Monday, July 30, 2012

Best Country Singles of 2012 You Haven't Heard

It's no surprise that many of the best songs released to country radio fail to make a blip on the charts. Even when some of country music's most popular stars release a song that's a little "different" for mainstream audiences (read: sad, authentic, or tells a heartfelt story), radio programmers and the powers that be tend to shrivel up in fear and refuse to play it. It's not "what the audience wants to hear." What they are really saying, however, is that the song wasn't churned out by "a few bros" before lunch on Monday morning over a cup of coffee, sent to production and compressed to smitherines, and made bereft of all possible soul and genuine emotion, all in the name of not offending the "target audience." There are, of course, a few exceptions. The following songs display a strength of songwriting that is rarely present on the airwaves, and that's why they were not or most likely will not be played. I'm sure I missed a few of the best (I couldn't find a composite list of singles released to country radio in 2012), but these are some of my favorites.

Josh Thompson - "Comin' Around" - With production that contains both banjo and steel guitar front and center in the mix, "Comin' Around" follows Thompson's minor hits "Beer on the Table" and "Way Out Here." A little ironically, the first lines are, "It was like nails on a chalkboard when Daddy played his kind of music/ If you'd have asked me then I'd have said it was borderline abusive/ But I'm gettin' to where I don't mind it now/ I'm comin' around." The way Thompson felt about his father's music back then is how I feel about many songs on today's country airwaves. And anytime there are rumblings of a coming change underneath the surface, something is put out there that makes it evident radio isn't coming around at all. (Peaked at #31)

Wade Bowen - "Saturday Night" - Another product of the Texas music scene, Wade Bowen had the audacity to release a song about how going out on Saturday night can sometimes suck. According to current mainstream "country" culture, if you don't write a song about how going out and getting wasted is always so much damn fun, and instead write a song about how a lot of the time it ain't that damn much fun at all, you are bound to be taken for a crazy person. Of course, this is ultimately a song about heartbreak, which certainly colors the way the narrator feels about this particular Saturday night. But still. (Peaked at #39)

Kellie Pickler - "100 Proof" - I have listened to the songs from her latest project of the same title (though not yet thoroughly) and, well, it's pretty clear from even one listen that the album and singles released from it were not destined to take the mainstream by storm; it's simply too old-school. Granted, that would have been great, and I'm sure that's ultimately what Pickler would love to have happened. But even though she's a fairly household name due to her appearance on and subsequent fame garnered from American Idol, country radio simply did not give Kellie Pickler a chance this time around. This particular song just sounds good, with steel guitar and Picker's twangily strong vocals heavily featured; it's a traditional, or at least neo-traditional, song pleasantly updated for today's mainstream audience with it's soul more than intact. Unfortunately, soulless is what's popular. (Peaked at #50)

The Mavericks - "Born To Be Blue" - Those unmistakeable jangly guitars are back and they haven't lost a bit of the sound or urgency that made them temporary successes with the mainstream back in the 90s. I remember really liking every single they released in those days. Though I couldn't come close to putting my finger on it back then, looking back now I realize there was always something different about them; they stood out, even to my young ears. "Born To Be Blue" picks up right where The Mavericks left it when they split -- the Roy Orbison-esque vocals of Raul Malo, the driving percussion, the heartbroken lyrics mixed with the light-hearted-good-time-jangly-downright-danceable instrumentation, executed by the members of the band with considerable skill and cohesion. It's yet to be seen whether signing with an offshoot imprint under the umbrella of label Big Machine Records (the new kings of Music Row) will translate to success in the format once again, but either way it's good to have them back. (Currently at #49)

 Josh Abbott Band - "Touch" - I really need to listen to more of this group. They have been mighty popular in the Red Dirt/Texas scene (are you noticing a trend here?), and even tasted mild country radio success with the beautiful mandolin-soaked number "Oh Tonight" in the summer of last year (the single reached #44). Abbott's vocals bear a striking resemblance to another of Texas country music's finest, and one of my favorites, Randy Rogers. Lyrically, their latest single "Touch" is your pretty standard telling of a love gone wrong (though the line "Can't stop starin'/ My eyes keep takin' off what you're wearin'" does stand out), but it's so passionately sung by Abbott and played by the band that the emotional payoff is extraordinary, which isn't the easiest thing do to with a fiddle- and organ-laced country rocker. If this one doesn't crack them into the mainstream consciousness in a similar way that Eli Young Band's "Crazy Girl" did for that group, then hopefully the next track released off their Small Town Family Dream album will do the job. (Currently at #41)

George Strait - "Drinkin' Man" - 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. (Peaked at #37)

Turnpike Troubadours - "Gin, Smoke, Lies" - 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)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Best Singles of 2012 So Far (that actually had/have a chance at radio)

There are bright spots to be found on country radio; songs that don't name check trucks, songs trying to keep traditional country alive to the small degree that it can be done in the Clear Channel era, and even a few pop-country guilty pleasures. The following is a list of my favorite songs released to country radio this year that radio actually gave, or is giving, a chance to succeed, slight chance though it may be for some of them. They are in no particular order except for the top five at the bottom.

Greg Bates - "Did It For the Girl" - I just heard this song the other day and was immediately impressed with it. Sure, it's nothing new, but it sounds good and is so damn catchy. It's about as neo-traditional as country radio gets these days. We'll see what his album sounds like, but with the sound of this new single, Greg Bates has a chance at becoming the new Easton Corbin.

Big & Rich - "That's Why I Pray" - Call me crazy, but I think the new one from Big & Rich sounds unique in the mainstream country landscape, partly for the unmistakeable harmonies and a verse style that makes the song stand out. Big & Rich display here an ability to write and sing positively about personal faith without pandering or putting down those who don't believe.

Eli Young Band - "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" - Another song with a positive message, this is one that begs the listener to keep on dreaming no matter what. Failure is not only an option, it's a guarantee. But you keep doing whatever it takes no matter how many times the odds reload against you. Veterans of the Texas music scene, Eli Young Band have taken country radio by storm. Here's hoping they stick to their Texas roots and don't go too corporate Nashville on us.

Easton Corbin - "Lovin' You Is Fun" - His upcoming album is one of my most anticipated of the year. "Roll With It" and "Leaving a Lonely Town" from his impressive debut were both stunning songs. "Lovin' You Is Fun" is, well, a fun song about being in love, and probably a good choice for a first single off the new album. It's catchy, light-hearted, and confessional, and every Easton Corbin song already starts out with one advantage: his voice.

Gloriana - "Kissed You (Goodnight)" - I check the singles charts every Thursday. I kept seeing this song for a few weeks without ever hearing it, thinking, "Dear Lord, what have they come out with this time?" But much to my surprise, when I heard it for the first time I was already singing the chorus before the song was over. It tells a pretty good story, simple though it may be, that we can all relate to. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but this is one of the most infectious singles of the year.

Lady Antebellum - "Dancin' Away With My Heart" - Okay. I would totally get it if you stopped reading right now. Gloriana and Lady Antebellum back to back on a 'best of' country radio list? Well... oh well. This one sells nostalgia beautifully, and the group's best asset, their harmonies, really shine on this one. For me, it joins the company of "Lookin' For a Good Time" and "American Honey" as one of their best singles.

Little Big Town - "Pontoon" - Without a doubt, the song of the summer in my opinion. I'm honestly surprised at how slow it's rising on the country charts (currently it sits at number 15, but it's at number 13 on the all-genre iTunes singles chart). I wouldn't be surprised in the least if it becomes their first number one, but I also wouldn't be surprised if radio programmers shaft them yet again. Somehow they always seem to find a way. (My earlier review of "Pontoon" can be found HERE.)

Tim McGraw - "Better Than I Used To Be" - One of his best singles in years, especially coming after the lazy unabashedly aiming-for-the-soccer-mom-deomagraphic "Felt Good On My Lips," which is one of the worst of his career. "Better Than I Used To Be," with its poignant self-reflective lyrics, conjures up similar feelings to past McGraw singles "My Next Thirty Years" and "Angry All the Time." I only wish we were going to get more like this from the singer after his departure from Curb Records, rather than embarrassing, pathetically bad songs like "Truck Yeah." (Do yourself a favor and check out Sammy Kershaw's excellent take on the song as well.)

Zac Brown Band - "The Wind" - ZBB have only had two singles not reach the number one position ("Whatever It Is" and "Keep Me In Mind" only reached number two) on the charts. "The Wind" really shows the band at its bluegrassy best: they are ferocious pickers and players of their respective instruments. The song moves at such blistering speed that the lyrics at first seem unimportant. But after you hear it a few times, you realize the lyrical depth is there, which is rare for a such an up-tempo single. Try sitting still and not singing along or tapping your toe when this one comes on (careful if driving).

Chris Young - "Neon" - The best song on his most recent album of the same name, this neo-traditional classic is--to the surprise of no one-- very slowly making its way up the charts. If I were less cynical about country radio, I would blame the director and whomever else was responsible for the atrocious video for "Neon." But I am indeed quite cynical when it comes to country radio; simply put, they rarely know a good country song when they hear one anymore. If they did, this would be the fastest rising single of Young's career. (My review of "Neon" from earlier this year can be found HERE.)

Eric Church - "Springsteen" - Church's second straight number one is a piano-laced affair driven by steady drums, crisp production, and non-pandering nostalgia. It's a song that, despite desperate wishes to the contrary by some, proves Eric Church isn't going anywhere anytime soon. (More thoughts on "Springsteen" can be found HERE.)

Alan Jackson - "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" - One of the best singles of Jackson's storied career, this song was all over the video countdowns on CMT and GAC, but of course failed to strike much of a chord at radio. It's only on the "singles that radio actually gave a chance" list because it at least cracked the top 30. Depressingly, Jackson hasn't had a song reach the top ten since 2009's "Sissy's Song," (number nine) and I'm not sure which song on his latest album, Thirty Miles West, would have the best chance at breaking that streak. Another duet with Zac Brown would be helpful, but unfortunately not one that's seven minutes long (see "Dixie Highway" from Thirty Miles West). Perhaps "Talk Is Cheap"? (My earlier review of "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" can be found HERE.)