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.
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).
Though this band hailed from Vermont, you’d be forgiven for guessing they came out of Austin’s famous psych-rock scene. Loud and droney, they channel the likes of that city’s Black Angels or, from just north of their own state’s border, Montreal’s Besnard Lakes. “Head Out” caps out at 3:38, but one can imagine a song like this stretching to three or four times the length live.
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.
Any band can cite their influences when talking about their music. Fewer cite those influences within that music itself – at least not as frequently as Dino Bravo does.
From the first verse of the first song on their first album, the just-released Blind By Midnight, the Vermont rock quartet wears their favorite bands on their sleeves. That opener, “The Aerialists,” shouts out a couple Wilco albums that were important to guitarist Chris Farnsworth. The next track, “Sugar Coated Candy Stix,” describes singer Matthew Stephen Perry taking his future wife to a My Morning Jacket show (part of the closing song, “Pass the Mark,” musically nods to the same band’s “One Big Holiday”). A few songs later, bassist Joshua Shedaker writes a love song to Thin Lizzy.
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.
“Foxy folk” was the genre tag Abbie Morin adopted on 2015 solo album Shadowproof. The catchy branding isn’t accurate anymore. Like bandmate Caroline Rose, Morin has recently changed sounds (band names too in this case; Morin now performs as Hammydown). But it wasn’t entirely accurate then either. “Foxy folk” doesn’t really capture a song like “Better Half.”
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.