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From Jamey Johnson's triumphs to race and suicide, critics weigh in on the year in country music

The 11th Annual Country Music Critics' Poll: The Comments

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Jamey the Giant

The Guitar Song is perhaps the most ambitious album of the last few years, but it's not an ambition of difficulty or thorniness. The emotions may be raw but they're direct, and so is the musical concept. Plain on plain is difficult to pull off, and plain on plain with a desire for the epic easily collapses. That this sustains itself over 25 songs and a double album is unparalleled. —Anthony Easton

This was the year I tried so hard to like Jamey Johnson, and while I think he's good enough for No. 9 on my list, I'm sure I'll disagree vehemently with his final placement. Maybe it's that he unnecessarily compartmentalized his double album into light and dark songs instead of just letting them rub elbows with one another. Or maybe it's because he doesn't have much of a sense of humor. Or maybe it's because he's peddling the same mix of rock and country that we've heard from Shooter Jennings and so many others. But I don't see him saving country music any more than I see Taylor Swift (my No. 5) destroying it. —Stephen M. Deusner

Like almost all double albums, The Guitar Song would have been better as one 16-track CD; there's a bit of redundancy here. But in part because of the sheer number of songs, it's a most impressive statement from the most gifted singer-songwriter-bandleader to come out of Nashville since, well, it's been a long time. —Rick Mitchell

For such a seemingly risk-averse genre, country music saw some brave choices in 2010. In a radio climate that discourages any deviation from advertiser-friendly topics and trends, a successful mainstream artist went rogue with an all-star blend of bluegrass, traditional and acoustic country. And, perhaps most exciting, in an era of iTunes-induced cherry picking and dubiously marketed "Six Paks," country fans received a 25-song album chock-full of past and, without a doubt, future classics. —Karlie Justus

No, the Jamey Johnson record isn't perfect, and yes, there are some clunkers. But no LP this year could touch its blue-collar ambition, its deep-catalog sense of genre history, and its embattled everyman spirit — even if it was made by a guy suffering in part, as he declares on the record's canny first song, from "the money and the fame." —Will Hermes

Taylor the Star

Taylor Swift remembers that at 14 she was so embarrassed by the thought of her friends seeing her mom bring her to a movie that she made her mom drop her off a block from the theater. Not an extraordinary event, but this is the sort of detail that Taylor thinks to put in songs, the sort of incident that I imagine acts like Montgomery Gentry and Eric Church wish were in their songs. It has been suggested that Swift could learn from older country acts, but maybe they could learn from her. Instead of just waving their heritage like a flag, maybe they too could be genuinely wrestling with the past, with rifts and reconciliation between parents and grown children, between men and women. What's she supposed to do to make herself more country, if that's not enough? Ream out an old boyfriend in Reno, just to watch him cry? —Frank Kogan

I am aware that Taylor Swift is not the best female singer in country, but I give her points this year for daring to step out from under her usual co-writer Liz Rose's guiding aesthetic to write very personal material for Speak Now. —Carol Cooper

Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he's been "takin' dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills" than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift's music may not scan as "country" to the extent that Johnson's does, but that isn't because she's any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they're "Playing the Part," and they both do so awfully well. —Jonathan Keefe

Though the sky is more or less falling in the recording industry, a willowy blonde who's barely of drinking age gave folks in the country music business something to smile about in 2010­—blockbuster sales, even by late-'90s standards. Taylor Swift had already proven that her brand of ultra-confessional country could speak to 15-year old girls, and their little sisters, when nobody thought such a thing possible. But judging from the language, feel and sound of Speak Now, which don't so much draw on modern pop as commit to it, by the time Swift makes her fourth album, it may be a stretch to call it "country" at all. Witness her thrumming, whimsical vocal performance during the indie-pop title track — more Feist than Faith. —Jewly Hight

While her image might be all innocence and light, Swift is at her best when consumed by her miserable rage, and she has an Alanis-like knack for vocal slurs and multi-syllable words. One day she'll grow out of these painful outbursts and perhaps her Prince Charming will come along. Until then, we wait with bated breath to hear about her next famous beau and the broken heart he created. —Blake Boldt

Why should Taylor Swift be considered a country act? Because her label is based in Nashville? Because she still appears on the CMAs? Because the empathy, narrative skill and formal smarts in her best songs can match anything coming out of Music Row? Because she used banjo and fiddle for the best critic smackdown since Sonic Youth's "Kill Yr Idols"? I have no idea. But she sells more records than anyone in the world, so it's probably a good idea to keep her on the team. —Will Hermes

When I interviewed Taylor Swift in October, I asked if her song "Innocent" was about the MTV incident with Kanye West, and she said, "Oh, you brought up the pointed question. You know, what's funny is I write these specific details in my songs and I paint vivid pictures and it's all about telling a clear story, but when you get me in an interview and you ask me a pointed question about who a song is about, I turn red and start babbling about something completely unrelated or my process of songwriting. See, it's happening right now." —Jon Bream

Country in Color

Genuine Negro Jig sounded subversively country this year, not so much for the racial aspects of the project (which are fascinatingly complex) but for the economic issues raised by songs like "Hit 'Em Up Style," "Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Why Don't You Do Right?" At heart it's a depression album, emotionally but also financially, which makes it perhaps the most topical country album of the year, despite sounding so knowingly removed from our own time. —Stephen M. Deusner

Darius Rucker has become the biggest black country star since Charley Pride's heyday, enjoying No. 1 LPs and smash hits while seldom, if ever, being asked about the implications of being an African-American in a largely white art form. He's toured with Brad Paisley and had his own on-demand CMT concert, while getting the immediate add-on treatment at mainline country stations befitting any act on a major country label. —Ron Wynn

I can think of one overriding reason why a voter might consider, say, Patty Griffin's album "country" and Mavis Staples' album "not-country." Do I really need to go there? —Rick Mitchell

The racial politics of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Genuine Negro Jig are problematic, but the racial politics of all country music are horribly complicated. The nostalgia of old-timey music and the NPR audience that buys it suggests a nostalgia that remembers little and forgets much. All of that needs to be said before I admit how much I adore the sheer virtuosity of this work. —Anthony Easton

That country artists have invented their own versions of rap and disco line dancing over the years only proves that they can listen to and learn from everything without losing a core identity that is easily recognized as "country." —Carol Cooper

I'm waiting for some DJ to do a mashup of Little Big Town's "Little White Church" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." —Will Hermes

Teen Suicide

Look, I'm a big fan of Ralph Stanley's "O Death" and was delighted to discover George Jones' 1968 "I'll Be Over You (When the Grass Grows Over Me)" on The Great Lost Hits reissue. Country's morbid tendencies are among its strengths. But I found The Band Perry's chart-topping "If I Die Young" disturbing. I respect Kimberly Perry for confronting a difficult topic. But in a year marked by a teen suicide epidemic, the song's hedging — is it about embracing your fate or about the seductiveness of suicide as escape from an ungrateful world? — seemed too vague by half. And the video of the singer floating downstream, resplendent like Ophelia, only added to the sense of death glamorized. —Will Hermes

I cried during The Notebook. I enjoy the work of Douglas Sirk. Unironically. Dolly's "Little Andy" moves me and creeps me the hell out. Country was founded and continues on a base of dead children. For some reason, maybe because it is in first person, The Band Perry's "If I Die Young" seems less exploitive and better constructed than other attempts at the aesthetics of dead babies — maybe because being 17 or 18 and working through high melodrama is one of the ways it gets better. —Anthony Easton

The best country song of the year was penned by Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry. The timeless "If I Die Young" is a fiddle-spiced death ballad about a virgin, and surprisingly, it topped the country charts. Here is a lyric for the ages: "Who would have thought forever could be severed by / The sharp knife of a short life / Well, I've had just enough time." Lyrics like that will keep country music relevant for centuries to come. —Bobby Reed

As the managing editor of Tennessee's leading gay newspaper, I found Chely Wright's coming-out party a satisfying if relatively minor development in the ongoing culture wars. But as a country-music journalist, I was saddened that her return from exile was made into a media blitz that overwhelmed the music. The good-hearted "It Gets Better" campaign quickly morphed into a celebrity infomercial selling hope to troubled gay youth. But Wright's album, Lifted Off the Ground, an audio autobiography of a life and career in the closet, held the power of a thousand YouTube videos. —Blake Boldt

My mother has always been good about my having sex with men, but I grew up with country music, and that my queerness was never reflected in the music, that my mother's love for my queerness was never honored by the music, was a fishbone in my throat. The rest of the Court Yard Hounds' album I could take or leave, but the song "Ain't No Son" sustained me for longer than I would like to admit. In the midst of not being sure what I was fighting for, in the midst of remembering all of those kids who killed themselves because their queerness wasn't honored by their parents, in the midst of the world's general despair, this song kept me moving forward. —Anthony Easton

Seeking Alternatives

Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM's slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won't touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook's "El Camino" and Chely Wright's "Notes to the Coroner." The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy. —Dan Milliken

In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he's now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown's "As She's Walking Away"). Of course, country radio won't fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma's side of things. —Blake Boldt

The Rolling Stones were present at the birth of alt-country by way of Gram Parsons' friendship with Keith Richards, and their ongoing influence on Nashville can be seen in the work of Angelo, whose production credits range from Kim Richey to the Kings of Leon. If any current alt-country band such as the Drive-By Truckers or the Old 97s made an album as good as the second disc of outtakes from Exile on Main Street, many voters in this poll would be down on our knees in worshipful praise. And, yes, we would be calling it country. —Rick Mitchell

I've always found some merit in previous pop-inclined hitmakers who managed to maintain even the faintest whisper of traditionalism amid synths, electric basses and rock bombast. After years of kicking against the pricks of mousse-pointed hair, I've zenned out with the male/female duo/trio thing. It's unrecognizable to me as country music. —Andrew Dansby

Music Row prefers its women to be wrinkle-free, and in recent years country radio has been fed a steady diet of young size-zeroes who have precious few artistic tricks. Miranda Lambert, with a bratty, finger-wagging performance, pretty much sums up these types on "Only Prettier," a hillbilly grunge stomp that teen girls and gay men will embrace as their rallying cry, even as it pokes fun at their own petty ways. Lambert's wry delivery suggests that no matter how much you weigh or who you hang out with, you too have what it takes to be a heinous bitch. —Blake Boldt

Despite their two weak singles this year, "Our Kind of Love" and "Hello World," I remain in Lady Antebellum's corner. What hooks me is the way they're able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That's what elevates "Need You Now" to an aching confession, and that's how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott's vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story. —Tara Seetharam

Perhaps the saddest story of 2010 was Justin Townes Earle's relapse, which culminated in a disastrous show in Indianapolis and another stint in rehab. One of GQ's best-dressed men and one of country's most promising artists fumbled the release of his third and best album — my country album of the year — which meant Harlem River Blues went largely unheard and unheralded this year. It's his own damn fault, of course, but frustrating nonetheless. On the other hand, that incident ultimately reinforced some of the record's themes, and while I try not to read albums as autobiography, Harlem River Blues became for me a frank and utterly harrowing account of living with the incurable disease of addiction. —Stephen Deusner

I had to dip into the Americana/songwriter well because I just don't think I could come up with 10 solid "pure country" (whatever that is) picks. That said, there are some acts I consider Americana that I definitely don't consider even remotely country (Jon Dee Graham comes to mind), so that allowed me a little room for stuff like the Taylor Swift album, which I really do think is pretty dang terrific. "Mean" is one of the greatest non-Dixie Chicks Dixie Chicks songs I've ever heard. —Richard Skanse

Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues is a little pale and male to be the truly working-class urban statement we all want it to be, but it's a good place to be reminded that trains and subways are the same kind of transportation, and that it's as easy to drown in the Harlem River as in the Mississippi. —Anthony Easton

Elizabeth Cook isn't new to country music, but Welder opens up a new door on Cook. It's hard to imagine the lady who penned "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman" turning around and singing "Heroin Addict Sister," but Cook masters it. Her combination of quirky grace and heart-tug represent country music at its finest. —Pierce Greenberg

What is Country?

So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I've long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I've pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won't be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I'd be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if "Draw Me a Map" or "Will I Always Be This Way" was next on the playlist. —Sam Gazdziak

I am inclined to treat any artist or group that self-identifies as country to, in fact, be country — unless that glaringly appears not to be the case. On the one hand, this is a simple matter of practicality and also reflects a desire not to hamstring the genre by placing limits on it. On the other hand, I am also treating our friends in the punk, emo and goth worlds as cautionary tales — where internecine feuds about who is or is not punk, emo or goth sometimes get quite silly and can distract from the music itself. —Jon Black

People for decades have fought over what country music means, so it's clear that country music means different things to different people. It's almost like Christianity in that respect. The term "Christian" means 10,000 different things to 10,000 different people, and the same concept applies to country music. In my opinion, everybody deserves a spot at the table. Did I consider Kid Rock, Colt Ford and Uncle Kracker country music in 2010? Sure. But their music stunk, which is why you won't see it on my lists. —Pierce Greenberg

The challenge with this poll now is not so much the "What's country?" question, since the answer is already loosely enough defined — enough even to include responses from people who rarely follow mainstream country. It's such questions as "What's 'this year' " in a day when maybe the most talked about song, "The House That Built Me," is from a still-current 2009 release. Or "What's an 'album'?" when Blake Shelton's came in halves. Or "Why should we let somebody's choice of a single matter so much?" when some of the best new cuts (and songs) such as Jamey Johnson's "Even the Skies Are Blue" or "That's Why I Write Songs" seem unlikely to see single release. —Barry Mazor

Accurate definitions are always tough for any musical genre, but they are especially difficult for country. What was once called "hillbilly" music has evolved to the point it's become the pop format for many adults, their alternative to rap, metal and alternative rock. Yet that status often puts it at odds with its history as an outsider's form, the sound of the Southern working class (predominantly white, though also definitely influenced by the blues as well as black and white gospel). —Ron Wynn

In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association's "Artist of the Year," thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song "The Weary Kind," a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he's embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the "shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars." Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, "The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn't necessarily call them country." It's a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term "country music" has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly. —Jim Malec

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