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. CMT.com 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