By Gregory Hicks, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 30, 2013
In a musical decade characteristically overrun by abstract electronic, pure pop, R&B and rap, it’s shocking that country music stakes such an enormous claim. Country and folk artists snatched up half of the spots for Billboard’s 10 best-selling albums of 2012 in the United States, with Jason Aldean’s Night Train holding the 11th spot. Zac Brown Band, Eric Church and Lady Antebellum were other contenders, with over half a million in album sales by the year’s end.
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These Nashville superstars neutralize their successes, however, from an absence on the top-tier singles chart. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a high level of attendance for country artists at the Top-40 party, but the VIP section is consistently claimed by tailored-for-Top-10 pop artists and one-hit-wonders. That’s a debate for another time, though — the tussle between the importance of selling a record and the importance of selling a single.
The album v. single battle isn’t totally unrelated though. Look at any period of music — baroque and classical, ’70s and ’80s, etc. — and you’ll find a popular retaliation to contemporary trends. Unless your eyes have been closed and ears have been covered for the past decade, you’ve most likely noticed an explosion of singles sales and a tremendous downturn in album sales. Country’s lucrative market for record sales is likely to be a result of this dissent from the conglomerately written and produced music of singles artists. It’s fascinating to witness a sizable market for modern artists releasing (generally) self-written albums that see the record in its entirety, rather than a package of singles.
Discounting lyrics that come nothing short of vapid — Capitol Records Nashville probably pays Luke Bryan a hundred bucks to use the word “beer” in a song, and two hundred to put it in the title — the comfortably straightforward melodies of acoustic tracks are equally refreshing for the mainstream 2010s. Contrast an acclaimed but simple Lady Antebellum piano ballad against the mind-boggle of Zedd’s abstract electronica or Lady Gaga’s profound symbolism and style. Also note that Lady Antebellum walked away from the 2011 Grammy Awards with five Grammys, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year — two awards not exclusive to country music.
Now, before I’m labeled completely naïve, I will concede to a lack of complete authenticity with popular country. Taylor Swift had the best-selling album of 2009. Was it full-blown country? Absolutely not. Was it country enough? Absolutely. The instrumentation and storytelling lyricism is sufficient for this label. Does Eric Church use too many rock instruments? Yes. Does Florida Georgia Line use beats that are too thick? Yes. Did Jason Aldean once feature Ludacris in a song? Yes. It’s 2013. George Strait-country is not going to be blazing a trail. Expect crossover.
Country thrives as long as it continues to compromise. Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift and the rest of the pop-country gang take quite a hit for their successes — words like “sellout” and “not even country” are thrown around quite a bit — but the genre needs these pop crossovers. Country’s contemporaries fuel the promotion necessary to continue its stunning amount of album sales for the genre as a whole — a genre that technically should have washed up years ago.