Country Perspective’s Worst Albums of 2016 So Far

As our week of highlighting the best and worst of the first half of the year closes, we spend today looking at some of 2016’s worst albums thus far. As mainstream country has shifted away from bro-country and into pop, we’ve seen albums that are one of three things: completely pop music, bro-country hanging on by the very last threads, or a hybrid of the two. Needless to say, these albums have done nothing but continue to dig mainstream country into its hole.

As you’ll notice, we haven’t reviewed most of these albums, mainly because we didn’t want to spend the time to write a review about the album and complain about the same old things we’ve complained about time and time again. But we have listened to the albums. For the most part, mainstream country music released several boring, middle of the road albums, but there were a few that sank lower than that.

Without further ado, here are the worst country albums of 2016 so far…

Cole Swindell – You Should Be Here 

Cole Swindell’s second album pretty much did the exact same thing as his first album and any EPs he’s released. The album kicks off with an awful duet with Dierks Bentley called “Flatliner.” A majority of You Should Be Here is straight bro-country with a hint of Nashville Pop thrown into the song’s productions. “Middle of a Memory” finds Swindell lamenting over the fact that a girl he wanted to hook up with left the bar without him. The party never stops for Cole Swindell, with “Home Game,” “Up” “Party Wasn’t Over”, and “Stay Downtown” combining scenes of drinking and hook-ups. You Should Be Here is full of shallow music, and the album’s best song, “You Should Be Here” only mustered a 4/10 grade here. The icing on the cake of the album comes with the final song, “Remember Boys.” After making a name for himself as one of country’s bros, not to mention hit song after hit song about random hook-ups for just one night, Cole Swindell thinks he can be taken seriously as a “remember boy”: someone who’s serious about a relationship with someone. Please. Cole Swindell has been and continues to be a joke.

Randy Houser – Fired Up

The biggest flaw of Randy Houser’s Fired Up is that the track list is 15 consistently boring party songs with awful puns and terribly juvenile words and phrases. There’s a bonus track called “Whiskeysippi River” and “Little Bit Older” that features the phrase, “a little bit older a little Budweiser” as if it’s supposed to be some clever pun. Fired Up starts off strong with “Back,” but the rest of the album falters. The first single, “We Went,” was one of the worst singles in 2015. And the album’s second single, “Song Number 7,” essentially rips off Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again.” There was no originality brought into the album, with bro-country after bro-country. Perhaps the only bright spot of the album is that there isn’t as much pop music in the production, but at the same time, the music isn’t all that country.

Keith Urban – Ripcord

No matter which genre you stick Ripcord in, it’s a terrible album. This album felt like a to-do list of stuff Urban wanted to try because he felt like it and there was absolutely no direction planned for it. Some of it sticks like on “Wasted Time” and “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.” The rest however is pretty much a complete mess. I hear so much from country fans that an artist’s songs aren’t bad as pop music if I dismiss it as not country music. So the overall point I wanted to make with this review was to show that genre lines really don’t matter the most when it comes to judging music’s quality. Many refer to bad country music as pop and that’s insult to pop music because there’s a lot of great pop music (see Beyoncé’s Lemonade). This album even insults pop. It’s pretty simple: there is great music and there is bad music. Ripcord is bad music.

Kane Brown – Chapter 1 (EP)

Kane Brown exploded onto country music proclaiming himself to be country’s Justin Bieber. If by Justin Bieber, he means pop star, than he hit it right on the nose. Brown’s music is nowhere near country, and his first EP with Sony proves that Kane Brown is just another metro-bro clone making the same kind of music as every other solo male act. “Wide Open” is sung with no charisma and terrible vocals. The vocal effects on “Last Minute Late Night” are annoying, while Kane Brown begs for a late night booty-call. “Excuses” and “There Goes My Everything” are straight pop songs dealing with heartbreak, but Brown’s monotone vocal delivery is terrible. Chapter 1 is completely corporate manufactured pop music sung by a different puppet.

 

Dan + Shay – Obsessed

Obsessed is bro-country attitudes wrapped up in boy band pop. Sure, Dan + Shay have “From the Ground Up,” a well written love song, but it’s impossible to call this album country music. Slick computer generated beats with R&B influences, Dan + Shay are the poor man’s Justin Timberlake. This album is produced and the songs are written solely to appeal to the teenage girl demographic. As with most of the albums on this list, Obsessed falters because it’s a pop album marketed as country music.

 

Maren Morris HEROMaren Morris – HERO

Maren Morris’ debut album is anything but country music, despite how good the music actually is. The songs are well produced and well sung by Morris. When you look at Nashville Pop, HERO is an example of how it’s done right. It’s not a country album, but it’s marketed as such. Therefore, we can look it through the lens of country music and call it one of the worst “country” albums of the year. HERO will probably be the most polarizing album of 2016. Undoubtedly the biggest sin this album commits is it being called a country album. It shouldn’t have any business charting on the country albums chart too. If you’re angry about this and this prevents you from enjoying it, I don’t blame you because it would get a zero as a country record.

The Hodgepodge: The Decline of Country Festivals

With the rise of bro-country from virtually every male artist in country music came the rise of country festivals across the nation to capitalize on the hot trend. The goal was to put Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan on stage in a field surrounded by beer tents where hundreds of college students and recent graduates will congregate and get drunk while crappy, corporate country music blasted through the speakers encouraging the concert goers to continue getting drunk. These country festivals are basically a glorified frat party.

As quickly as the bro-country trend sky rocketed, it’s free-falling at the same rate. This year, over 20 country music festivals have cancelled shows due to a lack of interest and ticket sales. The Bayou Country Superfest saw a drop in ticket sales for the block of shows last weekend. The most likely case for these plummeting attendance numbers could be due to the fact that there’s simply way too many shows and festivals out there.

“Several shows have been downsized, canceled or just decided to skip this year. We may have reached the saturation point given the current talent pool,” – Pollstar’s editor-in-chief, Gary Bongiovanni

“There is an oversaturation in the market. … You’ve got a festival on every corner,”– Nash FM and Classic Hits 103.3 DJ Scott Innes

Another theory Innes states for the sudden evaporation of the festivals is that artists aren’t making money. “The only one that’s making money is the artist. … It’s a cross-your-fingers deal (for promoters to turn a profit).” Innes points out that top acts at these festivals could walk away with upwards of $1 million per show. A majority of these festivals have tickets that are purchased as an all day pass or gate admission for the whole day. So a $40 admission fee grants you access to see every show scheduled that day, and many festivals will have a bundle discount option for multiple days. That’s unlike a show at an arena or stadium where $60 buys your nosebleed seat for an opener or two plus the headliner.

So why are artists demanding so much money? Because concerts and live shows are what bring the majority of profit. We’ve detailed several times how streaming’s payouts are ridiculously low for artists and songwriters. However, as streaming continues to grow and modern radio continues to decline, artists and labels need to find other ways to bring in money. The concert and tour therefore become the focal point for the artist or band. That’s why albums are built with a high number of ready-made singles. Producers and labels want an album with five or six singles to sustain a long tour. They want more money for these shows because it’s essentially all they have for profit. But at festivals with multiple days and headliners, no one gets paid if fans aren’t there to buy drinks and merchandise.

One reason why I think attendance numbers are lower this year is due to the fact that bro-country is virtually dead. Many of the biggest names in bro-country have moved on with songs about heartbreak or spiritual inspired love song. Florida Georgia Line has “H.O.L.Y.”, Blake Shelton has “She’s Got a Way With Words”, Luke Bryan has “Huntin’ Fishin’….” which reverts back to his country checklist lifestyle and not a bro party. The point is, for many of these artists, the party has ended for now.

How many fans of bro-country were fans of the actual artist vs. simply fans of the trend and songs? I can’t tell you how many of my own friends despised country music until bro-country took off, then they became big fans of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Boston is a city that traditionally didn’t value country music, but once bro-country became popular, Boston became a hot spot for mainstream country concerts. I’d be willing to bet that a good chunk of bro-country fans were only fans of bro-country, and don’t care for “Confession” or “H.O.L.Y.”

How will the Adult Contemporary influence on so many recent mainstream releases bring a big change to concert culture? The songs don’t ignite the party like bro-country did. And probably a better question for the concert goer, is how will the lack of extra profit from the festivals effect ticket prices for normal tour shows? Several artists like Eric Church and Kip Moore have tried to fight off scalpers, so that their fans wanting to attend shows are ripped off with ticket prices. There are singers out there who understand that for some fans, a concert ticket may be a tall order for some of the fans in attendance. This all ties back to streaming’s payouts. If streaming services can’t pay artists, songwriters, et. al. in a fair amount as the number of users grow, artists and managers will make money other ways, at the cost of the fans who only want to see their favorite band live in concert.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Due out tomorrow:
    • Maren Morris’ debut album Hero.
    • Robert Ellis’ self titled album.
    • Jackson Taylor’s Which Way Is Up.
    • Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers’ live acoustic album Watch This.
  • On June 10th, Brandy Clark will release her second album, Big Day in a Small Town.
  • Frankie Ballard will release his newest album, El Rio, on June 10th.
  • Luke Bell will release his self titled album on June 17th.
  • Also on June 17th, Jon Pardi will release his newest album, California Sunrise.

Throwback Thursday Song

Josh Turner “Long Black Train” Ten years ago yesterday, this song was certified Gold by the RIAA. With the religious-themed lyrics and Turner’s baritone, “Long Black Train” epitomizes country music as much as cheating and drinking songs do. This is one of the best songs released in the first decade of the 2000s, in my opinion.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Eric Johnson “Cliffs of Dover.” A throwback as well, but my friend and I were sharing some of our favorite guitar solos with one another this weekend, and he sent me this song. I had never heard of Eric Johnson before then, and will accept any hate that admission warrants. Johnson is a hell of a guitarist, and this solo is awesome.

Tweet of the Week

A promotional photo used for the televised CMA Fest as they announce that Brett Eldredge and Thomas Rhett will host the ABC special. Hooray for short jokes (or any kind of joke for that matter) against Thomas Rhett!

Two iTunes Reviews for Old Dominion

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Below isn’t a direct response to the dumb review above, but it works.

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Review – Randy Houser’s “Song Number 7” is Essentially Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again”

To get fans excited for his new album, Fired Up, Randy Houser picked “We Went” as the album’s lead single. It’s a song with typical bro-country tropes to try to make Randy Houser look like a country boy badass. I criticized the song, but thought the album would yield a good balance of quality country and radio fodder, just like Houser’s previous album How Country Feels. Instead, Fired Up proved to be an album overloaded with stupid pop country songs jutting up into 17 tracks! As a mid-tier country bro, Houser’s producers clearly felt the need to give this album enough life to sustain Houser through tours and radio singles for a couple of years. We aren’t going to bother reviewing the 17-track album as the ready for radio playlist has nothing to offer as an album. However, as Houser releases singles, we’ll take a look at each of those. And the second single Houser is releasing from Fired Up is “Song Number 7.”

Is Nashville even trying anymore? We’re at a party with loud music and there’s one girl in particular who catches the eyes of the boys. As the party’s playlist continues, the girl gradually becomes more interested in the narrator. Once the seventh song comes through the speakers, she jumps and says “oh my god, this is my song! We’ve been listening to the radio all night long.” Wait, no. This isn’t “Play It Again.” But it might as well be. Randy Houser’s “Song Number 7” is a remake of Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again,” and writers Chris Janson, Ben Hayslip, and Justin Wilson somehow make the already terrible subject worse. Even the mid-tempo production with drum machines and generic guitars sound similar to “Play It Again,” primarily in the chorus. There was little attempt to separate this clone from the original.

Randy Houser doesn’t sing with any kind of charisma, and the chorus features some awkward, jarring vocal harmonies that strangely pop way after a natural echo would. The production of this song is crap with random intensified drums. I almost didn’t want to review “Song Number 7”, but it’s such a near copycat of Luke Bryan’s hit that it deserves to be put on this platform. Absolutely no effort went in to making this song even a little original. Instead of playing to Randy Houser’s strength as a vocalist and letting his traditional country-style expand, his label has decided to prop him firmly in the shadows of the A-List bros by having him record songs that continue mainstream country down a path of cutting the same, boring song. “Song Number 7” is terrible due to the fact that it has no originality whatsoever.

Grade: 2/10

Review – Steven Tyler’s “Red, White, and You” is a Sad, Pandering Joke of a Song

Steven Tyler’s move into country music raised a lot of eyebrows when it was first announced. It seemed to be just another washed up rock star moving to “country” in an effort to make money; cashing out on the hot trend in popular music. Unlike Poison’s Bret Michaels or Uncle Ezra Ray, Steven Tyler’s country debut was actually good. “Love Is Your Name” was a surprisingly country sounding love song. And despite falling short of the top 30 on the Country Airplay chart, it seemed to establish a bit of hope that maybe Steven Tyler would take the move into country music seriously. HA! The joke was on us because Tyler rips a page straight out of the bro-country bible for his second country single, “Red, White, and You.”

Musically, the song isn’t anything to write home about. It’s a generic pop country anthem with acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and a simple drum beat. The verses are quieter, building up to the roaring chorus where all the instruments blend into one loud noise. Seriously, for a man who led one of America’s greatest rock bands, this ultra generic production is just sad to listen to.

It’s the laughably terrible lyrics that bring “Red, White, and You” to its demise. I think the song is about Steven Tyler lusting after a girl, but it’s hard to tell what he’s singing about with incoherent onslaught of bro-country tropes. Tyler lets you know right away that this entire song is nothing more than a pandering pile of crap when the native New Yorker sings about the Georgia night. Then the rocker-turned-country sellout name drops Tom Petty and works his song titles “American Girl” and “Free Fallin'” into the song. Tyler ends the second verse by mentioning girls in cut-offs, name dropping his label, pulling a Toby Keith and saying “kiss my ass” (because ‘Merica), and then referencing a Springsteen song. “Trying too hard” doesn’t even begin to describe the writers’ attempts at making sure this song is relevant. “All the bad girls rockin’ those cut off jeans, and good old boys driving Big Machines. And you can kiss my ass, can’t help but say, it’s good to be “Born in the USA.” For the love of God, “Born in the USA” is not even close to a patriotic anthem! But neither is “Red, White, and You” so I’m not surprised.

And that’s not even the worst offender of the lyrics. Steven Tyler manages to put a Tom Petty song in a line about a vagina with “Free Fallin’ into your yum yum.” WHAT?! Is he trying to out-do Florida Georgia Line’s “pink umbrella in your drink”? This song is such a desperate cry for attention and relevancy, it’s not even funny. It’s just sad. The cringe-inducing shouts of “baby” and “sweet potato pie” pile onto the joke that is “Red, White, and You.”

I’ve come to two possible conclusions about “Red, White, and You.” The first is, as I’ve said throughout the review, that this song is a cry for attention. It’s a little kid kicking and screaming in the toy aisle at the store. The second possible conclusion is that this song is a brilliant parody of every Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell, and Florida Georgia Line song ever. I know that the first one is far more plausible than the second one, but I don’t want to imagine that these lyrics actually exist as a real attempt to get on country radio. I know that some of Aerosmith’s singles weren’t exactly deep, but even “Love in an Elevator” seemed aware of its silliness. “Red, White, and You” though?  It’s a cringe-worthy attempt at a real pop country song. It’s a sad joke with no noticeable self-awareness of how low it stoops.

Grade: 0/10

Chase Rice Issues Weird Letter To His Fans, Seemingly Apologizes For New Single

Chase Rice Letter

Chase Rice today released the brand new and lead single from his new album set to come out later this year. It’s titled “Whisper” and isn’t exactly much of a departure from his previous singles. But that will be properly reviewed on another day. No, something else much more interesting was released from Rice today and that was a letter on his site. The name of the piece is “My Honest Letter To You, The Fan.” It’s in both hand-written and text form and it comes off not only weird, but quite interesting (shout out to reader jb for bringing this to our attention):

What’s up y’all, Chase here. I wanna start by saying I hope y’all enjoy my new song “Whisper.” My guys and I have put a ton of work and thought into this new music, and I know a bunch of you out there will love it. Having said that, I’m not ignorant, there are a lot of people out there waiting for country music to find a little more depth and meaning. Well, I agree with you. Country music deserves that. This first song may not be what you’re looking for yet, but that’s ok, because music was not meant to be heard in singles, but in albums. My album will be out later this summer, and I can promise you one thing….if you absolutely love this progressive version, I appreciate you, and I think you will love this upcoming ALBUM. If you have listened to my music for years and want to hear more depth and meaning, I very much appreciate you, too, and your desires will also be fulfilled on this album (and truthfully, that was my goal on previous albums with songs like “Carolina Can” and “Every Song I Sing.”) I grew up on guys like Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney. Songs like “The Dance” and “There Goes My Life” spoke to me at that time and still do today. They helped shape me as an artist and as a man. I cannot speak to the state of country music, after all I’m just one small part of it, but I can speak about my music, and I have a strong desire to put my life stories–good or bad, fun or serious, cliche or not often said–into my albums. Having said this, I also know I can’t please everybody, so if you’re a fan of mine, thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you’re not a fan of mine, you most likely haven’t gotten this far in this letter, but I appreciate you, too, because you, too, give me the drive to maybe one day convert you with three chords and the truth, one song, or one show, but since it’s coming from me, it’s going to come to you one album at a time. 

God Bless,
Chase

The very first thing that catches my attention is the huge emphasis on the word album, not only mentioned a lot throughout the letter, but specifically underlined. Not only this, but he seemingly apologizes for this new single. He basically admits that this isn’t deep and that many out there want more depth in his music and all of country music. And I have to say it’s refreshing for him to acknowledge it. He then goes on to promise that his album will be deep and have more meaning. He cites previous efforts of trying to dig deeper and how meaningful country music was to him growing up. It’s pretty obvious that he is trying to appeal to his critics and convince them that his music can be more than what it has been. The final words hammer this home more, as he specifically acknowledges people who aren’t fans of him and how he hopes to win them over “one album at a time.”

As easy as it is to just dismiss this as cheap marketing, I want to believe Chase Rice’s intentions here are sincere and honest. It’s not a secret that this whole “letter to the fans” schtick has been a played out marketing trope in recent years by mainstream country artists. Many love to send one to country radio after hitting #1. Chase Rice’s music has done very little to inspire me up to this point, as I’ve been one of his most vocal critics. It repulsed me how his label pushed his last single for over a year at radio. But then I see this letter and remember at the end of Ignite The Night the potential he showed on a song like “Jack Daniels and Jesus.” Rice cashed in hard on bro country and now it’s dead. He has to adapt and he knows it. One of the impacts I foresaw with Chris Stapleton’s big win at the 2015 CMA Awards was forcing everyone in the mainstream country world to dig deeper. I’m slowly seeing this out of a lot of mainstream country artists (well the ones who are not choosing to sell out even harder).

All of this makes me believe that Rice is telling the truth right here. More than anything I hope he is because I would hope any artist wouldn’t want to be remembered for songs like “Gonna Wanna Tonight.” I would hope that an artist would realize the impact they have on people’s lives that hear their music. It still doesn’t excuse his new single “Whisper” of course. Any independent country artist or impartial fan who reads this will be insulted by Rice’s admittance to not digging deep with all of his music and basically chasing mainstream attention with a lot of his previous music. But as they say the first step in resolving a problem is admitting you have one. This will also continue the speculation and discussion around mainstream country artists and the say they let their labels have in making their music.

The only way we will know how sincere this letter is will be when Rice’s new album is released.