Kyle’s Song Of The Decade: The Sweet Sixteen

With Ashley McBryde’s victory over Tanya Tucker in the 2019 ‘Song of the Year’ competition, the field is finally set for the blog’s official ‘Song Of The Decade’ tournament. My iTunes-based seeding has already given us some great matchups, so let’s not waste any time. Who’s got enough game to earn the biggest crown of the 2010s?

(To see videos for the first fifteen seeds, check the bracket selection post. “One Night Standards” can be found here.)

Matchup #1: “One Night Standards” vs. “Crash And Burn”

16 vs. 1 is usually a major mismatch, but this doesn’t look like a blowout on paper. “One Night Standards” is a straightfoward truth-telling featuring one of the most exciting new artists we’ve seen in the past few years, and “Crash And Burn” is a Sam Cooke derivative that mashes together several genres and pushes Thomas Rhett way out of his vocal comfort zone. Is there enough here to put off the ultimate upset?

Surprisingly, no.

The production of “Crash And Burn” may completely fail the context test (isn’t this supposed to be a sad song?), but it’s got so much bounce and spirit to it that you just can’t help but be swept away in the melody, and Rhett’s upbeat, “lovable loser” performance completely wipes out whatever sadness the lyrics may contain. “One Night Standards” may be all business while “Crash And Burn” is no business at all, but Rhett’s song creates a richer sonic environment and a looser atmosphere that makes the song much more fun to listen to. This song remains a jam of mine, and that’s more than enough to avoid the upset.

Winner: “Crash And Burn”

Matchup #2: “Run Wild Horses” (#8) vs. “Waltz Of The Forest” (#9)

Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars remains my favorite game of all time, and that %$#& Forest Maze drove me crazy back in the day, but I think “Waltz Of The Forest” suffers from the same problem that “One Night Standards” does. This is a nice remix with some half-decent after-the-fact lyrics (the rap breaks are exceptional), but I don’t think it creates the ominous atmosphere it needs to draw the listener deep within the story (which isn’t that deep to begin with).

In contrast, from the opening riff to the spectacular extended outro, “Run Wild Horses” sets a tone and keeps driving its point home with its “dangerous romance” angle and Aaron Watson’s effusive, swaggering delivery. This is the rare sex jam in country music that’s actually sexy, and its all-encompassing mood and workable writing seal the deal. Mario might be lost in this wilderness, but Watson knows his way out of both the woods and the first round.

Winner: “Run Wild Horses”

Matchup #3: “Get Lucky” (#2) vs. “Drunk Girl” (#15)

There’s a bigger question behind this matchup: Which is more important, movement or message?

“Get Lucky” is a catchy, rave-ready tune with great production and solid vocals courtesy of Pharrell Williams, but the moral of the story is, well, chasing somebody around all night hoping to eventually have sex with them. “Drunk Girl” is basically the inverse: A slow, piano-heavy track encouraging gentlemanly conduct when escorting a member of the opposite sex. Which side wins?

Honestly, I’d give the edge to the underdog here. The writing is not only gentlemanly, but it’s got a lot of detail that lets the listener visualize the scene (as opposed to “Get Lucky,” which discourages such rumination). I’d also give Janson a slight edge on the vocals, as Pharrell’s verse lines are more spoken than sung (and thus have a bit less tone). “Drunk Girl” may not make me get up and dance like “Get Lucky,” but I think it sets a better example and is constructed a bit sturdier, so I think it hits enough shots to come out on top.

Winner: “Drunk Girl”

Matchup #4: “Drinkin’ Problem” (#7) vs. “Missing” (#10)

Now this is an intriguing matchup! The best of 2016 matches up against its 2017 successor, and both tunes are stone-cold country songs with traditional themes and instrumentation. How could I possibly pick a winner between these two?

In a word, the key separator between these tracks is novelty. “Drinkin’ Problem” is a fairly standard cry-in-your-beer song, and despite my love of Midland and the excellent execution of the sound and writing here, it doesn’t really rise above this fact. “Missing,” on the other hand, is an escapist track that feels much more realistic and achievable than the usual “run screaming down the highway to <insert non-U.S. country here, typically one with a tropical climate>.” We all know deep down that we can’t really escape our life obligations, but unplugging for a little while and going “missing” is both doable and healthy. All other things being equal (suitable production, great vocals, sharp writing), I like the different angle William Michael Morgan takes with “Missing” over the oldie-but-goodie approach of “Drinkin’ Problem.”

Midland may be in the conversation for “Song Of The Year” every year, but their early exit here might be the biggest upset of the first round.

Winner: “Missing”

Matchup #5: “Beat This Summer” (#3) vs. “Dad’s Old Number” (#14)

Another exceptional matchup! The underlying question here is one of convention vs. experimentation: Brad Paisley’s take on the overdone summer-romance topic stands out due to his unique take with both the sound (that prominent-yet-token banjo and choppy steel guitar work way better than they has any right to, as do those spacious echo effects) and subject matter (Paisley always finds the right twist to put on the lyrics to make them feel less stale). Cole Swindell, in contrast, delivers a no-frills ode to his father through the number he used to reach him with, deriving his power from the father-child relationship that transcends time and distance. Which one is better?

As much as I love Paisley’s approach to production and songwriting, I give the edge to Swindell here based mostly on its emotional weight. The romance behind “Beat This Summer” feels throwaway almost by design, and the listener doesn’t develop any emotional attachment to the characters involved. With “Dad’s Old Number,” however, Swindell forges a strong connection to his audience, and the song leaves a much more lasting impression as a result. The song may never see the light of day as a radio single, but its chance to be ‘Song Of The Decade’ survives.

Winner: “Dad’s Old Number”

Matchup #6: “1994” (#6) vs. “My Year” (#11)

This is probably the biggest dud of the tournament thus far. “1994” definitely deserved a spot in the bracket based on its play count and the amount of fun I had with it back in the day, but in the end is doesn’t offer a whole lot beyond over-the-top novelty and Joe Diffie references. Despite referring to a fictional character, “My Year” at least has a hint of depth and seriousness to it, referencing Luigi’s perennial player-two status and his (assumed) striving to play the lead role in his own story. Neither song should be taken too seriously, but Levar Allen’s writing and vocals make Luigi a more sympathetic and three-dimensional characters than Jason Aldean’s one-off song references. Besides, how can we let a song called “1994” win a best-of competition for the 2010s?

Winner: “My Year”

Matchup #7: “Uptown Funk (#4) vs. “One Trick Pony” (#13)

This is the ultimate truth-in-advertising clash. On one hand, “One Trick Pony” is indeed a one trick pony, but that pony is a raging stallion with a giant middle finger as a cutie mark. This thing is “Rearview Town” on steroids, and everything, from the loud, rough synth tones to MicTheMicrophone’s feisty delivery, generates intense emotion that gets the listener’s blood pumping while also giving the audience an understanding of the source of the narrator’s anger. “Uptown Funk,” in contrast, is much more upscale and funky, and its sharp bass, bombastic horns, and Bruno Mars’s incredible delivery creates a fun, raucous atmosphere full of braggadocio and swagger without being off-putting or antagonistic. In a duel between fun and intensity, which side prevails?

Despite the objectifying undertones of “Uptown Funk,” I think there’s just more to the track overall. The mix is more extravagant yet never feels overwhelming, Mars’s charisma covers for some of the writing’s sleaziness, and frankly, this thing might have the grooviest groove in the entire tournament. 2014 was probably the strongest year in this tourney, and “Uptown Funk” shows why it earned the conference title.

Winner: “Uptown Funk”

Matchup #8: “Shut Up And Dance” (#5) vs. “I Can’t Love You Back” (#12)

You should always be on upset alert for 5-12 matches, and this one is no different. This is a classic style vs. substance bout: “Shut Up And Dance” feels like more of a one-trick pony than “One Trick Pony,” but its one trick is a effervescent sound that crackles with energy, getting people out of the floor and getting them lost in the guitars and making them ignore the repetitive writing. “I Can’t Love You Back” has the opposite problem: It’s got an emotional story and a restrained, darker arrangement that keeps people focused on the writing, but it lacks tempo and physical energy and risks losing its audience to shinier objects.

So which track does its job better? It’s close, but I think “Shut Up And Dance” has a slight edge here: It avoids the less-savory undercurrents that dragged “Get Lucky” down by focusing solely on the dancing, and as much as the video would like you to believe otherwise, there’s little to differentiate “I Can’t Love You Back” from your standard lost-love song beyond Corbin’s solid performance. Repetitive or not, WALK THE MOON has mastered the formula, and unlocked the secret to a song that can play on repeat all night long.

Winner: “Shut Up And Dance”

Results: The Elite Eight

So what have we learned today?

  • The chalk is about as reliable as a coin flip, as the bracket was split evenly between higher and lower seeds winning.
  • Just because you were best in a particular year doesn’t mean you’ve got an easier path to the title. “Drinkin’ Problem” beat “Drunk Girl” in 2017, but it’s Chris Janson and not Midland who will be moving on to the Elite Eight.
  • Crazy ideas and themes were not rewarded in this round, with “Waltz Of The Forest,” “1994,” “Beat This Summer,” and “One Trick Pony” all exiting the contest early. (Artist favoritism didn’t help much either: Thomas Rhett made it through, but Midland, Brad Paisley, and Easton Corbin all saw their hopes dashed.)

So what did you think? Did you favorite win or lose? Who does or does not deserve to win? Tune in next time when we cut the rosters down to the Final Four (and possible even two)!