While in the independent realm of country music, 2017 went down as a record year for quality projects, the mainstream was downright abysmal pretty much across the board for both songs and albums. Taking Chris Stapleton out of the equation since they don’t play him on mainstream radio anyway, what were the stellar songs or albums released in 2017? There actually were quite a few pretty good songs, but most struggled to gain traction in the charts.
You may ask, where are the women when it comes to the best mainstream country albums? That’s a good question. In 2017, we didn’t have any of those critically-acclaimed releases from mainstream women like Brandy Clark or Ashley Monroe from years past. In fact there weren’t many releases from women in the mainstream at all—a product of the fact that lead singles are finding no traction on radio, so new projects get stalled in process.
Carly Pearce’s Every Little Thing? It had some decent songs, but was way too hit and miss. Same with Lindsey Ell. Lauren Alaina? Yeah right. Raelynn’s Wildhorse might have been the best of the lot, and still not good enough to mention in a “Best Of” list beyond the introduction. Even her decent effort with “Love Triangle” is addled with terrible production.
The men’s projects in 2017 leave lots to be desired as well. In 2016 we had the new generation of neotraditionalists release debut records—William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, and Jon Pardi. In 2017 we got debut records from Kane Brown and Walker Hayes. In a strange twist, it was slightly older artists like Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton releasing records that were surprisingly decent. When Blake Shelton is making a “Best Of” list on Saving Country Music, you know how slim the pickings are, and how poor the competition was. Midland at least deserves to be mentioned, but come with so much baggage it’s almost unbearable.
There is good news on the horizon in the mainstream, hopefully, and including for country women. Kacey Musgraves has a 2018 album on the way, Cam likely should as well, and it’s probable we might see records from Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood too. William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi will also likely cycle through. So here’s hoping that things improve in the mainstream in 2018, as opposed to all the growth and positivity coming from the independent realm, and trying to trickle up to mainstream acceptance.
BEST MAINSTREAM SONGS
(NOTE: Songs must have either been released on a 2017 album, or released as a single in 2017 to qualify.)
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#9: Carly Pearce – “Every Little Thing”
(Honorable Mention: Pearce’s album cut “If My Name Was Whiskey”)
You can picture Carly Pearce in the Alison Krauss mold if you desire. She’s played some 30 times at the Grand Ole Opry over the last few years. And though her foundation is bluegrass, we all know what the commercial prospects of that discipline are. So at 27-years-old she’s emerging with a more singer-songwriter/R&B style, with a sedated and acoustic arrangement behind a breakup song produced by the sniveling, pop-turned-country producer “busbee,” who also absconds spuriously with a songwriting credit.
“Every Little Thing” isn’t just acoustic and rootsy in the window dressing, it features a by God dobro solo, and relies very much on the “less is more” approach throughout. The chorus doesn’t take that stupid, predictable rising action of most country pop compositions, yet Pearce’s ear for melody allows the song to peak on a heart-cracking note that drives the emotional pull of the song both accessibly, and intelligently. This is far afield from bluegrass, but it’s fair to call it a quality song in writing and arrangement, with wet signals and a moody vibe, even if the song has a fairly saccharine, radio-friendly disposition. (read review)
#8: Lee Brice – “Boy”
Yes, the approach to “Boy” still has the schmaltzy mainstream “tug-at-your-heartstrings” sort of feel, and it hangs on one word (“boy”) to give it that catchy, radio flavor. But the songwriting is much more involved here. The way “Boy” interweaves its story, it’s not just about sons, it’s just as much about fathers. It can even hit an emotional note with mothers. It’s a song about life and the passage of time, which is not entirely new in itself, but it’s the way that it offers a new perspective on an old theme.
Compare this to a song like Zac Brown Band’s recent single “My Old Man,” which has many of the same elements and is a fine song, but it just doesn’t have the emotional register “Boy” does. Lee Brice knows his way around these types of songs as one that has seen success with them in the past, and as a behind-the-scenes songwriter on many tracks for other performers. Surprisingly, it was Nicolle Galyon and Jon Nite that wrote this one, not Brice. But he still calls it a tribute to his two young sons Takoda and Ryker, and sings it with conviction. (read review)
#7: Midland – “Drinkin’ Problem”
Listen, much has been made about the resounding issues with Midland attempting to pull a ruse over the country music public with their raging authenticity narrative that has been debunked a dozen different ways. And once again, this isn’t just about a band or artist not being “authentic” enough to make country music, it’s about them being dishonest about some hardscrabble existence they had to go through that isn’t rooted in a shred of truth.
But ultimately it’s all about the music, and when you push those concerns aside—and the fact that Shane McAnally co-wrote this song—it’s still more than fair to say that a song like “Drinkin’ Problem”—which frankly is not as well-written as it may seem on the surface—is still leagues better than the adversarial pap put out there as “country” that it competed with to eventually gain a Top 5 spot in the charts. Their album On The Rocks? Well very few people are listening to it anyway. But to bump all the other crud down a notch with a traditional country song is probably worth commending, however begrudgingly so.
#6: Mickey Guyton – “Nice Things”
The argument to put more women on country radio is not just about gender equality. It happens to be that if you want to improve country radio, putting more women in the rotation would be a potent strategy to revive the format to past greatness. Women aren’t being held off of country radio because there’s better material from the males out there. Women are being held off of country radio because they are better than the men.
“Nice Things” delves into the possessive nature of love in a bold effort that accentuates Guyton’s vocal strengths, and is stirred with Jerry Douglas-sounding rootsy dobro. Mickey Guyton resists the temptation to inflect her voice with urban annunciations and R&B styling that is all the rage in the mainstream country today. Of course all of these things will be strikes against Mickey’s effort to get this song in front of people via the vehicle of radio. Whether any song does well on the radio has nothing to do with the quality or even the infectiousness of a certain tune, but the willingness of fat cat corporate radio programmers to be receptive to the idea of playing it, often greased by their buddies on Music Row looking to push a certain label’s agenda.
“Nice Things” is good but not great, yet it shows once again that the leadership to lead country back to its roots is though the women, and that’s also where folks should gravitate when looking for something of quality in the mainstream. (read review)
#5 – Miranda Lambert – “Tin Man”
Tracking the trajectory of “Tin Man” throughout 2017 has been like tracking the pulse of women in the mainstream, and unfortunately, it’s just barely hanging on, and only assisted by life support. After her previous single “We Should Be Friends” struggled to gain attention, Miranda pulled an audible and decided to release “Tin Man.” Despite multiple award nominations, and great songwriting from Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, it has struggled in a format that won’t even give deference to its reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.
“Tin Man” symbolizes the type of material that should be successful in the mainstream, but is refusing to budge out of the mid pack of the charts do to a clear bias against artists of a certain sex.
#4: Chris Janson – “Drunk Girl”
The issue with Chris Janson has never been that he can’t write a song, or even sing one. Devotees of the Grand Ole Opry know he’s one of the few mainstream up-and-comers who make it a habit to appear on the historic stage, and often to croon out a country music classic as part of his troika of songs. The problem is Chris can’t resist the temptation to write and record the trashy super hit as well, and this is what has gone on to define his career—songs like “Buy Me a Boat,” and the infuriating “Fix A Drink.”
But give Chris Janson credit for “Drunk Girl,” and more than just the chances of a blind squirrel finding a nut, since we’ve seen his name on a number of these hidden gems now, and this is the second one where someone on his team had guts enough to release it as a single. Yes, timing is everything, and that doesn’t mean the song deserves to be docked points for being opportunistic. “Drunk Girl” was a good song before the recent rash of sexual assault and misconduct claims, and it will still be one once most of the creeps are ferreted out and the Zeitgeist moves on to some other national calamity previously ignored.
It’s hard to release a song like “Drunk Girl” as opposed to a radio ready single for a mainstream artist, just as it’s sometimes hard to make sure a woman is taken care of as opposed to taken advantage of. It’s also dependent on the rest of us to make sure that behavior is rewarded, as opposed to ignored, so the tendency is for it to occur more often. (read review)
#3: Ashley McBryde – Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega
We have failed at even making a dent in this female dilemma on country radio. So why not think outside of the box? Why not throw out all the old notions that to break down the gender barrier we should just start serving up eye candy singing bubblegum pop? Besides, that’s not the trend we’ve been seeing take hold recently with artists that aren’t in their early 20’s, and artists that don’t fit the fashion plate model like Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs doing so well. It’s not to call these performers old or ugly, it’s to call them real, and appealing to the audience from authenticity as opposed to image-based marketing.
“Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” is genuine, and it works coming from an artist like Ashley McBryde where you believe every word she sings, and picture yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. It’s a true story, but not about her actually. It’s about one of the co-writers, Jesse Rice, who did get stranded due to car trouble at a dive bar in Dahlonega (pop. 5,200), yet the terrible day turned into a great one when he met his soon-to-be wife because of the situation. Where it’s the generic nature of so much of contemporary country’s songwriting that leaves the inspiration and details of a song idea on the cutting house floor, it’s the specificity of a song like “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” that gives it strength.
That’s why you also root for an artist like Ashley McBryde. Her successes are yours. She’s a hell of a lot more like the people you see actually listening to country music than the People Magazine version. (read review)
#2: Kellie Pickler – “If It Wasn’t For a Woman”
Part tribute, part empowering anthem, and all Pickler, “If It Wasn’t For a Woman” is full of reminiscent memories of Pickler’s grandmother, and affirmations about the importance of role models and upbringings. If you’ve ever known someone who was raised by their grandparents, you know they’re special people, with manners and values that weren’t diluted by a generation, and a level of respect and gratefulness for themselves and others not found in most. Grandparents raising kids is obviously not the way life was designed, and puts an undue burden on those later in life. But it’s often a gift for those involved. Willie Nelson was also raised by his grandparents.
“If It Wasn’t For a Woman” is pretty quintessential Pickler, with steel guitar and emotional-laden lyrics making for a very sweet song. This is not a Song of the Year candidate, but it does get you frustrated that an artist like Pickler with so much talent has to resort to the reality TV and talk show circuit for her daily bread, when she should be making country instead. Hopefully the song is a precursor to a new project, and with Pickler’s new audiences, she can sidestep the gender bias of mainstream country radio, and find the support her music deserves. (read review)
#1: Jon Pardi – “She Ain’t In It”
Jon Pardi is what an artist like Dustin Lynch should have been—a guy with a sturdy jaw and a cowboy hat that on the surface looks uninterested in succumbing to the Music Row machine. But Dustin Lynch decided to choose the path of least resistance. Meanwhile Jon Pardi stuck to his guns, though was also willing to listen a little to the producers and understand that if you want to earn your freedom in the mainstream, you first have to prove your appeal as a name and personality. That is what Pardi has done now. He’s earned the right to release “She Ain’t In It” as a single.
Written by Clint Daniels and Wynn Varble, “She Ain’t In It” is a classic country crooning heartbreak song in the style that make true country fans feel right at home when it graces their speakers. It fits like a glove by hitting on all the things that have been lost in modern country, like the moan of the steel guitar, and the faraway cry of the fiddle. There’s a warmth to it that elevates the songwriting, and though Jon Pardi is not someone who is going to rise to the top sheerly on the strength of his voice, “She Ain’t In It” fits into the pocket of what he can sing well. It’s Pardi’s style that people will find appealing. He’s Midland without all the over-the-top fair and fabricated back story. (read review)
BEST MAINSTREAM ALBUMS
#4: Blake Shelton – Texoma Shore
Blake Shelton’s latest record Texoma Shore is not really that great, and it would be a stretch to even call it good. It’s adult contemporary more than anything, and only country in certain texturing and approach. Yet as enjoyable as it might be to trash this effort for all the ills Mr. “Old Farts and Jackasses” has sowed for traditional country fans over the years, the truth is this might be Blake Shelton’s best album since he uttered those now notorious words in 2013.
As strange as it may be to say, Blake Shelton found a simple groove and regained a little bit of the voice that marked his success earlier in his career with Texoma Shore. It is still saddled with a safe and pallid approach in the production that will leave the more active ear of true country music fans feeling unfulfilled. But who wouldn’t take Scott Hendricks—who started his career producing records for Alan Jackson—over “busbee,” Shane McAnally, or whoever else is mainstream country’s pop flavor of the month as producer?
Traditional country fans will never give this record a chance, and they probably shouldn’t. It’s not in their wheelhouse. But compared to its contemporaries, Texoma Shore scores well on multiple gradients. (read review)
#3: Zac Brown Band – Welcome Home
Give Zac Brown credit. He listened to his fans, as opposed to speaking down to them about how music needs to evolve, or some other line of flawed reasoning where he could justify his actions to himself if nobody else. He also didn’t lie about his desire to continue to want to make music outside of the country/Southern rock fold. Instead he has compartmentalized those efforts into a side project, and brought the Zac Brown Band back home to where it still might not be the best option for country purists or the traditional fans out there, but it is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise poisonous mainstream country music space.
It’s hard to describe Zac Brown Band’s Welcome Home as anything but what it is, which is a complete about-face in the direction of the band back to what made them one of the most beloved acts in country music beyond “Chicken Fried.” Isn’t it appropriate that the lead single “My Old Man” finds Zac Brown talking about the lessons of his father, when that was the first person he cited when apologizing for the whole “strippers and drugs” incident in 2016. Similarly, Welcome Home is a re-evaluation of life cover to cover, speaking about going back to one’s roots, appreciating the simpler things in life, giving thanks, and reflecting on who one is, and who they are supposed to be as a person. (read review)
#2: Kip Moore – Slowheart
The whole “Is it rock, or is it country?” ship sailed with Kip Moore in the Wild Ones era. We’ve already had that discussion. Now here we are already here, we might as well regard what we have with Slowheart with a critical ear. And when you do so, you find a record that’s inspired, energetic, and enjoyable, capturing an artist enthusiastically diving into what he wants to do creatively, and resulting in tunes that do quite well in engaging the audience. You can’t emphasize enough just how “rock” this record is, and that Kip Moore has a “sound.” The smoother vocals captured earlier in his career have been replaced with a distinctive rasp.
Look, we’re all music fans first, and then our allegiances break down certain genre lines. Kip Moore has made a record that has a lot of appeal to it, and even some forward thinking despite a few missteps. Give him credit, and give him even more credit for doing it within the bounds of the restrictive environment of Music Row. But it’s not country, and can’t be quantified in the way with any convincing manner. But listen, and you may like it. (read review)
#1: Brad Paisley – Love & War
Love and War is Brad Paisley returning to doing what he does best, which is being Brad Paisley. His last couple of records had their moments, but they were indicative of an artist sensing the pressure to sell records to elongate his career. So he tried to stir the pot and take chances. But Paisley is really not a chances kind of guy. He’s Brad Paisley. He’s even keeled and constant. He didn’t do well trying to be somebody else.
Are we just so happy to hear a mainstream record that doesn’t alienate us or let us down that we can construe a few good songs into a strong effort? Maybe that’s the case, but any work is only fair to judge beside its peers, and right now Paisley is one of the few setting the pace for decency in popular country music. Let’s just hope the radio plays it, and people pay attention. Because this is the Paisley we want, this is the Paisley country music needs, and the one the world deserves to remember. (read review)