"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.