From The Highway
The most beautiful song on The Highway, Williams' anguished voice here is a force to be reckoned with, observant and detached one moment and emotionally wrought the next; she also employs her falsetto to nuanced and powerful effect. This is a terrifically sad story song about family, death, and the passing of time, sung by a woman who comes from a family who knows a thing or two about singing a good story (and death for that matter; Hank Jr.'s her father, Hank Sr.'s her grandfather). Little vignettes like this really push the song into the realm of great and timeless: "They always made us kneel by Grandpa's grave/ Mama was wailing asking God if he was saved/ I never liked to see my daddy cry/ I guess I'll never know how Grandpa died." (Jackson Browne contributes on vocals, too.)
City and Colour - "Two Coins"
From The Hurry and the Harm
I love everything about this song. The melody, the voice, the lyrics--especially the refrain: "I've always been dark/ with light somewhere in the distance." Dallas Green, the man behind the moniker, can damn well sing. If you've ever heard of every church youth group's former favorite Christian rock-pop-rap band DC Talk, his voice reminds me of Kevin Max. (The guitar sounds fantastic on the solo acoustic version below.)
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell - "Love Has Come For You"
From Love Has Come For You
I honestly didn't expect to enjoy this song (and the album) as much as I do. Steve Martin's banjo picking compliments rather than calls attention to itself. I'd never heard of Edie Brickell before but she has a great and unique voice. Nothing showy or flashy here, just beautiful, simple music. More albums please, you two.
Camera Obscura - "This Love (Feels Alright)"
The Scottish band creates a kind of pop that is ethereal and alive. The opening hook on this song instantly piqued my interest and pulled me in. I mean, it's cool to like Scottish pop, right?
Phosphorescent - "The Quotidian Beasts"
I only discovered Phosphorescent and its sole member Matthew Houck's blending of atmospheric indie rock, country, and americana this year. Anyone who has the taste and appreciation to do a Willie Nelson covers album, as Houck did with 2009's To Willie, is worth considering by more than a select few "indie-only" music fans. Even those who may find some of the songs on this year's Muchacho too experimental, it's hard not get down with the melodies and Houck's downtrodden yet passionate voice on "Quotidian." And in general, it's hard not to get down with a song this catchy that uses the word "quotidian" in its title.
The Mavericks - "Lies"
From In Time
This jam just doesn't let up. "Let's do one more," says lead singer Raul Malo. Malo still has that soothing croon and The Mavericks can still hit those sweet harmonies and their songs still have that quality that almost makes you want to get up and do the twist. Just in case you were wondering. One more, indeed.
John Moreland - "Your Spell"
From In The Throes
Moreland's entire album is chock full of soul-baring, heart-on-sleeve, heartbroken, ruthless authenticity such as this. This lyric gets me: "You were the queen of my condition, I was the king of the ignored/ Talked just like east Texas, looked like an angel from the Lord." That about says it all.
Listen on Spotify HERE.
George Strait - "You Don't Know What You're Missing"
From Love Is Everything
George Strait outclasses and outshines every male who's popular in mainstream country music, so much so that it's weird even to think of Strait as "mainstream" anymore. He is still the king and standard-bearer, cutting songs because he thinks they are good and have something to say and not because they cater to radio's annoying party-all-the-time culture. This song tells the story of two guys sitting in a bar. One guy won't stop complaining about his life and the other guy kind of wishes he (still) had that life. I'm glad Strait is still going to continue recording after he retires from touring; I don't want to miss out on gems like this. (The song was co-written by Chris Stapleton, unsurprisingly.)
Jimmy Eat World - "I Will Steal You Back"
Sure, it's more of the same from Jimmy Eat World. But they do what they do so well and I know of no other bands still making this kind of music. "I Will Steal You Back" sounds like one of their songs you might have heard on modern rock radio in the late 90s or early 2000s, and I don't see a damn thing wrong with that.
Dailey & Vincent - "Steel Drivin' Man"
From Brothers of the Highway
This bluegrass jam is what you call a barn burner. You have top-notch tenor singing from John Dailey (who also wrote the song), and it's a wonder how he keeps up with the speed and ferocious picking of the rest of the band. It's the kind of talent you can find only in a bluegrass group comprised of musicians and singers at the top of their game. I highly recommend seeing them live if you get the chance. (The music video below captures their stage energy and sense of humor quite well.)
Jason Isbell - "Live Oak"
Isbell is one of America's greatest living songwriters. If you follow him on Twitter you are aware that he's an avid reader of fiction which may help explain why many of his songs have the feeling of being (really) short stories in and of themselves. If you like "Live Oak" and its anxious, verging on paranoid narrator, you'll love Southeastern. Great line: "Well I carved her cross from live oak and her box from short leaf pine/ buried her so deep she touched the water table line."