Monthly Archives: July 2011

Taylor Swift, "Sparks Fly"

It’s not a secret that Taylor Swift isn’t exactly country. But, she is probably one of the most consistent country artists when it comes to releasing songs that fit the template she’s created for herself: songs that are easy to relate to, creatively written, and stick to who she is as an artist. The singer’s Speak Now album has yielded three top five singles (“Mine,” “Back to December,” “Mean”) that stick to her template and the fourth, “Sparks Fly,” could just be the best of the four.

“Sparks Fly” is another adolescent themed song which Taylor’s writing turns into one that reaches beyond the teenage fanbase the singer possesses. Much like her previous songs about infatuation, this one includes many of the singer’s famous phrases from kissing in the rain and seeing fireworks and sparks when she sees her crush’s smile. The sheer fact that I enjoy this single shows just how much Swift has matured as a songwriter since her days of immaturely penned songs like “Picture to Burn” and “Our Song.”

Considering this is a Taylor Swift song, it’s easy to assume the vocal performance isn’t anything to brag about. Swift’s signature nasal vocal performance is one of her most mediocre, but it doesn’t need to be anything spectacular considering the song’s hook and melody are catchy enough on their own. This particular song’s “money” is found in its production.

With “Sparks Fly,” Taylor delivers her least country sounding single to date (but did we expect anything different?). What makes this pop driven song a standout in a catalogue filled with non-country songs is its production. “Sparks Fly” finds Taylor and producer Nathan Chapman experimenting with different dynamics during the song. From the verses which are filled with plenty of guitars and drums to the a cappella line of the chorus, the production goes from full-blown, to non-existent, then reverts back to full-blown. The varying production volume gives the song more life and emotion, something that previous Swift singles didn’t achieve.

In a generation where it’s hard to find decent and creative songwriting, it’s a bit of a surprise to see the genre’s least country artist being the one to step up and deliver. This will most likely be Taylor Swift’s next top five smash, but it’ll be interesting to see if it will become Speak Now‘s first number one single.

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Blake Shelton, "God Gave Me You"

Blake Shelton has officially entered the world of country superstardom. The singer has racked up four consecutive number one singles, a number one album with Red River Blue, a CMA award for Male Vocalist of the Year, and he’s one half of country’s newest royal couple alongside his wife Miranda Lambert.

Yes, Mr. Shelton has finally hit the big leagues, a feat that has taken 10 years to achieve. Now it’s time for the singer to start living up to the expectations superstars are held to when it comes to the music they release. Unfortunately this generation of country superstars is having difficulty producing truly great country music and, with “God Gave Me You,” Blake is just another artist to add the list of under-achievers.

The song, written by Dave Barnes, is just another over-produced, safely written love song that will no doubt be another big hit for Shelton. From the extremely cheesy lyrics (“God gave me you for the ups and downs, God gave me you for the days of doubt”) to the bombastic production that does absolutely nothing for the song to the safe, expected vocal delivery, this song is simply a mess.

Can I ask for “Honey Bee” to be re-released?

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Gloriana, "Wanna Take You Home"

Since bursting on to the country music scene in 2009 with their debut single, “Wild at Heart,” quartet (now trio after Cheyenne Kimball’s departure) Gloriana has had trouble regaining any momentum at country radio. The two follow up singles failed to get inside the top 30 on the charts after “Heart” reached number 15. Now the group is hoping to climb back up the charts with the lead-off single for their sophomore album.

“Wanna Take You Home” finds the group returning to the country-pop sound that made “Wild at Heart” a breakout hit. The fantastic production is filled with nearly every element required to make a bluegrass sounding country record: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and a beat you can line dance to (literally, there is a line dance in the song’s video). The production steals a page out of Little Big Town’s repertoire as it includes plenty of hand-clapping throughout the song which makes it one of the most catchy songs of 2011.

The lyrics aren’t the most poetic words country music has seen but they do the job. The song describes the story of a guy who approaches a girl in a bar, compliments her, and then reveals how he wants to take her home. “I’ve been watching you, girl, the way you move got the room on fire, oh yea rock my world, I wanna take you home with me,” again not the most poetic or romantic thing country music has seen but it’s somewhat effective.

But wait, what does he want to do when he does take her home? Ok, ok…that’s a stupid question.

      I wanna take you back to my place
      you can do your dance on the kitchen floor
      I wanna hear those boots knockin’ down the hallway
      right on through that bedroom door
      I wanna ease your mind, maybe set you free
      can’t you see, I wanna take you home with me

If that doesn’t spell romance then I don’t know what does!

I’ve always sad that the group’s four members have some of the best harmonies in country music. The guys complement the girls and the girls provide excellent background vocals that, in return, complement the guys’ voices. As usual Tom Gossin takes the lead on this song, just like he did on “Wild at Heart,” and delivers a fun, youthful performance while the other three members provide the backup vocals.

Considering this hit sticks to the blueprint “Wild at Heart” laid out, it’s hard not to believe that this song should be a hit. However, with the loss of their most popular member in Cheyenne Kimball and the loss of radio programmers’ attention, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this song is another addition to their string of flops.

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Chris Young, Neon

Chris Young has worked his way up from a Nashville Star winner to one of country music’s brightest stars by releasing songs that stick true to his traditional roots yet are just mainstream enough to be played on today’s country radio. With “Tomorrow” becoming his fastest rising and career defining single, Young released his third album with RCA Records titled Neon.

When interviewed about Neon Chris Young was often found describing an album that pushed the limits of what he’s known for doing. He talked about how this album found him experimenting with new genres like R&B, soul, and a bit of pop that he would fuse together with his traditional style of country. It seemed like this album would be more experimentation and less “Chris Young.” Thankfully he must have been exaggerating how much experimenting would be performed because Neon is country to its core.

The album has all the makings of a country album. With songs about drinking (“Save Water, Drink Beer”), love (“You”), heartache (“Tomorrow”), and plenty of name dropping (Conway Twitty, Johnny Lee, Haggard), this album is country at its finest.

The 10 song set opens with the steel filled, uptempo ditty “I Can Take It From There.” The song’s subject matter about ignoring the party scene in order to stay home for a romantic night brings up comparisons to Chris’ first number one single, “Gettin’ You Home.” “Grab a couple glasses and a bottle of wine…baby while you’re at it just let down your hair and I can take it from there,” sings Young as he instructs his significant other what to do in order to set the mood.

The album’s opener is the first of seven songs Chris helped write which is the most he’s written for a single album. Among the seven is the album’s lead single, “Tomorrow,” which finds the narrator dealing with the struggles of ending a relationship he knows isn’t going to work but is having a tough time executing the breakup and instead putting it off until “tomorrow” so he can give in to her one last time. The song has struck a chord with listeners who have made it one of Young’s most successful singles thus far in his career.

“Tomorrow” is definitely one of the album’s many highlights but Neon’s best song is its title track. “Neon,” written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Trevor Rosen, is a country ballad that describes neon as a color. When dumbed down the song sounds like a dud but in reality it’s a uniquely written song about a bar. “The sky in Cheyenne, Wyoming is just about as blue as it gets, and if you ain’t seen a Santa Fe sunset, you ain’t seen red…I’ve seen it all from the orange of fall…but my favorite color is neon.” The opening lines do an incredible job describing the colors of blue, red, and orange as well as setting up the chorus:

                …neon the light they always leave on
                A weekend on the rocks

                An old school jukebox

                With a little Johnny Lee on

                 It’s the buzz I love to be on

                Put a double on your troubles

                The light at this end of the tunnel is neon

The song’s production is also one of the strongest on an album that is produced to near perfection. “Neon” is filled with loads of beautiful steel guitar, an incredible piano riff, a light electric guitar line, and the slight humming of a fiddle which blend together to make a phenomenal traditional country song.

 It’s extremely difficult to release an album that, in my opinion, has no flaws and Neon is no exception as it includes its fair share of “fillers.” Starting with the rowdy “Save Water, Drink Beer,” a song about a city that is experiencing a bit of a dry spell, it’s one of those songs that is rather mediocre in writing and subject matter. “It ain’t rained in four months…that old well is plumb dry, the city put a limit on the water you can buy, we don’t mind, cause ‘round here we save water and drink beer.” Just from the few opening lines of the song you pretty much get the gist of how the rest of the song is going to play out.

The other “filler” tune is the sentimental ballad, “Flashlight.” This song finds the narrator recalling memories he and his father shared while working on the “old Chevrolet” in the garage. Every Saturday they’d find themselves “huddled underneath that hood tinkering around” where his father would share stories and life’s lessons with his son. The son confesses during the chorus, “I sure did learn a lot just holding the flashlight.” The song is incredibly cheesy, but it comes as no surprise to see a song about a flashlight show up on a Chris Young album considering he included a song titled “The Dashboard” on his previous album, The Man I Want to Be.

Though the album isn’t lyrically perfect, it is pretty darn close when it comes to production. Nearly every song is filled with plenty of traditional country sounds like the incredible fiddle and steel guitar. Producer James Stroud does a near flawless job in allowing Young’s traditional roots to shine through all the while keeping the vocal performances and lyrics at the forefront of every song. Stroud and Young even take a risk by using a pop flavored production of strings and piano on the album’s closer, “She’s Got This Thing About Her.”

Vocally the Tennessee baritone has never sounded better. From the rowdy performances delivered on “Save Water, Drink Beer” to the emotional, heartbreaking delivery on songs like “Tomorrow” and “Old Love Feels New,” to the sexy, soulful performances he turns in on “You” and “Lost,” the singer proves that he can sing just about anything and make it sound painfully brilliant.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this talented young heartthrob (he was name Country Weekly’s Hottest Bachelor this year) is going to be the next country superstar. Neon is a superb set of 10 songs that must be included in any country lover’s album collection.

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Pistol Annies, "Hell on Heels"

Now that Miranda Lambert has become country’s leading female artist she has the opportunity to branch outside of her solo career and embark on numerous projects. One of those projects was forming the new trio Pistol Annies, which includes Miranda and singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe and songwriter Angaleena Presley. They made their debut back in April during the taping of the ACM special, Girls Night Out. Now they’ve released their debut single “Hell on Heels” to country radio. Will the single prove to be the group’s breakout hit?

With the Dixie Chicks not expected to release new music any time soon there is a current void in country music which can only be filled by another spectacular “girl group.” Judging by “Hell on Heels,” Pistol Annies just might be the trio to fill that void.

“Hell on Heels” is all kinds of interesting if you ask me. Starting with the interesting format the trio uses by allowing each singer to participate in the telling of stories about what they received during their gold-digging(esque) ways. Presley’s verse finds her singing about how a diamond ring was “the only good thing that came from that man.” The next verse has Miranda delivering lines about receiving a guitar and a car from “ol’ what’s his name [she] met at a bar.” Monroe delivers one of the song’s best lines about still using “poor, ol’ Billy’s” credit card. Each verse is filled with plenty of sass and attitude that a song of this nature requires.

The simple bluegrass/country production is pure brilliance. The introduction is a simple acoustic guitar line that is later joined by a light drum beat and more guitars as the song progresses to the bridge. The use of a simplistic production allows the vocal performance and the lyrics of the song to be the focal point.

On “Hell on Heels,” each member of the trio delivers fantastic individual vocal performances that show off each singer’s unique vocal styling. Miranda has the edgy, attitude laden voice, Ashley delivers the raspy, tender vocal, and Angaleena’s voice exudes soul and raw talent. When blended together, the trio delivers some of the best harmonies that haven’t been heard since the Dixie Chicks were on top of the country music industry.

With their unique sound, edgy look, and brilliant three part harmonies, it’ll be no surprise to see Pistol Annies competing with the current top groups like Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band. They are off to a great start with “Hell on Heels” which I’m dubbing as one of the best singles of 2011.

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2011 CMA Awards: Early Contenders

With the eligibility period for the 2011 CMA Awards now over (it ended on June 30), All Things Country is going to look at who the early contenders are to land a nomination for this year’s ceremony. Here are a few artists we feel have had a big enough year since July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011 to be among the nominees.

Rather than going category by category we’re going to instead list the artists who could score nominations and the categories they could be nominated in.

Jason Aldean

  • Entertainer of the Year
  • Male Vocalist of the Year
  • Album of the Year (My Kinda Party)
  • Musical Event (“Don’t You Wanna Stay” with Kelly Clarkson)

Once again Jason Aldean has been one of the biggest artists in country music this year. He’s charted four Top 5 singles (“Crazy Town,” “My Kinda Party,” “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” “Dirt Road Anthem”) and his album, My Kinda Party, is the best selling album by a male artist this year. He’s continued to sell out dates on his My Kinda Party tour and has landed appearances on shows like American Idol. Jason could be one of this year’s most nominated artists as I think he’ll land nominations in the big categories like Entertainer, Album, and Male Vocalist.

Zac Brown Band

  • Entertainer of the Year
  • Album of the Year (You Get What You Give)
  • Vocal Group of the Year
  • Single of the Year (“Colder Weather” or “As She’s Walking Away”)
  • Song of the Year (“Colder Weather” or “As She’s Walking Away”)
  • Musical Event (“As She’s Walking Away” featuring Alan Jackson)
  • Video of the Year (“Colder Weather” or “As She’s Walking Away”)

Last year it was Lady Antebellum who proved to be the year’s biggest group, but this year that title goes to the Zac Brown Band. Since July of 2010 the group has charted 3 consecutive number one singles (“Free,” “As She’s Walking Away,” “Colder Weather”) from their platinum selling album, You Get What You Give. The album has been critically acclaimed and helped earned the group an Album of the Year nomination at this year’s ACMs. They have potential to be this year’s leading nominee as I think they’ll land nominations in nearly every category they are eligible for including their second Entertainer nomination.

Kenny Chesney

  • Entertainer of the Year
  • Album of the Year (Hemingway’s Whiskey)
  • Male Vocalist of the Year
  • Song of the Year (“You and Tequila”)
  • Musical Event (“You and Tequila” featuring Grace Potter)

After having a somewhat quiet year in 2010, Kenny Chesney returned with a bang in 2011. Chesney charted 3 straight number one singles (“The Boys of Fall,” “Somewhere with You,” “Live a Little”) and released a gold selling album in Hemingway’s Whiskey. After a year away from the road he is back to selling out arenas, pavilions, and stadiums on his Going Coastal tour. This year could see his return back into the Entertainer race as well as te Male Vocalist and Album categories.

Taylor Swift

  • Entertainer of the Year
  • Album of the Year (Speak Now)
  • Female Vocalist of the Year
  • Song of the Year (“Back to December”)
  • Video of the Year (“Back to December”)

After claiming four trophies during the 2009 CMAs, she went home empty handed last year as she lost to Miranda Lambert for Female Vocalist. This year she could reclaim that crown thanks to her 3-time platinum album Speak Now, which sold over one million copies in its first week of release. The album has spawned three top 5 singles (“Mine,” “Back to December,” “Mean”) and has become country’s best selling album (within the eligibility period). Taylor could be the night’s leading female nominee as I think she’ll score at least three nominations.

Brad Paisley

  • Entertainer of the Year
  • Album of the Year (This is Country Music)
  • Male Vocalist of the Year
  • Musical Event (“Old Alabama” featuring Alabama or “Remind Me” featuring Carrie Underwood)

After claming his first Entertainer of the Year award during last year’s ceremony, Brad Paisley could find himself in the running once again this year. His tours have continued to draw millions of fans and he continues to deliver top notch performances. This year he released This is Country Music which is nearing the 500,000 mark after only a little over a month. He’s charted three number one singles with “Water,” “Anything Like Me,” and “Old Alabama” as well as a number two hit with “This Is Country Music.” This has been another consistent year for Paisley which, I think, the CMA will recognize with multiple nominations.

Sara Evans

  • Female Vocalist of the Year
  • Single of the Year (“A Little Bit Stronger”)
  • Song of the Year (“A Little Bit Stronger”)
  • Video of the Year (“A Little Bit Stronger”)

After a few years away from the business to reorganize her personal life, Sara Evans came back “stronger” than ever. Her comeback hit, “A Little Bit Stronger,” became the first song by a female artist to reach number one in 2011 and it spent two weeks atop the chart. Her album, Stronger, has sold over 200,000 copies since its release in March. This year she could make her return to the CMA nominations list since 2006.

The Band Perry

  • Vocal Group of the Year
  • New Artist of the Year
  • Single of the Year (“If I Die Young”)
  • Song of the Year (“If I Die Young”)
  • Video of the Year (“If I Die Young”)

When you think about the top new artist in country  music you’d probably automatically think about The Band Perry. The trio has had a huge year thanks to their smash hit, “If I Die Young.” The song became the trio’s first number one single and has been certified double platinum for over two million digital downloads. They are this year’s frontrunner for the New Artist award and could be ZBB’s biggest competition for Vocal Group.

Chris Young

  • Male Vocalist of the Year
  • New Artist of the Year
  • Single of the Year (“Tomorrow” or “Voices”)
  • Song of the Year (“Tomorrow” or “Voices”)
  • Music Video of the Year (“Tomorrow”)

Chris Young is on track to become one of country’s biggest superstars. This year he scored his fourth number one single with “Voices” as well as a top five smash with his fastest rising single, “Tomorrow.” Last year he broke through into the New Artist category and this year he could garner his second nomination as well as a nomination in the exclusive Male Vocalist category.

Obviously there are other artists who could secure nominations (Reba, Miranda, Carrie for Female Vocalist; Thompson Square, Luke Bryan, Easton Corbin for New Artist) but there are the ones who we think could land multiple nominations and who have had some of the biggest years in country music.


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