Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Songs of 2012 (#50-31)

There's really no rhyme or reason why this song came before that one, or why this song made it and that one didn't, these are simply some of my favorites songs of 2012. I wore out the repeat button on some of them and others I discovered just the other day. The only rule I tried to follow was not to choose more than one song from the same artist (a rule which I broke once or twice), otherwise my top fifty songs would be pretty much be completely filled up with my top five albums. Anyway, hopefully you find a song or an artist on this list that is new to you, someone that perhaps you can be a fan of for years to come. There are surely countless good songs I've yet to hear from the past year, and more that I will probably never hear. But that's a good thing. It's how you know it was a great year for good music.

50) Earl Dibbles Jr. - "The Country Boy Song"
"I fix trees, I widdle sticks, my barbed wire tattoo gets me chicks"
Finally, a cliched song about being a redneck from the country that it's okay to like (ironically, of course). A great parody of the Brantley Gilberts of the world, "The Country Boy Song" is not only hilarious, but has a high production quality that--here's that word again: ironically--would fit in perfectly at country radio. Kudos to Texas country singer Granger Smith for creating a characters that's able to poke a little fun and be genuinely likeable and funny all at the same time.

49) Horse Feathers - "Last Waltz" (from the album Cynic's New Year)
"Call in the doctor, the day may have died/ There's a thimble of light for an acre of sky"
Talk about a gorgeous string arrangement, this song has it. I've known about this band for less than year, but I'm slowly trying to listen to their catalogue of songs. "Last Waltz," with its aforementioned strings, banjos, and the sweetly melancholic vocals of lead singer Justin Ringle, is a stand-out folk-waltz from their latest album Cynic's New Year.

48) Lindi Ortega - "Heaven Has No Vacancy" (from the album Cigarettes & Truckstops)
"Jesus, he don't know me, God ain't answering my prayers/ If they don't let me in, I'll just sit here on the stairs"
Lindi Ortega (who I believe had a small cameo in an episode of Nashville this year) has an indescribable voice, or at least one that can't be described in these short blurbs. (Well, I'll try: organically otherworldly, maybe?) This soulful, slow rumination on post-existential unease even has the narrator taking a trip to Hell and back.

47) B.O.B. feat. Taylor Swift - "Both Of Us" (from the album Strange Clouds)
"I can feel your pain, I can feel your struggle/ You just wanna live but everything's so low/ that you could drown in the puddle"
I first heard this song in a hotel room somewhere in Virginia when the video came on MTV around four or five in the morning (don't worry, I was only watching because I couldn't sleep and was trying to catch up on the latest musical trends). I have no clue why this guy named himself after an Outkast song; regardless, I was pleasantly surprised to actually like it. Nice flows here.

46) Josh Turner feat. Iris Dement - "Pallbearer" (from the album Punching Bag)
"I'm like a lonesome pallbearer, carrying the dead"
The best song on Josh Turner's 2012 album Punching Bag will most definitely never be released as a single, but isn't that usually how it goes? The fact that Turner brought in Iris Dement to lend her vocal talents for harmony purposes shows that Turner has tastes that rise above the occasionally lackluster material he releases. This song uses the image of a pallbearer as a metaphor for the crushing anguish that results after getting your heart broken. It's one of his best, and he wrote it all by his lonesome.

45) Patterson Hood - "Come Back Little Star" (from the album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance)
"You always had a drink in your hand/ but your liver at what it used to be"
Hood trades in the chunky southern rock riffing of his day job with the Drive-By Truckers for a piano-laced ballad with subtle pedal steel flourishes, a sweet bass line, and beautiful female background vocals from Kelly Hogan (who's also a co-writer; they wrote it about their late singer-songwriter friend Vic Chestnutt, who hails from the same hometown as Patterson Hood, Athens, Georgia). It's a real treat seeing this side of a passionate, multi-talented, hard-working, genuine artist.

44) Gangstagrass feat. R-SON and Dolio The Sleuth - "Bound To Ride" (from the album Rappalachia)
"The sub-zero nature of the words I'm writin'/ will have you hypothermic from all the frostbitin'"
I love what the guys behind the theme song for Justified are doing. Their fusion of bluegrass and hip-hop is absolutely unlike anything you've ever heard, and "Bound To Ride" is a funky, twangy, and--well--gangsta representation of those seemingly disparate elements working wonderfully together. The vintage music video is pretty sweet too.

43) Red June - "Foolish Me" (from the album Beauty Will Rise)
"Wanna pick your red, red rose/ Wanna get to heaven, steady as she goes"
This is folk-bluegrass at its best. I found out about Red June after reading the blog of another band I discovered in 2012, The Honey Dewdrops. The vocals here are unique--not the run-of-the-mill high and lonesome wail of most typical bluegrass--lending to the song a quality that makes it stand out. As if it's simple, well-crafted beauty wasn't enough. I'll certainly be looking into these guys a little more.

42) Chelle Rose - "I Need You" (from the album Ghost of Browder Holler)
"I need something like a mother, 'cause I'm just a child/ I need something like an asylum, 'cause I go wild"
It doesn't get much twangier than Chelle Rose (even more so on her other songs). Pair that twang with the Chris Knight-esque country-rock of "I Need You" (written by Julie Miller), and you get a song that makes you want to see what else this gal's got.

41) Nathan Reich - "Sweet Isolation" (from the album All Night Pharmacy)
"No I don't love her, but she offered me comfort/ Comfort means nothin', if it don't come from you"
I had the pleasure of getting to see Nathan perform at a house show here in Lexington, Kentucky just a few weeks ago. It was excellent. His songs are hushed folk ruminations on home and the road and girls, and every single one of the features some astounding work from him on the acoustic guitar. "Sweet Isolation," my favorite song from his recently released All Night Pharmacy album, is a perfect example. I couldn't get the guitar melody out of my head for weeks. The live video linked above, which looks to be professionally made, is super well-done, and showcases his excellent skills on guitar. Check him out if he's ever rolling through close to where you are.

40) The Stray Birds - "Wildflower Honey" (from their self-titled album)
"And I knew when I laid down to him at night/ I was holding a rolling tide"
Acoustic guitar strumming and delicate electric guitar picking compliment the gorgeous and graceful voice of Maya de Vitry in "Wildflower Honey." When I first this song's title, I knew there was just no way I was not going to like it, and my suspicions were confirmed immediately as the opening chords lead into a voice that grabs your attention like a bee to...well, you know. The lyrics are poetic and the story is affecting; you can't ask for much more.

39) Tift Merritt - "In The Way" (from the album Traveling Alone)
"Sometimes my heart is all I've got/ sometimes my heart gets in the way"
This is a rollicking piano-filled americana number, with an electric guitar that seems to essentially play the same notes over and over. And it works brilliantly. I've never delved into Merritt's albums, but after listening to Traveling Alone on Spotify, reading a few interviews about her devotion to her craft, and realizing what a truly amazing voice she's been gifted with, I can't wait to do so. "In The Way" is a great starting point.

38) Amos Lee - "The Darkness" (from the EP As The Crow Flies)
"Well I know you think you knew me/ Well I thought I knew you too/ I guess I was fool but/ that ain't nothin' new"
Lee's As The Crow Flies EP is possibly my favorite thing he's ever recorded. "The Darkness," the lead track on the album, is a moody and atmospheric meditation on the end of relationship. Truthfully, any song from the EP could claim this spot

37) Shawn Mullins - "Give God The Blues" (from the compilation album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us)
"God don't hate the Muslims, God don't hate the Jews/ God don't hate the Christians, but we all give God the blues"
Singer of the 90's superhit "Lullaby," Shawn Mullins, was recruited by producer Phil Madeira to cut this bluesy and somewhat humorous take on religion and exceedingly fallible humanity's relationship to God. In the description of the linked video above, it states that the compilation album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us (I love that title) is the culmination of an idea "to put out a positive message that perhaps God is just love." Mission accomplished, and "Give God The Blues," the second track on the album, works as a great thesis statement.

36) Dwight Yoakam - "Nothing But Love" (from the album 3 Pears)
"If nothing but love is all there was/ Then nothing but love is there for you and me"
When I saw him perform this song on Leno, I knew I was going to be buying his new album. Sweet guitars, sweet harmonies, classic Yoakam.

35) Father John Misty - "Hollywood Cemetery Forever Sings" (from the album Fear Fun)
"I laid up for hours in a daze/ Retracing the expanse of your American back"
Come for the cemetery sex, drugs, blaspheming with superb vocal phrasing, and subtle existential angst, stay because it simply will not get out of your head.

34) Elizabeth Cook - "Hear Jerusalem Calling" (from the EP Gospel Plow)
"Hear Jerusalem calling, Jesus is his name"
I love me a good song about Jesus, especially when its got an electric guitar that sounds as badass as the one Cook's husband Tim Carroll plays here. This is gospel music getting down. Check out the Letterman performance video above for a great quote from Dave: "I knew it would be lovely. I didn't realize we'd be saved."

33) Willie Nelson feat. Merle Haggard - "A Horse Called Music" (from the album Heroes)
And he sings oooh to the ladies/ and oooh he makes 'em sigh/ Now he rides away no a horse he calls Music/ with a pain in his hear and a tear in his eye"
It's hard to come out with a bad song when you've got these two legends singing on it. Well into their seventies, you can honestly say about both Nelson and Haggard: they haven't lost it.

32) Easton Corbin - "Tulsa Texas" (from the album All Over The Road)
"I'll be down in Tulsa, Texas/ Tallahassee, Tennessee/ Memphis, Missippi/ That's where I'm gonna be"
Have you ever wanted to leave a woman who's been making you her fool for far too long, and go somewhere she could literally never find you? This cheeky modern country classic will be right up your alley.

31) Iris Dement - "The Kingdom Has Already Come" (Link goes to Spotify) (from the album Sing The Delta)
"Stopped in the church to pray/ It was the middle of the day/ And I don't even know if I believe in God"
It is difficult to describe Iris Dement's voice; it's something on the edge of beautiful, which in a way makes it better, fuller, more authentic. Some will instantly love it, some will instantly hate it, and some will slowly grow to love it. Those who love it are the lucky ones, because she writes fantastic, refreshingly honest songs that more people would do well to hear. When you have a decade plus between new original albums, songs like this are the result.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Ten Country Singles of 2012

10) Shooter Jennings - "The Real Me" (released in May, did not chart)
From the album Family Man
Songwriter: Shooter Jennings
His calling out of John Mayer this past year on Twitter was rather pointless, and came off as someone who thinks they should be more popular whining about people who actually are. But Shooter Jennings is not some talentless guy trying to ride his father Waylon's coattails. You cannot listen to one of his albums with realizing the amount of raw and eclectic talent that was obviously passed along from his father to him; quite literally, it's in his blood, and "The Real Me" is proof positive of this. It is a song with a great sense of humor, tongue planted firmly in cheek, about whiskey and the devil and the transformation that happens when they take over. It is 100% traditional country but is still different in enough ways that modernize it and make it appealing to an audience for today. There are hard rock elements, southern rock elements, massive changes in tempo. After the first chorus--a chorus that is frenetic both musically an lyrically--when he settles back into the verse with the sweet ring of a steel guitar, it's a thing of a beauty, and it was the point I realized this song was something special. Read the lyrics of the chorus and tell me you don't want to hear how he fits all these words into a couple bars of music:

And I'm a double-talkin', chicken lickin'
Meaner than the dickens, sick and wicked
Hole-diggin', pickin', son of a gun
And I'll love you like the devil
Bite you like a snake and then forsake
And break everything I don't take before I am done

The pre-chorus is just as good, but I will spare you those lyrics and just let you listen for yourself. Lastly, I can't help but love a song that begins with the line, "I wake up with my children, right around the crack of noon."

9) Zac Brown Band - "The Wind" (released in June, peaked at #11 in September)
From the album Uncaged

Songwriters: Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowery
It is no surprise that "The Wind" was Zac Brown Band's first single not to crack the top ten on the Billboard Country charts. With its ferocious picking, breakneck lyrical delivery, and a sound unabashedly and heavily influenced by bluegrass music, it's a small wonder that it reached number 11. The song moves so fast that it's over before you know it, like a gust of wind that blows your hat off or your skirt up before you know what happened. The bizarre animated music video made by Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge is also worth a watch.

8) Kacey Musgraves - "Merry Go 'Round" (released in September, currently at #20 Airplay and climbing)
From a hopefully soon-to-be-released album
Songwriters: Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally
Who would have thought a song that is the antithesis of small-town romanticism would be one of the most talked about singles of the year, and would actually wind up being a mild success (a huge success actually, for a song like this; it's #20 and still climbing) on mainstream country radio? I certainly didn't think so. Musgraves' voice is often compared to Miranda Lambert's, but I don't think such comparisons give enough credit to Musgraves. Not to say her voice is definitively better than Lambert's, but on "Merry Go 'Round" she's able to vocally conjure up frailty and jadedness in a way I've yet to hear from Lambert. Which is a good thing, especially when you have cynical--what some would call "downer"--lyrics such as:

If you ain't got two kids by twenty-one
You're probably gonna die alone
At least that's what tradition told you


Mary, Mary quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town


Mama's hooked on Mary Kay
Brother's hooked on Mary Jane
Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down

It takes a truly talented singer to sell such lyrics, not merely as bleak, but as realistic and heartfelt, painful though it may be for Musgraves and her co-writers to hold up such a broken mirror. The wonderfully understated production (softly plucked banjo, weeping steel guitar, simple percussion) compliments such lyrics perfectly (Nashville producers would do well to learn that even lyrically mediocre songs become instantly better when they're not loud wall-of-sound monstrosities). I look forward to the full-length album from Musgraves that hopefully releases sooner rather than later.

7) Kellie Pickler - "100 Proof" (released in April, peaked at #50 in May)
From the album 100 Proof  
Songwriters: James T. Slater, Leslie Satcher
A song about 100 Proof love, not liquor, the title track from Kellie Picker's 2012 album seems to me a good representation of what the young stars of today could do to "update" traditional country music for today's mainstream market. Not that traditional country music needs that, but let's be honest: Country radio programmers are most assuredly not going to play songs that sound like "Mama Tried" or "Stand By Your Man" in today's market. Well... umm... it turns out they aren't going to play songs like "100 Proof" either. The mix of traditional instrumentation and lyricism with classic vocals and pop sensibility (in terms of it being immediately catchy), this song still wasn't enough to impress programmers and listeners. It starts out with a killer first line (of which, if you've read this blog more than once, you know I am a huge fan of): "Ain't no rain as cold as the look she just gave him." A melody plucked on an acoustic guitar guides the verses to a soaring steel guitar-soaked chorus ending with, "We got love, 100 Proof." Essentially, it's a song about two different kinds of relationships. One is where the couple likes to go out and party and have a good time very, very often, the night usually leading to drunken fights, the man usually the arbiter of wanting to stay out later and later and get drunker and drunker, the woman begrudgingly staying by his side. The other, of which the narrator is proponent and part of, is the kind where the love is built on a more solid foundation; it's a relationship that's strong, solid, and healthy, a "beautiful truth" they get to wake up with every morning. It's a love that "ain't in no shot glass, no bottle." The song is a nice twist on what the title makes you think it's going to be about.

To give you hope about the state of mainstream country music: Pickler was dropped from her label after dismal sales of the traditional-leaning album 100 Proof and the disappointing radio performance of its subsequent singles. That pretty much sums up where we are. Pickler, an American Idol alum of all things, has proven herself in 2012 to have more balls than the hyper-masculinity of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan (well, let's not get crazy labeling his schtick "masculine"), Brantley Gilbert, and "Truck Yeah" combined, which honestly isn't surprising seeing as Pickler was all but made a commercial outcast for doing her part in trying to bring integrity back to the airwaves.

6) Kix Brooks - "Bring It On Home" (released in September, peaked at #39 & #44 Airplay in October)
From the album New To This Town  
Songwriters: Rhett Akins, Kix Brooks, Dallas Davidson
While Ronnie Dunn was getting nominated for Grammy awards, Kix Brooks somewhat quietly released a few singles that are much better than I expected, especially this one. It shouldn't have been surprising though, with one of my favorite Brooks and Dunn songs being "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," one of the few on which Brooks assumes lead vocal duties (and absolutely kills it, by the way). In this video, Kix calls "Bring It On Home" a tribute to his wife. It tells the oft-told story of a traveling musician who misses home, but Brooks so nails this particular version of that tale that originality simply does not matter. I heard this song on the radio about five times within the span of a week driving around in a box truck. I had no idea who it was singing the first time, I just knew that it stuck out like that guy at the party you remember was drunker than everybody else. A healthy does of steel guitar, a few splashes of mandolin here and there, and an emotionally invested yet fun vocal by Brooks truly make "Bring It On Home," and it is immensely re-listenable. The deal-sealer for me is when the "All my life" part kicks the chorus off. Great stuff.

5) Tim McGraw - "Better Than I Used To Be" (released December 2011, peaked at #5 in June)
From the album Emotional Traffic
Songwriters: Ashley Gorley, Bryan Simpson
Despite releasing in late 2011, I first heard "Better Than I Used To Be" some time in May, and I honestly could not believe it was Tim McGraw. Even more surprising is that it's a track of his last and seemingly infinitely-delayed album for Curb Records, Emotional Traffic, which was released after many public scuffles with the label over artistic freedom and their releasing of countless "greatest hits" packages that were not McGraw-approved. Perhaps yet more surprising than that is it came after several flat-out bad singles over the course of a few years from the usually solid veteran: "Last Dollar (Fly Away)," "It's A Business Doing Pleasure With You," "Still," and the abysmal "Felt Good On My Lips." McGraw's strength has always been as a ballad singer, and "Better Than I Used To Be" is one of his best. Co-written by progressive bluegrass band Cadillac Sky's former front man Bryan Simpson, and Ashley Gorley, who co-wrote one of Trace Adkins' best singles, "You're Gonna Miss This," this is a song about the lifelong pursuit of trying to become a better person.

From opening lines "I know how to hold a grudge, I can send a bridge up in smoke" to the climax of the chorus, "I can finally stand the man in the mirror I see/ I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm better than I used to be," McGraw gives an effortless vocal performance. These are the kinds of songs he was meant to sing. Here's hoping not only that McGraw chooses to record songs like this more often, but that Gorley and Simpson choose to collaborate as writers more often. Mainstream country music could use a lot more songs like this.

4) Turnpike Troubadours - "Gin, Smoke, Lies" (released in July, did not chart)
From the album Goodbye Normal Street
Songwriters: Evan Felker
If you like your banjo tunes to rock, then this is the song for you. I already attempted to put into words how much this song kicks ass back in July, so call me lazy if you must, but I'm just going to copy what I wrote back then here:

I hope to write a little more on this here blog about Turnpike Troubadours, though no amount of praise, written or shared, that I could heap on the band would do them justice, not to mention that said praise would often venture into hyperbole, for better or worse. Quickly to the point, this is one of the best, if not the best, country bands making music today. The lyrics are sharp: if they aren't making you chuckle then they're making you cry (or at least feel like you could). The musicianship is tight, skillful, and nuanced: I challenge you to find a band of any genre that uses instrumentation so perfectly to the degree that each song calls for as well as these guys. The vocals are... well, I'll just say that lead singer and principal songwriter Evan Felker has quickly become one of my favorite voices; twangy, earnest, and emotive (some friends I have compare him to Ryan Adams, though I enjoy Felker quite a bit more). "Gin, Smoke, Lies" is the first single from their recent May release, Goodbye Normal Street, and it's as ferocious a first single as you're bound to hear. Banjo, fiddle, and heavily pounding drums (think "We Will Rock You") round out the production, and Felker's lyrics are as biting and sharp as ever: "Well a spade is made for diggin' dirt/ and an ax is made for choppin'/ Darlin' my heart's hard as nails they hammer/ in a hardwood coffin/ In a hardwood coffin." The "coffin" line is sung twice to drive home the starkly bleak imagery, you know, just in case you missed it. In the end, it's a stone cold country song that flat out rocks, a cheating song the likes of which you've never heard before. somewhat surprisingly debuted the video (which I believe was the group's first ever) for the song earlier this week, and if it catches any sort of mainstream traction, I can honestly say it might be the best thing to happen to mainstream country music this century. Turnpike Troubadours are simply too good not to want the rest of the world to hear. (no chart position...yet)

Unfortunately, "Gin, Smoke, Lies" still did not chart in the latter half of the year, but I'd be willing to bet mainstream commercial success isn't high on this group's list of goals. They still had great year, with the album Goodbye Normal Street debuting high on the Billboard 200 back in May, and that collection of songs going on to become album of the year on many year-end lists, including mine.

3) Chris Young - "Neon" (released in March, peaked at #23 in August)
From the album Neon
Songwriters: Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Trevor Rosen
"Neon" was one of my favorite songs of 2011, contained on his album of the same name and of that same year. Back then I wrote of the song: "If Young's label doesn't release this as a single in 2012, it will be a country music travesty." Well, the label did release it, and the result was probably more of a travesty than it would have otherwise been as an overlooked gem of an album cut. But as it stands, "Neon" is the first single of Young's not to reach number one since "Gettin' You Home (The Black Dress Song)" hit the top spot back in October of 2009. Hell, it didn't even crack the top twenty. I mean, it had a super cheesy-ass music video and everything (the performance at the Opry embedded below is a much, much better video to watch). The single's commercial failure is pretty historic in my opinion. Young has for years been one of country music's fastest rising stars, but he released a neo-traditional drinking-song classic, and it caused his career's momentum to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under it. "The light at this end of the tunnel is neon," or at least it used to be. Now the light more closely resembles fake tans or bleached teeth or the headlights of a truck driving out to the backroads where they build the campfire and blare Nickelback over the speakers. Boom, boom.

2) Eric Church - "Springsteen" (released in February, peaked at #1 in June)
From the album Chief 
Songwriters: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell
This is the song that will be looked back on as the one that took Eric Church to a different level of success. It's not totally country but sounded totally unique on country radio; I mean that in a really good way. I wrote a full review of the song here, and though a bit wordy, it's been the most viewed post at Abundant Ramblings since this blog's inception. Here's an excerpt:

"Springsteen" is a glorious testament to the fact that Eric Church understands music to be a powerful and emotional force rather than a commercial and formulaic one. In the musical atmosphere of country radio, such an understanding feels like a minor miracle. With Church, music's power is more than just lip service, and with "Springsteen," he does a service to fans of music everywhere, helping us to understand that though we are struggling human beings living in an insane and real world, music has the power to keep us young in spirit and at heart, which may just--in the long run--not only help us to find our way, but help us to survive.

1) George Strait - "Drinkin' Man" (released in April, peaked at #37 in July)
From the album Here For A Good Time
Songwriters: Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait, George Strait
I have hope that George Strait won't go the way of Alan Jackson and fall completely out of the good graces (somehow) of country radio. But if the chart performance of "Drinkin' Man" is any indication, the end is nigh, my friends. It's not a happy song. It's not an upbeat song. There is no silver lining at the end of the song. There is only the silver lining that comes with going through the struggle that this song is about; the silver lining is in the journey of the fighting. Here's what I wrote about the song last summer:

It's nearly unforgivable the way radio has treated what is the best single of the past five years from country music's elder statesman. "Drinkin' Man" tells the heartbreaking story of one man's lifelong struggle with alcohol, starting at the tender age of fourteen. We sympathize profoundly with the narrator because he talks about how he's tried to quit and how he knows his reliance on drink is hurting those closest to him who love him the most. Take, for example, this chill-inducing line: "Stayed sober once for nine days in a row, I quit cold turkey/ Damn near almost made it ten/ But that's a hell of a lot to ask/ of a drinkin' man." In a similar way that Wade Bowen sings a different tune about Saturday nights, George Strait sings a different tune about alcohol. Many songs on country radio (and pop radio for that matter) glorify night after night of drinking to excess, but "Drinkin' Man" trades glory and good times for something a little more poignant, dangerous, and real. And it doesn't matter that it's sung and co-written by King George; radio programmers wouldn't touch something this authentic with a thirty-seven foot pole. And they didn't.

I still can't get over that "Damn near almost made it to ten" lyric, one of the best lines of the year, to be sure. Strait sings this song not only with the respect it deserves, but with the yearning its narrator feels compelling him toward change. By the end of it the listener realizes that quitting is going to be a lifelong struggle for this person, full of false starts and giving up and pain. And Strait and his co-writers give us no promise at the end that the narrator will ever totally conquer the demon. Perhaps the only appropriate response after hearing this song for the first time is, "Damn." Even if it's something you've never gone through personally, sometimes a song just hits you when it delves into subject matter that's dark and real. As with Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round," sometimes it's painful to hold up a broken mirror, but that doesn't mean someone shouldn't still hold it up.

The rest of the top 40:
Numbers 40 through 31
Numbers 30 through 21
Numbers 20 through 11

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Country Singles of 2012 (#20-11)

20) Josh Thompson - "Comin' Around"  (released December 2011, peaked at #31 in June)
Songwriters: Josh Thompson, Rodney Clawson, Kendell Marvel
This is a song about a narrator who's coming to see things in ways he never thought he would when he was younger. With plenty of banjo and pedal steel to go around, I personally enjoy this more than songs of his like "Way Out Here," which is just a little too off-putting with its countrier-than-thou-ness. There's none of that in "Comin' Around," which, in the specifics of its story, comes out as something quite universal.

19) The Mavericks - "Born To Be Blue" (released in May, peaked at #46 in August)
Songwriters: Raul Malo, James House
If you're my age and grew up watching CMT (back when they actually played videos, of course), having The Mavericks creating music together again is just damn nostalgic. Raul Malo is one of those gents with a voice that can literally be described as "smooth as honey." Add in some fantastic electric guitar work, wailing harmonies, and an accordion solo, and, well, this song about coming to terms with the fact that a life of heartbreak is your fate sounds like nothing but a bunch of talented dudes at the height of their craft having a hell of a lot of fun.

18) Tim McGraw - "One Of Those Nights" (released in November, currently at #15 Airplay and climbing)
Songwriters: Luke Laird, Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins
Even with a little bit of hip-hop swagger/faux-rapping in the verses, "One Of Those Nights" is a song I just can't help but love. From the first time I heard it there was nothing really to dislike about it: it's catchy, nostalgic, and sounds much more like old Tim McGraw than whatever the hell he was thinking with songs like "Felt Good On My Lips" and "Truck Yeah." It's been awhile since McGraw has sounded like he actually enjoyed singing on record, but he sells this one by managing to seem like he didn't even have to try.

17) Gloriana - "(Kissed You) Good Night" (released end of 2011, peaked at #2 in August)
Songwriters: Tom Gossin, Josh Kear
What can I say? Yes, this is somewhat cheesy country-pop. The theme (the "first kiss") is not new, but they explore it in a no-holds-barred sort of way; they just go for it (no pun intended). The best part of the song, and the part that hooked me, is the chorus, which is bombastic and soaring in a way that reminds the listener of something they may just be too cool to still admit: the first kiss is always a big deal. If this is a guilty pleasure, I voluntarily offer myself up for conviction.

16) Don Williams feat. Alison Krauss - "I Just Come Here for the Music" (did not chart)
Songwriters: John Ramey, Bobby Taylor, Doug Gill
This is quite simply traditional country music at its best. Two people, perhaps older, meet at a bar which they both frequent only to hear the "lonesome fiddle" and "good singer" in the band. They might talk, they might dance, they might buy each other drinks, but anything further is too risky. There's been too much pain in their pasts. But it's always nice to share a talk and a drink with a stranger. Williams' classic laid back delivery doesn't diminish the loneliness he conveys, and as always Krauss' harmonies are heavenly.

15) Alan Jackson - "You Go Your Way" (released in September, peaked at #39 Airplay in October)
Songwriters: Troy Jones, Tony Lane, David Lee
Country radio isn't and never will be the same without Alan Jackson. And honestly, I'm kind of shocked at their refusal to play any of his new singles. It seems like it all happened so suddenly; just four short years ago Jackson was tasting massive radio success with his album Good Time. Things never were the same after that. Thankfully, he still puts out fantastic albums, "You Go Your Way" being from his last, Thirty Miles West. It's classic Jackson, and if you can hear him singing the line, "I poured some bourbon in a coffee cup/ it's been too long since I drank too much," in that way that only he can, you know you're in for a treat. Go ahead and stop reading and click that link above.

14) Toby Keith - "Hope On The Rocks" (released in November, currently at #32 Airplay and climbing)
Songwriter: Toby Keith
I wasn't as impressed with "I Like Girls That Drink Beer" as much as some were, but I was quite impressed with "Hope On The Rocks" the first time I heard it. It's certainly got that old-school traditional country vibe, but I honestly couldn't picture anyone else singing it besides Toby Keith. That's saying a lot for an artist. The verses tackle some serious subjects but only on the surface, which there is nothing wrong with in a song like this. Being overly partial to songs about drinking the pain away, I am quite naturally a fan of the chorus, and really like how the whole things is framed with "hope": "They're in need of a mind bender, I'm a bartender and at the end of the day/ I'm all they got, hope on the rocks." (Edit: I had no idea Keith wrote this by himself as I was writing this blurb. That makes me like he song even more.)

13) Kenny Chesney - "El Cerrito Place" (released in September, peaked at #10 Airplay in late December)
Songwriter: Keith Gattis
Kenny Chesney followed what is perhaps the most boring single release of his career ("Come Over") with what might be one of his ballsiest: a six-minute epic with ambiguous lyrics about searching for something or someone who seems unobtainable. As a single release it feels similar to "You and Tequila" in terms of its stand-out quality and its uniqueness in the country radio landscape, but don't get me wrong--"El Cerrito Place" is produced to the max, so don't expect the minimalist guitar strums of "You and Tequila." That said, a good song is a good song, and this one is great.

12) Lady Antebellum - "Dancin' Away With My Heart" (released December 2011, peaked at #2 in May)
Songwriters: Hilary Scott, Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, Josh Kear
I'm not the biggest Lady Antebellum fan. When they hit it big I wondered why it wasn't Little Big Town, who did the male/female group thing first, and did it better (and more country, for that matter). But I have liked a few of Lady Antebellum's songs: "Looking For A Good Time," "American Honey," and "Dancin' Away With My Heart." This is pure sugary pop, to be sure, but it's pure sugary pop done well and with genuine emotion. It's a song that takes you on a trip back in time, when love was less cautious and able to be expressed--perhaps even encapsulated--in the simple act of a slow, intimate dance. "To me you'll always be eighteen, and beautiful/ And dancin' away with my heart." It's fun to go back once in a while.

11) Eric Church - "Creepin'" (released in July, peaked at #5 Airplay in late December [kinda like molasses]) 
Songwriters: Eric Church, Marv Green
This song is what it sounds like to get hit with a hammer over and over again in the face while getting doused with nastysauce. Also, it contains a contender for line of the year: "Like a honeybee beatin' on my screen door, I got a little buzz and my head is sore." Hell of a way to start a song, much less an album, I'd say. I did a full single review on "Creepin'" earlier this year. You can read it in its entirety here. Something I didn't address there: the music video is extremely well done, but the video/radio edit exchanges the lyric "your cocaine kiss and caffeine love" for "your caffeine kiss and nicotine love." Not only does the edit make no sense, but it sounds terrible. I don't think I mentioned this in that review either (maybe I did): releasing this song as a single was pretty ballsy. It sticks out like a big, beautiful sore thumb on the radio waves.

Best Country Singles of 2012:
Numbers 40 through 31
Numbers 30 through 21

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best Country Singles of 2012 (#30-21)

If you missed #40-31, you can check them out HERE.

30) Clay Walker - "Like We Never Said Goodbye" (Released January, peaked at #46 in March on Country Songs Chart)
Songwriters: Cory Batten, Tiffany Goss
Walker's last big hit, "She Won't Be Lonely Long," was one of the best singles of 2010, cracking the top five and becoming one of Walker's most successful singles in years. I'm not quite sure when or why he fell out of favor (for the most part) with radio, but nothing since has seen much success. "Like We Never Said Goodbye" is quite simply classic Clay Walker: a smooth-as-honey vocal performance, a modern traditional arrangement, and a sweet story you can invest yourself in for three minutes.

29) Kelly Clarkson feat. Vince Gill - "Don't Rush" (October, peaked at #23 in November, currently at #37 on Country Airplay chart)
Songwriters: Blu Sanders, Natalie Hemby, Lindsay Chapman
With only a few contributions to the country market in her career, I'm still not sure about Kelly Clarkson's nomination this year for Best Female Vocalist at the CMAs. But if she continues putting out classy, pleasant-sounding tunes like "Don't Rush," you won't hear much complaining from me. Of course, for my money, Vince Gill's harmonies make the song, but give Clarkson credit for featuring a talent who hasn't had any sort of presence at country radio for roughly a decade. Their performance of the song at the CMAs was more impressive than its radio success has been; Clarkson's duet with Jason Aldean, "Don't You Wanna Stay," has crushed it commercially in every respect, yet more proof that it is an unfair and unjust world we are living in.

28) Wade Bowen - "Saturday Night" (November 2011, peaked at #39 in February)
Songwriters: Wade Bowen, Lee Thomas Miller
Wade Bowen's song with a non-conformist narrator is country in theme, rock in execution, and pop in catchiness. It's about a guy who's out on a Saturday night watching everyone around him have a good time but -- shocker -- he is not. We've all had nights like those where we refuse to conform to the fun-lovin' going on around us, and it's usually due to a -- shocker -- recently broken heart. Bowen's voice is strong, and he's one to keep an eye on for bred-in-Texas Eli Young Band-esque mainstream success in the next few years. Of course, he believes country music is supposed to be sad, so then again, maybe not.

27) Dwight Yoakam - "A Heart Like Mine" (October, did not chart)
Songwriter: Dwight Yoakam
A lot of reviewers of the latest Yoakam album 3 Pears have gone out of their way to mention how they think it's his best album of original recorded material in several albums. I thought Blame The Vain (released in 2005, his last album of new material) was fantastic, however, and I personally haven't enjoyed 3 Pears nearly has much as a cohesive work. Co-produced by Beck, "A Heart Like Mine" is one of the standout tracks on 3 Pears. Loud, jangly guitars, Yoakam's unmatched wailing vocals, a music video showcasing his considerable well-known dance moves -- this is a talented artist at his best and most fun.

26) Zac Brown Band - "Goodbye In Her Eyes" (October, currently at #5 & #3 and climbing)
Songwriters: Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins, Sonia Lee
Zac Brown Band have consistently released the best singles to country radio over the last few years. Slick guitar work, tasteful harmonies and fiddle-playing, and a chugging beat propel this tale of a man who can see the writing on the wall in his lover's eyes. Her kiss is passionless, her smile is awkward, and then he sees it in her eyes and "knows for sure." Sadness but also stubbornly reluctant acceptance is present in the way Brown sings this one.

25) Easton Corbin - "Lovin' You Is Fun" (February, peaked at #7 & #5 in October)
Songwriters: Jim Beavers, Bob DiPiero
This guy just has a great voice for singing country music, certainly one of my favorites out there in radioland. "It's alright to keep it light now, mama, don't ya think?" he sings in "Lovin' You Is Fun," and that's exactly what this song is: light, fun, and sung really well. Not that a reminder to not take yourself so seriously is in short supply at country radio (mostly because the songs lack any semblance of substance), but if a reminder was ever needed, Easton Corbin is the man to sing about it. (I wrote more about the song earlier this year here.)

24) Dierks Bentley - "Tip It On Back" (August, currently at #22 & #16 and climbing)
Songwriters: Ross Copperman, Joe Knight, and Tully Kennedy
I think by this point many people agree that Home was nowhere near as good as Up On The Ridge, but that would have been a near impossible task to ask of Dierks. Home does have a few good tunes though (and I must say that it's still one of the strongest mainstream country releases of the year), and I think this is one of its best. With a narrative set firmly within the reality of the recession and a tone that is wonderfully dark, "Tip It On Back" is quite literally a song about drinking to forget the harsh realities of life, even if only for a few hours. "Tip it on back, make it feel good, drink a little more than you know you should" -- once you've lived enough life to know that it's not all candy and roses, there are times this can seem the only advice to heed.

23) Greg Bates - "Did It For The Girl" (April, peaked at #14 in October, currently at #5 and climbing)
Songwriters: Greg Bates, Lynn Hutton, Rodney Clawson
Well, since Easton Corbin has fizzled out at radio... oh wait. Easton Corbin had a hit single at radio this year? Nevermind. Anyway, the first time I heard this song it immediately reminded me of Corbin: voice, style, subject matter. "Did It For The Girl" would fit perfectly on a playlist between "Roll With It" and "Lovin' You Is Fun." I'll wait and see what he releases as his next single (which probably won't be until well after the new year as this one is still climbing the Airplay charts) before I determine if he's someone to watch, but it's hard to think of a better first single to introduce yourself to a mass listening audience. (More on "Did It For The Girl")

22) Big & Rich - "That's Why I Pray" (May, peaked at #16 in September)
Songwriters: Danelle Leverett, Blair Daly, Sarah Buxton
Say what you want about Big & Rich, but even on their worst songs the dudes sound good harmonizing together, and it's especially evident on ballads such as this and "Holy Water" from their 2004 debut album. You won't find deep theological insight here, only a song about practical, personal, life-affirming, facing-life-head-on faith. And it's one of those songs that just makes you feel good. It seemed to have a lot of momentum after its release but unfortunately only reached as high as #16. Based on that chart performance a cynic might say something snarky about how prayer doesn't work; but, though I can indeed be quite the cynic, I'll just say that even if you don't pray, you might still find yourself humming along.

21) Josh Abbott Band - "I'll Sing About Mine" (November, did not chart)
Songwriters: Brian Keane, Adam Hood
To really let you know what this song is about, I'll just share the lyrics of the chorus with you:

Because tractors ain’t sexy
And workin' is hard
For small town people like me
And the radio's full of rich folks singin'
About places they’ve never seen

Now I ain’t sayin' their lives ain't hard
I'd love to hear about it sometime
Let 'em sing about their own life

And I’ll sing about mine

I would say that's a hell of single to release from their major label debut, one that's certainly going to be pushed for mainstream airplay more than any of their past albums. It's honestly quite surprising that the label let them release it as a single. I always wondered if they were talking about Eric Church with this line: "When you talk about the Dairy Queen, pickup trucks, and Springsteen/ Make the place I love sound like a bad cartoon." But page two in this Billboard Country Update PDF clarifies that Abbott was not knocking Church's "Springsteen," and that he actually likes the song. In the same article co-songwriter Brian Keane says the "Because tractors ain't sexy" line was actually about Jason Aldean's "Big Green Tractor" and not Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." But anyway... It would have been awesome to hear this on mainstream country radio sandwiched in between all those songs it rightfully calls out, but alas, it was not to be. It didn't even chart.

*first number in parentheses is chart position on Billboard Country Songs; second number is chart position on Billboard's recently created Country Airplay chart (which is basically the old Country Songs chart that had been around for decades), unless otherwise noted. (None of this will never not be confusing)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Best Country Singles of 2012 (#40-31)

My 40 favorite country singles of the year include a few guilty pleasures (beginning right off the bat with #40), a couple smash hits, and whole lot of good songs that received little to absolutely zero radio play. If you've ever just grazed by the country station while station-surfing in your car and left it on there for even just a few seconds, you've got a pretty good idea about the state of mainstream country music. Chances are whatever song you might have heard, radio programmers would rather play that same song over and over again or another song just like it than play 20 to 30 songs that appear on this list. There were a few breakthroughs, though, and by "few" I mean two or three. 

I've included in parentheses the month each single was released followed by its chart position reached on both the Billboard Country Songs Chart and the (new) Country Airplay Charts. If you do not know, the original country chart used to essentially only be a radio airplay chart, but a couple months ago Billboard changed its criterion to include online downloads and streams in addition to spins at radio. Subsequently, Taylor Swift's "We Are..blah blah blah" has been #1 on the country chart for God knows how many weeks in a row now... and it BOMBED at country radio. All that to say, I've included both chart numbers because I think including only one would be confusing for both me and you. That is, if I haven't confused you enough already. (More confusion: some songs charted when the Airplay chart wasn't around yet. Those songs only have one number listed.)

Anyway, I hope you find a few songs on this list that you like and a few that you've never heard before. Enjoy.

40) Florida Georgie Line - "Cruise" (Released in August, peaked at #2 in November on Country Songs Chart, currently at #1 on Country Airplay Music Chart)
Songwriters: Brian Kelley, Tyler Hubbard, Joey Moi, Chase Rice, Jesse Rice 
I pray to the music gods that Florida Georgia Line is a one hit wonder -- it would be awful (though absolutely unsurprising) for a bunch of similar songs to get popular on country radio -- but I can't help but bob my head and sing along every time I hear this. It's a "Pontoon"-level smash on the airwaves. The lyrics are terrible, make no mistake about it, but the chorus is sickeningly catchy, especially the part that goes, "This suped-up Chevy with a lift kit/ would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it" part. I know and, yes, I'm ashamed, and even more so for the fact that it took five damn people to write the guilty pleasure of the year.

39) Brad Paisley - "Southern Comfort Zone" (September, peaked at #17 in December, currently number #12 and climbing)
Songwriters: Brad Paisley, Kelly Lovelace, Chris DuBois
From reviews and comments I've read about this song, this has to be the most misunderstood single of the year. Unfairly labeled as Paisley regurgitating another "I'm so country" laundry list song for the masses, it, if anything, is calling out the insane amount of those kinds of songs infiltrating radio waves. It's about getting out of your comfort zone and realizing that not everyone is like you, and that perhaps to really know yourself and really appreciate where you were born and raised, you may have to leave it for a little while. The only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is the production, which is far too overdone and honestly a little bizarre. I'm not sure what Paisley was thinking there.

38) Randy Rogers Band - "One More Sad Song" (July, peaked at #38 in September, #37 in November)
Songwriters: Randy Rogers, Sean McConnell
If you look past all the bells and whistles, this is a really good song. I'm not one to accuse Randy Rogers and company of trying to become Nashville sellouts; after all, this is only one song from their upcoming record called Trouble, to be released February of next year. But I have to admit that they've never sounded quite so produced before. You only have to see who produced it to find out why: Jay Joyce, who was at the helm of Eric Church and Little Big Town's most recent albums, which are both good, especially Church's. But adding those production elements to RRB (and even to LBT to a certain extent) seems a bit like fiddling (no pun intended) too much with a great thing. For "One More Sad Song," Joyce even puts some kind of effect on Rogers' vocal, completely unnecessary for one of the most unique voices in modern country music. With all that said, the chorus is catchy, the lyrics are thoughtful, and it's still Randy Rogers Band. It grows on you after a few spins.

37) Randy Houser - "How Country Feels" (May, currently at #14 & #10 and climbing)
Songwriters: Vickey McGehee, Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher
Hollers and hills, pick-up trucks, and cornfields all make appearances here, but it's truly amazing how a classically excellent vocalist like Houser can effortlessly elevate a song. He makes what would come off as cliche in lesser hands (read: Luke Bryan) actually stand out. But the song is also unique in that the narrator isn't bragging about how proud he is that he's from the country (because that means he's probably cooler than you), he's just trying to show a woman he likes (who was raised on an "asphalt farm") some of the great things he's been able to experience growing up and living away from the bright lights of the city. It's essentially a song about how peaceful, pastoral, and romantic the countryside can be. And he seems to take pride in those qualities in and of themselves and not because he thinks that ladies love country boys.

36) Eli Young Band - "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" (January, peaked at #1 in July)
Songwriters: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay
Country radio has a tendency to overplay a song when they fall in love with it. The song has a great message -- "keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart" -- but this version has just about wore on me. It's still one of the best singles of the year. I wrote some more about it back in July here.

35) Josh Turner - "Find Me A Baby" (October, has not charted yet, currently #51 airplay)
Songwriters: Josh Turner, Frank Rogers
I thought "Time Is Love" was rather boring. "Find Me A Baby" is nothing but light fun, but it's light fun done right, with banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle providing the instrumentation, while rounding everything out is Turner's distinct deep voice, which honestly gives him an advantage over everyone else on just about anything he puts out. Give me this on the radio over faux frat-bag cock-rock any day of the week.

34) Carrie Underwood - "Two Black Cadillacs" (November, currently at #32 & #27 and climbing)
Songwriters: Carrie Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, Josh Kear
Musically, this is an unabashed pop song; lyrically, this song takes pride in fitting firmly within country music's long history of obsession with the theme of murder. And despite some unnecessary background vocals, it all works quite well. It's no secret that Carrie Underwood can sing, and can sing a damn fine sounding country tune when she wants to, but she has more often than not opted to take the pop route. It's the eerie, nuanced, just-detailed-enough storytelling on "Two Black Cadillacs" that makes this one of the best singles she's ever released. With more releases like this, she could really start to carve out her own unique sound at radio.

33) Gwen Sebastian - "Met Him In A Motel Room" (May, peaked at #58 in September)
Songwriters: Rory Feek, Jamie Teachenor
I am a sucker for a song like this, even more so when it's this clever and well done. If you are anything like me, when you saw the title you didn't think "Him" referred to a Jewish carpenter from 2,000 years ago. Up until the end of the first verse when Sebastian sings, "She whispered I ain't ever prayed to you before," it seems pretty obvious that it's going to be a dark and perhaps regretful song about a one night stand or cheating, what with the "curtains drawn" and a "Do Not Disturb sign on the door." But the twist is a good one, and it doesn't wait until the end to reveal itself. Ultimately, it's a song about the dark places we human beings can sometimes find ourselves in. But more than that, it's a song about the strange and funny ways redemption makes itself available to us. Oh, and it is actually country. Thomas Rhett and "Beer With Jesus," eat your heart out. (No wonder it's a good song; it was co-written by Rory Feek of Joey + Rory fame.)

32) The Dirt Drifters - "There She Goes" (February, did not chart)
Songwriters: Jeff Middleton, Matt Fleener, Ryan Fleener, Levi Fleener, Blue Foley
In May The Dirt Drifters posted on their website that they would be not be going on the road in the summer due to some personal issues within the band; all shows were cancelled. I'm not sure if that meant they were taking a short hiatus or breaking up, but hopefully it's the former, because this is a band with real artistic merit that has a great amount of potential for mainstream success. Take "There She Goes" for example: it's catchy, well-produced but not overproduced, sung and played beautifully and in tune (with nary a hint of Autotune), and it's about a heartache. That's really about all I can ask for when it comes to listening to the radio. Hopefully whatever was or is going on within the group can be worked out. I wish them the best. (It apparently took five people to write, but it's still good.)

31) Little Big Town - "Pontoon" (April, peaked at #1 in September)
Songwriters: Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Barry Dean
I'd probably put this song higher if I wasn't just about sick of it. Certainly the song of last summer and maybe the song of the year, radio play for "Pontoon" has been ubiquitous in 2012, and Little Big Town seemingly perform it at every awards show they're invited too. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that -- I mean, it's the biggest hit of their career -- but it's time to move on. I hope the other singles from Tornado won't be overshadowed by it, and hopefully the single released after "Tornado" will be "Sober." I wrote a full review for "Pontoon" around the time it was released here. (As you can tell, I was a little more appreciative of the song back then.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Worst Country Singles of 2012

Feel free to like and enjoy any of the following songs as it suits your pleasure. But you should know there is much, much better out there and you are really missing out. Truthfully, you should only really worry if you like the first song on this list, because you, my friend, have absolutely free-fallen over the edge into the pit of bad music and might just be too far gone to be pulled out of that deep, dark abyss.

Moonshine Bandits - "My Kind of Country" - (If ya feel like me let me hear ya say, HEY, if ya feel like me, if ya feel like me let me hear ya say, HEY, this is my kind of country) - I believe this was technically released in 2011, but the video was made in 2012 and spent a day (maybe more) as's most-viewed music video. I don't think I've ever been more surprised that people actually liked a song than I was with this one. It is truly terrible. The singers can't sing (or rap). And the lyrics? They could have been written in a class called "The Basics of Second Grade" -- no structure, no form, the laziest rhymes. If country radio had picked this up it would have solidified even more the opinion floating around among many that the format simply can't be taken seriously anymore. And so for future reference: we will all know the end has come for country radio when they cross the line of playing Moonshine Bandits. There would just be no turning back after that. The best (worst) part of this song is the pleasant enough acoustic melody at the beginning and how HUGELY misleading it is. Just wait until the twenty-second mark. Friends, you've been warned. I think the joke is on everybody. It's got to be.

Brantley Gilbert - "Kick It In The Sticks" - (It’s BYOB, and I got all we need, yeah boy I’m bout to show me a city slicker how to kick it in the sticks with the critters) - This is not country music. This is bad modern rock for angsty high schoolers. Something country radio got right this year was that they flat out refused to play this song. Thank you, corporate controllers, for once not being corporate pushovers. Also, Brantley Gilbert does not have a good voice.

Tim McGraw - "Truck Yeah" - (Chillin' in the back room, hangin' with my whole crew, sippin' on a cold brew, hey now!) The worst thing Tim McGraw has ever done and the worst single released to country radio this year. He should be embarrassed for recording this stupid, substance-less abomination.

Thomas Rhett - "Beer With Jesus" - I don't know anybody who
wouldn't genuinely want to sit down and have a beer with the savior, but I'll be damned if that imagined experience doesn't deserve a better song than this. It contains no depth or insight; it simply recycles the overdone sentiment of "Oh Lord, how could you forgive someone like me?" and questions like "Do you hear my prayers?" and "What happens when we die?" There's nothing necessarily wrong with that sentiment and those questions, but it never hurt to at least come up with a mildly creative way to state them. Singing it with the country-accent notch turned to eleven doesn't make it more meaningful, it only serves to make the song's pandering all the more obvious. Jesus never seemed so dull and uninteresting.

Darius Rucker - "True Believers" - Similar to "Beer With Jesus" in that it says nothing new about a subject that has been sung about to death in all genres of music: the "they said we'd never make it but look at us now" kind of song. Darius Rucker's country music career has a lot of potential, but he's gone from releasing a few good singles at the start of it to releasing songs with choruses so egregiously cliche that you can hardly bear to listen. The best anthems don't try so hard to be anthems. True love never seemed so boring and vague.

Michael Dean Church - "That's How We Roll" - I'd never heard of this guy, but this song is yet another "countrier than thou" cliche-ridden checklist song. Bocephus, creeks, dirt roads, and the phrase "crank it on up" all make appearances. The chorus tries desperately to be catchy, repeating words like "know, know, know" and "roll, roll, roll," but it comes off exactly as it is: totally uninspired.

Dustin Lynch - "She Cranks My Tractor" - (I go fast, she hollers faster, she's the first one up the hayloft ladder, a girl like that's what a country boy's after, she cranks she cranks she cranks my tractor) - Read those lyrics again. Honestly. What the shit? "Cowboys and Angels" was decent by country radio standards and gave hope to listeners that neo-traditionalism wasn't completely dead on the airwaves. Then Lynch went and spat straight into his own eye when he released this hard-to-believe-it's-not-a-joke song that Kenny Chesney could probably sue him over. Disappointing and utterly unsurprising.

Craig Morgan - "Corn Star" - (Cut off jeans and a tight tank top with a big red mower on it, make you wanna be a farmer don't it?) - Craig Morgan proved three things with this song: 1) He's trying way too hard to get radio to play his new stuff, 2) He will sink to any level to try and make that happen, and 3) Radio is not going to play his new stuff anymore. Just like Tim McGraw, Morgan should be embarrassed for releasing this song, but as a fast track to a country radio comeback, one honestly can't really blame him for giving this a try. Country radio has played far, far worse.

James Wesley - "Walking Contradiction" - (I love my momma, hell-raisin' Christian, a midnight running walking contradiction) - Wesley has a fairly good voice but a vision severely lacking creativity when it comes to recording singles. "Walking Contradiction" takes a little bit of "Beer With Jesus" and a little bit of "That's How We Roll," mixes the themes from those two songs together, and hopes the masses eat it up. And is it just me, or do a million songs start with pretty much this exact same guitar riff?

Parmalee - "Musta Had A Good Time" - You know whether you are going to love or hate this song from the opening hard rock riff. And I know whether I'm going to love or hate you by how you feel about this song (just kidding). But whether you love it or hate it, you should immediately be able to recognize that it is not country music. I am not completely against odes to nights about getting wasted and forgetting what happened, but this song wears is shallowness and trashiness on its sleeve. I don't even want to know how they came up with their band name.

Miranda Lambert - "Fastest Girl In Town" - I have much respect for Miranda Lambert and she seems to be one of the few "real deals" in mainstream country music. But something about this song rubbed me wrong from the beginning. It's mostly due to the massively cluttered hard rock production, but the boring lyrics that try too hard to be clever don't help the cause either. She's better than this.

Now that the bad stuff's out of the way, stay tuned for a few upcoming posts on what I think are songs of the year in general, and also the best singles released to country radio in 2012.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Album Review: The Trishas - "High, Wide & Handsome"

Around the beginning of May earlier this year, I discovered what has become one of my favorite bands, the Turnpike Troubadours. Having just read a review of their new album at the time, Goodbye Normal Street, as is quite natural I went and purchased the album they released two years before that called Diamonds and Gasoline. This purchase was based off of just one listen of the country-rocker "7 & 7." I was hooked immediately, and that doesn't happen very often.

I am rambling, which I tend to do, so allow me an attempt at reaching the point: After completely wearing out Diamonds, I finally purchased the excellent Goodbye Normal Street and was quickly taken by track number five, "Call A Spade A Spade," a stunning, harmony-soaked throwback to the classic country duets of old, featuring vocals for the ever-important female portion of the song by one Jamie Wilson, whose name I had never ran across before. After hearing that voice, so solid, so emotional and on the verge of breaking, and with (to my ears) a little hint of Iris Dement, a quick Google search later yielded the discovery of The Trishas, the all-female quartet of which Jamie Wilson is a part.

After releasing an EP a couple years ago (They Call Us The Trishas) and a single late last year ("Drive"), perhaps to keep current fans satiated and the blogosphere abuzz, the group at last released their first full-length album on August 7th of 2012. It is a strange grace that I only discovered the group a few months ago, so I did not have to wait long for new music to come down the pike -- which, after hearing the EP and the single and watching clips of them on Youtube (filmed by Music Fog) singing their hearts out -- still couldn't come soon enough. Suffice it to say that however long one had anticipated the release of High, Wide & Handsome, the wait has proven well worth it.

The most obvious thing that sticks out about The Trishas are the beautiful harmonies, which in my mind somewhat resemble Little Big Town if that group was all female and not so slickly produced on record. High, Wide & Handsome is crisp but not slick, organic yet full and alive. Each voice is allowed to breathe, both alone and together, and when that first wall of four-part harmony hits on the lead track called "Mother of Invention," you'll remember why you love music. The least obvious thing about The Trishas are the lyrics, and that's only because it takes awhile for you to really hear them, for their heart, soul, wit, and poetry to shine through, simply because the hook with which the harmonies reel you in is so sharp. With that said, here are my thoughts on High, Wide & Handsome track by track. (Sidenote: Song by song reviews do not lend themselves to conciseness and are perhaps even a little self-indulgent. But for me it is an exercise in honing my music writing. It also allows [and demands] me too dig deeper into an album so that I know what I want to say about each song other than "it's good" or "super catchy," and I figure what better album to attempt that than on one of my favorites of 2012. So here goes. One last thing: brevity is not my strong suit anyway, and much less so in a song by song review; for that I apologize. I do hope those of you who make it through to the end enjoy reading and, more importantly, are convinced to take the journey this record takes you on yourself.)

1) Mother of Invention (songwriters: Jamie Wilson, Natalie Hemby) - With a chorus that says, "Turn an old wagon wheel into a chandelier hanging from the ceiling/ Move the mirror from the chifferobe into the hall where it's more appealing/ It's the lack of creature comforts that make you pay a little bit more attention/ Yes indeed, necessity is the mother of invention," track one could be a sort of philosophical statement for the band. Take it as it comes; use what you've got; do what you can; be creative. Immediately the strengths of the the group are displayed: unique individual voices that yet seem like they were made to sing together (Jamie Wilson starts things off but I believe every member sings individually on this one), catchy melodies, literate and clever lyrics, and uncompromisingly country instrumentation (fiddle, mandolin). I believe it's a song that does a great job of letting the listener know whether they want to stick around or not. And with everybody that answer should be a resounding "Yes."

2) Strangers (Jamie Wilson, Kelley Mickwee, John Eddie) - Truly as good as country music gets, and by that I mean that this is a beautifully sad song. Savannah Welch takes the lead here, imbuing lyrics like "I miss the me I used to be" and "I barely recognize myself" with a vulnerability and sense of tragedy that brings the truth of them home, allows them to be feelings rather than just words. It's a song about the dark side of marriage, about being with someone for a time and then realizing it's gotten to a point where you don't know them, they don't know you, and you don't know you. The second verse attempts to put words to this unexplainable disconnect: "Sometimes when the light's just right/ It's you who's kissin' me goodnight/ When the morning comes it's her I find instead/ Who are these strangers in our bed?" On top of that, memories are conjured up by detailed imagery ("Wedding pictures on the TV set") and the line that encapsulates it all ("There's nothing stranger than being strangers"). In short, this is a song that goes on that playlist you have of songs you listen to by yourself with a bottle.

3) Little Sweet Cigars (Jamie Wilson, Evan Felker) - Evan Felker is the lead singer and primary songwriter for the Turnpike Troubadours, and this song has his name all over it. It'd fit perfectly on that band's Goodbye Normal Street, and is similar in tempo and rhythm to "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" on that album. It's a song about a young girl who falls for an older man who smells like "little sweet cigars." She is immediately smitten: "Your hand it held my own right through the corridor of cars/ and led me to the world of wishing wells and shooting stars." Of course, the narrative from this point can only lead to one place: heartbreak. She slowly begins to realize what a slick talker he is and how she is being deceived: "When you're kissed by a fool then you're fooled by a kiss." Yet even at the end of  the song, perhaps garnering a sense of humor about her mistakes or living in defiance of regret, she states, "But looking at it now I might have done it all the same." In other words, she learned a lot. The production is rounded out by a smooth electric guitar, fast drumbeat, and subtle "oohs" and "aahs" for background vocals. It almost sounds like a more melodic, more angelic Johnny Cash song, thanks in no small part to the superb lead vocals of Jamie Wilson.

4) Liars and Fools (Kelley Mickwee, Jason Eady) - This song gets right to the point by starting with its simple, catchy, and brilliant chorus: "If I had to choose between liars and fools/ Then I'd choose the fools every time/ 'Cause liars they live in their own little world/ While the fools lay it all on the line." I mean, just try not singing along to that. The simple lyrics are complimented by simple yet effective bluegrassy instrumentation: fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, tambourine. Kelley Mickwee proves herself to be excellent on lead vocals, singing with a gorgeous, defiant earthiness that is rich with emotion and even a little celebratory. And together with Jason Eady she comes up with lyrical gems like this: "And if I get burned I wanna get burned by the fire/ Not hiding from the ashes in the trees." Be sure to listen closely to the last verse as well for a clever twist that calls into question the reliability of the narrator. She's nothing if not honest and proud about it.

5) Cheater's Game (Savannah Welch, Liz Foster, Bruce Robison) - Commanding lead vocals on this track is Liz Foster, who to my ears is the most "classically soulful" sounding singer in The Trishas. It adds a needed layer to the four-part harmonies and certainly stands out when going it alone. As the title of the song might suggest, "Cheater's Game" is a play on the classic trope of cheating in country music songwriting. It's another tale of a strong woman going through some tribulation, who in the end is going to be just fine and perhaps come out of it with a better sense of identity. This is exemplified at the end of the song with the zinger of a line, "Anyone here can see all the ways that she ain't me/ And I know you gotta hate that perfume." I'm not 100% sure, but I'd be willing to bet that, woman to woman, that's about as sharp a putdown as one can make.

6) Looking At Me (Jamie Wilson) - Jamie Wilson is in full control of this song, taking on songwriting and lead vocal duties all on her own. It contains one of the best lyrics on the album, one that is alone worth the price: "Well, a fire burns slow if you know how to build it/ The heat travels up from the ground toward the trees/ And when the winds change, I know smoke follows beauty/ I follow it up till it's you that I see." There's just really not much one can say after that. A man can say he's been fortunate in life when he's had such things sung about him. This ballad rests gently on instrumentation that includes acoustic guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, and a heartbreaking vocal performance by Jamie Wilson.

7) Why (Liz Foster, Kelley Mickwee) - This is a song about scumbag guys and the girls who, for one reason or another, find it hard to leave them. It is essentially a song about how every woman desires to be treated. The man the song speaks to obviously does not know how to treat a woman: he talks down to her, robs her of her inner peace, and doesn't call her "baby." The narrator admonishes him, "If you love me, be a man, treat me right." It is something of a scathing indictment, not only of guys who are douchebags to their women, but of guys who simply don't respect women in general and don't seem to understand the little, simple things that play a big part in making a relationship work. In a way, however, some of the blame also lies on the woman for continuing to give him a chance. Her admonishments thus far are only threats not promises: "Leave you, I just might," she says. Instrumentally, the song is quite spare, allowing the soaring four-part harmonies to fly even higher.

8) Over Forgiving You (Savannah Welch, Jason Eady) - Jason Eady, whose album AM Country Heaven, was released earlier this year, lends his immense songwriting talents to this heartbreakingly defiant tune while his co-writer Savannah Welch takes lead vocal duties. And Welch sings the hell out of this song; providing a nice balance to the somewhat laid back production, there is a fragility to her voice that makes it sound as if with every line she sings she is trying to hold back tears. That's because moving on is hard, and this is song about that moment in someone's life when they decide to move past a painful memory, choosing not let the pain dictate the course of their life. A man has ended the relationship with the narrator, and not on good terms. My favorite part of the song is the lyrical daggers that Eady and Welch come up with: "You left me fighting for my life/ That's a hell of a high road to take;" "It's been a long time darling, since you went and ran off like you did/ Must've took a lot of courage/ The way you went and ran off like you did;" and to cap it all off at the end of the song, "The hardest part of getting over, comes down to what you rise above." The most telling and interesting line is the one from which the title derives: "I'm through with missing you, over forgiving you today." She never comes right out and says that she forgives him. If fact, I would argue that this is song about the insanely difficult nature of forgiveness, and how the narrator simply can't find it in herself to do (yet), but she still decides to "get over" anyway for her life's own sake. And perhaps there is a little satisfaction for her in the fact that he left her all alone, and now that's what he is. Electric and steel guitars round out production that sounds full but decidedly uncluttered. For lack of a better term, it's a very pretty piece of heartbreaking music to listen to. This right here, folks, is exquisite songwriting.

9) One Down (Kelley Mickwee, Brandy Zdan) - Joining Mickwee on songwriting duties is Brandy Zdan, who opened for and (I believe) played additional instruments for The Trishas on their tour supporting the release of High, Wide & Handsome. I must admit that I haven't quite figured out the meaning of this song yet, which I am fine with. Some songs take longer than others to reveal themselves, some perhaps never do, and time may reveal that some meanings you thought you had discovered have slowly changed and become something else entirely. That's simply what art does. "One Down" seems vaguely to be about a relationship, perhaps a passionate one that ends abruptly, but the nuances of its genesis and demise are left open to interpretation based on the stark images presented. And it's in the imagery that the song finds its strongest aspect: heat and burning and flames ("If there's nothing left to burn/ Set yourself on fire") and colors (I'm a solid white line, you're black and blue/ The rust stains swell, red comin' through"). Mickwee lays down an impressive vocal that is restrained when necessary.

10) Cold Blooded Love (Liz Foster, Dustin Welch) - It's fitting that this song follows "One Down," because melodically and musically these two songs stand out from the rest of the album. "Cold Blooded Love" sounds like a cabaret style lounge song that would fit snugly somewhere in Over the Rhine's catalogue. The first time I heard it I immediately thought it would be the perfect song for a David Lynch film like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. It's got a spooky melody, and if I remember those movies correctly, Lynch loves a good scene full of symbolism that takes place in a cabaret lounge. The theme of the song is encapsulated from the outset by the first line: "With every gleam of light there comes a burning flame." In other words, what can seem good for you at first can ultimately end up destroying you. In this case there's a man who the narrator feels wrong but "so right" about at the same time. He was at first an answer to hopes and prayers, but now he's only a sickness. What the cure? Allow Liz Foster to belt out the answer: "Now that man is a deadly disease and the only remedy/ Oh man, I can't take it, but I can't shake myself clean." Now who hasn't felt that way; you dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole, and by some backwards form of logic, you feel the only way to dig yourself out is to dig even deeper. (Oh, to be human!) Foster absolutely belts this one, and the background vocals from the other Trishas on the chorus only add to the spooky dark humor of the whole affair. There are also a couple of sweet fiddle solos throughout the song that are not showy but accentuate the mood. A nice change of pace.

11) Rainin' Inside (Kelley Mickwee, Kevin Welch) - "Billie Holliday is killing me." Do first lines get better than that? I'm not even familiar with that much of Holliday's music and the line does for me what it's supposed to: it let's me know this is going to be a sad fucking song (I suppose the title tilts me toward that direction as well). It's a beautiful, simple, emotionally true song about heartbreak and the power of music to give you something and someone to relate to in its midst; it's about "dropping the needle" on an old vinyl record, sitting alone in your favorite chair, and just listening (ahem...alcohol may be involved). The beautiful image of a woman sitting by herself in a room in her house while rain comes down all around her is created; tonight, there is no shelter that can protect her from her pain. It's raining inside, literally, but also raining inside of herself; her heart, her soul.

12) The Fool (Courtney Patton) - The only song on High, Wide & Handsome that one of the Trishas didn't co-write is one where they all chime in on the singing. You know the song must be special if they didn't have a hand in writing it; it is. "The Fool" is a standout track on an album full of them. Instrumentation that includes mandolin and steel guitar is augmented by melancholy lyrics about a girl who is chasing everything that's bad for her. The tragedy lies in the fact that she doesn't know it, and if she does, that makes it even more tragic. "Let's talk about this fool that I'm sure we both know," the song starts. This line tells the listener that the subject of the song is someone who's made some bad decisions, someone perhaps the narrator can relate to more than they'd like to admit, someone perhaps who is the narrator. When the banjo kicks in on the third verse and that first line is repeated as the last, it becomes clear that the this is, by extension, a song about the listener as well. We've all before been that "fool" in love.

13) John Wayne Cowboy (Jamie Wilson, Owen Temple) - This is probably the swampiest, most upbeat, and most fun track on the record. The arrangement, the melody, and that steel guitar just sound downright dirty. Jamie Wilson is singing here about a certain type of man, one who doesn't come off as a faux-machismo douchebag, but as authentic. He's a rough-and-tumble, look-you-in-the-eye, firm-handshake, no bullshit kind of man. Some would call this type of man John Wayne-esque, hence the title of the song. It probably references a few of his movies, but I'm only familiar with The Searchers so I may have missed a few of them. But it doesn't matter when a song's this good. The worst part about it is the steel guitar solo that kicks in around the 2:50 mark doesn't last nearly long enough. Still, it is five seconds of beautiful twangy brilliance.

14) Gold & Silver (Liz Foster, Stephen Simmons) - What better way to end an album than a song about a man who imagines the type of girl he could get if only he had money, and a narrator (the girl) who assures him: "You think that you look better in gold and silver/ But gold and silver won't make you mine." It's a bit of a statement song that flies in the face of society's rules when it comes to romantic love. It flies in the face of what seems to have almost become a social norm. (As an aside, the song does not state that unemployment without the desire for employment is an attractive quality.) Hollywood year after year churns out stories about this kind of love from the fake factory in an attempt to capture what this three minute song does, but they aren't nearly as earnest or honest, as sweet or practical as "Gold & Silver."

15) A Far Cry From You (bonus track from digital album version) (Kelly Mickwee, Savannah Welch, Jim Lauderdale) - Co-written with the great Jim Lauderdale and featuring Raul Malo's tasteful, unmistakeable guitar and gorgeous harmonies, this is one hell of a bonus track. I can only imagine the reason it wasn't technically part of the final album (it would fit great somewhere in the middle) is because fourteen is already an immense number of songs. As many can probably deduce from the title, it's about trying to overcome the hold a past love has on you, but to your detriment you keep comparing your current potential mates to this person of the past. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, and it sounds impeccable.

With all that said -- if you can't tell, I think you should own this album. I believe there is a certain sort of timeless quality to roots music in general, and The Trishas have created something with High, Wide & Handsome that tends toward that direction, which -- this being their first full-length album -- is mighty impressive. These ladies are without question the americana/roots band to watch over the next few years, and if there was in any justice in the world they would be on the brink of blowing up the country charts. But, in truth, the songs here are so authentic that it would be jarring to hear one of them crammed between Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan.

I'm looking forward with much anticipation to watching The Trishas grow as songwriters. They have set the bar pretty damn high for themselves with High, Wide & Handsome and even with They Call Us The Trishas, but that's just what great artists do. A wellspring of good songs comes from a foundation of genuine talent, which is absolutely what this quartet has running through its veins. And the best part is this is only the beginning.

*Visit The Trishas' website for song samples, lyrics, & to purchase an album, and also for a great write-up that tells about some of the history of the band and about the new album.

*Also, visit Music Fog to watch some excellent videos recorded of The Trishas, with a short write-up accompanying each one.