the year’s loveliest and most melancholy– that captures what it truly feels like to sit in the discomfort of debilitating anxiety and insecurity without lapsing into therapy-speak as song lyrics. A
KJC: There’s an old adage that says you’ll know when it’s time to make a move once you’re more scared of staying than you are of leaving. But what do you do when you’re scared of both?
Autumn Nicholas captures the pain of this inertia so beautifully on “Made Yet.” As Jonathan notes above, she shows what crippling anxiety feels like, and she doesn’t undermine the power of her depiction by giving any hint that a resolution is forthcoming. Her fear and sadness are palpable. A
“Where the Wild Things Are”
Written by Randy Montana and Dave Turnbull
KJC: As we enter the season of Thanksgiving, let me express my gratitude that Eric Church chose not to cut this song, and that it found its way to Luke Combs, who is the perfect artist to deliver this deeply moving story.
Combs plays the role of the little brother left behind as his big brother moves out west, which breaks his mother’s heart while echoing his father’s rebellious streak. He visits for a summer, enjoying the high paced lifestyle but realizing it’s not for him.
Combs foreshadows the end of his brother’s life through his wailing delivery of the bridge:
Couple iron horse rebels
Wild as the devil
I knew I had to move back east
Said goodbye to my brother
At the end of that summer
But I knew he’d never leave
I don’t think that Church could’ve delivered the second half of this song without judgment seeping in about the wild California lifestyle the older brother embraced. Combs expresses grief without such judgment. He knows that this was the life his brother wanted, and it’s incredibly moving that his family honors this by burying him out west instead of taking him back to the home that he left behind.
Combs is growing exponentially as an artist right now, and this is his most compelling and emotionally impactful single to date. A
JK: I’ll admit that I’ve been lukewarm on Combs until his current album cycle, on which he has pushed himself beyond simply being content with his status as a more mainstream-palatable iteration of Chris Stapleton. And, like Stapleton, he has often run the risk of too much of his material sounding alike for more than one or two singles to stand out among his catalogue. While his cover of “Fast Car,” which we wrote about at length earlier in the year, was more “interesting” than it was “great,” it’s “Where The Wild Things Are” that marks a legit stab at greatness.
What surprised me most after hearing this for the first time is that Combs didn’t co-write it. I say that not because artists should rely on strict autobiography to inform their songwriting– I actually prefer that they don’t, because it’s so often a critical dead-end– but because there’s such genuine empathy in Combs’ performance that it sounds personal. He’s never sounded better than he does on this record.
As Kevin said, the lack of judgment in both the narrative and Combs’ reading of that narrative are what make this one of the year’s best singles. Just as it mattered that one of the genre’s biggest stars chose to take a song by a queer black woman to the top of the charts, it matters that the same star is now releasing a song that doesn’t perpetuate tired tropes about “small town” sanctity or vilify those who live, happily and by choice, in urban areas. The crux of the song is the narrator’s recognition that a life in L.A. felt right for his brother, and it didn’t change the love between them that it wasn’t right for the narrator himself. It’s the same concept behind Brad Paisley’s “Southern Comfort Zone,” but expressed in a story song that Combs just sings the fire out of. A
Miko Marks and the Resurrectors featuring The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Written by Lee Bob Watson
JK: Leave it to Miko Marks to take her own stellar work and find a way to make it even better. For “Jubilee,” which served as the closing track to her 2022 album, Feel Like Going Home, she’s now joined on this re-recording by The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who turn what was already a celebratory triumph into a full-fledged gospel rave-up. For the last half-decade, Marks has been as great as anyone working in the country music idiom. On this version of “Jubilee,” it sounds like she’s committed to leading a full-on movement, and I’ll be throwing elbows to be first in line behind her. A
KJC: “They say all will be forgiven. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
In “Jubilee,” faith and doubt are intertwined. How do we reconcile the pain and suffering around us with a God who is said to love us unconditionally and who promises our deliverance? If we don’t endure pain and suffering, what is there for Him to deliver us from? And if there’s no God to deliver us in the end, how can we justify the pain and suffering of the marginalized on earth?
“Jubilee” doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it doesn’t dismiss them either. It promises that a reckoning is coming, but what it will look like and when it will happen are left unresolved. But we have agency and we have each other, so every evening that leaves us weary can be met in the morning with determination. A
Written by Maren Morris, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz
KJC: It’s a testament to how universal the message is that I didn’t even realize that “The Tree” was about Maren Morris leaving country music behind.
Having left my own toxic environment a few years ago, the lyrics resonated with me on the deepest level. A colleague of mine talks often about how you can’t resolve conflicts without a shared reality, and to that, I add my own belief that those who argue in bad faith deserve none ‘of my time. You’re just “fillin’ a cup with a hole in the bottom.” Better to “take an ax to the tree.”
As she expands her horizons, Morris is heavily influenced by those who have taken the journey before her. Echoes of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and The Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” can be heard throughout, combining Parton’s poetry with Natalie Maines’ cathartic vocal as Morris delivers the money shot: “The tree was already on fire.” A
JK: The hand-wringing over the circumstances surrounding the release of “The Tree” has, unfortunately, overshadowed the fact that it’s the finest single of Morris’ career by some margin and is one of the best-written songs of 2023. Instead, the narrative has been reduced, both by those in full alignment with Morris’ politics and by those who vilify her for infractions that may or may not have any factual basis in the reality that we all actually live in, to the idea that “The Tree” is only about Morris’ supposed exit from the country music industry.
That’s not to be mistaken for any sort of “principled centrist” stance here: The way the industry at large responded after Morris commented on Brittany Aldean’s open transphobia– which was liked on social media by multiple other country recording artists, lest anyone continue to believe that Brittany Aldean is in any way out-of-bounds for a country act to address– is appalling.
Certainly, the details and tone of “The Tree” do support a reading that it’s a direct response to the country music industry itself. When she delivers the single best lyric she’s ever written– “The rot at the root is the root of the problem / But you want to blame it on me”– there’s a depth of history reflected in how Music Row, at a systemic level, has always been driven by principles that uphold a narrow vision of white male supremacy. That’s a truth that sits uneasy with a lot of folks who directly benefit from those exact systems and who believe that an entire industry that historically and presently marginalizes or tokenizes voices of anyone who isn’t a white male is, somehow, a meritocracy.
In that sense, “The Tree” is a through-the-looking-glass take on one of Morris’ biggest hits. When the bones are good, the rest might not matter. But what’s at stake and how should a person respond when the bones aren’t good? When, in fact, there’s rot at the root, and the soil is blighted?
For me, that idea resonated not because I’ve ever been branded a Lunatic Country Music Person in the right-wing mediascape, but because of past relationships that were toxic and, similarly to what Kevin describes above, because of previous work environments that were abusive. It’s exhausting and psychologically damaging to spend “10,000 hours trying to fight it with flowers”– and, as an aside, I appreciate the nod in that line to the adage that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in something– when kindness and loyalty are not reciprocated and are the equivalent of the proverbial knives at a gunfight.
Morris gets that. And when she wails, “The tree was already on fire,” with a power that she’s never previously unleashed on record, it’s a moment of rage that is both self-directed– for the time and effort wasted on trying to save something that she failed to recognize was beyond repair– and outward-facing at the broken thing itself.
And it doesn’t matter if that broken thing is the country music industry… or Morris’ marriage to singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd… or any one specific thing at all. It’s the same reason why it doesn’t matter if Taylor Swift wrote “All Too Well” specifically about Jake Gyllenhaal: That should ultimately be no more than a footnote. “The Tree” is a wonder of fecundity in terms of actual interpretation because of the precision with which Morris and her two co-writers have drawn its central metaphor. Regardless of genre, that type of depth represents popular songwriting at its full potential, and to take an ax to that kind of critical thought is to cheapen music as an art form. A