My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Category Archives: Year In Review

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 240,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 10 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 was actually a slightly better year for country music than the past several years, though you’d never know it from listening to country radio. A lot of my old favorites released new albums this year, so it was a little easier than usual for me to find new music to listen to. Here are my favorite releases of 2011:

10. Working in Tennessee – Merle Haggard
While the material was not quite up to the standards of last year’s I Am What I Am, Haggard shows that he’s not ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Though he’s well past his vocal peak, his music is still worth listening to. An eclectic set that runs from Dixieland Jazz to more contemporary fare, with some social commentary and Hag’s views on the current state of country music, this set deserved more attention than it received. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

9. Remember Me, Volume 1 — Willie Nelson
This set picks up where last year’s Country Music left off, and even includes a re-recording of a track (a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind”) that appeared on that 2010 release. The album consists entirely of cover material, some of which Willie had recorded in the past, and none of which are his original compositions. It is to traditional country music what his Stardust collection was to pre-rock-and-roll pop. As the title suggests, a second volume is planned for sometime in 2012.

8. Neon – Chris Young
Chris Young is easily the best of the new male singers to emerge in the past few years, but his material has tended to be somewhat inconsistent. Neon is a huge step in the right direction.

7. Better Day – Dolly Parton
I was little skeptical when I first heard about this release, thinking that the last thing country music needs is another set of accentuate-the-positive songs, but Dolly pulls off this project quite well. She wrote all 12 tracks (one is a co-write with Mac Davis), and the lead single “Together You and I” is a remake of one of her old duets with Porter Wagoner. Overall, it’s a much stronger and more consistent set than her previous studio release, 2008’s Backwoods Barbie.

6. Where Country Grows – Ashton Shepherd
I really wanted to love Ashton’s debut album, 2008’s Sounds So Good, but found the material lacking in a lot of cases. After three long years, she finally released her sophomore disc, which is much more to my liking than the first. She’s tweaked her sound just enough to appeal to current commercial tastes, but sadly, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. If you haven’t heard this album yet, “Look It Up”. It’s currently available for download for $4.99 from Amazon.

5. Guitar Slinger — Vince Gill
The follow-up to These Days was long overdue but well worth the wait. As usual, Gill covers a wide range of musical territory from blues and contemporary Christian to adult contemporary and more mainstream county fare. But no matter what the label, it’s excellent music from start to finish.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait
I can’t remember a time when George Strait wasn’t at the top of the country charts. He’s been a constant presence for 30 years, and as such he is sometimes taken for granted. He hasn’t gotten a lot of critical acclaim in recent years, and admittedly, his last couple of albums didn’t compare with most of his earlier work. Here For A Good Time is his strongest effort since 2005’s Somewhere Down In Texas, and despite the title, is not a collection of party tunes. There is upbeat fare to be sure, but there are also darker and more serious offerings, such as “Drinkin’ Man”, “A Showman’s Life”, and “Poison”. For most of his career, Strait was well known for not writing the overwhelming majority of the songs he recorded, but he and his son Bubba wrote seven of the eleven tracks here, usually collaborating with Dean Dillon and Bobby Boyd.

3. Your Money and My Good Looks — Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Two of country music’s best and most underrated artists teamed up for this project, which is a pure delight to listen to from beginning to end. It mixes a little bit of the old with a little bit of the new, but it is 100% pure country from beginning to end. No fancy studio trickery will be found here, just some excellent, well sung songs. My favorite tracks are the covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Till The End” and “This Wanting You”, which appeared on George Jones’ 1999 album Cold Hard Truth.

2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies
This collection from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley has got to be the year’s most pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting much but this ended up being one of my most-played albums of the year. Despite Lambert’s current popularity — or perhaps because of it — the album isn’t getting a lot of attention from radio. Hopefully radio’s tepid response and the demands of the group members’ solo careers won’t prevent another Pistol Annies collection from being released before too long.

1. Long Line of Heartaches — Connie Smith
I rarely get excited about upcoming album releases anymore, but this was a definite exception. It’s difficult not to get excited about a new Connie Smith album, since they are such infrequent events; Long Line of Heartaches was her first new album in 13 years, and prior to that there was a 20-year gap between albums. It was produced by Smith’s husband Marty Stuart, and like his Ghost Train (my #1 pick of 2010), it was recorded in the famous RCA Studio B, where so many of Connie’s classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s were laid on tape. Half of the album’s songs were written by Smith and Stuart, with the remainder coming from the pens of legends such as Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier and Johnny Russell. It simply does not get any better than this. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

The 10 best reissues of 2011

I probably spent more money on reissues of old music this year than I did on new music, although I purchased lots of new music. Here is my list of the best reissues of 2011 – just one man’s opinion, listed in no particular order.  No fellow travelers such as Americana, just real country music (at least in my top ten).

 

JESSI COLTER – I’M JESSI COLTER / DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

The Australian label Raven, has issued a number of American country music albums, usually in the form of two-fers. Here Raven presents two albums from the talented Jessi Colter, mother of modern day artist Shooter Jennings and widow of legendary performer Waylon Jennings. While Jessi wasn’t the most prolific recording artist and is actually well served by several of the anthologies available, it is nice to have two of her Capitol albums available, as she originally conceived them.

Her first album for Capitol Records, I’M JESSI COLTER (1975), spawned the #1 Country / #5 Pop hit “I’m Not Lisa” and the follow-up hit “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes”. The album was produced by Waylon Jennings, and features many of the musicians who played on his albums (Reggie Young, Weldon Myrick, Ritchie Albright, Jim Gordon ) but no one would ever mistake the arrangements as anything that would ever appear on a Waylon album, as he deftly tailors the production to fit his bride’s  individual talents. An early take on “Storms Never Last” minus Waylon, is my favorite track on the album. DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH (1976) wasn’t quite as successful reaching #4 on the Country chart and yielding the hits “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” (No.29 Country) and “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon?)”. The title track “Diamond in the Rough” gives Jessi a chance to stretch and show her blues sensibilities.

This set includes a nice and informative booklet and three bonus tracks from a later Capitol album. If you have no Jessi Colter in your collection, this is a good starting point. Read more of this post

Jonathan Pappalardo’s ten favorite country albums of 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

Read more of this post

Razor X’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

It seems like every year it gets more and more difficult to find new single releases that I actually like. There were a few — but only a few — gems this year. Here are some of my favorites:

10. Northern Girl — Terri Clark. Clark’s homage to her homeland, co-written with former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, is her first single that I’ve truly liked in quite some time. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction on either side of the border.

9. Drink Myself Single — Sunny Sweeney. Currently at #36 on the charts, the third offering from Sunny’s Concrete collection has already out-performed its predecessor and hopefully will become her second Top 10 hit. It reminds me of the type of song radio regularly played back in the 90s during the line-dancing craze.

8. Home — Dierks Bentley. Finally, a song about love of country that manages to avoid jingoism and combativeness. It was written in response to the shooting incident that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in January of this year.

7. Cumberland Rose — Sylvia. The former 80s star returned in January with her first single release in 24 years. Often unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, Sylvia delivers a lovely vocal performance on this folk ballad written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig. I couldn’t find anyplace online to listen to it in its entirety, but it’s well worth the 99 cents to download it from iTunes or Amazon.

6. Tomorrow — Chris Young. The latest in a long tradition of country songs about clinging to one more night before finally ending a relationship that’s run out of steam. Chris Young is one of Nashville’s finest young talents and is destined for great things if he can keep finding material as good as this.

5. In God’s Time — Randy Houser. This introspective number provides a much better showcase for Houser’s vocal ability than his more popular Southern rock-tinged work. It’s the best thing he’s released so far.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait. After a couple of rocky years, George Strait finally got his mojo back with this fun number that he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son Bubba Strait.

3. Look It Up — Ashton Shepherd. This blistering confrontation of two-timing spouse deserved more airplay than it got. It may not have been a tremendous commercial success, but I’ll bet Loretta Lynn is proud.

2. Colder Weather — Zac Brown Band. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ classic “Please Come To Boston”, the Zac Brown Band continues to push the boundaries of country music without diluting it beyond recognition.

1. Cost of Livin’ — Ronnie Dunn. This tale of a down-on-his-luck veteran is a sad testament to the current economic difficulties in much of the world and a plight to which too many people can relate. Beautifully written and performed, it’s by far the best thing played on country radio this year. It failed to garner any Grammy nominations, but hopefully it will get some recognition by the CMA and ACM next time around.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

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.

Read more of this post

2011: The 75-(per)cent report

School buses are back on the roads and the leaves are already starting to fall on the roads here in southern Ohio. Crisp nights are upon us, and as we head into final months of 2011, I’m revisiting my growing playlist of my favorite songs and albums released in the first three-quarters. No waxing or pondering on the fate of what’s popular this time, these are just some of my favorite releases of the year, in no particular order, combined with a few words to tell you why in some cases.  Be sure to share your top picks for the 3/4 of the year so far in the comments.

Albums

Sunny Sweeney – Concrete … As I said in my review, if this became the sounding board for all future female country albums, we’d all be better off.

Terri Clark – Roots and Wings … Though it’s not as strong as her previous effort, Clark’s latest, and its lack of airplay, is another page in the long indictment against country radio.  I’d be the first to welcome her back with this material.

Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

George Strait - Here For A Good Time

Connie Smith - Long Line of Heartaches … Traditional country and classic themes performed by one of country music’s finest singers. A can’t-miss combination.

Chris Young - Neon

Ronnie Dunn – Ronnie Dunn … The Brooks & Dunn frontman hasn’t reached his full potential as a soloist yet – I think he’s still too unsure of himself – but this is a helluva start.

Blake Shelton – Red River Blue

… and on the not-so country side:

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Adele – 21

Lori McKenna - Lorraine

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead 

Songs

Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”

Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

Pistol Annies – “Lemon Drop”/”Trailer For Rent” … I can’t pick a favorite among these two on the album.

Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Living”

George Strait – “Here For a Good Time”/”Poison” … It’s been said before, and better, but I really like the title track to Strait’s latest album. And I think “Poison” is one of his finest moments.

Sunny Sweeney – “Staying’s Worse than Leaving”/”Amy”

Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”

Taylor Swift – “Back to December”/”Mean”

Lucinda Williams – “I Don’t Know How You’re Living”

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Happy New Year from My Kind of Country!

It’s been 2 years and 25 days since we launched this little site.  In that time, we’ve generated 7,364 comments on our 1,433 posts from some 823,000 hits.  I’m sure I speak for my co-writers when I say it’s been a great run and we certainly look forward to many more years, comments, and posts as we approach another cycle of months.  And just in case we don’t say it enough: thanks for stopping by and reading what we’re writing.  We certainly hope you’ll stick with us these next 2 years and beyond.

For our last post of 2010, I’ve chosen one of my favorite YouTube videos of Dolly Parton.  It’s from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno sometime in October 2003, and Dolly takes a turn on the catapult to launch the item of her choice.  This clip includes the usual charming Dolly Parton interview too.  Enjoy!

From all of us at My Kind of Country: Have a safe and Happy New Year!

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

So many of my perennial favorites released new material this year that no room was left on the top 10 for new faces.  It wouldn’t have been hard to double this list as I bought twice as much music as last year, and had even more than that sent to me, and I found myself enjoying more and more of it as the months went on.  This always makes listing your favorites in order a task to undertake.  So this year, I  simply ranked my albums list according to their plays on my iPod and the 2 media players on my computers.  So here then, are my favorite and my most-played albums of 2010.

10. Alan Jackson – Freight Train

The ever-dependable Jackson released one of the best sets of music Nashville offered this year. Too bad more of these songs weren’t released to radio since this is likely the best Alan Jackson album most people will never hear.  If you haven’t yet, listen to ‘Tail Lights Blue’, ‘Till The End’, and the title track.

9. Sarah Buxton – Sarah Buxton

Four years in the making, Sarah Buxton’s first full-length album was finally released earlier this year, though 6 of the songs were released digitally in 2007. In addition to Buxton’s original take on the Keith Urban hit ‘Stupid Boy’, this disc features the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter’s four top 40 radio hits, and will likely continue to be mined for future hits by more A-listers.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music

Nelson’s sedate take on these country standards and other songs from the Great American Songbook, including more than one hymn, are each one sublime.  My personal favorites are ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’, ‘You Done Me Wrong’, and an almost-hushed take on ‘Satisfied Mind’.

7. Reba – All The Women I Am

Aside from that ghastly first single, Reba’s newest album is either half-full of good songs or half-empty, depending on how you look at it . Either way, the few tracks that do hit home pack a mighty punch. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ stands as McEntire’s finest recording in years, while the weeping ‘Cry’ and the horn-infused title track remind us there’s still a gifted vocalist behind all that makeup and leather.

6. Coal Miner’s Daughter: Tribute to Loretta Lynn

Tribute albums? Meh. That’s usually my reaction too. But very rarely does a multi-artist collection offer so many one-time gems. (Think: Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.) The usual suspects are all here – Reba’s awesome slice of western swing with ‘If You’re Not Gone Too Long’ is flawless – while even the likely Faith Hill and the unlikely Kid Rock step up to competence with Loretta Lynn’s  material. Added kudos for pairing Lynn with Miranda Lambert for the title track.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey Johnson’s epic follow up to his career-making That Lonesome Song doesn’t pack the knockout punch of that first record. Instead, these 25 songs deliver their message with subtle dark overtones, and the stories told here are the kind you just can’t make up. Check out ‘Lonely At The Top’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’, and ‘Playin’ The Part’.

4. Gary Allan – Get Off On The Pain

Allan’s eighth album is another installment of the gritty, pathos-infused West Coast country that only Gary Allan is doing. These songs find a man addressing the harsher realities of everyday life; lyrics driven all the way home with Allan’s competent vocal work throughout. Favorites include ‘Kiss Me When I’m Down’, ‘Along The Way’, and ‘No Regrets’.

3. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions

Stuart’s throwback to country’s first golden era is highlighted mostly by warm musicianship, which features up heaping dollops of fiddle and steel while keeping that signature Bakersfield-meets Mississippi sound that made Stuart’s early recordings so engaging. Choice cuts include the high-octane ‘Bridge Washed Out’ and ‘I Run To You’ with Connie Smith.

2. Chely Wright – Lifted Off The Ground

Lifted off the Ground finds Chely Wright ably making the leap to a mature, serious, and literate artist in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash, with a brilliant blend of country and folk with tinges of rock and pop, aided in part by Rodney Crowell, who urged Wright to pursue her inner songwriter, and also produced the set.

1. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give

It’s been a fairly slow build for me, but the Zac Brown Band have firmly planted themselves as one of my favorite mainstream country acts today. I’m not sure why their sometimes warm and fuzzy, sometimes humorous, always charming kind of country took two albums and half a dozen singles for me to get them, but I think I finally do. These guys are the opposite of what so many are trying to do in Nashville right now: these are legitimate southern rock stars recording actual country music (as opposed to the imposters with their ‘I’m country’ lyrics and hard-rocking guitars). Here’s a band that can out-island Kenny Chesney – ‘Settle Me Down’, ‘Let It Go’, out-country Strait – ‘Cold Hearted’, and probably out-Hollywood Tim McGraw if they chose to, but at the moment they’re making music. Substantial, memorable music full of hooks and melodies.  I really like these guys.

Dogs and duds: The worst singles of 2010

It’s not usually our style here at My Kind of Country to spend a lot of time writing biting reviews about all the crap we don’t like.  You can believe that our writers can be as brutal as the next when the dreck crosses our desks.  But hey, everybody’s gotta have a niche’ and ours is writing positively about only what we deem print-worthy.  Aside from that, there are so many other talented writers churning out brilliantly scathing analyses all over the interweb.  Still, we couldn’t resist – just this one time of year – to compile a list of the worst singles of the year, and then see just how blistered we can get a few superfans.

So here they are, the bottom of the bottom.  These are ranked in order, by a points system, taken from respective lists from Razor X, Occasional Hope, and myself.  Listening while you read is not necessary nor recommended.

P.S.  When commenting, please refrain from expletives.  Attacking the writers’ taste in music, intelligence, or even our Mamas won’t bother us so much.  Just keep it clean please.  Enjoy!

10. Jason Aldean – Crazy Town

I’m usually the first one to enjoy a song that paints up the roundabouts of Music Row. Romanticizing your hard-beaten path to stardom or just lamenting the rigors of the road in song is something of a rite of passage in country music.  Listening to this tune, it’s obvious Aldean is adhering to his own adage with ‘To be a star you gotta bang bang bang’. The problem is, he doesn’t even have the right drum. – J.R.

9. Craig Morgan — Still A Little Chicken Left On That Bone

I really dislike rock-oriented songs that try to gain country cred by adding some banjo to the mix, but it is the shouted chorus that really makes this record annoying. – R.X.

Banjo added to the mix or no, I bet even those guys from Deliverance would change the station when this came on. – J.R.

8. Toby Keith – Every Dog Has Its Day

Like Trace Adkins, Toby Keith continues to reach new lows with his pseudo-clever ditties such as this. Here, your typical white-trash honky-tonk angel (the same gal from all of Toby’s classy odes to true love) finally knocks out a suitor coming on too strong. I’m not sure what’s worse: that the narrator actually thought saying “every dog has its day dog but today dog just ain’t yours” would cool the suitor’s jets, or that someone thought this story even needed telling. – J.R.

7. The JaneDear Girls – Wildflower

Another overproduced rock-based number with an extremely grating sing-song chorus. – R.X.

Everything about this is awful. The girls can’t sing very well, even given a song with only a few notes to sing, and the overly processed sound is entirely inappropriate for a song comparing the protagonist to a wild flower. – O.H.

6. Laura Bell Bundy – Giddy On Up

I don’t know whether to dismiss this one as something that shouldn’t be taken seriously or to be offended that Bundy and her team thought that country music fans were so lacking in taste that we’d actually like something like this. – R.X.

5. Sugarland – Stuck Like Glue

Inane lyrics and annoying vocal tics (even before the reggae part starts). – O.H.

An absolute hot mess of a record that is annoying up until the reggae part, and from that point on it’s just embarrassing. – R.X.

4. Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins – Hillbilly Bone

Heavy handed production and clichéd redneck anthem lyrics combined with a pseudo hip-hop beat are the hallmarks of this record which is far beneath the talents of the two artists who recorded it. – R.X.

3. Trace Adkins – AlaFreakinBama

A tuneless shoutfest that would vie for the title of Worst Record of Trace Adkins’ career were it not for ‘Honky-tonk Badonkadonk’. – R.X.

Trace Adkins has a great voice but apparently no musical taste, judging by the number of truly crappy songs he has picked in his time. This manages to achieve something I previously thought unachievable: it’s actually worse than ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’. Almost tuneless in the verse, the chorus degenerates into a one-note yelling of the title, backed up by crowd noise. – O.H.

2. Carrie Underwood – Undo It

If Underwood were ably revisiting the sound Shania Twain pioneered in the 90s, I’d be one of the first to jump on board. But if the production sounds like an old mix tape from that era recorded over the FM airwaves, I’ll probably fall off the wagon. A chorus that falls apart with the first line doesn’t help to win me back either. – J.R.

Sheer unadulterated 80s pop melody, processed sounding and much too loud production, with absolutely no subtlety or light and shade in the delivery and an ultra-annoying chorus. I can see why her fans would like it, but personally I wish I could unhear it. – O.H.

1. Justin Moore – Backwoods

I can live with the clichéd lyrics (which could be worse), but not the almost complete lack of melody, loudly over-produced backing and yelled singing. The interjected laugh is also irritating. – O.H.

In just over two and half excruciatingly long minutes, Moore manages to cram every cringe-worthy hillbilly cliché’ into a melodically clunky hit song. If country music all sounded like this, it would have stayed in those woods. – J.R.

 

Razor X’s Top 10 albums of 2010

The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:

10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.

9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.

7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.

6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.

5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.

4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.

3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.

2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.

1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Singles and Tracks of 2010

Country radio must be getting better.  My favorites list this year include more actual radio hits than ever before.  Of the ten songs below, two were #1 hits, five more (including my top pick) hit the country top 40.  Still, two more songs were released as radio singles and enjoyed very little success, and yet another is just an album cut that was never sent to radio.  So there’s room for much more improvement. Read on to find out why I picked them as the best of the year, and click on the links to read my own single reviews when available.

10. Jewel – ‘Satisfied – I had been consistently unimpressed with Jewel’s country offerings until ‘Satisfied’ hit the airwaves. The singer uses her big, emotive voice to full effect in this power ballad that centers on the theme of letting your love show. It didn’t storm up the country charts, but it made me finally sit up and welcome the Alaskan farm girl to the country fold.

9. Emily West feat. Keith Urban – ‘Blue Sky’ – Here, West delivers a stunning vocal with Keith Urban providing a gentle harmony, on this track that finds the narrator rebuffing the swinging door policy this guy has set up for himself. This kind of smart, elegant ballad is the kind of song that brought me to country music

8. Miranda Lambert – ‘House That Built Me’ – Arguably, the biggest country hit of the year – and certainly it will be the best-remembered when most everything else are just numbers in record books – the magnum opus of Lambert’s Revolution album, and her career so far, was a major hit because it resonated so well with so many people. Universal emotions, like sentimental attachment to the house where you grew up, never fail when they’re delivered this brilliantly.

7. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’ - The first time I heard this song, I thought it would fit neatly with Alan Jackson’s own music-industry/life-on-the-road songs. As with Jackson’s many like-cuts (‘Job Description’, ‘To Do What I Do’, ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’), ‘Ride’ features a tight lyrical structure, smooth melody, heartstring emotions, and a fitting vocal from Brown.

6. Keith Urban – ‘Til Summer Comes Around’ – Not since ‘You’ll Think Of Me’ hit in 2004 has Keith Urban impressed upon me so much with a single release. In this reminiscent tale of a Summer fling, the singer is paying a Wintertime visit to the carnival where his love affair started. Full of imagery and melancholy, it maintains the feel of the best of Urban’s moody ballads.

5. Sugarland – ‘Little Miss’ - Like most everybody else, I was disappointed with the bulk of Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine. But, one track stands out as a throwback to the sound they offered just 2 short years ago. ‘Little Miss’ features the acoustic, harmony-driven sound that had become their staple. In this, the duo try their best to appeal to everywoman, and with a laundry list of ‘little miss this and that’, I don’t think they could have left many out.

4. Trace Adkins – ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ – This is a great song with a fresh idea and nothing overbearing or in-your-face about the production. With it, Trace Adkins may have struck the perfect balance between his up-tempo ditties and the memorable ballads that dot his catalog.

3. Chely Wright – ‘Notes To The Coroner’ – I could have chosen at least 4 tracks from Chely Wright’s Lifted Off The Ground to list among my favorites of the year. The disc has certainly gotten more mileage than any other album in my player this year. But it was this one clever, biting goodbye from a lady befelled by her own heartbreak that stands out as the centerpiece of a five-star album.

2. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘I Put My Ring Back On’ – It’s always great to get new music from someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter. It’s even better when she returns to the infectious melodies of her signature 90s sound. Making up after a fight makes up the basis for this track, and with its rocking guitars and rolling drums, it recalls Carpenter at her own rocking best vocally.

1. Sunny Sweeney – ‘From A Table Away’ – One of my favorite new artists, Sunny Sweeney failed to make much more than a ripple on the mainstream circuit with her first Big Machine album, the excellent, ultra-traditional Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Her first single for an upcoming sophomore release has fared much better, fueled mostly by a perfect marriage of modern Nashville and Sweeney’s undeniable Texas twang. Here, she plays the other woman who spies her love interest in a romantic situation with his wife. He has of course made all kinds of promises to her about their future together.  The scene brings home that he has no intention of leaving, and it’s at that moment she realizes she’s been his fool. This is the stuff great country music is made of.

Razor X’s Top 10 Singles and Tracks of 2010

2010 saw the release of a lot of good country music, very little of which actually made it to country radio. As such, my list will include some of my favorite singles as well as some album cuts that I would have liked to have been released as singles.

10. As She’s Walking AwayZac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

On the surface, this is just another one of those positive message songs that country radio likes so much these days, but the tight harmonies and guest vocals from Alan Jackson save this record from being trite. Keith Stegall’s stellar production helps this #1 hit stand out from the pack.

9. From A Table AwaySunny Sweeney

Sunny’s toned down her twang just a bit in an attempt to appeal to more mainstream tastes. The strategy seems to be working as she is on the verge of breaking the Top 20 for the first time. While this is not my favorite song from Sunny, it’s one of the best releases by a female artist this year. Hopefully she will finally get some well-deserved recognition.

8. Over YouBlake Shelton

This is the best cut of Blake’s career, and it sounds even better coming on the heels of the execrable “Hillbilly Bone” and “Kiss My Country Ass.” Unfortunately, very few people will get to hear it, as it was only available through iTunes as a bonus track with pre-order purchases of his recent Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton. Hopefully it will resurface on another album sometime in the future.

7. Draw Me A MapDierks Bentley

The second single from his bluegrass project Up On The Ridge wasn’t mainstream enough to garner much radio airplay. Stalling at #33, it was Dierks’ worst performance to date on the singles chart. Nevertheless, it’s probably my favorite of the singles he’s released thus far in his career.

6. I’m Over YouChris Young

This acoustic version of the Keith Whitley classic was released as part of Young’s Voices EP, a project that showcases his powerful voice better than his two full-length albums, and serves notice that this newcomer is one to watch.

5. That’s Why I Write SongsJamey Johnson

This stripped-down tribute to Nashville’s greatest songsmiths, recorded on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, is the best track from Johnson’s excellent two-disc collection The Guitar Song.

4. The House That Built MeMiranda Lambert

In a year when female artists underperformed at radio, Lambert stands out as the exception to the rule with her breakthrough hit, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

3. Highway 20 RideZac Brown Band

I was a little slow to warm up to these Georgia boys, but this heart-wrenching tune about a divorced father coping with separation from his son is the one that won me over. It was actually released to radio in late 2009, so technically it shouldn’t qualify for this list, but I’m including it since it hit #1 in 2010.

2. ‘Til The EndAlan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack

This remake of Vern Gosdin’s classic is the highlight of Jackson’s excellent Freight Train album, a project that saw two of its weakest tracks released as singles. Why this one wasn’t released is a head-scratcher. It did, however, receive a nomination for Musical Event of the Year from the Country Music Association.

1. I Run To YouMarty Stuart and Connie Smith

The best track from Stuart’s Ghost Train collection is so good, it’s breath-taking. Though not released as a single, it has earned the husband and wife team a Grammy nomination.

Overall, I think 2010 was a better year for country music than 2009, so here’s hoping that things continue to improve throughout 2011.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010

I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.

10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’

This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.

9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.

8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’

A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.

7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’

This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.

6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’

The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.

5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’

The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.

4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.

3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009’s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.

2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.

1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.

I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.

Revisiting this year’s headlines

2010 began on a slow news beat, as the top story in January was the buzz surround the Grammy’s at the end of the month.  While Taylor Swift continued to define the term superstar, several more months passed before the month of May brought a bevy of headline-grabbing stories from Music City. First was Chely Wright’s announcement in People magazine that she was, in fact, a lesbian. This was followed shortly by Wright’s first album of new material in 5 years, the frank and folksy Lifted Off The Ground. Also that same week, Nashville was hit with record rainfall that flooded the city’s Cumberland River and devastated the downtown area, as well as temporarily closing the doors at Opryland.  We also saw Lady Antebellum emerge as a retail powerhouse this year, while we said tearful goodbyes to greats like Carl Smith, Hank Cochran, and Jimmy Dean.

Finally, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert announced their engagement and emerged by year’s end as the newly crowned power couple of country music.  Carrie Underwood tied the knot, while both Billy Ray Cyrus and Randy Travis looked to untie their own. These are just a handful of the events that make up the timeline for 2010 in country music.

But what about the music these media darlings gave us this year? Like everybody else, we’ll be telling your our respective favorites of the year in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can head over to Country Universe to discuss your own favorite songs and albums from this year. Since CU has the corner on the music discussion, we’d like to invite you to share your favorite headline from the past year.

What stories will you remember five or ten years from now? What one event do you think will define 2010 in country music for the history books?

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