My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shane McAnally

Christmas Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’

a-very-kacey-christmasKacey Musgraves is not the first artist I would have expected to come out with a Christmas album, but here it is. She leans to the jazzy side of Christmas music, with a strong Hawaiian influence and her own quirky take on things – to the point of eccentricity at times. It is also entirely secular.

She opens with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which is quite pleasant but not essential.

The Quebe Sisters provide backing vocals on a playful ‘Let it Snow’ and the Hawaiian ‘Mele Kalimaka’. The bilingual ‘Feliz Navidad’ is prettily sung by Kacey and a male chorus. Much of the album comprises pleasant but easy-to-overlook background music like this, but Kacey pushes the boundaries on other tracks.

She draws on her inner child with the playful, bouncy ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and the standard ‘Rudolph The Reindeer’, which is one of the few recordings where a child chorus is endearing rather than irritating (maybe because the kids don’t seem to have much enthusiasm). Both are great fun. The strangest choice, ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ , is better known as ‘The Chipmunk Song’, as recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Kacey sings it apparently quite straight with a childlike quality, and I’m really not sure how far her tongue is in her cheek here.

It leads into the rather less family-friendly ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’, which as you may guess from the title is a holiday-themed tribute to Willie Nelson and his favorite product, featuring guest vocals from the man himself. It is rather charming in its way. Kacey wrote the song with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

She, McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote the melancholy ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. ‘Present Without A Bow’, a duet with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges about being alone at Christmas, is quite effective vocally, although the song itself isn’t that interesting. The hand-clapping, brassy ‘Ribbons And Bows’ is quite good though not country.

She closes with a languid jazz version of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, which I found rather boring.

I applaud Kacey’s willingness to try something a bit different, but the result isn’t entirely to my taste.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Weight Of These Wings’

the-weight-of-these-wingsMiranda Lambert lost her crown as Female Vocalist of the Year at this year’s CMA awards. Listening to her new double album, I wonder if she is consciously moving beyond the genre. Even by today’s standards this sounds more like an Americana or alt-country record to me than a country one. Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse, it is too often loaded with reverb and echo-ey production that is a long way from Nashville, particularly on the first of the two discs. As a country fan I’m disappointed, as the songwriting is strong and shows Miranda really developing artistically in this collection of songs reportedly inspired by her recent divorce.

‘Runnin’ Just In Case’, written with Gwen Sebastian, is a case in point: an interesting song about a restless soul beginning to regret her rootlessness just a little:

What I lost in Louisiana I found in Alabama
But nobody ever taught me how to stay
It ain’t love that I’m chasin’
But I’m running just in case

I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day that I turned 21
It’s been a long 10 years since then
It’s getting kind of cumbersome

‘Ugly Lights’ (written with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose), is a nicely observed song about the morning-after drinking away the protagonist’s troubles, with a touch of self deprecating humor as she does the ‘Monday morning drive of shame’ picking up her car from the bar. ‘Use My Heart’, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne, is a downbeat tune about the aftermath of a broken heart.

But good as these songs are, the arrangements and production simply don’t sound like they belong on a country album.

‘We Should Be Friends’, written by Miranda solo, is a fun song about female friendship and bonding over shared experience. The subdued ‘Getaway Driver’, written with Miranda’s new boyfriend Anderson East and old friend Natalie Hemby, is quite a good song about a pair of lovers on the run, written from the man’s viewpoint. In the lead single ‘Vice’, written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the protagonist is defiant about her sins.

Love song ‘Pushin’ Time’ (reportedly about her new romance) was okay but not very interesting. I didn’t much care for the perky ‘Highway Vagabonds’, and hated the noisy mess ‘Covered Wagon. ‘Pink Sunglasses’ was irritating and tuneless. ‘Smoking Jacket’ is boring and overwhelmed by the production. ‘You Wouldn’t Know Me’ was boring.

The production on side 2 is generally more bearable, and the songs less commercial.

My favorite tracks is ‘To Learn Her’, which has a pretty melody and sweet lyric about love and loss, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. It is the most country the album gets, and is a pleasure. ‘Tin Man’ is a delicately subdued tune about the pain of knowing love and heartbreak which Miranda wrote with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram.

The mid-tempo ‘Good Ol’ Days’ (a co-write with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood) is pretty good. The sunny ‘For The Birds’ is reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves. The ode in celebration of a Southern ‘Tomboy’ also reminded me of Musgraves. The wearied, gentle ‘Well-Rested’ is another nod to her split from Shelton.

In ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, written with Hemby and Liz Rose , she places herself as representative of a tradition of singer-songwriters, although without dropping any names or reflecting any specific tradition. ‘Dear Old Sun’ is rather boring, but perhaps on purpose as it is about surviving depression; less intentional is the fact that the backing vocals do not sound to be in tune.

In ‘Things That Break’ (written with Jon Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Natalie Hemby), Miranda reflects on a propensity for accident. The rocky ‘Bad Boy’ is less effective despite some perceptive lines, while ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’ is another muddy mess.

If much of the record is dominated conceptually by the experience of Miranda’s divorce, by the final track she is optimistic:

Sometimes these wheels
Get a little heavy
I can’t stay between the lines but I’m rockin’ steady
When I can’t fly
I start to fall
But I’ve got wheels
I’m rollin’ on

This is the kind of album it’s hard to assign a grade to. The songwriting is of a very high quality, really showing Lambert coming into her own as a mature artist. But the production choices are just not enjoyable for me.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Candi Carpenter – ‘Burn The Bed’

Candi Carpenter

Candi Carpenter

It’s always interesting to hear a new artist for the first time. Some singers get the right song straightaway, others get filed in the ‘promising pile’. Newcomer Candi Carpenter fits into the first category with her Sony debut single.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Candi grew up singing gospel in a family band, and pursued a career in country music from her early teens, dropping out of high school to perform illegally in bars she was to young to be in. At 16 she was touring with veteran Jack Greene and performing with him at the Opry, giving her a solid grounding in country music, although her music draws on blues and rock influences as well. An exploitative management contract and bad marriage are now both behind her

The excellent song is from the viewpoint of the cheated wife. She tackles her man with righteous indignation. The situation is reminiscent of Highway 101’s late 80s classic ‘The Bed You Made For Me’, but where that and many other wronged-wife songs are fuelled principally by anger, in this one Candi’s anger is rooted deeply in the sadness of betrayal.

Most people take out the trash
They don’t bring it home
But you’d rather be cheap and dirty
Than spend one night alone

How long has this been going on, how long have you lied
Was she someone to replace me, or someone on the side

She concludes, with revulsion,

I don’t want to wash the sheets
I wanna burn the bed

She wrote the song herself, a delicate ballad, with Jerilyn Sawyer and Alden Witt. Shane McAnally’s production is nicely understated, and although not traditional country, it makes a reasonable compromise with contemporary radio appeal. Candi’s sweet voice has a purity in its tone that makes her wounded innocent completely believable, while she imbues the song with passionately felt emotion.

I shall be watching for Candi’s future music with considerable interest.

Grade: A

Single Review: Artists of Then, Now and Forever – ‘Forever Country”

forevercountry-1110x400

The Country Music Association has found a way of honoring their fiftieth anniversary – gather 30 of the genre’s biggest stars from the past, present and future for an unprecedented collaboration. The result is certainly buzzworthy and continues the tradition of the ‘all-star jam’ that saw its beginnings with the original 1972 recording of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ The trend continued into the 1990s (Think “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” and “One Heart At A Time”) before seemly dying off.

“Forever Country,” as the collaboration is called, blends three country standards – “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “I Will Always Love You” and “On The Road Again” into a single song showcasing each of the artists involved with dedicated solos. The John Denver classic is the bedrock, with the others woven in.

The song succeeds because of Shane McAnally, who subtracts not distracts with his warm production values. He does a superb job of complimenting each artist with a sense of balance that allows each one to shine individually. While they also beautifully come together as a collective whole, it’s obvious that some do shine brighter than others, which is understandable in such a context.

It’s been a long time since the legacy of country music has been honored and I admire the Country Music Association for bringing their theme and mission alive in such a public way. To have all these artists in one place, on one track truly is astonishing. We’ve let history fall by the wayside in recent years as boom era veterans (the last artists to grow up on classic country music) have been pushed out in favor of younger artists who meet demographic needs but have little knowledge of or appreciation for what it took to make their careers possible. This pattern is cyclical and leaves behind those who refer to the past as ‘the good ole days’ when country music still had a soul.m_forevercountrycma

Those unworthy younger performers, of which there are too many to mention, are nowhere to be found, which begs a question – are they subtly making the claim that no one, save Brett Eldridge (who adds is voice to the mix), is truly worthy of carrying the torch for the next generation? It also saves the track from coming off as a laughing stock.

“Forever Country” could’ve exercised a bit more imagination than having Dolly being Dolly at the end, there are legends missing I would’ve liked to have seen included and it’s odd to have Jason Aldean (who was shut out of the nominations entirely) figure so prominently. But the intention and heart of the project is carried out in execution, which is why “Forever Country” shines so brightly. It’s the gimmick that succeeds in not being gimmicky at all. It’s far from the greatest recording I’ve ever heard, but it is a welcomed surprise. I’ll take it.

Grade: A

 

 

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMeFor his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Grade: B

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing with Fire’

JN_ART_ALBUM_PWF_Cover_2016.03.02_FNL_1_67b07e04-f0ad-4db5-bb6c-9d0a73d70a65_2048x2048Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.

“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.

Read more of this post

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘I Met a Girl’

For those of us who long for country music to return to a more traditional sound, the debut single from Vicksburg, Mississippi and Warner Bros. recording artist William Michael Morgan seems to be, on the surface, at least, just what the doctor ordered. The understated, pedal steel-laced mid tempo number was written — surprisingly — by Sam Hunt with Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally. The 21-year-old Morgan reportedly grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley and their influence on his singing is apparent.

But context is everything. In a genre that has seen a complete collapse of any type of defining boundaries, “I Met a Girl” seems like a breath of fresh air, a throwback to the 90s when traditional sounding “hat acts” ruled the country radio airwaves. But those of us who are old enough to remember that era will inevitably compare the record to those of Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and George Strait, and that is where the record fails to measure up. Had this record been released 20 years ago, I probably would not have deemed it worthy of much attention. It’s a very generic song and not particularly memorable. That being said, it doesn’t have an annoying hip-hop with banjo arrangement, or lyrics about tailgating in a corn field. It’s a step, albeit a tiny one, in the right direction, and in 2015 the bar has been lowered sufficiently that a small positive step is enough. Morgan is a promising vocalist and I hope ‘I Met a Girl’ garners enough attention from radio that he will be allowed to continue exploring the more traditional side of country music.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material’

kacey-musgraves-album-pageant-material-2015Despite the prestigious awards and critical acclaim, Kacey Musgraves has spent the better part of the last two years failed by an industry that doesn’t appreciate her unique quirkiness. The Country Music Association marred her performance of “Follow Your Arrow” by bleeping the word ‘joint.’

The Academy of Country Music offered her a slot for a shortened performance on their 2014 telecast, which she refused. Country Radio pulled “Biscuits” before it could gain any momentum. Mercury Nashville held back on “The Trailer Song,” her most fully formed slice of commentary, only to dump it on iTunes as an afterthought.

Fortunately for Musgraves, the songs speak for themselves. Same Trailer Different Park is one of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, showcasing an artist with an original perspective confidently following her own arrow. That arrow has now pointed to Pageant Material, her second major label album.

Like Same Trailer, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally produced Pageant Material, with Brandy Clark and McAnally returning as co-writers. That’s all fine and good, but is Pageant Material the worthy sophomore release it should be? Well, it’s not Same Trailer Different Park.

For all the criticism that both projects are incongruously similar, Pageant Material relies too heavily on observation. I don’t think Musgraves is deliberately trying to duplicate “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but the album sure has more than a few songs in that vein.

Pageant Material begins very strong. “High Time” is an excellent backwards country romp featuring handclaps and whistling, which keep it thoroughly modern. “Dime Store Cowgirl” is a strong first person ‘where I’m from’ narrative that cultivates an image without succumbing to cliché or stereotype.

When it debuted in April, I thought “Biscuits” was a contrived second-rate knockoff, but I’ve grown to admire the infectious melody and memorable hook. I also love “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” which uses a soaking of steel to take the male artists monopolizing Nashville to task. Pageant Material comes alive on “Late For The Party,” easily the best song by a mile. Musgraves’ conversational vocal and the lush production are flawless, giving the track inviting warmth. “Fine” is also excellent, as is the cruelly hidden duet with Willie Nelson.

Problem is the majority of Pageant Material suffers without more “Life of the Party” or “Fine” type moments, which would’ve given the record much need diversity. Instead we’re treated to “Family Is Family” and “Cup of Tea,” and the title track, which come off as cheap imitations that try too hard to live up to her other songs in the same vein. If Musgraves had made smarter choices that relied more on varietal substance, I would’ve enjoyed the album more.

Grade: B

Album Review: Easton Corbin -‘About To Get Real’

about to get realRather optimistically heralded as a new George Strait on his debut in 2009, my enthusaism for Easto Corbin has somewhat waned since his run of gold-selling singles. I always felt that while he had potential, his material was not quite good enough for that smooth voice and Carson Chamberlain’s steel-laden production. I am sorry to say that his long-delayed third album was not worth waiting for. Chamberlain has modernised the sound a little, but that’s not the main problem. The real disappointment of this album is that the songs are all so lackluster and forgettable, with just a few exceptions.

The pleasant sounding but forgettable lead single ‘Clockwork’ performed unimpressively last year, not quite reaching the top30. The song isn’t bad apart from the unnecessary and irritating repetition of the word ‘girl’, but Corbin’s vocal lacks force or emotion. He just doesn’t sound as if he really cares about the emotional trap of a repeat pattern his character has fallen into.

It is one of five songs co-written by producer Chamberlain. ‘Kiss Me One More Time’ (by Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Phil O’Donnell) is just okay. The remaining three Chamberlain songs include Corbin as a co-writer. I enjoyed the bouncy ‘Diggin’ On You’ even though it is pure fluff. ‘Damn, Girl’ suffers from rather too facile rhymes but isn’t too bad. The best of these collaborations, however, is the best song on the album. ‘Like A Song’, written by the pair with Stephen Allen Davis, is a beautiful ballad which shows just how good Corbin could be given worthwhile material.

Current single ‘Baby Be My Love Song, written by Brett James and Jim Collins, is a poorly written boring love song relying on bro-country clichés and a busy production, but it seems to be more palatable to country radio than its predecessor, and made it into the top 10.

‘Are You With Me’ from his last album was subjected to an unspeakably horrible dance remix last year and the result was a hit single in France and Belgium, and perhaps because of that he has recut the song straight here. The reclaimed version is quite a pretty sounding mellow ballad which Easton sings with a genuine warmth, and which is one of the few songs I like on this album. It was written by Shane MacAnally, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride.

The enjoyable ‘Wild Women and Whiskey’ written by McBride with Ronnie Dunn is a pretty good song which sounds like a Brooks & Dunn offcut, while sunny beach tune ‘Just Add Water’ would fit perfectly on a Kenny Chesney record.

The title track, written by Jeremy Stover, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins is, while mellow and melodic, bland and forgettable, while ‘Guys And Girls’ lacks both melody and lyrical depth and ‘Yup’ is both boring and cliche’d.

This record is not offensive to listen to – it’s just rather bland and wanting lyrically, with just a few bright spots.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Love Somebody’

Reba_LoveSomebodyIn the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Biscuits’

Biscuits_by_Kacey_MusgravesCo-written with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the latest release from Kacey Musgraves is a catchy, if somewhat cliche-ridden anthem that preaches tolerance and minding one’s own business. In many ways, it delivers the same message as the songwriting trio’s 2013 composition “Follow Your Arrow”. This time around, however, the message is delivered in a less heavy-handed manner, which makes it a lot more palatable.

Musgraves and McAnally produced the track with Luke Laird. The production is mostly light-hearted, in keeping with the song’s lyrics, although the sing-songy background vocals on the chorus is a bit overdone, almost drowning out Kacey’s delicate voice at times. Thankfully, though, there is plenty of steel guitar and banjo without any fuzzy and overly loud electric guitars that have been become the hallmarks of today’s arena rock masquerading as country. There’s nothing terribly deep about ‘Biscuits’; it delivers a simple message in a pleasant manner and doesn’t demand much from the listener except perhaps to sing along. It currently resides at #28 on the charts and seems to be well positioned to become Musgrave’s second Top 10 hit.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Miranda Lambert Featuring Little Big Town – ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’

LBT-MirandaBack in 2009, I remember lamenting over the fact Miranda Lambert hadn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. She had just released “White Liar” and while the momentum was just beginning to swing in her direction, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet been given her due.

I most certainly couldn’t have predicted what would come next, the erosion of pure female talent within the mainstream sector of the genre and a recording breaking five consecutive wins. She’s now won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy every year since Taylor Swift emerged victorious in 2009.

It’s not surprising that as Lambert’s career has reached incredible heights, her output of singles has grown increasingly spotty. Flashes of her brilliance are almost the exception now, whereas they seemed liked the rule when she was making a consistent home for herself in the top fifteen.

Despite a lyric co-written by newly minted CMA Song of the Year recipient Shane McAnally and Lambert favorites Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t much of a song. The lyrics rely on repetitiveness; a repetition of the chorus to stretch the thin tune well past the five minute mark.

But even more puzzling is the final recording, which pairs Lambert with Little Big Town. A collaboration between these two should be a cause for celebration, but the listener is left with an indistinguishably watered down version of both artists. If Karen Fairchild hadn’t interjected a few vocal kickbacks at the end, I probably wouldn’t have known Little Big Town were featured on the recording if I didn’t already know going in.

“Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t a terrible song at all. The gorgeously relaxed bluesy production pairs nicely with the blending of vocals, which are perfectly understated for a tune seeking heavy rotation airplay in 2014. Even the message of the song, which condones alcohol and cigarettes (or cigars) as a worthy weekend pursuit, doesn’t turn me off.

I just can’t shake how bland everyone sounds together. A showcase for either the five-time CMA Female Vocalist or three-time CMA Vocal Group this is not. Which is a shame.

Grade: B

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

Read more of this post

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Say You Do’

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleThe real Dierks Bentley shows himself again.

“Say You Do” is a throwback to the type of fare the endured Bentley to radio listeners in the last decade, the type of song focused on his relationship with his woman; not his bros or a beer bottle. Joseph Hill, Shane McAnally, Trevor Rosen, and Matt Ramsey have composed an effecting lyric while Bentley supplies the perfect amount of desperate urgency to bring the story to life.

When I first heard “Say You Do” through the track’s music video, I was taken aback by the stark opening, Bentley’s voice framed by lush instrumentation. The current climate of country radio would never touch a song so elegantly constricted so I was almost begging the backing track to pick up, and fill out.

It isn’t every day you desire a more cluttered production, but when Bentley turns in this strong a vocal on a song so firmly against all popular trends, you want it to have every chance of succeeding. Producer Ross Copperman does his job, but ultimately drowns the track with so much noise, it’s all Bentley can do just to keep his head above water. That the listener can still feel his urgency through the muck attests to Bentley’s acute skills as a vocalist.

So we’re not graced with the second coming of “Settle For A Slowdown,” “Long Trip Alone,” or “Draw Me A Map.” But at least Bentley seems heading back in that direction, full steam ahead.

Progress is progress. I’ll take it.

Grade: B+

Listen

 

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘The Trailer Song’

a79d7d3ac9769604c51ae1c7002daad439759ad6ffa4664b7e510fcb078f1d0f_largeAren’t there times you wish you could just reveal your true feelings about a situation without the fear of consequence? Like shooting your cheating spouse or burning down your house to eradicate the problems threatening your very existence? For us pedestrians it’s human nature to ponder the inexcusable. For country singers, it’s fodder for three and a half minutes of entertaining bliss.

Kacey Musgraves has found herself in a pickle. She’s single and ready to mingle. Problem is she lives in a trailer park one section of white picket fence away from the neighborhood gossip, a woman who thinks she’s a two-timin’ floozy. So with co-writer Brandy Clark firmly in her corner, Musgraves sets off to put the woman, and her not-so-subtle habits of egg “borrowing” and “bird” watching, in her place.

What “The Trailer Song” does well is to articulate a mundane truth of our everyday existence, set it against a decidedly country backdrop, and keep the proceedings from falling into the clichéd trappings of the lifestyle. Much like Clark’s own “Pray To Jesus,” it’s a lot harder than it may seem on the surface to make fun of “The Trailer Song” simply because it mentions doublewides. The writers aren’t using the trailer park as a country signifier but rather the key to these women’s daily reality. That subtle distinction gives these characters authenticity and keeps them from dissolving into caricatures held hostage by their lifestyle.

Mercury Nashville and Musgraves herself probably have their valid reasons why this worthy waltz wasn’t included on Same Trailer Different Park. The production is a lot simpler, and makes far better use of steel guitar than most of the songs on her major label debut. The overall track has a bit of an unfinished quality to it, like we’re hearing a demo, but that only adds to the overall charm.

Grade: A

Listen 

Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves

My predictions for the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards

Much like the state of modern country music the 49th annual Academy of Country Music are somewhat of a joke, marred by controversy and shameless rule breaking. Trigger, from Saving Country Music, did an excellent job summing up Justin Moore’s erroneous nomination for New Artist of the Year and exposing the truth behind the ‘fan voting.’ I highly suggest reading these three articles before proceeding further:

Justin Moore Should Be Disqualified from ACM’s “New Artist”

ACM’s Respond to Justin Moore’s “New Artist” Ineligibility

Why The Best Fan Vote for the ACM’s Is No Vote At All

 That being said, when the show airs this Sunday on CBS, it promises to be a fun night of modern country music. Here are the nominees. My Should Win / Will Win are predictions below:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

It’s a solid list of deserving nominees who’ve all had a very big year in one-way or another.

Should Win: George Strait – he captured the CMA equivalent last fall in a surprise victory and continues to show all the ‘young guns’ how it’s done on his farewell Cowboy Rides Away Tour. He’s a legend, Country Music Hall of Famer, and the single most consistent artist and performer of the past thirty years. For him to lose would be an injustice.

Will Win: Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan – the show co-hosts are at the height of their popularity, with everything they touch turning to Gold. Bryan surprisingly won last year, so I’m betting Shelton will edge him out, and take home his first such trophy from the ACM. That is, if they don’t give the award to Strait.

Read more of this post

Single Review – Kacey Musgraves – ‘Keep It To Yourself’

Kacey-Musgraves-Keep-It-To-YourselfSo, it appears Mercury Nashville is applying the old adage, “Throw it against a wall and see if it sticks.”

With her last two attitude-laden singles meeting a lukewarm reception at radio, it is time to take a different approach and see if the safe ballad will ignite the radio gods and give Musgraves the breakthrough hit that would reverse course and put her on a more equal playing field with Miranda, Carrie, and Taylor.

On the surface Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird have composed a fairly straightforward breakup ballad – a guy is missing the girl he recently broke up with, trying to contact her, and hoping to win her back. The trio captures his pain wonderfully, from insomnia (‘It’s the drip of the sink, it’s the click of the clock, and you wonder if I’m sleeping’) to deep regret (‘you heard from your friends that I’m doing okay, and you’re thinking maybe you made a mistake’). He’s flailing but she isn’t, and that subtle confidence is what brilliantly sells the song.

Especially in the chorus I’ve always regarded “Keep It To Yourself” as similar to Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call” in that they both feature drunk and venerable men (and were co-written by McAnally) and women who see the light and stop wasting their time with men who are beneath them. There’s no suggestion here that the ex-boyfriend in the song is a looser, just a heartbroken individual who wants his girl back.

And Musgraves couldn’t care less about reuniting with him, and it’s refreshing how she tells him to stay away:

Keep it to yourself

If you think that you still love me

Put it on a shelf

If you’re looking for someone

Make it someone else

When you’re drunk

And it’s late

And you’re missing me like hell

Keep it to yourself

There’s no hint of jealousy, immature ramblings about how men suck, or any need to blow up his house, car, or get revenge on him. She’s just doing better since they ended things and doesn’t want him around anymore. If he’s having trouble grabbling with that, then, that’s his problem. Taylor Swift could learn a thing or two from Musgraves’ adult perspective – mainly to quit pandering to the teenage audience in her romantic thinking. But then again, her immaturity has made Musgraves’ maturity that much more exhilarating.

Will “Keep It To Yourself” be a big hit? I doubt it, especially in the current climate of terrestrial country radio. That’s a shame because this is a song that deserves to be heard and in the past decade would’ve easily had enough glue to stick to that wall.

Grade: A  

Predictions for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards

1015599-grammy-award-617-409The most significant aspect of the 54th annual Grammy Awards (airing Sunday night on CBS) is who isn’t nominated. Those looking for bro-country kingpins Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan among the nominees are out of luck. “Cruise” was easily a contender in many categories, but thankfully was completely shut out. Instead we’re left with country nominees that still hold strong allegiances to mainstream country music, but aren’t a celebratory party for the dreck Music Row has been spitting out for years now.

Country Nominations

American Roots Nominations

Here are my predictions for Sunday’s big night:

Best Country Solo Performance

528c0c3f7cdadGiven what was popular in mainstream country in 2013, this is a spectacularly solid list of recordings that received airplay but didn’t embarrass the history of the genre. What’s surprising is the category’s diversity; only Miranda Lambert has won previously, while category heavyweights Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban were shut out. It’s just too bad Kacey Musgraves, who has four other nominations, wasn’t included here as well for “Merry Go Round,” the best mainstream single of the eligibility period.

Should Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice gives an incredibly heartfelt vocal and proves he can pull off as close to a traditional ballad as country radio would play in 2013 

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – The force of this song will propel it to victory

Make A Case For: “Mine Would Be You” – There’s been a lot of chatter that Blake Shelton is the only coach on The Voice who’s yet to win a Grammy Award. That’ll definitely change this year and I hope it does here, allowing a far more deserving nominee to pick up Best Country Album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance 

2009-10-27-kenny-dolly-duet-fullThe Grammys were criticized in the 2000s for veering too far away from mainstream country and thus seeming out of touch with what was popular. They’ve since gone to extremes in the other direction, but it’s nice to see The Recording Academy hasn’t lost their artistic touch completely, as the solid nominees in this category prove.

Should Win: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – thirty years after the pair was nominated (and lost) in this same category for “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton show up again with their second duet in as many years. The indelible magic is still there, even if the tempo has slowed with time.

Will Win: “Highway Don’t Care” – The Recording Academy loves Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban separately, the trio has 14 Grammys between them, and so collaboration between them will likely be too difficult for voters to resist.

Best Country Song

Merry_go_'roundIt says a lot about the overall quality of writing on Music Row these days when four of the nominees in this category show up twice among these five nominees. But it speaks volumes that half of Kacey Musgraves’ four nominations are found here, proving she’s more then just your average recording artist.

Should Win: “Merry Go Round” – I’d been waiting for just such a song for years and Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne didn’t disappoint with their fantastic ode to suffocating small town life.

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – the poignancy of this true story about a dad, the son who died in war, and the truck he left behind was too much for the CMA to ignore, and the same will prove true of the Recording Academy.

Best Country Album

UnknownThis is the weakest field of nominees in any of the country categories by a mile. The fare here is far too mainstream, clichéd, and sound-alike. I genuinely feel for those who’ll use this list as a benchmark of excellence for country music in 2013. Without the likes of Ashley Monroe among the nominees, that just isn’t fair.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – given Musgraves’ competition, this shouldn’t even be a close call. She’s in a class of her own that the likes of McGraw, Shelton, and Jason Aldean couldn’t ascend to on their best day.

Will Win: Red – it’s general logic: if you’re nominated for Album of The Year, you usually take home your genre prize as a consolation or in some cases you win both. It isn’t always true, in which case Based On A True Story will take this, but it happens more often then not.

Best Americana Album

8fb2d908A solid list, although I expected to see Jason Isbell nominated here for Southeastern given the media blitz the CD was given. If he had been included, I would’ve been rooting for his win. Isbell’s album is just that good.

Should Win: Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris is a Grammy Favorite and has released her strongest collection in years. That it’s also a duets project with Rodney Crowell more than forty years in the making only makes it sweeter.  

Will Win: One True Vine – Mavis Staples has won similar categories in the past few years and remains a Grammy favorite. I don’t see a reason to bet against her here.

Best Bluegrass Album 

0011661914124Without an eligible album in the running from Alison Krauss, the category is left without a ‘celebrity’ name to carry a win. Alan Jackson’s bluegrass project made the eligibility cut by a week, but was likely too new (despite the availability of advanced copies) to score a nomination.

Should Win: Streets of Baltimore

Will Win: Brothers of the Highway

Best New Artist 

imagesAn odd list, given that Lorde was left off while James Blake and Ed Sheeran were included despite not being new. Name recognition, and a plump spot on Taylor Swift’s tour, could propel Sheeran to the podium but he faces tough competition from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who had a breakout year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – I have to stick with country music on this one. Of these nominees she’s the most well rounded mixing country with folk sensibilities in all the best ways. Plus, can any of the other acts claim half their nominations were for songwriting?

Will Win: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – easily the most talked about duo in popular music in all of 2013. They may’ve hit it big with “Thrift Shop,” but their martial equality anthem “Same Love” showed their true artistry. Look for that to give them the edge over their competition.