Like The Ravyns once sang, I was raised on the radio. But I haven't been a regular listener for many years. By missing the radio for so long I feel like I've been missing an important piece of the present, so every month I've been downloading the Top 20 songs from the latest Billboard Hot 100, and grading them, A.V. Club style.
This month, however, things are a little different. Of the Top 20 songs listed in Billboard's Hot 100 for December 1, 14 have already been covered in this column, many of them more than once. (Yep, Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry" is still up there.) So, in the interest of my sanity and yours, I'm reviewing the 20 most popular songs in a different genre: country. (I'll check back with the pop chart next month.)
1. Carrie Underwood, "So Small"
You can take the girl out of American Idol but you can't take American Idol out of the girl. At the 2:30 mark of "So Small" Underwood shouts down her inner Simon Cowell with a scream-y vocal flourish, and doesn't stop belting until the song mercifully ends one minute later. It's too bad, because before then Underwood's relatively graceful delivery almost makes up for the mawkish "a mountain is really a grain of sand" lyrical clichés that sound transcribed from a guidance counselor office poster. (As her nicely understated cover of "I'll Stand By You" showed earlier this year, Underwood is capable of toning down the mall-ballad dramatics.) The world knows Carrie Underwood can sing; now she needs to do it a little less. Grade: C
2. Kenny Chesney, "Don't Blink"
"Don't Blink" is supposed to be about savoring each day, but instead makes you want to savor a bottle of sleeping pills with a vodka chaser. Chesney sees a 102-year-old man on the evening news, talking about the secret to life: "Don't blink," the old codger says. Also, don't nap—you take one at 6, and you wake up at 25 married to your high school sweetheart. Close your eyes again, "and your better half of 50 years is there in bed, and you're praying God takes you instead." What the hell happened to you, Kenny Chesney? Mr. "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" is now Mr. "No Shoes, No Shirt, Because Life Is About Loss And It's Over Before You Know It, So What's The Point?" "Don't Blink" ultimately is so overwrought that it devolves into camp; if Chesney really wants people to appreciate life, prior hits like "Beer In Mexico" and "Flip Flop Summer" are more persuasive. Grade: C-
3. Garth Brooks, "More Than A Memory"
Every year Garth Brooks comes out of his gold-plated underground lair to deliver a new single to country radio; incredibly, after living on a steady diet of liquefied cash for the past year, his voice still sounds great on "More Than A Memory," one of four new songs on his umpteenth greatest hits collection. Brooks is credited/blamed with turning country music into '80s arena rock, but here he follows the country textbook, talking about appreciating lost love only when he's totally miserable. If you only sing a few songs a year, you might as well do 'em well, and Garth nails this one. Grade: B+
4. Dierks Bentley, "Free And Easy (Down The Road I Go)"
Backed by a jaunty banjo and lightly driving acoustic guitar, Dierks Bentley produces the sunnier flipside of "Don't Blink" with "Free And Easy (Down The Road I Go)." While the line about "the sun shinin' on me like a big spotlight" was better suited for last summer when the single was released, "Free And Easy" is still one of the most carefree and purely enjoyable songs on country radio at the moment, with Bentley applying a likeably light touch to the traditional ramblin' song. Grade: A-
5. George Strait, "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls"
For more than 25 years George Strait has stubbornly hewed to a traditional country sound, and has somehow managed to stay commercially successful in the process. "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls" is no exception; the laidback, gently loping tempo and retro string section is about as un-Big & Rich as you can get. It's not a great song, but it's a typically dependable performance from one of contemporary country's most dependable artists. Grade: B
6. Jason Michael Carroll, "Livin' Our Love Song"
A departure point between contemporary pop and country music lyrics is fidelity—the former deals mostly with its failures, the latter mostly with successes. J. Holliday's "Bed" is the only recent pop hit I can think of that's about love—OK, sex—between a happy adult couple. Hit country songs, meanwhile, regularly depict still-frisky married couples, usually from the point of view of a male singer who describes his wife with the kind of rapturous admiration most real-life wives can only fantasize about. In "Livin' Our Love Song," Jason Michael Carroll sings: "Just want to lay you down, say I love you without a sound, I think you know what I'm talking about." Yes, we do, Jason. Now please do it in private. Grade: B-
7. Josh Turner, "Firecracker"
People who hate modern country music always point to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and George Jones and say, "See! This is what country music is supposed to be!" Those people need to hear Josh Turner. His latest hit "Firecracker" is an ass-kicking honky-tonk stomper delivered by a quietly confident crooner blessed with a smooth backwoods baritone. And you can dance to it, too. Grade: A
8. Clay Walker, "Fall"
"Fall" is another example of a male singer expressing what most women will never hear from their husbands or boyfriends. Just fall apart into these arms of mine, Clay says: "Doin' this and doin' that, always puttin' yourself last, a whole lotta give and not enough take." Can Clay get you a drink, hon? How about a foot rub? Of course he'll watch The View on TiVo with you! Grade: C
9. Taylor Swift, "Our Song"
Seventeen-year-old singer-songwriter Taylor Swift—the pride of Wyomissing, Penn.—scored one of her biggest hits so far with "Our Song," also the first hit she wrote by herself. The kid has the innocent teenager act down cold—when she asks her boyfriend why they don't have a song, he says "our song is a slamming screen door, sneakin' out late, tappin' on your window." Our song also is the way he talks slow on the phone so mama won't hear, and Swift's prayers before she goes to bed. Precious! But come on, Taylor: Is his hand really on your heart in the front seat of his car? Grade: B-
10. Montgomery Gentry, "What Do Ya Think About That
Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry know the world is out to get them, but like Kanye West in the similarly paranoid "Stronger," opposition only bolsters their resolve. While Kanye's resentment derives from his megalomania, Montgomery Gentry draw on the same old class tensions regularly exploited by country singers and Republicans. An uptight neighbor—probably listens to NPR and supports the ACLU—moves in and doesn't appreciate Montgomery Gentry's big red barn. Well, they "don't give a dern" about the fuddy duddy: "I got half a mind to paint a plywood sign and nail it up on a notty pine tree, saying I was here first, this is my piece of dirt, and your rambling don't rattle me." In your face, libs! I just wish a rhythm guitar had replaced the organ in the too-wordy chorus—it would make this dern song rock a little harder. Grade: C+
11. Keith Urban, "Everybody"
Keith Urban's groan-inducing wedding ballad "Making Memories Of Us" was my favorite bad song of 2005 because it had so many terrible, quotable lines: "I wanna sleep with you forever, and I wanna die in your arms in a cabin by a meadow where the wild bees swarm." (Here's one more: "I wanna honor your mother, I wanna learn from your pa, I wanna steal your attention like a bad outlaw." So, that's why this guy gets to sleep with Nicole Kidman!) "Everybody" is a little less terrible and therefore falls short of terrible transcendence. Grade: C-
12. Sara Evans, "As If"
Sara Evans is best known outside the country music world for quitting Dancing With The Stars last year so she could divorce her cheating husband, a Republican politician who allegedly watched porn in front of their kids and wouldn't let one of Evans' costume designers in their house because he was a "Sodomite." (Evans' divorce papers sure are a juicy read, and a decent country song in waiting.) Evans' personal history provides a queasy context for "As If," a love song predicated on willing self-delusion: "You don't have to tell me what you're thinking, you can keep all that to yourself, baby we got such a good thing going, don't show me that you're someone else." Even if you're a total right-wing hypocrite nut-job? Grade: B (half-grade sympathy bonus for Evans.)
13. Sugarland, "Stay"
Loretta Lynn promised to pound any woman who tried to take her man, and by the end of the song most listeners were left promising to help her. In "Stay," Sugarland Jennifer Nettles makes a convincing case for the other woman—she's in love with a married man, and she's begging him not to go back to his wife. "Don't I give you what you need?" she pleads. Nettles movingly depicts a lonely woman trapped by her heart's bad choices. Finally, she decides to move on, but the pain is still there. Appropriately, the music never builds beyond a plaintive acoustic howl. Please, Loretta, no trips to "Fist City" this time; this woman has suffered enough. Grade: A-
14. Rascal Flatts, "Winner At A Losing Game"
There are few truisms in life: water is wet, rocks are hard, Rascal Flatts sucks. Well, I'm shocked to report that the last truism might not be so true after all, at least when it comes to "Winner At A Losing Game." I like this song, and I honestly don't know why. R-Flatts' M.O. is ripping off the Eagles, and I hate the fucking Eagles, but hearing Don Henley's petty, self-absorbed fatalism coming out of Gary LeVox's fat, soul-patchin' face somehow creates a sweet harmony out of elements I normally find odious. Go figure. Grade: B+
15. LeAnn Rimes, "Nothin' Better To Do"
LeAnn Rimes has been in show business for so long, she was on that old-timey American Idol precursor Star Search. (That's back when men were men and talent shows were talent shows, Ms. Underwood.) Aging has humanized Rimes—there was something creepy about a pre-teen singing like Patsy Cline, but she's finally grown into her mammoth voice. With "Nothin' Better To Do," Rimes takes a break from the ballad circuit and has some fun with a gritty country-rocker. It suits her. Grade: B+
16. Billy Ray Cyrus Featuring Miley Cyrus, "Ready, Set, Don't Go"
Billy Ray Cyrus will not be kept down, mullet or no mullet. He will always claw his way to the top, whether he rides the coattails of the "Achy Breaky" line-dancing craze or the runaway success of his daughter Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana. "Ready, Set, Don't Go" is a father-daughter duet (and father's first Top 40 entry in six years) where daddy reluctantly lets his little girl go out in the world to sell more records than him: "Ain't no room in that car, even if she asks me to tag along, gotta gotta be strong." Of course, if there's room in the trunk, honey… Grade: C
17. Gary Allan, "Watching Airplanes"
All I know about Gary Allan is he once covered a great song called "Alright Guy" by a great singer-songwriter named Todd Snider (whose The Devil You Know was the best album of 2006, just so you know). So, the man obviously has good taste in songs. Which is why I want to like "Watching Airplanes" more than I do. It's about a guy sitting on the hood of his car, trying to figure out which plane in the sky his baby is on. The rough quality of Allan's voice brings some flesh-and-blood authenticity to the lovesick narrator, but his earnest delivery is canceled out by the too-big production. Grade: B-
18. Brad Paisley, "Letter To Me"
Right away, "Letter To Me" had me in its slightly calloused palm: Brad Paisley says if he could write a letter to his 17-year-old self, he would prove he was future Brad by describing the Skoal can and Playboy magazine under teenager Brad's bed. (Me, too!) Like any good songwriter, Paisley knows when to generalize and when to get specific: "At the stop sign at Tomlinson and 8th, always stop completely, don't just tap your breaks, and when you get a date with Bridgette, make sure the tank is full, on second thought forget it, that one turns out kinda cool." Grade: B+
19. Rascal Flattts, "Take Me There"
Rocks are still hard, water is still wet, and Rascal Flatts is back to sucking. Grade: C-
20. Chuck Wicks, "Stealing Cinderella"
Wedding songs are unlistenable unless you're actually getting married. (That's a rule. I didn't make it up, I only follow it.) In "Stealing Cinderella," Chuck Wicks asks his girlfriend's daddy for her hand in marriage, and the old man can't take it because in his mind she's still, well, I'm sure you know where this is going. I can't hate on this song too strongly because it's so sweet, and I'm sure if I ever hear it a wedding reception it will melt my cold heart and send the tears streaming down my cheeks. Until then… Grade: C