The Year in AC and Country

(Pictured: country singer Cam. As I have said on the air several times, if you would like her to be your girlfriend, get in line.)

If you’re a radio DJ and you like a certain song, you can say so on the air. If you think it sucks, you keep that to yourself. It makes sense, of course—the theory is that every song a station plays could or should be someone’s favorite. You as an individual jock (and you as a radio station) shouldn’t tell them their taste is lousy.

Sometimes you can get away with something if you do it obliquely. I have played David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up on Us” in the spring and suggested it is appropriate for a season in which the sap is rising. I justify this by saying that even people who like “Don’t Give Up on Us” know it’s sappy, and that more people will find the wisecrack funny than offensive. I once back-announced a country song that recycled every cliché of the last five years—pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check, and no original idea in the whole three minutes—by saying, “That’s new . . . although it sounds strangely familiar.”

Given the fact that listeners of my radio stations read this blog (or they can, theoretically—I am not sure how many of them do), the same rules apply here. I can tell you which of the Billboard Top 50 adult contemporary hits of 2016 I like. Same for Country Aircheck‘s Top 70 of the year. If you want to know which ones I’d like to kill with fire, you’ll have to talk to me in a bar.

On the AC chart, the best of the Top 50 are the three singles by Adele: “Hello” (#4), “Send My Love to Your New Lover” (#12), and “When We Were Young” (#16). I really like “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King (#6) because it strays a long way from the young-woman-shouting template that so many singers default to. Pink’s “Just Like Fire” (#9) is her best single in years. Bucking a couple of the last decade’s trends, it’s got some actual dynamics—soft parts and loud parts—plus the version we’re playing clocks in at a compact 2:57. The surprise of the year is probably “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay (#29), the most un-self-conscious (and best) record they’ve ever made. They finally stopped worrying about being tasteful and just got down.

(I’m not going to link to all of these, as they’re easy enough to find at YouTube.)

On the country chart, 2016 was a year in which bro-country (pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check) continued to wane, although it was also a year in which the most successful male acts continued to borrow more from Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars than from the legacy artists of their own genre. The best of the year’s top 70 are still recognizable as country: “Stay a Little Longer” by the Brothers Osborne (#8), “Record Year” by Eric Church (at #19, a song that made nearly every respectable critic’s list of the best country songs of 2016), “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (at #28, the lone single to appear on both the country and AC year-end charts), “My Church” by Maren Morris (#41, and my favorite record of the year, either AC or country, by a mile), and “Burning House” by Cam (#54, which also crossed over to AC but not enough to crack the year’s top 50).

A major difference between the AC and country charts is that the worst junk on the AC chart doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for the people who perform it. The worst records among country’s top 70 are all stupid in unique ways, but their performers share an obliviousness that’s remarkable. A couple of veteran acts commit to hideously bad songs like they were “Stand By Your Man” or “Ring of Fire,” while younger offenders may be too dumb or too beholden to a team of producers to know the difference, or making too much money to care.

I hadn’t been in radio long before realizing that at any given moment, whatever format I’m doing, I’m gonna find that one-third of the songs will be OK to good, one-third will be OK to not good, and one-third will leave little impression one way or the other. After nearly 40 years in the biz, those proportions still seem about right to me.

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