Showing posts with label Lonestar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lonestar. Show all posts

Jul 18, 2024

Every #1 Country Song of the 2000s: 2001


2001

By Bobby Peacock

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January 20: "Born to Fly" by Sara Evans

"I've been telling my dreams to the scarecrow" is one of those opening lines that knocks it out of the park immediately. It's such a clever introduction to this song's underlying theme of wanting to expand your horizons, and it honestly feels like a natural complement to the song before it. Every single line is clever and inspirational, a tough needle to thread ("How do you keep your feet on the ground when you know that you were born to fly?"). The timbales in the production, followed by that strong acoustic strum. Dobro, and string-heavy coda, add a fantastic sonic backdrop to Sara's voice -- bold yet twangy, adding pop without removing country. Sara Evans can be hit-and-miss at times, but her best material is every bit as strong as her contemporaries. A



January 27: "Without You" by The Chicks

I don't know why this seems to be the one big Chicks hit that no one remembers, because it's easily up to their standards. "I've sure enjoyed the rain, but I'm looking forward to the sun" is a damn great opening line, and it continues in the same fashion, keeping up a surprising slow-burn about a failing relationship. The way it's more relaxed in delivery and production -- love the subtle strings and Dobro -- makes it almost an outlier, if not for the fact that "You Were Mine" also exists. While this one isn't quite as hard-hitting as "You Were Mine," that's not a knock against this song either. I can't deny a line like "Somebody tell my head to try to tell my heart that I'm better off without you," especially with how it leads into that beautiful falsetto. This is every bit as strong as "Cowboy Take Me Away" and in my opinion deserves the same recognition. A



February 3: "Tell Her" by Lonestar

This is probably one of the only times where Dann Huff amping things up was a good move. The album version is too restrained to the point of sounding wimpy, but the radio edit went for a much bolder arrangement that forces Richie McDonald into a fuller delivery that never goes over the top. When you hear him sing "Tell her that you need her" on the radio edit, he sounds like a guy who's been there, who made some mistakes, and is offering well-placed advice -- whereas on the album version, he just sounds like Dan + Shay on a bad day. Lyrically, this is one of their best from the power ballad era, and I'm amazed (pun intended) as to why this isn't in the same caliber as "Amazed" or "I'm Already There." It's good stuff especially if you bother to track down the radio edit -- something not even their Greatest Hits album could be bothered to do. A (radio edit) / B- (album version)



February 17: "There Is No Arizona" by Jamie O'Neal

This one hooked me in on first listen and I still maintain it as one of the best of the entire decade. The narrative is surprisingly nuanced: he says he's going to start a new life with her in Arizona, but instead uses this as an excuse to ditch her entirely before she gives up hope. The title alone tells you everything, but the narrative is so compelling from first to last word. O'Neal's voice is bold and commanding, recalling Chely Wright with a little bit of Rosanne Cash thrown in. I especially love the mix of acoustic guitar and drum loops, creating a very distinctive sonic palette that can hardly be better matched to the fantastic lyrics. From this song alone, I can tell you Jamie O'Neal deserved way the hell more of a career than what she got. A+



February 24: "But for the Grace of God" by Keith Urban

Having not yet found his sound, Keith Urban aimed for the motivational market. The first verse paints the picture of neighbors fighting, something I've witnessed many times myself. I don't even have an issue with the fact that he wants to pray for them. But it's the prayer itself that kills this song: "But for the grace of God go I / I must've been born a lucky guy / Heaven only knows how I've been blessed with the gift of Your love." I'm reminded of the prayer of the Pharisee as recounted in Luke 18: "God, I thank You that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." If the verses had been completely identical, and the chorus more empathetic -- praying for the fighting neighbors' and old man's lives to become better, or even offering a helping hand -- then I would be fine with the message. But as it is, the self-centered humble-brag of the chorus ruins everything here. I will say, I do like how relaxed Keith's delivery is, and how this is one of his more country-sounding production jobs. I just wish this had a better message. C-



March 3: "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This" by Toby Keith

What I find interesting about Toby Keith at this point is how he hadn't quite shed the smooth balladry of his '90s work; he just got a better producer. This is a harder, old-school country lyric about feeling lost in the moment with someone you shouldn't be with (the old "just friends" trope), accentuated by a slow-building chorus. I love how the chorus actually begins with the hook and just keeps building up line after line to set the mood even further, alongside some unusual chord structures. I also like how the title transforms into "When you kiss me like this, I think you mean it like that / If you do, baby, kiss me again" for that added bit of tension. Some of Toby Keith's best works are ballads thanks to his flair for drama mixed with his ever-present grit, and this exemplifies his strengths on slower songs. A



March 10: "One More Day" by Diamond Rio

Diamond Rio became way more pop at the end of the '90s, but they did so without subtracting country -- thanks in no small part to their ever-present twangy harmony. This could have been a standard piano ballad, but Marty Roe and his bandmates (not to mention the prominent mandolin) cut away any semblance of gloss. Although it was written as a love song, the premise of wanting "one more day" found a new life after the fact, as even the band themselves pointed out. Fans of Dale Earnhardt, those who witnessed the Oklahoma State University plane crash, and of course, those who lost family and friends in 9/11 all related with that premise in a way that the song was not originally intended to convey. And who doesn't love the hook of "But then again, I know what it would do / Leave me wishing still for one more day with you"? It's clever and meaningful, never trite. Broad appeal and subtext are hard to pull off without sounding vague or boring, but I'd say they more than got it right. A



April 7: "Who I Am" by Jessica Andrews

I wanted to root for Jessica Andrews. After all, LeAnn Rimes had already gone full pop, and Lila McCann never had anything even remotely as good as "Down Came a Blackbird." Unfortunately, Jessica's only big hit was also her worst. Even at the time, I thought this song sounded like what two 40-something men think teenage girls think about. Is an 18-year-old really going to dream about the Seven Wonders? It doesn't even stick to its focus, as halfway through it degrades into more fortune-cookie gibberish without an underlying narrative. Exactly what mistakes did she make? Why does being Rosemary's granddaughter matter toward her identity? (Especially when, as I've pointed out many times, her grandmother isn't actually named Rosemary?) There's no semblance of personality, and it's all sold in a bland uninspired vocal performance with bland uninspired production. Why couldn't she have had a hit with her cover of "Unbreakable Heart" instead? D-



April 28: "Ain't Nothing 'bout You" by Brooks & Dunn

After a weak 1999 and 2000, Brooks & Dunn were back, bigger and better than ever. This song is their biggest sounding, immediately leading off with electric guitar, hard drums, and slap bass. Right out of the gate, B&D had a message to convey: they're back, bigger and better than ever. Yes, that's still Ronnie Dunn, twangy and gruff as ever -- even Kix is higher up in the mix than usual. The lyrics are some of their quirkiest and most fun when portraying how much he loves her, freed of the chauvinism or formula that bogs down some of their '90s hits. (Favorite line: "I love your attitude, your rose tattoo, your every thought / Your smile, your lips, and your the list goes on and on and on.") Even without the subtext of this being the genesis of a massive comeback era for them, it's still a fantastic example of B&D firing on all cylinders with an accessible, unique, and fun love song that easily ranks among their best. A+



June 9: "Don't Happen Twice" by Kenny Chesney

Kenny Chesney around this point is quite interesting in how he was beginning to cut higher-quality material but had yet to cohere into his famous arena rock-meets-beach bum style. Of course, songs like "The Tin Man" and "That's Why I'm Here" show he was always able to aim his sights a bit higher. This song is no exception. It's not as original as the former or deep as the latter, but it's still a lot of fun. There truly is nothing like falling in love for the first time (something even I, an outspoken aromantic, can tell you). I love the little details of singing Janis Joplin and drinking wine out of Dixie cups on the hood of a car for that extra bit of quirkiness. But to me, the song's appeal is in just how chill it is, combined with its observations of how any "first time" with anything -- not just the love in this story arc -- can't be re-created. A-



June 16: "Grown Men Don't Cry" by Tim McGraw

I have a weakness for songs where men show their emotions. It's so subversive that even if the execution doesn't fully land, the premise can usually carry it to the finish line. It's a bit sappy what with the homeless mother and son living in their car and the little girl saying "I love you, dad" at the end, but I do like the twist in the second verse -- where the memories of the narrator's father are quickly swept away by the sudden revelation that said father is now dead. (I had a lot of missed opportunities with my own dad before his death, so that kind of stuff almost always hits me.) Tim's voice is a little whiny in his attempts to sound sincere, but I can chalk that up to this being a bit of a transitional period for him artistically. Maybe a little less preaching in the third verse (Tom Douglas usually nails the religious references, but I think he overshot a bit here), and this could be great instead of merely decent. B



June 23: "I'm Already There" by Lonestar

What would "Cat's in the Cradle" sound like without the details, introspection, or reversal of roles at the end? Take that, and layer on strings, guitars, and a whiny over-the-top vocal (all of which are far worse in the radio edit, by the way), and you get "I'm Already There." The father doesn't even try to reflect or offer any kind words; he just says I know you miss me, but I'm already there. Can't you see me? I totally love you through my inaction. And then it dumps the kids in favor of letting the wife have a turn, only to get the exact same cold shoulder. This was the exact point where I gave up on Lonestar -- they were no longer the "No News" guys, they were this. How did Frank J. Myers go from all those great Eddy Raven songs to glop like this? F



August 4: "When I Think About Angels" by Jamie O'Neal

"Why does the color of my coffee match your eyes?" is an easy line to make fun of, but I get what she was going for. This is just a cute song with its whole "one thing leads to another" thought process, something I would consider one of the closest attempts at conveying ADHD in lyrical form. Rain leads to Singin' in the Rain, which leads to singing a heavenly tune, then to angels, then to the guy who's also an angel. That's a lot less cutesy than I'm making it sound, and it's helped by Jamie O'Neal never over-selling it. I do think the backing vocals are mixed a little weird (to the point I used to think some of them were sped up Alvin and the Chipmunks style), but a couple of minor auditory quirks don't do any harm to a premise this charming. B+



August 11: "Austin" by Blake Shelton

Right out of the gate, I knew Blake Shelton had something special. This sounded fresh and traditional at the time, and depsite the use of an answering machine, I think it still holds up today. I love how Austin is both the setting and the name of the woman. I love how the answering machine message changes with each chorus to convey the emotional changes of the breakup. His voice is gritty and dramatic, and the production builds up with him to a fantastic third chorus ("Can't you tell, this is Austin / And I still love you"). Literally everything works on this song, and I think it set the bar almost too high for the rest of his career. (Although he did have a lot of gold early on.) I just wish he'd go back to this style. A+



September 15: "I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight" by Toby Keith

More tongue-in-cheek swagger from Toby Keith. This one has a pretty standard "I'm not ready to commit" narrative that on the surface most of us have probably heard a billion times. But there are a lot of elements in play that make it stand out. First, I love how the chorus works from high notes down to a low register on the line "that would be too demanding." I love how the woman in the song has some degree of agency and we get a few lines from her perspective. I love the little chuckle before "easy now" at the second chorus. This guy is way too easygoing and self-aware to come across as a lout. Literally the only reason I can't consider this one of his best is because he has an even better comedy song coming up a few entries down. A



September 22: "What I Really Meant to Say" by Cyndi Thomson

I hated that breathy singing style when I was a teen, but I've since grown to love it. (Shout out to Kellie Coffey.) This one has another highly enjoyable sonic element in the form of a penny whistle. (Shout out to the Chicks' "Ready to Run.") And that blends into some distorted organ and mandolin for a unique texture. It's also got that narrative I love so much about hiding emotions. Every suppressed emotion builds from verse to chorus: "I guess that's when I smiled and said 'just fine' / Oh, but baby, I was lyin' / What I really meant to say / Is I'm dying here inside..." Just like the similarly-themed "Just to See You Smile," there's a degree of understatement and tension that lingers for the rest of the song. And I think it works every bit as well, thanks to a distinctly different writing and production style. It's a shame she bailed after only this one album, because she clearly had the talent for more. A+



October 13: "Where I Come From" by Alan Jackson

What a waste of a perfectly solid, ZZ Top-esque groove. The first verse and chorus really have nothing wrong with them, as the trucker gets pulled over by a cop and questioned about his very out-of-place Southern accent in New Jersey. But then the second verse hits, where "south of Detroit City" (a note to both AJ and Journey -- it's called "Downriver") he insults a waitress for not making biscuits like his mom's. Then the third verse, he turns down a lady in California who flirts with him, only because she doesn't "sing soprano." That to me is probably the worst verse (even before we get to the awful slant-rhyme of Ventura/finger, and what the hell "had to use my finger" even means in this context). I've heard it derided  by others as everything from merely rejecting non-standard femininity to possible transphobia. The fourth verse isn't that bad either, but by that point you're tired of all the droning, not to mention the way he can't keep straight whether the chorus references sittin' or pickin', and whether it's on the front or back porch. Even if you're not as put off by the second and third verses as I am, this song is still just too damn long for no reason. D



October 27: "Only in America" by Brooks & Dunn

Although this song was released before 9/11, its themes certainly hit home afterward. Patriotic songs can sometimes get too extra by being too idealistic or vague, or too angry. This one, thankfully, avoids all the pitfalls. The kids in the school bus in the first verse could all have good or bad outcomes, from future President to future inmate; verse two even points out two aspirational entertainers who are presented with an option to chase their dreams or go back home. The chorus presents a picture of those who "dream as big as we want to" and how "everybody gets a chance" -- while such lyrics might hit differently after the likes of George Floyd, January 6, transphobic laws being passed in several states, and other unfortunate threats on those in our country, I think they still hold up as images of what America should be. We should be the "land of the free." To me, a further mark in this song's favor is that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used it as a campaign song. This song unified people, and I hope it's not too late to reclaim the sense of unity and peace this song calls out for. A+



November 10: "Angry All the Time" by Tim McGraw

An otherwise great song with two minor faults that drag it down. I genuinely like the maturity that goes into a lyric like "I don't know why you gotta be angry all the time," and how we watch a relationship slowly come undone throughout. A more cynical read might paint this song as one-sided and defensive, but I never saw it that way. I think it's helped by the fact that Tim was really sinking into a more mature and thoughtful role, not to mention a slightly deeper and smoother vocal delivery that almost never oversold anything he sang. However, the line "twenty years have came and went" always bothered me -- normally I'm not that picky about grammar, but when the wrong grammar scans objectively worse, it just bugs me. The other thing is that Faith Hill's backing vocal -- while thematically relevant to the lyrics -- is as dissonant as ever. I've never thought that she and Tim had any chemistry on their collaborative songs and in fact, they often sound extremely clashing to me because of how utterly dissimilar their vocal tones are. Overall, a flawed but worthwhile package. B+



November 24: "I Wanna Talk About Me" by Toby Keith

I told you Toby had an even better comedy song coming up. This song is like absolutely nothing else on radio then or now, and I think it's all the better for it. The rap flow and beat are surprisingly strong for what was likely written as a joke, but I think it's way too lyrically sharp to be a "Red Solo Cup" style shitpost. This guy seems willing to engage in his wife's conversations about her own life -- he never sounds like he's mocking her in a "women, amirite?' tone, just playfully acknowledging that she's got a lot to say. "You know talkin' about you makes me smile / But every once in a while / I wanna talk about me" shows that he does truly care; he just wants to get in a few words of his own too. Just like with "How Do You Like Me Now?!," I think most of the people who bashed on this song just need to lighten up. This is fun, damn it. A+



December 29: "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" by Alan Jackson

9/11 inspired a lot of patriotic music that unfortunately reinforced a lot of red-state stereotypes, so hearing Alan Jackson's calm retrospective is a total breath of fresh air. I can remember walking between first and second period in high school and being told a plane hit the World Trade Center; I thought someone was pulling my leg, until we spent the entire rest of the day watching CNN instead of school work. I remember patriotic posters being put up in the school, and then later taken down because people kept vandalizing them with Islamophobic tirades. Most of America was just doing everyday things, and then we just... weren't. We were shocked, sad, angry, all kinds of emotions. The emotions ran the gamut, but Alan smartly knew how to put a positive spin on it. Loving one's neighbor, one's enemy even, was a far better answer to our problems than all the jingoism and bigotry that would follow and are still being felt today. And with his relaxing delivery and observant slice-of-life lyrics, Alan had a masterful message that I wish more of us had taken to heart. A



Previously: 2000



Jul 10, 2024

Every #1 Country Song of the 2000s: 2000

By Bobby Peacock

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January 1: "Breathe" by Faith Hill

I'm not as hard on this song as I used to be. That doesn't mean I love it; I just don't think it does anything wrong. I think at the time I was already burnt out on lush pop ballads thanks to my mom spinning Céline Dion so much. I still have an allergic reaction to the Diane Warren formula. But thankfully, where this one succeeds is by being considerably less cliché than its cohorts. "I can feel you breathe" is actually a pretty solid image that's easy to understand in the context of a grandiose love ballad. The vocals aren't nearly as histrionic as Faith would get on "There You'll Be" or "Where Are You, Christmas?" That said, every time I hear this song, my brain still automatically switches over to Cledus T. Judd's absolutely hilarious parody, "Breath." So yeah, nothing awful, just a merely okay pop ballad. B-



February 5: "Cowboy Take Me Away" by the Chicks

I'm a sucker for a good wanderlust song. It starts off strong with the lyric "I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands / I wanna grow something wild and unruly" which is just such a sharp, distinct image. And it doesn't let up throughout the song, with pillows of blue bonnets, being out in the wild with no city buildings in sight, and all kinds of cowboy/western imagery. Each one makes sense and builds on the narrative, which is always a hallmark of this kind of song. It's hard to overstate just how damn good almost every Chicks song is, thanks to Natalie's bold voice and the crisp production and arrangements. The only reason this review seems so lackluster is because the high standards of their discography mean this song is only "great" in a sea full of amazing. A


February 26: "My Best Friend" by Tim McGraw

Sometimes it's hard to write much about a song that's just... there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song. It's pleasant, it has a solid sentiment behind the lyrics, Tim sings it well, but this song leaves little impact after I'm done listening to it. I had to look it up just to remember a single lyric from it. This feels like one that got to #1 entirely off the momentum of the huge hit before it, yet left no impact of its own. And sometimes that just... happens. Such is life on Music Row. B-


March 11: "Smile" by Lonestar

Sometimes it's hard to write much about a song that's just... there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song. It's pleasant, it has a solid sentiment behind the lyrics, Richie sings it well, but this song leaves little impact after I'm done listening to it. I had to look it up just to remember a single lyric from it. This feels like one that got to #1 entirely off the momentum of the huge hit before it, yet left no impact of its own. And sometimes that just... happens. Such is life on Music Row. B-


March 18: "How Do You Like Me Now?!" by Toby Keith

A lot of people even at the time painted this song as misogynistic and immature, but I never saw it. The guy is bragging about how much his life has improved for the better now that he's famous and his high school crush isn't. It's a narrative I can see a lot of people relating with, and on a meta level, it's a narrative Toby probably related with. This was a song his previous label had rejected, and his then-current label DreamWorks was hesitant to put it out after the predecessor ("When Love Fades") bombed. But it seems his instincts were for the best, as this was his first big crossover and the start of a new leg in his career. It's bold and cocky, but it's tempered with a playfulness that keeps it from feeling mean-spirited (such as the way the organ actually plays the "nyah nyah nyah" riff at the end). I think this song is just fun and those who dislike it either need to lighten up, or are letting his later more problematic material cast a shadow over this song. A


April 22: "The Best Day" by George Strait

One of the first times I heard this song, I was in the passenger seat of my dad's 18-wheeler somewhere in western Michigan. My parents divorced when I was 4, and over the years, his moving across the state meant I spent less and less time with him before his death. So the lyrics of memories shared with a father certainly resonate with me. Even if the final verse taking place at a wedding is predictable, the song's sentiment never feels mushy. It's helped by George Strait's calm read and the understated production; in particular, I like the tension created by the augmented chord in the opening riff. If I ranked all of George Strait's #1 hits, even counting only the Billboard ones, this would still be pretty high up there. And considering how stacked a deck that is, that's really saying something. A



May 13: "Buy Me a Rose" by Kenny Rogers feat. Alison Krauss and Billy Dean

After spending most of the '90s as nearly a non-entity, Kenny Rogers came back for a brief period with one of his best. This song's central theme of misguided attention toward a lover is already a cut above, but then you get to the twist, where he says "this is a story of you and me" and the song becomes ten times better. It's not just a story; by this point, it's an introspection -- an example of male vulnerability that I find so rare yet so compelling every time I come across it. Of course, Kenny's gravelly gravitas is in full force here, sounding tender and vulnerable against a calm, minimalistic production style with some very fine choices for vocal harmony. I always love it when veteran artists get one last rally with a great single, and this is truly one of his best on all fronts. A well-deserved comeback. A+


May 20: "The Way You Love Me" by Faith Hill

This one stumbles right out of the gate with the dodgy as hell grammar that even 13-year-old me could spot right away: "If I could grant you one wish / I wish you could see the way you kiss." It's not helped by the bland yet padded "Ooh, I love watching you, ooh, baby / When you're driving me, ooh, crazy," which just drives home the utter lack of effort on the lyrical front. It's like she wanted to capture the effervescent nature of "This Kiss" (as evidenced by that song also having the lyric "the way you love me") but just couldn't capture that lightning in a bottle. This is just forced and empty. Literally the only thing saving it from being an abject failure is the genuinely interesting double key change on the chorus. And hey, at least the country mix doesn't have those creepy Auto-Tuned backing vocals. But otherwise, this is like if someone tried to make a cake but left out most of the ingredients -- it's just a floppy, doughy mess with no flavor. D-


June 17: "Yes!" by Chad Brock

How Chad Brock ever got a record deal, I'll never know. I once compared his robotic singing voice to the title character of Free Guy. I had a "virtual singer" program on my Mac as a teen, and even it provided more nuanced vocal tracks. Which is a shame, because the underlying lyric could have worked. Even if the setup is contrived (he meets her because she moves into his old apartment and has mail in his name; they fall in love and marry), a more likable vocalist could've made it work by nailing the hook. I would've loved to hear someone more capable of a loose funny delivery, such as Toby Keith, take on this one. It's not at all hard to see why Chad Brock faded away so hard that I legit cannot find recordings of some of his later singles anywhere online. (To say nothing of his militant conservatism on social media.) Between Chad's personality-free vocal and the canned production (seriously, what's with that gurgly synth bass in the beginning that never shows up again?), all I can say is "No!" (And be thankful that at least this isn't the Y2K version of "A Country Boy Can Survive.") C-


July 8: "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack feat. Sons of the Desert

Even at the time, I knew this was as out-of-character for Lee Ann as Alan Jackson covering Lil Wayne. A singer known for twangy, traditional, timeless fare like "A Little Past Little Rock" turns in a cold, sterile, pop ballad with no semblance of country whatsoever -- maybe it could have worked if she sounded like she wanted to be there, or if the lyrics had anything to say. This is a style of songwriting I just never liked, the way it just strings a bunch of random positive phrases together with no through line or narrative (which really set off "sellout" alarms in my head even at the time). It's like someone just cracked open a bunch of fortune cookies and just picked out the ones that rhymed. I've never understood why this is pitched as a mother-to-daughter song, when lines like "I hope you never lose your sense of wonder / Get your fill to eat, but always feel that hunger" are so broad-stroke as to instantly cover the entire canvas in beige. This played well to the Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd, but to me, it's so flavorless it makes Campbell's condensed seem like a gourmet meal in comparison. Literally the only interesting facet is Sons of the Desert's counterpoint on the chorus, but even that was scrubbed from the pop edit. D-


August 12: "What About Now" by Lonestar

This song starts off with a damn good line: "The sign in the window said for sale or trade / On the last remaining dinosaur that Detroit made / $700 was a heck of a deal / For a 400 horsepower jukebox on wheels." It's so full of vivid imagery of hitting the road and blasting some tunes with the one you love. Richie McDonald sounds like he's having fun, and the production is on point. However, there's one thing holding this back: it has a very weak melody. Nearly all of the verse is just this repeated so-mi-so-mi-so-mi-so pattern with no variation, and it doesn't get much more varied at the chorus. It's a shame the melody drags this down, because otherwise this would be one of the best post-"Amazed" cuts from a band that would spend much of this decade embarrassing themselves. B


September 9: "It Must Be Love" by Alan Jackson

I'm sorry, what was that about murder on Music Row again? Wedged between what is widely considered a high point for country music and this, a freaking Don Williams cover? AJ covering the Gentle Giant is such a no-brainer, as they both thrive on laid-back meat and potatoes fare like this. The production is the same twang you'd expect from him, not far removed from the Everything I Love album yet somehow just a tiny bit more energetic than Don's original. And it's such a simple lyric about the power of love, another theme both artists in question are quite familiar with. This one goes down so smoothly without ever feeling inconsequential, and I think it's easily a draw as to which version of this song is better -- AJ didn't change much because he didn't have to. It's just good. A



September 16: "That's the Way" by Jo Dee Messina

I've never been a fan of Jo Dee Messina's style. She never seemed to have the sass of Shania, the pipes of Faith or Martina, or the brains of Trisha -- most of her songs just felt "there" to me. However, this one works for me. It has a pretty neat opening riff full of acoustic guitar and chimes, even finding a few places to fit in a güiro. The melody is full of clever modulations, and Jo Dee sounds a lot less plastic than she usually does by finding a way to sing the chorus slightly differently each time. And honestly, it's one of the better lyrics she's picked, too. "I know from experience nothing's ever gonna make perfect sense" is a really head-turning lyric in all the right ways. I'm still not much of a fan of hers, but revisiting this after a long hiatus, I'm amazed that this one -- despite being her longest-tenured #1 and highest Hot 100 entry -- never had the staying power of "Bye Bye" or "I'm Alright," because I actually think it's slightly better than those. A- 


October 14: "Kiss This" by Aaron Tippin

2000 was apparently the year of the comeback. I always found it strange that despite his blue-collar image, two of Aaron Tippin's three #1 hits were novelty songs. And as someone who derives their usual Internet handle from one of Aaron Tippin's novelty songs, I don't object to that -- he has the goofy energy to pull a lot of this off. Case in point: a clever way of phrasing the insult "kiss my ass." It's a standard revenge narrative with a few cheeky lines (no pun intended), but the delivery is where it shines. He drops into a lower register than usual, then twangs it back up on the chorus accompanied by a crowd of female vocals (one of whom is his own wife). Simple as the lyrics are, this is a song that, like most humor, hinges on the delivery. And on that front, it succeeds. B+


October 28: "The Little Girl" by John Michael Montgomery

You know you messed up when your "motivational" Jesus song has holes in it that even a 13-year-old can see. Even at the time, I knew how massively contrived this was: a kid watches her parents die in a murder-suicide, and then is taken in by religious foster parents. She sees a picture of Jesus and says "that's the man who was by my side when my parents died." (No doubt it was one of the stock images of Jesus as a white man -- again, something I knew even at 13 was not the case.) There's no implication of trauma, and no other emotion from the girl. It's the same sort of manipulative schlock that Snopes termed "glurge" -- attempts to be motivational that are so over-the-top that you can't help but wonder how anyone believes them. Even before social media, this sort of glop was circulated via chain e-mails (in fact, that's literally how this song came to be; writer Harley Allen saw it in an e-mail). While JMM's read is remarkably free of bombast, that means nothing when something this crass and manipulative is even committed to a recording studio, never mind sent out as a single. Do yourself a favor and listen to "Friends," "No Man's Land," or any of the other great JMM songs that fell into that void of forgotten post-"Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)" gems in his catalog and skip this entirely. (And skip whatever the hell "Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise" was, too.) F


November 18: "Best of Intentions" by Travis Tritt

I don't know what happened, but after 1996's The Restless Kind, Travis Tritt seemed to entirely lose his spark. Nothing else he put out afterward had anywhere near the emotional investment of his earlier ballads like "Anymore" or "Drift Off to Dream," nor the swagger of "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)" or "T-R-O-U-B-L-E." He just became... boring. Admittedly, this is one of his better cuts in that timespan. This is a man asking for forgiveness for not pulling his weight in the relationship, telling his apparently soon-to-be-ex that he tried his best and is disappointed that he couldn't satisfy her. I think the song structure is interesting too, with two verses, the chorus twice, then a third verse. I think the only thing holding it back is that it lacks the power of his earlier ballads. If he'd cut this in 1993, the song would just soar by that second chorus. I don't know who's to blame here -- either Billy Joe Walker Jr.'s production style was too muted, or Travis just couldn't recapture the energy of his early days. Either way, it's a damn good lyric, and I'm sure he had the best of intentions delivering it, but it really is missing that special something. B



November 25: "Just Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Vassar

Phil Vassar started his career writing slightly left-of-center slice-of-life songs. His early material includes such gems as chasing after one's ex in her Isuzu; being ghosted by someone staying at a Ramada in Birmingham; and picking up a chatty hitchhiker with her own story to tell. That same energy carried into his first album, where after reuniting with a high school flame in "Carlene," we now see the ups and downs of domestic life. Children are fighting, the milk's gone bad, and the romantic candlelight dinner is Domino's, but that's okay, because you're still with the one you love. It's so utterly charming, eccentric, and sunny that it's impossible not to love. Phil gives a bright delivery against a nicely jaunty melody. It's actually kind of a shame he used up so much of his good material so quickly. A


December 2: "We Danced" by Brad Paisley

Another artist whose early career was also full of interesting slice-of-life songs got his second #1 just afterward. "We Danced" has an interesting narrative about meeting someone who left her purse behind at a bar after hours, then dancing with her and starting up a conversation. It sounds like something that could have actually happened, and never feels contrived. I think Brad generally came off more charismatic earlier in his career, and this song is proof. It's gentle and mellow, yet never soporific. Low-stakes songs like this can be boring if they aim too low (see the "My Best Friend"/"Smile" reviews above), but this one hits the sweet spot. A-


December 16: "My Next Thirty Years" by Tim McGraw

I haven't confirmed this, but I've been told that Tim has never sung this song in concert because he doesn't like it. And I don't know why. He should have more shame toward "Indian Outlaw" or "Truck Yeah" than this. Songs about taking stock of advancing age can come off as navel-gazing or preachy, but this one doesn't overshoot. I think it helps that it's another early Phil Vassar lyric. And as someone whose family has a long history of alcoholism, the line "Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers" gets a thumbs-up from me. Maybe it's because I'm in my 30s now too, but this song has aged amazingly well, and I feel just about anyone could get something out of its inspiring message. (And then once you're done, listen to Rodney Crowell's "Earthbound" and Trout Fishing in America's "Who Knows What We Might Do.") A-


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