The Best Pop-Country of 2007

Josh Timmermann
Miranda Lambert

Purists may turn up their noses at pop-country, but it produced more top-shelf music this past year than the stricter formal traditions on which it draws.

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 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mirandalampert.jpg 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 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lucinda-williams-west.jpg 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 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/bradpaisley.jpg 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 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/u/underwoodcarrie-carnivalride.jpg 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 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/williskelly-translatedfromlove.jpg 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

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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