My Top, Fave … the 12 songs I got into the most of the songs I heard in 2015
This should be a Top 10 but it’s a Top 12 and before we get into that there’s also 5 songs that just missed selection. Call it the bench. So here we go, in a particular order from 17 to 1!
17. Welcome to New York by Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams took on Taylor Swift’s brilliant record, 1989 and, well, got beaten. He couldn’t come close to Tay-Tay for hooks and lines and melody, let alone for sheer voice. He scrubs up okay on this song, probably because he knows the narrative as well as any aspiring artist. He doesn’t try to overwhelm the lyrics or the mood and it is a kick in the head reminder of his (break through) song, New York, New York.
16. Shake Sugaree by Rhiannon Giddens
There is so much to like about this song. For starters, the song itself. Written by Elizabeth Cotten, whose own story is worth knowing. This is already a fine country blues, as laid down by Ms Cotten. Rhiannon’s honeyed voice and lilting upbeat give it just the right texture to seem both a retelling and a field recording. She sure does know and love her history.
15. Dark Child by Marlon Williams
So I might be the last person to have discovered the beauty and power of Marlon Williams’ artistry. But I have and I’m hooked. On this song he takes us deep into a web of regret and tears and shame and almost unspeakable events, mostly with his hushed vocals and sparse arrangement. The lyrics are a scattering of lines suggesting a bewildered narrator. Marlon Williams (probably the coolest name going around – he even exudes a hint of a young Brando) sings it straight, doesn’t over emote (take note Australia’s Got Talent) and takes the listener right to the heart. The crushed and broken heart.
14. Elevator Operator by Courtney Barnett
To be honest, you could raffle the songs on this album to decide which the best is, such is the quality across the board. Depreston is a stand-out, as is Kim’s Caravan and so is Pedestrian at Best. But I really like this one. From its minute observations (“Breakfast on the run again, he’s well aware
He’s dropping soy linseed Vegemite crumbs everywhere”) to the blend of satirical/comical when the lady with the botox frown says to the 20-year-old protagonist (“I’d give anything to have skin like you”) as her reason from why he shouldn’t jump from the building. His response (“I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly”) is a classic. It’s as Australian as CJ Dennis. This song (and the album is filled with these lines, rolled off effortlessly and almost without regard for their wit and clarity. A jaunty beat provides Courtney an open space to speak/sing this little paean to the working stiff. But this song is so much more. It rips new ones of so many capitalist sacred cows. This line (“Sit on the grass building pyramids out of Coke cans”) leaves our best political songwriters in its wake.
13. She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune by Don Henley
This is an old The Dillards track … well, its lineage goes further back. In the early 60s there was this band called Rising Sons, featuring a very young Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. Also in the band was Jesse Lee Kincaid, who wrote Hymns out of Tune. The Dillards recorded it for their seminal album, Wheatstraw Suite. Herb Pedersen, a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist was a member of The Dillards. While never commercially successful, The Dillards crossed paths with The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and The Flying Burrito Brothers, to name a few. Henley’s version of this song is so faithful to The Dillards that he credits Herb Pedersen as one of the arrangers. There is some musical heft and history in this song and Henley does not let that down. It is a plaintive cry to a love lost on hearing of her passing. There is no bitterness, only sorrow for one who lived her life for the people, the people who are. Oh, it is a bit mystic and enigmatic for sure, but with Henley singing it simply and letting the emotion of the words do the work the song soars.
12. Trapper Avenue by Craig Finn
Rock’s most accountant looking guy does it again. The Hold Steady’s front-man, on his second solo album takes familiar themes (think Lou Reed and Springsteen) and rinses them through his own world weary lens. I’m still not sure if this is about old friends playing do you remember when or if it is old friends pilled up and still trying to find the heart of a Saturday night. It is both joyous and ominous, especially as the songs builds through the keyboards pumped like drums and Finn’s drone, “when they were waving from the windows”. Finn finds beauty even in the moments and places you’d least expect.
11. No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney
Punk or at least punky rock is always gonna hit me where it feels good. SK have such a simple sound but it’s as catchy as hell. This came out at the start of the year and stayed in my fave playlist all year. The chorus itself could be the song complete. It was only recently that I actually sought out the lyrics. Not to put too clumsy a spin on it but do yourself a favour. This ain’t no bubblegum punk. This is serious reflection. In an NPR interview Carrie Brownstein said, cities “are logistically, technically concrete, but actually are so much more murky in reality. And trying to make sense of what that stability is”. The lyrical exploration goes much further, perhaps, according to the website, Genius, to ancient historian Plutarch, posing the Ship of Theseus dilemma to ask the question, what is real and what is not. SK collapse such philosophical meanderings with the claim, “it’s not the cities, it’s the people we love”.
10. What Would You Say by Suzannah Espie
I’ve said it before and I reckon I’ll be banging on about it until I’m a very old man but it is criminal that talent like Suzannah Espie isn’t recognised more widely and more fruitfully. Her latest album is why music is elemental to our being. Her voice has been praised so often and still not enough. This is the first song on an album that delves into the female (inner and outer) life following motherhood. It is raw, dramatic, fearless and painful. The tales can be taken as the torn reflections of PND or as the struggles to readjust your sights following the major upheaval that having a child presents. However it is interpreted there is one thing that drives the listener’s connection, which is the honesty, the integrity, the sheer nakedness of thought, emotion and act. And the song that sets the scene is What Would You Say. I didn’t hear a better opening couplet to a song and album this year (“What would you say if I said / that motherhood was not the best thing I’ve ever done”). The song is a very personal rumination, exploring one of society’s deepest taboos. The song carries a tenderness, partly due to the evocative lyrics and partly due to Suzannah’s expressive voice. It is instantly hummable, all the while you trouble over the ideas. Putting the colloquial, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” as the chorus deflects the intense subject matter with just the right drop of self-deprecating humour.
9. Gone Before You Met Me by Alan Jackson
The current state of country music can be viewed through the seemingly all-encompassing marketing grip of bro-country but that would deny its diversity and peaks. Bro-country certainly does not represent the heart and best of what makes country music such a dynamic genre. Alan Jackson is a case in point. Superficially he might seem like the uncle of those young bucks glorifying beer and guns. But he ain’t one of them and they could not shine his boots let alone walk in them. His latest album, Angels and Alcohol, is brimful of classic country songs, sung in that effortless deep baritone with players who know when to emphasise a lick and know when to hum along under the tale being spun. On this song (which, if you don’t like country will sound as corny as an overflowing cornfield) he reinterprets the classic rambling man theme. There are very poetic lines (again, you might think they’re cornier than corn glazed corn steaks) and a payoff to boot. I tear up. Let’s see just how country you are.
8. If You Lived Here (You’d be Home Now) by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
More country! The exquisite voice of Ms Emmylou coupled with Mr Crowell’s exquisite lyrics. Try this: “I’m tired of breaking these rocks up in this field my heart won’t plow / if you lived here you’d be home now”. Right? The song has an upbeat mood that belies the emotional tension – and of course, a ripper of a country music title. Yes, it’s a throwaway but these two artists’ throwaway is most any other artist best effort.
7. Cumbia de Donde by Calexico
If I didn’t know better I’d say Calexico is stepping out. While the band has blended Tex-Mex with Americana through its career, it hasn’t veered too much into the lighter, dance orientated aspects of its relation with Latin music. On this track it’s all about the dance. Cumbia, to be specific. Using call and response verses (in Spanish – featuring Amparo Sanchez – and English) the song plays with the idea of rootlessness. But it’s the music that drives this party, wherever it’s going! Mariachi beats, big strumming guitar, accordion runs, swinging horns and god knows what else. The song is a party in itself. As the saying goes, free your mind and your ass will follow.
6. Lovin’ in the Fall by Ruby Boots (featuring Jordie Lane)
Young West Australian singer Ruby Boots released her first record this year and it is stuffed full with quality country rock songs. On this track, duetting with Jordie Lane, she takes a stock standard idea (a couple exploring the possibility of love in full flight) and turns it into a blend of 50s country and 70s Burritos influenced sound backed by a yee-hah country beat. Jordie takes the 50s sound with an almost Ray Price type croon and Ruby’s drives a confident 70s country rock voice. This juxtaposition lights the song; Jordie yearns for something more while Ruby’s brash assertion that this time it’s real is almost believable and you wonder how high the love can fly, knowing it’s gunna fall.
5. Angeleno by Sam Outlaw
His name is almost as preposterous as his origin story (quit a high paying adverting executive gig to find himself) and there are enough warning bells to steer the arch eyed country music lover away from this Johnny come lately mountebank. Until you hear him sing. OMG. We may be living through what Baudrillard termed, “precession of simulacra” and Sam Outlaw may be just a replication of a replication of what great country music is but by gosh he’s does it well. Ry Cooder produced this record and if Sam is alright by Mr Authentic then he’s alright by me. Angeleno is the title track of a ripper debut. On the title track, Mr Outlaw, accompanied by plaintive guitar that builds to soaring strings, describes what it’s like to love a cowboy. Who lives in Los Angeles. It might be his bio. Or the bio he would have liked to have lived. Either way, he adds just the right measure of sincerity to a tale he knows that you already know all too well. If you are in any doubt about his sincerity to country music, go see him next time he comes through. He is the real deal. And, as my good wife commented when we saw him recently at the Northcote Social Club, standing about two metres from the stage, “he’s damned handsome”.
4. Family is Family by Kacey Musgraves
Coming off a debut record that floored critics (favourably) and Nashville (not so much) her sophomore record was always going to be appraised more forensically. This album is even better than her last! Kacey is country through and through. There are fiddles and banjos and mandolins and pedal steel running through the album as well as on this song. And there is honesty. For me this is a real heart tugger, tear jerker of a tale. It is light and wry, witty and solemn. The scene is set in the opening lines, (“they’re there for your first year / they give you your first beer”). If you are rolling your eyes, I would run now. Other lines include, “They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys”. Dylan would pay top dollar to rhyme those words. Kacey captures the nuances of family almost as one-liners but without ridiculing faults and foibles. A good, simple melody (and a voice that conveys conviction and curiosity) carries the song along at a good clip.
3. King Kunta by Kendrick Lamar
The upcoming star of hip-hop produced an almost sublime record, To Pimp a Butterfly and this song is just one of half a dozen beauties. On this song he mixes references to the famed character Kunta Kinta from Roots (look it up) with a bunch of borrowings including James Brown and Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’. This is what hip-hop does and what makes it so exciting. The best of it (this song is exhibit A) merges other riffs, lyrics, beats and melodies so effortlessly that the new creation is an artistic production in its own right. King Kunta will be on our New Year’s Eve dance playlist and we will be calling out, “we want the funk”. I’m no dancer, everybody tells me so but when a beat as good as this drops I’ll be shaking my booty (big as it is) with the best of them.
2. 24 Frames by Jason Isbell
“You thought God was an architect, now you know /He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames / In 24 frames”. A marriage breakup causes Jason to reflect on what matters most and how it can all be lost in a second, especially if you don’t tend to it. A cautionary tale from one of Americana’s best talents. Do we learn from our gravest errors or do we continue to self-destruct over a lifetime? This question is tackled from a very personal perspective to the widest aperture in which to view a life worth living. The chorus (see above) demands we take in the gravity of decisions, forks in the road, cause and effect and the aftermath … and perhaps look at them differently than we have been. The deliberate, almost incendiary use of the idea of ‘God’ and ‘pipe bomb’ puts the sense of what we value and the context in which we hold those things dear into as sharp a light as possible. This haunting idea is backed by a jangly hook that you’ll be humming along to all day. I’d be hard pressed to think of a singer/songwriter in the Americana genre that comes close to where Jason Isbell is going, in ideas and tunes and the deeper connection to the heart.
1. The Blade by Ashley Monroe
What makes a great song? It’s something about the blend of artistry and truth. To merely re-present a moment (an experience) we can recognise is not enough. Great art searches for or explores deeper truths about that experience. So it is with Literature’s ‘cannon’ as it is with ‘Great Works of Art’ and the same can be said of popular music. Critical analysis leans all the way back to Plato’s theory of the Forms. That is, Forms are reality and to possess knowledge of the Forms is to trade in deeper truths. To understand ourselves or the world a little more than we do we look to those bearers of ‘knowledge of the Forms’. If they reveal something that shines a light into our inner self, it is probably a truth that will build a better understanding of who we are and what we can be.
This is not to claim that The Blade is comparable to Hamlet or Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. However, in its own small way it makes a contribution to understand relationships a little more. In the second verse Ashley sings, “You said ‘goodbye, it’s not the end / And if you need me, I’m still your friend’ / Well, that’s easy for you to say / Cause you caught it by the handle / And I caught it by the blade”.
In this verse the idea of friendship continuing after a breakup is shown to be a matter of power and position. Relationships and breakups have been explored countless times before across all art and entertainment forms but this small observation (and metaphor) is a powerful addition to the truths that wrestle and wriggle just under the surface of opinions we hold about such serious and sensitive matters. You caught it by the handle and I caught it by the blade. It is such a violent and blunt statement. In an Aussie sense, the person on the wrong side of the breakup, having heard that whimpering support to still be friends would retort, “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter”. You caught it by the handle is so much more poetic and truthful.
Art cannot merely be an intellectual pursuit. It has to evoke feelings. It has to have an emotional connection. And it has to be expressive. The Blade does all that and more. From the minor key progression that introduce the song and Monroe’s first line, “I let your love in” you know this is not going to end happily. The verses are the song’s backbone but the build into the chorus is the surprise (both in the expressiveness of Monroe’s voice and the arrangement that lift the poignancy of the verses). By the time she gets to the ultimate lines (“knowing there’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t, you’ll bleed and they don’t”) the song, driven by Monroe’s voice – the song’s most powerful instrument – has revealed its heart. And if you are on the side of the protagonist you can feel her pain. And you will be retracing your own cowardly ways of having left a relationship. The song doesn’t just ask you to feel for her it ask you that if you must end a relationship consider another means than a sword. Because no-one need catch it by the blade.
Reference: Art and Truth: ‘Good art should illuminate our experience or reveal ‘truths’’ by Michael Lacewing