The 2016 ACM Awards was another celebration of Chris Stapleton, who pulled out a number of wins in major categories. The event also included a pair of collaborations between pop stars and country singers — Nick Jonas and Katy Perry both made appearances — and several stars used their national TV airtime to perform new singles live. Billboard ranked all the performances from worst to best.
23. Luke Bryan – “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”
Bryan’s song mostly served as a chance for him and Blake Shelton to crack a joke at the expense of Dierks Bentley.
22. Florida Georgia Line – “Confession”
Florida Georgia Line played “Confession,” the fifth single from the Anything Goes album, but the duo had the unenviable task of following Katy Perry and Dolly Parton.
21. Jason Aldean – “Lights Come On”
Aldean’s latest tune seems written mostly to showcase the abilities of his lead guitarist: It’s riff first, ask questions later. “Lights Come On” is an ode to the shared experience of live performance, but it ends up more as conformity-enforcing anthem: “We all the same ’cause we thinkin’ the same thing/ We on the same page ’cause we sippin’ the same drink.”
20. Kenny Chesney – “Noise”
Chesney’s “Noise” shares the sentiment of Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic”: The modern world is full of distraction and insanity, can’t we just go back to the old days when things were better? Don’t be fooled by the nostalgia, though: “Noise” is happy to embrace a contemporary, beefed-up country sound — with echoes of popular stadium rock — even as he declares, “We can’t take the noise.”
19. Eric Church – “Record Year”
This track is well-suited to transform into a tribute — “Record Year” finds Church reminiscing about “a three-foot stack of vinyl” and interpolating the blues classic “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” But the tribute came in clumsy form: a quick recorded snippet of songs from David Bowie, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and others.
Ballerini and Jonas were the first country-pop pairing of the evening. After Ballerini transitioned from her breakout hit, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” to her latest single, “Peter Pan,” Jonas finally joined the performance, showcasing his guitar skills with a solo. He only sang along during the final chorus — this wasn’t much of a duet.
17. Tim McGraw – “Humble and Kind”
The arena dimmed the lights, fans waved light-up bracelets back and forth: The ACMs worked hard to create a nice environment for McGraw’s latest hit, a preachy ballad. But it pushed too far as a steady stream of citizens — presumably intended to be a real-life demonstration of humble and kind — lined up behind the performer.
16. Thomas Rhett – “Die a Happy Man”
“Die a Happy Man” started 2016 as a top 25 pop hit — it’s the crossover track to beat for this year’s crop of country singles. Rhett’s last album was full of uptempo, dance-friendly numbers, but at the ACMs, he stuck to this Hallmark card ballad.
15. Cole Swindell – “You Should Be Here”
Swindell’s No. 1 hit benefited from a bare-bones, stripped-down arrangement. The song also happens to be made for an awards show performance: “You’d be loving this, you’d be freaking out, you’d be smiling,” Swindell sang. “I know you’d be all about what’s going on right here right now.”
14. Sam Hunt – “Make You Miss Me”
“Make You Miss Me” initially appeared in video form on YouTube, and that clip is still the track in its most potent form: Hunt playing in his house on piano with no accompaniment. He attempted to re-create that intimate feeling as best he could at the ACMs, donning an all-white outfit and sitting behind a white piano as a programmed beat blared through the arena speakers.
13. Brett Eldredge – “Drunk On Your Love”
Confetti rained down on Eldredge as he ripped through “Drunk On Your Love,” his latest hit. It’s compact, powerful, euphoric — a cheerful antithesis to many of the night’s sober ballads.
12. Dierks Bentley – “Somewhere on a Beach”
Bentley’s new tune is fighting for inclusion in country’s canon of sandy escapist numbers. Kenny Chesney may be the king of this genre, but he’s currently focused on all the “Noise,” so Bentley suddenly has an open lane. The lazy guitar riff is relaxation-friendly, and the backdrop gave him some literal support: a beach, a bonfire, twilight.
11. Carrie Underwood – “Church Bells”
“Church Bells” is a somber tale of a marriage that spirals into domestic abuse; Underwood stomped her way through the single in front of a gothic backdrop. In one of the night’s most surprising moments, Underwood stopped singing to pound on a pair of drums.
10. Chris Stapleton – “Fire Away”
Once again, Stapleton was the night’s big winner. His wife joined him to sing “Fire Away,” one of several Stax-like soul ballads on Stapleton’s acclaimed Traveller album.
Perry was in fine form trading verses with Parton on this country classic. After they paid respects to the famous coat, the duo moved on to “Jolene” and “9 to 5.”
Young and Pope’s duet has climbed inside the top 10 on the most recent country airplay chart. At the ACMs, Pope donned a gold lame jumpsuit that seemed even more bold next to Young’s drab black-on-black outfit. Though she has struggled to match the success of her debut single, “Wasting All These Tears,” you wouldn’t know that from her assured take on the anguished track.
7. Charles Kelley – “Lonely Girl”
Kelley played one of the standouts from his solo debut, The Driver — a track that happened to be co-written by the night’s big winner, Chris Stapleton. Kelley dressed casually, serenaded the crowd, and even attempted a dance move: He seemed completely comfortable without his usual partners in the trio Lady Antebellum.
6. Little Big Town – “Stay All Night”
Little Big Town pushed “Stay All Night” toward mid-’70s swamp funk with help from Trombone Shorty and a squawking brass section. Though the ladies in Little Big Town got a lot of attention for dominating 2015 with their back and forth on “Girl Crush,” the boys were the focus on this track, displaying a ragged, bluesy texture that fitted the tune’s retro presentation.
5. Miranda Lambert – “Tush”
Why would Miranda Lambert, one of contemporary country’s finest singers, need to perform a cover? Her own catalog has more than enough fire. Despite this indignity, Lambert swaggered her way through ZZ Top’s “Tush.” Now that she’s no longer with Blake Shelton, the lusty track took on a different meaning.
4. Old Dominion – “Snapback”
Old Dominion’s hit, co-written with the reliable Shane McAnally, is barely country at all: It’s a savvy combination of disco and ‘80s pop, the kind of thing that would fit comfortably in the top 40. The band hurtled through an abridged version of the track, but the short performance turned out to be a testament to the strength of “Snapback”: One hook is all you need.
3. Keith Urban – “Wasted Time”
“Wasted Time” echoes late-period U2 songs like “City of Blinding Lights.” It also fits easily next to other recent Urban singles, notably “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16:” “Wasted Time” is full of nostalgia and references to classics like Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Urban’s crack band was surrounded by a steady stream of erupting flames.
2. Blake Shelton – “Came Here to Forget”
Shelton’s new single is a midtempo revenge ballad with deft touches of modern production and amusing bits of modern slang (see “we better keep on keepin’ it lit”). The hook is rock solid, and Shelton drove it home with assistance from two excellent backup singers. To add to the brooding feel, he sang in front of a tempestuous ocean backdrop, a sure sign that he’s torn up on the inside.
1. Cam – “Burning House”
Cam’s debut album was strangely buried by a December release, but that hasn’t stopped this singer’s rise: Her breakout single, “Burning House,” became a top 30 crossover hit. She returned to the track at the ACMs, raising its level of agony with help from a dramatic string section. The secret about “Burning House” is that it’s not even her best single to date: try her first release, “My Mistake,” or her latest, the pop-friendly “Mayday.”