Showing posts with label kacey musgraves. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kacey musgraves. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 23, 2019 (VIDEO)

So yeah, I know it's a bit of a wild prediction that thank u, next won't quite last on the Hot 100... but I've seen enough album bombs to see exactly how Ariana Grande will fade, especially in the face of the projects in the wings coming.

Next up, we're talking Avantasia - stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 23, 2019

So everyone and their mother was going to predict that Ariana Grande would have an album bomb this week. That's not surprising, and I'm fully aware that me saying it last week was not blowing anyone's mind. I will say I'm a bit surprised that she broke through so high in the top 40, with only one song from the album not placing there. And what I find interesting here is that when you combine a relatively modest track length - we're only talking new songs from Ariana here - and only a few other breakthroughs around it, it leads to a week that didn't quite feel as disrupted as I expected. More just at the top than anything, and that gives me the impression that thank u, next as an album might suffer a steeper dropoff than Ariana's people are prepared to acknowledge. Hey, you make an album custom-built for streaming, you suffer the consequences!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 16, 2019

You know, in the four-plus years I've been doing this series, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a week this slow. We only have two new songs, not a lot of change elsewhere, and while I'm sure next week's Ariana Grande album bomb will change that, I'm going to enjoy having a short episode on Billboard BREAKDOWN - it's a rare occurrence to be savoured, that's all I'm saying!

Monday, April 2, 2018

video review: 'golden hour' by kacey musgraves

Okay, so let's see how well this goes down... I think I was cautious with the hype here while still thinking this is a pretty great record in and of itself, but again, I stand by what I say at the end, there are FAR more deserving albums of the hype, especially from women in country.

Anyway, next up is the Trailing Edge tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'golden hour' by kacey musgraves

I feel like I've been hearing a lot about what this record could have sounded like for so long that whatever I was going to get, I'm not sure it'd ever live up to expectations.

And I'll be the first to admit that's a really crappy thing to say or think going into one of my most anticipated records of the year from one of the heavy-hitters in artistically fascinating country adjacent to the mainstream, especially for an artist whose major label breakthrough I loved so much it was in my top three of 2013. But even since Same Trailer, Different Park, it's hard to escape the feeling that a certain amount of complexity and nuance that I was praying would expand in Kacey Musgraves' songwriting was slipping away in favour of increasingly lightweight textures and ideas. First there was Pageant Material - and yes, for as much as I loved the title track on that record, it was the sort of overly burnished traditionalist country as a whole that felt a shade too sleepy to really stick with me more deeply. And then when I had heard her next record would be a stab into 'emo country' coming after a remix collaboration with Miguel, I was thoroughly perplexed where Kacey Musgraves' brand of genre experimentation would take her...

And then she got married and started cowriting a very lovestruck, psychedelic-infused pop country album dabbling in disco and... well, it struck me as the last possible direction that would highlight her strengths as a singer or songwriter, especially when if you know your country history this is not a subgenre that's gone unexplored. Hell, if you want to take a look at disco-infused country tones, Lydia Loveless was reviving this sound two years ago to amazing effect! But even Musgraves will admit she's not as challenging or experimental as those on the fringes of Nashville or Austin these days, and in a sense, that could be fine if the writing was sharp and the compositions held up - Caitlyn Smith wasn't reinventing the wheel with Starfire and that's a pop country record that has only gotten better with every listen this year! And even despite some very concerning naysayers, the critical response has been insanely good across the board, and maybe I'm just worrying over nothing, so what the hell - how is Golden Hour?

Monday, June 22, 2015

video review: 'pageant material' by kacey musgraves

Huh, this took longer than I expected to get out. Eh, it happens.

Okay, next up... either Wolf Alice or I might finally get that Kamelot review finished. We'll see - stay tuned!

album review: 'pageant material' by kacey musgraves

When I first heard Same Trailer, Different Park in 2013, the major label debut from Kacey Musgraves, I was blown out of the water. Here was a woman whose love and knowledge for old-school classic country allowed her to load her songs with grounded, honest maturity and progressive tendencies that were anathema to country radio, even now. Coupled with just being a damn great songwriter both in terms of technical craftsmanship and selling it with real emotive presence, she won the hearts of a ton of critics, and scooped up some well-deserved Grammys in one of the few examples of that show getting it right.

But despite great sales, Kacey Musgraves is not a radio star, and in an era screaming out for women in country music, Kacey's lack of mainstream success frustrated a lot of people, including some of the critics who supported her. They could easily point the finger at the fact her brand of country is not the type that gets airplay, especially considering the consolidation of country radio places more of it in the hands of petulant assholes like Bobby Bones, who Kacey refused to give the time of day and paid the price for it, but they decided to go deeper. They wanted the tone and writing and instrumentation to be more modern or strident or at the very least less girlish or presumably immature. In short, they wanted Kacey Musgraves to be country music's new feminist savior in the vein of a 'Beyonce' or something, be more transformative and drive away the analysts who don't know the difference between correlation and causation and that say women are the tomatoes in country music's salad.

And from the beginning, I've never bought that was what Kacey Musgraves wanted, and I'd argue such aspirations took away from the greatest part of her appeal: populism. Sure, she loved decidedly uncool classic country, but her writing style and content was always grounded in the fact she was part of the same crushing system as her audience, not trying to lead it. Her material could be girlish in tone and writing, but it only emphasized by contrast wisdom beyond her years, and disguise how deeply her words could cut in a country where 'Girl Crush' by Little Big Town was nearly forced off the radio because it supposedly promoted a lesbian relationship. And by framing her material as more matter-of-fact and accepted, I'd argue her material worked in a subtler and more effective way than any amount of incendiary firespitting - anthems are nice, but they need humanity and nuance to have real punch.

So when I heard that Kacey Musgraves' newest release would be called Pageant Material, I was actually really excited. Taking her brand of progressive views to traditional southern views of femininity might require she play things with more subtlety, but it didn't mean the punch wouldn't be there... or at least I hoped that was the case. Was I right?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

special comment: kacey musgraves touring with katy perry (video)

I'm actually pretty proud of how this came together - something that might not get a lot of hits, but some decent analysis all the same.

Okay, next up is Doug Paisley. Stay tuned!

special comment: kacey musgraves is touring with katy perry

At first glance, it seems to make absolutely no sense: a headline that suggests that the opening act for Katy Perry one of the biggest pop stars in the past few years will be... Kacey Musgraves, a critically acclaimed but not exactly widely known country singer-songwriter. Kacey Musgraves, who hasn't had had a hit on the country charts rise higher than #14 on country radio. At first glance from the pop landscape, it makes no sense.

And from the country landscape, it makes even less. Kacey Musgraves' album Same Trailer, Different Park wasn't a huge commercial smash in comparison with the bro-country she railed against all year, but it was a critical one, landing on several top critical top ten lists, including mine at #3. She's a singer-songwriter who has a reputation for organic, Americana-inspired country that openly attacks traditional values with sharply written, well-composed lyrics that won her New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Awards. So what on earth is she doing touring with Katy Perry, one of the most shallow, ephemeral pop acts in recent years? Why is her label Mercury Nashville pairing her outside of the country genre altogether instead of one of the many other artists signed through the label, or even on UMG Nashville as a whole? 

Those questions - along with the assertions that Kacey Musgraves would probably be a better pairing with other critically acclaimed country acts like Jason Isbell or fellow songwriter Brandy Clark - has gotten some country music fans a little worried about Kacey's future. The funny thing is that from my point-of-view, I can't see a real downside to this decision on any front, and to explain that, I'm going to need to discuss the careers of not just Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry, but a third female act who also plays a part in this story - and how these results can only be positive in the long run and for once a very shrewd and smart business decision by Mercury Nashville.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the top 25 best albums of 2013

And now we're down to the final list - my top twenty-five albums of 2013. This year, I reviewed 135 albums - and frankly, I should have done more. But I feel it's a plenty big sample size to discuss my choices, and all of these earned their slots on this list. I'll also try to keep this as quick as I possibly can - I've already talked about all of these albums in detail, and you should all check out my reviews if you want a more in-depth discussion. Also, my list isn't exactly going to correspond with common critical consensus - there are albums I have picked that have been ignored, and there are certain albums that some critics lauded that I didn't find nearly as strong. Got all that? Good, because we're not waiting any longer, let's GO!

the top 50 best songs of 2013 (PART TWO: 25-1)

Whew, that takes care of that.

Last one is the long-awaited albums of the year - stay tuned!

the top 50 best songs of 2013

Some of you are probably scratching your heads with confusion at the title of this list and wondering, 'Wait, didn't he already make this exact same list a few days ago?' Well, this list is significantly different than the last one, mostly because we're no longer talking about the hits. No, these are the songs, singles or otherwise, that appeared on the albums I listened through this year and stuck with me. They aren't the hits - most of you might not recognize the songs I mention, but all of them bear the highest of my personal recommendations. That's right, from the 135 albums I reviewed this year, these were my favourite songs. I'm not segregating them by genre or success - singles or deep cuts all have a chance to make this list, which was initially reduced from thousands down to 436, which was then narrowed down to fifty. And believe me, even with that I had to make some painful cuts, and what is on this list will surprise you. So, without any more delay, here are my Top 50 Songs of 2013! Let's get started!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

special comment: the state of country music

In the year 2000, two of the greatest country acts of the decade teamed up to perform a song formerly written by bluegrass artists Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. The song was never released as a single, but received significant airplay anyway due to its controversial nature in the country music industry. It was a song about how traditional and neotraditional country music - and the performers who made it - were being shoved to the sidelines in favour of mainstream pop crossover success. The song spoke of how artists like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones would never have had success in this industry climate - they, and the culture and history that they represented, would have been ignored. The legends, the icons of the genre, would have been likely been forgotten.

The song was titled 'Murder On Music Row' and it was made a hit by Alan Jackson and George Strait - and the situation of which they were singing...

Well, it's happening again.

On September 12, The Nashville Scene published a breakdown of the lyrics on the top 20 songs of the country music charts, indicating the common lyrical threads and the genre's shift towards party songs centered on beer, trucks, and girls. The case the article made was not to highlight the individual successes or failures of the songs on said list, but to point out the astounding similarities between the songs in terms of subject matter, theme, and even lyrical content. Furthermore, given that the extreme majority of acts on the list were performed by solo male country acts, the argument could be made that the average listener would not be able to tell these men apart. There is only one songs fronted by a woman on this list - Carrie Underwood, and I would have a hard time calling the American Idol winner a country singer over being a pop star. On the list of songs, the noticeable outliers come from Tim McGraw - a stalwart of the genre who has been around for decades - and a song penned by Bob Dylan sung by Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish! Neither song was in the top ten.

On September 19, Billboard magazine released an article showing how a growing number of country acts are showing concern regarding the sameness of their peers' content. Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band said, 'there is not a lot of the country format I enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I wanna throw up. There's songs out right now on the radio that make me... ashamed to even be in the same format as some of those artists.' Think about this for a moment: the frontman of a critically acclaimed country act from rural Georgia, from a town of just over 5000 people, made the statement that he is ashamed to be in the same format as these artists. He goes on to call Luke Bryan's 'That's My Kinda Night' 'the worst song he's ever heard.' He goes on to target the country music industry, saying it puts 'songs and people on a pedestal that have no integrity to them whatsoever', and to the writers of these songs, 'you can look on song credits and see some of the same songwriters on every one. There has been, like, ten number one songs in the last two to three years that were written by the same people, and the exact same words, just arranged different ways.'

Zac Brown is right. So is Gary Allan, who, in an interview with Larry King, said 'I feel like we have lost our genre.' So is Kacey Musgraves, who said in an interview with British GQ when asked about what trends in music need to die, she replied, 'Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally, just stop - nobody cares! It's not fun to listen to.' Unfortunately, Miss Musgraves is likely wrong on this front, at least in comparison with the programming that Nashville has been pushing for country radio over the past few years, because it has become abundantly clear that a growing audience wants it. Incidentally, Kacey Musgraves released an album this year titled Same Trailer, Different Park, a controversial yet critical acclaimed debut album where she spoke openly about topics such as deteriorating rural culture, religion, and even same-sex marriage. It is one of the best albums of this year and will beat out Daft Punk, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Deerhunter, and a slew of other critically acclaimed acts on my Top 10 list.

Outside of major professional publications, Robert Christgau, and AllMusic, it was ignored. In most top ten lists by mainstream critics, I suspect it will be forgotten. And while it has sold better that you might expect, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 it was far from a smash hit, with the lead single only reaching #14. Oh, and the album it was up against that week, the major competition the label was setting Miss Musgraves against? Justin Timberlake's comeback album The 20/20 Experience, which proceeded to sell approximately 968,000 copies that week alone. That week, Kacey Musgraves sold about 42,000. For a more fitting comparison, the previous week Luke Bryan sold 150,000 copies with a compilation album, a glorified spring break mixtape. 

Now I'm not here to make a value judgement on whether I think the trend towards the mainstream is a bad thing - as much as mainstream modern country in all of its varieties isn't really my thing, I can acknowledge good music when I hear it and there is some there. But what is a much more worrying trend is the sidelining of promising new acts like Kacey Musgraves, a female singer-songwriter with incredible chops, fresh ideas, and an excellent sense of solid country music, in favour of meat-headed, practically interchangeable male country stars who have pop crossover success by catering to the lowest common denominator. From a business point of view, Nashville is making a killing on these country acts, but it does not reflect a sustainable business model when you put your most promising and intelligent new singer-songwriter in a decade up against Justin TImberlake. But at the same time, the country music industry is a business, and if they want to milk and oversaturate the market with mainstream male country acts to roll in the dough until the world gets sick of them, that's their choice. But there's a much bigger issue at stake here, and that is reflected in the comments made by Kacey Musgraves, Gary Allan, and Zac Brown: the loss of culture in country music. A loss of flavour and texture and the feeling that the songs are informed by authentic real emotions and songwriters who know their history and the place country music has played within the United States for nearly a century. At this point, Nashville seems to have forsaken this, presumably under the belief that nobody in their audience wants it.

But more and more evidence is coming to light to me that that is not the case. Recently I reviewed the newest album released by country singer Justin Moore, titled Off The Beaten Path. Now that album was terrible and I stand by everything I said about it, but it was something in the comments to that video that both concerned me and got me thinking, because people jumped to the defense of Justin Moore and not just because they thought his music was good, but they thought his music was relatable. They could connect with it, they saw in the offensive pandering nonsense that was that album moments with which they could connect - it was something. And they gravitated to those songs about small town USA and God and rural culture and all of that not solely because they were something they could relate to, but because mainstream country music has nearly completely abandoned that demographic. Or worse still, they attempt to appease that demographic with shallow, vapid pandering that sounds and looks utterly soulless, and yet the audience will take anything they can get. And frankly, I can empathize with their concerns - their defense of Justin Moore, who at least appears to believe the crap he's selling, is pretty much identical to my defense of Kacey Musgraves, at least on basic principles - we're both looking for culture in country music.

So what happened? How did we get here? What led Nashville to throw their history and culture under the ties of a Chevy truck lining up for a tailgate? Well, there's a lot of factors in that. One I can definitely pinpoint is within the country music industry itself - they've always gunned for the mainstream audience, with country pop rising in the late-70s and 80s and the explosion of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the 90s. But in those climates, there were still traditional and neotraditional country stalwarts like Alan Jackson and George Strait who fought to preserve that history, and there was an audience that bought it. But when Nashville found out they could appease that demographic by pandering to southern pride and small town nationalist spirit and patriotism, those that fought for culture and history were forced to the sidelines. 

And how can Nashville get away with that? Well, that's a twofold problem, and here's where things get ugly, because one of the groups that deserves blame are modern music critics, particularly those who are my age or a little older. The majority of critics outside of major publications like AllMusic and Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, who must cover country by obligation, have ignored and marginalized country music for a long time now, preferring to cover the newest underground hip-hop mixtape or independent album that nobody outside of a very, very small community of music nerds will ever care about. I could go on about how this attitude betrays the spirit of populism which the best critics have always embraced, but that misses the meat of the message: by ignoring country music, the critical press shut down the artistic conversation with country music. They made the implicit statement that there is no artistry or craft or intelligence or meaningful commentary in country music. And I would be remiss not to mention the political angle, where certain people, ignorant of country music as a genre, dismissed it as music for small town, right-leaning white trash rednecks who were incapable of appreciating 'better' music. This sort of thinking and dismissal is cowardly, shameful, and utterly despicable, and it shows most critics as narrow-minded as the demographic they dismissed.

But the country music industry heard it and realized they didn't need critical acclaim to sell records, unlike other genres like metal and indie rock and occasionally hip-hop. They didn't need us. So instead they started catering to the lowest common denominator more aggressively than they ever have before, putting money and professional songwriters behind anyone with a hint of talent, and they reaped the rewards, particularly considering the culture of anti-intellectualism and victimization that was being adopted by the stagnating and unfairly ignored rural population of the United States. And while I will not claim that country music was directly responsible for shoving large tracts of the United States towards the right politically, you can't deny that with the success of acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore and libelous songs like 'Have You Forgotten' by Darryl Worley that it didn't happen. And with the role country music played in the aftermath of 9/11, things got even worse - as much as I never liked The Dixie Chicks, they didn't deserve to have their careers ruined because they were right about the War on Terror before everyone else realized it. Like it or not, country music did contribute to the increased polarization of America, and the critics not doing their jobs by ignoring covering country music only made things worse, because the cultural conversation stopped

So thus I wasn't surprised that I get comments on my country music reviews saying that I shouldn't even be covering country music, because I'm a Canadian city boy and thus must be some sort of privileged white-collar Commie homosexual - even though I've been listening to country music for about twenty years. Even though I know more about country music than I do about most hip-hop and metal and electronica. Even though I'm the only critic on Youtube who has even bothers to cover country music and review it fairly, to give it a goddamn chance. And sure, YouTube is an echo chamber and any critical opinion gets pounced upon, but there was something different about this, because it reflects the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the shape country music is taking, that acts like Justin Moore are making money simply because they can pander to rural pride and the starving audiences will take anything they can get. And as Zac Brown said in his interview, 'country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say. Good music makes you feel something.'

So what's the solution to this? Honestly, I have no idea - if I could solve the increased polarity of America, I probably wouldn't be reviewing albums on the internet. What I will say is this: the increased popularity of country acts in the mainstream won't last. At this point, the market is nearly saturated, and when trends shift and the mainstream public gets sick of country, it's going to ruin a lot of careers. Right now, however, I'm significantly more concerned about two groups: the artists whose careers are suffering now because the industry is sidelining them and whom might never get another chance for the spotlight; and those concerned about American culture and history, particularly those who love country music and who don't want to see the genre implode in the same way other oversaturated musical genres collapsed, like disco and prog rock and punk and hair metal and grunge. But country is unique because so much of it is linked directly and is informed by American culture and American history. If you forget where your culture comes from, and the people who represent it instead of those who are looking to profit off of it in order to make a quick buck, you lose something you can never get back.

Alan Jackson and George Strait understood this when they recorded 'Murder On Music Row' back in 2000 - and really, the only reasons pop country imploded at the end of the 90s are the near-simultaneous failures of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and 9/11, where Nashville correctly realized that the USA needed a connection with its culture and its roots more than ever, or else the blow to the nation's spirit would never heal. But this time, things are different, and I don't see a good ending for traditional country music. Or, to put it another way, Alan Jackson released a new album this week: how many of you have heard it?

That's what I thought. I don't want to see another murder on music row. And why do I care? Well, the same reason Alan Jackson and George Strait and Zac Brown and Gary Allan and Kacey Musgraves care: I love country music, and there's room on the charts for both culture and partying. To quote Zac Brown again, 'I'm opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs'. 

He's not alone.

Friday, April 5, 2013

album review: 'pioneer' by the band perry

It's hard talking about acts that can be considered 'good'.

And I know that's the sort of comment you only ever hear from critics, but as someone who has reached their fiftieth review on this blog, it's kind of true. But the reason you typically only hear the criticism from critics is because we experience so much material that our frame of reference becomes a bit too expansive. It's a bit of a strange conundrum, but it's always a little odd when I realize that I'll probably listen to around a hundred different albums this year and ten times that many songs. I'm going to hear things I'll both like and despise - but for the average consumer who gets maybe two to five albums a year and listens to the radio, they aren't going to have that frame of reference. They'll hear something that's good and like it without question - and while I'd really prefer that more people seek out the great, there's nothing wrong with liking things, particularly when those things arguably succeed in what they set out to do. 

However, speaking as a critic, the hardest reviews to write and articulate are of the albums that are just 'good'. Everyone can go on for hours at length about something that's bad - there's a whole swarm of internet critics that have made their fame on that premise alone. And those reviews are easy to write too (the difficult part is often experiencing the awful). It takes a lot more courage of convictions to say something is great, because there will always be people who'll challenge it. I know there are people who probably find my love of Avril Lavigne and Panic At The Disco and the Backstreet Boys and Ke$ha completely baffling, but if you're a good critic, you should be able to stand by what you like.

Now most professional critics typically say that the hardest things to criticize are those in the middle: the mediocre, the 3/5, the passing grade. And that particularly becomes a problem with reviewing albums, because you tend to find filler tracks that aren't precisely bad, but they aren't going to stand out. To say something meaningful about them often requires deeper analysis, but sometimes there just isn't anything there, nothing to say.

But when I dug a little deeper, I realized that those songs can be criticized or discussed, simply by pinpointing the purpose of what those songs are intending to do and seeing whether or not they complete those goals. More often than not, mediocrity comes with more failures than weak successes. In fact, I'd argue the hardest songs to discuss and criticize aren't the ones that are mediocre or middle-of-the-road, but the ones that are good, but not great. Just above album filler in that they accomplish what they set out to do, but otherwise provide nothing interesting to talk about. Nothing that blows your mind, the average consumer will be fine with it, but it's not going to set their worlds on fire either. And speaking as someone who has spent far too much time poring over Billboard charts, there is a lot of this material.

In fact, the more I've delved into the country charts, the more I've found a significant heap of this material performing well on the charts. Sure, there's plenty of mediocre and more bad and awful than I'd like, but there's a lot of good stuff there too, music that won't ever change someone's life or be emotionally evocative or a big smash hit, but passes the time in a way that won't frustrate or disappoint anyone. 

And I remember reading a discussion regarding criticisms of Pitchfork a while ago, which made the claim that critics tend to like the imperfect and incomplete, often raising them above that of the competent and good. And while that is a problem with Pitchfork (among another things), it's not just a problem with that site. Hell, I'd argue that as a critic, I fall into the exact same trap far too often - most of the time because the flawed and incomplete often present a more complete picture of what the artist is like, providing more nuance between the lines. Critics find that more interesting and ultimately more compelling that the works of artists that are good, but nothing all that incredible or special.

But I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so with that, let's talk about The Band Perry.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

album review: 'same trailer, different park' by kacey musgraves

Let's return, again, to country music.

Over the course of the past year since I reviewed the Zac Brown Band's magnificent Uncaged, I've had a bit of a chance to get reacquainted with country music - and by reacquainted, I mean catch a glimpse at the singles that show up on the pop charts and the occasional YouTube video that pops up. And while I could say that I did indeed see more country music when I reviewed Taylor Swift's Red, I'd be lying, mostly because that album would be lying if it called itself country.

And yet Taylor Swift is considered one of the leading country acts in this day and age, a fact that doesn't so much baffle me as disappoint me. This is mostly because I'd be stretching to call Taylor Swift much of a leader in this field on any level - her lyrics are only getting more mundane and insufferable, her vocals are absolutely nothing to write home about, and when her instrumentation contains dubstep and electropop breakdowns, you can barely consider it country music anymore! 

Well, one thing's for damn sure, you really can't find many male country singers who can match Taylor Swift's star power. Tell me this: if you're not a dedicated country listener, do you think you would have a chance in hell telling Chris Young, Justin Moore, Jake Owen, Brantley Gilbert, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, or Luke Bryan apart? Sure, I can tell them apart, but your average listener isn't going to be able to pick out each voice in 'The Only Way I Know', which features the trio of Jason Aldean, Eric Church, and Luke Bryan. And then when you factor in acts like Rascal Flatts (who have and always will bore the living shit out of me) and the influx of male country acts from the 90s who are still making hits (Tim McGraw, Clay Walker, Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, the list goes on), the country charts are buried in an influx of acts with no one taking a definite lead in the genre. For tNhe most part, too many of these guys sound the same, with the same country rock style and the same bland lyrics that seem to be about booze, girls, cars, and loving America. You hardly ever get acts that stand out much against the herd here - I mean, say what you want about Toby Keith, but at least the man has a distinctive sound and style to his songwriting and charismatic delivery that makes him stick out. Brad Paisley has his excellent guitar playing, Florida Georgia Line has that annoying backwoods twang in the vocals ('Cruise' is still kind of awesome, though), Kenny Chesney is there to rip off Jimmy Buffett with alarming and shitty frequency, but outside of the Zac Brown Band, who the hell of this group has the serious songwriting chops to stand out and be remotely memorable? Say what you will about Garth Brooks, but at least the man had great songwriters (and he was a halfway decent songwriter himself) and he had the charisma to deliver the songs well - and that's why songs like 'Friends In Low Places' will never go away

The point that I'm trying to make here is that it doesn't tend to be vocal delivery or instrumentation that makes country songs stand out - almost unique amongst any genre of music, the songwriting and lyrics come into much higher prominence for singling out the greats. That's why Ronnie Dunn's 'Cost of Livin' is one of the best songs of 2011 - it wasn't because of the instrumentation, but because Dunn was singing a desperate song with a very desperate, uncompromising edge. It's one of the most raw and excellent country songs I've ever heard, and for the most part, it's because of the songwriting and subject matter.

In another case, let's compare three mixed-gender country acts: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, and The Band Perry. Now let's make this clear: I both like and dislike songs from all of these bands. I think none of them are all that special or spectacular. But for me, I'm going to devote more time to talking and analyzing and ultimately thinking about The Band Perry over the other two, mostly because The Band Perry write very flawed but very interesting songs. Yes, 'If I Die Young' is shit, but I find it a lot more interesting and entertaining to talk about and thus it's more memorable compared to the middle-brow pablum that Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum keep shoveling out. Even the bad stuff that Lady Antebellum has released (like the execrable 'Just A Kiss') isn't as interesting as a song like 'Better Dig Two', mostly because The Band Perry is taking something of a risk. They're essentially the goth kids in the country scene with their obsession with death, and considering how much southern gothic imagery they co-opt, I find them more than a little amusing and kind of intriguing

And with the discussion of death filtered through a southern gothic aesthetic, we come to the female country singers - most of which have either co-opted Carrie Underwood's Beyonce-esque contempt for men with mixed results or fallen in line with the industry's traditional gender roles (Taylor Swift). To be honest, I've gotten more than a little sick of Carrie Underwood's schtick (as I said in my review of Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell that nobody cared about), but I prefer her fire-spitting to Taylor Swift's adolescence - at least it's some sign of maturity. 

But one of the more interesting country acts to come out in the wake of Carrie Underwood is former Pistol Annies' singer Miranda Lambert. Now, to be honest, I've always tended to drop her onto the B-list, mostly because for the past two years she's been making bland, not all that interesting country lacks a certain degree of depth or thought. But then she released an interesting little song called 'Mama's Broken Heart', which is a song where Lambert gets cheated on / dumped, and she has to balance her own grief-stricken rage with putting a polite friendly smile on to the public. It's a tough dichotomy to play, and Miranda Lambert plays it masterfully. 

But what I find interesting about it is the juxtaposition of societal expectations - because believe it or not, societal expectations play a huge role in country music. Keep in mind this is music often marketed solely to rural America, which has a very distinctive set of values and customs that don't really reflect those in the coastal cities - or in Canada. And while most of these societal expectations tend to be racist, sexist, homophobic, prejudiced, or just plain moronic, they're still expectations that genuinely good people in those rural areas live by. Sure, they're often expectations that reflect an America that wants to be in 1950 or 1980 (which wanted to pretend to be 1950), but people still live by them, and they are a marketing demographic. 

And here's what makes 'Mama's Broken Heart' so interesting - because it pushes the cruel double standard forced on women under those societal expectation into view. The fact that they're expected to be prim and proper 'Stepford' ladies, even in the face of their partners acting like pigs or leaving them. Now let's be fair here, the push behind Carrie Underwood would seem to suggest a more liberated mindset, but I don't quite buy it. To me, too much of Carrie Underwood's material comes across as too harsh and grating to be anything but a fantasy or a pose - you know, like how Beyonce only sounds convincing when she's angry like a man, but she's happily married to Jay-Z. Miranda Lambert, on the other hand, brings across that grief and rage and vulnerability in a way that Kelly Clarkson used to do and Adele perfected, and while most of 'Mama's Broken Heart' might seem like it's being played as a laugh, there's genuine sadness and anger in that song that makes it work better than you'd think, mostly because Lambert isn't the rail-thin knockout that Underwood is, or the fact that she's not quite as polished. I'm reminded a lot of Reba McEntire with Miranda Lambert on this track, and while she isn't quite as good as Reba, this is a good step in the right direction.

So on that topic, one should ask who wrote such a border-line transgressive (or at least out-of-the-ordinary) track for Lambert. Well, one of those songwriters is a young woman named Kacey Musgraves, who just released her major label debut album Same Trailer Different Park. 

An album that might just be one of the best goddamn albums of the year. Holy shit, did I not see this coming.