10) Ryan Bingham - "Too Deep Too Fill" (from the album Tomorrowland)
The final cut on Ryan Bingham's Tomorrowland album has its eyes set on love of a woman and perhaps more importantly, love of the natural world. It's a brilliant, sparsely-written and picked tune, and Bingham's voice, per usual, is a force to be reckoned with, conveying longing and weariness while sounding like he's got gravel grinding way back in his throat. He bookends lyrics about his disillusionment with people who are apathetic or downright hostile toward the notion that we should care for the natural world, which literally sustains us (And I'm going out to the forest/ I'm going to see if I can find out why/ People all around are still cutting it all down/ But I hope to be on home for suppertime), with lyrics about coming home to his woman (Oh baby, oh sweet baby/ Will you kiss these poor lips of mine/ Tell me that you love me/ and your heart is forever mine). Of course, if you were to ask Bingham why he wrote a political song or a song with an agenda, he'd tell you he was just writing about something that he profoundly cares about. And isn't that exactly what we ask of artists and songwriters? (Here is a video of Bingham talking about the cause of conservancy, and here's a great video someone made putting the song to images of the natural world.)
9) Chris Knight - "Hard Edges" (from the album Little Victories)
For a man with such a rugged voice, Chris Knight sure can write a tender song, and this might be one of the tenderest in his long catalogue of great songs. The narrator tells the story of Lisa, who's led a difficult life--mostly due to circumstance--but she's always maintained a dream deep down for something better, happier. The hand she's been dealt has made her a little rough around the edges, a far cry from her true nature. Just let the following lyrics sink in:
Lisa's in a club downtown
where the neon burns 'til dawn
She calls herself Tina now
but she dances to the same old song
Slowly spinning 'round and 'round
in the smoke and the smell of rye
She takes off all her clothes
so they don't look in eyes
Her scarlet rouge and her blue tattoos
They're only painted on
But underneath the dark drumbeat
A ballerina dances on
The story of Lisa's is specific, but it's one we can all relate to: the innocence of childhood and the harsh realities of trying to grow up and become adults in a world that can seem stacked against us. This is Kentucky's own Chris Knight, one of America's best songwriters, at his most heartfelt and nuanced.
I can't find a YouTube version of the song, but you can listen on Spotify here. Better yet, just purchase the entire album Little Victories. It's worth it.
8) The Trishas - "Strangers" (from the album High, Wide & Handsome)
Each song on The Trishas debut LP is striking in its own way, but it was "Strangers" that struck me first. I wrote about it and the rest of the album recently on the blog:
** Truly as good as country music gets, and by that I mean that this is a beautifully sad song. Savannah Welch takes the lead here, imbuing lyrics like "I miss the me I used to be" and "I barely recognize myself" with a vulnerability and sense of tragedy that brings the truth of them home, allows them to be feelings rather than just words. It's a song about the dark side of marriage, about being with someone for a time and then realizing it's gotten to a point where you don't know them, they don't know you, and you don't know you. The second verse attempts to put words to this unexplainable disconnect: "Sometimes when the light's just right/ It's you who's kissin' me goodnight/ When the morning comes it's her I find instead/ Who are these strangers in our bed?" On top of that, memories are conjured up by detailed imagery ("Wedding pictures on the TV set") and the line that encapsulates it all ("There's nothing stranger than being strangers"). In short, this is a song that goes on that playlist you have of songs you listen to by yourself with a bottle. **
Just listened to the song again. Going to get that bottle now.
Check it out on Spotify here. And go ahead and purchase High, Wide & Handsome in its entirety too.
7) The Avett Brothers - "Ferbruary Seven" (from the album The Carpenter)
After the--and I hate to use this world--novelty of "Paul Newman Vs. The Demons" wore off, this became my favorite song on The Carpenter. It mixes what has made the Avetts great from the very beginning with that Rick Rubin sheen. It's about something specific that happened on the day of February 7th, but there's enough great lines to make it sweepingly profound and broadly appealing. Take the phenomenal chorus for example:
There's no fortune at the end of a road that has no end
There's no returning to the spoils once you've spoiled the thought of them
There's no falling back to sleep once you've wakened from the dream
Now I'm rested and I'm ready
I'm rested and I'm ready to begin
There's a sweet piano melody that comes in just before the music of the chorus takes those words to epic heights. "February Seven" also contains one of my favorite lines of the year:
Sooner than my fate was wrote
A perfect blade, it slit my throat
and beads of lust released into the air
When I awoke you were standing there
It's the Avetts doing what they do best: anthemic, acoustic country-folk that's catchy as hell.
6) Great Lake Swimmers - "The Great Exhale" (from the album New Wild Everywhere)
Tony Dekker, lead singer for Great Lake Swimmers, is a poet if a singer-songwriter ever was one. His songs aren't so much stories as they are meditations on life, using images from the natural world to get his point across, bring everything back around full circle, taking in the scenery and dispensing wisdom on the wheel of life. His hushed vocals suit this song perfectly, and the harmonies sung by newest member of the band Miranda Mulholland (she's the fiery redhead) are gorgeous and haunting. This song makes death sound not only easier to come to terms with, but almost desirable (the luminous veil? I mean, come on). (Don't worry, I don't want to die, just listen to the song.) Here are some lyrics from the chorus:
And the world stops spinning when you stop spinning
It sighs when you sigh when you sigh
I'm coming home so leave the light on for me
I'm drawing over the luminous veil
And when I get in I will see you all there
I'm drawing on the great exhale
Here also is an excellent stripped-down version of the song.
5) Corb Lund - "September" (from the album Cabin Fever)
This song is so good that I already wrote about it several weeks ago. Here's the whole thing, and here's an excerpt:
** "September" plays upon the classic theme of country-boy-pining-for-city-girl (in this case, a country girl who who decides to become a city girl), but it contains a melancholy and a desolation that plumbs deep below surface cliches and allows the listener to really feel the anguish and pain buried in the narrator's heart. He, the struggling cattle farmer staying behind, she, the woman he loves moving to New York City to perhaps chase a long held dream. In a way, he can't really blame her for leaving. In the quiet country "there ain't much to do," "there ain't much glamor," and "the pace is kinda slow," after all. But he is certain that no one in New York City could need her as much as he does. "Stay with me through September," he begs...
...My favorite part of the song is the part without words, where Lund sings "oooos" with an emotional heft that betrays an immense and piercing loneliness, as if singing the very siren song of the relationship in just those few notes. It sounds like a mix between Chris Martin's (of Coldplay) falsetto and a modern twist on a high and lonesome yodel, echoing in the valleys of the mountains he sings about, conjuring up the image of a man standing by himself in a vast and wide open space. Totally free but utterly trapped. It makes the loneliness of the narrator more than palpable. How fitting that loneliness in real life often leaves us struggling to express the feeling in words. **
"September" is also my favorite music video of the year.
4) Daniel Martin Moore and Joan Shelley - "First of August" (from the album Farthest Field)
"First of August" is the beautiful lead track from these two Kentuckians' album of duets, Farthest Field. I first became familiar with Daniel Martin Moore when he released a collaborative album with Ben Sollee (produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame) entitled Dear Companion, which contained songs built around a theme of speaking out against mountaintop removal coal mining. My introduction to Joan Shelley, however, was this song.
It is a poetic tale of family and leaving and letting go, and its striking natural images and slow, hushed tempo lend to the song a feeling like floating on wind. The arrangement is so sparse and non-intrusive that you have to actually listen to fully appreciate it. Shelley and Moore's voices fit together as naturally as the shining sun, so much so that you'd think they were brother and sister. "First of August" is mostly sung in their restrained yet powerful and emotive harmony. Here's one of my favorite lyrics in the song, followed by a beautifully shot live video of the two performing it:
Pray you go with the sweet wind
They'll be trees there that you know
So careful not to harden
Sure to make a letter home
Down the road
Where you shining
Were last seen at the fork
3) Turnpike Troubadours - "Good Lord Lorrie" (from the album Goodbye Normal Street)
A number of songs from their 2012 album could have occupied this spot, but I'm too big a fan of alliteration not to go with this one. Not to mention that these guys know how to tell one hell of a story. Guided by lead singer Evan Felker's songwriting, "Good Lord Lorrie" is quite literally a song about love gone wrong ("Good Lord Lorrie, I love you, could it go more wrong?"), mostly due to outside influences. There are lyrical gems all over the place:
And I've been learnin' that believin'
and the barely breakin' even
It's just a part of life for you and me
And I've been livin' with the loneliness
It's got down in my bones, I guess
It's just another phase of being free
And if I ever set foot in Sevier County
Well your brother said he'd break my jaw
But here I stand with the dark-haired daughter
of southwest Arkansas
Felker is a truly talented songwriter and vocalist, spouting out his homespun poetry at every turn, interpreting his own words with a twangy phrasing that never fails to surprise (the way he sings the word "good" in this song, with his heart seemingly breaking on his sleeve for all the world to see, is something you must hear). The rest of the members behind him layer the song with guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and drums, playing with a precision and cohesion that never once makes you doubt the notion that this is an actual band, one that was certainly my favorite musical discovery of 2012.
2) John Mayer - "Born and Raised" (from the album Born and Raised)
All year long I thought this was going to be my number one song of the year. That is until I heard what ended up becoming my number one song of the year in early December. I think this is the best song Mayer's ever written, and I've already written a considerable amount about it on this blog. Here's an excerpt:
** With the title track to his recently released album, John Mayer has written what I contend to be his best song to date. "Born and Raised" is somber, elegiac, melodious, hopeful, and contains some of the most poignant lyrics I've heard this year. It is intensely personal, both for Mayer and the listener.
There is no question why Mayer named the album after this song, as it succinctly touches on the gamut of themes that run throughout the entire collection of songs. These include getting older ("I cheat the light to check my face/ It's slightly harder than last year"); losing the childlike innocence and romanticism of dreams as you do, in fact, get older ("I still have dreams, they're not the same/ They don't fly as high as they used to"); and the pointless exhaustion of being somebody you're not ("Then all at once it gets hard to take/ It gets hard to fake what I won't be"). On this song Mayer showcases the rare ability to hit you in the gut seemingly line after line. For the listener, that gut punch represents the recognition of truth in the simple poetry of his words. Perhaps even more impressive: he does it without any fancy wordplay. **
"Born and Raised" also contains another of my favorite lines of the year:
I still got time
I still got faith
I call on both of my brothers
I got a mom
I got a dad
But they do not have each other
1) The Honey Dewdrops - "Together Tied" (from the album Silver Lining)
Somehow or another I came across this band on a website or blog that was recommending duos to check out in the wake of The Civil Wars announcing their break-up (or whatever that announcement was). I listened to the album Silver Lining, The Honey Dewdrops' third, on Spotify, and as soon as those first notes of the acoustic guitar came in on track number eight, I paused what I was doing and listened. It's not often that I take to a song I've never heard before so immediately.
The Honey Dewdrops are Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, a married couple from Charlottesville, Virginia that play Appalachian-influenced folk music that is honestly and beautifully rendered. Both are unique vocalists on their own, and together their harmonies sound superb. While musically they may tip their hat toward the more traditional, in songs like "Together Tied" they are contemporary lyrical masters, Appalachian poets of the modern era. This is a song about home, about the strands of our memories of it that bind and bond families and people in a deeply emotional way, whether still there or not. And if you like your songs to have emotion, "Together Tied" has plenty of it. It's a song that makes you really feel, to the extent that it makes you grateful to be alive, embedded with tinges of sadness though the song (and life) may be. One of the many lyrics in the song that still floor me over and over again:
And what is home my brother?
If not love and you and me
If not a river between us
The chorus is:
Home like water
Collects us by and by
Reaches over distance
To hold us together tied
There are no words here that you have to look up in the dictionary, but this is pure poetry that, when set to music as The Honey Dewdrops perform it, creates vivid imagery and stirs up some sort of unexplainable, profound longing in the listener. And whatever that longing may be for, it's a longing that inspires.
As if the lyrics and harmonies and all around excellent song-craftsmanship weren't enough, just try to get that guitar melody out of your head. It's stunning work that can induce a tear or two if you're not careful. I'm just saying. (The performance video of the song below is a must-watch.)
THE HONEY DEWDROPS - TOGETHER TIED - FOLK HAUS 30th St. from BMOREhush on Vimeo.
Favorite songs of 2012, 50 - 31
Favorite songs of 2012, 30 - 11
Top Ten Country Singles of 2012
Flashback: Favorite song of 2011