"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.