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Album Review: Lauren Alaina–Road Less Traveled

Rating: 7.5/10

Of all the albums I missed covering at the beginning of the year, this one has bothered me the most. I finally did feature Lauren Alaina when her current single “Doin’ Fine” was released, and a host of behind-the-scenes factors kept me from talking about her before that, when “Road Less Traveled,” this album’s title track and first single, hit #1 on Billboard Country Airplay basically out of nowhere (although admittedly with help from On the Verge). I tried to satisfy myself with that because it just seemed too late to give her an album review, but now that I’ve finally got time–plus the inability to write anything new–I’m taking the opportunity to do what I should have done months ago and feature Lauren Alaina’s second album, Road Less Traveled.

So why the urgency to cover this, especially given the rating? Because it’s an example of good pop country, something being done right in the mainstream, and though Lauren’s gotten her fair share of praise for this album, she’s also received a lot of unfair criticism for it from people who dismiss it as too pop. That assessment in and of itself is fair; some of this is straight pop, about half, and the country-leaning half is pop-flavored, but Lauren Alaina’s not RaeLynn or Kelsea Ballerini either, churning out meaningless pop music and then labeling it country, and I think too many have dismissed her as such. IN fact, I’d argue that she’s exactly the kind of artist we should be supporting in the mainstream even if her music may not be your personal taste.

Why? Because Lauren Alaina did something very few mainstream artists–pop, country, or otherwise, can claim–she made a very personal record. Not only that, much of it is personal to her in a way that will relate to the very demographic the mainstream tries to target, and rather than release fluffy Disney material, she’s trying to say something. Sure, the style is pop country, or perhaps in her case country pop would be more accurate, but this album is an example of good songwriting eclipsing concerns of style. In the current single and album opener, Lauren Alaina tells of her parents’ divorce, even saying in the first line of the whole record, “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend.” “Pretty” might not work if sung by another artist, but when you know that Alaina herself had an eating disorder, lines like “all the other girls are thinner, so you skip another dinner” ring with authenticity and empathy rather than patronization. “Three,” which also fits in the more country pop half and features some nice piano, is achingly honest about Lauren’s struggles to get onto country radio, saying that she spent “six years of missing home” for only three minutes of airplay. And I haven’t even mentioned the pretty much universally accepted standout, “Same Day Different Bottle,” the beautifully sung story of her father’s alcoholism. Incidentally, this one is also the most country and showcases some really nice steel guitar.

And let’s not overlook the fact that Lauren Alaina is an incredible vocalist. True, singing talent is not everything, and as someone who knows her fair share about music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. Too many times, we see people who no doubt have amazing voices win some singing competition and then fade into obscurity partly due to the fact they’re just spectacularly clueless about everything else relating to the business of music and being a musician. It also takes far more than vocal ability to be a great singer; you have to convey emotion and connect with your listeners, and that will go a lot further toward sustaining your career than a ridiculous range and all the fancy runs in the world. But equally, there’s another side to this, where more than half the Americana albums I’ve heard in 2017 have featured a singer that was merely adequate, sometimes flat-out off-key. One specific album comes to mind that featured absolutely great instrumentation and production, lots of good songwriting, nice melodies–and sung by anyone else, I’d have reviewed it and loved it, but I couldn’t get past the voice. And tone is not something any singer can help, so it’s what you do with it that matters most, like Rod Melancon with Southern Gothic and Robyn Ludwick on This Tall to ride, but if you can’t sing on key, I can’t take your music seriously. Anyway, all that semi-tangent aside, I then turn on Lauren Alaina’s record, and I hear not just good, but excellent, stellar, ridiculous vocal quality on tracks like the heartbreak song “Painting Pillows” and the previously mentioned “Three,” coupled with that ability to be subtle and pull out emotion like in “Think Outside the Boy,” (which features mandolin, look, more country), and I just breathe a sigh of relief.

Sure, there’s some stuff on this album I could do without, and yes, it’s all on the pop part of the record. “Holding the Other” comes to mind first because it’s just such a fluffy and pointless love song thrown in on an otherwise empowering album. Placing it between “Same Day different Bottle” and “Pretty” only made its shallow nature stick out more. “Next Boyfriend” is catchy, and the hook is pretty clever, but it doesn’t work for me as much because the cadence and rhythm isn’t flattering to Lauren’s incredible vocal ability. The same is true in “Queen of Hearts,” which also suffers massively from overproduction and from parts of it sounding nearly identical melodically to Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It.” still, there’s some of the more pop tracks here that work just fine and prove it can be done right. “My Kinda People” is the best candidate to explain this, exhibiting some pretty deceivingly intelligent lines despite it being a lightweight song. “Road Less Traveled” probably shouldn’t have gotten a #1 at country radio, and I get the criticisms with it because the lyrics do have some inconsistency, but she just sings the hell out of it, and I enjoy it. Plus, it sort of fits the album theme–well, that’s the album title, so naturally–of being yourself, but it’s expressed in a more lighthearted way than some of the more serious stuff. “Crashin’ the Boys’ Club” also works for me, but it’s one that I’m not going to try to defend because it’s just going to be a song you either love or hate upon listening.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about Lauren Alaina here. Hell, it’s been six months since this came out, so most of you, if not all of you, have an opinion anyway. She’s not going to be for everyone, certainly not for strict traditionalists. But she’s the kind of artist, and this is exactly the sort of record, that we need to be successful in 2017. This album has something to say, and it speaks to that ever narrow demographic so desperately courted by country’s mainstream in a way that’s both real and understanding. I once read, on a comment on something somewhere, that pop country is good when it takes good pop and good country and mixes them, and that that’s what’s wrong with the majority of today’s stuff. Well, this is good pop and good country, and Lauren Alaina does a pretty nice job of blending them together. One of the mainstream’s best albums in 2017 so far.

Buy the Album

The Country

The Pop

My Top 13 Songs of 2017 So Far

Editor’s Note: I wrote “my” instead of “Country Exclusive’s” for a reason; this does not necessarily reflect the views of our entire site. Also, these are not, and I repeat, not, in any order. Finally, with the exception of one song which I felt it would be idiotic to leave out, these are all from stuff we have covered in some fashion, either by a full-length review or perhaps through a feature in our “Memorable Songs from Overlooked Albums” pieces. Normally, I would restrict this to stuff one of us has actually written about, but that would leave out one song which, like I say, it would be a glaring sin not to bring up here. So take all this into consideration, and feel free to leave your own lists of songs and thoughts about these in the comments below!

Aaron Watson: “Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero
The first song to really blow my mind in 2017, this is a great and timely story about Isabel and her father, Mariano, who flee to America to escape the cartels of Mexico. Isabel ends up married to the narrator of the song, but her father is deported and later gunned down. It’s an honest and heartbreaking look at immigration, not to mention a brilliant song. Even better with the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream.”

Jaime Wyatt: “Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues
Jaime Wyatt is probably the name I’m most excited about breaking out in 2017. She has a way of singing about hardship that still manages to put a smile on your face, and this is just a stellar song that gets better every time I hear it.

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

This one comes off Puxico, which we didn’t review in full, but it was partly responsible for the “Memorable Songs” features because this track about the lonely, forgotten river town of Cairo, Illinois, is one of the best songs of the year and should by no means be overlooked.

Jason Eady: “Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled album
Purely from a songwriting standpoint, this has to be the cleverest thing to come out this year, telling us the story of the man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus, yet never mentioning Jesus or religion, and instead allowing the song to be a timeless track for everyone, although connecting even more deeply with those of faith.

Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True

From Wrangled
This just blew me away on the first listen; who’s going to tell you, especially at the beginning of their record, that look, dreams don’t come true, and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise? But it’s Angaleena Presley’s reality, and credit her for confronting it head-on to deliver us something so powerfully painful and honest.

Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”

Also from Wrangled
Angaleena Presley has the distinction of being the only one on the list with two entries, but this song is equally deserving. From the wonderful melody to the thought-provoking lyrics about being “wrangled” by her life and husband, this song stands out just as much as “Dreams Don’t Come True.”

Brad Paisley: “Gold All Over the Ground”

From Love and War
What, a mainstream name like Brad Paisley? Yes, that’s what I said. This is Paisley’s musical adaptation of a poem composed by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s, and they don’t make love songs like this anymore. Between the poetry of Cash and the arrangement of Paisley, it has definitely earned its place among the best songs so far in 2017.

Colter Wall: “Kate McCannon

From Colter Wall’s self-titled album
There were many outstanding songs on Colter Wall’s debut record, I just picked the one that shined a tiny bit brighter than the rest.

Chris Stapleton: “Either Way”

From From a Room, Volume 1
I didn’t always think Chris Stapleton showed emotion on his new album–sometimes he just belted songs, and they lost a little of the passion. But this is one moment where he absolutely killed it, and this version might be better than the original LeeAnn Womack version.

The Steel Woods: “Straw in the Wind”

From Straw in the Wind
What a dark, ominous tale–this one comes from one of our collaborative reviews, and Brianna and I both agreed that this story of a town where strangers “disappear like straw in the wind” is a standout of the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “If we Were Vampires”

Yeah, here’s the one I didn’t review, but this is one of the best songs of Isbell’s career, and when I said they don’t make love songs like that anymore about Paisley’s, I guess Isbell proved me wrong. He mentions all the details he loves about his wife, and more than that, he makes you think of death as a gift because it allows you to be a better lover and make the moments last. What a beautiful and morbid picture of love; I’ve never been sad, happy, and scared while listening to a love song before, but that’s what Jason Isbell does here.

Kasey Chambers: “Jonestown

From Dragonfly
The standout of Chambers’ recent double album, this one deals with hardship and discrimination and tells a great story. Probably the most underrated and least known one on the list.

Trisha Yearwood: “Maggie’s Dream”

This one is from the Gentle Giants album, and like I said before when I mentioned this song, I don’t care that it’s a cover, it’s still one of the best songs of the year. Trisha Yearwood delivered a better rendition of an already great song, and she’s earned her place on this list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Eady: “Black Jesus”
  • John Moreland: “Love is Not an Answer”
  • Lauren Alaina: “Same Day, Different Bottle”
  • Zac Brown Band: “All the Best”
  • Kelleigh Bannen: “Church clothes”
  • Rhiannon Giddens: “Better Get it Right the First Time”
  • Sam Outlaw: “Everyone’s Looking For Home”

Single Review: Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine”

Rating: 7/10

I missed covering Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album, Road Less Traveled, back in January while I was out of the country, and it’s something I’ve regretted ever since because that album is a great example of good pop country. Lauren Alaina is someone we should all be supporting in the mainstream even if she’s more pop than country because at least she’s releasing pop songs–and sometimes actually pop-flavored country songs–that mean something. These songs actually have something to say and might also relate to a youthful mainstream audience–“Road Less traveled” may not be the best example of this, but even this pop single was trying to deliver a worthwhile message, even if the message was broad. But pop it definitely was, and even though it gave her a #1 hit, she had a lot of detractors. The thing is, though, that her album of the same name was better; much of it was personal to Lauren and, as much as that word has been run through the wringer recently, “authentic.” She spoke about her eating disorder, her father’s alcoholism, and her struggle to get onto country radio. Yes, it’s pop-flavored, but it’s the type of mainstream album we should be cheering for, and we should be happy for Lauren’s success–but it’s hard to do with a straight pop single like the title track.

So now she’s released something more pop country, and yes, more personal, to radio, and now maybe we can get behind her. Who knows if radio will play this since ON the Verge did support “Road Less Traveled,” but it’s something promising in the mainstream. Much like RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle,” this song deals with Lauren’s parents’ divorce, and though it may seem otherwise on the surface, there are some deceivingly detailed lines here too. It’s something that is so obviously Lauren Alaina’s story, with details such as her dad getting sober and her mom marrying her dad’s best friend, but at the same time, it’s broad enough to connect and relate to many people who have gone through the same thing. Basically, it sees Lauren finally fine after coming out on the other side; she always told people she was okay, but now she’s fine enough to see that people are all going through things, or that, as the song says, “everyone’s a little broken,” and these things happen. It’s a nice, reflective look on the events, and as I say, it could potentially connect with many. Time will tell if radio gives this a shot, but it’s something that would definitely improve the mainstream. Pop country being done right.

Written by: Lauren Alaina, Emily Shackleton, Busbee (I seriously doubt Busbee did any actual writing, but who knows?)