Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 11 Songs of '11 (part one)

11) "How About You" - Ryan Beaver - (written by Ryan Beaver) - This is a heartbreakingly honest song about loneliness. The musical arrangement is, thankfully, sparse -- acoustic guitar and a beautifully played and perfectly supportive dobro -- forcing the listener to focus on the melody, lyric, vocals, and the mood they create. And the mood created is one of despair and melancholy. It's about two people who want to be each others' cure for loneliness even if only for a night. The setting is a bar, and a man conjuring up courage within himself to go over and talk to a girl who catches his eye. But he's never been the kinda man that could ever talk to a pretty thing like you. Tonight, however, he's at his breaking point: But tonight I don't give a damn, I'm at the point where I've got nothin' left to lose. A line like this is refreshing: in a world where it seems that to prove your manhood you have to show off how many girls you can talk to at the bar or bring home within a week, here is a guy who can confess that there is still something about a beautiful girl that wells up nervousness within him, causes him to lose his train of thought, to be unable to speak coherent words at all. So the fact that tonight none of that matters is significant. He's been lonely too long. He doesn't want to impress her with small talk or one-liners, he wants to appeal to her desire for comfort and connection as well; and with this honesty comes confidence, even though it may only be fleeting. Everybody's big on small talk, too scared to play their hands, caught up in lovers' games nobody understands. Why can't we just say what we really mean to? I'm lonely, how about you? If everyone was that honest there might be a lot less frustration between the sexes and a lot more understanding. Nah, that'll never happen. We're doomed to a cycle of meaningless platitudes and misunderstandings. But amongst all the sadness of "How About You" (maybe because Beaver understands it's a long shot too), the song does offer a little bit of hope.

10) "Violin" - Amos Lee - (written by Amos Lee) - I love Amos Lee. I think he is a great songwriter. But I think, with four efforts under his belt, he has yet to master the art of making a quintessential album. I always find myself discovering about three to five truly great songs within each album, while the rest I usually end up discarding. It's not that they are necessarily "bad" -- the great ones quite simply are just on another level. "Violin" is one of those great songs, released on his latest album (and the album with the best artwork, in my humble opinon) Mission Bell. And as with many great songs, its meaning is not abundantly clear; rather, it reveals itself a little more with each listen. The lyrical crux of the song is a plea of sorts: Oh God why you been hanging 'round in that old violin? While I been waiting for you to pull me through. On the surface it seems merely to be about the human experience of spiritual longing and questioning, but then you ask yourself, "Okay, so what kind of violin has God been hanging around in?" It's a line that can leave you contemplating for hours on long drives and sleepless nights. The haunting mood of the song is superbly enhanced by the ethereal background vocals of one Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame. They are subtle, but once you realize they are there you cannot listen to the song without them standing out. He doesn't come in until a little after the 1:30 mark in the song; and he doesn't simply match Lee's words with his own harmonies, he sings the first words of each line in the second verse, beautifully holding out his last word through Lee's completion of the line. I don't know why I'm trying to explain it. Just listen.

 9) "Jubilation Day" - Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers - (written by Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers) - My two favorite instruments are the banjo and the pedal steel guitar, with the banjo edging out the pedal steel on most days. There is just something about the banjo that is transcendent, even within the simplest strum or plucking pattern. It can convey joy and heartbreak with equal aplomb. "Jubilation Day" has one of my favorite bluegrass banjo licks ever; it's what my ear immediately goes to whenever I hear the song, which is a humorous take on a break-up, a send-off-good-riddance-kiss-my-ass break-up song of sorts. The melody is happy, conveying "jubilation" that the relationship is over and that it really wasn't worth much in the first place. There are some funny lines, spoken by Martin over the crisp and stellar musicianship of the Steep Canyon Rangers, not to mention Martin's own wonderful five-string picking. Great lines include: In my dreams you wear a red cape and a pitchfork; I'll be over you by lunchtime; and Let's remember the good when you were out of town. But Martin's humorous lyricism takes a backseat to his musical chops here. He comes up with a banjo line that you simply can't get out of your head, and not only does it convey the happiness felt from the end of a relationship that was doomed from the beginning, it somehow conveys the humor of it all as well. (What good are we if don't have senses of humor?) I'm grateful that Steve Martin is using his comedic platform to spread the gospel of the banjo, and to more generally spread the word of bluegrass music as a whole. And he's doing it with one foot rooted firmly in tradition, and the other stepping forward to continue to bring bluegrass music to the hearts and minds of the modern music listener, hopefully turning them into lovers in the process. It simply doesn't get much better than the banjo, and musically, you'd be hard-pressed to find musicians more talented than those who pick out a living in a bluegrass band. "Jubilation Day" is a great example. (Great live performance of the song on Conan here.)

 8) "Creepin'" - Eric Church - (written by Eric Church and Marv Green) - The lead-off track from Church's 2011 album Chief starts with a lyric that makes me chuckle every time: Like a honeybee beatin' on my screen door, I got a little buzz and my head is sore. Apparently, the night before was a bit of a long one, and the sun creepin' up doesn't make it much better. "Creepin'," to place it under a genre umbrella for simplicity's sake, is certainly a rocker, but there is a sweet banjo lick that comes in during the first few seconds of the song that not only sounds great but surprisingly compliments the honeybee line quite nicely; somehow, it seems the banjo is lazily buzzing. The song is a about the inability of the narrator to get over a girl; her memory keeps creepin' up on him, and a byproduct of her departure is that he can feel the lonely and hear the crazy just a-creepin'. He's on the brink of breaking down, and heads to the bottle to forget. But it only brings back more of her memory, only magnifies the pain: Head to the future, run from the past, hide from the mirror, live in a glass; what dreams forget the whiskey remembers, kinda like molasses in late December, just a creepin'. Certainly the lyrics convey pain, but the song's general upbeat and rocking nature and the subtle splashes of lyrical humor, though not sending out glorious vibes of positivity and hopeful rays of sunshine, at the very least suggest that eventually everything will be alright, unless he simply chooses to live with strong drink and her memory as his constant companions -- which would be okay as long as there's a good song in the background. The production here is crystal, and as I've already mentioned about Chief in its entirety, the drums sound phenomenal. Here's to hoping Church continues to rise in popularity; though I didn't understand, much less appreciate, him at first, he's about as real and good as country radio gets right now in my opinion.

7) "If I Wanted Someone" - Dawes - (written by Taylor Goldsmith) - After "Million Dollar Bill" it was "If I Wanted Someone" that struck me on Nothing Is Wrong, especially the wonderful chorus: If I wanted someone to clean me up I'd find myself a maid, if I wanted someone to spend my money I wouldn't need to get paid, If I wanted someone to understand me I'd have so much more to say, I want you to make the days move easy. I think that last part says so much about the heart of what we want our girlfriends or wives or significant others to truly be. Life is better when its shared with someone you love, or as Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame wrote in the margin of one of his books, "Happiness only real when shared." Life technically doesn't become easier, but it sure starts to move like it is when you know someone is by your side, especially if that someone, to be frank, doesn't nag and spend all your hard-earned cash. I've read where people compare the sound of this song to Jackson Browne, The Band, and Neil Young, but the classic this song is most reminiscent of to me is "Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The guitar riff at the beginning, at the very least, seems an obvious reference to "Mary Jane." To be honest, I haven't quite figured out the meaning of all the verses in "If I Wanted Someone" because the chorus is so perfect and unapologetic and catchy, but there are some terrific and thought-provoking lines that stand out: ...the only time I'm lonely is when others are around, I just never end up knowing what to say and I took everything I thought from what it means to be a man, we need words to be put to what we do not understand. It's one of those songs where I kind of know what it means on the surface, but there's another level of depth still yet to explore. At the same time, art or a song that exists for its own sake -- rather than as fodder for over-analysis and constant excavation in hopes of finding newer and deeper and more technical meanings -- is quite often what moves us the most. Or as songwriter Goldsmith so eloquently puts it: Like the feeling of a photograph before it's meanings all got told. There is something profound about mystery. (Nice acoustic version performed in an alley.)

6) "Promises, Promises" - Incubus - (written by Brandon Boyd) - An old high school favorite of mine, Incubus returned in 2011 with the album If Not Now, When? after a five-year hiatus. I've taken an interest in everything they've put out, though I'm not as rabid as I used to be, and decided to buy their latest despite negative reviews and after hearing the song "Adolescents." Apparently, because this album didn't "rock" as much as albums past, contained melodies more easily grasped, and in general "slowed things down" a little bit, critics (and probably many fans) thought they had sold out to appeal to your average mini-van driving soccer mom. Okay. All I know is that I really enjoyed If Not Now, When? and my favorite song from it is, you guessed it, "Promises, Promises." Brandon Boyd calls it one of his first "storytelling" songs. It's about a girl who's gotten so used to putting up walls that it's become hard for her to recognize when she meets a guy with the potential for something real. Boyd explains it best (taken from previous link): "And so, I used these metaphors in the song of, like, magic, like she's an illusionist, so she creates these illusions around her. And she's gotten so good at it that she meets somebody who potentially could be someone that could help her break through those illusions and those walls, she can't really recognize that he could be the real thing, or they could be the real thing, so she's asking him for one thing: 'Don't make me any promises.' " My favorite lyric in the song is: Baby could I be the rabbit in your hat? I'd swing if you'd hand me, hand me the bat. It seems to me like this guy has her figured out, knows how and why she's been playing the games and putting up the walls, but it's up to her to give in to the possibility of a real connection and let go of what her creating of these illusions comes down to: fear and the desire for control. By the chorus it seems she does, with, as Boyd says, one condition: I'm on the road of least resistance, I'd rather give up than give in to this, so promise me only one thing would you, don't ever make me promises. What makes the song for me is the beautiful piano line played throughout (certainly different for Incubus) that only adds to the ache and longing contained in the overall melody. Add to that the fact that Brandon Boyd is one of the best, if not the best, rock singers/vocalists of modern times, and the song really is a conglomeration of many elements coming together to compliment each other and make a whole. The linked video to the song above is a flawless live studio version. And believe me when I say that the band, especially Boyd, whom I've never heard go off key, is just as good live.

Top 11 of '11 (part two) arriving soon.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Favorite Songs of 2011 -- #25-12

25) "The Scientist" - Willie Nelson - (written by Coldplay) - (Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard, oh take me back to the start) - Dare I say that I like Willie's version even better than Coldplay's? Well, I do. Maybe because it really does seem like a fresh take on the song, what with the understated strums of acoustic guitar and the beautiful brushes of steel guitar. It doesn't hurt that Willie had a catchy and gorgeous melody to start with thanks to Chris Martin and company, but Nelson's voice takes the song to another level altogether. This cover really showcases his genius at vocal phrasing. Also, his version was recorded for a collaboration with Chipotle to make consumers more aware of the importance, necessity, and overall healthiness of food that comes from local and organic farms compared to mass factory-farm produced crap that's become so convenient and addictive to me and everyone else. Add to that the continual rising number of suicides among farmers due in part to corporate takeover and exploitation, and I'd say this is a great song for a great cause.

24) "If It Hadn't Been For You" - Foster & Lloyd - (written by Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd) - (Baby I know that I am a lucky soul and a better man, I wouldn't know love the way I do, if it hadn't been for you) - One of the more serious songs on their highly anticipated comeback record (It's Already Tomorrow) after a twenty year hiatus, "If It Hadn't Been For You" is a genuine and earnest song about a woman who inspires a man to not give up on his dreams, to stop worrying, and to let their love sustain them. I think we've all met "that person" before, but for many of us the feeling just never lasted either because it wasn't meant to or both parties (or just one; unrequited love and all that) simply didn't want to put in the effort to keep at least a little flame lit in the lantern. This is how a straightforward love song should be written and delivered; well enough to make the listener believe it could actually happen.

23) "All The Shine" - Childish Gambino - (written by Donald Glover) - (I'd get you MTV if I could man, but Pitchfork only like rappers who crazy or hood man) I am a fan of rap (let me clarify: thoughtful rap) because an intelligent rapper can turn a witty phrase and strike and emotional cord within the same song. I'm a fan of clever wordplay, poetry, and connecting emotionally to songs. On the whole, rap as a genre doesn't speak the most to me, but artists like Common, Mars Ill, and Childish Gambino can be so poetic and emotionally fulfilling that even a hater of rap at least has to respect them. I first heard of Donald Glover when the television show Community first started airing. Never would I have expected him to adopt a rap persona that seems to be the complete opposite of his Troy character on the show. And maybe that's why I like and appreciate it so much. The standard rhymes about money and girls are here (it's honestly hard to tell whether or not he lives this life or if it's just easier for him to come up with funny lines about those hip hop cliches, and to Glover's credit he openly admits rapping about that stuff is stupid), but there is also something deeper and more human going on here, something at times that's brutally honest. The linked live version above is fantastic -- that guitar lick is sweet.

22) "Pumped Up Kicks" - Foster The People - (written by Mark Foster) - (All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run better run faster than my bullet) - I'll be honest, I don't know all the lyrics to this song and have no idea what the song could be about. The ubiquitous song of 2011 is quite simply one of the catchiest of the year and I can't help busting a move every time I hear it...and I don't dance. It's one of those rare overplayed songs that I never got tired of. It does, however, bring new meaning to the song when you do a Google search and discover the songwriter, Mark Foster, wrote the song about isolated youth and getting into the mind of a killer. Talk about your disparity between a happy melody (one of the happiest of all time?) and bleak lyrical content. I guess it kind of makes sense, though, seeing as how the song talks about outrunning guns and bullets and what not. But honestly it will never be about that for me. For me, it's just fun.

21) "The Fight" - Eli Young Band - (written by Natalie Hemby and Tim Putnam) - (You gotta fail before you see it through, you gotta spend your last dime before you ever make a million, you gotta know what brought you here, you gotta lose to persevere, but it's the way the sun will rise through the darkest night, yea it's always been worth the fight) I got into Eli Young Band courtesy of listening to Randy Rogers Band on Pandora, before their mainstream hit "Crazy Girl" ever hit the country charts. I'm glad these guys from Texas are getting some wider recognition, and I can only hope the same for RRB's album due to be released the first half of next year. "The Fight," from Eli Young Band's 2011 release Life At Best (love that title), is my favorite song on that album. It's got a feel-good melody with an ever-so-slight hint of darkness present, and realistic yet hopeful lyrics about the road your life can take, one that often seems anything but narrow. But maybe the narrow road is a metaphor; it is hope itself, so easily let go of (sometimes without us even realizing it) and so hard to maintain. Few seem to have it, fewer seem to keep it. This song wants to change that. And it succeeds, at least for four and a half minutes. I'm rooting for this one to be the third single.

20) "A Man Don't Have To Die" - Brad Paisley - (written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren, and Josh Thompson) - (It's a place out by the airport where the girls dance just for you, and all you feel is drunk and broke and lonely when they're through) - I have to admit that my eyes watered the very first time I heard this song. Well written and well produced, it strikes an emotional cord that is hard for your bones to resist. It is without a doubt the best and most poignant song on Paisley's latest release This Is Country Music, and if it doesn't see the light of day at country radio after the enjoyable but ultimately meaningless "Camouflage," it will be an absolute shame. Country radio needs more songs like this. It hits on the economic woes Americans have been experiencing the past few years, the reality of broken families and broken homes and how that affects the lives of all parties concerned for the foreseeable future, and it wraps itself in religious/church imagery by illustrating the desire, especially in hard times, of human beings to hear sermons at about the goodness of God and the forgiveness of Jesus rather than the guilt-whip of hellfire and brimstone, the positive over the negative, the hope over the doom, because there is enough Hell on Earth to go around...thus the crux of the song: "A man don't have to die to go to hell." I have already quoted above what is to me the song's most poignant lyric. It's a heavy dose of reality about how sometimes we often glorify things in life to the detriment of realizing that some of those very things are only serving to deepen our pain. That kind of honesty is what country music is all about.

19) "Cartoon Gold" - Drive-By Truckers - (written by Mike Cooley) - Cooley is my favorite songwriter in the Truckers, and this song is a humorously poetic beast. I don't think I'd do it any justice by saying something about it so I'll just share the lyrics with you; they're all gold, so to speak:

I'm not good with numbers
I just count on knowing when I'm high enough
A mule with only two legs counting steps toward dangling carrots don't add up
I think about you when I can and even sometimes when I can't I do
Once the driver knows you got good sense he takes away the carrots too
Getting all excited finding nothing that was never there before
Is like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor
Jesus made the flowers but it took a dog to make the story good
I think about you when I can and sometime when I don't I probably should

Tending bar in LA after dark must be like mining cartoon gold
Rocks that won't cooperate and tools that drive you crazy must get old
I think about you when I can and sometimes when I do I still get caught
sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on

Dang. Dude knows how to turn phrases, come up with creative metaphors, and be dryly hilarious all at once, all the while making it all mean something, and that something is usually profound. I read online where someone called Cooley something like the "crazy, cool uncle" of the Truckers. Yup. I love this guy. Also, the studio version has some sweet rollicking banjo in it -- check it out.

18) "Hard Out Here" - Hayes Carll - (written by Hayes Carll) - (It gets hard out here, I know it don't look it, I used to have heart but the highway took it, the game was right but the deal was crooked, oh god we're all outta beer, it gets hard out here) - I discovered this singer/songwriter from Texas this year with his latest release Kmag Yoyo (and Other American Stories) (Kmag Yoyo is a military acronym for "Kiss my ass guys, you're on your own). I actually just purchased the album recently, so I haven't given it a proper listen all the way through, but this song and lead-off track "Stomp and Holler" are stellar. There are some pretty clever lines here; Carll has a great sense of humor about life on the road. In the live version he makes it clear that he indeed does have the best job in the world, but there are certain nights that leave him wondering, perhaps, what kind of life he has chosen, and on those nights running out of beer is probably a perfectly good reason to panic. Well, running out of beer would be a good reason to panic on any night, but I digress. Another favorite line of mine: "Everybody's talkin' 'bout the shape I'm in, they say boy you ain't a poet just a drunk with a pen". I can honestly say it is an utter lie that I have never felt that way before. Oh, and if you have a sense of humor, you have GOT to check out this song and video.

17) "Barton Hollow" - The Civil Wars - (written by John Paul White and Joy Williams) - (Ain't goin' back to Barton Hollow, the devil gonna follow me where'er I go, won't do no good washin' in the water, can't no preacher man save my soul) - Oh, that the rest of the album Barton Hollow sounded like this. Not that the album is bad, I was just a little disappointed because there is nothing as upbeat as this song, and more importantly none of the other songs are as evocative and reliant as "Barton Hollow" is on the imagery of the beautifully dirty South. It's without a doubt the standout track on the record, and while I do enjoy a few of the other songs on it, none of them approach the gloriously rustic and dark majesty of this one. Comprised of John Paul White (a dead ringer for Johnny Depp) and Joy Williams (former contemporary Christian singer), The Civil Wars formed when the two met at a Nashville songwriting session and hit it off, creatively speaking. And obviously the chemistry is there. The harmonies in this song are near perfect, soaring to heights that can make a tingle run down your spine and chills rise up from your skin; it went down South to take a bath and emerged pure and organic and clean as crystal, dripping its sultry waters still. I just wish the rest of the album was.

16) "Bastard Child" - Hellbound Glory - (written by Leroy Virgil) - (Coulda done worse, shoulda done better, Mama woulda tried if the bottle ever let her, I ain't prince or a pile, ain't doin' bad for a bastard child) - I discovered this band literally within the past month, and I think they're great. Their latest album Damaged Goods is crisply produced stone-cold country without being too polished; it actually contains just enough of that rough-around-the-edges sound. The songwriting is stellar, and lead singer Leroy Virgil has a hell of a unique voice, genuine and raspy yet absolutely capable of belting it out. "Bastard Child" is the lead-off track and one of the many standouts on this short 30-minute, 10-song album. What I really love about this song is the narrator is admitting that his childhood was far from perfect, but he's certainly not one to sit around and whine and complain about it. Life's not been easy for him, but nobody said it would be (he's heard "The Scientist" before); he just lives it as it comes, appreciating the foundation the past (good and bad) has left for him, learning all the while. He takes the "credit and the blame" for all the right and wrong he's done, with no shame. And, hey, though his family life seems to have been less than ideal growing up, he still sings: I'm just thankful for my birth and for my family, or else I wouldn't be me. So it ain't all bad. If those in the world that this song describes are grateful just to be alive, those of us who grew up pretty well-off could probably learn a little something from them. We all bring damaged goods to the table.

15) "Ray's Automatic Weapon" - Drive-By Truckers (written by Patterson Hood) - (Don't want to hurt nobody, but I keep on aiming closer, don't think that I can keep it feeling like I feel) - Mike Cooley may be my favorite songwriter in Drive-By Truckers, but I think Patterson Hood is one of the finest songwriters working today, so that says a lot about what I think of this band. Hood's always been the ringleader of sorts and always brings the most songs to each album, and something about "Ray's Automatic Weapon" stands out on the Truckers latest release Go-Go Boots. The song is essentially about a man, a Vietnam veteran, who offers to watch his friend Ray's gun for him. But the darkness in him from the war is still there, and the general darkness that is part of all of our natures starts trying to overtake him, and he begins to not trust himself with the gun anymore. These things that I been shooting at are getting all too real, the narrator tells Ray. Taken from the Drive-By Truckers website, Hood says of the song, "It was inspired by a visit from a friend that day who told me a chilling tale about a couple of Vietnam vets and a very powerful gun." In this informative Youtube video Hood goes on to say that the friend, a Vietnam vet himself, "nonchalantly" and "un-dramatically" told him the story about this guy's friend who had just bought a huge gun and had showed it to him; Hood's friend became concerned about his friend having such large weaponry around the house. Hood's friend convinced the guy to let him keep it at his house, on terms that it would still be his gun, he would let him come over and get it whenever he wanted. But Hood's friend "found himself out one afternoon, kind of on ridge overlooking a highway, seeing how close he could get to cars that would go by without hitting anybody. And it kind of dawned on him that maybe he didn't need to have the gun either. So he went home and he called his friend and told him to come get the gun back." Who in the world would think of putting such a story to song but Patterson Hood. I love it.

14) "Fire and Dynamite" - Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors - (written by Drew Holcomb) - (Some people talk to angels, some people people talk to themselves, well I don't know who you're talking to, but everything you say makes me want you) - I discovered this song watching Wide Open Country on CMT one night, which is weird considering I could go as wide open as I wanted to and I still wouldn't consider this a country song. But I'm thankful I found it. It's a great rock 'n' roll love song about finding that someone you can't live without (a husband and wife duo are two members of the band, see above), and it has some killer fuzzy electric guitar work in it. It also contains one of my favorite lines in a song this year: You are a novel in a sea of magazines. It's such a simple statement that says so much. The video is also really well done; it makes the song feel like a celebration.

13) "Million Dollar Bill" - Dawes - (written by Taylor Goldsmith) - (When it hits me that she's gone, I think I'll run for president, get my face put on the million dollar bill; so when these rich men that she wants show her ways they can take care of her, I'll have found a way to be there with her still) - Dawes is yet another band I discovered this past year. Their sound is modern and vintage at the same time, reminding me most of The Band, which is a heavy comparison. This was the song that convinced me to buy their latest album Nothing Is Wrong, and when I did I don't think I even listened to the rest of the CD before listening to this one about twenty times. Essentially, the song is about a girl who has moved on from her guy, but he still loves her (and maybe always will). He is simply not the man, or the "type" of man (she's a little shallow), she wants anymore, and though she has run off, she still possesses something in her essence that makes it impossible for him to hate her. It very well could be the thought of what they had they he is still in love with. The lyrics are what stand out on the track, each verse painting an achingly hyperbolic image of what the guy will do to somehow still see her face, somehow keep him close to her: put his face on a million dollar bill, live on the moon, become a movie star. These all make sense when you listen to the song, trust me. The melody is sweet yet evokes real pain and lead singer Tayler Goldsmith's vocal may just break your heart without the help of a cold-hearted woman. And with all that said, this isn't the only song I have from Dawes on this list.

12) "I'm Gettin' Stoned" - Eric Church - (written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Casey Beathard, & Jeremy Crady) - (Here's to happy ever after and here's to balls and chains, here's to all those haters of old lovers new last names, here's to holin' up and getting right where I belong, she got a rock and I'm gettin' stoned) - I didn't get Eric Church at first. It seemed he was just another wannabe outlaw blowhard proclaiming to bring back "real country music" in the vein of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. I listened to a song here and a song there and I just didn't get it; it all seemed like it was just more country rock. Then "Smoke A Little Smoke" came out and he used freaking Autotune, or at least some variation of it. But my "come to Jesus" turnaround came when I heard the first single from his latest release Chief earlier this year, "Homeboy" (don't worry, it'll be on on my favorite country singles list). I loved it the very first time I heard it; I thought the lyrics were clever and, strangely, for a bombastic country-rock song, it made me feel proud and even a little nostalgic. So I bought Chief, and much to my surprise I found the record to be top-notch from beginning to end; not a dud on the disc. The songwriting is humorous, clever, poignant, authentic, and poetic, and at the very heart of it, though the rock element is amped up quite a bit, it's stone-cold country music. I read some interviews with Mr. Church and began to understand what he meant; he's not trying to be Jennings or Cash, he's trying to write music closer to the spirit of the music they made and not cater to what some radio programmer thinks he wants to hear. But anyway, about the song: it's a humorous cut about a guy who hears that the girl he always thought he'd end up with got hitched. She got a rock and he's getting, well... It contains what might be my favorite line on Chief: Here's to all those haters of old lovers new last names. Clever stuff, deserving of a raised glass and a hearty AMEN, and it just sort of rolls off the tongue. There's some great acoustic and electric guitar work and the drums sound phenomenal, as they do on the entire album. Perhaps the best thing about the song is that Church sounds like he is having a blast recording it, like he, now happily married, may have some girl from the past who's bringing it out of him. There's only one thing left to say: To hell with her and him and that white horse they rode out on...

Be sure to check back in the next day or two for my top 11 of '11. I'm so clever.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Favorite Songs of 2011 - Honorable Mentions

Coming soon: Some lists of my favorite music of 2011, including my favorite and least favorite songs, and my favorite singles released to country radio. Before then, however, here are a few great songs from this past year that didn't quite make it to my top 20 or 25, which honestly doesn't really mean a whole lot of anything. The top ten is my surefire bread and butter, my pure unadulterated favorite songs from 2011. Their reveal will be exciting, I promise. Anyway, click on the links (bolded song name and artist) to hear the song and/or see the video or performance of it.

 "Moves Like Jagger" - Little Big Town - Part of their Scattered, Smothered, and Covered cover song series, Little Big Town's version surpasses Maroon 5's grossly overplayed original in every way, stripping the song down to it's bare, organic essentials and adding a sweet banjo line for good measure. Take me by the tongue and I'll know you, kiss me 'til you're drunk and I'll show you... (deep thoughts, Adam Levine)

 "My Love Follows You Where You Go" - Alison Krauss and Union Station - This might be the most upbeat song on their latest release Paper Airplane. It's pretty much straightforward bluegrass (at least for AK+US), and with the always superb musicianship of Union Station and the seemingly supernatural vocals of Alison Krauss, this tale of a parent lamenting as their teenager leaves home to chase a bright future -- yet at the same time declaring that their love will always be there with them -- goes down smoothly. Future like a promise, you're a city of gold, stubborn in your bones, and Jesus in your soul

 "Curse The Love Songs" - The Hawk In Paris - This usually isn't my thing, but a good song is a good song. And with Dan Haseltine (from one of my favorite bands Jars of Clay) on lead vocals, it's hard to go wrong. Haseltine has a unique and emotive voice that fits nicely with the heavy-drums-and-synthesizers style, an admitted and blatant reference to eighties musical bombast. But there's also a ton of heart here. Have you ever stood out in the rain, watched love grow cold and roll away, and in your heart feel the weight that things will never change

 "Another Sunday Morning Hangover" - Levi Lowrey - Any person that used to be heavily involved in church but has since strayed for one reason or another will connect with this song. It's not that you don't believe anymore; you do. It's just that you got tired of feeling so damn guilty about everything all the time. Sometimes that guilt can creep back in, especially on some of the more wild nights. Or, specifically, those Sunday mornings you now spend recovering from the night before rather than sitting in a pew. God knows you've tried to change and go back many times. Maybe one day you will for good. Maybe not. I know the Lord turned the water to wine, but the devil made me drink it last night

 "The Mirror" - Jill Andrews - Probably my favorite female vocalist and singer/songwriter of all time (I'm not exaggerating). Also, I used to have a HUGE crush on her (definitely not exaggerating, see picture above). Formerly of the group The Everybodyfields, a phenomenal band that made "real country music from the Great American South," Andrews went for pop stardom in the vein of Sara Bareilles (although Andrews is on a completely different level than her, to be quite honest) with her first full-length solo release The Mirror. And though it would have been well-deserved, it didn't really pan out. But the record is pretty good, and the title track and only single (I believe) is quite catchy. The chorus also contains some really nice background vocals that add a pleasantly nostalgic effect to the whole affair. You broke the mirror but I will get the bad luck

 "Rope" - Foo Fighters - When it comes to modern rock, it just never gets any better than Foo Fighters. They are melodic, balls out, and riff heavy. The best and most consistent band in mainstream rock, "Rope" is the song that hooked me into buy their new record Wasting Light. It recalls late 90s, early 00s Foo for me, probably because guitarist Pat Smear from 1997's The Colour And The Shape returned for this album (I remember him vividly from the "Monkeywrench" video), not to mention the fact that the album was recorded in Dave Grohl's garage. And both of those are really good things. This indecision's got me climbing up the wall, been cheating gravity and waiting on the fall

"Quarter Chicken Dark" - Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile - I will always at the very least check out anything mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile puts out, because while I don't necessarily like everything he does, I certainly think he's prolific. He's in top form here, along with his three counterparts who I admit I'm not too familiar with. The musicianship on display here is incredible and a joy to watch. It feels literally like a combination of bluegrass, classical, and jazz while not really being any of those, and believe it or not, you can kind of rock out to it. They released an album in 2011 called The Goat Rodeo Sessions (hmm...okay), and this Colbert Report performance is fine stuff.

 "Paradise" - Coldplay - This is quite simply a gorgeous song that's driven by it's sweet-as-a-candy-cane melody, strong and heavy beat, and some really beautiful strings/synths (I can't really tell which). It sounds so good that I don't even know what most of the lyrics are. It doesn't matter. Gotta see these guys in concert before I die, though, for sure. This could be Para- Para- Paradise, Para- Para- Paradise

Friday, December 2, 2011

Billboard Top Songs on Country Radio - #20-16

Even though I didn't finish the reviews for the rest of the top 30 last week, numbers 30 through 21 are virtually the same so I'll just pick up right where I left off. I'll start, however, with the lone two additions at #30 and 29:

 30. "Alone With You" - Jake Owen - This is a song about being addicted to a girl. And I really like it. The song, not being addicted to a girl (well, that's true most of the time). There is no reasonable answer to the question (and lyric), "Why are you the one that I want?" He just does. Said girl apparently cannot make up her mind about said addiction-addled guy, or at least she pretends she can't as to keep him both close and at a distance at the same time. Owen's vocal melody here sounds quite unique for country radio, and you can really sense the emotion in his voice, especially at the end of the song when he almost shouts "Don't say you love me 'cause you know you're gonna love me and leave." Damn. I'm not up to par with all of my country songwriters yet, but Shane McAnally, J.T. Harding, and Catt Gravitt really put together a foundation that Owen could build upon with his strong vocal chops. While the production is pretty standard fare, the song is stone cold country heartbreak in lyrical content, and its uniqueness and vocal performance will make it stand out. Well done, Mr. Owen. (An aside regarding the music video -- and, seeing as there is a gorgeous half-naked woman throughout it, calling this a complaint would be a bit over the top, but: the video essentially reduces this song to being about nothing than a series of addictive booty calls. Had I never seen the video, that would probably not have been high on my list of ways this song could be interpreted. Lyrics such as the above mentioned "you'll just love me and leave me", "I don't see you laugh, you don't call me back, but you kiss me when you're drunk", and "Don't say it doesn't matter 'cause it's gonna matter to me" seem to suggest that something deeper and a little more complex is going on here. Okay, there is that line "Your body's like a pill I shouldn't take." But you should take that line and interpret it within the lyrical context of the rest of the song [see what I did th.....nevermind]. Anyway, the video is sexy, as is the girl in it, and Owen with his overdone mugging and half heartbroken/menacing looks at the camera [blame the director or the record label, not him] I'm sure had a delightful time making it. I just don't think it serves the story of the song well. That's all. Now I'm going to go watch it again to check out that girl.)

 29. "Love's Gonna Make It Alright" - George Strait - I haven't had the chance to listen to his Here For A Good Time album all the way through yet, but this song starts it out in a classically Strait feel-good way. The king of country radio sings about the all-encompassing power of love to bring us back around to the point of looking at our lot in life with hope again. He takes his woman out on the town and, as could be predicted, they end up watching the sun come up through their bedroom window. This standard country theme is brought to life by a truly upbeat melody that includes a happy fiddle and a little steel guitar lick that pops up from time to time. I wasn't crazy about "Here For A Good Time" (the single), but I didn't dislike it either; there is no apathy when it comes to "Love's Gonna Make It Alright," a song much needed on the airwaves for the long and weary months of winter that lie ahead. Even if you don't have a "love" to make it alright, this song will.

20. "Home" - Dierks Bentley - Already reviewed. See post below.

19. "Storm Warning" - Hunter Hayes - I was fully prepared to hate this song; the cover for his album just looks like he is begging to be accepted as the male equivalent to Taylor Swift. And maybe he is, and maybe that isn't such an awful thing. Now Swift ain't my cup of tea, but I certainly respect the fact that she writes her own music, and often when one of her songs comes on the radio I find myself thinking, "Wow, that is actually not too bad." ("Sparks Fly," the song, I admittedly like a lot.) She has a real gift for melody, and it seems so does Hunter Hayes. He co-wrote this song (also worth mentioning is that he had a hand it writing every song on his debut album); there are some clever lyrics to be found and the melody is decent but not good enough to stand out. On the whole, it's a promising first single, and no doubt this kid is talented, but it's all just a little to cutesy-sounding for me, sort of like Swift's "Love Story." And personally, it's a little hard to relate to someone born seven years after me who is dsinging about the humorous pitfalls that love can take. But I probably won't change the station the first couple times I hear this on the radio. Here's to hoping his voice matures (read: deepens, or at least starts to sound fuller) as does the overall production and sound of his songs. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the young Mr. Hayes.

18. "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" - Martina McBride - I'm just going to say it: Martina McBride just doesn't do much for me anymore. Maybe it's because her recent output of songs are very topical (see: "Teenage Daughters" - didn't much care for that tune). Looking (pretty far) back, "Independence Day" and "Wild Angels" are my two favorite songs of hers. Obviously, she deserves the respect she gets and her place on country radio, what with her gifted voice and longevity of her presence in the format, I just haven't really enjoyed much of her recent output. Truth be told, "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" is probably my favorite single of hers in recent years, but I think that's more because of it's message and for the fact that it is no doubt touching lives that have been touched by the terrible disease of cancer. The declaration of loving somebody through something so horrible, no matter the outcome, is to be admired. I can see why this has become such a popular song, I just do not connect to it in the slightest on a personal level. With that said, it is unquestionably a good thing that songs like this exist in the world.

17. "I Got Nothin'" - Darius Rucker - I believe this is Mr. Rucker's finest single release since the last two singles from his debut album, "Alright" and "History in the Making." I just didn't care much for "Come Back Song" or "This." "I Got Nothin'" is about a couple whose love has died; they want nothing more than to rekindle it, but the man (the narrator; makes sense) simply cannot find the words to even begin that process no matter how much he prays to come up with something. For better or worse, it is a relationship that is doomed to not be revived. Perhaps nothing "happened" that caused the relationship to get to this point, just the slow and subtle burn of time, and time just was not on their side. Every element in this song compliments the other elements nicely; the production, melody, and lyric really convey the depth of the couple's devastation. It is quite emotional. Rucker's delivery of the following verse is especially heartfelt: "I watch you pack your things, you look down at your ring, slowly slip it off and then lay it on our bed. Maybe I should pick it up and get down on my knees, tell you what you want to hear, and give you what you need." Bravely, the ending does not shy away from the bleakness, it does not offer that tiny ray of hope so desperately needed; she is leaving, that is that, and he says "If you go, I got nothin'." We are meant to believe that she is indeed gone, and that "I got nothin'" has truly become the narrator's truth. Such is the feeling, sometimes, of life. This song entered the charts on June 4th and has been a bit of a slow burn getting up to #17. That's not hard to believe seeing as it's not an easy listen, especially for couples literally going through what the songs speaks to; yet it is an immensely listenable song because it can be felt. Nicely done by Rucker and co-writer Clay Mills.

16. "One More Drinkin' Song" - Jerrod Niemann - This truly is just another drinkin' song. Not that that's a bad thing, it just brings nothing new to the table (or to the bar, as it were). It's Niemann's most traditional sounding single thus far, and would certainly fit nicely on a mix between Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'Clock Somwhere", Garth Brooks' "Friends In Low Places", and Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup", though it doesn't quite reach those heights (or it were). Plus, singing the word "margadaquiriscrewalottaonthebeach" has got to be ten tons of fun to sing when one is well past the point of sobriety. Hell, the drunken back-up singers from "Friends In Low Places" even make an appearance, at one point shouting everyone's goal for the night, "blanking out" Niemann in the process. Naughty guys and gals. Overall, the song is certainly pleasant and easy enough on the ears to sing along to. Or to get-hopped-up-and-make-some-bad-decisions to (you it were).