Country Perspective’s Best Music Reviewed in February

This is the monthly recap post of all the great music we reviewed on the blog in case you missed it or just came across our humble, little blog. So check this music out if you haven’t already.

Albums

nikki-lane-highway-queen

Nikki Lane – Highway Queen

Nikki Lane delivers music excellence in Highway Queen. It feels like a truly breakout moment for Lane, as her personality and style shines though so well on this record. The instrumentation and production are spot-on and frames each song like they should, which shows how well Lane and Tyler worked in making this album. This album delivers the rollicking and fun foot-stompers just as well as it delivers emotional gut-punchers. Mark my words: this will go down as one of the best country albums of the year. Lane hits the jackpot and wins big with Highway Queen.

balto-strangers

Balto – Strangers

Simply put Strangers is a fantastic album. Balto intrigued me from my first listen of Strangers and the more I pulled back the layers of this album, the more impressed I became. There’s such a rich, variety display of sounds throughout this album that pair up so well with their lyrical counterparts. It’s an album that kind of pulls you every which way and you feel a little bit of everything listening to it. While the instrumentation is something that will immediately impress, the songwriting is equally admirable and lead vocalist Sheron really does a great job bringing the songs to life. Strangers is the type of album that will leave a smile on your face and reward you for listening from start to finish.

alison-krauss-windy-city

Alison Krauss – Windy City

For fans of classic country and Alison Krauss, Windy City is a real joy to listen to from start to finish. I really applaud Krauss and Cannon for picking a great group of songs to cover. There’s plenty of variety, a song for any mood you’re in on this album. Each listen through you’ll have a new favorite. It’s also an educational album for those aren’t as informed about the history of the genre and brings to light some quality old artists worth knowing about. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album sees Krauss add to her staggering Grammys total. Krauss once again delivers really good music with Windy City.

whitney-rose-south-texas-suite

Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite (EP)

Whitney Rose was looking to capture and honor the spirit of Texas style country and she absolutely accomplishes this with South Texas Suite. The instrumentation on this album is damn near flawless, featuring lots of twangy steel guitars and fiddle (a must of course if you’re gonna play in Texas). The songwriting is great and deceptively deeper than you think upon first listen. Rose also still manages to incorporate her throwback soulful influence into the music too. All in all it’s just a flat-out fun listen that I think any country fan can come to appreciate. Rose once again reminds us of her fantastic talent, reaffirming herself as one of the brightest, best up and coming artists in country music today with South Texas Suite.

 

Songs

Zac Brown Band – “My Old Man”

Album Review – Whitney Rose’s ‘South Texas Suite’

whitney-rose-south-texas-suite

Normally I don’t review EPs and its usually because I find EPs aren’t good enough to be worth highlighting in a review. But then sometimes an EP will come along that’s just too damn good to not talk about and I have to break my own rule. This is one of those cases with Whitney Rose’s new EP South Texas Suite. The once Canadian now Texan Rose is no stranger to this blog of course, as she won Country Perspective’s 2015 Female Artist of the Year award due to her fantastic sophomore album Heartbreaker of the Year. Produced by Raul Malo, it’s soulful and unique approach allows her to standout above many of her peers and proved her to be one of the most promising up and comers in country music. So needless to say I was expecting more great music from South Texas Suite and that’s exactly what we get.

The album starts off with the waltzing “Three Minute Love Affair.” It’s about a passing love, falling for someone at the bar and spending three minutes out on the dance floor together before parting ways. The song perfectly encapsulates that fleeting love you can find yourself entangled in with a stranger. The accordion really adds some great texture to the song too. “Analog” is Rose’s yearning for simpler times of technology and media, lamenting today’s inundation of ads and media. The song goes on about how we work ourselves to death and get consumed by our phones, making for some thought-provoking commentary on communication and relationships today. The gem of this EP though has to be “My Boots.” Very much in the classic country vein, Rose sings of wanting to be herself in front of her man’s mother. Wearing her boots symbolizes this the most, refusing to put on a fake face in front of others just to ensure a good impression. Accompanied by some excellent steel guitar and Rose’s impassioned vocal performance, this is one you won’t forget after hearing. Rose nails another waltzing love song in “Bluebonnets for My Baby,” which is a throwback in every sense of the word. “Looking Back on Luckenbach” is a steel guitar drenched tune about reminiscing on old times and contemplating memories made. The EP then closes with the aptly titled “How ‘Bout a Hand for the Band,” an instrumental that gives the band a chance to show off their sound.

Whitney Rose was looking to capture and honor the spirit of Texas style country and she absolutely accomplishes this with South Texas Suite. The instrumentation on this album is damn near flawless, featuring lots of twangy steel guitars and fiddle (a must of course if you’re gonna play in Texas). The songwriting is great and deceptively deeper than you think upon first listen. Rose also still manages to incorporate her throwback soulful influence into the music too. All in all it’s just a flat-out fun listen that I think any country fan can come to appreciate. Rose once again reminds us of her fantastic talent, reaffirming herself as one of the brightest, best up and coming artists in country music today with South Texas Suite.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Definitely

Album Highlights: My Boots, Analog, Bluebonnets for My Baby

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

Lately I decided to go back and take a look at all of the album grades I handed out last year. When it comes to grading albums, it can be very polarizing to say the very least and I know there are times when you flat out disagree with me. Other times we’re in complete agreement. One of the toughest aspects of grading is deciding what album is worthy of a 10/10. What constitutes a 10/10 can vary amongst people and I’ve found context is one of the biggest determining factors. Some view a 10/10 in a historical context, some view it in a yearly context, some in a genre context, etc. When it comes to a 10/10 to me, at its core it all comes to a feel for me. I can usually sense a 10/10 from my first listen and I know it’s the mark of a truly great album.

Another important thing I keep in mind when grading is not putting too much weight on the artist’s past material. It should be considered for in terms of comparison for their average sound and whether they deviate from it or not. But in my mind you shouldn’t knock a current album’s grade just because it isn’t as good as the last one in your mind. For example, it baffled me how so many people knocked their grade for Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free because it wasn’t as good in their mind as his previous album Southeastern, so therefore it can’t be a 10/10 if they gave Southeastern a 10/10 in their mind. I also consider it unfair to hold an album in a historical light right upon its release. In my opinion it takes years to determine how well it holds up historically, all-time. Finally I believe there’s no such thing as a perfect album. Every album has its little flaws and has areas where it could be a little better. So I think giving a 10/10 only in the case of it being “perfect” is a little absurd. But as they say it’s all subjective and I just wanted to clarify how I look at albums.

Without further ado I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I would grade albums I gave a 10/10 last year at this current time after having more time to digest and listen to them. Some have held up and some have not. Like I said at the beginning of the year when I announced we were approaching 10/10 grades differently this year, I gave way too many last year. So now I give you what I believe the true 10/10 grades, as well as what I believe didn’t hold up as 10/10. There probably won’t be another post like this next year because I’m being more focused on the grading this year and don’t have any regrets like last year. So here you go:

10/10

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch 

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer 

Don Henley – Cass County

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Thoughts: Of course our album of the year choice is still a 10/10. I also still stand by my point that Something More Than Free is a better album than Southeastern, even though I’m aware this is unpopular. The key word here is album. If you asked me to pick the best three songs amongst the two albums, I’m probably picking them from Southeastern. But looking at both as whole albums, Something More Than Free is better because it flows better as a whole, thematically and sonically. I know people will disagree.

Of the others that hold up to a 10/10, I know there’s only three of them that some people would disagree. While Traveller being at 14 songs is not ideal and detracted from it in people’s minds, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the album’s overall quality in my opinion. Houndmouth may never put out a better album than Little Neon Limelight again, especially in light of the news of Katie Toupin departing from the band earlier this year. Her vocals were a big reason why I loved that album. As for Whitney Rose’s Heartbreaker of the Year, it just does such a great job of standing out and taking risks while remaining rooted in country. It’s why she won our Female Artist of the Year award.

9/9

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid 

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning 

Thoughts: So now we get to the albums where they didn’t hold up. Don’t Be Afraid ultimately doesn’t hold up for me because it just doesn’t follow the emotional punch of its title song all the way through the album. Angeleno was a big favorite in a lot of circles, but I just don’t get the same feeling as I did when I first listened to it. It just doesn’t sound as good hearing it back now, but it’s still a great album. The Malpass Brothers are an act I really enjoy, but giving 10/10 to an album mostly full of cover songs wasn’t the right choice. Then we have one of the big surprises for me of 2015 and that’s The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning. A lot of people missed this one because it was a January release. It’s still a really really good album, but it just doesn’t make the cut in my mind for a 10/10, although it’s close.

8/8

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Self-Titled

Thoughts: This is where I know I’m ruffling feathers and people won’t like my downgrading. But I remind you this is just my opinion and not the end all be all. We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’m a big fan of this duo and that’s one of the things that ultimately clouded my final grade. There’s arguably no other act in mainstream country I want to see succeed more than these two. So I gave Start Here a grade it shouldn’t have received. There’s a lot of really good moments on the album, but it doesn’t follow that through on all of it’s songs. “Your Side of Town” is one song that brings it down, as well as “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” for just not being memorable songs. I still say their best album will come when they finally get fed up of the games you have to play on a major label and leave to make their own records on Thirty Tigers.

My fandom also clouded my judgement on Second Hand Heart and Mono. Dwight Yoakam is a living legend and The Mavericks are perhaps one of the most underrated acts in music. Both delivered really good albums with some fun songs, but they’re just not 10/10 albums. Both needed more serious songs on the album to merit it. I enjoy Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes and even bought it on vinyl, but I don’t know what I was thinking giving it 10/10. Maybe it was the summer heat? Ditto for Banditos’ self-titled album. Just a case of me going overboard.

Oh and one last thing. I wanted to give you what I considered a ranking of the top 20 albums of 2015. I think this will also serve useful to those who have just found the site and are looking for great music. These are albums you can’t go wrong with and you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I mentioned above too. My top 20 ranking is all albums reviewed, not just what I reviewed. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask below.

  1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  2. Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
  3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller 
  4. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled (This one has gotten even better for me upon more listens)
  5. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer
  6. Don Henley – Cass County (Still can’t believe the drummer for the Eagles made a top ten country album of the year)
  7. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (This one has really grown on me)
  8. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses
  9. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 
  10. Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year
  11. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (Still not giving this a 10/10, Church fans. So don’t ask)
  12. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
  13. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno (This placing will get more complaints than you realize)
  14. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter (I hate myself for giving out 9.5/10 grades at one point)
  15. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (Most under-the-radar debut of 2015)
  16. Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds
  17. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Deserves a lot more credit than it received)
  18. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (Also deserved more credit)
  19. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
  20. Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams (I always forget about this one, which is dumb)

Just missed the cut: James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Tony Furtado’s The Bell, Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers and Jami Lin Wilson’s Holidays and Wedding Rings.

The Hodgepodge: Revisiting Radio Programming Issues and the Tomato Problem

Keith Hill’s comments on females at country radio took the country music world by storm last year. Just to quickly refresh your memory Hill said “The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” This was in the context of calling males the lettuce and encouraging radio program directors to take females out of rotation in order to maximize ratings. As I’m sure you remember, reactions to Hill’s comments were fierce. Josh’s response in The Hodgepodge took a look at the larger, underlying issue of the lack of overall quality on radio.

I think you can make the argument that there hasn’t been much improvement on either front: female representation or quality. Looking at The Pulse from June 13, 2015 (published the same week as the previously linked Hodgepodge), there were two solo females on the charts in the top 10: Carrie Underwood (7) and Kelsea Ballerini (8). One female duo with Maddie & Tae at 24, and a female led group at 10 with Little Big Town. Also in the top 10 were two songs with female harmonies (“Wild Child” and “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools”). The overall pulse that week was -14. Compare that to yesterday’s Pulse with two solo females in the top 10: Carrie Underwood (1) and Maren Morris (10). Maddie & Tae again at 23, and then Cassadee Pope in a duet with Chris Young at 12. The pulse sits at -10.

That’s fairly even, if you ask me. In the latest issue of Country Aircheck, Lance Houston from iHeartMedia station WBWL in Boston sort of echoed Keith Hill’s comments and took it a step further. Now, before I move on, I just want to clarify that I’m not trying to restart a controversy or blow this up into something it’s not. His comments are interesting, and I think they’re worth commenting on. Houston approaches programming from balancing the logs of who is singing the song. “If you’ve got two females back to back, you don’t have a balanced log given the format’s small percentage of female music. The goal should be to make the most balanced log possible. The same thing goes with other [artist characteristics]; you don’t have a balanced log if you have three or four male duos in a row.”

From a business and programming standpoint, I completely understand that approach. You have A (female solo), B (male solo), C (female duo), D (male duo), and E (bands). In an ideal world, radio has an even distribution of A, B, C, D, and E, without ever repeating letters. But here’s the kicker from Houston’s comments: “given the format’s small percentage of female music.” The representation of A is low, and B is extremely high. Looking again at yesterday’s Pulse of the top 30, here’s the distribution: A (2 songs), B (21 songs), C (1 song), D (2 songs), E (3 songs), and we’ll classify Chris Young & Cassadee Pope as F, a Male/Female duo (1 song). So in reality, you take what you’re given and distribute the choices in the most even possible way.

Given the fact that there aren’t many female artists available for radio to choose from, we don’t get much female music on the radio. Maren Morris is a newcomer who could build on a successful run after a top 10 debut single. Carrie Underwood will release a new single soon to follow “Heartbeat” at number one, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” is on its way, and Miranda Lambert is working on new music. Jennifer Nettles, Cam, Brandy Clark, Martina McBride, and Brook Eden all have songs in the bottom half of the top 60.

It’s a slow process, but we could see more females impacting radio. It’s possible, given the recent success of Cam, Kelsea Ballerini, and now Maren Morris. I think the outcry after the tomato comments could have influenced this, but we have to understand it’ll take time. We’re coming off the bro-country era. Programmers can’t just flip the switch and go 50/50 distribution between males and females. But labels can up their rosters to include more females, or even make way for non-music row artists to be played.

Just last year, quality albums from Whitney Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Hailey Whitters provide some great music to choose from. Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Lee Ann Womack are familiar faces who get ignored. Aubrie Sellers’ debut album is excellent. I’d be okay if she got a chance from nepotism, like Thomas Rhett did, if it meant hearing Sellers on the radio. I’d also argue that the aforementioned females would also up the quality of music on the charts if they’re given the chance.

Unfortunately, the business side may not pave the way for the quality side of music. We may never see the day of high female representation on the charts, and it pains me to say it. As much as I’d like to see it, the label attitudes of the label executives would have to drastically change. I have a better chance of getting a country record deal than that happening. And as radio slowly slips away for other outlets, this whole conversation may be a moot point someday. But until that day comes, I hope the winds of change blow in the direction of a higher female representation on country radio. I think the demand is there, and the supply is certainly available.

Upcoming/Recent Country Releases

  • Southern Family is finally released tomorrow. I’ve listened to it on NPR First Listen, and I enjoyed it. You’ll see Josh’s review soon.
  • William Michael Morgan releases his debut EP tomorrow as well.
  • Maren Morris announced that her debut album, Hero, will be released on June 3.
  • Randy Houser‘s next single will be “Song Number 7.” We will review the single, but not Fired Up. 
  • Kenny Chesney is trying to be cryptic on social media to get fans excited for an upcoming announcement. Most likely, on March 24, Chesney will give us details on some new music, be it a single, album, or both.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Leave the Pieces” by The Wreckers. The Wreckers, made up of Jessica Harp and Michelle Branch, had a short life in country music. One successful album in 2006 yielded two top ten hits: “My, Oh My” at #9 and this song as their only number one. I’m a big fan of this song and I wish we could have had more music from this duo.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Ray LaMontagne Ouroboros. LaMontagne’s newest album was produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It’s a heavier, psychedelic-like album calling back to a classic rock approach to music production. Just like old vinyl, the album is broken into two parts, emulating the need to flip the record over. The production over shadows LaMontagne’s signature vocals, but it’s still a good offering from this rock singer-songwriter.

Tweet of the Week

This is a great picture of Sturgill and Merle.

Two Randy Houser iTunes Reviews

RH1 RH2

As I said, we’re not reviewing Fired Up as a whole because its way too long and overrun with the same, low quality crap. Though this first review would have you think otherwise. I’d argue that the album is full of filler.

As for the second review, that comparison to Toby Keith is hilarious! Sharing it with Josh, he agreed that it’s an accurate comparison given that both singers are talented, yet put out clichéd music. But this person’s reasoning? HA! If Houser didn’t put out 17 songs of radio pandering bull crap, then I’d agree. “Like a Cowboy”, or most of Houser’s first couple albums is the kind of country music that’s good. You don’t sell out like this to get “earned” recognition.

The Hodgepodge: Substantive Lyrics on the Rise

It’s no secret that the rise of bro-country was quickly followed by a rise of complaints. Complaints about the shallow party lyrics and themes repeated in song after song from many artists. Well after a few years of party hits dominating the radio waves, we appear to be on the brink of some more depth finding its way into our mainstream country music. It’s not close to being good, but attitudes seem to be shifting and steps are being taken toward a more substantive side of country music. Substantive lyrics are the pride of country music.

Some of the lesser offenders are shifting away from the party themes to something with more story and substance. Justin Moore’s “You Look Like I Need a Drink”, Frankie Ballard’s “It All Started With a Beer”, Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” and Kip Moore’s “Running For You” are all in the top 40 of the Country Airplay Chart. New singles from Toby Keith, Big & Rich, and Eric Church also show commitment to the task of deeper songs. And Love & Theft’s excellent “Whiskey on My Breath” has seen some revival thanks to Bobby Bones.

While some of the biggest offenders of bro country can’t quite get the depth in their songs, I think their attempts, however futile, shows that it’s a trend worth looking at. Sure Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man”, Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here” and Florida Georgia Line’s nonsensical ballad in “Confession” are all about as deep as a rain puddle, but I think the success of these songs will inspire more to follow in the depth. If his CRS performance is any indication, Luke Bryan’s next single could very well be the tender love song “To The Moon and Back.” Again, not a home run in terms of depth and substance, but I’d argue it’s the best of the four songs mentioned in this paragraph.

Beyond established mainstream acts shifting their music, we’re seeing several Americana and independent country acts get more attention in the mainstream spotlight. Chris Stapleton’s rise has been well documented by us. Sturgill Simpson signed to a major label and is poised to release an album later this year. Jason Isbell is starting to catch more attention and earning some performance time next to the likes of Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt at an upcoming benefit show for the Country Music Hall of Fame. And if you keep an eye on the articles Taste of Country and The Boot are churning out, you’ll notice that they’re starting to expand their coverage to Americana artists like Whitney Rose, Sam Outlaw and The Black Lillies.

None of this is to say that country music is on the mend or close to being great again, but more and more, we’re starting to see little steps away from shallow anthems. We’re starting to see some more depth added into the popular music. But even with one step forward, country still manages to take a few steps back. Despite promises of deeper albums, Chase Rice and Dierks Bentley’s new singles are terrible, clichéd radio fodder. And Thomas Rhett is poised to follow-up his ballad with “T-Shirt,” which is nothing more than a funky dance tune for him to further rip off Bruno Mars. Who knows what the future holds, but we could be looking at the pieces falling into place for a swing back in the right direction.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Vince Gill’s newest album, Down to My Last Bad Habit will hit the shelves tomorrow.
  • Wynonna & The Big Noise will debut their self titled album tomorrow.
  • Chris King will release his second album, Animal, at the end of the month.
  • Dan + Shay have released a new single called “From the Ground Up.”
  • Lorrie Morgan’s Letting Go…Slow will be released tomorrow.
  • A Thousand Horses announce “Southernality” as their next radio single.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Shot Full of Holes” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers. From their 2001 album, Truckstop Diaries, “Shot Full of Holes” is hard-hitting tale of an imprisoned man who struggles to adapt to life inside of jail then outside of jail. Stoney LaRue also has a recording of this same song on his Downtown album.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


The Temple EP by Parson James. Parson James is a pop/R&B singer songwriter from New York and born in South Carolina. James found some success last year with his single “Stole the Show” and now has released this five song EP. I’m trying to expand my musical variety, and I enjoy pop and R&B music in the appropriate genre!

Tweet of the Week

Windmills’ response to Grady Smith’s tweet is perfect. Thomas Rhett did rip off Ed Sheeran with “Die a Happy Man.”

Two Chase Rice Facepalm Reviews

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 2.51.00 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 2.46.56 PM

Chase Rice fans have a lot of hate for traditional country music. It’s apparently full of whiny twang. But Claire is happy that Chase Rice isn’t conforming to traditional country. He’s doing his own thing by conforming to Nashville’s bro-country/metro-country trend.