Music is the essence of life. Music is all around us. It’s in the breath we take, second by second. It’s in the birds, that fly so high up in the sky. It’s in the wind, that gently blows through the trees. If you listen closely, it’s even in the snow, that gently dances to the ground. Music - it’s all around us.
It’s that time of the year, when we reflect back on the previous year. We think of the good, while reflect on the bad in hopes that we have learned the lessons that were meant to be. It’s a time when we celebrate the music, the best music, that came from the past year.
So what makes a song hit this list of ours? It’s the melody. The melody must be new, smooth, exciting, and full of passion. It’s the lyrics. The lyrics must transport you to another time and another place. The lyrics must paint a picture, new or old. It’s the vocals. The vocals must enhance the song enough to bring it to the listener’s attention. Most of all it’s the whole package of the song. As a song it must speak to the listener to the point that it touches one soul.
The first song that came to our attention was from an album called Haunted Heart by Susan Cattaneo. It was the title track that truly captured our attention with its beautiful soulful melody mixed with Susan’s light vocals as she performs this like one of the crooners of the 1940’s.
In the spring we were introduced to Gordon Mote when he released his album All Things New. Gordon is no stranger to the music industry. He is often found performing as a session musician on many albums including Alan Jackson’s hit song “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” However, it was this album that we kept coming back to. If we were to put our full support on one album and one album only - it would be this extraordinarily beautiful album. What makes this album so special is Gordon’s artistic ability to bring forth a simple song and enhance it at just the right place with a simple thing like a church bell. He does so in his song “Meanwhile Back At The Cross.” Another song we pulled from this incredible album was “Faith Like That.” This is one of those songs that begs to be shared with those who have lost a loved one, but on the other side it also reminds us to embrace our faith. Gordon shares a moment in his life as he welcomed his first child in a beautiful ballad of parental love in “Sound A Dream Makes.” As good as these songs are it was the next two that truly captured our souls. Gordon gains the help from his talented wife Kimberly Mote in “The Other Side.” This song truly captures one’s attention with it’s simplistic light hearted melody mixed with a strong message of hope as it talks about what it’s like in Heaven. But the most beautiful and artistically defined song on this incredible album is “When I Rise.” It was our Editor, Gina Kay Singerhouse, who stated that this is the one song that she requests to be played at her funeral. This song has just the right instrumentals to back up the strong message of hope within the lyrics. It’s a song that takes your emotions on a journey, while it renews one’s beliefs. It was really hard not to pull every song off this album to hit this list. This album is one of the most artistically defined albums we have ever heard. We highly recommend this album, because it is the album that we compare all the others too.
We first introduced you to Pete Huttlinger back in 2013, when he released his album McGuire’s Landing. Pete is one of the most talented guitarist in the music industry. After presenting Pete the Spirit Award for President’s Choice, he gave us two more of his albums including The Black Swan and The Santa Rita Connection. From these instrumental albums we pulled “Goodbye Chester,” “Hector The Hero,” “Inisheer,” a medley called “Highland Morning-Big Sciota-The Wise Maid,” “My Love Is In America,” “The Black Swan” and “McGuire’s Landing.” If you truly appreciate artistry and pure talent, then you will certainly enjoy what Pete has to entertain you with. Listening to Pete is like sitting in the most peaceful spot and listening to the world of wildlife.
In 2013, Toby Keith released his album Drinks After Work, however, it arrived in our office just last year. Like a fine wine, Toby keeps getting better with time. From this album we pulled “Before We Knew They Were Good,” “Chuckie’s Gone,” “I’ll Probably Be Out Fishin’,” and “Last Living Cowboy.” We also pulled a great fun song about soldiers with “Call A Marine.” This is one that Marines will appreciate and make it their unofficial anthem. Here’s to the Marines! Thank you for serving, even in a bar fight!
Kellie Pickler returned to the music scene this past year with her new album The Woman I Am. From her album we pulled a fun song that speaks about heritage in “Selma Drye.” Another song we pulled to hit our list is “Someone Somewhere Tonight.” This heartfelt ballad, performed as a southern rock song, speaks about surviving major events in one’s life while mixing in the pure emotions of true love. The final song we took from this album is the title cut. This song is soon to become an anthem for many women as it points out what type of woman Kellie is.
We were excited when we received Side By Side by Dr. Ralph Stanley and Ralph Stanley II. This is another incredible album that should be a required addition to any country music collection. The album consists of fourteen incredible songs. Like Gordon Mote’s album, it was really tough to pull the best songs, because nearly every song on here was performed to perfection. The first song that we pulled is “Battle Ax.” This instrumental song was arranged by Dr. Ralph, but it truly shows his vast talents as a musician. Dr. Ralph’s vocals have aged a bit over the years, but it was his song “Don’t Weep For Me,” performed as a acapella, that truly reminds us he still has the talents of a great entertainer. Father and son team up to bring us back in time with “White & Pink Flowers.” Performed as a traditional two-step, this one is simply a beautiful mix of vocals and instrumentals. When we heard “Dirty Black Coal,” it hit us like a pail of coal. It’s the traditional two-step beat mixed with just the right instrumentals that carries the historical lyrical story to the forefront of the album.
In 2014, Bluegrass artist Donna Ulisse taught us that we all could write in her incredible book called The Songwriter In Me: Snapshots of My Creative Process. She also entertained us with her new album Showin’ My Roots. The album features thirteen beautiful songs. We pulled “I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On,” and the title track. The first is more of an autobiographical song for Donna. Where as the title track is more of a glimpse into Donna’s childhood and who her musical influences were. Both are quite entertaining songs with their beautiful instrumentals and perfect lyrics.
Many Bluegrass artists released some beautiful music in 2014. From Rhonda Vincent’s album Only Me we chose the title track. Rhonda gains the help from legendary Willie Nelson in this light hearted love song with a fun melody.
Nu-Blu also released another album, called All The Way. We were not that impressed with this one like we were with their others. However, we did find “Eddies Garage” and “Heavy Cross To Bear.”
We heard many albums from veteran entertainers, including Hank Williams Jr. Hank Jr. released his new album Old School New Rules. Hank Jr. tells it like it was and truly pays tribute to the legends in his song “Old School.” Performed in the tradition of Hank Jr., this is one that many country music fans can certainly relate too. For many years, Hank Jr. was the entertainer who sung a theme song for the NFL. However, the network kicked him to the sideline. The result of this was a backlash by Hank Jr. in the way a truly talented entertainer does - by writing and recording a song. Hank Jr. voices his opinion about the NFL and the problems in America in his song “Takin’ Back The Country.” As good as the message is in this one, it’s the addition of an old recording of Hank Sr. that adds that artistic emphasis we are always looking for in a song.
Throughout the past year we heard many songs dedicated to our Nation’s greatest heroes - the Soldiers. But nothing hit us more than a song sung by a legend in the music industry. When we heard Connie Francis perform her song “A Soldier Died Today” we knew we needed to feature it and add it to this list. Performed more as a recitation than a song, Connie gives a commanding performance as she tells this incredible story that was taken from a poem written by author A. Lawrence Vaincourt called “Just A Common Soldier (A Soldier Died Today).”
Over the past year, we introduced you to many new artists. One talented man, Brandon Maddox, gained our attention with his EP Weightless. This EP features five beautiful songs including a fun song with “A Day In The Life of A Guitar Man.” This is a true to life story telling song about being a guitarist that is performed in a Jerry Reed style. Brandon slows it down in a beautiful love ballad called “Picture Perfect.”
Granted that we are drawn more towards the traditional country music, we don’t mind a good country rock song. We found one on Dierks Bentley’s new album Riser, called “Back Porch.” We also found a beautiful song in “Damn These Dreams.” This heart and soul song is more of an autobiographical song for Dierks as it speaks about pursuing his dreams.
We found another party style song on Luke Bryan’s album Spring Break...Here To Party with “Take My Drunk A** Home.”
We were introduced to Brigitte DeMeyer and her unique blend of Georgia meets New Orleans style when we received her album Savannah Road. With the vocal stylings that are synonymous to Janis Joplin and the beautiful soulful music, we truly enjoyed this one. From this album we pulled “Please Believe Me,” a soulful song that pulls the musical influences of Memphis, Dixie and New Orleans. It’s a pure Memphis blues mixed with the heart of New Orleans that you hear in “Lightnin’ Poor.” Brigitte slows it down in a heartfelt ballad called “Home Ground.” This song truly makes many of us home sick.
Throughout the year, we heard many albums that contained one good song among a collection of bad filler songs. Case in point Jo Dee Messina released her first album in four years, called Me. The album consisted of twelve cuts that included one with a ‘borrowed’ guitar hook from The Steve Miller Band’s 1969 hit song “Fly Like An Eagle.” However, through the mess of bad songs and stolen melodies, we found one song worthy enough to hit this list. “Say Goodbye To Superman,” is a heartfelt ballad about a mother who is trying to find a way to say goodbye to his father, who passed away.
Another album that was awful, came from a new group called The Cains Trio, called Stay On Board. Majority of the album contained a collection of manufactured music. However, when we came to “Someone Loves You,” we were pleasantly surprised. It’s the Cain’s tight harmonies mixed in with the strong message in the lyrics and the light instrumentals that brings this song to the list.
The same goes for Joshua Scott Jones’ debut single album The Healing. However, this one was more manufactured than anything. But, we did find a good song in “Lover Let Me Know You My Heart.”
It’s the same story with Jeff Bates’ album Me And Conway. But he did have a good song with “If Heaven Had A Phone.”
We were not too impressed with Eric Church’s album The Outsiders. However, we were impressed with his song “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.”
Craig Morgan was one of many who released a Greatest Hits album in 2014. Unlike most Greatest Hits albums, Craig includes eight previously recorded songs and four new ones. The album almost sounded like Craig had four new songs and nothing more, so he included eight of his older songs. We did find a great song about serving in the military with “If Not Me.” This heartfelt, autobiographical song brings a message of pride and American service.
Mark Jones & Twenty Paces wowed us with his song “Mountains” from his album Breaking Even.
The Oak Ridge Boys added another album to their long list as they released their very first live album called Boys Night Out. The album featured a great collection of songs including “Thank God For Kids” and “Dream On.”
Another new artist that we introduced you to this year was Eric Paslay when he released his debut, self-entitled album. This album contains eleven songs that Eric wrote or co-wrote. Three of the songs truly stood out, begging to hit this list. The first, “Less Than Whole,” is a beautiful song of hope with it’s strong message that rides the waves of perfect instrumentals. The second song, “Deep As It Is Wide,” is another spiritual song of hope while it talks about walking towards heaven. However, the song that stood out the most was “Country Side of Heaven.” In this beautiful, light hearted song, Eric gives us a glimpse of his outlook on what heaven looks like to him. This one contains a beautiful beat that enhances the story line that paints a wonderful and happy image within one’s thoughts. Simply a beautiful story that rides a wonderful wave of music.
Last year, we heard many wonderful songs of inspiration. Billy Ray Cyrus was among the entertainers who sent us an inspirational song when he teamed up with Dion Warwick in their song “Hope Is Just Ahead.” Sometimes you don’t think that two individual entertainers would sound that good together. When it comes to these two, we would love to hear an entire album of duets.
We heard many new singles this year, but it was Trent Tomlinson’s “Come Back To Bed” that impressed us the most.
Another new entertainer who we introduced you to was a man named Zane Williams when he released his album Overnight Success. Like the two previously mentioned songs that talk about what it’s like to be an entertainer, Zane shares with us what its like in the title cut. The second song we picked from this album is a heartfelt ballad about a father who is away from his child for work and how he misses the daily events in his child’s life in the song “While I Was Away.” The song that stood out the most for us on this album was “On A Good Day.” This is a wonderful heartfelt ballad about dealing with the heartache after a break up.
Many artists have recorded cover songs on their albums this year. Most of those albums have hit our list of Worst Albums of 2014. When we received Charlie Daniels’ album Off The Grid: Doin’ It Dylan we were surprised. It’s one thing when a legend like Charlie Daniels performs a cover it’s a different thing when a new artist does. The difference comes with the fact that a legend like Charlie has earned his right to perform covers. This album was all about paying homage to Charlie’s idol, Bob Dylan. Even though we don’t praise cover songs, we had to pull “Gotta Serve Somebody” due to it’s strong message that was enhanced - Charlie Daniels style.
Another new artist that we introduced you to was Eden Brent when we reviewed her album Jigsaw Heart. Listening to this one was like taking a trip on the mighty Mississippi in an old paddle boat with her unique blend of New Orleans soul mixed with the Memphis blues. From this album we pulled “The Last Time,” “Tendin’ To A Broken Heart” and the title cut.
One of the best albums to come into our offices last year came from a new group of veteran entertainers that call themselves The Gentlemen of Bluegrass when they released their album Carolina Memories. What makes this album stand out is that it consists of the traditional country music that transports you back in time when music was real and had substance. This was another that we had a hard time choosing the best song, because they all are good. After some argument we chose “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” “Father’s Table Grace,” and “Waltz of The Angels.”
In our neck of the woods, we saw the return of Garth Brooks as he performed eleven sold out shows. We also enjoyed his duet with Trisha Yearwood with “The Call.”
Throughout the years we always hear one or two ‘tribute’ albums. However, Pinecastle Records did it right when they re-released many of the songs that The Osborne Brothers recorded in their careers in the album Nashville. From this album we pulled “Going Back To The Mountains,” “My Baby’s Gone,” and “The Oak Tree.”
Another legend we heard new music from is Bill Anderson when he released his album Life. This is another incredible album we had a hard time choosing the best songs from. We did choose “Rhinestone Grindstone,” “When You Love Me,” “Blackberry Winter,” and the ever popular song about a soldier with “Old Army Hat.”
Donna Hughes released two albums this year. Both albums featured many of the same songs. From both her albums we pulled “Dog On A 10 Foot Chain,” “Gone,” “The Red Oak Tree” and another great song about soldiers in “Where The Good Daddies Go.”
Nearly every entertainer who makes it in the industry records a Christmas album. However, the industry does not acknowledge these albums or the songs contained within them. This past Christmas we heard a beautiful album by Micheal W. Smith with The Spirit of Christmas. From this beautiful album we pulled a duet with Amy Grant called “Almost There,” “The Miracle of Christmas,” and the title track.
However, it was Trinity River Band that wowed us with their Christmas album On A Morning Like This. From that album we pulled a beautiful medley called “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “This Christmas.” “This Christmas” earned the Spirit Award’s Spirit of Christmas Award. But it was Trinity River’s “A Sinner’s Prayer” from their album Better Than Blue that earned the title of the 2015 Spirit Award’s Song of The Year.
So there you have it, our list of Top Songs of 2014. What will 2015 bring? Tune in next year...
(This article was printed in the January / February 2015 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
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