With mid-year list season well behind us now, it’s been fascinating to watch what everyone’s favorites of the year thus far have been – even if many have branded this as a slower year for music (myself included, though for me it’s a matter of quality over quantity). But it’s also fascinating to witness the divide between, say, lists churned out by big-name publications and independent voices. Because it encompasses multiple perspectives, the former camp, at least to me, is always more concerned with tracking the “best” music – the albums everyone needs to hear and appreciate, because you just won’t hear anything better this year thus far. They’re the technical marvels that are all fine-tuned to be critical darlings – the albums that require a slow burn to sink in and may not hit you at first until you really sit with them and understand what’s going on with them.
And because my focus is, of course, centered on country music, it’s easy to hear what albums or songs will typically find their way over to those eventual “best-of” lists. Sprawling concept albums or double albums (the latter of which no longer feel that ambitious), depressingly frank and raw deliveries encompassing their executions, and hey, if they don’t sound particularly country, that’s probably a plus (the genre-benders, if you will). Not to say that this is all there is to it or that the selection formula is bad, mind you – far be it from me to call it “wrong.” It’s just one way of going about it, and considering names like Orville Peck, Miranda Lambert, and Zach Bryan are among the most common names I’ve seen thus far to make said lists this year, I find it hard to complain.
But I don’t know. Call me predictable, but I always find it more interesting to read an individual person’s thoughts and feelings on the music that’s connected with them most – not just during this season but at any given point in time. You’re always more likely to find the true passion behind the reasoning, even if what one person likes may not be what everyone else does. It’s why I shy away from offering outright recommendations in my own reviews, because what I like or dislike and what you like or dislike could be completely different things.
It’s also why I shun the notion of an objective standard by which to judge music. That’s not to say there aren’t objective elements at play. An album or song can certainly be well-sung, well-produced, and well-written, among other things. But the main subjective element that’s always going to come out on top – the one we can’t quantify or accurately describe even for ourselves, and the one that artists can’t change for us – is the emotional resonance we get from it. If it doesn’t click with you, it just doesn’t. It may eventually or it may never, and either way it’s alright. If it does right away, congratulations. You’ve just discovered something awesome for yourself.
And let’s be honest, there is certainly a measurement by which we judge taste according to which acts are and aren’t on other’s radars. Personally, I find it hard to keep up with every name I’m apparently supposed to be a huge fan of. The modern age has made it paradoxically possible and impossible for us to hear everything out there, which is why – especially in country music – I think we tend to retreat to our comfortable niches. Red Dirt, Texas, Nashville, Americana, the rising Kentucky scene, whatever else lies deep within the underground … chances are there’s something out there for you to like if you’re a fan of the genre. The hard part, to me, is finding the point of the musical divide where it can all possibly come together.
And how we find that is something that escapes me for now. But no matter how much I’m unable to point directly at it, I think that despite this ever-growing niche of choices that we can piece together to form our own happy little libraries, there’s still this urge or notion to keep up with the “best” of the bunch – the pieces of music that are technically impressive but may not speak to us on that deeper level.
That’s something I’ve grappled with this year. I grew up on a (what seems to be now a limited) mix of 2000s country with some ’90s-era material thrown in for good measure. In a lot of ways, the music that got me into the genre and planted the seeds for my love of both it and writing is probably what informs my taste most more than anyone else I’ve found in recent years (it in part is what inspired my “Favorite Hit Songs” feature). And then bro-country happened, and I found myself gravitating toward the independent scene. The floodgates burst open with new discoveries, and … well, I started a blog and here we are, I guess.
But no matter how long I do this, I can’t write about music in any way other than how it appeals to me and only me (or doesn’t, on those unfortunate occasions). It’s hard to accurately describe why something clicks. Most people are content with leaving at something akin to, “I like the beat.” That’s probably what it truly is for me as well, and yet somehow I end up writing way too many nonsensical paragraphs anyway. I try to cover everything because I love that potential discovery of something I could love, but it can be hard to love every single thing out there. Lately what tends to click with me most is something I can easily put on and joyously listen to – the music that hits that indescribable happiness button – rather than something that requires a lot out of me. I won’t name specifics, mostly because this isn’t meant to be viewed as my way of comparing one piece of music to another as a form of competition, but there are certain albums I truly love from this year that are just hard to revisit because of how dense they are. Meanwhile, other albums – and here I will name specifics, like, say, Brett Eldredge’s Songs About You or Molly Tuttle’s Golden Highway – may get more plays from me simply for having more immediately enjoyable songs.
Of course, I love it when something can meet in the middle to be technically brilliant and appeal to my inner core of happiness. Caroline Spence’s True North, for example, is a very slow and challenging listen about struggling through life but pushing onward anyway and cherishing the moments that make it worth it. I can totally understand why it wouldn’t appeal to someone, but for me, it always offers a bright spot of reassurance. That’s not to say I have to find something innately relatable in order for something to work for me. It’s easy to appreciate and/or love something from afar for a variety of different reasons – a good story, an emotionally rewarding delivery, a simply pleasant sound, or, you know, because it’s got a good beat.
All an artist can do is what they want and communicate their messages in a way that’s best for them (I mean, ideally, if not always in actuality), and all we can do is give it a shot and go from there. There’s never a need to be something you’re not or listen to something you don’t actually enjoy simply because of its “status.” There’s plenty of music I respect more than I like, and I’m sure that’s actually a pretty common feeling. Of course, it’s also always good to walk into something with an open mind – to potentially broaden our horizons in beneficial ways and approach something objectively, even if our takeaways will be inherently subjective. No one can take away your country fan credentials for not liking the “in” thing or for liking something out of the ordinary … or something generally panned. It will be more freeing to connect with what you actually like anyway. And hey, in this day and age, if you do find something to love, cherish that feeling forever – there’s nothing quite like that rush of euphoria that comes with discovering something new that feels like it was made just for you … or revisiting something and remembering that same feeling.