Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best* Songs of 2013

There were so many good songs in 2013, and so many I didn't get a chance to listen to. Here are a few of the best (*my favorite).

39) Daft Punk feat. Pharrell - "Get Lucky" - Their whole schtick/persona can get mighty dumb (appearing on shows but not performing, etc.), but there's no denying their talent for crafting a catchy melody. I defy you to sit still while listening to this.

38) Steep Canyon Rangers - "Camelia" (Philip Barker / Charles Humphrey III) - The Rangers' own upright bassist Charles Humphrey III teams up with mandolin player Philip Barker of Town Mountain to come up with one of this Asheville, NC five-piece's best hooks yet: "Sweet Camelia, I'd like to steal ya/ away from all the troubles in your life." Proficient in both traditional and progressive strains of bluegrass, the Steeps color "Camelia" with sweet solos, tight harmonies, and (to some) the blasphemous beat of drums.

37) W.B. Givens - "Back to Church" (Givens) - Brilliant, personal song about how church just doesn't do it for some people. But there's always the chance they could go back one day. "Muddy water, it tastes so good/ Preacher man, he knew it would."

36) Doc Feldman & the LD50 - "Bless This Mess" (Feldman) - Southern Gothic folk-blues out of Lexington, Kentucky. Great, evocative song, with killer lead and background vocals. 

35) Jason Boland & The Stragglers - "Lucky I Guess" (Boland) - Bandleader and songwriter Boland pens a clever and heartfelt tune about how he's done every superstitious thing imaginable to bring bad luck down upon his head, yet he keeps on defying it and has somehow wound up with the woman of his dreams. And hot damn, can Boland sing the hell out of a country song.

34) Alan Jackson - "Tie Me Down" (Jackson) - Jackson brought in some of the best bluegrass pickers out there for his Bluegrass Album. One of the eight Jackson wrote by himself, "Tie Me Down" contains the lyrical gem, "Lookin' back I realize that happy's not what I was/ When you run across a woman that's your true love/ It's stronger than a moonshine buzz," a line that could find no better home than a bluegrass song.

33) Jars of Clay - "Love In Hard Times" (Jars of Clay) - One of the most underrated indie-rock bands out there (due mostly to its inability to get out from under the label of "Christian rock" and all of its cheap and cheesy connotations) came out with one of the most creative albums of their twenty year career in 2013. Dan Haseltine's already unique vocals are especially strong here, replete with some haunting "ooh-oohs," while the rest of the band creates a lush, melancholy soundscape behind him.

32) Zane Williams - "Damned" (Williams) - Upbeat, clever song about temptation and marriage that has some sweet steel guitar licks and will have you tapping your feet all over the place. "I'll be damned if you don't make a man think Hell looks pretty good."

31) Pilots & Errors - "Von Aly" (Travis Wilburn) - With cautiously hopeful lyrics and an insanely nostalgic melody, this might be the best track on the home-recorded album Annex. More great stuff out of Lexington, Kentucky.

30) The Proctors - "Ember Days" (Maraget Calleja / Gavin Priest) - Hopeful and melancholy, bright and dark all at the same time, "Ember Days" is exquisitely played guitar pop that is representative of the entire album from which it comes.

29) Steve Martin & Edie Brickell - "Love Has Come For You" (Brickell / Martin) - A lovely song buoyed by Martin's excellent banjo picking and Brickell's ethereal vocals. I'd never of Brickell before, but her and Martin should definitely continue making music together.

28) Water Liars - "Wyoming" (Justin Kinkel-Schuster) - Really great down tempo song with subtle guitar work and unique and emotive vocals. And the (possibly NSFW, nothing graphic) video, which contains nothing but a stripper pole-dancing, is surprisingly fitting, adding a whole new dimension to the song. And, okay, there's the thong too.

27) Dailey & Vincent - "Steel Drivin' Man" (Jamie Dailey) - This is ferocious, barn-burning bluegrass right here. It's truly amazing how fast these guys can play. They also put on one of the most entertaining live shows I've ever seen, bluegrass or otherwise.

26) Dawes - "Something In Common" (Taylor Goldsmith) - I think 2011's Nothing Is Wrong has stronger songs than 2013's Stories Don't End, but "Something In Common" is Dawes in a nutshell. Poetic, unabashedly earnest, building up to an emotional catharsis, and honest about the heart's affections and darkness in equal measure, it is a surefire classic. "The man who stands in front of you/ is not the sum of all his dreams/ but I'm hoping they've got something in common."

25) George Strait - "You Don't Know What You're Missing" (Al Anderson / Chris Stapleton) - This deep cut from his Love Is Everything album is classic George Strait. Thematically and production-wise, it sounds like something you might've heard on country radio in the early to mid-nineties. That he's still recording songs this good is reason enough to celebrate the fact that he will continue to release studio albums after he hangs his touring hat up next year.

24) Kacey Musgraves - "Silver Lining" (Shane McAnally / Musgraves / Josh Osborne) - It's no secret that in terms of quality songs, the ladies are absolutely crushing the "gentleman" at country radio, and Musgraves is one of the ones leading the charge. First single "Merry Go 'Round" introduced most folks to her, but lead track "Silver Lining" is the perfect introduction to her major label debut Same Trailer Different Park. It lets you know that Musgraves is going to be a talent to watch for years to come, if you didn't already.

23) Della Mae - "Ain't No Ash Will Burn" (James Aldridge) - These female bluegrassers can pick with the best of 'em, but this song shows they also have a damn good ear for a great song and know when to get out of the way and let it say everything that needs to be said. "Love is a precious thing I'm told/ It burns just like West Virginia coal/ But when the fire dies down, it's cold/ Oh, their ain't no ash will burn."

22) Guy Clark - "Cornmeal Waltz" (Shawn Camp / Clark) - I haven't listened to as much Guy Clark as I should have in my life. That will change in 2014. The 72 year old seems to having a blast here. It makes you want to live life in three-quarter time.

21) Over the Rhine - "Called Home" (Karen Berquist / Linford Detweiler) - Over the Rhine are masters of understated elegance. In the same way, even into a 20+ year career, it seems they often fly under the musical radar, even of the Americana music community which should be embracing them whole-heartedly. Look no further than the stunning "Called Home" for reasons why. "Clouds adrift across the sky, like Heaven's laundry come to dry/ You slowly feel it all will be revealed."

20) Phosphorescent - "The Quotidian Beasts" (Matthew Houck) - With a chord progression reminiscent of Chris Issac's "Wicked Game," Phosphorescent delivers a haunting song that draws inspiration from all over the place. Houck's voice sounds purposefully strained yet it gives a deeply emotional heft to lyrics that are the definition of abstract and open to interpretation

19) Holly Williams - "Gone Away From Me" (Williams) - She has musical royalty in her blood, but if there was any question as to whether or not she could hang on her own, this song (and her album The Highway) answers it. "They always made us kneel by Grandpa's grave/ Mama was a-wailin' asking God if he was saved/ I never liked to see my daddy cry/ I guess I'll never know how Grandpa died." That might be one of my favorite lines of the year. This is resonant, rich storytelling, and the background vocals from Jackson Browne are a nice touch

18) The Black Lillies - "Gold and Roses" (Cruz Contreras) - This song has three of my favorite things: Superbly played pedal steel (by former Everybodyfields member Tom Pryor), sweet banjo pickin', and great singing. Oh, and it also tells one hell of a story. See 'em live if you get a chance.

17) The Avett Brothers - "Morning Song" (The Avett Brothers) - I debated between this or "Part From Me" from their new album, but gave the nod to "Morning Song" for the performance in the linked video above. Drawing on the biblical idea that "joy comes in the morning," the brothers sing "Even though I know there's hope in every morning song/ I have to find that melody alone." I love the message of the song. Ultimately, it's up to us as individuals to find what gives us hope, to choose the things we let save us everyday. It's a very personal thing that can't be forced upon someone from the outside, and we have to realize that it's going to be different for everyone. The album version is worth checking out for the choir of Avett family members at the end, but you just can't beat this version (Joe Kwon sings harmony on it too).

16) Hog Bucket - "Indigo" (John Glouchevitch) - One wouldn't think you could hear someone sing the words "You're beautiful in sequin booty shorts/ and flashing lights of red a green" and it actually be moving, but "Indigo" proves that it is indeed possible. Then there's the line, "I feel like a fool in my Tuesday suit and tie/ and you're naked on the table, room empty as your eyes," in all its sadness and honesty. And, you know, I just had the thought that this song could be about falling in love with a stripper or escort. The repetition of the line "I don't need to know your name" is also evidence this could be the case. And then "You've got a romanticized idea of this relationship/ Buddy, who do you think you are?" Okay, that sounds like the woman talking to the man falling in love with her, saying "hold up." It literally all just came together for me. Possibly the most moving song ever written about falling in love with a stripper/escort. Seriously, the piano arrangement is gorgeous. Soulja Boy, eat your heart out.

15) Widower - "Grasp" (Kevin Large) - One of those songs that knocks you out with a wave of nostalgia and heartbreak as soon as its laid back and sturdy classic rock groove begins. And it has some of the most creative alliterative lyrics of the year: "You took my grief with a grain of salt"; "They say the safest place is a basement in a storm/ Well darlin during downpours, you were my cellar door"; "Time will tell if the hand you're dealt is worth a damn." Damn.

14) Jason Isbell - "Live Oak" (Isbell) - "Elephant" seems to be majority pick for the best song from the album Southeastern, but mine is "Live Oak" simply for the line, "I carved her cross from live oak and her box from short leaf pine/ And buried her so deep she touched the water table line." Such evocative imagery that brings another level of meaning to the song. Isbell's voice has never sounded better.

13) City and Colour - "Two Coins" (Dallas Green) - Green's ethereal vocals bring this tale of a man wandering through his days to life. It has one of those very emotional chord progressions and colorful instrumentation. "I've always been dark, with light somewhere in the distance.

12) John Moreland - "Your Spell" (Moreland) - John Moreland is man who's been head over heels in the throes of love in the twilight of his youth and he's neither afraid nor ashamed to tell you about it, as well as how losing it did a bit of a number on him. There's a sort of silver lining, however, when he sees the popular couples from high school, now in their late twenties, in the Wal-Mart checkout line with babies in tow. They don't look like prom queens and kings anymore. "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."

11) Mandolin Orange - "The Doorman" (Andrew Marlin) - Not sure how I stumbled upon it, but this is the first song I ever heard from this folk duo, and it instantly hooked me. Understated and beautifully played instrumentation combined with Marlin and the stunning Emily Frantz's vocal harmonies makes for traditional music that couldn't be more timely.

10) Rhye - "The Fall" (Mike Milosh / Robin Hannibal) - I don't know how else to describe Rhye's music other than just plain fucking sexy. The grooves and melodies of "The Fall" have a way of digging themselves into your bones until they almost start twitching, especially that piano line. Also, it's super impressive that a dude (Mike Milosh) can sing like this.

9) Mando Saenz - "Breakaway Speed" (Saenz / Kim Richey) - Both Saenz and Richey released versions of this song on their 2013 albums, and though Richey's has Jason Isbell and Trisha Yearwood singing stunning harmony with her, I think I prefer Saenz's simply because he's got such a unique voice and his is a little more rocking (Richey also sings harmony on his version). Whichever you prefer, it's an excellent song that has one of those choruses you will be singing at the top of you lungs at stoplights. It's just got a great hook.

8) Red Tail Ring - "Katy Came Breezing" (Michael Beauchamp / Laurel Premo) - Another brilliant Appalachian folk duo. Premo's fiddle playing, as well as the chorus, will haunt you late at night. The video linked above is amazing and criminally under-viewed. Just beautiful.

7) The Steeldrivers - "Lonesome Goodbye" (Mike Henderson / Chris Stapleton) - This rambunctious group is known for its hard-driving progressive bluegrass, with wry lyrics and characters who often wind up buried under six feet of soil, but they also know when to dial it back a bit and let the song do the work. Penned by former founding members of the band, "Lonesome Goodbye" allows the group, with newly acquired bluesy-throated vocalist Gary Nichols, to lay the lonesomeness on heavy, with a "twist ending" that's just as heartbreaking as it is liberating for the narrator.

6) The National - "Sea of Love" (Matt Berninger / Carin Besser / The National) - The first single from their 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me was a huge turning point for me and The National, because, you see, I used to absolutely loathe them. When I heard their song "About Today" at the end of the fantastic movie Warrior, I figured I probably needed to go back and give them another shot, and then when I heard "Sea of Love," I did. It was one of those moments where it all just clicked for me, and I'm now a huge fan. Plus, they made without a doubt one of the best music videos of the year (linked above).

5) Justin Timberlake - "Mirrors" (James Fauntleroy / Jerome Harmon / Tim Mosley / Timberlake) - Simply put, this is the best mainstream pop song of the year. The last three minutes of this seven-plus minute long epic is just pure ear candy. The dude can hit a falsetto. It is supposedly a love song written for his grandparents, and it also has great music video (linked above).

4) Ashley Monroe - "The Morning After" (Lori McKenna / Monroe / Liz Rose) - My God do I love a weeping steel guitar, as played to perfection in this song. I'm not sure there's anything Monroe can't do with that voice, but one of the best things she does with it is honey-throated heartbreak. Here also is a terrific sepia-toned solo acoustic video.

3) Daniel Romano - "He Lets Her Memory Go (Wild)" (Romano) - A absolute behemoth of a country music song. Expertly produced with old school instrumentation, stellar background vocals, killer guitar work, and tweaked with a touch of reverb, this perfectly written song would have a dishonest title with out the parenthetical. That parenthetical is everything on this song. I wouldn't call Romano's voice an acquired taste so much as I would say that he dares to do things with it that nobody else does, and it makes the kind of music he creates that much better.

2) The Tillers - "Willy Dear" (Mike Oberst) - What can I say, I love a story song that includes explosions and nooses and ghosts. It's based on something that, as legend has it, occurred at former Newport, Kentucky music venue The Southgate House. As always, this three-piece string band proficiently go to town on their instruments, while Mike Oberst's lead vocal lends to the song the emotional heft it deserves.

1) Futurebirds - "Heavy Weights" (Futurebirds) - Truthfully, any number of songs from the Futurebirds' 2013 release Baba Yaga could claim this number one spot. But "Heavy Weights" was the first song the really stuck out to me on it, and the rest of the album just sort of formed this cohesive whole around it before my very ears. I think it's about living life to the fullest and all that good and inspiring stuff, and somebody has never made me feel so good singing "when you die!!!" at the top of their lungs to me. For my money, this song is the eargasm of 2013.


Here are some other songs I highly enjoyed but did not include on the "countdown" because that would make a really long list of best songs of the year for one person to make. Suffice it to say, you should check all of them out, and the respective albums they come from, because you're bound to find something you really, really like. I'm not including links to videos or places where you can purchase or listen to the album because you have the internet. But please, do go discovering when you get a chance. I plan on doing that too, because there's still so much I didn't get to check out this year. Enjoy!

John Mayer - "Waitin' on the Day"

Chris King - "Better Answer" - Love the melody and all around sound of this one.

Amos Lee - "Stranger" - Sweet banjo line.

Son Volt - "Angel of the Blues"

Alan Jackson - "Precious Memories"

The Mavericks - "Lies" - I don't know what style of guitar is played on this, but it's awesome.

Jimmy Eat World - "I Will Steal You Back"

Leagues - "Spotlight"

Underhill Rose - "Drives Me to Drinking"

Houndmouth - "Come On, Illinois"

The Hawk In Paris - "Beg for Love"

Ryan Bingham - "Until I'm One With You" - Theme song for new television show The Bridge which takes place along the Texas/Mexico border. Perfect fit.

Toby Keith - "Last Living Cowboy" - He's still capable of writing a fun little gem.

Eminem - "Rap God" - The days when I really enjoyed Eminem (high school and a couple years after) are largely over, but I love this track, and he raps so fast toward the end of it that I had to include it. It's amazing.

The Wild Feathers - "Left My Woman"

Sam Palladio and Chris Carmack - "What If I Was Willing" - The music on the show Nasville is pretty good. The songs written for the characters who are "mainstream" are better than just about anything you'll hear on FM radio.

Sam Palladio - "Just Can't Get It Right"

The Carper Family - "Boxcar Blues (Hello Sunshine)"

Charlie Robison - "Patty McBride"

Treetop Flyers - "Things Will Change"

Javi Garcia - "The Sound"

Carolina Still - "Black Lung, WV" -

Little Chief - "Somewhere Near the River" - "If Heaven sent me an angel, I've gotta find the place where/ I can see her again."

We/Or/Me - "My Father" - Excellent finger picking.

Sturgill Simpson - "You Can Have the Crown" - "They call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain/ If you want it you can have the crown." Okay, this should have made the "official" list.

Lorde - "Royals"

Possessed by Paul James - "Hurricane" - Great, great sound, like hyper punk-grass.

CHVRCHES - "The Mother We Share" - Am I still cool if I like Scottish synth-pop?

Camera Obscura - "This Is Love (Feels Alright)" - Same question, minus the synths.

Mike Cooley - "Drinking Coke and Eating Ice" - New one from the this member of the Drive-By Truckers' live solo album.

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - "9,999,999 Tears"

The Civil Wars - "I Had Me a Girl" 

The Gibson Brothers - "The Darker the Night, The Better I See"

The Wild Ponies - "Trigger"

Claire Lynch - "Dear Sister" - Great Civil War story song.

Audrey Auld - "Sweet Alcohol"

Wild Ponies - "Trigger"

Tired Pony - "The Beginning of the End" - The lead singer of Snow Patrol apparently has a new band with a former member of REM? It's quite good.

Willie Sugarcapps - "Poison" - Grayson Capps covers one of his old songs with his new band and it still kicks ass, just as Mr. Capps does live.

Drew Kennedy - "Good Carpentry"

Jack Johnson - "Home"

Mount Moriah - "Miracle Temple Holiness"

Caitlyn Rose - "Only A Clown"- Great song. Still need to listen to the album.

Kim Richey - "London Town"

Mando Saenz - "They Don't Make 'Em Like You Anymore"

Patty Griffin - "Wild Old Dog" - "God is a wild old dog someone left out on the highway/ I seen him running by me, he don't belong to no one else." If that doesn't make you want to listen, I don't know what will.

Chris Young - "Text Me Texas"

Check out the full playlist on Spotify:

Other year end lists to check out:

Best Country Singles of 2013
Worst Country Singles of 2013
Top Ten Songs of 2012
Top Ten Country Singles of 2012
My Favorite Song of 2011

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