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.
In a career spanning 25 years, Ezra Oklan has played with everyone from Nicole Atkins to Ambulance LTD, toured opening for The Killers and the Black Keys, and graced TV studios from Conan O’Brien to Carson Daly. Throughout, he could always be found at the back of the stage, drumming (check out this killer live performance of Atkins’ “The Tower” for a taste).
Now, in his new band Matthew Mercury, the sideman becomes a frontman for the first time. And not just that, but this veteran of a million Americana, indie-rock, and jazz bands steps out front with a new genre: post-punk. Despite the other sounds on his resumé, he’s not a newcomer to the genre.
Abby Sherman – Dreamcatcher
Abby Sherman released one of 2018’s best folk songs with “Wanting to Run,” and she’s returned with a catchy new single. Mandolin features prominently, joining her vocals to front a tight roots band on a song about looking back and accepting one’s own history.
Adaline – Genese’s Song
“Genese’s Song” sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel tune recorded on the Mountain Goat’s early tape deck. Like Adaline Bancroft’s entire album, there’s a hiss and fuzz (the songs were indeed recorded on a four-track tape machine) that adds a haunting distance from the music. It feels like unearthing a dusty old recording, weathered with time, but with the tenderness and beauty shining through the decay. Fellow folkie Eric George joins on upright bass for this song, though that’s an instrument the tape recorder can’t really capture.
I only stepped foot in Vermont once this year.
That’s the dirty little secret of this blog (well, not that secret; it says it right on the About page): I don’t live there. Haven’t since I started doing this last year.
That’s going to change when I move back in the spring, but the aim of the site won’t. I conceived of County Tracks as helping to expose the best music created in Vermont to non-Vermonters. In the digital era, it’s easy for an expat dedicated enough to follow any local scene from afar. What’s trickier is getting great local music heard by people who have no reason to care about the category of “Vermont music.”
This ties into a broader problem. The glut of choice of streaming, rather than leveling the playing field, has mostly helped the famous get more famous. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a Billboard staffer claiming Drake was “bigger than the Beatles” because all 25 tracks on Drake’s new album appeared on the Hot 100 simultaneously. I won’t even get into the “bigger than the Beatles” nonsense (come on). The more important point is that, overwhelmed by choice, listeners are gravitating towards what they know. No matter how many times a digital music CEO says the word “discovery,” actual music discovery seems harder than ever.
I don’t know if any of the artists below are blowing up Spotify playlists, or whether any computer algorithm is pushing them on users. But they deserve attention. Great music happens beyond the big cities and big labels; it just needs exposure. In my small way, I hope these lists help a little. There’a lot of great music being made in Vermont. More people outside Vermont – people like me – need to hear it.
I tried to discern some overarching theme with this year’s Best Songs list. One has to write something in these intros, after all. I never came up with one (other than that the songs are all, you know, good). But maybe that diversity itself offers a narrative thread.
The only thing many outsiders seem to associate with Vermont music is jam bands. Mostly one jam band, really. Now, I’m sure learning that Vermont has other genres wouldn’t surprise any outsider. But learning that the music being created in those genres is equally vibrant – and equally supported by the local music scene – might.
The Big Sip – Two Hips / One Night
When an album features the credit “Tenor Sax (Track 5),” you know I’m starting with Track 5. And the sax doesn’t disappoint when it finally arrives on this arty-jam-funk journey, but there is so much going on beforehand you forget it’s coming. Crazy keyboard sound effects, off-kilter Phish rhythms, and some insistent melodies that push through the chaos. It’s off the band’s debut EP Sip Responsibly.
Addy Sechler – Make Home to Me
One of the best albums of 2017 was Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. It was also one of the toughest to actually listen to, being a songwriter frankly grappling with his wife’s sudden death. When you want that same quiet, hushed vibe, but don’t have the emotional bandwidth to sink into that weighty subject matter, Addy Sechler’s new album will suit just fine.
The Vermont trio Bison’s first release Get Out was my favorite EP of last year. Now they’re back with their second. That’s the good news. The bad: It’s also their last. Two of the three band members are moving away, and Bison will soon be no more. Judging from the first single “Arkansas,” at least they’re going out on top.