Kyle’s Top 3 Country Albums of 2016

Gosh Kyle, what’s with the short album list?

Well, as someone who is overly-reliant on YouTube to hear new music, finding an entire album to listen to is a lot harder than just finding a single song. Therefore, I really only listened to the albums I purchased this year (which total a measly four), so I didn’t figure a large album list was warranted. (I should probably spring for a subscription to a streaming service before next year’s list comes out.)

With apologies to Dierks Bentley’s Black, here are my favorite three albums from 2016:

#3: Vinyl, William Michael Morgan (review)

Musical perfection can be hard to find, but sometimes fate smiles down upon us and gives us the perfect union of man, music, and management. Morgan’s Vinyl is a great example of what can happen when everything comes together just right.

In many ways, Vinyl is your typical debut album, with a bunch of different themes, writers, and production styles thrown together to see which one clicks best with the public. Despite this, however, a strong classic-country vibe runs through the entire album, which is held together by Morgan’s impeccable delivery and impressive tone.

Warner Bros. Music helped usher in a neotraditional wave in country music in the mid ’80s with a certain recent Hall of Fame inductee, and it’s not a huge stretch to think history could repeat itself with Morgan in the coming years.

#2: Behind This Guitar, Mo Pitney (review)

To be honest, most people will hear Behind This Guitar and Vinyl and think “six of one, a half dozen of the other.” Behind This Guitar gets the nod here because while Morgan’s debut disc had his label’s fingerprints all over it (right down to the faux-record cover art), Pitney’s album felt more personal and cohesive as a whole. (That, and nothing on Vinyl threw a haymaker to the feels like “Cleanup On Aisle Five” or “It’s Just A Dog.”)

Pitney hasn’t found the commercial success that Morgan has, but here’s hoping he gains a bit more traction in 2017.

#1: You Should Be Here, Cole Swindell

Okay, raise your hand if you saw Cole Swindell’s attempt to reinvent himself as a traditional country singer coming. Keep it raised if you thought he would actually pull it off.

If you hand is still up, you’re lying.

The title track/leadoff single for this album stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. Hold on, I thought, THIS is the same guy who sang “Chillin’ It” and “Let Me See Ya Girl” The same bro-country wannabe who gets called out for being generic by every country music blogger on the Internet? How could anybody like THAT produce a song worth listening to? Even party-anthem singers face loss and tragedy, however, and Swindell channeled the premature death of his father into one of the most powerful songs I’d heard in a looooooong time.

This is awesome, I conceded, but it’s got to be a one-off thing. He’ll be back to the drink-and-screw songs before long. After an unexpected endorsement of the album from Mark over at Spectrum Pulse, however, I decided to take the plunge and check out Swindell’s full album, and like Mark, I was pleasantly surprised.

Yes, the hardcore Bro-Country songs that Swindell made his name on are still here (“Flatliner,” “Hoppin'”), and yes, the production is still way more synthetic than it needed to be, but on the whole I was surprised by how well this album came together (especially the production), and how much depth some of the songs actually exhibited. I was genuinely shocked by the number of “un-Bro” moments I found on this record (he gets left behind in “Middle Of A Memory”? He turns down a chance for love-making in “Stay Downtown”? He regrets choosing freedom over a relationship in “Gettin’ Forgotten”?). In “No Can Left Behind,” Swindell even pulls off the Brad Paisley impression since…well, since Paisley himself!

The awesome power of “You Should Be Here,” combined with a strong set of album tracks (even the party anthems stand out here! The only song I can really fault is “Stars,” which is forgettable and clunky), gives Swindell the edge over Morgan and Pitney and wins the former Luke Bryan merchandise manager my 2016 Album of the Year award. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m really looking forward to what Swindell has to offer in the future.

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Kyle’s Top 5 Games of 2016

Even as a Nintendo fan who had to suffer through (mostly) radio silence on the Wii U, 2016 was a decent year for gaming, punctuated by some surprisingly-good releases. Outside of the Nintendo hardware bubble, however, there were some major releases that just couldn’t be ignored, regardless of their release platform. It’s time for my list of the Top 5 games of 2016!

The Rule:

  • A game has to have been released during the 2016 calendar year to be eligible for inclusion on the list. That’s it!

#5: Kirby: Planet Robobot (HAL Laboratory)

Kirby has been relegated to B-list stardom behind other Nintendo stars like Mario, Link, and Pikachu, but the plucky pink ball has produced several quality titles in the last few years. This year’s installment is Kirby: Planet Robobot, in which Kirby must combat an evil corporation seeking to mechanize his world.

The levels are gorgeous and cleverly-crafted, the code cube puzzles were challenging but not frustrating, the boss battles were a blast, and the developers did a nice job of making Kirby’s mech useful without making it overpowered. The ending gets special props for throwing some cool twists at you and being suitably epic.

Unlike the Wii U, the 3DS had a pretty decent 2016, and Kirby: Planet Robobot was one of the best games of this year’s bunch. The absolute best of the bunch, however, turned out to be…

#4: Pokémon Sun/Moon (Game Freak) (review)

pokemon_moonFor the seventh generation of Nintendo’s flagship portable franchise, the developers pulled out all the stops to change up the classic Pokémon formula and give players something new to enjoy. Thankfully, they succeeded in this task when it came to outdated mechanics that needed to be tossed out, and failed when it came to aspects that were just fine the way they were.

Despite all the hubbub about “trials” replacing the usual Pokémon Gyms, I found little difference in how the trials actually played out: You fought a few minor battles, maybe solved a puzzle or two, and eventually had a tough battle as a chaser. Additionally, Team Skull was essentially a re-hash of Team Rocket, albeit with less of an idea as to why exactly they were doing evil stuff. As someone who has enjoyed fighting their way through twelve different Pokémon games, I was totally okay with all this.\

The biggest difference (aside from the removal of HMs, which I support wholeheartedly) was the immersiveness of the world and the characters inside it. Random NPCs no longer seemed so random; they had dashes of personality! Your rival wasn’t just some battle-obsessed prodigy, he was a masalada-loving kid struggling to live up to his family’s name. Lillie and Nebby were so well-designed that they ending up going viral (NEBBY, GET IN THE $%^&ING BAG ALREADY!!).

In other words, Game Freak, Nintendo, and the Pokémon Company put a lot of heart into this game, and it showed. It wasn’t quite as impressive, however, as a game that debuted a month earlier…

#3: Paper Mario: Color Splash (Intelligent Systems) (review)

Now that Yooka-Laylee has moved onto the Nintendo Switch, Paper Mario: Color Splash is officially the final love letter written to the Wii U (no, the Breath Of The Wild port doesn’t count)…and what a letter it was.

The developers of PM: CS faced a much bigger challenge than the teams working on the games described above: Whereas Kirby was fighting underexposure and Pokémon was trying to avoid overexposure, Color Splash was attempting to salvage Paper Mario from the wreckage of Sticker Star, one of the most-disliked games Nintendo had released in the last five years. While Color Splash took the same radical-innovation mindset as its predecessor, this game actually stuck the landing through a combination of gorgeous visuals, unique environments, and the sharpest, wittiest dialogue I have ever seen in a game.

Sure, the battle system was a bit clunky, but after playing through a world or two, you didn’t care. You were too wrapped up in the story, too busy chuckling at the dialogue of random Toads and your partner Huey, too busy breaking out your best dance moves along with Mario when the plumber threw out a disco ball in battle. There were homages to past Mario games (especially Mario Bros. 2), there were some self-aware moments where enemies and Mario broke bread and lamented their shared plight, and there were some veiled political commentary thrown in for good measure (did that Toad really just mention infrastructure investments?). Nintendo and Intelligent Systems knew they had to bring their A game for Color Splash, and they pulled it off.

Paper Mario: Color Splash earns the distinction of being my favorite game on a Nintendo console this year. As someone who only owns Nintendo consoles, however, it begs the question: What games could have topped it?

#2: Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment)

Consider the following: I put this game at #2 despite the fact that I’ve never actually played this game. I’ve watched a ton of Overwatch livestreams, but I’ve never actually taken part in a battle.

So why did I rank the game this high? Simple:

  • Splatoon would have been my runaway choice for 2015 Game of the Year.
  • Overwatch was the Splatoon of 2016.

For the most part, Overwatch‘s gameplay follows the standard FPS template: You join a team, you decimate the opposition, you work to achieve an objective, yada yada yada. When sets Overwatch apart, however, are the playable characters: Not only do they offer unique playstyles and are generally well-balanced against each other (although anyone who’s been flattened repeatedly by a Bastion might disagree), but they’re so darn likeable because they’ve been infused with so much personality! From Reinhardt to Roadhog, Mei to McCree, and Zarya to Zenyatta, each character has a compelling, carefully-constructed backstory that players can relate to and enjoy. Toss in some well-designed maps and chaotic action, and you’re a couple of ink tanks away from my favorite game of the past few years.

So why isn’t Overwatch #1? Well, it had the unfortunate honor of being released in the same year as…

#1: Pokémon Go (Niantic)

Like Overwatch, I didn’t play this game, but unlike Overwatch, there was no possible way to avoid coming into contact with this game.

Pokémon Go captured the world’s attention like no game I have ever seen. (Having GameXplain, Nintendo Life, and IGN discuss your game is one thing; having Lester Holt, David Muir, and Scott Pelley talk about it is quite another.) For a good month or two, the entire world seemed to bout wandering the countryside looking for Pidgeys and Pikachus (and finding the occasional dead body instead).

There was no escaping the hype train; it was everywhere you looked. Police were issuing warning to stop trespassing in the name of Dratinis. Businesses were offering discounts to players who caught monsters in their establishments. Politicians referenced the trend by telling us to “Pokémon Go to the polls.” As great as Overwatch was, that wasn’t the game the good folks at the Arlington National Cemetery were concerned about people playing.

The fact that the game achieved world domination with just Gen 1 monsters should strike fear into the heart of the competition, because Nintendo’s still got six-hundred-plus Pokémon to throw at people. Virtual Squirtles weren’t enough to entice me to play, but virtual Squirtles, Natus, Cacneas and Starlys? That will be a tougher question to answer.

The game was (and is) overly simplistic, and it’s cooled off a bit since the initial rush, but that rush alone guaranteed that Pokémon Go would not only be the top game of 2016, but perhaps one of the top stories of 2016 period. 2017, your predecessor has just dropped the mic—let’s see you top this.

Kyle’s Top 10 Country Singles of 2016

It’s that time of year folks, where every two-bit Internet commentator with a platform announces their ‘Top X of Y’ picks, which are immediately torn to shreds because no one agrees with them. Sounds like fun!

Up to this point, this blog has focused primarily on (country) music and (Nintendo) gaming, and that’s where most of my list-making attention will be focused. Without further ado, let’s kick things off with my Top 10 country singles for 2016!

The Rules:

  • To be eligible for inclusion on this list, the song must have been released as a country music single within the 2016 calender year. As much as I’d like to give the #1 slot to Cole Swindell’s excellent “You Should Be Here,” it was released last December and is therefore ineligible.
  • The only other rule is that there are no other rules. All choices are completely subjective and represent my own warped view of the world and the genre. (This also means that songs I ranked highly in my individual reviews may now fins themselves slotted underneath lower-ranked songs on this list.)

Honorable Mentions:

#10: “Lights Come On,” Jason Aldean

Aldean’s wheelhouse has always been loud, in-your-face rock music, and “Lights Come On” is the perfect marriage of artist, attitude and sound. There’s no pretense of traditional country here, just hard-hitting beats and brash electric guitars that crank the song’s energy level up to 11. Aldean brings his usual serious-sounding delivery to the table, but it fits the dark, edgy tone of the song well, and honestly, he even sort of sounds like he’s having fun here.

While Aldean has the ability to sing deeper, more traditional songs (see “Any Ol’ Barstool”), I’d rather see him explore this hard-rock avenue more, because no one in the business does it better.

#9: “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance,” Garth Brooks (review)

(Sadly, Garth & co. seem to have removed every trace of this song from YouTube.)

If there’s one trend I’ve noticed in country music this year, it’s the number of failed attempts at sultry sex jams. Being the cagey veteran that he is, however, Brooks wisely opts for a more-playful take on the trend, and the result is the most fun-sounding song about foreplay since Josh Turner’s “Why Don’t We Just Dance.”

Brooks does what he always does by blending traditional country with a more-modern sound, slapping a solid vocal track on top of it, and riding it all the way back to the top of the heap. Despite the song’s title, Garth isn’t “laying down” on the job, and I expect him to make a strong push to make this list again next year.

#8: “Are You With Me,” Easton Corbin

This song was originally included on Corbin’s 2012 album All Over The Road, which made people scratch their heads when it appeared again of 2015’s About To Get Real. While the inclusion was an obvious attempt to cash in on the unexpected worldwide popularity of the song’s Lost Frequencies remix, I would also argue that this is a darn good song that deserved its eventual single release.

These days, most songs that involve a guy asking a girl a question like “are you with me?” usually revolve around alcohol, cornfields, and having sex in a truck bed. Corbin, on the other hand, asks the woman to travel the world and simply experience life with him, with *ahem* “physical interactions” playing only a minor role in the proceedings. This song deserved much better than its #41 airplay peak.

#7: “Today,” Brad Paisley (review)

Yes, this song is vague and generic, and yes, this song is covered in more cheese than a deep-dish pizza. No one can sell a song like this better that Paisley, however, and he’s wisely built a third of his career on material like “She’s Everything,” “Perfect Storm,” and “Today.” (The second third contains the fun comedic songs like “I’m Gonna Miss Her” and “Online,” and “Whiskey Lullaby” is another third all by itself.)

“Today,” in both its instrumentation and themes, is a throwback to the pre-Bro Country era of country music, and Paisley’s delivery is emotional and heartfelt enough to melt the coldest of hearts. I’m looking forward to more material like this when Paisley releases his next album in 2017.

#6: “Star Of The Show,” Thomas Rhett (review)

“Star Of The Show,” on the other hand, is a perfect example of how to perform cheesy love songs in the current “Metro-Bro” era, and while Rhett isn’t quite the vocalist that Paisley is, his emotions and romantic inclinations feel no less genuine.

Rhett and his team have employed a masterful single-release strategy in the Tangled Up era (the massive bomb that was “Vacation” notwithstanding), and they know that releasing universally-likeable songs like “Star Of The Show” gives them the latitude to release fun-but-unorthodox tracks like “Crash And Burn” and “T-Shirt”. (Incidentally, “Crash and Burn” would have been my runaway #1 single pick for 2015, even over Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here” and Rhett’s own “Die A Happy Man.”) Rhett’s many haters may not want to hear this, but I’d say he’s got a long, bright future in this league.

#5: “Record Year,” Eric Church

Unlike a lot of critics, I’ve never quite understood Church’s popularity, and have found his singles to be generally mediocre over the years. “Record Year,” however, proved to be the exception to the rule, with its old-school vibe, musical diversity, and above all, its clever songwriting. More songs like this and less junk like “Springsteen” and “Creepin’,” please!

#4: “Holdin’ Her,” Chris Janson

Unlike most singers who just sing about living the party life and surviving its darker side, Janson has actually lived it, and “Holdin’ Her” is the story of how he met his wife and how she turned his life around. The writing is a bit clunky, but the production is excellent, and Janson delivers the performance of a lifetime on the vocals. You can’t help but root for the guy after hearing this song.

#3: “Sober Saturday Night,” Chris Young feat. Vince Gill

This song officially changed my opinion on Young from “meh, he’s okay,” to “okay, this guy’s got some skills.” The production is haunting, the writing is sharp, and Young demonstrates that he’s one of the best vocalists in the genre today.

Back when Young’s I’m Comin’ Over came out last year, critics derided it for being generic and sterile, not eliciting any emotion from the listener. After two decent No. 1 singles and this gem, however, I say bring on more of this “generic” music!

#2: “Peter Pan,” Kelsea Ballerini

I can hear you now: Wait, the Disney princess of country music is THIS high on your list? My response: If Ballerini and her label did a better job of picking singles, she wouldn’t have gotten this “Disney princess” label in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Yeah Boy” are fine songs (in fact, I gave “Yeah Boy” an 8/10), but they’re basically all the same song. “Peter Pan,” on the other hand, gives us a glimpse of how Ballerini writes and performs deeper material, and it’s pretty awesome. If more songs like “The First Time” or “Secondhand Smoke” had been released from her debut album (which would have been the 2015 Album of the Year) instead of the light, fluffy singles we got, Ballerini would be considered the young critical darling of country music instead of Maren Morris. (Then again, Ballerini has three No. 1 hits while Morris can barely crack the Top 10, so maybe light and fluffy was the way to go after all.)

#1: “Missing,” William Michael Morgan (review)

My fellow Kyle over at Saving County Music and I have slightly different views of the genre, but we actually came to the same conclusion about the #1 mainstream single. “Missing” is everything I want in an upbeat country song: A good balance of escapism and reality, the perfect combination of writing and delivery, and the kind of production that would have made this a #1 song twenty years ago (and will hopefully make it a #1 in 2017).

I’m genuinely excited to see what country music has to offer next year, and singers like Morgan are the biggest reason why. As much as people like to complain about modern music, with singers like those from our Top 10 in the fold, I believe the genre is actually in pretty good hands.

What’s With All The Deaths?

So apparently the universe has decided that my blog should be absolutely no fun at all, and should instead focus on eulogizing famous people. (Just for that, universe, I’m taking you off my Christmas card list this year.)

Since the tragic death of José Fernández earlier today, we’ve learned that country music pioneer Jean Shepard and golf titan Arnold Palmer have also passed away. Add these names to the long list of famous figures that have died this year (Bowie, Rickman, Wilder, Wiesel, Summit, Safer, Clark, Roberts, Prince, Haggard, Feek, Ali, Howe, etc., etc.), and it’s enough to make you wonder if all this is more than just random chance. Is 2016 an anomaly, or the start of a trend?

Believe it or not, I think it’s the latter! But it’s a much more boring story than you might expect. To understand the issue, we need to consider the following two factors:

  • The world’s population is getting larger. To quote Wikipedia:

    “The last 100 years have seen a massive fourfold increase in the population, due to medical advances, lower mortality rates, an increase in agricultural productivity made possible by the Green Revolution, and of course, by people having too many babies.” —From the “Population Growth” article

    The current population of the world is estimated to be over 7.3 billion, up from just over 6 billion in 2000. More people living eventually to more people dying, so we would expect an increase in the number of deaths we see over time (in the U.S., for example, the number of total deaths increased from 1935 to 2000 even as the death rate dropped). If we assume that the ratio of “famous” people to “non-famous” people stays constant during this increase, then we also expect to see more notable deaths as well.

  • The world’s population is getting older. A growing population is one thing, but an aging population is another, and it’s aging fast: The United Nations reports that “the over 60 population is the fastest growing age group,” and estimates that by 2050, there will be more people over 60 in the world than people between 10 and 24 years old.Here, things get a little tricky: While we might glibly declare that “old people die more often than young people,” in reality this is highly dependent on where someone lives:

    “In high-income countries, 7 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older…In low-income countries, nearly 4 in every 10 deaths are among children under 15 years, and only 2 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older.” —The World Health Organization, “The Top 10 Causes of Death”

    Therefore, the deaths we are most likely to hear about here in the “high-income” U.S. are older people.

    Take a look back at the list of high-profile deaths above. Of the sixteen people mentioned above, the average age of death was just a hair under 72, and only two of those named were under the age of 55 (Fernández at 24 and Joey Feek at 40). Although this analysis suffers from severe selection bias and a small sample size, it appears to corroborate our larger findings.

So yes, we should expect to see more high-profile deaths than in the past, but no, I wouldn’t attribute this fact to anything nefarious. From what I can see, this rush of deaths is nothing more than a numbers game.