25 May 2010

Only One or Two Good Songs

"There's only one or two good songs on this."

You've heard it before.  You might have even said it yourself, discussing an album.  I personally hate the saying, because the use of the word "good" is entirely subjective.  You might think the latest Miley Cyrus hit is inane, but if you contrast it with what I could have come up with, you'll appreciate that at least her song has  rhythm, structure and doesn't include my vocals.

No, what most people really seem to mean when they say this is, "I only recognize one or two songs off this album."  It's been the cry of file-sharers all along: albums extort consumers into purchasing a hit single with nine or more "filler" tracks.  I've written before about this practice, and if you're interested in a brief overview of the ins and outs of that experiment, here it is.  Otherwise, I'd like to shift gears and address the issue of "filler" material.

Often in the last decade, I've bought an album--enticed by a lead single, or continued interest in the artist--and found myself really enjoying a given song.  Sometimes, a song stands out and just begs to be released to radio.  Last year, I bought Miranda Lambert's album, Revolution, and the moment I heard "The House That Built Me," I knew it would be a monster hit if released.  It's working out well for Lambert; it's currently at #4 on Billboard's Top Country Songs chart (week ending 29 May 2010).

Sometimes, though, I keep coming back to a song, waiting to hear that it's the latest hit in an artist's repertoire...and the moment never comes.  Here are a handful of favorites.

"Go West" by Brooks & Dunn (from Steers & Stripes) - The reviews for this album were so high, someone even remarked that Kix Brooks had learned to sing.  I always liked his voice just fine, but I understood the remark: he sang with more conviction on this album.  This might be my favorite song of the entire album, which is saying something because it's easily my favorite B&D album and one of my top 20 favorites of anyone's.  "Go West" paints a very vivid picture of a young man frustrated with his go-nowhere life in a small town, proposing that he and his young love up and take off and see what's over the horizon.  The possibilities for a music video were endless, and I'm sure this would have been a bigger hit than "My Heart Is Lost to You" (#5) or "Every River" (#12).  And who knows?  It might have changed the course of Brooks & Dunn's last decade had they had a hit single featuring Kix on lead vocals.

"Lie Before You Leave" by Montgomery Gentry (from My Town) - Troy Gentry sings lead vocals on this cut, asking a departing lover to do him one last favor on her way out: lie to him, and tell him that things used to be good between them.  He's not asking her to stay, doesn't have any designs on winning her back.  He just wants to hear her say it wasn't always all bad.  It's a moment of vulnerability buried under a very driving, rocking aesthetic.  I found it oddly re-affirming in 2002, and disappointing when it was never released to radio.

"Make Her Fall in Love with Me Song" by George Strait (from Troubadour) - I could put together an entire box set of songs I wish had been singles from King George's discography, but this was one that really surprised me.  From the honky tonkin' groove to the catchy, made-for-radio chorus, this one seemed like a radio hit from the outset.  I even harbored a secret hope of a music video, since MCA had managed to coerce Strait into participating in a couple of them ("Seashores of Old Mexico" and "Troubadour").  Alas, it was not to be; "River of Love" was the third and final single from this solid album.  It was a #1 hit, but I still think it was the lesser choice.

"Heart to Heart (Stelen's Song)" by Toby Keith (from How Do You Like Me Now?!) - Before he became George W. Bush's Ambassador to the South, Toby Keith recorded this intimate snapshot of fatherhood.  It wasn't radio-friendly in the way the titular "How Do You Like Me Now?!" was, but it's a killer song of a father standing back and just taking in the tender relationship between mother and son.  The only danger in releasing this to radio is, of course, it would have commercialized the song in a Hallmark-kind of way; remaining an album cut, it sneaks up on the unsuspecting listener and showcases a side of Keith that has been absent from his public persona.

"Ring" by Gary Allan (from Tough All Over) - Allan referred to this album as his $100,000 therapy session for responding to his wife's suicide.  It's a true work of art, exploring some very dark themes and it's surprising that any of it would be radio-friendly at all, but the structure of "Ring" made it seem destined for commercial success.  In fact, at one point I could swear it was announced on Allan's website that it was selected as a single; alas, it never was.

Should I care that these recordings were never singles?  I didn't have anything to do with their creation, and my appreciation of them has--and should have--nothing to do with what anyone else thinks or feels about them.  Even if I'm the only person in the entire world who has even heard all five of these songs, much less feels strongly about them, why should I care?

I think it bugs me because I know there are conversations about these five albums, where someone has said, "There's only one or two good songs on this," and they discouraged someone from ever hearing these cuts.

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