The Best Pop-Country of 2007

What exactly is “pop-country“? Is it country music that you can buy at Wal-Mart? Country music that moves millions of units (as opposed to a few hundred copies snatched up by college students and record geeks)? Music made by the handful of perennial favorites and lucky up-and-comers recognized annually at the CMA’s? Well, sure, it’s all of those things.

Still, if it were only those things, it wouldn’t really be worth writing an article about. Or maybe it would, but one focusing on socioeconomic trends in the record industry, not a year-end best-of piece. What I’d prefer to argue is that pop-country is a sonically distinct, if sometimes rather chameleonic, genre strain with unique goals and merits. If modern country music can be neatly divided into the pre-Garth and post-Garth eras (and it can’t, not neatly anyway, but let’s just momentarily ignore that), then “pop country” is the sound of the second period.

More generally, it’s country music that clearly sounds like it was made sometime after 1989 — country music that owes roughly as much to Bruce and Madonna and (duh) Garth as it does Johnny and Patsy and Hank. Yeah, it’s the stuff that country purists turn their nose up at, while purchasing the latest Gillian Welch album. Funny thing is, though, pop-country produced more top-shelf music this past year than either of the stricter formal traditions it draws on. Below are my picks for the cream of the crop.

Honorable Mention

The country single of the year, pop, alt, or otherwise is Taylor Swift’s “Our Song”, first-love captured impeccably in under three and a half minutes and Nashville’s stab at capitalizing on the Hannah Montana/High School Musical teenpop boom. And, yeah, it’s country — there’s fiddles and she name-checks God. Taylor might be a flash-in-the-pan or the next Martina McBride; it could go either way, at this point, but her self-titled debut album is through-inspired enough that fans like me can hope for the latter fate.

Kenny Chesney took home another Entertainer of the Year trophy at this year’s CMA’s. While he wouldn’t be my pick, his latest offfering, Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates is a perfectly serviceable pop-country record. Contrary to what that clunky title would lead one to suspect, Chesney seems to be finally outgrowing his dorky Jimmy Buffet fetish. The strongest cuts this time around aren’t the beach-ball-and-margarita numbers, but rather thoughtful ballads, like “Don‘t Blink“ and especially “Demons”, which closes the album on a surprisingly poignant note.

Sarah Johns’ Big Love in a Small Town, another promising debut full-length, just missed my top five. In a more ordinary musical year (to these ears, 2007 was pretty stellar), a set boasting songs as good as Johns’ “That’s Just Me Getting Over You”, “If You Could Hold Your Woman”, and “The One in the Middle” would likely vie for the top spot on this list.

Now, onto the elites…

Artist: Miranda Lambert
Album: Crazy-Ex Girlfriend
Label: Sony
US Release Date: 2007-05-01

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List number: 1

You were expecting, what — Rascal Flatts? Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the best country release of the young millennium, thus far, and my hands-down nominee for overall album of the year. On a record full of classics, “Guilty in Here”, the last original before the pair of covers that close the disc, feels like something of a mini-manifesto. Where “Gunpowder and Lead” and title track pick up where breakthrough hit “Kerosene” left off (with Lambert in full-on bar-fight mode) and “Desperation” and “More Like Her” showcase her tender side, “Guilty in Here” serves as a sort of middle-ground — at once, brash and vulnerable and, right, horny. In other words, human. “Will someone tell me what I’m doin’ wrong?”, Lambert asks. Answer: Absolutely nothing. Right here and now, she’s golden.

Video: Famous in a Small Town

Multiple songs: MySpaceMiranda Lambert: Crazy-Ex Girlfriend

Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: West
Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2006-02-13
UK Release Date: 2006-02-19

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List number: 2

Okay, maybe this is kind of cheating, but I feel compelled to give this one the credit it’s due, especially since so many people are inexplicably lukewarm on West. To my tastes, this is Williams’ best record in almost a decade. And besides, the only reason I can figure as to why hardcore Lucinda fans are sleeping on this is that Williams strays too far from the trad country-rock aesthetic she’d already perfected. “Rescue” is moody, atmospheric folk-pop worthy of Michael Mann’s next DV-lensed nocturnal epic; “Wrap My Head Around That” is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard blaring from the in-store speakers at Hollister; and “Come On” is her most effective kiss-off since “I don’t think I’ll miss you much”. Back then, she just drove over to Jackson; this time, she headed all the way to El Lay.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Lucinda Williams: West

Artist: Brad Paisley
Album: 5th Gear
Label: Arista
US Release Date: 2007-06-17

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List number: 3

The term “down-to-Earth” gets tossed around a lot when we talk about celebrities acting similar to actual human beings, but Brad Paisley truly projects the reassuring impression of amiable normalcy. He’s the guy working midnights at your neighborhood bodega and, seemingly, not really minding it too much — well, if that guy was a tremendously talented singer-songwriter married to the actress who played Steve Martin and Diane Keaton’s daughter in the Father of the Bride remakes. Paisley’s fifth album (not counting Brad Paisley Christmas), is his best yet. It’s where he works his everyman charm for all its comic and heart-tugging potential, where he writes a letter to his 17-year-old self to tip him off that “these are nowhere near the best years of your life”, where he puts to record the quintessential ‘Net nerd anthem, where he walks you through a field of wild flowers and checks you for ticks.

Video: Letter to Me

Multiple songs: MySpaceBrad Paisley: 5th Gear

Artist: Carrie Underwood
Album: Carnival Ride
Label: Arista Nashville
US Release Date: 2007-10-23
UK Release Date: 2007-10-29

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List number: 4

If you would’ve told me this time two years ago that Carrie Underwood’s sophomore record would be sporadically amazing, expertly varied, and entirely filler-free, I might’ve put a not insignificant amount of money on the line betting otherwise. And yet, here we are: Everything runs beautifully on Carnival Ride — the feisty rock cuts, the sweet jokey cuts, the ballads. With a great record and bona-fide classic in “Before He Cheats” under her belt, Underwood is looking increasingly like genuine country royalty — which is to say, worthy of all the awards she’s winning and magazine covers she’s gracing these days. I’m hedging my bets on Jordin Sparks, but Underwood is clearly the real deal.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride

Artist: Kelly Willis
Album: Translated From Love
Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
UK Release Date: 2007-07-02

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List number: 5

Pop in principle if not necessarily in SoundScan totals, Willis’ first album of original material in half a decade is easy-listening for discerning listeners — folks who like their dinner music with a bit of soul and energy to it. It’s worth noting, too, that the best thing about Translated is also the best thing Leslie Feist is bringing to the table: intimacy. It’s warm and comforting and just odd enough in parts to avoid MOR territory. Anyone with The Reminder on their iPod or a secret soft spot for Norah Jones should check this out, for sure.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Kelly Willis: Translated From Love