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.
When you hear “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” you no doubt imagine the bucolic harmonies of “Scarborough Fair.” But Jason Cooley borrows the phrase in “Hit,” and he’s certainly no Simon or Garfunkel. The punk shouter roars the line at 11, just as he roars every line, hollering his voice hoarse in the span of a pretty short song (half of which is a guitar solo).
On another great song of theirs, “Dead Summer,” the band Thompson Gunner incorporate a little bit of Hall & Oates. But that poppy, peppy duo couldn’t be much further from their own sound. Warren Zevon, after whom they borrowed their name, is closer, but still nowhere near gruff enough. Singer Caleb Thomas roars and growls like Lucero’s Ben Nichols, Americana-punk at his rawkiest.
Proper dental hygiene seems an odd inspiration for a garage-rock song. But from the recurring line that gave this song its title – “My teeeeth are nice and cleeeaaaannn” – “Teeth” veers into all sorts of oddball directions. It’s a love song for a minute, then a meta song about songwriting itself.
On the surface, “Old North Ender” would seem to offer pretty regionally-limited appeal. It’s about one specific neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont, with a population of 11,000 (one of which is James Kochalka himself). Writing a song so specifically about one’s ‘hood may create an anthem for people within a ten-block radius, but presents an impediment to a track’s wider success.
The titular echo of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” here is surely no accident. At times, Black Rabbit sound like they could be playing one of Andy Warhol’s happenings with some sort of trippy light show projected on them. They may have rocked a little too hard for a Factory crowd though; the CBGB stage a few years later might have been the better fit. Sure enough, frontcouple Marc and Darlene Scarano used to play CBGB, sweating on the same stage as The Ramones and Dead Boys once did, albeit several decades later.
When I saw boys cruise live, the four band members switched pants with each other mid-set. They exchanged instruments too, but pants-swapping tends to steal the spotlight from musical versatility. Like a rock-show Alice in Wonderland, the quartet rotated around the stage after every song, leveling up the antics each time. At one point, they cut off a band member’s hair onstage and threw huge hunks into the crowd. Then they smashed the chair he was sitting on. That went into the crowd too.
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.
Allison Fay Brown – Summit
I’m going to try to write something longer about Allison Fay Brown’s marvelous new EP later this week, so I’ll just leave the lead track here as a teaser. Like a good short-story writer, Brown offers just enough narrative details to intrigue while leaving plenty of gaps to fill in yourself. For instance…what’s in that box on the doorstep??