Derek’s Top Ten Country Songs – November 2014

My favorite thing about my top ten this month is the number of independent artists represented here. These are some great songs with wonderful vocal deliveries and fantastic songwriting.  My favorite this month by a slight edge is Mack McKenzie’s “Walk With Me”: a heartbreaking song about losing your wife after 50 years. I’m a sucker for that kind of topic, and McKenzie delivers the story with perfection over a simple, acoustic arrangement. At number 2, we have “Old Ways” from Ashley Raines & The New West Revue. Their newest album, After The Bruising was released on Thanksgiving (be on the look out for my review later this month). “Old Ways” is about life’s lessons and understanding the decisions we make have brought us to this point. Mack McKenzie appears again with “I’m Doing Alright”, “One Last, One More”, and “Oceans.” McKenzie’s One Last, One More is simply great country music.

Ashley Raines appears again with the title track from his new album. “After The Bruising” is dark and heavy with room for interpretation within the lyrics. The Doobie Brothers’ reworking of their hit, “Black Water”, with Zac Brown Band was such a pleasure to listen to. I’m convinced there isn’t a song Zac touches that I won’t like and this was no exception. Newcomers Maddie & Tae had an impressive EP released this month. I love the youthful, witty sass they write with, and “Sierra” is a great example of that. It was my favorite of the four songs on that EP. Love and Theft (remember them?) released an impressive single in late November. “Whiskey on My Breath” is about a man who drinks too much and has a life that fell into shambles. When he dies he knows he’ll get into heaven, but the shame of facing Jesus with whiskey on his breath scares him. It’s a wonderful song. And finally, I realize there are only 9 songs on that playlist. My last song comes from Garth Brooks. You know, the man who called Youtube “the Devil” and is anti streaming so I can’t link his studio tracks. I loved “Tacoma” off Man Against Machine.  

As a treat, here’s “Tacoma” songwriter Caitlyn Smith performing the song:

Josh’s Top Ten Country Songs – November 2014

 

The month of November wasn’t exactly brimming with great new country music. That was expected considering the CMA Awards and several artists releasing greatest hits albums. Also from August to September there were a lot of new albums being released, as you’ve seen the numerous reviews we’ve done over the last few months. That being said there was still enough quality country music to compile a good top ten list for the month of November. I thought for sure Garth Brooks would have the #1 song for the month, but a familiar duo snuck in at the last second and stole the top spot.

1. First Aid Kit – “America” (Cover) – The Swedish duo of Johanna & Anna Söderberg’s cover of Paul Simon’s “America” is simply too damn good not to be the #1 country song of November 2014. First Aid Kit impresses me more every time I hear them sing and there’s a reason why you’ll see their names pop up a lot in Country Perspective’s year-end awards. This is one cover I can’t describe to you properly and something you just need to hear yourself.

 

2. Garth Brooks – “Tacoma” – Despite not getting the top spot, Garth occupies the most spots in the top ten with four songs and forced me to break my three songs per artist rule. This is easily the best vocal performance by Garth on his new album Man Against Machine. It’s also his favorite song on the album. One more thing: Garth isn’t on the Spotify playlist for this month’s top ten because he of course isn’t on Spotify. If you would like to hear a preview of his songs on his new album or any of the songs in the top ten, click here.

3. Mack McKenzie – “Walk With Me” – Debut albums aren’t supposed to impress me as much as Mack McKenzie’s new album One Last, One More. And yet it did. The standout song to me from the album is the final track, “Walk With Me.” It’s an emotional song about an older man whose wife has passed away and he’s now lost without her. He recalls all of their memories throughout the song and by the end of the song his time on Earth is coming to an end. The haunting female background vocals puts this song over the top for me.

4. Garth Brooks – “Rodeo and Juliet” – Only Garth would bring Western swing to a country album in 2014. Really he is one of the few in mainstream country who can get away with this kind of creative decision. Nobody does Western swing anymore, yet here’s Garth bringing it back with glee. Thank you Garth and I hope to see another Western swing song on his 2015 album.

5. Garth Brooks – “Send ‘Em on Down the Road” – This is a heartfelt song about parents raising their children, watching them grow up and then sending them off into the world. While “Tacoma” was the best vocal performance on Garth’s new album, I thought this was the best song lyrically. If I could have made one decision for Garth’s new album, I would have made this the first single from it.

6. The Doobie Brothers & The Zac Brown Band – “Black Water” (Cover) – This is the second time this year that Zac Brown Band has managed to make one of my monthly top ten lists by covering another artists’ song. “Black Water” is more of a southern rock song, so it fits Zac Brown Band like a glove. The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound album didn’t blow me away, but this was the brightest spot on the entire album.

 

7. Mack McKenzie – “Oceans” – What makes this song standout to me is how the lyrics paint a perfect picture in the listeners’ heads of what this song is about. It’s ironic McKenzie would be right beside Garth Brooks on this playlist because his incorporation of the ocean sound effects at the beginning and end of the song reminded me of Brooks using thunder sound effects in his famous song “Thunder Rolls.” This song describes the feelings of breakup quite well and demonstrates what a great storyteller McKenzie is with his music.

8. Garth Brooks – “Man Against Machine” – Originally I had “Fish” in this spot, but this past weekend I listened to Garth’s album a few more times and I found myself playing “Man Against Machine” a lot. I realized the more you listen to this song, the more it will grow on you. When I first heard this song I didn’t know what to make of it because it’s so different. It doesn’t exactly have a country sound, but it has a great message and Garth’s current vocals match up well with a song like this. This could have been another great single choice for Garth.

9. Maddie & Tae – “Sierra” – Back in July, Maddie & Tae came out with their polarizing first single “Girl in a Country Song” and captured everyone’s attention. That month in country music, however had so much great music being released that this single just missed out on making my top ten list for July. Other than Garth Brooks’ and Mack McKenzie’s new albums, the month of November had hardly any competition and made it easy for me to put Maddie & Tae in my top ten monthly list for the first time ever. To me this is the best song they have put out yet, although they have only put out four songs total.

 

10. Mack McKenzie – “Your Ways” – The third song for McKenzie in my November top ten playlist. The thing that immediately caught my eye in this song is the piano play. Not only is the instrumentation good, but the lyrics are solid. This is only the first we’re hearing from McKenzie and he’s already pretty good. I think he’s only going to get better as his career progresses.

That’s it for the November playlist! There will probably not be a top ten list for December as there isn’t a lot of new non-holiday music being released. We will however be announcing nominees for Country Perspective’s year-end awards, highlighting the very best and worst of 2014 in country music. Don’t miss it!

Album Review – The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound Sees Current Country Artists Tackle Classic Hits

Classic rock artists having current country stars cover their hits seems to be a new trend. This all really began, if memory serves me correctly, when Lionel Richie put out an album of current country artists covering his biggest hits. It went over great and Richie has even said he has thought about doing another album like that one. This year alone we’ve had a tribute album to The Allman Brothers, a terrible Mötley Crüe tribute album and mainstream country artists even attempted to cover the great Merle Haggard’s greatest songs. Now we have The Doobie Brothers doing that exact same thing. Did you really think The Doobie Brothers just showed up at 2014 CMA Awards for nothing? All about business and promotion, baby. Personally I enjoyed their performances, although I thought Jennifer Nettles brought them down a little with her terrible dancing. Nevertheless, let’s go through another classic rock tribute album done by mainstream country artists. It can’t be as bad as the Mötley Crüe one, right?

The Best Songs on the Album

Well I’ll tell you right up front that this is better than the Crüe tribute album, but that isn’t saying much. There are some definite bright spots on this album. The Zac Brown Band fits perfectly with “Black Water.” Southern fried country is Zac Brown Band, so of course they do great with a southern roots rock song. Keep in mind this review is slightly different from normal reviews because I’m judging more of how the artist covers the song and the choices made by production rather than the song itself. The signifier of a great cover to me is if it does justice to the integrity of the song and yet makes it feel fresh. The Zac Brown Band nails both of these aspects. They already did justice to their cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” earlier this year with Vince Gill and they deliver again with this Doobie Brothers cover.

The choice of Sara Evans for “What a Fool Believes” is a fantastic choice. It’s higher pitched and perfectly suits a dynamic female voice. This song is a great reminder of how great Evans’ vocals are and how I wish she was still on radio. It’s evident The Doobie Brothers and Evans have good chemistry, making for a great cover. You may not like this song and I understand that completely because it could get annoying after several plays. But give credit to Evans doing a grade A job with this cover. You’ll never believe who else does a great job on this album: Tyler Farr. He covers “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” and hits a home run. The heavy rock influence suits Farr’s rough voice and style, which makes for a great cover. Farr makes it his own and still pays homage to the sound of the song. He stands out and shines beside The Doobie Brothers. His vocal range is stretched a little, but he makes it work. I want to see more of this Farr and never again want to see the “Redneck Crazy” version of Farr.

“You Belong to Me” is covered by an artist I had never heard of before. Amanda Sudano Ramirez covers this song and does a fantastic job. She is one half of the indie duo Johnnyswim and is the daughter of the late “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer. While her inclusion on an album of country artists is interesting since she’s more of a folk/blues singer, she really stands out. Her voice is great and I want to hear more of her music personally. Vince Gill plays guitar on this song and does phenomenal as always. The other song that stood out to me is Charlie Worsham covering “Nobody.” There’s a separate introduction to this track, giving it a special feel and for good reason Charlie Worsham does a great job with The Doobie Brothers on this song and it’s great to see an underrated artist like Worsham get this special attention. This is how a cover should be done and it’s a good way to close the album.

The Worst Songs on the Album

While there were these bright moments, there were also some downright puzzling moments. Take for instance “Long Train Runnin’.” The choice of Toby Keith for this song is at best puzzling. Really it’s a bad choice. This song is another higher pitched song that suits a female artist more so than a male artist, especially a male artist like Keith who doesn’t have dynamic vocals. I would have picked Carrie Underwood to cover this song. Keith just sounds so out-of-place and is stretching his vocals too far at times. Huey Lewis sounds great on the harmonica at least.

There’s one point in this album where there are three straight songs where I have the same criticism with each of them. When covering a song with the original artist it’s important not to get buried by the original artist. You should shine along side them and make the song sound new. Love & Theft does not do this on “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Casey James does not do this on “Jesus Is Just Alright” and Brad Paisley doesn’t do it on “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” It feels like they’re just in the background and contribute absolutely nothing to the song. They are all forgettable covers and you won’t remember them tomorrow.

This is all leads to perhaps the most puzzling choice of artist on the entire album. I would say “South City Midnight Lady” is the most serious toned song on the album. Who do they pick to cover it? Jerrod Niemann, the same artist who put out a song called “Donkey” and rapped alongside Pitbull earlier this year. This is a stupid choice, despite the fact Niemann does okay with the song. Just like those three songs above though, it’s not very memorable. The performance is dry and boring.

The Rest of the Album

Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes cover “Listen to the Music.” This is an interesting duo to cover this song. Then again they decided to take a more pop country approach with this upbeat and memorable song, so it makes sense to put Blake and Hayes on this song. It was also a good move to put Hayes just on guitar and not have him sing. It would’ve been funny hearing him attempt to cover this song. The original is still better, but this isn’t a bad cover. It’s just a little too generic for my taste. Chris Young covers the upbeat “China Grove.” Even though I find Young’s voice to sound a little generic at times, I think he does a solid job covering the song. It seems to fit his comfort zone just right and Young doesn’t sound like he’s out of place at any point. He also reminds everyone that he has the chops to sing more dynamic songs and not the boring pop country he has put out recently.

Overall Thoughts

This is pretty much what I expected out of The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound album. There are some good moments, bad moments and boring moments. Most of the time cover albums prove to be pretty pointless from a quality and artistic standpoint. This is nothing but a quick cash grab. If I want to hear these songs I’ll go listen to the original versions, not bastardized versions with Toby Keith or Love & Theft. Cover albums work in when the artists actually collaborate together to create great, new versions of the song. The most recent example of a good cover album would be Mary Sarah’s Bridges earlier this year. You could tell Sarah actually spent a good amount of time with these artists and it shined through in the final product. Other than Bridges, I would say this is the best cover/tribute album I’ve seen put out by mainstream country music this year. Not a high bar to hurdle, but there was still a few covers worth listening to on Southland. I would recommend this album only if you’re a hardcore Doobie Brothers’ fan or if you like mediocre cover albums.

Grade: 6/10