Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Favorite Song of 2011... "The Valley Wind" by Tyler Ramsey (a Youtube clip of the song is at the end of this post). Ramsey plays guitar for Band of Horses to pay the bills and writes songs for his own solo records during his time away from the band. I've only heard his latest album, which goes by the same name as my favorite song on that album, The Valley Wind. It's a beautiful, textured, grower of a record, but "The Valley Wind" is especially noteworthy for a number of reasons. To begin with, it's one of the most emotionally resonant songs I've ever heard. The melody doesn't seem like much at first, only a few quiet strums on the electric guitar. But the more times you listen to it the more your realize how effective those understated strums are; the melody ingrains itself into your bones, giving it the power to lull you to sleep or water your eyes, both of which it has done to me. On several nights I put this song on repeat before I went to bed and I'd be passed out by the second or third spin. The percussion is quiet and crisp except for the forceful (yet still restrained, it seems) clap of a phenomenal-sounding snare drum on the downbeat. Ramsey's best musical asset, however, is his voice. Certainly it's ethereal, near heavenly, but it's more than that; it's almost other-worldly, as if an alien from some far off planet were singing, and I mean that in the best possible way. He's got a superb voice, and though otherworldly as it may be, the lyrical themes Ramsey touches on are deeply and in the best ways human.

The song's themes run the gamut, but the main idea I think is a universal one: life is short, so don't wait too long to start living it. The refrain of Am I gonna wait 'til it's gone? seems to be the narrator telling himself "Life is genuinely short, I could die at any moment, I need to stop screwing around." Several themes are touched upon, the first being drunken nights and friendship; He's been trying to keep up with his friends again, now someone's gotta stay and take care of him; Am I the one? It looks like I'm the one. Life escapes us if we spend too much of it in dangerously inebriated states; sure, we say it's all in the name of fun, but a lot of times it's all in the name of escaping our boring lives. The second verse carries with it themes of suffering, moving on, and fresh starts, and the metaphor and "payoff" lyric are hugely liberating: Someone left the stove on in the house too long, now we can warm our hands from the front lawn; At least we know it's time for moving on. That last part is such a comforting thought. Maybe your house hasn't burned down, but there are things in life sometimes that we just have to move on from and get past, whether it be something tragic or something that is holding us back in general. And when drastic events occur it can help along that process, and sometimes the drastic event is nothing more than epiphany. Something about the second line in the verse haunts me too. I picture late winter, a farm family who has just lost everything gathered in front of their burning house staying warm off each other's heat and the thieving flames. It's just great imagery.

The third verse touches again on the theme of friendship: And I can see the lights of an ambulance, and the sirens coming over on the valley wind, oh please tell me it's not another friend. In the ten years since I've graduated high school, it's amazing to me to the number of people I knew then and before who have died. You never get used to hearing it, and the number's only going to rise the older you get -- that is reality. The last verse took a few listens to click, but once it did the truth of it brought chills over me. It hits on one of the main themes of the song, death, and builds upon the previous verse: Someone's gotta number with a name on it, somebody's gotta go when that numbers picked, and it's enough to break you heart. There's not much to say about that other than the obvious: we all are going to die. The heartbreak comes streaming in full force when it's somebody whose life was cut short, or when it's someone who lived their life under an umbrella of fear, or when it's someone who lived their life at the mercy of an addiction. It reminds me of a quote by Wendell Berry from his novel Jayber Crow, spoken by the narrator Mr. Crow himself: "To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart."

Fitting with the name of the song, there is a rural quality to it that makes me think it'd be a great song (and album) to listen to while driving through the mountains. Rather, if you close your eyes and listen, you can almost picture yourself floating above them. Certainly, one can picture a song like this being written in a one-windowed cabin overlooking a valley in the Appalachians, writer rising early to watch the mist ascend and the sun's light begin to peak through the fading dark of night, the smell of coffee-soaked wood and mountain air from a crack in the window thick over the room, nameless and numberless birds chirping and echoing to themselves and to the world, yet a profound stillness at the heart of all creation permeating everything, making possible deep city-less solitude; and in this midst, pen touches paper.

Favorites Songs of 2011 - Complete List:
25) "The Scientist" - Willie Nelson
24) "If It Hadn't Been For You" - Foster & Lloyd
23) "All The Shine" - Childish Gambino
22) "Pumped Up Kicks" - Foster The People
21) "The Fight" - Eli Young Band
20) "A Man Don't Have To Die" - Brad Paisley
19) "Cartoon Gold" - Drive-By Truckers
18) "Hard Out Here" - Hayes Carll
17) "Barton Hollow" - The Civil Wars
16) "Bastard Child" - Hellbound Glory
15) "Ray's Automatic Weapon" - Drive-By Truckers
14) "Fire and Dynamite" - Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors
13) "Million Dollar Bill" - Dawes
12) "I'm Gettin' Stoned" - Eric Church
11) "How About You" - Ryan Beaver
10) "Violin" - Amos Lee
9) "Jubilation Day" - Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers
8) "Creepin'" - Eric Church
7) "If I Wanted Someone" - Dawes
6) "Promises, Promises" - Incubus
5) "Neon" - Chris Young
4) "Flower" - Amos Lee
3) "Victory" - Trampled By Turtles
2) "Codeine" - Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
1) "The Valley Wind" - Tyler Ramsey

Top 11 of '11 (part two)

5) "Neon" - Chris Young - (written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Trevor Rosen) - A superb "drown your sorrows in the bottom of a bottle" drinkin' song and probably my favorite mainstream country song of 2011. Chris Young, along with Easton Corbin, has one of the best voices on country radio today, and as long as programmers continue to play neo-traditional artists like him there will always be reason to hope that one day the Nashville powers-that-be will realize the market for authentic country music is still out there, and maybe the Nickelback-knock-off-rock on country radio will begin its (hopefully) steady decline. "Neon" is a song Chris Young was meant to sing. The verses have the narrator listing the wide array colors one finds in the natural word: The sky in Cheyenne, Wyoming is just about as blue as it gets, and if you ain't seen a Santa Fe sunset you ain't seen red. Sure, creation is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but in it the narrator's favorite color is not contained: Neon, the light they always leave on, a weekend on the rocks and an old school jukebox with a little Johnny Lee on, the buzz I love to be on. The last lyric of the chorus tell the listener that strong drink, as it so often does in country songs, has become the narrator's salvation: Put a double on your troubles, the light at this end of the tunnel is neon. It's a clever lyric that says all you really need to know about the themes of the song. If Young's label doesn't release this as a single in 2012, it will be a country music travesty.

4) "Flower" - Amos Lee - (written by Amos Lee) -"Flower" is my favorite song on Lee's 2011 album Mission Bell, and possibly my favorite songs he's ever recorded. It's soulful, catchy, emotional, and hopeful, revolving around the lyric My heart is a flower, that blooms every hour, I believe in the power of love. On paper it comes across as just another romantic sentiment, but Lee's vocal brings passion and meaning to it; he sings it with conviction, and when he sings you listen and believe. Obviously, the song is about belief in the power of love to emerge victorious over all things, helping us stay true to ourselves and our paths in life despite challenging circumstances as well as everything that comes along with self-doubt, namely fear: I'm gonna reach on up over that fear, whenever I'm alone won't you please be near, I know that darkness before the dawn, tomorrow's comin' and yesterday's gone. It's a simple but powerful image touching on human desires that are universal; everyone has heard it before, but again, Lee truly makes you believe it. Considering my affinity for romantic imagery and bodies of water, it comes as no surprise that my favorite lyric in the song is: I'm gonna get my baby and head upstream, fall asleep in her arms and drift away in a dream. The instrumentation includes acoustic guitar, piano, organ, a little steel guitar (I'm pretty sure I hear it, but maybe I just want to), and wonderful sounding percussion that somehow gives the song more soul. Ultimately, the it's a celebration about what is good, and in so being, is a celebration of the song itself. The linked video above is to an absolutely stellar live version from Bonaroo.

3) "Victory" - Trampled By Turtles - (lyrics by Dave Simonett, music by TBT) -The album this song comes from, Palomino, was released in 2010, but the song (or at least the video) was released in January of 2011 so I'm cheating a little bit and including it on this list. It's a fantastic and truly contemporary bluegrass tune that was perfectly captured on the recording; the sound isn't pristine by any means, yet isn't rough sounding enough to come off as a overblown. Rather, it comes off as genuinely organic. Trampled By Turtles has one of the fastest banjo players I've ever seen (see video or live versions of "Wait So Long"), but "Victory" is a much more reflective and somber tune (though his unique banjo-playing style is still a highlight). Mix excellent musicianship with poetic lyrics about love and loss, life and death, and this is the result. From the longing sentiment of the opening lines (All of us lonely, it ain't a sin, to want something better than the shape you're in) to the imagery of the last verse (Grown from a moment and a million miles, here lies the stardust and it slowly dies; Borrowed from nothing come back half alive, and the stars they whisper blessings, babe, as you walk by), "Victory" shows that Trampled By Turtles is capable of delving into heavy and hefty themes that deal with the heartbreaking realities of life. In fact, I can't think of one song from Palomino that is genuinely "uplifting" (though some of the lyrics in "Victory" are); that is, of course, unless pure, unadulterated good music from talented songwriters and musicians uplifts and inspires you. If so, this is your thing. The music video, linked above, and probably my favorite music video from 2011, is somewhat haunting and very well done. There's something hopeful about it.

2) "Codeine" - Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - (written by Jason Isbell) - Here is the Wikipedia entry for "codeine." To sum it up, it is an opiate, a painkiller. A song written about this drug should not be so damn catchy and have one of the most singable choruses of 2011, but Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's acoustic beauty "Codeine" is and does: One of my friends has taken her in and given her codeine. That is all the chorus says. But listen to the song once, maybe twice, and see if it doesn't get stuck in your head. Narratively, the song is about a girlfriend who doesn't come home one night; the relationship has become dysfunctional and neither party seems to be able to do anything to work it out: You oughta come home tonight but you won't, I wish we knew how to fight but we don't. So she stays gone and runs to friends whom she knows has stuff to ease the pain, not just from the relationship but from her life in general. It's a joyful sounding song with a dark subject matter and a wicked sense of humor. Jason Isbell is, in my opinion, one of the most talented Southern (he's from Alabama) and American songwriters working today. To think that the Drive-By Truckers did not explode with overwhelming popularity when he was part of that band is truly dumbfounding -- now that was a rock and roll songwriters' supergroup. Some standout lines from "Codeine" include: Darlin' I'm not one to judge, but if I was then I'd say you don't look so good (how darkly funny); If there's one thing I can't take, it's the sound that a woman makes, about five seconds after her heart begins to break (so the narrator's a pretty good guy); and finally If there's two things that I hate, it's having to cook and trying to date, busting ass all day to play "hurry up and wait" (praise be to Mr. Isbell - the simple, funny truth can be profound). Musically, the song is more acoustically-oriented and closer to country than anything the band has ever done, and it works perfectly. What brings the song home is the fiddle that's played throughout, understated and beautiful, and the female harmony vocals on the chorus (which really add to the sing-a-long quality of the song I mentioned earlier). Here We Rest, the album from which "Codeine" was released, is certainly worth picking up. It's an honest, eclectic, and at times fun mix of songs, and made many "Best Albums of 2011" lists. I can't wait to see what they put out next. (Here's a write-up I did about their song and new [at the time] video for "Alabama Pines," the lead-off track on Here We Rest.) (An aside: while the live-in-studio version of the song linked above kicks ass, it contains neither fiddle nor female harmony vocals; those are on the recorded album version.)

My favorite song from 2011 coming tomorrow.