I first learned of 13-year-old Rebecca Black via a Facebook post that appeared on my news feed about two weeks ago, and my initial reaction to the now ubiquitous “Friday” was a mixture of disbelief and amusement—I couldn’t help but chuckle at the atrocious song as I thought about how something so bad could accrue so many views in such a short period of time. Still, I thought of it as something of a novelty—just an internet meme that, like so any others, would sputter and stall once its fuel was burned up.
As it turns out, “Friday” had a lot more gas in the tank than anyone expected.
Two strangers fall in love on an airplane. Two lovers jump in a car, put their map away and drive “anywhere.” A woman finds that life’s hardships make her stronger. And a mainstream country singer delivers a derivative, formulaic album. Just another day inside the Nashville music making machine.
It takes literally less than one minute for Sara Evans’ sixth studio album to reveal itself as a cliché monster, with the “Born to Fly” and “Suds in the Bucket” singer launching into a soaring chorus that declares, “All I want is to be loved desperately, like the sun loves the moon/Like the moon adores the shore.” A few seconds later, Evans—who co-wrote the song with Nashville songsmith and frequent collaborator Marcus Hummon—swaps her amateur poet hat for that of dimestore philosopher: “Babe, I believe that every day is a crossroad,” she sings. “We can take the right fork, or take the left, just as long as we move ahead.”
On “What The Hell”—the bouncy lead single from Avril Lavigne’s fourth studio album Goodbye Lullabye—the 26-year-old Canadian famous for her skaterpunk-meets-pop style struts with a defiant swagger as she scorches an old flame. “All I really want is to mess around,” she sings. “And I don’t really care about if you love me or hate me.”
Later, on “Smile,” she proclaims that she’s “a crazy bitch” who “does what [she] wants when [she] feels like it,” and who wants to “lose control.” But the gusto of those songs can’t hide the obvious emotional turmoil at the core of the bulk of the songs on Goodbye Lullaby, an album which showcases a thoroughly dejected young woman who seems—with only a couple of exceptions—to have lost all faith in love.
No pop artist approaches matters of sexuality with more playful spunk than Katy Perry, but there’s no taste of cherry Chapstick present on her latest single.
There’s no shocking girl-on-girl action, no cotton candy-laced teenage dreams and no flashing of peacocks in the California sunshine. “E.T.” is raw sexual energy set to a dark, thumping, rave-inspired beat. And although Perry’s voice has never sounded bigger or richer, that energy alone is not enough to save what is otherwise a thoroughly second-rate song that’s plagued by an ill-conceived concept.
In “E.T.,” Perry sings that she’s ready for abduction, as well as the relatively innocuous lines, “Infect me with your lovin’/Fill me with your poison.” But as the song pounds along to a beat ripped from Russian duo t.A.T.u.’s 2002 hit “All The Things She Said,” the constant string of outer space metaphors quickly grows tiresome.
The world of The JaneDear Girls (Susie Brown and Danelle Leverett) is a surprisingly convenient one for the narrators of the duo’s songs.
Young men are repeatedly painted as deceitful, hormone-driven sex fiends willing to do or say anything to get into a girl’s pants, and they bear the full burden of failed relationships. The narrators themselves oscillate between ‘good girls’ who know better than to fall for Young Billy’s shenanigans, naïve hearts who give themselves away only to have their innocence plucked from their unwitting grasps, and “wildflowers” who flaunt their sexuality by shaking their asses (on “Merry Go Round”) and who—in one case—make clear their intentions by planting a kiss on the lips of an unsuspecting stranger (“Sugar”).
Which one of those narrators appears in a given song is entirely dependent upon what is needed to facilitate that particular exercise in requisite subject matter. Like its lead single “Wildflower,” The JaneDear Girls’ debut album is comprised of the raw ingredients that are often perceived to be the building blocks of contemporary country music, without much consideration for how those ingredients might work together to form something substantial.
With re-packages of past-its-expiration date fare from the likes of Rodney Atkins, Craig Morgan and Wynonna among its stable of offerings, you can be forgiven for not anxiously awaiting each new release from Cracker Barrel Records. That “record label,” however, took a big step in a unique direction last year by releasing an exclusive album that featured Dailey & Vincent (one of the most prominent acts in modern bluegrass) performing new versions of old Statler Brothers songs.
With Songs of the Statler Brothers, Cracker Barrel demonstrated that it was not only capable of landing a marquee act, but also that it was interested in producing valuable original content for its customers. Following that initial release comes The Grascals & Friends: Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin, a robust release that could have found a worthy home with any label that deals in bluegrass or roots music.
The disc features the renowned sextet—perhaps one of the greatest bluegrass outfits ever assembled—performing hits from country music’s past, accompanied by some of modern country music’s biggest stars.
In the early 2000s, a gravelly-voiced firecracker of a singer named Heidi Newfield lead the trio Trick Pony into the Top 20 of Billboard’s country singles chart a total of four times, peaking in 2001 with the band’s lone Top 10 hit “On A Night Like This” (which made it all the way to #4).
Newfield’s most defining song, however, was her 2008 debut solo effort, a song that—by chart standards—doesn’t distinguish itself from already-forgotten Trick Pony ditties like “Pour Me” (#12) and “Just What I Do” (#13).
“Johnny and June” finished its mediocre chart run at #11, but you can’t always judge the relevance of a song by its chart run alone. There’s something about that song—a lyric which possess no particularly fresh or notable songwriting—that feels essential. “And when you go, I wanna go too/Like Johnny and June” is an enormously simple hook, but Newfield belts it with devastating conviction.
It’s difficult to say with any definitiveness what is or isn’t country music. The term has always meant different things to different people, and it has always encompassed more than one stylistic vein at any given time in the genre’s history.
The emergence of Americana as a full-fledged genre with a distinct audience complicates the issue even more. Many of the artists embraced by Americana (like 2010 “Artist of the Year” Ryan Bingham) make it a point say that they’re not country, yet many of Americana radio’s most played albums in 2010 came from artists like Willie Nelson and Patty Loveless.
So, creating a list of the year’s “best country music” is as much an art as it is a science. Why is Taylor Swift called country, but Justin Townes Earle isn’t?
Avril Lavigne hasn’t had a Top 10 single anywhere in the world since 2007’s “Hot,” and her latest single, titled “What The Hell,” isn’t likely to change that. Co-written by mega producer and songwriter Max Martin, this warmed-over slice of pop is peppy, but it sounds dated and it lacks the bite that made the best of the singer’s earlier work compelling.
And it takes a lot more to compete in today’s pop landscape than simple peppiness. When Lavigne emerged in 2002, she was something of a pop counterculture figure. She wasn’t just a singer, but a symbol for people—primarily girls and young women—who were beginning to reject the gloss of overexposed female icons like Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Lavigne’s skater-punk style made her seem earthy in contrast, and her self-penned songs—full of attitude and spunk—sounded like nothing else on the radio at that time.
She wasn’t just alternative, she was an alternative.
The best country music often comes from the most unlikely places. A host of perennial “best songs” contenders appear on this list, but much of 2010′s most compelling country music was produced by unknown or little-known artists whose releases went largely unnoticed by listeners and media alike. Dean Brody and Peter Cooper (who land songs at #2 and #1 on this list) released their albums to little fanfare, but both contained a wealth of thoughtfully written, passionately performed country music that deserves a second look.
In a way, Brody and Cooper couldn’t be more different as artists. Cooper is a highly literate, cerebral songwriter from East Nashvile whose music is laced with folk sensibilities. Brody, also a deft wordsmith, appears firmly within the scope of modern mainstream country music.
The differences between these two artists bring to light my favorite characteristic about country music: its diversity. Almost everyone has an opinion about what country music is or should be, but there is no absolute definition of the phrase. This list contains songs from chart mainstays like Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton, and those songs runs side-by-side with the likes of singer/songwriter Darrell Scott and bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. Perhaps none of these artists fit the traditionalist’s view of “country music,” but together they paint a portrait of what country music is today; acoustic and glossy, traditional and poppy, mainstream and left of center. Then again, isn’t that what country music has always been?
You’ll also find a couple of artists on this list whose names you wouldn’t normally expect to see mentioned in a discussion about country music. Shawn Mullins and Brandon Flowers didn’t release country albums this year, but if you listen to the songs that appear on this list I think you’ll agree that they deserve to be here.
In our countdown of the year’s 10 best country albums, I wrote that 2010 was one of the worst years for country music in a very long time. If this list proves anything, it’s that country music has a great deal to offer even in its lean times.