Category Archives: Commentary

Year-End Lists Should be About Quality, Not Quotas

Before the release of my list of the best albums of 2017 tomorrow, I’d like to address an issue that’s been bothering me increasingly over the past week, as more and more people release their year-end lists of great country/Americana/bluegrass songs and albums. There seem to be two prevailing themes–the lists, in varying degrees of discrepancy, feature more men than women, and people are getting upset about this, citing it as a consistent, systematic discrimination similar to that faced by women on country radio and all across the industry.

First of all, undoubtedly there is an inherent bias and discrimination against women in the music industry, maybe especially in the country industry, and I’ve spilled much ink discussing this. Women are not given a chance to succeed on the radio despite sales numbers–see Miranda Lambert and “Tin Man,”–while men seem to constantly rocket up the charts no matter how much (Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road”) or how little “Luke Bryan’s “Light it Up”) it might actually be selling and resonating with the general public. Women are consistently speaking of quotas held by labels and radio programmers, of only being allowed so many slots in the mainstream just because of their gender. All of this is factual, and disheartening, , and something Country Exclusive will do its small part to fight and rail against for the foreseeable future.

But just as the quota for women shouldn’t exist on country radio, it shouldn’t exist on these year-end lists either. As a woman, I strive for equal opportunity with men, and I can’t speak for these artists, but what I can say about Country Exclusive is that we will offer an equal opportunity for both genders to be heard, reviewed, and considered for year-end lists. Although I can’t speak for anyone else with certainty, I believe this rings true for others in my position as well. That said, I will not guarantee equal results here–I will not feature a year-end list that contains exactly half men and half women unless that is a true reflection of my opinion of the quality of the music. I will not add or take away women from a list just to fill a quota or to avoid offending anyone. And if I were an artist, I’d want to be recognized on a list such as this because the writer(s) respected the quality of my work, not because they were playing an arbitrary numbers game. Just as it is wrong to exclude based on gender, it’s wrong to include only on that basis, for this in turn diminishes the quality of one’s output and asserts that specific groups, in this case women, need special treatment and mandated quotas in order to make these lists. This is not equality. This is not progress. This is affirmative action, and affirmative action is not, or should not be, the goal. A tweet I read sums this up perfectly by saying that if you pay attention to gender when listening to music, you’re doing it wrong.

Country Exclusive did not operate regularly in 2016, but two albums received a 10/10 rating that year and could be considered tied for Album of the Year. Those were Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut and Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life. In 2015, our Album of the Year was given to the self-titled record by the Turnpike Troubadours, and in 2017, it will go to a man. Of the eight albums that have received perfect grades from me over the past two and a half years, five were by women–I heard it said that if these lists weren’t biased, surely on one of them, there would be more women than men, so although this is not a year-end list, there is a small example of women outnumbering men here on this platform. That said, in 2017, twenty-eight of the seventy-eight albums we’ve reviewed here have been either by solo women performers or by groups fronted by women–those are numbers reflecting the material which has been available to us, this is not half, nor will the albums list reflect that. I can’t speak for everyone on this, of course, but much of this is a numbers game–not a game of filling quotas, but simply of the numbers being unbalanced when it comes to albums released in 2017.

Lastly, above all, this should be about the quality of one’s work. If the twenty best albums of the year were made by men, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect that. If they were made by women, once again, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect it. Writers should take all artists’ music into equal consideration, but if this is happening, they shouldn’t be singled out for including more men than women, certainly not in a year where more albums have been released by men. Equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equal results, nor should we wish it to because this is a fundamental disrespect of the quality of music made by both men and women. Imagine being left off the list as a man because the list required more women that perhaps made lesser projects. Imagine being included on the list simply because you were a woman, rather than because that person actually believed in you and your craft and sought to highlight your music among all your peers, not just those from your gender. Neither scenario correctly reflects the true quality of the music at hand, and ultimately, that’s the problem with the systematic discrimination in the industry. It’s all about quotas, not quality. So set an example by not allowing it to be that way in independent music and on these lists, so that artists are truly recognized for putting out the best music, and so that gender is a completely irrelevant factor. It’s not about having “enough” women on these lists, it’s about making sure that the best music, regardless of anything else, is heard and rewarded.

Some Second Impressions of 2017 Albums

Before I get to the flurry of year-end lists, I’d like to address a few things I’ve got significantly different opinions on now than when they were first reviewed. The rating is not the important thing to focus on with these year-end lists because certain things hold up over time better than others, and you will find some albums high on that list that weren’t rated as highly originally. Music changes over time, as do our reactions to it, and there are albums I’ve both overrated and underrated in 2017. This post will reflect these and hopefully shed some light on the upcoming albums list.

Albums I’ve Underrated

Robyn Ludwick–This Tall to Ride
I even said this during my midyear list, but the main reason for the underrating of this was I doubted its ability to be replayed over time, but it holds up quite well and continues to get better. Originally a 7.5, this would get a strong 8 now.

Tyler Childers–Purgatory
This just gets better with each listen. Some albums this year were great at first but had no sustainability (see below.) This still really doesn’t have one defining song, but it’s great all the way through and is one of the best albums of the year. It’s also my most played, with the possible exception of Colter Wall’s self-titled release.

Crystal Bowersox–Alive
I don’t care that this is a live album. I don’t care that a bit of the material appears on Crystal’s previous records. If there is one album I could recommend to all you critics that I see getting criminally overlooked, that I wish you would pull off your back burners and give a proper review to and consideration of in your endless lists, it’s this one. And I’ll go ahead and say it–this is the best album vocally of the year, bar none.

Zephaniah Ohora–This Highway
This one was done by Brianna, and she gave it a 9, as it rightfully deserves, but I have to say, it took me months to come around to this. And this is a brilliant album, definitely one of the best of the year.

Albums I’ve Overrated

And now for the controversial bits of this piece…

Willie Nelson–God’s Problem Child
Still a great listen, but it doesn’t have much staying power or relatability. I don’t really know what else to say.

Sunny Sweeney–Trophy
Look, I know this is high on a lot of year-end lists, and it’s a good record. It’s just, for me, not her best record. It was the album I was most looking forward to in early 2017 because I am a huge Sunny Sweeney fan, and taken as an album, there’s not much to criticize. But it hasn’t held up at all…I wish I could say more, and I did enjoy some of these songs better live, but this just didn’t stay with me.

Chris Stapleton–From a Room, Vol. 1
I’ve said it already, but if Stapleton had combined these releases, this would be a different story. As it is, we’ve got two decent albums, both with some filler, and neither with too much longevity.

Angaleena Presley–Wrangled
This is still one of the best albums of the year, but I would not give it a 10/10 if reviewing today. Still one of the top 5, maybe 3 albums of the year, but I’d have to pull back slightly from that perfect grade.

I’ve got some slightly different opinions on several other albums this year, but these are the most significant and will be most reflected in the year-end list. Above all, music is meant to be enjoyed and played, and these ratings ultimately mean nothing if the music doesn’t hold up throughout the year. I’ve tried to be less rigid in my opinions this year than in the past, and these changes are honest reflections of that. I look forward to sharing all the year-end lists with you all!

Let’s Hope Carly Pearce’s #1 Is Just the Beginning

The very first opinion piece I ever wrote for Country Exclusive, back in June 2015, was a short comment on Kelsea Ballerini’s #1 song, “Love me Like You Mean It.” This was the first debut single by a solo female to hit #1 on the country airplay charts in nine years, and I called it a double-edged sword because while nine years is a ridiculously long time without this occurring, Kelsea Ballerini’s song was pop and shouldn’t have been the one to break the drought.

Carly Pearce, with her decidedly pop country ballad “Every Little Thing,” has become the next woman to achieve this feat, only the second woman to do so in all the time I’ve been writing. While definitely pop-influenced–you can blame that on Busbee being the producer, because the live version is very country–this song actually has country elements, even featuring a dobro. It did get some early help from On the Verge, but it reached the top of the charts on its own, as well as selling well and resonating with the public.

So let’s learn from this and not let this be Carly’s first and only radio success. We cheered when Kacey Musgraves hit the top ten with “Merry go Round,” and now, only a few years and two albums later, radio won’t play her at all. Cam’s “Burning House” was a huge success, making it to #2, yet she hasn’t found that success with her subsequent singles. Carly Pearce’s #1 with “Every Little Thing” is a great achievement, but can she get radio to play her next singles without assistance from ON the Verge?

Also, in my recent review of her album, I mentioned that pop producers took too much control of this and forsook much of Carly Pearce’s individuality. This ought to be a lesson to Carly and those around her that she doesn’t have to record and release stuff like “Catch Fire” for the public to pay attention. So take a chance. Try releasing the far superior, actually country-infused “If My Name Was Whiskey” or “I Need a Ride Home.” Carly could develop into a very cool artist and perhaps find favor with both mainstream and independent fans, but she’s got to be given a chance and not treated like every other pop singer manufactured and molded for country radio. The success of her debut single proves that the appetite for songs like this is there; this is a ballad slower than molasses, featuring a dobro and talking about heartache. So yeah, pretty much the opposite of everything that’s supposed to work on country radio these days. And yet, somehow, it did. So let this be, as it should be, the beginning for Carly Pearce, and don’t let her fade into the background. And let this also be a stepping stone so that she can perhaps be a gateway for more deserving women, both more traditional and modern, to have their songs see the same success.

Congratulations to Carly Pearce and “Every Little Thing” for breaking through, this #1 is well-deserved.

Revisiting the Honeycutters’ Self-Titled Album

Back in June, I reviewed the new self-titled release from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters. While I thought it was a pretty decent record with some standout songs, there was one major problem. It was mid-tempo and somber all the way through, and I made the comment that it would sound better in October, even advising people to only listen to specific songs at the time. It’s a release that, while I could see its potential, wasn’t right for June. There’s a certain mood around it, started with the opening song where Amanda Platt sings about the days getting colder and fall setting in, that just didn’t work in the summer.

So I did what I advised everyone else to do; I waited until the fall to listen to it again. I’ve revisited some songs, but I waited till now to really absorb the entire album again. And if you’re wondering why it’s November and not October, well, when it’s still 90 degrees in Oklahoma in October, there’s not really a fall atmosphere. But now autumn has finally found its way here, at least for the moment, and just as those colder days are better suited for pumpkin and vanilla candles than for island scents, they also bring about different atmospheres for music. Artists tend to release more serious music during this time, and indeed, my initial sentiment was that this record should have come out right about now.

So after listening to it again? This album is definitely better this time of year. There were quite a few little details I missed in the songwriting the first few times around that I absorbed now because frankly, I wasn’t nearly as bored. The mid-tempo songs throughout the record dragged this album down in June, but they just serve to make this relaxing now. Amanda Anne Platt remains one of the better vocalists in independent music, a fact I noted when I reviewed this, but more careful listening also reveals her talent as a songwriter and melodic composer. The mood is more introspective than somber as you start to really absorb the lyrics, and some of these songs are even quite joyous. The thing is, even when she’s content, on songs like “Rare Thing” and “Birthday Song,” the atmosphere created by the production still seems a bit melancholy. But Amanda Platt is actually content for much of this record, a fact you begin to uncover as you dig deeper into the lyrics. Actually, “Rare Thing” is one I underappreciated the first time, probably because it is toward the end of the record and started blending in to all the other mid-tempo stuff. But it’s a good example of a song that really stood out in a different way for me this time around.

This has pretty much gone from a decent, but kind of boring record at times to a rather pleasant, relaxing listen. It wasn’t right in the summer, but now, it’s working pretty well. Had it come out now it would have gotten a light 8 from me instead of the hesitant 7 it received back in June. So, if you’re someone who listens to different types of music based on their mood and gravitates toward different sounds in different seasons, I invite you to revisit this. If you found this boring or lacking energy the first time, well, it still doesn’t have a ton of energy, but it’s far from boring. You just need the right atmosphere and frame of mind to appreciate it.

P.S. “Eden” and “The Guitar Case” are still fantastic songs.

Thirteen Observations From Last Night’s CMA Awards

So, the 51st annual CMA Awards had its moments of atrocity, but overall, there was more good than bad last night. Here are some highlights and opinions, in no particular order–the good, the bad, and the curious.

1. Sam Hunt walks away winless despite “Body Like a Back Road” breaking historic records on the charts. It pains me to type this, but logic says he should have won Single of the Year, as this is about commercial success–except the CMA stomped all over that logic by saying this moron isn’t country, and we aren’t giving him awards no matter what records he breaks with his dumb single. Also, FGL, Luke Bryan, and Thomas Rhett remain empty-handed which can only be counted as a blessing.

2. Miranda Lambert says “f you” to the entire establishment by coming out and performing “To Learn Her,” the most traditional song of her career and that we’ve seen at these award shows in recent memory. Stellar performance.

3. Carrie Underwood comes out singing “Softly and Tenderly” while images of lost country greats and Las Vegas footage play in the background. This was stellar as well, and because we’ve got this whole Carrie/Miranda thing going on, my only fear here is that Carrie’s moment will somehow make Miranda’s less noteworthy. Both should be equally recognized and appreciated.

4. Chris Stapleton’s wins, while definitely victorious for real country music, are starting to get predictable. Don’t get me wrong, he deserves them, but I don’t want to see the CMA fall into a thing where we award Stapleton as the token traditionalist like we award Miranda Lambert as the token female.

5. Brothers Osborne break into “Tulsa Time” in tribute to the great Don Williams which can only be described as badass.

6. Little Big Town actually do a stunning tribute to Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman.”

7. ON the flip side of this, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts completely suck ass at the tribute to Troy Gentry. Look, good on the CMA for paying tribute to all these guys, but the sound quality was shit. Troy deserved better.

8. Alan Jackson, in what can only be described as a curious move, comes out singing “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Great song, made me happy, but definitely a missed opportunity to promote his current single and prove that traditional country music is still alive and well, not just a thing of the past.

9. Pink shouldn’t have been booked on this show, but her performance was more understated and country than many of the supposed country performers.

10. Old Dominion are still atrocious, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends” still sucks, and Maren Morris’s collaboration of “Seeing Blind” was utterly useless. I have not gotten the Maren Morris hype since “My Church.”

11. Sturgill Simpson busked outside the event in his characteristic arrogant fashion, most likely to protest the CMA attempt to keep the night from being focused on politics.

12. Garth Brooks lip synced–and did a bad job of it–as I’m sure many of you know, thereby making his win for Entertainer of the Year completely embarrassing. He did admit to it, and you can’t fault him for being sick, but this makes his win look pretty idiotic.

13. Eric Church, despite doing more for country music from the inside than most, performing 40-song sets by himself on tour, committing himself to his fans, prominently featuring women in his performances on these shows, doesn’t win anything. Look, it’s good that we’re not recognizing Sam Hunt and FGL, but not recognizing Eric Church for his efforts is wrong and frankly ridiculous.