Retro Review: Clint Black, “One More Payment”

It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses and turn a critical eye towards one of my favorite artists.

Tell people you’re a Randy Travis fan, and you’ll get a lot of nods of agreement. Tell people you’re a Clint Black fan, however, and the reaction is a bit more mixed: Despite a fast start out of the gate, Black was eventually pushed aside in favor of some of his fellow Class of ’89 members (Try this: Tell someone you’re a Clint fan, and see if they know who you’re talking about. You’ll have no such trouble with, say, “Garth” or “Alan”). Why this happened is hard to say, but Clint Black insisted on writing or co-writing all of his own material back in the day (a rarity at the time, although everyone does it know), and while he was masterful as turning a phrase, he could sometimes get himself in trouble by trying to be too clever by half and muddling his message in the process.

The song under the microscope today is “One More Payment,” which was released in 1991 as the third single from his Put Yourself In My Shoes album, and at #7 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it actually wound up being his worst-performing single until his 1997 collab with Martina McBride “Still Holding On.” The song is a bit of a mishmash of conflicting ideas, an attempt at a working man’s lament that doesn’t quite capture the laugh-to-keep-from-crying atmosphere of, say, Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man” (another Class of ’89 member, btw). It’s one of Black’s weaker singles, and not a must-hear if you’re working through his discography.

The production here is pretty standard fare for the neotraditional meta of the early 1990s: Guitars and drums forming the foundation (in fact, the acoustic axe is used like a percussion instrument during the verses, only providing choppy strums on the second and fourth beats), with a fiddle, steel guitar, and slick electric guitar filling in any space not covered by the lyrics (the pedal steel appears to be the first option, but it splits the bridge solo with the fiddle). With its bright instrument tones and brisk tempo, there’s a real bounce to the sound here, giving the song a serious Western swing feel that was less common for the era. The problem, however, is that the mix goes all in on the positivity, which doesn’t fit terribly well with the subject matter. At its core, the narrator is lamenting their bad luck regarding…well, everything, and having such an upbeat and cheery mix behind them hurts their credibility (are they really broken up about all this?). It just doesn’t feel like the right mood for a song like this, and when combined with the ambiguity of the message, the listener really isn’t sure how to feel when the song ends. I like a good Bob Wills throwback as much as anyone, but I don’t think this was the right track to try it on.

Black runs into the same problem with the vocals: He just sounds so darn happy talking about his roof caving in and his mortgage being foreclosed on, and it just makes things feel a bit off. I’ve always found him to have a lot of charm and charisma (although perhaps not on the same level as Garth), but it feels misplaced here. His openness and interest in commiserating gives him the air of a glad-handing politician, but much like some elected officials you really don’t get the sense that he actually shares in the pain that he talks about. I’d prefer to see a bit more seriousness in this performance, to give the audience the sense that for all the merriment in the song, these are real problems that cause him some real heartburn. Instead, the listener isn’t able to connect with Black over the song, and don’t engage as much with the song as a result. It just feels like a case of clashing motivations: Black wants to get you moving like you’re in an old-school dance hall, but he also wants to connect with his audience on a deeper level over the problems they’re facing, and he only gets half way (up) there on this song.

Then we get to lyrics, and honestly, for as much as Black’s clever witticisms shine through (“that banker’s bound to foreclose, at this rate I’ll lose my interest in this town” is just sublime), the song not only doesn’t seem to have much to say, but also seems a little confused as to what it’s trying to say at all. It starts with crumbling cars and houses and the rising costs of life in general, but then pivots to proclaim that he’s on top of everything and that “I’ve got one more payment and it’s mine,” which suggests some weird feeling of pride tied into it all (“It’s a piece of junk, but it’s my piece of junk, darn it!”), and then awkwardly pivots again to try and tie romantic relationships into the whole mess (which honestly doesn’t make any sense at all), and it leaves the listener wondering what the heck the point of this whole exercise was. Black’s tracks often have something deeper or meaningful to say (and if they don’t, at least they make it clear from the start), and this song feels very scattershot by comparison, trying to tie together a few vaguely-related ideas and hope that the witty lines earn the performers a pass from the audience. To some degree they do (and they certainly did back when I first discovered the song), but if I’m putting my critic’s hat on here, this song simply falls short of its goal.

“One More Payment” isn’t a bad song, but when you’re looking into Clint Black’s discography, it doesn’t distinguish itself as a must-hear tune. Black certainly does his best to convince you to have a good time, and the Western swing vibe of the sound doesn’t hurt matters, but a good time isn’t really the reason you listen to one of Black’s songs or albums. If you’re looking for some serious poetry with a little something extra behind it, this track won’t quite get you there. Great wordplay can only get you so far, and if you don’t have a clear destination in mind, your audience is eventually going to wander off and fins their own path.

Rating: 5/10. There are lots of Clint Black songs you should hear…but this isn’t one of them.

Song Review: Jelly Roll, “Need A Favor”

Degrees of difficulty mean nothing to an ex-rapper rolling with a pastry for a stage name.

Jason “Jelly Roll” DeFord was a revelation when he burst onto the scene last year with “Son Of A Sinner,” a song that wound up placing high on my list of the best songs of 2022. It was a great showing to be sure, but with an artist like Jelly Roll, there’s always a question in the back of your mind: How on earth can they follow up something like this? Plenty of artists have dropped a good song only to come screaming back to Earth on their next effort, so where would Mr. Roll land on this scale?

We’ve got an answer now with “Need A Favor,” and this track is an interesting one, to say the least. Its foundation is a little weak when it reveals itself to be yet another lost-love song, but the execution on this track is absolutely superb, and by using the moment to explore the narrator’s behavior and relationship to God, it gets deep in a way that few tracks in this lane do, and almost makes you forget why he’s on his knees in the first place. If Jelly Roll can take a premise this overdone and turn it into something meaningful (if slightly half-baked), the man’s got a real future in this league.

Listening to this mix, the first songs that comes to mind aren’t great comparisons: Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” and “Come Back As A Country Boy,” whose ominous atmosphere and angry edge felt unnecessary and overly confrontational. A lot of the same pieces can be found here: The hard-edged electric guitars, the generally-dark tone of the instruments, the ominous feel and the sense of urgency within the atmosphere, and the slow buildup of the mix with religious overtones (the choir might be the most-important part of the sound in the back half of the track). So how does the producer keep this sound inside the foul pole? For one thing, there’s no anger in the arrangement—instead, the primary feeling here is panic as the narrator know their relationship is on the rocks and is grasping at straws looking for a way to salvage it. The foreboding atmosphere actually feels like it fits the situation, and the mix does a great job supporting the subject matter by upping the song’s level of intensity. (Also, props to the producer for finding ways to work in both a fiddle and steel guitar into the mix in ways that were both unexpected and perfectly placed. The track didn’t need these instruments, but they’re a nice touch, especially the fiddle.) It’s a well-constructed, well-implemented sound that enhances the song rather than detracts from it, and it’s nice to see some gothic influence in the genre that doesn’t go to waste.

On the vocals, Jelly Roll might be the perfect to drop a song like this, thanks to both his past and present work. On “Son Of A Sinner” he cast himself as a drinking, smoking, pill-popping…well, sinner, the kind of person who might let a relationship fall to pieces and not recognize it until it’s too late. However, there was also a degree of thoughtfulness in that performance: He knew who he was, and despite his flaws he knew that deep down he wasn’t a bad person. This time around, there are equal parts exasperation and desperation in his voice: He knows what’s he’s done and and he knows that he’s hasn’t been a great boyfriend or Christian, but he has no where else to turn and so he makes his plea anyway, hoping he can complete a Hail Mary to save his relationship. This sort of reflection and self-awareness goes a long way to towards making the narrator feel like a sympathetic character, someone who has definitely done wrong but really wants to do right if the powers that be will let him. Any anger here is self-directed, and Jelly Roll brings enough charm and charisma to the table to make the listener believe that he’s finally willing to change and do whatever it takes to make the pairing work. There’s a maturity in his performance that isn’t necessarily present in the lyrics, and it’s the sort of thing that goes a long way towards elevating a song.

The writing is probably the weakest part of the song, mostly because it feels incomplete: With roughly 1.5 verses, 4 choruses, and a few repeated words on the bridge, it doesn’t seem like the song has much to say. The good news is that what is here feels raw and powerful, leaning on brutal honesty to get its message across. I think the opening lines/hook do a nice job getting straight to the point without feeling too clever by half, and the first verse serves as a brutal takedown of the narrator’s prior lifestyle and current neglect of his relationship and his faith. The religious references form a consistent thread throughout the song, but generally don’t feel forced or cheap…until we get past the second half of the verse, at which point the song seems to run out of ideas and settles for dropping two rounds of a bridge that doesn’t add a whole lot to the track. I would have liked to hear the speaker talk more about how they plan to make things better should the miracle be granted: Would they give up their addiction and hard-living lifestyle? Would they rededicate their life to God and family? Heck, would they take a vow of celibacy and join a monastery? Jelly Roll and his producer deserve some credit for keeping these questions mostly under wraps, but I think another verse and/or draft of this song could have pushed it from good to great.

Despite its flaws, “Need A Favor” is the rare modern heartbreak song that I can actually get behind. The producer creates the perfect mood to convey the narrator’s panic, Jelly Roll does a great job selling the story to the public, and the writing does just enough to hold everything together. I’m not terribly bullish on country music right now, but Mr. Roll is on one heck of a roll, and his brand of honest, rough-edged music could be just the thing this genre needs to get back onto a better path. I may be an atheist, but if the man upstairs would do me a solid and make this a hit, I wouldn’t complain.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens to see what you think.

Retro Review: Faith Hill, “Let’s Go To Vegas”

Love song, or party song? Heck, why not do both?

I’m not sure I’ve forgiven Billy Dean for “stealing” a Randy Travis song back in the day, but I know I’ve never forgiven Faith Hill for denying Travis’s “Out Of My Bones” a Billboard #1 in the late 90s. Hill is best known as a turn-of-the-millennium pop-country diva with tracks like “Breathe” and “The Way You Love Me,” but she began her career as a fairly standard neotraditional artist in the early/mid 90s, dropping tracks that were well-received at the time but were mostly forgotten in the following decades. (I’d call her a Martina McBride clone with independent empowering tracks like “Wild One,” “Take Me As I Am,” and “Someone Else’s Dream”…but given that “Wild One” came out roughly seven months before McBride’s “Independence Day,” maybe McBride was actually a clone of Hill!)

It’s kind of a shame, because while I was never Hill’s biggest fan and thought her biggest hits weren’t that good, her early work still holds up well, demonstrating that she could handle both lighter and heavier material (not to mention deliver a punch line with gusto). “Let’s Go To Vegas” is probably the lightest of the bunch, serving as the leadoff single to Hill’s sophomore album It Matters To Me and peaking at #5 on Billboard’s airplay chart. I’d honestly forgotten this song existed until I started investigating Hill’s discography a year or two ago, but despite its breezy feel and fare, it might actually be my favorite song of hers. It’s a fun, upbeat track that also has some deeper feelings behind it, the sort of combination that’s awfully hard to find in modern times.

Let’s start with the production, whose base isn’t terribly far off from what you’d find in the studio today. The melody is primarily handled by electric guitars and a piano, but I’d argue that the most prominent element (outside of Hill herself) is the drum set, which is sharp and energetic without being overbearing (a tambourine also gets a lot of work here, which you don’t hear as much today either). There’s a fiddle and steel guitar here as well, but they’re in a support role, with the latter tossing in some riffs to help season in the mix and the former really only popping up for a part of the bridge solo. What’s most interesting to me, however, is the volume balance of the track: Hill’s vocals are much louder than anything else in the mix, but against all odds the producer found a surprising sweet spot where Hill doesn’t completely dominate the mix, but is loud enough (and the lines of the lyrics long enough) where it seems like she is the primary melody-carrier rather than the instruments behind her, at least on the verses. With its brisk tempo and bright tones, this song simply radiates optimism and positivity, which is exactly the tone you’d expect from a narrator smitten with their significant other. Simply put, it’s a well-executed arrangement that is an absolute joy to listen to.

’95 Hill wasn’t the big-voice powerhouse that she morphed into over the remainder of the decade, but their are definitely hints of what was coming hidden here. Yes, she is much louder than everything else on the track, but what’s striking is just how effortless it sounds as she breezes through lines with noticeably-inconsistent syllable content (sometimes there’s a lot to fit in and sometimes there’s a little that needs to be stretched, and Hill just blasts through it all without missing a beat or breaking a sweat). She absolutely owns the narrator’s role here, combing youthful exuberance (and impulsiveness) with a deep affection for her partner that the listener can really feel—she is over the moon with this relationship, and she’s not just ready to take the next step, she’s dashing like Usain Bolt to do it. You just can’t help but share in the speaker’s excitement, and you got the sense that Hill had something special in her voice, something that the rest of the world would discover soon afterwards.

I like the writing here because it combines the best attributes of a party song and a love song while avoiding the pitfalls of both tropes. Interestingly enough, it starts where most country songs today end: “Lyin’ on the bank of the river” where the “stars are dancin’.” The moment, however, leads to a proposition: An impromptu trip to Las Vegas to get married. All the revelry has a meaning now, and actually feels celebratory rather than nihilistic (plus it doesn’t hurt to be in Vegas, as good times have an extra flair that only Vegas or New Orleans can provide). I like how the writers work the gambling theme in just enough to make it notable without feeling tired or cheesy, and with the focus split between the romance and the location, it avoids the trap of being too gooey or sappy in its delivery. There’s no mention of unnecessary/excessive drinking, no minimum required dose of “country” buzzwords, and no sleazy pickup lines—it’s as if someone distilled Bro-Country and Boyfriend country into their few good qualities and then combined them into a rollicking good time that feels both meaningful and sustainable, and you can’t help but feel like good times are in store for the happy couple.

Yes, at the end of the day “Let’s Go To Vegas” is just another love song, but it’s a darn solid love song, one that I’d rank above last week’s “Sure Love” because of its sheer upbeat energy. Faith Hill may have eventually made her name as a pop-country power balladeer, but she could deliver a classic country track as well as any artist of the era, and her early work deserves to be remembered as fondly as her later work. With a sound that cranks up the pace and lyrics that ground the merrymaking in something deeper, this song took a premise that we see over and over today and made it must-hear entertainment. I may never have been a big Hill fan, but there are some real gems to find if you dig into her discography, and after doing so I suppose that maybe, just maybe, I can finally admit that she wasn’t so bad after all.

…But I’m still not ready to forgive her for what she did to “Out Of My Bones.” Maybe next decade…

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Conner Smith, “Take It Slow”

I dunno man, I think these AI deepfakes still have a ways to go before we think they’re real.

I can’t find the link now, but a while ago our colleague Zack Kephart talked about how 1986 saw the release of Randy Travis’s Storms Of Life, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, and Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., and how each album was a critical and commercial success despite each one sounding vastly different than the others. Such a feat would be unheard of today, as Music City seems to enforce a bland homogeneity in its output via adherence to a strict meta, issuing commandments like “Thou shalt use the same three instruments and same ten buzzwords in every song.”

Conner Smith is one of the latest product of this cookie-cutter approach, but he’s certainly not one of its success stories: His debut single “Learn From It” was picked apart by me and completely ignored by the radio, limping to a #38 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. I complained about how unoriginal and soundalike the song was, but apparently he didn’t learn anything from it, because his follow-up single “Take It Slow” is even worse. This thing is so by-the-book that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the result of someone asking ChatGPT “Create a modern country song,” and there’s simply nothing here to recommend this track to anyone.

Let’s start with the production, and hey, we’ve spotted our first difference:It’s not an acoustic guitar carrying the melody alone this time! …Except that it’s being assisted by an amplified banjo that’s only slightly livelier than the token efforts we got during the Bro-Country era. (Also, if you guessed that it was Ilya Toshinskiy playing the guitar and banjo for this mix…congrats I guess? Seriously, is this guy the only string session player in Music City, and is Nir Z the only drummer?) The electric guitars are really only noticeable on the bridge solo, and the percussion jumps in late and doesn’t pack that much punch, but the main problem is that some amorphous background elements (honestly, I can’t tell if they’re guitars, synthesizers, backing vocals, or some combination of the three) are cranked up so much that they overwhelm everything else, causing all the sounds to run together to create (say it with me now) an impenetrable wall of noise, one that really grates on the ears. I have no idea what vibe the producer was going for here—the deliberate cadence and banjo prominence suggest a Bro-Country-esque party atmosphere but and the regular minor chords suggest that they were trying to signal the depth/seriousness of the narrator’s feelings…all I know is that when I listen to this, the dominant feeling I get is no feeling at all. Its the sort of sound you expect to hear from the radio today, but it’s exceptionally aimless this time around, trying to be everything and winding up as nothing as a result.

I called Smith a hoarse Jake Owen in my last review, but this time I hear a weird mix of Sam Hunt and Russell Dickerson in his voice (which isn’t a stellar starting point either), and frankly, you could probably tell me that any one of Nashville’s faceless male singers is behind the mic and I would believe you. It’s about as indistinguishable (and undistinguished) a performance as you could find these days, but the main component that’s missing is actual emotion. Smith comes across as incredibly neutral and nonchalant as he tells the story, making it seem like he really doesn’t care all that much about it. The song could be twisted in any direction (the couple could stay together forever, break up immediately, or do anything in between) and the ending would be plausible thanks to Smith’s poker face. (Spoiler alert: The song doesn’t get twisted in any direction at all, but we’ll talk about that later.) When you’ve got all the personality of wet cardboard and don’t bother to put any real feeling behind your delivery, you’re left with an aggressively bland performance that’s a real grind to sit through from beginning to end.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the lyrics feel so incomplete, and manage to say everything and nothing at the same time. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A pair meets for an amorous evening, hops in a Chevy, drives to a field, and cuddles for the rest of the night (hence the weak “take it slow” hook). Even if we set aside the fact that the story is so stock that it’s probably copyrighted by Getty Images, the way the story is framed is absolutely terrible. The narrator consistently uses the past tense when speaking (and the tale is exactly what you’d get if you googled “teenage first date”), so it sets the story up for some sort of payoff (it could be an old couple reminiscing about their first night together, a heartbroken individual reliving the highlights of a long-lost romance)…except that we get nothing: The couple takes it slow by cuddling to the radio, the screen fades to black, and we have no idea what happens next. I’ve gotten after songs for “not putting the punch line first,” but this song doesn’t have a punch line at all! It makes listening to the song feel like a completely wasted effort, and the track’s only saving grace is that the story was so boring in the first place that no one was paying attention anyway.

Songs like “Take It Slow” are what have made reviewing radio singles so painful over the last few years, and the most withering criticism I can level against this track is that it took me forever to write this piece because I kept looking for something, anything I could do to procrastinate. (Seriously, you have no idea how many 3-inning Conquest games I’ve played in MLB The Show 22 today—Pablo Lopez is now 10-0 and I never want him to pitch for my team ever again). Nothing about this track, be it the ear-splitting production, the half-finished cookie-cutter writing, or Conner Smith’s forgettable, monotonic delivery, is even remotely pleasant to hear, and the whole mess feels like a microcosm of nearly everything that ails Nashville right now. It’s a colossal-but-unsurprising disappointment that leaves me more sad than angry, and while I’m not sure what Music City should do going forward, we can at least point to this song and say “Don’t do that.”

Rating: 4/10. Take it away. Please.

Retro Review: Hal Ketchum, “Sure Love”

It’s time to ask an important question: What makes a love song good?

Romantic ballads have been a cornerstone of country music since Ben Franklin invented the steel guitar, but lately the genre can’t seem to find the proper balance for their love songs. From Bro-Country to Boyfriend country, most love songs seem to end up as too saccharine, too sleazy, or too sterile (witness the many failed sex jams that have been foisted on us over the last few years). I just don’t feel love songs the way I used to, and while perhaps this fact says more about me than it does country music, it brings us back to the same question: Why?

As luck would have it, lately I’ve been going back through the discography of Hal Ketchum, a neotraditional artist that had a moment, but not a Billboard #1 single, in the early 1990s. (Side note: The fact that “Small Town Saturday Night” had to settle for an Radio & Records #1 is an absolute travesty, and I demand that the House Judiciary Committee open an investigation into this at once—it’s far more important than anything they’ll find on Hunter Biden’s laptop.) “Sure Love” was released in 1992, serving as the leadoff single and title track for his second major-label album, and at first glance it’s the sort of off-the-shelf love song that was typical of the era. So why am I so eager to revisit this track when I can’t wait to dump most of today’s tracks once the review is finished?

Let’s start with the production, which on paper is the exact same sort of arrangement you might hear today: Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, and drums. However, the double whammy of a) the acoustic guitar and piano being the primary melody carriers and b) the complete lack of synthetic elements in the mix gives this song a warmer, softer vibe in comparison to the slicker, sharper, and often colder feel of modern tracks. The electric guitars still get their moment in the sun, of course, but both they and the drum set are relatively quiet in the mix, which helps the instruments blend together to create a richer, fuller sound that’s easier on the ears than the thinner, more-volume-dependent mixes of today. (You can actually pick out individual pieces of this arrangement are they’re playing, a stark contrast to the walls of noise we keep running into nowadays.) Finally, the bright instrument tones here strikes what seems like the right note for such a song: Love should be pleasant and fun, and that’s exactly the mood that’s set. Despite playing with basically the same set of Legos that people have today, the producer here does a nice job creating a mix that captures the joy of romance and is also a joy to hear, and I only wish today’s booth occupants were taking notes.

If there’s one fundamental truth about a love song, it’s that the quality of the person behind the mic really matters. What kind of surprised me when revisiting this track is that when Ketchum arrived on the scene, he was in the same position as, say, an EARNEST or a Shane Profitt: An obvious clone of a bigger star of the era. (In Ketchum’s case, that star was Vince Gill, who was at the peak of his powers in the front half of the 1990s.) Unlike the knock-off artists of today, however, Ketchum has some serious charisma behind his delivery, and pulls off a nice trick here by giving off a relaxed, easygoing vibe while still managing to convey the depths of his feelings. It’s a true Goldilocks performance: Just enough energy to keep the song moving, just enough emotion to feel earnest without being overbearing, and more than enough charm to sell the song and fell believable in the narrator’s role. (There’s also a thoughtful side to him that allows him to handle flowery language like the writing here without feeling awkward. Seriously, can you imagine a dudebro like Mitchell Tenpenny trying to sing this song?) Despite his vocal similarities to Gill, he never felt like an inferior or copycat performer—he was talented enough to distinguish himself as a great artist in his own right, and this song stands as proof.

As far as the writing goes, there’s a maturity to this song that a lot of tracks these days seem to lack—heck, it comes out right out and says it on the first verse (“Some may take love casually, but I know what it’s worth to me”). It may eschew finer details for broader, grander statements of devotion, but a) it means that we’re not bombarded by “country” buzzwords, and b) it allows the writers to style it up with their prose, dropping great lines like “I would chase old ghosts and watch them scatter” and “Drop old dreams and watch them shatter” that suggest a level of skill and experience in the narrator that many artists simply don’t have. (It feels surprisingly highbrow when you dig deep into it, which is something most songs today could never be accused of.) We may not know much about the relationship itself, but we know that the narrator’s feelings run deep, and that they truly cherish the relationship they found. Sure, there are a few less-than-inspired lines here (the opening “There’s a new star in my sky, there’s a new song in my life” is honestly pretty meh), but they leave enough handholds for a great artist to infuse these lines with meaning, and Ketchum does the rest and takes the song to the next level.

Hal Ketchum died of early-onset dementia back in 2020, but despite his relative lack of chart success he left a significant musical legacy that still holds up pretty well in 2023. “Sure Love” is far from his best song, but it’s a pretty solid effort nonetheless, and perhaps provides a blueprint for how today’s romantic ballads could be improved. (Of course, finding a voice—or an artist—like Ketchum’s is the first step, and it’s no easy task.) There are some notable differences between between this song and those currently on the radio, but there are some notable similarities, which gives me hope that country music can someday make love songs that feel meaningful again.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it suits you.

Song Review: Mitchell Tenpenny, “We Got History”

You and I have a history too, Mitchell Tenpenny…and it hasn’t been pleasant.

In my lightning-round review of “Truth About You,” I declared “I really don’t see why Riser House and Columbia keep trying to make [Tenpenny] a thing in this genre,” and I stand by that statement even after the track’s semi-success (it spent roughly ten months on the airwaves just to settle for a Mediabase-only #1). Where I saw persistent mediocrity, however, Riser House and Columbia saw a potential breakthrough moment, using the song to push out an album This Is The Heavy (um…isn’t this the Heavy?) and bringing out “We Got History” as the follow-up single. Unfortunately, the song is another uninteresting stuck-in-the-past lost-love track in the mold of Sam Hunt’s “23,” and Tenpenny is nowhere near good enough as a performer to make this thing worth hearing.

The production here is a really awkward fit for this track, because they try to put an upbeat, energetic spin on a breakup that the narrator can’t get past. The tom-tom-heavy percussion calls to mind the “drum beat carries on” part of Nickelback’s “When We Stand Together,” and the spacious synth tones, serious piano, and washed-out electric guitars do their darnedest to spin the song as some sort of empowering anthem, when in reality this guy is stuck on “Memory Lane” as much as Old Dominion is. (The instruments also all run together on the choruses to create the dreaded wall of noise that no one looks forward to.) This feels like the absolute opposite of the atmosphere a song like this should be aiming for, and the lyrics have so little to say on the subject that there’s not a heck of a lot for the sound to support in the first place. This appears to be a case of the producer trying to turn a song into something completely different than the writers intended, and the results ends up confusing the audience more than interesting them.

As far as Tenpenny, he is the absolute last person you want behind the mic for a song like this. We don’t get a ton of detail from the writing about the breakup (more on that later), and with Tenpenny, a man with “absolutely no charisma or credibility,” the default assumption is that he was the problem in the relationship. His turns as a sleazy, angry dudebro still cling to him like the scent of a cheap cigar, and he brings an extra dose of smugness to the lines that reference the memory of his ex (as if he’s lording the fact that he will forever remember the good times over the other person) that turns my stomach a little. Throw in a voice that lacks power and is only slightly less raspy than Kip Moore, and you’ve got a situation where putting literally anyone else behind the mic would be an improvement (heck, even I could do a better job with this track). With so many artists in this lane, I see no reason why anyone would give Tenpenny the time of day on an unremarkable track that he absolutely fails to sell.

Speaking of that unremarkable story: The narrator here has gone through a traumatic breakup, and are left to revel in their past escapades to avoid confronting their lack of a future. The writing here is defined mostly what it lacks:

  • It lacks detail: We get very little information about either the good or bad times in the relationship, so we’re once again left to speculate about what went wrong (again, not a good thing with a lummox like Tenpenny involved) and can only assume what went right (we only know the locations: Pensacola and a Toyota Corolla).
  • It lacks maturity: Okay, so we can make some decent assumptions about what went right based on the clues we have (“Drunk and singing Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Told me, ‘Baby, don’t you stop kissing me, kissing me'”), which boils down to…alcohol and sex. It’s the sort of stuff a young kid might latch on to from a breakup, but it doesn’t strike me as a great foundation for a long-lasting relationship (and if Tenpenny is still longing for their ex at his age, he needs to grow up and move on).
  • It lacks appeal: Even we if ignore the fact that this trope has been overdone over the last few years, there’s just nothing here to hook the listener and draw them into the song. The previous two bullet points render the narrator’s fantasy land impotent and uninteresting (in a way, you kind of understand why the other person moved on), and by the second verse you’re ready to move on to the next track on the playlist.

It’s just not that enjoyable or moving of a story, and none of the other pieces here can save it.

“We Got History” is a boring song that fails to justify its own existence. The writing has too little to say, Mitchell Tenpenny proves to be the wrong person to say it, and the producer tries to save the whole mess by turning it into some awkward arena-ready power ballad. At this point, I’m pretty much done with Tenpenny: He’s had years to prove himself to be a competent, interesting artist, and he simply hasn’t done it. There are so many artists in this lane right now, and Tenpenny is easily one of the weakest of the bunch. Perhaps “We Got History,” but it’s not the kind we’ll want to reminisce about down the road.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzz…

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Memory Lane”

If I were Old Dominion, I’d want to stay on “Memory Lane” too.

It wasn’t that long ago when this group was the toast of Nashville: They won Vocal Group of the Year from 2018 through 2020, and “One Man Band” was a smash hit that cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cleaned up at the CMA Awards. Ever since then, however, the group has been in a commercial tailspin, with two songs (“Some People Do” and “Never Be Sorry”) failing to crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s airplay chart, a leadoff single (“I Was On A Boat That Day”) that only made it to #9, and their previous single “No Hard Feelings” peaking at a mediocre #14. (Their Kenny Chesney collab “Beer With My Friends” hasn’t looked that strong either, and was in danger of ending up on the zombie list at the conclusion of the Pulse posts.) The group seems to be growing more desperate as the calendar turns to 2023, as the Time, Tequila & Therapy era was abruptly ended after two singles and a new leadoff single “Memory Lane” has been delivered to country radio. Unfortunately, despite the song’s attempt to be as flowery and inoffensive as possible, in the end we’re left with yet another lost-love track that combines two things that I really can’t stand: Delusional nostalgia, and an complete inability to move on.

As far as the production goes, the first question that came to mind was “What’s the point of having a band when they sound this generic?” The song is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar and a percussion line that’s split about 75/25 in favor of synthetic beats (Grady Smith’s favorite hand claps are here too), with some electric guitars and synth tones that stay mostly in the background (although the electric axe gets some screen time with its lead on the bridge solo). Ilya Toshinskiy, a.k.a. the guy who plays on 90% of Nashville’s recordings these days, is brought in to add a mandolin for support, and while it does add some brightness to a mix that wants to be light and upbeat, it feels a little weird to have to bring in a session guy for a group that’s supposed to have their own players and their own sound. Still, it strikes a nice balance between pushing the song forward and maintaining a relaxed, positive feel that invites the listener to ponder the meaning of the lyrics (which in retrospect was not the greatest idea). It’s a bit of awkward fit when paired with lyrics that tell of a failed romance, but by not having even a shred of sadness in the sound, it helps convince the audience that the narrator is fully immersed in their illusion and has successfully avoided their feelings (at least for now). It’s a decent mix for what it is (and might actually be the best part of the song), but it feels more than a little out-of-place once we scratch beneath the surface.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey is no stranger to ignoring his feelings (see “I Was On A Boat That Day”), but there’s a lot more positivity in his performance this time around, befitting a man living in his head with the good times from a love gone wrong. He’s a charismatic performer and brings a lot of charm to the table, but while he’s done a great job fooling himself, he can’t pull the wool over the eyes of the listener, and thus can’t quite share his forced happiness with the audience. We see the narrator for who he is: A man who can’t move on from a failed relationship and prefers to live in an idealized past, deluding himself and no one else. While this is primarily the fault of the writing for putting him in this position (more on that later), a strong singer can at least elevate the song a bit through a strong performance, and Ramsey just doesn’t reach that level here. (I feel like I ask this question every time I review an OD single, but I still don’t see what the point of maintaining a band is when they don’t contribute anything meaningful to the songs—their harmonies are utterly replaceable, and now they don’t even generate the sound they need.) This is one of those “necessary but not sufficient” moments: Ramsey brings the relentless positivity needed to feel believable in the narrator’s role, but isn’t able to pull the song any farther, leaving the listener feeling a bit unfulfilled when it’s all over.

The lyrics are where this song falls apart, which is a shame because the first verse feels almost poetic in its literal use of “memory lane” as a real-estate metaphor. Soon enough, however, we get…well, half the story: The speaker is living in the past because their relationship has failed in the present, and they can’t stop dwelling on what used to be. The good news is that this is not an Ex-Boyfriend track (there’s no anger to be found here), but despite the flowery words in the opening verse, we’re missing a lot of information here—specifically, we have no idea what (or who) led to the breakup, and thus we really don’t understand why this guy is living in a daydream. In truth, we don’t get much information about the good times either, and the use of phrases like “jean jacket nights” and “tangled up mornings” only tell us that sex was involved, and aren’t great at signaling the depth of the pair’s feelings. It leads the listener to question what the relationship was really founded on, and what the narrator actually misses from the whole ordeal. The prose may be decent here, but it’s a bit vapid, and the listener is left staring at someone stuck in the past because they can’t move on into the future, and they aren’t enough of a look to know whether the past is worth living in.

In the end, I’m left feeling kind of ambivalent about “Memory Lane.” The writing has too many issues for its slick opening to cover, and neither the vocals or the sound of Old Dominion are able to elevate the track beyond mere existence. Unfortunately, this group hasn’t done much besides exist lately either (which is not entirely their fault: I thought “Some People Do” was their best work, but country radio did not), and after the last few years, it’s fair to wonder if even that existence is in doubt. Old Dominion is capable of good work, but this song doesn’t quite meet that standard, and if things don’t turn around, they themselves may be relegated to “Memory Lane” before long.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Retro Review: Jamie O’Neal, “There Is No Arizona”

Technically this is a revival of an old feature rather than the introduction of a new one, but either way it begs the same question: Why?

It’s no secret that I haven’t been terribly happy with the state of country music over the last two years, but I also have a longstanding theory that no era of music is truly bad: No matter what year it is, you get some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a ton of stuff in the mushy middle. Thus we find ourselves with a conflict: Is today’s music truly as bad as it seems, or am I merely being too harsh on an era of music that isn’t “my” era?

This feature is an attempt to answer that question: Given some songs from the recent past, let’s put them under the same level of scrutiny as current releases, and see if they hold up. Will they still be good, or will they wilt when the light of nostalgia has dimmed? There’s only one way to find out.

The first song going under the microscope is “There is No Arizona,” the 2000 debut single for Jamie O’Neal, an Australian-born artist whose career started hot and quickly cooled off (only three of her tracks made the top 15: The numbers ones “Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” and the #3 “Somebody’s Hero” several years later). After almost 23 years, does the song hold up despite being exposed at blatant misinformation (the last few elections have proved that Arizona does, in fact, exist)?

Let’s start with the production, and despite being from 2000, I think this song reveals some fundamental truths about the late neotraditional period:

  • Despite being lauded as the fiddle-and-steel era, there were plenty of standard guitar-and-drum mixes that I’ve been griping about lately.
  • I’ve tend to use the ‘guitar-and-drum’ label as a derogatory, but such a mix doesn’t automatically doom a song to meritless mediocrity.

The production here is a great example of how the foundation of so many bland, boring 2020s songs can be leveraged to make a bigger impact. Let’s start with the unorthodox vi-III7 chord structure of the verses and the plethora of minor chords on the chorus, giving the song an ominous and unsettled feel that suits the uncertain promises contained in the lyrics. There may not be a fiddle or steel guitar around, but instead we get a mandolin that helps supports the acoustic guitar in carrying the melody, a classically-toned piano to fill in the space between the lines, and the most mournful harmonica you’ll ever hear opening the song and closing the choruses. (Heck, there are even hints of a cello floating around in the background!) There’s no bridge solo here, but there’s still a lot going on with this arrangement, with its hints of disharmony inviting listeners to hear the whole story and its individual pieces bringing enough energy to drive the message home without getting in its way. It’s a solid mix all the way around, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to.

So what about this story? Well, for one thing there actually is a story here, and while at its core it’s another story of love gone wrong, it’s got a few key twists that you don’t see in tracks today. Tales of love and loss nowadays are very straightforward—some sort of clean break has happened, and while certain parties aren’t happy about it, at least everyone knows where they stand. In contrast, “There Is No Arizona” is a story full of gray areas: One member of a couple has left for Arizona to prepare a life for the pair, but outside of a lone post card, they essentially ghost their no-longer-significant other and are never heard from again. The title is straight-up clickbait, to be sure, but it represents the idea that whatever grand utopia awaited the pair never actually existed in the first place. (Note that I can’t talk much about the narrator here because the story is in the third-person, another difference from the I/me songs of today.) The realization that this promise isn’t worth the paper it was never printed is teased early on and dawns on both the waiting partner and the audience over time (a tactic that has since been crushed by streaming), and it causes the listener to ask a lot of questions: Was this outcome a product of malice or incompetence? Was there ever truly love here in the first place? Will Arizona actually exist at some point? This lack of a clear resolution (even though there’s a heavily-implied one) gets the listener to ruminate a bit more (and a bit deeper) on this track than the more cut-and-dried songs of today. (There’s also a decent level of detail on the choruses here, although finding a town with a bit more name recognition than Sedona would have been better; I still don’t know where that is.) There’s just enough here to make this feel like more than just a lost-love song, and I think that’s what draws people to the track even today.

As for O’Neal, I think she caught in the boom-and-bust cycle of Nashville: The late 90s/early 00s was the era of Shania, Faith, and Martina, and when the trend fizzled, Nashville did to her what Elon Musk did to most of Twitter’s workforce and sent her packing. While O’Neal may not have had the most distinct voice (you hear a lot of Faith Hill in her delivery), she was still a capable vocalist who could effortlessly sell a story like this one. She may technically be a bystander here, but she does a really good job channeling the waiting partner’s feelings of sorrow and abandonment, allowing the audience to share in them and making the waiter a sympathetic character. (While I never would have called O’Neal a power vocalist back in the day, the ease with which she ramps up her performance on the choruses also indicates that she could have really brought the heat if needed.) She’s the kind of artist that probably deserved a few more years in Music City to become more established, but the road the Nashville is littered with cases like hers, and it’s kind of a shame.

So where does our judgement fall in the case of “There Is No Arizona”? Honestly, I think this one still stands up: The production is fantastic, the story is intriguing, and Jamie O’Neal does a nice job in the narrator’s role. No, this song wouldn’t go anywhere in 2023 (its four-minute runtime and slow rollout of the punch line would make it dead on arrival), but it’s still better than much of what’s on the airwaves today. One song is way too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions from, but we can at least draw some meaningful contrasts between then and now, and can take the first steps towards determining what (if anything) has gone wrong in the decades since.

Rating: 7/10. If you’re not familiar with O’Neal’s work, now’s a perfect time to change that.

Song Review: Megan Maroney, “Tennessee Orange”

Welcome to the new year, same as the old year.

Megan Maroney is a Georgia native who parlayed a viral Spotify release into a deal with Sony Music late in 2022, and since the song “Tennessee Orange” has already gotten the streaming seal of approval, Maroney and her crew decided to send it to the radio and see how it fared. The song is…well, let’s say that it had the best of intentions, and tried to take a run-of-the-mill love song and make it sound unique. They actually succeeded on that count, but their attempt to tie college football fandom into a love story felt awkward and limiting, and the song really isn’t all that interesting or compelling as a result.

Let’s talk about the lyrics first, because this is the biggest move the writers made to try to elevate an unremarkable tale of newfound love to something more memorable. The narrator, like Maroney herself, is a Georgia native, and they’re breaking the news that they have fallen so hard for a Tennessee Volunteers fan that they’re “wearing Tennessee orange for him.” My main issue with the approach is that the lyrics treat the act of crossing the line between the football programs way too seriously, making it out to be some sort of cardinal sin that disrupts the entire space-time continuum where it’s nowhere near that level. I’m not a college football fan by any stretch of the imagination (and I get that the sport is taken much more seriously in certain regions of the country), but I’ve had a front-row seat to the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for many years, and supporting rival teams is generally treated as a playful difference of opinion, something a couple can needle each other about over the course of the season. Such a split is never taken that seriously, and to treat it as some momentous or even sacrilegious act just feels silly to me. (The use of specific team references also limits the potential audience for the song: If you don’t know the mascots, stadiums, or fight songs of the teams involved, those references won’t make any sense.) Beyond that, the song doesn’t have much to say: The pair loves each other, the narrator is doing unexpected things out of affection, and that’s pretty much it. I suppose the writers deserve a little credit for trying to spice up a tired trope, but their approach leaves a lot to be desired.

Part of the problem is Maroney herself, whose sounds a lot like Kelsea Ballerini but doesn’t have Ballerini’s deft charisma or self-awareness. A song like this one might have worked had it not taken itself so seriously, and was delivered with a twinkle in the eye and a tongue placed firmly in cheek. Instead, Maroney goes all-in on a serious, emotional approach, and while there’s no doubt that she’s fond of the other person, she can sound a little over-the-top when portraying acts like wearing “the hat on his dash” as earth-shattering. (The lyrics also hamstring her by not letting folks who aren’t rabid fans connect with her story, simply because they don’t understand and thus can’t share in her passion.) She’s stuck being sounding too similar to other artists and using references that are too different and thus don’t provide a great frame of reference, and the end result is that she fails to draw in the listener or really make them care about what’s being said.

The production is probably the best thing the song has going for it, but even it has its flaws. The song is a standard guitar-and-drum mix, but it features acoustic pieces almost exclusively, with a soft acoustic axe carrying the melody and a real drum set keeping time. The electric guitars are here, but they’re mostly left in the background, with a steel guitar getting the call for the intra-line riffs and the bridge solo, and the result is a restrained-but-warm mix that stays out of the speaker’s way and provides adequate support for their emotional approach (even if I disagree with said approach). The mix’s rare 3/4 time signature helps it stand out amongst its peers, but when combined with the slower tempo, it makes the sound feel heavier than it should, and the track comes dangerously close to bogging down under its own weight. For lack of a better term, I’d call this a “compliance arrangement”: It does its job to create a serious-but-positive atmosphere for the song to work with, but it doesn’t do anything to expand the song’s audience on its own, which it really needed to do given the track’s shortcomings in other areas. It’s good for what it is, but it needed to be great, and it’s not.

“Tennessee Orange” is an “if you know, you know” kind of song: It’s okay if you hold college football near and dear, and pretty forgettable otherwise. While I appreciate that the folks involved here tried to experiment and shake up the current radio meta a little, their efforts weren’t nearly effective enough to make a difference. The lyrics try to force a football example down our throats like a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak (instead of dropping the ball, they turn it over on downs), Megan Maroney attempts to oversell a connection that she isn’t able to make, and the sound doesn’t bring enough light or energy to the table to make up the difference. It’s yet another fumbled debut from Nashville because it’s not a performance that interests me in hearing more from Maroney, and while there’s probably a considerable overlap between the college football and country music fandoms, I’m not sure it will be enough to keep this song afloat.

Rating: 5/10. If you’re not a football fan, you can pass this one by.

Kyle’s 2022 Still-A-Pandemic Playlist

If you could sum up 2022 in a mixtape…how would you make it sound different than the last one you made?

I mentioned last year that “2021 felt like a continuation of all the badness that was 2020,” and 2022 opened with those same feelings of selfishness and nihilism. No one seemed to care about anyone but themselves, and they either wanted to fiddle (or play a hand-clap loop) while the world burned or grab everything they could get for themselves regardless of who they stomped on in the process. There was a lot of cynicism, hopelessness, and fear for the future, and it wasn’t terribly pleasant.

However, something changed this year, if only a little bit. As things began to crumble, enough people reached their breaking points to stand up and say “Enough.” People spoke out, people turned out, and people finally decided to shape their own future instead of having it shaped for them. There are still problems, to be sure, and country music never seemed to escape its previous malaise, but I think a growing number of people are getting serious about tackling big problems and making things right, and given where we’ve been so far this decade, it’s at least a decent starting point.

The only rule for this list is that there are no other rules. Songs are not restricted by genre, artist, original year of release, or anything else (in fact, given how surreal and absurd this year felt sometimes, weirdness may actually strengthen a song’s case for inclusion). All that matters is whether or not a song can be tied back to 2022 in some shape or form.

For better or worse, this is the official Kyle’s Korner playlist for the year that was.

Cole Swindell, “She Had Me At Heads Carolina”

Let’s kick this off with a song that served as a microcosm of country music’s 2022 troubles. The overwhelming sense I got from this genre is that it had nothing to say and no ideas to push, and thus was reduced to peddling aimless emotion and recycled content (I suppose you could at least say the industry got greener). Cycling back through the hip trends of yesteryear is nothing new (and the 90s revival of this year seemed to kick off in earnest the moment I declared it dead), but there’s a line between inspiration and outright plagiarism, and Swindell rode the latter to one of the biggest country hits this year. To be clear, there is no reason to listen to this song: It’s a carbon copy of Jo Dee Messina’s 1996 hit, and the story is nothing more than a guy leering at a girl singing the original song at karaoke night. (If you’re going to copy the original to this degree, you might as well just toss the copy and re-release Messina’s song instead.)

While people were eager to recreate the sounds of a more-lucrative era, they unfortunately stuck with the same old buzzwords and placeholder storylines, and it made listening to the radio a frustrating experience if you wanted anything more than background noise. Let’s hope the meta changes at least a little in 2023.

Bailey Zimmerman, “Fall In Love”

…Okay, so country music did have one thing it wanted to say: “I’m as mad as hell!” Unfortunately, they never got to the second half of Howard Beale’s quote, and instead ranted about how much alcohol they had drank and how evil there ex was and how unfair life was in general. The Ex-Boyfriend trend had been bubbling up for the last couple of years, but it really went mainstream this year behind songs like Morgan Wallen’s awful “Wasted On You” and Zimmerman’s tire fire of a track (which topped my worst-song list for the year). Instead of reflecting on what went wrong and finding ways to move on, these singers lashed out blindly at the people they claimed to love before, never failing to paint themselves as the bad guy in a breakup no matter how many receipts they brought (and they generally didn’t bring many).

Unfortunately, such vitriol resonated in a world where anger and resentment have been festering for a while, which means this trend will likely continue into the new year as well. Zimmerman’s rant was the angriest of the bunch, which puts it on our playlist for 2022.

Edwin Starr, “War”

You can probably guess what this one’s here for. Vladimir Putin decided he wasn’t satisfied with just taking Crimea from Ukraine, and in February he moved to grab the whole darn country. He thought that the country would fall within a few days, and that the rest of the world would stand by and do nothing like they had all done before.

He was wrong on all counts.

Ukraine not only repelled Russia initial’s push towards Kyiv, but also halted its broader offensive on the country and slowly began taking back the territory it had lost. The invasion also galvanized the rest of the world in opposition to Russia, and outside support poured into Ukraine while unprecedented economic sanctions were leveled against Putin and his country. The courage, spirit, and perseverance shown by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine has been truly inspiring to witness, and together they have exposed Russia as a fraud, a declining power whose bark is worse than its bite.

All that being said, Russia has still inflicted a lot of damage on Ukraine, and continues to do so with their attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure as winter sets in. This fight is far from over, and its outcome remains in doubt ten months after it started. Still, the strength of the Ukrainians and the resolve of America and its allies to support the defense efforts were genuine surprises at a time when we all appeared to be gripped by complacency, and it was the first sign that things were starting to change.

Tim McGraw, “Red Ragtop”

This one’s a pretty easy choice for the list as well (you could also make a case for Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”). McGraw’s 2002 single generated controversy for the main characters’ decision to have an abortion, a decision that would illegal in at least thirteen states. In May, an unprecedented leak from the Supreme Court indicated that the court was prepared to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and erase the constitutional right for women to get an abortion, and they followed through on the threat a month later. (Justice Thomas went so far as to suggest that other decisions, such as legalizing gay marriage, could be overturned using a similar argument as was used here.)

Several abortion bans went into effect immediately and several other states moved to severely restrict access to the procedure, but the moves seemed unwise given that over 60% percent of Americans felt that “abortion should be legal in all or most cases.” The pro-life movement took a beating at the polls for the rest of the year, starting with a failure to repeal abortion rights Kansas and ending with an 0-for-5 election night performance where it appeared to be a major reason why the projected November “red wave” never materialized. It became yet another instance where people finally decided that enough was enough, and stepped up to make sure their voices were heard and their wishes were heeded.

Earnest Jackson and Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux, “Inflation”

I’m no economist, but I’ll admit that I was one of the people who wondered if the old rules of finance still applied after so many years of low inflation. This year, however, the old rules came roaring back, as a number of factors (increased demand, decreased supply, wage growth, corporate profiteering, geopolitical events, the return of the McRib, etc.) conspired to send the price of just about everything to the moon (except cryptocurrencies, that is). Inflation hit a 40-year high in 2022, and since the impact of the cost increases were limited to anyone who paid for food, housing, and energy, this issue became a major concern for anyone who represented these people, which makes this track another easy choice for the list.

The story behind this song, which involves a couple of NPR podcasters starting a record label to promote a long-forgotten track about a long-ignored subject to finally give a long-forgotten artist his due, helps make the song’s case as well. The language is a bit dated (no one talks about depressions these days), but the sentiment and examples make the track feel like it could have been written this year.

After dragging their feet initially, the Federal Reserve responded with the sort of interest rate increases that the country hadn’t seen in decades, and while the impact has been uneven so far (inflation is starting to ease, but certain sectors like the tech industry and the housing market have been impacted more heavily), the true outcome of these countermeasures remains unclear, so look for inflation (and the economy in general) to remain a major story in the year to come.

Kane Brown, “American Bad Dream”

Brown released this song back in 2018, after years of events like school shootings and the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police began pushing gun violence to the forefront of our national consciousness. The trend only accelerated in the years that followed, with high-profile incidents such as the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, and the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde this year. Despite the overwhelming number of such incidents in the United States, for years the official response was nothing but “thoughts and prayers,” mourning the lives lost while doing nothing to change the course of the future.

However, even on an issue that seemed solidly frozen in the amber of this nation, this started to change. Congress passed the first major piece of gun legislation in nearly thirty years, and while its reach was minimal and painfully inadequate, it was finally something. It was an indication that people all across the political spectrum had started to realize just how bad the problem had gotten, and that something not only could be done, but had to be done.

Our relationship with firearms is a complicated one, and one we’ll be forced to address in the years to come. Still, this was another sign that people had grown tired of the broken status quo, and had decided to take action to make things better.

The Tractors, “Fallin’ Apart”

This song is here for two reasons:

  • The Tractors were a solid group that deserve to be known as more than “the boogie-woogie choo-choo train guys.”
  • I think the title captures the general feeling that a lot of people had at points during the year. In addition to all the things we’ve already talked about in this post (war, court reversals, inflation, gun violence, etc.), the specter of Donald Trump and January 6th loomed large over the country, as many election deniers, misinformation peddlers, and outright morons threatened to take power and disenfranchise various parts of the electorate. Democracy itself seemed to be on the ballot in 2022, and the midterm historical trends that favored the out-of-power party threatened to put a bunch of wannabe autocrats in charge of Congress.

Politicians like to claim that the fate of the nation is as stake every year, but after the 2020 election weaved through the courts and culminated in an insurrection, that claim felt all too real this year, and it had a lot of people wondering if “everything we got is fallin’ apart.”

Drake Milligan, “Sounds Like Something I’d Do”

Okay, we’ve done enough rehashing of the badness of 2022. It’s time to talk about what went right this year, and the best place to start is the best darn country song released in the last twelve months.

I know things have changed in the last twenty years, but I just can’t shake the feeling of déjà vu I get when I hear this song. It was 2003 when Dierks Bentley burst onto the scene with “What Was I Thinkin’,” and given that the man is still (relatively) relevant today, I don’t think Milligan would reject the comparison. “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” brings that same sort of drive and energy to the table, and with its classical instrumentation, it’s just a really fun song to listen to.

However, there’s a little something extra with his delivery, and while it’s an obvious attempt to imitate Elvis Presley, there’s a reason Milligan was chosen for that Sun Records drama back in 2017. When you watch him perform, he has that same sort of raw charisma and physicality on stage that draws people to him, which I think bodes well for his future in the genre. (Radio may not be a visual format, but its prominence is fading while visual formats like television and social media seem to be rising. There’s a reason he chose to go on America’s Got Talent before dropping an official radio single.)

But that’s all speculation for the future. Right now, Milligan is a darn good singer with the best darn song of the year, and he deserves a spot on our list.

Lizzo, “About Damn Time”

When I was looking outside country music for songs to include on my list, Lizzo’s big hit from last May stood out because she was trying to do the same thing that at least 75% of country music was trying to do (recapture a retro sound for a nihilistic party song), but she actually succeeded in her quest while Nashville failed over and over again. Why?

For one thing, the old-school funk sound of “About Damn Time” is a lot better at inspiring people to move than the in-your-face guitars-and-drums that country music relies on for everything. (Seriously, the groove of ADT’s bass line is absolutely sublime and just resonates with your soul; nothing in Nashville even comes close.) Not centering everything on booze helps as well (the only screen time is gets here is a line about “two shots in my cup”), and I think the use of her flute not only gives her a distinct sound, but a signature sound as well, along the lines of Willie Nelson’s Trigger or Brad Paisley’s electric axe. It doesn’t feature the raw energy of Milligan’s track, but what’s here seems more channeled and purposeful, and Lizzo’s confidence and I’ve-had-enough attitude shine through on both the lyrics and the vocals.

It’s a great song that puts country music’s repeated efforts to mimic its vibe to shame, and while Music City has made its share of great party music over the years, this track should make the town rethink its efforts to imitate other genres and try to find its own voice instead.

HARDY ft. Lainey Wilson, “Wait In The Truck”

So where should country music start in its quest to find its own voice? I’d argue that story songs are the place to begin, the three-minute three-act plays that have long been a calling card of the genre. We didn’t get a ton of them this year, and the ones we did came from unexpected places, and nothing was more unexpected than HARDY, the root of most everything evil in Nashville over the last few years, dropping a powerful, thought-provoking murder ballad. No other genre can match country music’s storytelling potential, and the tragic tale of an revenge murder that left no one’s hands clean really stood out in a sea of aimless drinking and rejection-fueled raging. The sound had surprising depth as it transformed from a sparse, dark tale to a full-blown spiritual, both HARDY and Lainey Wilson played their roles to the hilt (although admittedly Wilson’s lines didn’t add a ton to the track), and the lyrics told a clear-yet-complex story that invited the listener to think about the narrator’s choices and what they should or should not have done differently. It’s the kind of song that country music is known for (and they don’t have to be super dark either; see Michael Ray’s “Holy Water”), and I’d like to see a few more tracks and artists try this approach in the future.

Akira Senju ft. SARINA, REINA & MARU, “Song of Triangle Strategy”

Unlike country music, gaming (at least from Nintendo’s perspective) had a pretty good year, and while the MLB The Show 22‘s soundtrack was mostly relegated to the menus and not particularly memorable, Triangle Strategy had some great background tracks that set the perfect mood for each scene and character. I’m putting the main theme here because it has a dramatic rock-opera feel that fits well with the intrigue and machinations Serenoa and company have to deal with throughout the game, but you could probably put most any piece of the soundtrack here and I wouldn’t complain.

Triangle Strategy wasn’t the surprise that “wait in the truck” was, but I’ll admit that I didn’t think I would get sucked so completely into its cinematic universe that I would complete the game three separate times despite minimal changes on each route. The battle mechanics were fun and interesting, the characters were memorable and likeable, and Frederica showed off the best fireball I’d seen since Randy Johnson retired. Baseball may have triumphed in the Game of the Year debate, but tactical RPGs were the true breakout genre for me in 2022, and Triangle Strategy is the main reason why.

Schmoyoho, “Chug Jug With You (Joe Biden Edition)”

We can’t talk about this year without raising a glass to the 80-year-old leader of the free world who was already considered a lame duck by both supporters and detractors (and still is to some extent, with nearly 60% of Democratic-leaning voters declaring that someone else should run for office in 2024). He went all in on defending democracy in Ukraine and did a solid job holding his coalition of nations together, got some huge legislative wins in the form of bills such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Respect For Marriage Act, and he put an exclamation point on the year by defying the aforementioned historical trends and posting one of best midterm election results by a sitting president’s party in the last 100 years. (Only in politics can you win by not losing as bad as people expected.) He framed the choice in this year’s polls as a referendum on democracy itself, and the people responded to his call.

It wasn’t a perfect year, and things won’t get any easier for him with divided government looming for the next two years, but I think it’s fair to bestow a #1 Victory Royale on Joe Biden for what he pulled off in 2022. Whether he can repeat the feat in 2024, however…that’s an open question.

Brad Paisley, “Online”

So what is Paisley’s digital hit from 2007 doing here? Does it represents the growing presence of online activities in our lives, ranging from Zoom calls to full-blown remote-work opportunities? Is it marking the end of an era in which tech titans like Meta, Twitter, and every cryptocurrency ever invented printed money, or at least could raise piles of cash at the drop of a hat? Is it pouring one out for humanity one last time before AI takes over?

No, this track is here because honestly, I’m not sure what form my “Online” presence will take in the next year. The Pulse posts are scheduled to end, but truthfully they weren’t the problem—it was the flood of boring songs I had to review to feed it. Should I keep the Pulse going, or drop it as I originally intended? Should I rethink my review format to make it more compact, or dump solo reviews in favor of lightning posts? How can I work more gaming posts into the rotation, and it is worth doing at all? And what about YouTube? Is that the right place for my content, or would I be better form doing short-form content on another platform, or just streaming it on Twitch? Heck, what should my content even be? Should I expand my “content empire,” or think about contracting it?

I don’t have any real answers right now, but I think the first thing to do is answer a fundamental question: Is doing all this fun/interesting in the first place? And if not, how do I rebalance everything to flip the answer back to yes? Things have admittedly been a grind over the last year, and figuring out what I enjoy doing the most will go a long way towards bringing some of the joy back.

GAZILOG, Mejoo and Cats Theme Song

As you might expect, I’ve been spending a lot more time on YouTube over the past year as I work to kick-start my channel, which has led me down some unexpected rabbit holes and introduced me to some interesting creators. One niche I never expected to discover was the world of Korean cat YouTubers, where people with several-to-many felines post simple vlogs and other weird videos starring their cat companions. Claire Luvcat was the first one I stumbled across, but as she reduced her posting schedule to deal with other things, I branched out to channels like Bebe8Cats, Arirang, and the four cats that make up the Mejoo and Cats crew.

…Actually, there are five cats on the channel now, which is what prompted the musical group GAZILOG to put together a new theme song that included Audrey (cat #5) in its lyrics. The song has a solid beat with an 80s pop vibe, and while there isn’t much to the song besides “there are five cats now,” it’s a surprisingly catching tune (and Soo’s dancing in the video is absolutely worth the price of admission). “Anti-social media” may be facing a reckoning right now, but there’s still a lot of enjoyable stuff out there to find, and I can’t wait to see what I can find next year.

Rihanna, “Umbrella”

Now this might seem like a pick out of left field, but I’d like my close my list for this year by recognizing the two kinda-sorta viral moments from my blog this year…except that neither of them were actually from my blog! On the YouTube, my first official Splatoon 3 Splatfest highlight reel unexpectedly exploded (and while I was traveling and stuck on terrible Internet, no less), eventually reaching the 50,000 view milestone:

I’d absolutely love to tell you the secret to my success, but I have absolutely no idea how things turned out the way they did (especially after subsequent videos following the same formula couldn’t even reach the 500-view mark). Perhaps the title was a bit too “clickbaity”? Perhaps the success of a weapon considered to be the weakest in the game generated a spirited debate over its potential? Perhaps it was the “wholesome” content that several commenters pointed out (I sound pretty toxic tbh), or the incredible voiceover that several other commenters swooned over (I sound like Kermit the Frog with a pack-a-day habit)?

Whatever it was, the video turned me into “that umbrella guy” for a brief moment, and set the direction of my channel for the foreseeable future: I was going to talk Splatoon, and I was going to talk about the Undercover Brella, ‘ella, ‘ella in particular. Videos can be time-consuming to put together, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve created thus far, and you can expect more such videos next year!

My second big moment this year was when I put together a comprehensive, exhaustive list of my favorite Randy Travis songs as part of The Musical Divide’s Fifteen Favorites series. Zack Kephart has written a few posts for the Korner this year (you should check them out, by the way), and I really wanted to return the favor to thank him for his contribution. I pitched the idea for a Travis-themed post, pored over Travis’s entire discography (and discovered just how copies of each album I’d accumulated over the years), and posted the finished piece, with (spoiler alert) “Out Of My Bones” at the top of the list.

What happened next shocked the heck out of me: Zack tagged Randy Travis in a tweet announcing the post…and the man himself responded:

Getting a seal of approval from the greatest country singer of all time? That was pretty freaking cool. The post blew up from there, and wound up as one of the most-popular at TMD for the year.

Blogging may be considered a million years behind the times, but that list of Travis favorites makes me think that there’s life in this medium yet. I may not be sure what form my content will take in 2023, but I think the blog will march on, foisting my random brain dumps onto an unsuspecting public. To paraphrase a wise man, I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going to make great time getting there, and hopefully we’ll have a good time in the process.

Happy New Year, folks.