At first, the music video for Vermont-via-Portland-via-LA band Babehoven’s “Maybe I’m Bitter” evokes that old computer game The Sims, all empty-room templates rendered with rudimentary software. But watch closely for the early signs of the simulation breaking down. A lamp on a chair. The chair on a dresser. Soon giant disembodied hands invade – think Thing from The Addams Family – and the simulation collapses completely.
Critics of ranked lists like this see it as a bug that they’re entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I see it as a feature. There’s not really any difference between #12 and #13. Frankly, there’s not all that much difference between #1 and #25. But my feeling has always been, everyone gets that. No one actually thinks you can mathematically rank works of art. But the trying offers a wonderful opportunity for music nerds to look back at the best of the year, and for the sort of vigorous debate on which such nerddom rests.
This Top 40 looks nothing like the actual Top 40. None of these songs charted, and I don’t think any of them aspired to. That is no knock against them, which probably goes without saying here – anyone reading music blogs knows that much. The adjectives “great” and “popular” occasionally attach themselves to the same track, but not often enough.
So just think of this as an alternate history of 2019 singles. It has no horses, and no town roads. It doesn’t teach love, patience, or pain, and isn’t 100% that anything. It also, as the headline says, only includes artists from one rather small state. But this wildly subjective, somewhat arbitrary survey of the past 12 months should serve as a small introduction to the wealth of talent in one community on the geographic fringe. There was a lot of wonderful music being made this year, much of it far from the big cities, or the Billboard charts. Duh.
Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
As a former New York City resident, I can think of few neighborhoods I’d rather live in than the Upper West Side. Old money and overpriced, overprecious grocery stores every block – no thanks. But the Smittens’ gloriously catchy indiepop song almost makes the UWS appealing.
There’s a trick I love in a lot of pop songs. Somewhere in the back half of the song, most instruments drop out. The chorus repeats once, a cappella or close to it. An instrument or two return as the chorus repeats, then a few more more the next time around. Eventually they all joyously crash back in. It’s the pop version of a dubstep drop, and equally effective.
Bullfighting seems an odd metaphor for love, but Alexandria Hall makes it stick in her mesmerizing dream-electropop song “Matador.” Take the opening lines: “It’s not the red. I can’t see it. All I see is you.” Right off the bat, the bullfighting comparison works better than expect – plus you learn some zoology (did you know bulls are colorblind to red? The cape hue is purely for the spectators).
Ali T – Electric Haze
Alison Turner is an artist out of time. She’s a singer-songwriter, but not with the folky connotations the phrase often takes on. Rather, something like “Electric Haze” sounds made for radio. Late-’90s radio, that is, when artist like Jewel and Meredith Brooks were racking up top-ten hits. It wouldn’t have a chance today, but “Electric Haze” ably walks to tricky line of engaging with nostalgia while creating something new.
Abby Sherman – Hand with the Devil
If the only Satan-themed violin song you’ve heard is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Abby Sherman’s “Hand with the Devil” might throw you for a loop. Rather than rollickin’ fiddlin’, Abby Sherman and violinist Katie Trautz create something truly spooky, like the sort of Gillian Welch track you don’t play in the dark.
Charlie Hill’s band Bison was one of the best new post-punk band of recent years. But since their untimely demise last year, he’s moved onto other genres. His solo project Chazzy Lake looks forward – while looking much further back.