While 2011 was a bland and boring year for mainstream country music where anthems to dirt roads, tales about being someone’s honey bee, and odes to plastic party accessories were all over the radio, it did feature some bright spots. There was even one artist I thought was so constantly strong, two of their singles made my top ten for the year. I would’ve added this person’s latest as a third, but two in one top ten is more than enough.
So in addition to complaining about those songs that seem to have taken country music off track, let’s take a moment and celebrate what was good about country music in 2011. And judging by my list, you have to remember that just because a song spent four or five weeks at #1, doesn’t mean it’s of good quality. So here’s my list of favorite songs, all released as singles in 2011.
I’ll have the rest of my list, numbers 11-45, on my own blog later this month.
10. Randy Houser – “In God’s Time”
The balance between religion and spirituality in American popular culture is often shaky – there are those who believe in the teachings derived from texts and others who choose to let a higher power guide them, but don’t necessarily tie it to a particular faith. As there are those who happily merge the two.
Houser’s tale of letting life work itself out by surrendering to a greater force is the ultimate definition of spirituality, the study of the soul. In realty, “Time” is a fundamental lesson in how to live your life – “But no one knows, not you or me, it might be tomorrow or it might never be. Oh, but don’t lose faith. Put it in His hands. ‘Cause it might be that He might have a bigger plan. Than you had in mind. Miracles happen, in God’s time.”
Very rarely does a singer emerge from the shadows to clearly leave their mark by just a song, but Houser has here. Not only is he among the greatest living of all country singers, but also he may be the best trying to have chart success today.
“Time” is nothing short of a masterpiece, a classic and iconic statement from a living profit. Problem is, Houser occupies his time with distracting southern rock – a decision marking his downfall. If he only understood that he was put here to create songs like this, he would sour into the heavens, and fill the shoes of the ilk in his wake.
9. Chris Young – “Tomorrow”
Love is like the ultimate drug. It can be good for you or act like a poison seeping in through your pours. But even worse than the ache of love is the promise of doing something tomorrow, which is always a day away.
Young knows he and this woman shouldn’t be together since they’re “like fire and gasoline” and he understands “We only bring each other tears and sorrow,” but like hell if he’s going to waste this final chance to touch the forbidden fruit. He’s going to love her tonight, not as though tomorrow is a day away, but as though it isn’t coming at all.
You can feel the building desperation in Young’s vocal as he tries to convince himself of his reality, even going as far as to let out his primal scream – “Baby when we’re good, you know we’re great, But there’s too much bad for us to think that there’s anything worth trying to save.”
If any song from recent memory demands an answer it’s this one. So here’s Young’s side of events but where’s hers? In just over three and a half minutes, Young, and co-writers Frank J. Myers and Anthony L. Smith have crafted the shining example of country music in 2011 – not too loud nor to soft and with just enough angst to make it believable. Never have Young sounded this good, and in a market of oversexed girls chasing men unwilling to grow up, never has country music been this adult.
8. Taylor Swift – “Mean”
Always quick on her feet, Swift has created a song around the known notion she doesn’t have the greatest range in her singing voice. In reality, she crafted not only the countriest single of her career but one of the most traditional sounding songs on country radio in 2011.
7. Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”
Written following Harlan Howard’s death in 2002, Matraca Berg and Deana Carter have crafted one hell of a drinking song. But it took nine years and the resident beach bum to team up with a knockout rock goddess to turn it into the anthem it was always meant to be.
6. Zac Brown Band – “Keep Me In Mind”
Sure it’s a tightly rehearsed jam band sing-a-long, but “Keep Me In Mind” is an infectious high energy delight that proves Zac Brown Band are at the forefront for interesting mainstream country music in 2011. Their choice to be a little different helps them stand out and gain the attention they deserve. With Lady Antebellum consistently stealing their fire they haven’t risen to the “industry darling” status they are so worthy of. But that isn’t for a lack of great songs like this.
5. Taylor Swift – “Sparks Fly”
In typical Taylor Swift fashion she’s singing about love and rainstorms. But she’s not the teenager in lust anymore – she wants to be met atop the staircase while he whispers something slow. It’s a journey worth embarking on as he’ll find out she’s better than he ever thought she’d be. Swift is growing up before our eyes and with each single, adding another layer to her assent into adulthood. The sparks are flying, indeed.
4. Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Livin’”
Written during the economic downturn in 2008, the label told Dunn the economy would have recovered by the time this would see the light of day as a single. Proving they should keep their day jobs as record execs, they were dead wrong. Not only hasn’t America recovered, its only gotten worse. And the longer the cost of living rises, the deeper Dunn’s masterful social document resonates.
Like all the emotion-driven classics of late, “Cost of Livin’” pairs a masterful vocal with tasteful production and creates the kind of song not heard on the boondocks-driven country radio of late. But unlike the likes of “In Color” or “The House That Built Me,” “Livin’” taps into the consciousness of America in a way only the most powerful of country songs can – think “Okie From Muskogee,” “Take This Job and Shove It,” or “Café On The Corner” – it’s a snapshot of our times, a historical text of a nation limping into an uncertain future.
3. Billy Currington – “Like My Dog”
It’s easy to see that Currington is trying. In his catalog of hits he’s retained more traditional country sounds than most any of his wildly popular contemporaries. Problem is, his arrangements are often backing inane lyrics (“Pretty Good At Drinking Beer”).
“Like My Dog” brings Currington back to displaying the charm he found wild success with in “People Are Crazy.” While it isn’t as good as it’s predecessor, “Dog” wins out with its true to life tale making the comparison between a man’s love for his pet and his girlfriend. Problem is, comparing the two is completely unfair, the dog wins out every time. But it makes for a fantastic song and Currington does everything right to bring it to life.
2. J.T. Hodges – “Hunt You Down”
He’s leaving town and the girl he’s totally in lust over. She doesn’t want to end things forever, telling him to “look me up when you get back to town.” He responds with an affirmatively by telling her, “Hell I’m gonna hunt you down.”
But the shock about this song is the execution. It’s easily the most infectious country single of 2011, complete with whistling and an acoustic arrangement so delightful it harkens back to the good ole days of the 90s. Isn’t it nice t0 actually enjoy a mainstream country single these days?
1. Adele – “Someone Like You”
He’s remarried, but for her the love they shared still runs deep. She shows up out of the blue to his house hoping he’ll remember what they once shared. But she needed to see for herself if the rumor of his getting serious with another woman really was true. This relationship may be over, but she’s vowing to find someone just like him as if any two relationships could ever be exactly the same.
In a rare example of good taste, producer Dan Wilson keeps the production to a minimum to allow the ache to shine trough in Adele’s otherworldly vocal. While not released to the country market, it’s easily the best country song in ages, harking back to the glory days of the 90s when Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and the ilk were commonplace on the radio. And like their classic work, “Someone Like You” is a masterpiece, taking pain and denial to depths rarely reached in the years since. For someone with his or her whole life ahead of them, Adele is only 23; “Someone Like You” is going to be near impossible to top.