30) Norah Jones - "Happy Pills" (from the album Little Broken Hearts)
"I've gotta get you, I've gotta get you/ I've gotta get you, outta my head/ Get out"
If you watch her perform this on Letterman you will immediately have a crush on her. It's no secret that Norah Jones has a great voice, but who knew she was so groovy and sexy?
29) Lana Del Ray - "Blue Jeans" (from the album Born To Die)
"You so fresh to death and sick as ca-cancer"
There is just no denying this song's bawdy production, bizarre lyrics, and innate catchiness. And am I crazy, or does is remind anybody else of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game"?
28) John Fullbright - "Gawd Above" (from the album From The Ground Up)
"Go and curse my name with your last breath/ if all I brought to your life was death"
This country-blues tune presented from the point of view of the Almighty--who seems to be feeling a little down on Himself--does everything right. I can't decide whether its a hymn of praise or social commentary.
27) Alan Jackson - "Talk Is Cheap" (from the album Thirty Miles West)
"Road's for takin', wine's for tastin'/ Talk is cheap, and time's a-wastin'"
Co-written by Chris Stapleton, former frontman for The Steeldrivers, "Talk Is Cheap" is a simple, straightforward song about not wasting your life. A sweet fiddle line and classic singing from Jackson make it great.
26) Zac Brown Band feat. Trombone Shorty - "Overnight" (from the album Uncaged)
"Ain't no time for talkin', show me what you got/ We gonna get this bed a-rockin' and it ain't gonna stop"
This is the last thing that anybody would ever expect from Zac Brown Band: a Barry White-esque R & B slow-jam about babymaking. Yes, it's as wonderful as it sounds. What can I say--one man's cheesy is, well, another man's babymaking slow-jam of the year.
25) Punch Brothers - "Who's Feeling Young Now?" (from the album Who's Feeling Young Now?)
"Dark room to doorway/ doorway to sidewalk/ Youth will not be wasted on this one"
There are so many incredible songs on the Punch Brothers' latest album that it was hard to choose one for this list. The mandolin solo around the 1:45 mark in the above video sold me, however. Punch Brothers' brand of bluegrass makes even the most progressive of today's bluegrass bands feel traditional. It's excellent.
24) Wade Bowen - "Patch of Bad Weather" (from the album The Given)
"But you had your fingers crossed, yea you think you're so clever/ Rollin' through this town like a patch of bad weather"
One of my favorite Texas/Red Dirt songs of the year. The chorus on this up-tempo country rocker is killer.
23) Sons Of Bill - "This Losing Fight" (from the album Sirens)
"'Cause it's little blue pills in The Great Depression/ it's bad girls in a booze recession/ Guess it's all one big life lesson then you die"
This song has one of my favorites lyrics (quoted above) of 2012. Times are tough economically in the states, and anthemic hard rocker captures the anger, jadedness, and anxiety that comes along with that pretty damn well.
22) Caroline Herring - "White Dress" (link opens to Spotify) (from the album Camilla)
"Burning alive, burning inside/ but you won't burn me down"
I will let Herring explain this one in her own words: "'White Dress' is about then 24-year-old Mae Frances
Moultrie, the only African-American female on the original Freedom Ride
in 1961. Her bus passed through Anniston, Alabama and was firebombed.
Moultrie exited the burning bus wearing a white dress."
One of my favorite discoveries of 2012, Herring's songwriting is relevant not just poetically and musically, but socially as well.
21) Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson - "Familiar Strangers" (from the album Wreck and Ruin)
"We can make believe it's worth fighting for/ But I don't even know you anymore"
This Australian couple's latest duets album sounds like it was recorded in the heart of Nashville (the heart being the good part, the lifeblood, not the corporatized part that gets the most attention). In "Familiar Strangers" they play the part of jaded lovers so well that you almost worry if things are going alright in their own relationship. I'm sure they are, and regardless, it's obvious they've both been to the sad place this song talks about before.
20) Little Big Town - "Sober" (from the album Tornado)
"You're like drinking from a neverending bottle/ When I think it's gone there's always a little more left"
My favorite song from Little Big Town's most recent record is a gem about being drunk on love; the narrator hopes to be so until she dies. Kimberly Schlapman takes lead vocals on this one, giving the most visible member of the band, Karen Fairchild, a run for her money.
19) Truckstop Darlin' - "Sad, Sweet Songs" (link opens in Spotify) (from the album Hope and the Heart It Breaks)
"Makin' sense of poetry and makin' sense of art/ Write down all your memories and sing about a broken heart"
If you are even remotely a fan of the brand of southern rock that Drive-By Truckers and Lucero play, I think you'll love this song. Sounding more like Cooley than Hood (of DBT), the lead singer belts this one out over insanely catchy electric riffs and pretty pedal steel. Honestly, this is the last kind of music I'd expect to come from the hipster mecca Portland, Oregon. But I'm glad it did.
18) Chris Knight - "Low Down Ramblin' Blues" (from the album Little Victories)
"Laid down with the dogs/ You woke up with fleas/ Your mama tried to tell you/ You didn't pay no heed"
I know Chris Knight more for his slow acoustic songs about the dark side of small-town life. "Low Down Ramblin' Blues" is a full-on rocker where the narrator starts out as his own independent man, but when the song ends it's more cautionary tale than celebration. And the drumming is fantastic.
17) Paper Route - "You and I" (from the album The Peace of Wild Things)
"We gotta turn of the lights/ We gotta run for the woods now"
This is gleeful pop music made with precision and craft. I only even found out about them because their 2012 album took its title from a poem by a writer from my home state of Kentucky named Wendell Berry (The Peace of Wild Things). Berry spends most of his time writing about the gifts of the natural world, so I was bit surprised to find that Paper Route more closely aligns itself with electronica-pop rather than rustic acoustic music. But inspiration is inspiration.
16) Ryan Bingham - "Never Ending Show" (from the album Tomorrowland)
"I don't need the marquee sign/ I don't need my name in lights/ I don't need to wonder why/ my head hurts and I can't sleep at night"
Ryan Bingham put out one of the best albums of last year. He's said in many interviews that he wanted to just experiment with his electric guitar like he was a little kid again, and he certainly does so with ace results on "Never Ending Show." But this song about touring and life and knowing when to stop trying to prove yourself and just do what you do, also has a rhythm that chugs along so effortlessly that it practically begs you to play it again.
15) Trampled By Turtles - "Widower's Heart" (from the album Stars and Satellites)
"Oh, rain/ Come wash me and cleanse me and take me away"
One of the premier bands on the modern bluegrass/americana scene released an album full of introspective ballads in 2012, and "Widower's Heart" is one of the best. It conjures up the feeling of beautiful sadness like a good short story that was written in a cabin in the woods.
14) Steep Canyon Rangers - "Easy To Love" (link opens in Spotify) (from the album Nobody Knows You)
"I may never be/ I may never/ I may never be this easy to love again"
This is excellent traditional bluegrass yet the Steep Canyon Rangers know how to be just progressive enough to appeal to a younger, more open-minded crowd. You wouldn't hear a melody like this in most traditional bluegrass, but in songwriting and composition it tips its hat mightily in that direction.
13) The Infamous Stringdusters - "Night On The River" (from the album Silver Sky)
"A night on the river is all I need/ A cool drink of water is all I need"
Like Steep Canyon Rangers, The Infamous Stringdusters have one foot planted firmly to bluegrass tradition, but they, even moreso than the Rangers, seem compelled to shake things up a little bit. This is a song where they actually use a more straightforward approach, but it's got a classic quality that is undeniable. Check out the video above (live from a sporting goods store!) for an insane display of musicianship at the 3:30 mark, where banjo and fiddle duel it out (a friendly duel, of course). I can't be this video doesn't have more views; it's incredible
12) The Trishas - "John Wayne Cowboy" (link opens in Spotify) (from the album High, Wide & Handsome)
"Comes in like an earthquake/ Bends but never breaks/ Look-you-in-the-eye handshake/ That's all in takes"
I already wrote about this steel-guitar heavy gem:
The arrangement, the melody, and that steel guitar just sound
downright dirty. Jamie Wilson is singing here about a certain type of
man, one who doesn't come off as a faux-machismo douchebag, but as
authentic. He's a rough-and-tumble, look-you-in-the-eye, firm-handshake,
no bullshit kind of man. Some would call this type of man John
Wayne-esque, hence the title of the song. It probably references a few
of his movies, but I'm only familiar with The Searchers so I may
have missed a few of them. But it doesn't matter when a song's this
good. The worst part about it is the steel guitar solo that kicks in
around the 2:50 mark doesn't last nearly long enough. Still, it is five
seconds of beautiful twangy brilliance.
11) Old Crow Medicine Show - "Ain't It Enough" (from the album Carry Me Back)
"Throw your arms 'round each other/ And love one another/ 'Fore it's only one life that we got/ And ain't it enough"
If you didn't know, this band is a hell of a lot more than "Wagon Wheel," and this beautiful ballad proves as much. The composition is simple and straightforward, just like the message: we've only got one life, do what makes you happy, and rely on each other to get through the hard times.
Click here for my favorite songs of 2012, numbers 50 through 31