It’s a preposterous title isn’t it? Around this time of the year my mind goes mushy and hazy trying to distil everything I listened to in the last 365 days of my life, into a compact list. I still listen mainly to albums so this list is really a song from 12 great albums. But it’s not my top 12 albums (with a track from each). Missing from a list like that are standout records such as case/lang/veirs, Hayes Carll and Common. Anyway you get the gist. This is a cruel exercise that I will claim immunity from the moment I finish writing it. There are many, (very many) other as deserving songs.
What I won’t shy away from is the quality of the songs on the list. Every year hundreds and hundreds of beautiful melodies, jaw dropping lyrics, driving rhythms, creative arrangements and show-offy breaks interweave into magical songs that lift the spirit, challenge the mind, get the hips swaying and make the worst of a moment seem less than important. Whether listening on headphones, in the car, at a BBQ or in a club great songs sound good however you hear them. Here’s a few I reckon do the job. They do it for me at least.
12. Charlie Rich Turn Around and Face Me – so a good friend is a mad Charlie Rich fan and this year gave me a bunch of his recording. I had a couple of his albums and loved what I heard/knew of him. Then I listened to a hundred more songs and was flabbergasted at the breadth of his talent. Jazz, soul, rockabilly, country, pop, it’s all there and more. Charlie has one of music’s finest voices. There’s a bunch of his songs that standout. For me, The Most Beautiful Girl is his best. If you think it’s a schmaltzy middle of the road throwaway, listen again. It is a sad reflective meditation on the mistake that breaks the camel’s back. With a spring in the heels melody to obscure the hurt at the centre of the song.
My Charlie Rich choice came from the swag of songs I got to know this year. This one is a stayer. An absolute ripper. The song starts with an authoritative demand (“Turn around and face me”) offset by the incongruous sound of a hollow drum boing sound before the backing music steadies into a cha-cha rhythm. Just as you are falling into the sway of that beat horns arrive to take the song into an upbeat soul groove. Above it all is Charlie, fighting with the most existential of questions, “Why did you say you love me/when I didn’t stand a chance?” Such a sad refrain and what a song to dance to.
11. Michael Kiwanuka Black Man in a White World – if ever there was a year that protest songs would feature in a Best Of list this is the year. This list I’m sharing with you is part of a bigger list that three friends and I put together every year. We play the songs as a countdown while we drink our wine and beer and tea and have a blast. In recognition of some of the greats who passed away this year we had Bowie’s, I’m Afraid of Americans and the Prince song, Baltimore. Neither artist would be considered a protest singer but subconsciously I think we felt the urge to connect their passing with a protest swelling in our hearts that I suspect will find its way onto the streets.
I didn’t know of Michael Kiwanuka before I picked up this album, which was based on a recommendation. This song’s beauty is its steady handclap backbeat and insistent lyric and Michael’s resonant folk soul croon. The singing, like the song, teeters between an impossibly weary Ritchie Havens lament and an upbeat Bill Withers funk. This song stands as a demonstration of the best of the retro soul movement and the complexity of identity politics, where the personal struggle not to be the political never wins.
10. Mount Moriah How to Dance – history lesson. Mount Moriah is a sacred place for Christians, Muslims and the Jewish faith. It’s the place where in the Book of Genesis Abraham offered up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on God’s command. You get the sense that this band is big on the metaphors that matter. As in, we the people are part of the intersection of the core faiths that have existed for thousands of years, that bind us together but also, potentially separate and segregate us in a way that denies our humanness. Or they just like alliteration.
So, the band is an Alt-country outfit trying to establish their cred in the shifting sands of the Americana scene. They’re good. Like real good. Central to this tune is lead singer, Heather McEntire’s plaintive observation, “Got a lot of people telling me, how to dance”. With a pedal steel gently guiding her quivering vocals you are transfixed by the lilting, hesitant melody and almost miss the surreal yet subliminal message she communicates. Which is (sung in a quiet yet quite forceful tone): fuck off naysayers, I’ll find my own path.
9. Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones Make a Wish on Me – if you like late 50s pop married to a country inflection, with wit and charm and a little bit of a shaking of the tail feather, add this song to your playlist. This song’s sparkling melody, with vocals as lead instrument, Bo Diddley rhythm (Costello band members make up the band) and almost ribald lyrics will get the party on the dance floor and singing along. As the opening lines go, “When you’ve rubbed every lamp in Aladdin’s cave and you’ve filled up the Trevi with the coins you’ve saved … make a wish on me”.
8. Parker Millsap Hades Pleads – Parker is my find of the year. He’s 23 and has the chops. He’ll be around a long time. I could have chosen one of half a dozen gems from his album and each song markedly different in texture, arrangement and emphasis. Parker embraces folk, blues and country to the extent that it feels like he went down to the crossroads to cut a no retreat, no surrender deal with Dylan, Hank and Robert Johnson.
The album leads with this song and, as the first track on an album should be, it is showoffy. While it is nothing new, it is fresh and edgy, held together by a deep respect for the traditional sound he and his band so evidently love. And play well. His understanding of storytelling, with a keen ear for a line or phrase, serves him and his songs well.
Fiddle, double bass and guitar start what could lead into a mountain jam before Parker growls, “I’m gonna take you to my house on the Styx” and without warning you ain’t in Kansas (actually Oklahoma) anymore. The verse ends with Parker mimicking a dog begging. It gets stranger still. All the while driven by a traditional jug band sound.
7. Miranda Lambert Ugly Lights – Miranda is now an established country artist, close to wearing the crown as Queen of country. Yet she still feels and sounds like an outsider. That’s a compliment. This song is as stark as it gets. It sounds like she singing down a telephone, you can almost hear the static. The tale could, simplistically, be read, as one of despair. Yet from the first lines she manages to poke fun at her own persona (with a sly nod to her real life break up with male country superstar Blake Shelton). In fact the first verse sets up the metaphysical duality. On one level it is about a woman who never got on with her life (“the girl bartenders hate”). On another level, it is a self-reflection, keenly insightful, of a life lived in the public gaze (“but I’m still gonna stay up late”).
The song is a kiss-off to anyone who dares comment on her choices. The protagonist is a text book case of bad decisions but the singer observes, “So what, if I feel comfortable in here … I’ll be sitting here alone when the ugly lights come on”. That’s defiance. The song has a bar band rocking out sound with back-up singers doing great 60s girl group harmonies. There is no sadness, no pity in Miranda’s voice. This song affirms a woman’s right to fuck up and continue as.
6. The Cactus Blossoms Adios Maria – a beautiful Tex-Mex, country waltz that sounds as old as the hills with vocals that are pure and harmonies that are purer yet. Yes it is retro but The Blossoms are not pretenders. The song (and album) has an essence that carries an authenticity through its unvarnished tune. The Blossoms are compared to The Everly Brothers but I hear a closer connection to The Delmore Brothers and even The Louvins. Coming close to any of these acts is a compliment of the highest order.
5. Mudcrutch Trailer – or, as I like to call this band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This song is a left over from Southern Accents, a Petty album from the 1980s. Back then Petty dismissed the song, placing it as a B-side to Don’t Come around Here No More. Doomed to be forgotten. But you can’t keep a good song down. The song has aged very well. I would say the 30 years it has gained makes the story even more poignant. Two kids straight out of high school get trapped in a trailer life-style. The girl leaves, the boy doesn’t try to understand why. Petty had previously reported that, “even the losers get lucky some time”; on this occasion that doesn’t happen (“I ain’t cut out for nothing that pays my rent”). This is Petty at his twangiest, with a Springsteen mid-tempo beat. His idiosyncratic vocals with that nasal pitch and melodic tone gives the story a truth and the character a believable inertia. The band let the story unfold, playing a signature country rock rhythm to ground the tale in a geographical location – Lostandlonelyville, Louisiana.
4. Margo Price Hurtin (on the Bottle) – She big, bold and brassy and this is her first album. Country music seems to be always almost being swallowed up by corporate short-sightedness (in the last few years by dreadful bro-country). And it keeps getting saved by outsiders. In recent years female country singers have held firm and have broken the Nashville fixation on moulding country into a cookie cutter sound. Margo is the next good female country artist to crack that mould. On her album she even takes a direct shot at Nashville with the song, This Town Gets Around a pointed take on how Nashville fucks over its young and eats itself.
Hurtin is a much more personal song, though you wouldn’t guess that from its big raucous sound. And Margo’s punchy opening vocals. Steel guitar backed by solid rhythm give Margo lots of room to belt the hell out of the heartbreaker of a chorus then bring the audience in close for the verses. Tammy Wynette would nod with approval at the song and singer. This is country music with heritage and meaning. And in a genre that surely has almost exhausted the drinking to forget storyline kudos to Price for the phrase, ‘hurtin on the bottle’. I know what it means.
3. A Tribe Called Quest We the People – They’ve reformed apparently. After 17 years or so. The album is damn good but this song is the bomb. Referencing the opening statement from the US Constitution to shine a damning light on current US politics, particularly the President elect. The chorus is as catchy as anything:
“All you black folk you must go/All you Mexicans you must go/All you poor folk you must go/Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways”.
Trump has damned all those groups and others besides. Yes, the incoming American President is a card carrying bigot. ATCQ calls him and us on such bigotry. The rap verses are filled with imagery and pithy one-liners (“When we get hungry we eat the same fucking food – the ramen noodle”). Thank you to the website Genius which allows the reader to understand references littered through songs. Using it to follow the rap verses of We the People is mind-blowing. Mind you, you don’t need a guide to understand the start of the song: “We don’t believe you”. In a so called post truth world We the People is a straight forward way of responding to Trump, the election, the times and the continuing plight of the disenfranchised.
Q-Tip, the late Phife and theTribe cast this political call to arms inside a relentless beat with a slowed down, sweet but sad chorus, stripping the façade of the American dream and democratic rights down to the harsh truths. This is a protest song. It is the best appraisal of the time of Trump yet. While the rest of us are still mouthing WTF ATCQ summed it up and gave it a back beat and groove.
2. Drive By Truckers Ramon Casiano – carrying on with protest songs is the Drive Bys, from the most overtly political album of their career. This band has moved well past trying to have an intellectual conversation about what the South is in the American consciousness and history. The album is called American Band and like Springsteen’s Born in the USA, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a genuflection to their country. This is a frustrated, confused and angry album; an essay of a place that has lost its moorings.
This song starts off sounding like a garage band trying to hook into The Stones, Let’s Spend the Night Together. They jam a few bars of said song and then take it into their own tune. I read the reference as a link to Trump who used The Stones song to warm up rally crowds as he stepped onto the stage. The juxtaposition becomes apparent when you understand that the titular character of the song was a real person and the song is about the guy who killed him. That person was Harlon Carter and if you don’t know of him you really should. Start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlon_Carter
The message of this Drive Bys song is that today started from a long time ago. It is a powerful story, a harbinger and a reminder. Harlon Carter almost single-handedly turned the American love of guns into an obsession fixated on fear of the unknown and the other. Trump became President elect based on exploiting the dark recesses of the American psyche where fear of the unknown and the other sleep until stirred and woken to take root in the imagined place called America. The song concludes, “Someone killed Ramon Casiano/And Ramon still ain’t dead enough”. American fear as exploited by Trump and Carter concentrates on blurring the line between physical and metaphorical border-lines. However, America and the world are in a liminal moment (that we may have been in for decades). Trumps ect will for their own selfish wants, concentrate our focus on the worst possible hypotheticals because they are frightened that they will be diminished by what comes from this moment. Ramon Casiano is a salutary message that when we allow the worst of our character to lead us then the worst of our character may eventually become the essence of who we are.
1. Beyonce Freedom – hands down, the best album of 2016 was Beyonce’s Lemonade. The title comes from a story the grandmother of Beyonce’s husband Jay Z tells (and you may recognise from Forrest Gump) about turning lemons into lemonade. This story is played as the song Freedom fades out, almost as if hearing it through a crystal set radio. It is actually from her 90th birthday. The message is clear, women have been fighting a war to be recognised and treated fairly for a very long time and no matter what the obstacle, what the obstruction, what the breakdown, they will find a way through and make positive from whatever life throws at them.
While Jay Z’s grandmother’s reflections may sound cute and from a distant more innocent time the song Freedom channels the long line of advocates and struggles, storytellers and activists to make its own claim to continue the struggle for the right to be free. (“I break chains all by myself/won’t let my freedom rot in hell”). That line (“won’t let my freedom rot in hell”) may be the best lyric of this year.
It’s hard not to just keep writing about the power of the song’s message in its lyrics but even more so, in the performance (Queen B is at the top of her game) because the song is the epitome of the personal and the political. It recognises and respects the past but it is centred on today. What are a female’s rights? Why do we have to stand tall and say it so loud and proud? Has the world still not accepted this basic human right?
And how entwined is the personal (the struggle to be yourself in a relationship that by its definition defines the individual) with the political? Where is the separation between being an individual and being a female and being an African American female and being affluent? All of these existential questions rage in the song, in Beyonce’s performance. Kendrick Lamar’s powerful bridge both reinforces the song’s core message (“Is it truth you seek”) and takes the song to another level.
But it is the instrumentation and arrangement that maketh this fascinating and fantastic song. Church organs, samples from Lomax field recordings, drums balanced somewhere between military and disorderly, classic rap beats, Just Blaze producing and a soul band backing coalesce into this incredibly powerful instrumental sound. This is a song wherein the sound is the equal of the vocals. It had to be.
A song this good knows its history. Plays to it. In Freedom you can hear the song-line from Bitter Fruit, through Chimes of Freedom, RESPECT, I Am Woman, Born to Run, I Will Survive the grrl punk band movement, Madonna, Bjork, Missy Eliot, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. In Freedom Beyonce goes beyond this line to the female/planet relationship. Her personal freedom and growth is based on her relationship with nature (rain, thunder, flames, earth [heaven is making sure her freedom doesn’t rot in hell but is based on her time on earth]). Balance. But Freedom is also about the liminal, the artificial border that gives men freedom but demands women fight for it (“I’m a riot through your borders”). Freedom stands as the mountain built by 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s protest songs.
I love Beyonce. I obviously love the song. Check it out: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJhoGzTnXU) Beyonce and dancers enter the stage to a seminal Martin Luther King speech (“this is a promise to all men, yes black men and white men”). In semi darkness, with those military drums urging the song on, on a stage covered with water Beyonce, almost drowned out by the adoring fans holds the line. After an unbearable wait, without any acknowledgement of an audience, Beyonce kicks in (Tryna rain, Tryna rain on my thunder”). What? What an incredible usurping of a well-known phrase. Minutes into the song Beyonce has already disrupted language and meaning.
Please keep watching. The song and performance are spell-binding. I can guarantee that by the time Beyonce and Kendrick are kicking up water, splashing around, in celebration you would have travelled so far with Beyonce into history, into personal hurt, into soul/hip-hop explosions, and you have sung her core belief as if it was your own (“I’m a keep running cos a winner don’t quit on themselves”) you will wish you were with them, splashing around in the freedom of water.