Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 11: A Defense Of The Aughts

When it comes to country music, the 1990s and 2010s tend to have strong narratives and elicit strong opinions: The 90s were a neotraditional revival, and the 10s were a time of experimental (and controversial) genre-fusing. In contrast, the decade wedged in between these two eras lacks a similarly strong identity: It was mostly a time of transition, where some titans of 90s continued their reign (Alan jackson, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney), some titans of the 2010s began to find their footing (Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan), and the defining sound of the era was, well, hard to define. Were the 2000s the era of pop-country stylists like Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swift, or the era of modernized torch-bearers like Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Miranda Lambert?

What’s lost in this debate is a more fundamental question: Was the music any good? I’d argue that there was a lot to like on both sides of the equation, and last week I finally performed the overdue task of making a sibling playlist to my ultimate 80s/90s collection that memorialized the best of the 2000s. Today, the goal is to celebrate a decade that lacks the hype and and the debate of its predecessor and successor.

The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist.

Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

The Contenders

#1. Travis Tritt, “Love Of A Woman”

Tritt falls squarely on the 90s side of this divide, and 2000’s Down The Road I Go was his last major hurrah in the genre. This song, the third single from the album, would probably be labeled Boyfriend country if it had come out recently, but it leans on the “woman as a man’s rock/savior” premise that’s gotten a lot of play over the years, especially from the rough-edged outlaw singers that Tritt draws inspiration from. The arrangement features some decent depth behind the few headline categories (you’ve got both a piano- and an organ-tuned keyboard, some acoustic and slick electric guitars, and a steel guitar that gets some decent airtime), and the feeling here is equal parts awe-struck and reverent as the narrator celebrates the ability of women to put up with imperfect men like himself. Tritt is known for his rowdier material, but he could also sell a sentimental song when we wanted to, and he does a nice job infusing some feeling and heartfelt emotion into the track. I don’t know if I would call it Tritt’s best work, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.

#2: Reba McEntire, “I’m A Survivor”

Is it just me, or has McEntire been completely forgotten by country music? She can go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Jackson and Strait in the hits department, yet you never hear her get name-dropped in modern singles the way those two do. McEntire’s wasn’t as prevalent on the radio as other holdovers from the 90s (partially because she was branching out to other forms of media; she spent six seasons starring in the hit TV series Reba), but she still made a respectable showing on the charts, including this song that served as the leadoff single for his third greatest hits compilation in 2001. The song is more string-focused, but its tone remains upbeat and resilient, the writing does a nice job discussing the narrator’s struggles while simultaneously allowing the narrator to shrug them off and push through. McEntire’s performance simply radiates strength and power, and it helps elevate the track and connect with anyone who’s had a rough go of life but finds a way to survive and make it work. It doesn’t seem like an empowerment anthem, but it sure feels like one, and McEntire set a standard that other female artists would aspire to meet for the rest of the decade.

#3: Blake Shelton, “Playboys Of The Southwestern World”

Shelton may have debuted in 2001 and released five albums during the decade, but his chart performance for much of the decade was so inconsistent that I would call him more of a 2010s artist (he didn’t find consistent radio traction until about 2008). “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” is the long-forgotten third single from his long-forgotten sophomore album The Dreamer, and while I found the song to be silly fun back in the day, it’s not hard to see why it only reached #24 on the radio. For one thing, the story cuts out at the best part: The border guard finds the money, the narrator blames his friend…and then the song ends with only a brief mention of being “temporary cellmates.” The hook makes for a nice title, but it’s a bit long and clunky for Shelton to spit out, and while the electric guitar has some decent texture, it’s basically all you hear during the song—the fiddle is barely noticeable, and the organ is consigned to background duty. (Shelton’s kinda-sorta accent when saying the Mexican border guard’s line is also kinda-sorta questionable.) The song is really just a sugar rush that’s in desperate need of another verse or two, and probably won’t make much of a splash on this list.

#4: Tritt, “Best Of Intentions”

Two songs from the same artist is one thing, but two songs from the same album?? This was the leadoff single from Down The Road I Go, and it’s a melancholy confessional of the narrator’s failures in their relationship. What’s interesting here is that while many of these songs focus of the narrator’s emotional failures in pursuit of material things or a better way of life, this song goes in the opposite direction: The feelings are present and deep (a credit to Tritt’s emotional range), but the narrator is unhappy that they aren’t able to give their partner the sort of life that they deserve. The production is suitably moody, with regular minor chords and reliance on a piano, steel guitar, and neutral-sounding acoustic guitar to emphasize the narrator’s sense of sadness and frustration. Said frustration is palpable in the writing as well, but there’s also a sense of hope as well: The narrator wants a chance to fix whatever is wrong, and with love still apparently present, the listener gets the sense that there might still be a happy ending in store here. Tritt may have been overshadowed by his peers over the years, but he deserves a lot of credit as a flexible, emotive performer who could deliver any of of material with presence and ease. I like this one than “Love Of A Woman,” so maybe he can finally get some of his due on this list.

#5: Martina McBride, “Blessed”

I’m starting to worry about my playlist: It was pretty close to half the size of the 80s/90s list (which makes sense since it’s covering half the time), but all the songs thus far have been concentrated in the early part of the decade. What the heck was I doing for those last five years?

It’s always a risk putting new material on what’s supposed to be a greatest hits album, but McBride put four new songs on hers in 2001, and all of them performed well, with this one reaching #1 (which turned out to be the last #1 for a solo female artist for the next 22 months). The production for this one is surprisingly unorthodox: I wouldn’t call the instrument tones terribly bright and there are a lot of minor chords here, but there’s an energy and a power in the sound that drives the song forward and gives it an optimistic feel. Lyrically, this is a standard count-your-blessings track, with the narrator highlighting the people and moments that make their life worthwhile, and given the simple, family-oriented nature of said moments, the song in turn pushes others to recognize how lucky they are in their own lives. McBride herself is a strong combination of power and positivity, and while she holds herself back on the verses, she’s merely storing her power to unleash it on the chorus, and she’s got the charm and charisma to take even a simple message like this one and get everyone nodding and singing along. She’s another one of those artists whose legacy has gotten dusty in recent years, and it’s worth recalling just how good she was back in her day.

#6: Josh Turner, “Firecracker”

Well, at least we’ve made it to 2007 now! Turner was a revelation (especially for a Randy Travis partisan like myself) when he emerged with “Long Black Train” back in 2003, but his career never took off the way I expected it to, and he basically disappeared for most of the 2010s. I seem to be a contrarian when it comes to Turner’s early work: I consider Everything Is Fine to be ten times the album that Your Man was, but it only reached gold status compared to Your Man‘s double-platinum sales, and I’d honestly call “Firecracker” one of the weaker songs on the disc despite it being the only single to reach the Top Ten. I’d group this one with “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” in the silly-fun category, but this track is so much better, and it all starts with the production: It’s a fiddle-and-steel throwback with some seriously rollicking guitars, and it pushes the tempo to eleven to make a three-and-a-half minute song feel only about half that long. Despite being mostly stuck in his upper range and dropping ridiculous lines like the “Sssssssssssssbang” quote on the outro, Turner pulls the whole thing together with his easy, effortless charisma and and makes the whole thing far more fun than it has any right to be. The writing really has to stretch to get some of the “firecracker” rhymes to work (you can tell that Turner, who I’ve called out for his poor writing in the past, was a co-writer here), but in the end, Turner and the producer make the whole thing so catchy that you barely even notice. I really miss this guy in mainstream music, and MCA deserves to be charged for manslaughter for killing this guy’s career.

#7: McBride, “Concrete Angel”

Two songs from the same artist is one thing, and two songs from the same album is another, but two songs from two separate albums??? I’m starting to question the variety on this playlist…

Just like with Tritt’s pair, however, the second entry is the stronger one, and this one might have the power to claim this post’s crown. Start with a emotional story of a abused child whose story is discovered too late, put the power of Martina Freaking McBride behind it, and mix in a classic piano-and-sting-driven formula that’s will catch the listener’s attention, and you’ve got a ready-made tearjerker guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts (or was it? It only made it to #5 on Billboard’s airplay chart). Much like with “Best Of Intentions,” there’s a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness: The deceased is in a better place now, beyond whatever pain and suffering they felt on Earth, and the world is left with the collective shame of letting it happen under their noses. With her history of thought-provoking and activist material (her debut single was “Independence Day,” for crying out loud) and her hey-stop-and-listen-to-me power vocals, McBride is the perfect person for a song like this, and she’s able to capture the emotion and sadness of this story and shoot it straight through the collective heart of the audience.

It missed #1 on Billboard, but “Concrete Angel” has another chance to reach #1 here, and it just might pull it off…

#8: Montgomery Gentry, “My Town”

“She Couldn’t Change Me” might have made it to #2, but I would argue that it was this song and this album from 2002 that really catapulted Montgomery Gentry into the public consciousness. It may have been one of those rural-glorification tracks that have come to dominate the genre in recent years, but while the attitude is recent years has gotten more confrontational and exclusive, this song was an invitation and a guided tour to the place the narrator held dear. Instead of being a token instrument, the banjo ends up anchoring the melody during the verses, and the duo’s rough-edged sound is sanded down smooth to stay out of the writing’s way, even when the guitars and organ swell up on the chorus. Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry show off their incredible chemistry, the mood here is reverent and optimistic instead of protective and defiant (which perhaps reflects how the nation’s mood have soured over the last twenty years), and the old symbols still find purpose in a new era (the rusty tractor is repainted, the water-tower romance has consummated with a baby, and the church continues to draw a crowd). This is the approach I wish more artists would take today when it comes to where they come from: Don’t draw a line and slam the door in our faces—instead, invite the world in and show them just what makes the country life awesome.

#9: …Tritt, “Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde”?!

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. There are 450+ songs on this playlist, and the iPad picks three from the same album???? I know Down The Road I Go was great, but I’m not sure we need every freaking single from the album here…

Still, this is hands-down my favorite song on the album, and one of the better story songs to come out of Nashville in the last two decades. (I’m kind of a sucker for these sorts of tales; Ricky Van Shelton’s “Crime Of Passion” and LeAnn Rimes’s “Nothin’ Better To Do” are also pretty good.) There’s a rollicking back-porch feel to this mix thanks to its prominent dobro, acoustic guitars, and even some harmonica tossed in (the guitars and keyboards are here, but they’re supporting cast instead of the leading roles), and it’s upbeat energetic vibe keep the audience humming along. The writing is the sort of romantic banditry tale that everyone can enjoy: We get the imagery of a long highway trek with a star-crossed pair, nobody gets hurt, and justice is eventually served in the most enjoyable way possible. As for Tritt…come on, is there any role this guy can’t play? His rule-bending persona makes him exactly the sort of character that would engage in a little opportunistic larceny, and he absolutely owns this track with his lively performance.

There aren’t many tracks that could challenge “Concrete Angel” for list supremacy, but this is one of them. However, if the last track is “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” “Where Would You Be,” or “When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” I swear I’ll—

#10: The Wreckers, “Tennessee”

…Okay, now I’m sad. Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp formed the short-lived duo in 2005 and released a fantastic debut album a year later…and then they broke up soon afterwards and left us all wondering what might have been. “Tennessee” was the group’s third and final single, and it didn’t stand out either on the radio or the album (there were so many other great songs on that album: The title track, “One More Girl,” “Rain”…), but at least it showed off what made the duo so good: A roots-rock sound that could take either a softer or harder line with equal success (this one is on the softer side, driven mostly by acoustic guitars), some of the best vocal chemistry and harmony that I’ve ever heard, and thought-provoking writing that finds the narrator ruminating on a relationship decision and wondering if it was the right choice. There’s a bit of ambiguity in the writing (Did the narrator choose their dreams over love? Was either party terribly serious about the romance at the time?), but the puzzling seems to draw people more into the story, and while I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia romance tracks (what’s done is done; all you can do is move forward), there’s enough in the sound and the vocals to keep me paying attention until the very end. (Ironically, the song makes me break my own nostalgia rule: How good would this pair have been on their follow-up album?) It’s okay, but I like some of their other songs better.

The Results

PositionSong
#1“Concrete Angel”
#2“Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde”
#3“My Town”
#4“Firecracker”
#5“Best Of Intentions”
#6“Blessed”
#7“Tennessee”
#8“I’m A Survivor”
#9“Love Of A Woman”
#10“Playboys Of The Southwestern World”

Man, Blake Shelton just can’t catch a break around here, can he? But the victory goes to McBride over Tritt in the strangest LITS yet (Alan Jackson put three songs in LITS #2, but at least they were from different albums), with the somber tale of child abuse holding off the ill-fated tale of two convenient criminals. If I’m honest, this is a pretty strong list overall (even “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” has its merits), which helps prove the point I wanted to make at the start: The 2000s were a pretty solid decade in country music, and they deserve better than to be remembered as the placeholder between two more-prominent periods in history. If you take the time to look around, there’s some great music to be found here, and based on Chris Owen’s constant mentioning of how songs are bringing back the old 2000s feel, perhaps the industry and rest of the world are starting to realize that too.

As for me, I guess I’d better go listen to the rest of Tritt’s Down The Road I Go and McBride’s Greatest Hits, because that’s what this iPad is going to make me do anyway…

(Editor’s Note: In looking at the songs coming up after the first ten, “When God-Fearing Women Get The Blues” was thisclose to making the list too!)

The Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 10, 2022

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
2. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
3. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
4. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
5. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
6. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
7. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
8. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
9. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
10. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
11. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
12. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
13. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
14. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
15. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
16. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
17. Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” +2 (7/10)
18. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
19. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
20. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
21. Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” +2 (7/10)
22. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
23. Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never” 0 (5/10)
24. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
25. Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer” 0 (5/10)
26. Luke Bryan, “Up” -1 (4/10)
27. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
28. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
29. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
30. Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak” +1 (6/10)
31. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
32. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
33. Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait” +1 (6/10)
34. Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” 0 (5/10)
35. Dylan Scott, “New Truck” 0 (5/10)
36. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
37. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
38. Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar” 0 (5/10)
39. Taylor Swift & Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” -1 (4/10)
40. Walker Hayes, “AA” -1 (4/10)
41. Maren Morris “Circles Around This Town” +1 (6/10)
42. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
43. Lee Brice, “Soul” 0 (5/10)
44. Parmalee, “Take My Name” 0 (5/10)
45. Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” +3 (8/10)
46. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
47. Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone” -1 (4/10)
48. Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll” -1 (4/10)
49. Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days” 0 (5/10)
50. Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story” +2 (7/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +5
Overall Pulse +6
Change From Last Week
0

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me” (down to #51)

Leaving:

  • Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking About You” (down from #2 to #4)
  • Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” (down from #4 to #14)

In Real Trouble:

  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (holds at #32, but lost its bullet)
  • Dylan Scott, “New Truck” (holds at #35, but gained only thirty-four spins and seventy-nine points)
  • Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (down from #34 to #36, lost its bullet)
  • Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” (down from #36 to #37, but gained only sixteen spins and forty points)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” (down from #41 to #42, gained only fifteen spins and thirty-six points)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (down from #44 to #46, lost its bullet)
  • Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone” down from #46 to #47, gained only ten spins and sixty-three points)
  • Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll” (down from #47 to #48, lost its bullet)

In Some Trouble:

  • Toby Keith, “Old School” (holds at #31, but gained only thirty spins and forty-two points)
  • Lee Brice, “Soul” down from #42 to #43, gained only five spins and lost points)
  • Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” (down from #43 to #45, gained only two spins and lost points)
  • Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days” (down from #48 to #49, gained only seventeen spins and sixteen points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak” (debuts at #30)

Is still Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” (up from #40 to #34)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Ernest ft. Morgan Wallen, “Flowers”
  • Kip Moore, “Crazy One More Time”
  • Lady A, “What A Song Can Do”

Overall Thoughts: This was my most on-point prediction in a while: “Look for a similar [i.e. rough enivronment] next week: Michael Ray appears to be aiming for a second week at #1, and while Morris will regress to the mean, Aldean’s new song will likely pick up the slack when it hits the chart later this week. (Thanos is also trying to rebound from what was his weakest single in a long time, so expect him to keep pushing for more spins as well.)” That’s exactly what happened, and despite Pardi pulling the plug on “Tequila Little Time,” spins remained a scarce commodity and songs at the bottom of the chart took the biggest hit.

Going forward, I expect to see a bit more action, even at the top of the charts: Lynch/Porter will go recurrent, Ray will exit, and I have severe doubts about the ability of some of these songs to reach #1 (most notably Allen/Paisley, but don’t be surprised if Dickerson does a surprise swan dive; I reviewed that track over a year ago and it’s still only at #13). There should be some turnover at the bottom as well (at lot of songs seem to be backing up below #50, and it’s really time for Lane to give up on “Fill Them Boots”), but barring another surprise debut (whoever Ernest is got 27 adds, so maybe they show up next week), I expect things to be a bit more fluid next week.

On the coronavirus front, things still look pretty grim: The two-week new case average now stands at over 775,000, with daily death averages starting to rise substantially as well. The omicron surge appears to have be peaked in some of the early hard-hit areas such as New York City, but it’s still rising in other areas, and when a peak is this high, it’s still going to cause a lot of pain and suffering on the way down. The vaccination rate is still sitting at a concerning 63%, and with infections increasing 20% globally just this week alone, we remain a long way from this pandemic being over. If we’re ever going to get a handle on this virus, we have to keep following best practices:

  • Wear a high-quality mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity, and be sure to get your booster shot once you become eligible. At this point, you shouldn’t considered yourself “fully vaccinated” without that third shot.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

I know that you’re as tired of me saying this as I am of saying it, but these are the things that we can (and should) do to finally put this pandemic behind us. With our healthcare system under stress from critically ill COVID-19 patients and every sector under stress from illness-based absences, we owe it to everyone to do everything we can to bring this pandemic to a close as quickly as possible.

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak”

I’ve been calling Luke Combs “Thanos” for a while, but does someone else deserve the title?

Don’t look now, but eighteen years into his career we might be seeing Jason Aldean at the peak of his powers. He hasn’t missed #1 on Country Airplay or the Top 30 of the Hot 100 with any of his single releases this decade, and his duet with Carrie Underwood “If I Didn’t Love You” wound up as one of the biggest hits of 2021. At this point in his career, Aldean has a strong sense of who he is as an artist and knows how to play to his strengths, and that’s exactly what he does on the leadoff single for the second half of his Macon, Georgia double album, “Trouble With A Heartbreak.” With his trademark ominous and hard-hitting sound, as well a surprisingly-decent message in the writing, Aldean continues yet another impressive streak, one of getting slightly-favorable reviews here at the Korner (even as I question whether he should be on the airwaves in the first place).

Generally, if you’ve listened to Aldean for any length of time you pretty much know what you’ll be getting from his production: The guitars will be hard-rock and hard-edged, the overall tone with be dark and foreboding, and the intensity will be cranked up to ten whether or not the song warrants it. This is still mostly true on this track, but there are some deviations as well: The amplified acoustic guitar that opens the track has a slicker, cleaner feel, and the classic Aldean guitars and drums that jump in on the chorus are noticeably dialed back, and lack the punch that his songs usually feature. (The minor chords also don’t dominate the chord progression the way they do on some other Aldean tracks.) This, however, is a good thing: The mix’s more-measured approach helps the writing cut through the noise, and the old Aldean sound that comes out during the choruses gives you a sense of the depths you can sink to in the aftermath of a failed relationship, while stopping just short of going too far and overwhelming the message. Some songs can’t be in your face the entire time without losing sight of their raison d’être, and the producer recognizes the potential for a problem here and pulls in on the reins a little to keep the audience focused. It’s still an Aldean mix, but by being more deliberate in its application of force, the sound does a respectable job providing support for the song.

Aldean follows the lead of the production and dials back his usual intensity long enough to get his point across, but he still gets a chance to showcase the attitude and intensity that he’s known for. In a way, this song is set up perfectly for Aldean, “a one-trick pony when it come to his singing style,” because it gives him a target for his frustration that lets him project his usual defiance and negativity (in this case, the target is those who doubt the severity of a painful breakup) while also giving him a chance to show a sensitive side when he talks about heartaches that defy time and alcohol. (It reminds me a lot of “Any Ol’ Barstool,” except that the narrator is able to be honest here instead of putting up a feeble and transparent wall of defiance.) By allowing Aldean to be true to himself and do what he always does, it enhances his believability because he can deliver a performance that the audience expects and accepts, while also letting him stretch out in a way that doesn’t feel out of character. Even a one-trick pony must do something well, and by staying mostly in his wheelhouse and using it as a basis for his message, Aldean is able to connect with listeners and entice them to ruminate on his words.

So about those words: The narrator here is mostly trying to tell us about how much they suffered in the aftermath of a failed relationship, but they frame the tale as a public-service message, warning all those who pass later that such unimaginable pain is conceivable and perhaps even normal, regardless of how others may downplay it with their advice. The speaker is a bit combative in the first verse, painting themselves as a trustworthy insider by taking an “us vs. them” to dispensing advice (nearly every line starts with “Don’t let anybody tell ya…”), but their point is valid: Everyone reacts to a lost love differently, and “the trouble with a heartbreak” is that some people are cut deeper and take longer to recover than others, and sometimes people never truly get over what happened. The imagery and plot devices here are admittedly generic and cookie-cutter (we’ve got whiskey, we’ve got long drives, we’ve got “rearview sunsets”), but the rebutted advice (get back out there, meet somebody else, etc.) is also pretty common too, which helps the track resonate with a broader audience. Despite being just another lost-love song at its core, the writers give us just enough of a twist on a trope to catch the listener’s ear and entice them to pay attention.

“The Trouble With A Heartbreak” is a decent example of an artist pushing the boundaries while still staying true to who they are, and while I wouldn’t call it Jason Aldean’s best work, it’s a decent addition to his discography that features a suitable-yet-recognizable sound, writing that both vents and advises, and a vocal performance that fits Aldean’s persona to a T. While Aldean has released his share of clunkers over the years, I’m starting to think that in another decade we’ll be looking at him the way we look at Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney now: As an artist that’s managed to stick to their guns, connect with the people, and last far beyond their expected expiration date.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth giving this one a shot.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town”

“Writing circles around this town” is a low bar to clear these days, but at least Maren Morris is trying.

I tend to be a contrarian when it comes to Morris’s work: I’m usually ambivalent about her best-performing songs, but the ones I like don’t seem to do that well. Case in point: I was bored by “The Bones” and intrigued by “To Hell & Back,” so naturally the latter song limped to a #32 airplay peak while the former nearly cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Morris spent 2021 teaming up with husband Ryan Hurd on “Chasing After You,” but she’s back with her own song this year with the leadoff single for upcoming album Humble Quest, “Circles Around This Town.” It doesn’t stray too far from the standard formula in its sound, but the angle of the writing is different and interesting enough to make it a decent listen, which means it falls in between her last two solo singles and I have no idea how it’ll perform on the charts.

The production here is a bit of a mixed bag, and seems to achieve whatever success it gets in spite of itself. The instruments are mostly what you’d expect from a country song (the mandolin is the only item that come close to qualifying as a surprise), and they have an annoying habit of running together on the chourses and turning into an indistinguishable wall of noise (the video claims there’s a steel guitar in the mix somewhere, but good luck finding it). Still, there’s a roughness to the instruments on the verses that instantly identifies this as a Morris track (the snare texture is particularly distinct), and the brightness of the mandolin makes it the one instrument that can cut through the sonic wall and announce its presence. The vibe here is an interesting one: While the overall tone is neutral and invites reflection of the narrator’s journey, the mandolin and acoustic guitar give the sound a a hint of optimism, suggesting that the narrator has grown comfortable with the struggle and content with their position, and they have no regrets over the journey. It’s a mix that feels like it shouldn’t work and yet somehow does, complementing the story without ever getting in its way.

When you’re trying to tell your own story like Morris does here, the key to success is believability: You don’t have to tell the exact truth (or at least not your truth), but do listeners actually buy what you’re trying to sell? Morris already has one of the more distinct voices in the genre and doesn’t run into any technical issues here, and she passes the believability test because a) she’s got enough charisma in her delivery to come across as trustworthy, and b) there’s enough verifiable evidence included in the song to back her up. Even beyond the specific songs that are cited (“My Church,” “80s Mercedes”), Morris invites you to scrutinize her discography here, and while I’m not always impressed with her work (see: “Rich”), her songs do tend to be a little different than others, and more recently they feel a bit deeper too (see: “To Hell & Back”). In turn, her vocals and her background lead you believe the rest of her claims, from the small (coming to town in a Montero with no A/C) to the big (she’s really tried to distinguish herself from other artists, and has struggled to compete with them at times). It’s a solid effort and a well-constructed offering from Morris, and I’m hoping she continues this trend with her third album.

The writing here is mostly a personal tale about the struggle of getting started in Nashville, which isn’t always the most novel topic (we heard hints of this in Thanos’s “Doin’ This” earlier this week), but what stand out in the angle from which the song approaches the topic. Most songs in this vein focus on the struggle of the performing artist: We hear mostly about the dive bars and tip jars and all the perils of performing. This song, in contrast, is about the battle of the songwriter: How do you write a song that stands out amidst a sea of writers in Nashville, and how do you convince someone with the power to make things happen to take a chance on you? The visuals here avoid the usual locations (heck, this might be the first song I’ve ever heard reference apartment security deposits), and the song works to drive home how long it takes you to be an overnight success (“a couple hundred songs” in this case). The line that resonates with me the most was about “trying to compete with everybody else’s ones that got away”: I’ve already ranted about how every song talks about the same stuff nowadays, and trying to find a way to differentiate your take on a topic that’s already oversaturated and forces you to use the same ten buzzwords as the rest of the field must be a nightmare for modern writers. (Honestly, it feels like a lot of people have just given up and are now just leaning in to the bland sameness, hoping to blend in enough to sneak onto the radio without anyone noticing.) It’s something that Morris has been dealing with for a while, and although she’s hasn’t always succeeded in doing so, she does a decent job of doing so here.

“Circles Around This Town” is a good example of how to make a song stand out in a crowded field: Try to take a different approach to a common topic, bring in some things that people don’t often hear about, and use your sound and your vocals to bring some freshness and credibility to the table. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but it’s a solid, well-executed effort with hooks in both the production and writing to catch your attention, as Maren Morris does a nice job drawing the audience in with her performance. It’s a decent return from last year’s solo hiatus, and I’m hoping that she can write a few more circles around Nashville going forward.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a few spins and see what you think.

The Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 10, 2022

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
2. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
3. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
4. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
5. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
6. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
7. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
8. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
9. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
10. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
11. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
12. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
13. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
14. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
15. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
16. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
17. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
18. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
19. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
20. Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” +2 (7/10)
21. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
22. Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” +2 (7/10)
23. Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never” 0 (5/10)
24. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
25. Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer” 0 (5/10)
26. Luke Bryan, “Up” -1 (4/10)
27. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
28. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
29. Maren Morris “Circles Around This Town” +1 (6/10)*
30. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
31. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
32. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
33. Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait” +1 (6/10)
34. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
35. Dylan Scott, “New Truck” 0 (5/10)
36. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
37. Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar” 0 (5/10)
38. Walker Hayes, “AA” -1 (4/10)
39. Taylor Swift & Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” -1 (4/10)
40. Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” 0 (5/10)
41. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
42. Lee Brice, “Soul” 0 (5/10)
43. Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” +3 (8/10)
44. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
45. Parmalee, “Take My Name” 0 (5/10)
46. Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone” -1 (4/10)
47. Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll” -1 (4/10)
48. Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days” 0 (5/10)
49. Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me” +1 (6/10)
50. Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story” +2 (7/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +5
Overall Pulse +6
Change From Last Week
+1

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” (recurrent)
  • Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking About You” (down from #1 to #2)

In Real Trouble:

  • Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” (holds at #21, but lost its bullet)
  • Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” (holds at #36, but lost its bullet)
  • Taylor Swift ft. Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” (holds at #39, but lost its bullet)
  • Parmalee, “Take My Name” (down from #42 to #45, lost its bullet)
  • Adele ft. Chris Stapleton (holds at #49, but lost its bullet)

In Some Trouble:

  • Luke Bryan, “Up” (up from #27 to #26, but gained only eleven spins and twenty-two points)
  • Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” (up from #28 to #27, but gained only forty-seven spins and seventy-one points)
  • Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” (up from #29 to #28, but gained only forty-three spins and sixty-nine points)
  • Dylan Scott, “New Truck” (holds at #35, but gained only fifty-one spins and ninety-nine points)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” (holds at #41, but gained only three spins and lost points)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (down from #43 to #44, gained only twenty-seven spins and eighty points)
  • Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone” (up from #48 to #46, but lost spins and gained only eighty-five points)
  • Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll” (down from #46 to #47, gained only seven spins and lost points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town (debuts at #29)

Is still Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” (up from #47 to #40)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak”
  • Kip Moore, “Crazy One More Time”
  • Lady A, “What A Song Can Do”

Overall Thoughts: Apparently “Dry January” applies to the radio as well, as this was a surprisingly rough week for a lot of people: The trouble lists are longer than I expected, and there were a number of acts (Allen/Paisley, Clark, Young/Tenpenny, Midland, etc.) that just barely avoided it. Whatever spins Lynch/Porter released were quickly scooped up by Pardi, Wallen, and Morris, leaving little but scraps for the rest of the chart to fight over. Look for a similar situation next week: Michael Ray appears to be aiming for a second week at #1, and while Morris will regress to the mean, Aldean’s new song will likely pick up the slack when it hits the chart later this week. (Thanos is also trying to rebound from what was his weakest single in a long time, so expect him to keep pushing for more spins as well.) Everybody else had better hunker down, because it’s going to be a rough month.

Of course, hunkering down is probably what the rest of us should be doing: The coronavirus is raging right now, with a two-week new case average sitting at over 700,000 and the country setting a record with nearly 1.5 million cases reported on Monday. Daily death averages are not yet rising at the same rate, but with infections at this scale, those numbers are likely to rise as well. What’s more concerning, however, is that our vaccination rate appears to be slowing down, with only 62.5% of the population being fully vaccinated and roughly 30% being boosted (although the latter number is from a month ago; let’s hope it’s at least a bit higher now). What’s even more concerning is the amount of apathy the omicron surge has been met with: After two years and a lot of shifting guidance, people are starting to ignore the advice of health officials and shrugging at the prospect of a “milder” variant, even though “more Americans are now hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any previous point in the pandemic.” We need to remain vigilant against this virus, and that means we need to keep following our tried-and-true best practices.

  • Wear a high-quality mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity, and be sure to get your booster shot once you become eligible. At this point, you shouldn’t considered yourself “fully vaccinated” without that third shot.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

People may be worn out or tired of the pandemic, but the fact is that the virus doesn’t care—it’s going to keep trying to spread if we keep allowing it to do so. With so many people in quarantine, we need to do all we can to “flatten the curve” not just for our hospitals, but for our schools, our businesses, and our communities. For the sake of the people we care about, we can do nothing less.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Doin’ This”

Honestly, I wish Luke Combs was doin’ a lot more than this.

I first bestowed the nickname “Thanos” on Combs almost three years ago, and for a long time he owned the title by owning country music, racing up the charts with each single and spending weeks (and even months) at #1. However, his material started growing stale and more formulaic (to the point where he seemed to sing the same darn song over and over), and his momentum started to waver late in 2021, as “Cold As You” didn’t show Combs’s usual speed in climbing the charts and only spent a single week at #1. Granted, a bad day at the office for Combs is a terrific day for any other mere mortal, but there are higher expectations for Thanos, and after going seven singles deep into What You See [Is | Ain’t Always] What You Get, it felt like time for Combs and company to go back to the drawing board and come up with something fresh. At long last, the moment has arrived: Combs is releasing “Doin’ This,” the presumed leadoff single for his third album, and it’s…well, at least it’s not yet another iteration of a cheesy love song. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a step up either: The sound is still too boilerplate and doesn’t fit the story, and the story itself isn’t terribly interesting or inspiring. Combs deserves some credit for trying, but he’s set the bar pretty high over the last few years, and this doesn’t clear it.

The production here is…well, let’s see if I can say it without saying it. We’ve got an acoustic guitar that opens the track, some heavier electric guitars adding some weight to the chorus (and a lighter one handling the bridge solo), a piano to get the signal the song’s seriousness, a steel guitar relegated to background atmosphere duty…you know, the same things everyone else is sticking in their mixes. This isn’t automatically a bad things, but even the instrument tones feel generic and soundalike, as if there are only five session players in all of Nashville anymore. The arrangement gives a track a spacious, arena-ready sound that reaches for an uplifting and inspiring feel, but it’s severely overselling the subject matter: This is a personal song in which the narrator declares that fame hasn’t changed them and that they would be the same person doing the same things, and doesn’t really have the inspirational angle that the mix would have you believe. Because of this, there’s a slight ’empty sonic calories’ feel here, as if the production is writing checks that the writing can’t really cover. In short, this sound is a bit of an awkward fit here, and it doesn’t grab the listener the way that it needs to.

Combs’s performance suffers from a similar issue: Much like with “Cold As You,” he puts a lot of force behind his delivery that just doesn’t seem warranted. It’s not a technically-demanding song and Combs sounds comfortable on the verses, but you can almost feel the veins in his neck bulging as he shouts his way through the choruses. Such an approach would make sense if there were a grander message for the audience behind all this (see: Cody Johnson’s “‘Til You Can’t”), but for a personal song like this one it feels like overkill and makes it sound like Combs is framing this song as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks fame has changed him. (I think the issue stems from how raspy his voice gets when he cranks up the volume; if he could better maintain his tone it wouldn’t be that big an issue.) I know he gets asked a lot about what he would do if he weren’t a radio star, but his tone implies that there’s some mysterious negative intent behind the question. Given his relatable everyman charisma, applying this much power to his delivery is unnecessary—the man could sell an ice maker in Antarctica, and if he says he’d be the same music addict with or without the fame, I believe him. This should be the perfect song for someone like Thanos, and my guess is that just like the producer, he’s oversinging here to try to make the song something that it’s not and doesn’t need to be, and it hinders his ability to connect with the audience as a result.

The lyrics here are fairly simple: The narrator is a big-time musician now, but they were planning on being a musician regardless of their stature in the industry, and if they weren’t rich and famous, they’d still be grinding it out on the local venue circuit. The story has some detail with it, but outside of the “burning CDs” line, it’s pretty standard and predictable: They’d be driving an old car, working a low-wage job, and playing with friends for tips at any place that’s willing to give them a platform. We’ve gotten a bunch of songs about “the struggle” before (for example, Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”), and this one really doesn’t stand out in any way. The production and vocals try to push this song as an inspirational anthem, but it’s a bit too personal and the message isn’t quite there—it’s less “follow your dreams” and more “I’d be doing this anyway.” (The “I’d still be doin’ this if I wasn’t doin’ this” hook isn’t as catchy as the writers think either.) There’s just something missing here to really convince the listener to pay attention, and keeps the song from making the impression it’s hoping for.

While I’m happy that “Doin’ This” keeps Luke Combs out of saccharine ballad territory, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t get him to explore more-interesting topics either. While someone like Thomas Rhett is more interesting when he draws on his life experiences, Combs seems to be less interesting when he tries the same trick, which is not great for someone who co-writes all of his own material. This is a small step in the right direction, but I was hoping for a giant leap to kick off Combs’s third album cycle, and this one simply doesn’t do enough to draw the audience in. Combs is still Thanos for now, if only because there’s no one else in a position to challenge his dominance in the genre (although Walker Hayes has a lot of momentum right now; let’s hope that fizzles out quickly), but he’s going to have to up his game if he wants to keep his crown and his Infinity Gauntlet.

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing much.

The Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 3, 2022

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
2. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
3. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
4. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
5. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
6. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
7. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
8. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
9. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
10. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
11. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
12. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
13. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
14. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
15. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
16. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
17. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
18. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
19. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
20. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
21. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
22. Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” +2 (7/10)
23. Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” +2 (7/10)
24. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
25. Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never” 0 (5/10)
26. Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer” 0 (5/10)
27. Luke Bryan, “Up” -1 (4/10)
28. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
29. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
30. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
31. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
32. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
33. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
34. Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait” +1 (6/10)
35. Dylan Scott, “New Truck” 0 (5/10)
36. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
37. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
38. Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar” 0 (5/10)
39. Taylor Swift & Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” -1 (4/10)
40. Walker Hayes, “AA” -1 (4/10)
41. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
42. Parmalee, “Take My Name” 0 (5/10)
43. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
44. Lee Brice, “Soul” 0 (5/10)
45. Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” +3 (8/10)
46. Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll” -1 (4/10)
47. Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” +1 (6/10)*
48. Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone” -1 (4/10)
49. Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me” +1 (6/10)
50. Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +2
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +3
Overall Pulse +5
Change From Last Week

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” (recurrent)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (recurrent)
  • Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story” (down to #51)

Leaving:

  • Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” (down from #6 to #9)
  • Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” (down from #12 to #33)

In Real Trouble:

  • Will return next week.

In Some Trouble:

  • Will return next week.

In No Trouble At All:

  • Will return next week

Is still Thanos?:

  • Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” (debuts at #46, but we’ll see what sort of staying power it has)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town”

Overall Thoughts: It’s been a few weeks since our last Pulse report, and while I’m a little surprised at how little movement there was, the holiday period is generally a quieter time on the radio, so most folks were just biding their time and waiting for 2022 before ramping up their promotion pushes. (As much as Lynch & Porter want to tout their multi-week #1, the achievement was more due to luck and timing than due to the song itself.) The ‘going for adds’ list in CA is still pretty sparse, but given the artists currently in between single releases and the trend of sudden massive initial pushes for singles, I don’t expect January to remain quiet for long.

On the coronavirus front, the year is starting out on a low note: New cases have skyrocketed recently, to the point where the U.S. reported over one million cases in a single day, and while the omicron variant seems to cause milder symptoms, its sheer transmissibility means that higher hospitalization and death rates will still likely follow, especially with our low vaccination rate (we’ve really only jumped from “almost 61%” to 62% in three weeks?). Hope is still in short supply right now, but there are still things we can do to protect ourselves and our communities:

  • Wear a high-quality mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public. If you’re going to gather for the holidays, take steps to minimize the risks to yourself and others.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity, and be sure to get your booster shot once you become eligible. At this point, you shouldn’t considered yourself “fully vaccinated” without that third shot.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

The next month or so is going to be tough, but we can’t afford for our resolve to falter now. We need to continue doing all we can to stop the spread of this virus and keep the people we care about safe. There’s still time to make 2022 the year we brought an end to this pandemic, but we’ll all have to do our part to make this happen.

Kyle’s 2021 Pandemic Playlist

If you could sum up 2021 in a mixtape…would it even be worth the effort?

It’s a question I’ve gone back and forth on for a while now. Most of the time, 2021 felt like a continuation of all the badness that was 2020, and didn’t feel like it had any personality or character of its own. There was no country-changing election, no notable genre trends, and no parent-requested playlists to help fill out our track list. Even the pandemic, now on its third variant, feels like a remix of an existing song, bringing in a guest star for a verse or two to send it back up the metaphorical Hot 100 of our consciousness. If 2020 was an album, 2021 is just the deluxe version, with a couple of new tracks tossed in to justify charging twice the price for it.

Still, as 2021 winds down, it’s important to remember that this year did not happen in a vacuum. We may be in the same spot that we were last year, but we are here by choice, or rather by the many choices that people have made to disregard the well-being of others, to spread misinformation and disregard the truth, or simply to turn their back on the entire situation and prematurely return to whatever “normal” was in 2019. As a result, our society remains divided, the election remains contested, the reckoning with police brutality and racial inequities was deferred, and the pandemic death toll now exceeds 820,000 in the United States. It’s been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and 2021 is what happens when we actively and willfully try to ignore both past and reality as a whole. If we’ve already forgotten 2020, we need to do all we can to remember 2021 and the misery that result, in hopes that this will spur us all to make better decisions going forward so that we never end up at this crossroads again.

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 2021 in some shape or form.

For better and sometimes for worse, this is the official Kyle’s Korner playlist for the continuing tire fire that was 2021.

Adele, “Easy On Me”

This song hit the musical world like a tidal wave back in October, and has spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100 so far (and may well get there again after the holiday season), so it will likely end up on a lot of end-of-year lists. However, I put the song in the “good, not great” category and found it to be a step down from her last leadoff single “Hello,” so why does it lead off my pandemic playlist?

The song is billed as a message from Adele to her young son, asking him not to judge her too harshly about ending the relationship with his father. From a historical perspective, however, I think this is the sort of plea that we’ll be making to future generations, because we’ve screwed up a lot of things over the last few years and decades: Our weak pandemic response, our weak climate change response, our weak response to the call for racial justice…heck, just the fact that our infrastructure (and even entire areas of the country) have been left to rot. Maybe some of theses issues predate us, but the truth is that we’ve had ample opportunity to impact these issues for the better, and we’ve just left the bat on our shoulder and watched our pitches go by. We’re going to be asking our children and grandchildren for forgiveness and understanding in years to come, but whether or not we get it (or even deserve it) is an open question.

Billy Ray Cyrus, “Burn Down The Trailer Park”

So what’s a long-forgotten single from 2001 doing this early on the list? It’s because a bunch of angry morons tried to burn down the country just six days into the new year, storming the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral votes for the presidency. Just like Cyrus’s narrator here, these people were so blinded by rage, grievances, and stupidity that they decided to score an own goal and destroy everything around them, not realizing the damage they were doing to themselves (and everyone else) in the process. It’s kind of scary how well this parallels the lead-up to January 6th: The consumption of new-ish media (satellite TV in the song, the Internet and social media in 2021) led to a noticeable change in someone’s attitude and behavior, the way the narrator references being “paranoid and scared to death,” and how the response to the other’s person behavior is to simply destroy everything instead of, you know, confronting them and talking about it? Despite what idiots like Tucker Carlson would have you believe, what happened that day was neither patriotic nor brave. The storming of the Capitol was dumb, it was dangerous, and it was deadly, and we need to remember it for what it was to ensure that it never, never, never happens again.

Ward Davis, “Black Cats And Crows”

I tend to be late to the party on material that doesn’t make it on my review list in a given year, and that was the case with Davis’s incredible 2020 album Black Cats And Crows. The title track earns a spot here because if depression were a song, it would be this one, and it travels to the sort of dark places that I think this year sent a lot of people to, especially as new coronavirus variants emerged and the promise of a “hot vax summer” and a “normal” school year crumbled into dust. This was supposed to be the year that we put the pandemic behind us and started working on the issues that it had laid bare, but instead America ended up losing more lives to COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020, despite all of the knowledge we had gained and the tools we now had at our disposal. The coronavirus took what seemed like our best shot and came back with a devastating one-two combination of its own, sending us sprawling to the canvas and spiraling into despair. Because of this, everyone was carrying around an extra weight this year, wondering if anything they did even mattered (more on this later) because it seemed that “every day is just another day to die.” No song captures these feelings quite as poignantly as Davis’s does, so it deserves a prominent spot on this list.

Willie Jones, “American Dream”

Chapel Hart wasn’t the only musical act that was overlooked for my best-of-2021 list—Jones dropped “American Dream” back in January, and honestly this would have probably been my #1 song of the year had I gotten around to review it. If I had one issue with “I Will Follow,” it was that the song never went beyond a declaration that they would never give up, and all of its hard edges had been sanded down to make the song more palatable to a wider audience. This song makes no such concession: The sound and beats are in-your-face, Jones is direct and determined in his delivery, and the lyrics get straight to the heart of the matter: Life in America is very different depending on your skin color, and while progress had been made over the years, we’ve still got a long way to go before true equality is achieved. It’s a reminder that the calls for change made last year still haven’t been meaningfully addressed (see: the Morgan Wallen situation), and that reminder makes it a must-have for this year’s list.

Linkin Park, “In The End”

This song is for those of you who’ve tried to stay on Santa’s nice list this year. You’ve been diligent about following the pandemic best practices I’ve been shouting about for nearly two years. You were fully vaccinated, and even gotten a booster shot. You barely leave the house, you wear your mask indoors and outdoors, and you’ve even confronted an apathetic family member and convinced them to get the vaccine. You’ve done everything that’s been asked of you since the pandemic started, and then some. You “tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.” You’re probably feeling angry right now: Angry for all the time you’ve lost, angry for how little of a difference you think you’ve made, and most of all you’re angry as the people who didn’t do the right thing, who didn’t protect themselves and allowed the pandemic to linger and eventually rise again. I understand you’re anger, and these three and a half minutes are for you to vent your frustration and wonder if it was all worth it.

…Feel better? Okay, now let me be the first to say that what you’ve done is admirable, and that it was worth the sacrifice. Without folks like you, this pandemic could have been much worse, and tens or hundreds of thousands of additional people could have died. You helped flatten the curve in the early days of 2020, and you kept the delta surge from being as bad as it could have been. You controlled what you can control, and we’re all grateful for it.

Now spare a moment to think about the unvaccinated people around you. They may be selfish and misinformed, and you’re free (and even justified) to be mad at them, but never forget that they are still human beings, and keep that in mind even as you rail against their behavior. Like it or not, we’re still all in this together, and we’ve got to control what we can control, even if we can’t control other people. We have tried so hard and have gotten so far, and in the end, it did matter, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

(If you’re one of the people who are still unvaccinated, my message for you is this: There’s still time to make a difference. The vaccines are safe, effective, and will help protect both you and the people you care about. The ultimate decision may be yours, but know that we would all be greatly appreciative if you got the shot.)

Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy”

Sadly, if a song aggravates me enough to match the all-time low score ever handed out on the blog, it made enough of an impact to make it onto this list. This song represents the anger and closed-mindedness exhibited by many in our community, the raw emotions that lead people to draw hard lines between “us” and “them,” and vilify anyone who’s not on the “country” side of the line. “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” may have explicitly listed the “undesirable” characteristics of “non-country” folks, but this one drew my ire the most because it took the hostility an extra step too far, declaring that anyone who wasn’t part of the “country” crowd might as well be dead, but their life wasn’t worth living.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many are so dedicated to this small-tent mindset, casting out people for severe transgressions like preferring soft drinks to liquor and driving a hatchback instead of pickup. (I also can’t see why people insist on trying to tell us how awesome their life is by telling us how not awesome it is, as Shelton does in great detail here.) Country music is better as a big tent where people are free to try different sounds and songs to see how things come together. I may not always like the results (abrasive drum machines rarely have the warm, textured feel I’m looking for), but I’m glad that people have the leeway to experiment and express themselves the way they want to.

When I die, I don’t care if I come back as a country boy or not, but I’d like to think that I’ll be able to listen to country music and appreciate all the ways that people have make it special.

Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like”

I was going to include “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” on this list, but ended up leaving it out because a) this should be a list that people want to hear, and b) “Fancy Like” wound up as one of the worst songs and biggest hits of the year, and if my list was truly going to represent 2021, it would have to be included somewhere. Chalk this one up as a victory for the Internet: The song was poorly produced, poorly written, and poorly performed, but it found a spark through a little social media virality and exploded to the point where Applebee’s had to put Oreo shakes back on the menu.

“Fancy Like” is the latest example of how being popular and being good are two very different things when it comes to music. From a critical standpoint, there’s basically nothing redeeming about this song; however, if you can write something that resonates with people and hit the marketing jackpot with enough silly dancing and the right brand tie-ins (a lot of review traffic I got came from a Reddit dedicated to commercials), you might just wind up with one of the biggest songs of the year. For the world’s sake, however, let’s hope the novelty wears off before it winds up in the gold rotations…

Ronnie Milsap, “Money (That’s What I Want)”

This song is here for two reasons:

  • As the world moves on towards different forms of media (and eventually to a media-less future thanks to digital downloads), I’ve inherited several collections of CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records from people trying to downsize or who no longer have the means to play them anymore. Sitting around at home so much has finally given me the time and motivation to start going through and cataloging all of the items, and while there have been some surprises amongst the items (who knew people purchased so many Christmas cassettes?), there have also been some real gems buried deep in the pile, and a high-quality copy of Milsap’s retro 1986 album Lost In The Fifties Tonight is one of them. This song represents all of the media of yesteryear still sitting in closets and basements around the world, and if you’ve still got a stash somewhere, you should take a moment to revisit it sometime.
  • “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” is the best song on this album, so why is the closing Barrett Strong cover here instead? It’s because money is what everyone wants these days, and right now we seem to stuck in this spot where there’s too much money and not enough money in the system at the same time. Corporate profits are surging and billionaires are launching themselves into space, all while many people are still dealing with job losses and food insecurity. Wages have seen some real growth this year, but so has inflation, and while I think I think things will eventually get better, it’s hard to say when that might actually happen.

King Curtis, “Da-Duh-Dah”

There’s an interesting story behind this one: While walking through the supermarket one day, I heard an old 80s pop song that I remembered from long ago, but I didn’t know the title or any of the lyrics. Instead, all I remembered was the “duh duh da-da da da dadadada” vocal break between choruses. It wasn’t much of a search query, but I dutifully typed it into the YouTube search bar hoping that the algorithm would provide me with some answers. Instead, it brought me to the 1960 leadoff track from The New Scene of King Curtis, and introduced me to the famed saxophonist “King” Curtis Ousley. Curtis is best known for playing on hits such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and The Coasters’s “Yakety Yak,” but he produced some singles and albums of his own, and by sheer luck I stumbled onto this exquisite jazz instrumental performed by an all-star cast. (Seriously, when you can even feature the drummer on an extended solo, you’ve got one heck of a band.)

This find may have been serendipity, but I hope it encourages folks to try step outside their comfort one and check out types of music that they may never have considered before. Our preferences tend to solidify as we get older, so every so often you should go off on a musical tangent and see what you discover. I’ll bet there’s a lot more music like this out there to find and enjoy.

Lena Raine & 2 Mello, “Mirror Temple (Mirror Magic Mix)”

So after spending almost two years doing nothing but watching YouTube videos, I decided to take another shot at making videos myself. I had a short ‘Kyle Vs.’ series back in 2017 after getting laid off from a job in Texas, but over the last few years the channel had gone dormant, with only a few musical posts here and there getting posted. This year, despite being busier than ever, I decided to jump back into the video content grind, and Celeste, a game that took a recommendation from a fellow gamer and a 75% off sale to convince me to buy it, was the game I used to re-launch it.

After three-and-a-half months of messing around with YouTube, I’ve learned that putting this stuff together is fun, but it’s really time-consuming and much harder than tossing together my blog posts. (Also, no one actually watches my longer videos, which tells me I should’ve restarted this thing on TikTok instead.) Still, it’s pushed me to do some things I didn’t think were possible, starting with completing these dastardly C-Side levels that are waiting for you at the end of Celeste. Chapter 5 was the the one that left the biggest impression on me (I was hearing this blasted song in my dreams for two days after beating the level), so its C-Side remix makes my year-end list.

Where will the channel go in 2022? I’m not sure yet, but I’m going to keep working on it alongside the blog until my brain explodes, and when that happens…well, hopefully it’ll at least make for good content.

Lefty Frizzell, “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues”

My retro music kick from last year continued into 2021 (albeit at a reduced pace), and one of the main focuses this year was Frizzell, a country music legend that going into the year I knew next to nothing about. I found a couple cassettes, bought a compilation CD, and started digging into Frizzell’s surprisingly-large discography. (Ironically, 1958’s “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues” was not included on the CD I got, so I had to listen to it through YouTube, and it was so darn catchy that I wound up choosing it for the playlist.) Frizzell’s superpower seems to be the combination of a distinct voice and an easy, effortless charisma that makes him both believable and enjoyable regardless of if the song is serious (“The Long Black Veil”) or silly (“If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time)”). He excels as a storyteller (see: “Saginaw, Michigan”), and he’s got this sort of understated, plainspoken delivery that reminds me a lot of Randy Travis (which makes sense, given that Travis cites Frizzell as one of his major influences). In other words, I’d say Frizzell deserves his spot in the country music pantheon.

As for which artist will get this slot next year? It’s hard to say…but if I had to put a name down, I’d really like to get into Jerry Reed’s back catalog one of these days.

Randy Travis, “Ain’t No Use”

Speaking of Travis, a.k.a. the G.O.A.T of country music, his debut album Storms Of Life turned 35 this year, and Warner Bros. marked the occasion with a remastered release of the album that included three new old songs recorded as part of those sessions, of which “Ain’t No Use” was the best of the bunch. While I’m not thrilled with the practice of labels sitting on recorded material and releasing it years later, I’m glad to see Travis getting his due as a titan of the genre (honestly, it seems like he’s been more visible in the last few years than in the previous ten). Country music has a habit of not giving people their due until they’re dead, but in a sick and twisted way Travis’s 2013 stroke and slow recovery has made country music decide “close enough” and give him the accolades he deserves.

If Travis is never able to perform in, we can at least take solace in the fact that Storms Of Life and twenty-five-plus years worth of recordings exist, and that we still have the chance to experience Travis’s amazing baritone and are able to show people who never heard him live the reasons that he was so good. In a weird way, that’s part of the reason I started writing blog posts and recording songs: If a bus were to smear me across the highway tomorrow, these makeshift horcruxes would live on, and I could be remembered through my rants about Dustin Lynch and Celeste-induced screams of agony. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you think about your “legacy,” and while you may never be as famous as Travis, there’s someone (perhaps a future generation of your family) that might be curious about who you were and what you stood for someday, and preserving your thoughts/sounds/pixels means that you’ll be more than a name on a stone to them after you’re gone.

Speaking of death…

Chris Janson, “Bye Mom”

This one is for all the premature goodbyes we’ve had to say to parents, grandparents, siblings, children, friends, and acquaintances over the last year. 2021 was supposed to be the year we left the pandemic in the dust, and instead we’ve lost more people in the U.S to the coronavirus than we did in 2020. With many people forced to say goodbye remotely or through a maze of tubes and machines, I think there’s been a real a lack of closure for the nation, and Janson’s song is an attempt to resolve this, giving voice to those who have been unable to find or deliver the words to describe their feelings.

When all this is finally, I’d like to see a monument go up somewhere to honor and remember all the people that have died from COVID-19. The deaths have been numbers rather than names for a while now, and I’d like us to have a physical reminder that these were all people with lives and families, a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where we can go to remember and pay tribute to those we’ve lost. For now, however, we can only keep the memory of those we’ve lost as close as we can, and vow never to forget them.

Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job And Shove It”

Cody Johnson released “‘Til You Can’t” back in October and implored the world to stop wasting time and do the things you want to before you aren’t able to, but by this point a lot of people had already taken that advice. Instead, millions of people were singing along to Paycheck’s 1977 anthem as they joined in “The Great Resignation,” leaving their jobs and striking out in a new direction for better pay, a better work/life balance, or to follow their passion and try to turn it into a career. In the face of massive loss and the potential risks of returning of work, millions of us turned a critical eye towards our lives and decided to do something to prioritize the things we really cared about. (Perhaps that’s where my sudden return to YouTube came from…)

Power has swung from employers to employees in a big way this year, and it’s a trend I’d like to see continue in the next twelve months. People feel empowered to take back control of their lives and jobs right now, and I feel like this will put everyone in a better position in the long run.

Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone”

This list has mostly been a downer up to this point, so let’s try to wrap things up on a high note. There isn’t much that I can say that I haven’t said already, but I think this captures exactly what I’d like country music to be going forward: An inclusive genre where different sorts of sounds and people can gather freely, all united by the bonds of experience and life lessons. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and while we all may not agree on songs (see: Hayes’s abomination above), if we keep our doors and our minds open to different ideas and sounds, I believe the genre will ultimately be a better place for it. (Note that this is why “Fancy Like,” for all its flaws, still ended up ranked above exclusionary garbage like “Old School’s In,” “The Worst Country Song Of All Time,” and “Come Back As A Country Boy” on my year-end list.)

We drew a lot of lines between people in 2021. For 2022, let’s try reaching across them instead.

Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”

I don’t do album reviews on the blog anymore, mostly because I don’t subscribe to any streaming services and rarely buy full albums anymore. I bought The Girls Are Back In Town, however, and I regret nothing: It was a strong album from start to finish, and even the more-generic and attitude-laden stuff that you might find on anyone’s album worked here thanks to the stellar performances of Danica Hart, Devynn Hart, and Trea Swindle. These three have solid deliveries, effortless charisma, and incredible harmony, and when packaged with classical-leaning instrumentation and some truly amazing material (“4 Mississippi,” “Jacqui’s Song,” “You can Have Him Jolene,” “Tailgate Trophy,” and of course “I Will Follow”), this is an album that will probably end up on a few year-end lists for all the right reasons. “I Will Follow” is my #1 single release of the year and thus is the group’s official representative on this list, but you could pick pretty much anything from this album and not go wrong.

The failure of radio to pick up on this trio in 2021 is astounding, and I sincerely hope the genre rectifies this in 2022. This trio deserves to be heard.

Willie Nelson, “Still Not Dead”

Let’s give Willie Nelson the last word for this year, and this 2017 song from God’s Problem Child gives us a hopeful starting point for next year. If you’re reading this, then at the very least you’re “still not dead again today,” and like Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, you’ve still got a chance to make a difference. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the world and admittedly little to look forward to right now, but if have to start somewhere, let’s start here: We’ve got a single day to do our part to make things better, and with any luck we’ll get another day to do it again tomorrow. At an ageless 88 years old, Nelson may look immortal to the outside world (you could imagine him playing chess against Queen Elizabeth II in the year 2100), but he’s acutely aware of his mortality, and he’s doing everything he can to live a full and meaningful life right up the day he passes away. We should all be so lucky, and we should all be looking to him as an example.

To paraphrase another Nelson composition: It is funny how time slips away, and we shouldn’t let it get away so easily. You’ve still got today and we’ve all still got 2022 (hopefully), so let’s make the best of it, and make the 2021 the year that we decided that enough was enough.

Happy New Year, folks. At the risk of having to eat my words again, here’s hoping it’s better than the last one.

Kyle’s Top 10 Country Singles of 2021

Welcome to 2021: The year that should’ve been but never was.

In my 2020 list, I called out country music for three issues:

  • Everybody looks the same (the genre is dominated by white men, and women and artists of color are mostly ignored by the radio).
  • Everything sounds the same (every song features the same three or four instruments and does nothing interesting with them).
  • Everyone talks about the same thing (there’s a list of 10-20 words that every song has to include, and you’re either drinking because you’re happy, drinking because you’re sad, or drinking because you don’t feel like doing anything else).

2021 was supposed to be different. We had seen all the rot behind the curtain, and we were going to finally do something about it.

Spoiler alert: We didn’t.

For all the optimism that the year started with, we find ourselves at the end of this year in pretty much the same spot we did last year: Bitterly divided, starkly unequal, and mostly drunk. In short, 2021 was a major disappointment, leading most of us to not put the same faith in 2022.

However, for all the bland sameness permeating the airwaves, there were a few artists who dared to throw away the mold, ignore the headwinds, and walk the road less traveled. These artists shook up the mainstream formula, whether it be with different tales, different sounds, or by simply standing up and being themselves, and while they weren’t always rewarded by radio for doing so by radio, giving them the recognition they deserve here is the least that I can do.

I present to you my ten favorite songs from 2021.

Last Year’s Winner: Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”

Honorable Mentions:

Artist, SongFinal Score
#15Thomas Rhett, “Country Again”7/10
#14Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like”7/10
#13Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do”7/10
#12Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown”7/10
#11Larry Fleet, “Where I Find God”7/10

#10: Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story” (final score: 7/10)

Because it’s not a Top Ten list on this blog without these guys, right? You might think that Midland, whose star has fallen precipitously since the days of “Drinkin’ Problem,” had simply missed their moment, but I’d argue that they never got a moment to begin with: The brief turn back towards a classic country sound around 2016-2017 turned out to be a mere head-fake, and when we plunged headfirst into the Boyfriend and Cobronavirus eras, there isn’t much wiggle room for a throwback band like this one. Still, I give the trio credit for sticking to their guns and making the sort of music they want to make, and I still think they’ve got a lot going for them: A textured sound that still stands out on the radio, a charismatic lead in Mark Wystrach and solid vocal harmonies from Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson, and while their material has trended a bit more towards the ephemeral side over time, there’s still a thoughtful storytelling quality to songs like this one. While I fear their downward trend will continue into next year Midland will always have their incredible run of dominance here on the blog.

#9: Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” (7/10)

Cody Johnson hit the mainstream scene at about the same time as Midland, and until “‘Til You Can’t” arrived, he’d seen a similar lack of success too. This song has really taken off on the radio, however, and I think it’s because it not only fits the mid-pandemic moment well, but also because it takes a more active approach to delivering its message. On the surface, this is simple, straightforward, and generally obvious: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today, because tomorrow may never come. (As someone who’s been really sick all week, I certainly feel this one as the Friday post deadline approaches.) What sets this song apart is how the song forgoes the usual ‘woe is me’ attitude, and instead pushes the listener hard to act before it’s too late. There’s an urgency and an energy to both the production and Johnson’s vocals—he’s practically screaming at the user to do the right thing, and it’s surprisingly motivating (is it too late to sign this guy up as a vaccine spokesperson?). A lot of people are reevaluating their lives right now and thinking about what they really want to do, and Johnson’s call to action feels like just the sort of thing both the genre and the nation needs right now.

#8: Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” (7/10)

I honestly thought that Lambert was washed up not too long ago, and that she needed to get away from the genre for a while to recharge her creative batteries. 2020’s “Settling Down,” however, signaled that Lambert wasn’t ready to step off stage just yet (even if that’s sort of what that song was about), and “If I Was A Cowboy” is another step in the right direction. The production here is suitably atmospheric (it brings to mind scenes of the Old West with its guitar arrangement), and the song accomplishes two impressive goals: It allows Lambert to indulge in a classic outlaw fantasy (something her public persona is uniquely suited for), while also subtly exploring the gender implications of the trope, noting that men are often given the latitude for being “outlaw” while women usually aren’t. Lambert dials back her trademark in-your-face, devil-may-care attitude here, but she balances the freedom and isolation of the cowboy lifestyle perfectly in her performance, giving the listener a complete picture of just what such a life would seem like. I’m not sure how long this second wind will last, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

#7: Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” (8/10)

“How does one end up caught in a cheating relationship?” It’s a question you ponder more than you should when you listen to as many cheating songs as I have, and this song provides as deep and as thorough an answer as we’ve ever gotten. I’ve given a lot of people static for throwing two random artists together on a song that doesn’t need it, but getting both the wife’s and the lover’s perspective on the event is what makes the song so insightful, and both Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde play their roles perfectly. A lot of songs like this focus on who’s right and who’s wrong, but the truth is often more complicated than this, and this track present the entire scene without judgement, framing both women as reasonable, rational creatures whose behavior is completely understandable and giving the audience a sense of just how big the gray areas are in a situation like this. Throw in understated production that leans on a dobro to differentiate it from its peers, and you’ve got a recipe for a song that deserves a spot on this list.

#6: Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer” (8/10)

This, on the other hand, seems like a recipe for how not to end up on this list. So how does a song this booze-soaked and cliché-filled end up this high on my year-end list? First of all, you justify your behavior by telling us all the ways the other person has wronged you and showing us that they’re the clear villain in the story. Second, you play an Uno reverse card and use your “country” checklist to talk about all the things you’d rather not do to make the listener feel just how over the relationship is (not fish, not hunt, and of course “drink a hot beer”). Third, bring an affable-yet-over-the-top delivery to the table as Carmichael does, and have enough everyman charisma to let the audience “bask in the schadenfreude” and not feel guilty about such a guilty pleasure. Finally, drop a surprisingly-neotraditional mix on top of the whole thing, and rely on your rough-edged guitars and plentiful fiddle to let people know exactly what song they’re listening to. Carmichael hasn’t yet been able to find traction on the radio yet, but if he keeps bringing songs like this to the table, the genre won’t be able to ignore him for much longer.

#5: Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (8/10)

Songs from male artists have gotten noticeably more shallow lately: They seem to force themselves onto people the moment they meet them, and then they get incredibly whiny when they don’t get their way. In response, Wilson puts masculinity under a microscope here, and makes a strong case that emotional maturity should be just as big a part of the concept as using guns and changing tires. Her narrator has the sort of hard-worn edge that indicates she’s been on the wrong end of a immature man before making them both a believable and sympathetic character. The writing does a nice job moving from the classic staples of “being a man” to the relationship wisdom that they’re advocating for, and the production does just enough (i.e., it works in a mandolin) to give it a standout sound while making sure it stays in the background and doesn’t overwhelm the song’s message. It’s a stark departure from Wilson’s uncaring, unlikable persona on “Dirty Looks,” and while I’m only lukewarm on her new duet with Cole Swindell, I’m interested to see where this new and improved version of Wilson goes in the future.

#4: Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” (8/10)

When I first put together my list, I thought that this one was way too cheesy to be ranked this high, so I listened to it again…and after having to stop the song twice to gather myself, I remembered why it was here (and for the record, my mother still’s happily alive!). The song makes me think of Randy Travis’s classic “He Walked On Water” because it’s one of those tracks you don’t appreciate when you’re younger, and as you get older and stare down death from different angles, you really start to appreciate what you have and how fragile it all really is. We’ve lost over 810,000 people in the U.S. to the coronavirus to date, and that’s a lot of unexpected, premature goodbyes we’ve had to say to a parent as a country. The production does a good job balancing reverence and melancholy with its sound, and with his earnest, relatable performance, Janson continues to be the most confounding artist in the genre (how is the “Fix A Drink” and “Good Vibes” guy also the “Drunk Girl” and “Bye Mom” guy?). There’s a certain timelessness to this song, and if the genre ever sobers up and moves back towards deeper material, Janson stands to be one if the biggest beneficiaries.

#3: Taylor Swift, “No Body, No Crime” (9/10)

Swift is the first artist to wind up on my best and worst lists in a year simultaneously: Where “I Bet You Think About Me” felt petulant and over-assuming, “No Body, No Crime” might be the best story song the genre has heard since “Whiskey Lullaby.” Swift uses a firm, matter-of-fact tone to get her point across (something had to be done, and she was just the person to do it), and the other characters are unsavory enough to make what sounds like a gruesome murder at least feel understandable (whether it was justified or not is another matter, but that’s a high bar to clear). The details we get are plentiful and immaculate, allowing us to see the whole scenario from every perspective, and the production sets a dark, businesslike tone that complements the story without distracting from it. Murder ballads are tricky and it’s really hard to get them right, but through Swift’s outstanding songwriting talents and some inspired production choices, she does enough to earn a spot on my list and almost forgive her for “I Bet You Think About Me.” (Almost.)

#2: Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (10/10)

Devil’s Advocate Kyle, the floor is yours.

Thanks, Flip-Flopping Kyle. *ahem* Putting this song at #2 on this list is completely unjustifiable, and is nothing more than liberal signaling. You’re a documented Brothers Osborne hater that has labeled them a one-hit wonder, and then you’re conveniently on board the duo’s hype train the moment T.J. Osborne comes out as gay and the pair becomes one of those underrepresented artists you like to tout so much. You’re so transparent that it’s pathetic.

First of all, I don’t recall you raising a fuss when I “flip-flopped” on Miranda Lambert earlier on this list. Second of all, even if you set the sexuality issue aside, this song has a lot of the things I’m looking for from the genre right now: A distinct, textured sound (mostly thanks to John Osborne’s guitar work and the chorus accordion) that sets a hopeful, positive vibe, an inclusive message that declares that country music is a big tent for all types of people, and both brothers do a nice job of selling their story (and their position just outside the genre’s mainstream—there’s a reason I called them a one-hit wonder—lends credence to their claim that they’re an acquired taste.

While I’ll admit that T.J.’s sexuality does play a role in the song being where it is on my list, it’s because it adds another layer of complexity and a hint of darkness to what would otherwise be a kinda-sorta generic track. Consider what I said in my review back in June:

“Put this song alongside TJ Osborne coming out of the closet, however, and it takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a call for understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. When the narrator says ‘Some people are just like me, I hope y’all forgive ’em,’ they’re asking the genre and its audience (which are not typically known for their inclusivity) for tolerance of Osborne and others like him. ‘I’m a bad joke at the wrong time’ suddenly flips from a reference to the narrator’s poor sense of humor to a calling out of the slurs and derogatory terms (which are often couched in terms of bad-faith humor) that members of this community have had to endure. The description of a bar that’s always open and welcoming becomes a vision of the world the narrator wishes to see, where people can gather without pretense or prejudice and revel in their common humanity.”

In this context, the song is both a firm statement that the narrator can’t change who they are and a plea for the greater country community (and the country as a whole, to be honest) to open their minds, set aside their biases, and judge people like T.J. as whole, complete individuals, rather than as just some token who’s defined solely by who they’re attracted to.

You want to know why this song is at #2? It’s because it deserves to be.

#1: Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow” (10/10)

So now that we’re done patting ourselves on the back, let’s ask a tougher question: Chapel Hart released three official singles in 2021 (in addition to “I Will Follow,” there was “You Can Have Him Jolene” and “Grown Ass Woman”). So why did I only cover one of these releases for this list?

There’s no excuse for this, but there’s at least an explanation, and it gets right to the heart of country radio’s issues: Reviews here at the Korner are primarily dictated by our weekly Pulse posts (I try to have a score for every song on the list, even if it’s only preliminary), which in turn is dictated by the contents of the weekly Mediabase charts, which is based on the weekly spin counts from reporting country radio stations. By way of the transitive property, this means that our reviews are essentially driven by the radio status quo, which means that artists that don’t get airplay also have a harder time getting on our lists. Essentially, these reviews and lists are helping perpetuate the problems we spend so much time railing against, and someone gets screwed over nearly every year because of it (Chapel Hart in 2021, Mickey Guyton in 2020, Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell in 2018, etc.).

All of this is part of the reason I’m thinking about changing up my post/review strategy in 2022 (of course, I’ve been saying this for over a year now), but for the moment, let’s address the song in front of us and give it the credit it deserves. “I Will Follow” is similar to “I’m Not For Everyone” is a lot of ways: A simple, straightforward message that projects pride in oneself, a complementary sound that creates an upbeat and optimistic atmosphere that envelops the listener without getting in the way of the lyrics (heck, even the electric guitar sounds a bit like John Osborne’s signature axe), and an extra layer of meaning added by the artists themselves (Black artists have historically faced a number of barriers in the genre due to prejudice and racism, and continue to do so today—you’re telling me this trio can’t even get a hint of airplay, but Morgan Wallen is back in the Top Ten only ten months after being caught using the N-word?). What elevates this song to #1 is its sheer energy, which pushes it past mere declaration territory and into the realm of empowerment and inspiration. The quicker tempo, the organic feel of the production (even the clap track feels natural and fits seamlessly into the mix), the incredible vocal and harmony work that project determination and confidence (I’ve been hyping Midland for years, but Chapel Hart is even better)…this song has it all, and that’s why this is the #1 country single of 2021.

Image from Sounds Like Nashville

Last year, I closed my best-of list with the following statement:

“If there’s one takeaway I hope we all get from 2020, it’s this: We’re all in this together, so we’d better start caring about one another and work towards making life better for everyone.”

So yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, 2021 was an example of what happens when everyone decides they’re not all in this together, and acts only in their own perceived self-interest and tells the rest of the world to jump in a lake. From corporations raking in massive profits on the backs of exploited workers to politicians using misinformation and outright lies to further their own careers to people putting their community’s health at risk by refusing a safe and effective vaccine, nobody was interested in hearing anyone else’s sob story—they were free to do whatever the heck they wanted, regardless of what their behavior did to other people.

We need to get back to caring about other people again, and country music can play a vital role in all of this. Artists can start as Chapel Hart and Brothers Osborne did and tell us their own stories, and then move on to Eric Church’s call from last year and tell us about the struggles that other people are facing. With increased awareness, we can take action to help those in need (whether on a personal or policymaking level), and show that having happy, healthy, and vibrant communities are truly in the self-interest of us all.

There’s a reason that Merle Haggard, “The Poet Of The Common Man,” was a country artist. It’s because country music was a place to show the world the burdens that someone carried, a place where you can stand in someone else’s shoes for three minutes and see what their life was really like. Country music doesn’t feel like that place right now, but there’s no reason why it can’t be that place again, and it’s a good bet that artists who drop songs that try to make that happen will wind up on this list next year.

2020 was a call to action, and 2021 showed us the consequences of ignoring it. My only hope for 2022 is that we don’t make that same mistake twice.

Kyle’s Top 10 WORST Country Singles of 2021

Country songs fall all over the quality spectrum, but only a chosen few can earn the dubious distinction of sitting at the bottom of the barrel. Through a special combination of poor production, subpar songwriting, and vacuous vocals, the songs presented below are the sorts of headache-inducing tracks that move listeners to plug their ears, turn their dials, or just run screaming from the room.

Just as with my mid-year list, these songs will be presented without comment because a) I’m lazy (so much so that I’ve been copy-pasting all this opening text since 2018), and b) I’ve wasted enough words on this junk already in my prior reviews. Let’s get this over with quickly, shall we?

Last Year’s “Winner”: Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (final rating: 2/10)

Little Big Town ended up sitting out 2021 and abdicating their crown of thorns, so who will claim the cursed throne this year? Let’s open the envelope and find out…

Dishonorable Mentions:

Artist, SongFinal Rating
#15Niko Moon, “NO SAD SONGS”4/10
#14Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”4/10
#13Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time”4/10
#12Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots”4/10
#11Sam Hunt, “23”4/10

#10: Taylor Swift ft. Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” (4/10)

#9: Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” (3/10)

#8: Niko Moon, “PARADISE TO ME” (3/10)

Nobody put two songs in the bottom ten this year, but Moon came dang close with “PARADISE TO ME” and “NO SAD SONGS,” so he walks away with the Dustin Lynch Memorial Anti-Excellence Award for this year. With any luck, he keeps walking right out of Nashville and never comes back.

#7: Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” (3/10)

#6: Nelly ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit” (3/10)

Because it’s just not a worst-of-the-year list without Florida Georgia Line, am I right?

#5: Travis Denning, “ABBY” (3/10)

#4: Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” (3/10)

#3: Heath Sanders, “Old School’s In” (2/10)

#2: Brantley Gilbert ft Toby Keith & HARDY, “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” (2/10)

This trio screwed up so badly that they even failed at being the worst. This year, that distinction goes to…

#1: Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” (1/10)

At the end of my worst-of-2020 list, I made the following statement:

“I have a feeling that 2021 is going to be a better year, if only because there’s (almost) no possible way that it could be any worse than this one. 2021, please don’t make me eat those words.”

Apparently Shelton, who is finding an increasing number of ways to irritate me, decided to take this as a challenge, and earned himself a special spot right next to Michael Ray at one of the worst songs ever reviewed here at the Korner. I look forward to the day that Shelton retires and gets out of my hair for good, but until that day arrives, on behalf of country listeners around the globe, I humbly ask Shelton, Moon, and everyone else on this list to make better single choices in the future.

As for me, I’ve learned my lesson: 2022 will have to earn my hope next year—right now, I’m assuming it will be a complete tire fire. Please please please make me eat those words.