12. Waterfall by Ex Hex – who could resist a song that finishes with the line, “I want to show you my affection but you’re on the floor”? Her partner, her “little waterfall’’ has passed out at a party after trying to steal her wallet. It’s a chemical reaction, apparently. This little loveish story by Ex Hex, a smart new power pop combo, is filled with simple hooks and woah, woahs over an earworm of a melody. It’s barely two minutes long but you’ll be humming it all day. The Ramones live on.
11. Radio Girl by Doug Paisley – my first country song in the Top 12 (and not my last). This seemingly unassuming song (sounding like a blend between Tom Rush and Don Williams) keeps revealing a little bit more depth with every listen. Is it about a girl or about the comfort of the radio on long drives? Perhaps it’s about his love of country music and the solace that can bring a lonely soul. Whatever the case, once it connected it became a buddy song for a year when I welcomed songs as buddies. Having Garth Hudson bookend the song with a simple flutter of piano licks doesn’t hurt at all.
10. War on the East Coast by The New Pornographers – a pulsating drumbeat builds and keeps building over an almost spoken word rant, an incomprehensible or arcane chant, while swirling guitars and keyboards sounding like they’re jogging across this soundscape barely keep up with the beat as we head into an almost glorious sing along chorus about … war on both coasts? WTF! Are we dancing on our own graves? On history? On a meaningless drone? Don’t matter son, we’re dancing. An inexplicable harmonica solo appears mid-song (it works by the way) and we’re off again into that infectious joyful chorus. Drums drive this track like an out of control stolen car. I don’t care, I don’t care is the exclamatory call and I hear you brother.
9. Shake it Off by Taylor Swift – in my defence … bullshit, what’s there to defend? If you ain’t dancing to this little bit of philosophy on a stick then you better mount a defence. There are artists that have melodies and riffs and beats running through their veins. Jeff Tweedy – tick, Prince – tick, and Taylor Swift. She’s the real deal. Wit, wiggle and wowee all wrapped up in a tasty popsicle of a song. Beneath the fun and groove is a simple yet potent message: It’s like I got this music/In my mind/Saying, “It’s gonna be alright.” When all is said and done you can get lost in your travails or you can shake it off. I choose the latter. Especially when it has one of the best lines in a song this last year, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate … but I’m just gona shake, shake, shake, shake, shake”.
8. Today and a Lonely Night by Justin Townes Earle – the fate of country music doesn’t lie in the hands of artists like JTE but by God, it’d be a hell of a lot safer if it did. This song (and the whole damn album) is a master-class in economy, less is more and feel it first. Pedal steel, one of the most under-rated instruments going around, set’s the scene, while a brush on drums holds the rhythm. Enter, Mr Earle on vocals and acoustic guitar, with another very sad song. The city, where underground trains give the effect of a continuous earth-shake and there’s not a star in the sky, is killing him. The pedal steel is lead on this song and his voice and that instrument carry the weight of the world. But it isn’t the city he’s tired of, it’s Brooklyn. The signifier of cool and hip. And he just doesn’t feel like going there tonight. Bang. Someone had to say (sing) it. JTE did. JTE is so deft with language and ideas. He describes an ennui that goes way beyond trying to keep up with the next big thing. He despairs being caught between desiring the comforts of home and the external imagined pressure to be where it’s at.
7. I Earned Mine by Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – call and response, sassy R&B, stirring Saturday night with Sunday morning music, back-up singers carrying almost the same load as Naomi. All this and more features in the knees-up, hard-worn and hard won story song about a worker who has been working a long, long time and believes (rightfully I say) that I earned mine. This is barrel-house, ballsy and bold with a sing-along that cannot be refused. The band pumps along behind the measured mayhem of Naomi’s gritngravel voice and the Gospel Queens pure honeyed tones. This is another Daptones production (Sharon Jones etc). A cynical ear may hear more cash register than respect for fading and forgotten R&B. I don’t. I hear the joy and the pain, the spilt beer and the rollicking nights. I hear a sound that is raging against the dying of the light. Naomi gives it a pretty good shot.
6. All that’s Left by Miranda Lambert (featuring The Time Jumpers) –As an artist Miranda has matured and it shows on her latest, Platinum. She continues to explore the world of small town gossip and the girl next door longing. But there’s another layer to the insights and examinations. As well as the girl next door growing up, as Miranda has, it’s sounding more real. More lived. What makes ‘All that’s Left’ that little bit more special? Well, when Miranda covers a song she makes smart choices. This is a lesser known Tom T Hall song. Miranda nails it. With help from (and this is an inspired choice) a hot as a griddle, western swing ensemble. The song is fun, smart and straightforward (as you would imagine with a Tom T Hall song). Lambert brings the sass and the cahoonas and the backing band. As I said, inspired. Another song to dance all over yesterday’s mistakes.
5. Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson (featuring Bruno Mars) – Bruno Mars does what he does best. On this track, he soaks up every drop of soul, funk, R&B and doo-wop as well as the indelible licks of leading lights like Prince and Stevie Wonder and Mr Jackson and turns them into an incredible, rocket train of a dance track. Whether it’s the handclap beat, the big backing bass drum, the back-up singers sliding between baritone and squeals, the song’s beat dropping, hanging suspended and then coming back with a force, the staccato drum flourishes or Bruno’s ridiculous charm and tight as timing, this song is equal parts funk groove and chutzpah. The chorus will be stuck in your craw long after you’ve left the dance floor. Cos, uptown funk’s gonna give it to ya! Ronson provides backing guitar.
4. Modern Blue by Rosanne Cash – released last January and I have played it several times a week, at least, since then. It is as literate and reflective as music gets. The music is steeped in textures of Southern folk and country. The protagonist (likely autobiographical) travels the world only to find she is most at home, at home. When she sings, “will you hold my hand when I lose my nerve” and you imagine she’s asking that question of her father, the hairs on the back of the neck rise. This is a song for parents … of children who are turning 18 and leaving home. Rosanne’s reflection is precious, capturing the child’s worldview but understood from a parent’s heart. The song has a rousing melody, backed by guitars and piano and mandolin. Both a paean to her father and a universal tale of the ties that stretch and buckle but hopefully, at some point, relax and bind.
3. Lonesome Valley 2003 by Carlene Carter (featuring Vince Gill) – the Carter Family lives on with Carlene’s soul wrenching tribute to her mother June Carter. Taking its chorus from a traditional gospel tune and Carter Family concert staple, Lonesome Valley, Carlene turns it into an encomium to her mother (and family). Every line, every word is fitting, both in recollecting the events of her mother’s passing and the importance of her mother to the family and so many people’s lives (“Junie never knew a stranger, she was friendly like that”). Hushed piano accompanies this spoken/sung remembrance. Vince Gill harmonises on the chorus with Carlene. Then the band comes in and we are in the midst of joyous sounds and sombre memories. Carlene’s voice sounds uncannily similar to her mother’s. When Carlene sings about how Johnny reacted to June’s death it is as much to hold back the tears. “He didn’t care” she sings, then holds the pause to breaking point before delivering the saddest of news, “to carry on”. And then the chorus rises to take us out on that sad note. The chorus is the centrepiece and through the last 100 years it has been sung by so many artists, including Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley and Springsteen. In Dylan’s song, Trying to Get to Heaven, from Time out of Mind he acknowledges the importance of the song as the narrator is trying to get to heaven before they close the door. Carlene’s song both ennobles her mother’s life and work and reminds the listener that history is a dear and valuable friend.
2. Poor Howard by Robert Plant – I don’t know where to start or really what to make of this song and indeed the album. It is both otherworldly and yet a seemingly simple folk song. It is derived from a Lead Belly song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-fHX0cIUs4) and is both true to the basic rhythm and lyric of that great tune but with added Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters dense and multicultural musical styles. Here are some of the instruments that may or may not be accompanying this beautiful tune: bendirs, djembe, guitars, tehardant, banjo, moog bass, piano, tabal, kologo, ritti, omnichord, upright bass, drums, percussion and the lead instrument, Mr Plant’s voice. It’s like you’re in the deep South, the Scottish highlands and west Africa all at the same time (those African flutes are damn catchy). The backing harmonies are especially haunting. So I’m dancing to Robert singing about raising four little kids that’ll drive him crazy and wishing the song didn’t end. I don’t know who Poor Howard is but thank you Robert Plant (and Lead Belly) for this weird old Americana number.
1. The Long Journey Home by Rodney Crowell – there is not another song that could top my 2014 favourite song list. From the first time I heard this I loved it. As I’m typing this I’m listening to it and loving it more than the last time I heard it. Songs, more than any other art form, speak either directly to our individual circumstances and history, or to our psychological make-up and perhaps to moments in our lives that we might not even be able to consciously understand as pivotal to who we are, where we’re going and our deepest yearnings. The best of songs encapsulate all of those aspects, either in quite a direct connection to the heart or in such a metaphorical manner as to be difficult to penetrate (unless you’re Jung). When others tell me about their favourite songs I wonder how that song leads to the map of their soul, to their being. This song speaks to me in this manner. It is delivered in the standard country rock format. If that is not your cup of tea it is easy to dismiss. But don’t dismiss it too quickly. This is a master-craftsman at work. The changes (up and down), the build to chorus and the power of the acoustic rhythm guitar to the song are tight, dramatic and clearly stated. They need to be because they back lyrics and a story that is simple yet profound. Truth-telling, as they say. And boy can Rodney Crowell tell a story and pack a punch. This is a song about coming home but it’s not that simple. And Crowell leaves a clue in the title itself. In Crowell’s song, the place and people you call home is not the sanctuary a lesser song might describe. All the “stuff” you left behind is still swirling around, including your “dead drunk Uncle Fireball” who “growls these words: “Blood don’t make you family boy and I’ve got news for you, rattlesnakes don’t sing like speckled birds”. Crowell goes from this blunt welcome immediately into the chorus, for the final time. The first line of the chorus is a question. “Are you ready for the long journey home?” The journey begins when you actually arrive back at the place you were born and raised. It is a powerful idea. He leaves the question hanging and the song ends on a jam, easily imagined as being played while sitting around a camp fire. This is a tender reflection of a life lived well and what home may hold. It is an uplifting secular gospel tune and a cautionary tale.