The Week In Pop

Maren Morris Is Your New Favorite Country Singer

The most intriguing Grammys category this year? OK, technically it’s Best Rock Performance, the WTF clearinghouse pitting Beyoncé and Jack White vs. Twenty One Pilots vs. the late David Bowie vs. Disturbed (covering Simon & Garfunkel!) vs. Alabama Shakes. But they probably won’t even hand that one out on TV, so let’s move on to Best New Artist, a fascinating convergence of critically acclaimed rapper-singer-entertainer hybrids (Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak), suddenly dominant soft-EDM moguls (the Chainsmokers), and ascendent country singers (Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris).

I’d love to see the Grammy go to Chance — one of the most uplifting figures in music these past few years and the man responsible for my two favorite songs of 2016 — or Paak, an endlessly talented force of nature who seems to have a long and rewarding career ahead of him. There would also be some kind of cold, commercial logic behind a Chainsmokers win, given that they were music’s biggest breakout success story of the year. Only Ballerini, a self-styled heir to Taylor Swift’s country crown endorsed by Swift herself, would be a disappointing choice, if only because the rest of the field seems so much more deserving.

Those deserving parties include Morris, 2016’s most exciting new country star, who happens to be playing Saturday Night Live this weekend. It’s rare for a country singer to take the SNL stage, but Morris is an uncommon talent. Like Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and Kacey Musgraves, she makes impressively personal and winsome music within standard Nashville templates, somehow managing to surprise and delight without quite subverting.

In a sense, Morris followed the usual path to Nashville stardom, writing hits for other singers before breaking through as an artist in her own right. She started as a teenager, though, releasing her debut Walk On in 2005 at age 15 and continuing with two more LPs in ’07 and ’11. Her career didn’t really take off until 2014, when she began to land songwriting credits with Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson, and the TV series Nashville (twice!) — all of which led to Hero, her first album for Columbia Nashville.

Hero is not a visionary work of art that pushes its genre forward in unforeseen directions, and it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be good, and wow, it’s really good — so good that upon revisiting it for this column I regret not voting it onto our 50 Best Albums Of 2016 list. When I first encountered the album, upon scanning country’s midyear highlights back in June, it was a standout among standouts, an overflowing font of catchiness and cleverness and verve. Here’s what I wrote about it back then:

This one will grab you from the jump. Morris saunters into “Sugar” and doesn’t let up from there. It’s as if she’s waging an internal war to see whether she can pile up more catchy hooks or clever lyrical turns — my two favorites at the moment are “I’m a ’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes” and “If I had a dime every time that you crossed my mind/ Well, I’d basically be sittin’ on a big-ass pile of dimes.” Morris is insanely adept at punchy pop-country driven by her winsome personality rather than trends or gimmicks. She knows how to slow it down, too, be it on the Bonnie Raitt-reminiscent blues-rock ballad “I Wish I Was,” the somber “I Could Use A Love Song,” or the heartbroken closer “Once.” The headliner here is “My Church,” her anthem about pulling onto the highway, cranking up the volume, and finding God in the music.

Her smart and funny lyrics are what keep me coming back. That aforementioned line, “I’d basically be sittin’ on a big-ass pile of dimes,” is part of an intricately developed metaphor on “Rich,” a song that deftly exists as both a silly celebration of excess and a self-deprecating “SMH” regarding Morris continually letting an asshole ex-boyfriend back in: If she got paid every time she fell for his bullshit yet again, she’d be real paid. Speaking of self-deprecating, how about this bridge-into-chorus beauty from the soulfully smoky “I Wish I Was”: “So go on, hate me if you have to/ I hate myself too/ ‘Cause as much as I want to be/ I’m not the hero in the story.” Even the corny food metaphors on album opener “Sugar” — “even on a good day, you make the world taste better” — somehow pass for poetry under her supervision.

Morris’ truest calling, apparently, is anthems about automobiles. There is “My Church,” her gospel-inflected signature song, on which she hits the highway and communes with the divine via an assortment of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash classics. That’s a great Nashville country single, rebellious and reverent in equal measure, tweaking the old Southern traditions rather than rejecting them. “80s Mercedes,” her other ode to cruising with the radio cranked up, might be even better. It’s poppy enough that Swift could have slotted it onto Red, at least until the bridge locks into a four-on-the-floor hoedown rhythm and the chorus ascends into twang. But it’s also sassy in a way that belongs to Morris alone, our hero spinning her old-school automobile as an extension of her personal aura: “Just keeps getting sweeter with age/ She’s classic through any decade.”

At the moment, it’s too early for the self-proclaimed ’90s baby to worry about losing luster with the years. She’s still only 26, and as of this week, with a Grammy nomination in the bag and an SNL gig looming, she only seems to be gaining admirers. And although country music frustratingly maintains an active bias against women, it’s also a genre that holds on tightly to its stars. Morris has already proven her songwriting prowess and an appeal that extends beyond her chosen radio format, all the way to decision-makers at some of America’s most powerful entertainment institutions. She sure seems like the hero of the story to me.

CHART WATCH

The Weeknd rules the Billboard 200 after one of the best statistical weeks of 2016. Starboy tallied 348,000 equivalent units, the third-best debut of the year (beating Metallica’s third-best debut of the year from last week). Only Drake’s Views and Beyoncé’s Lemonade were bigger. Of those 348K, 209K were traditional sales, while a whopping 117,000 were culled from streaming equivalent units. He did, after all, break Drake’s record for the most Spotify streams in one day on Black Friday, and Billboard reports that Starboy’s eventual 175.2 million first-week streams are second only to Drake’s Views, the only other album to record more than 100K streaming equivalent units in a single week. People with computers love Toronto.

After Pentatonix, Metallica, and Bruno Mars at 2-3-4 comes the Moana soundtrack, rising from #16 to #5 with 66,000 units. The Trolls soundtrack follows at #6. The rest of the top 10 comprises old Christmas releases (another Pentatonix holiday LP at #7, Michael Buble at #8) plus Miranda Lambert at #9 and the Hamilton soundtrack at #10.

Over on the Hot 100, Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles” holds steady at #1 for a fourth straight week. According to Billboard, it’s not only the most streamed and downloaded song of the week, it’s also gaining ground at radio, so maybe it will have legs at #1 even after the Mannequin Challenge dies down (which has to be any day now, right?).

The rest of the upper echelon involves only a minor shuffling of last week’s rankings, but there are some interesting titles just outside the top 10, including the Hailee Steinfeld/Grey/Zedd hit “Starving” at #12 and Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” at #17. And in more Weeknd news, every single song from Starboy charted on the Hot 100.

POP FIVE

Marian Hill – “Back To Me” (Feat. Lauren Jauregui)
Jauregui is one of several Fifth Harmony members dipping their toes into solo material, and she’s setting a high bar for her bandmates with this one. “Back To Me” is minimal, futuristic R&B-pop with an intoxicating groove courtesy of alt-pop duo Marian Hill.

Fetty Wap – “Like A Star” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
I should have known a Fetty Wap/Nicki Minaj collab would be obnoxious, but for some reason I expected better than this. Minaj delivers decent bars; it’s just that Fetty sounds completely deflated compared to the jubilance of his 2015 breakthrough singles. Still, given its synthetic island riddim, this one might end up climbing the charts anyway.

Flo Rida – “Zillionaire”
I thought Flo Rida was already a zillionaire?

Shawn Mendes – “Fake Love” (Drake Cover)
I would make a joke about the horrors of Trump’s America except this sub-Sheeran fuckery is one Canadian covering another on the BBC.

Hailee Steinfeld & Grey – “Starving (Acoustic)”
You know that old maxim about how the greatest songs can be played on acoustic guitar? It’s bollocks, but this exceptional synthpop jam does transpose to coffeehouse mode exceptionally well.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Rihanna liked an Instagram that suggested she was snubbed for an Album Of The Year Grammy nod in favor of Beyoncé. [Instagram]
  • Britney Spears doesn’t know how to pronounce Tinashe. [Twitter]
  • Louis Tomlinson is the final One Direction member to announce a solo career. [Telegraph]
  • Meghan Trainor announced her new song “I’m A Lady” will appear on the forthcoming Smurfs: The Lost Village soundtrack. [KIIS]
  • At her Art Basel benefit, Madonna twerked with Ariana Grande, flirted with ex-husband Sean Penn, and dissed Donald Trump during a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” all in the name of raising $7.5M for Raising Malawi. [Rolling Stone]
  • Justin Bieber announced a summer ’17 tour of US stadiums. [Just Jared]
  • In an interview around her visit to a homeless LGBT youth center in New York, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from being raped at 19. [USA Today]
  • Sia and her filmmaker husband Erik Anders Lang released a statement that said “after much soul searching and consideration we have made the decision to separate as a couple.” [Us]
  • Ariana Grande duetted with Jennifer Hudson on Hairspray Live!‘s “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)” encore. [Billboard]
  • Cruz Beckham, the 11-year-old son of David and Victoria Beckham, released his debut single “If Every Day Was Christmas.” [Metro]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME