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.
What is the titular castle the characters in Lowell Thompson’s Americana gem “Castle” plan to meet at? A music video – which might be fan-made, his website doesn’t include it – takes the word literally, using old footage of a knight and princess dancing in front of a castle (albeit one only two feet taller than they are). I doubt that’s what Thompson had in mind.
The only live recording on this list, Brett Hughes’ “Sweet Little Bird” has yet to be released on a studio album. The version I’ve been playing for the latter half of the decade I ripped from a Vermont Public Radio session video. I hope to replace it with a higher-fi studio take one of these days.
This is a pick where the songwriter herself might not agree with me. Caroline Rose doesn’t play “America Religious” any more, nor any of the other songs from her first two albums. The singer-songwriter drastically changed her sound on most recent album Loner, from Americana to a spunky indiepop. On the whole, her music might be better for it; Loner is the best record of her career. But even if she might just as soon forget about a roots-rock gem like “America Religious,” we shouldn’t.
In my years as a music publicist, I learned how difficult it was to get one of your artists interviewed on NPR (one of the few press hits that actually might sell some records). At a bare minimum it typically requires new music. Pitching a seven-year old song would get you laughed out of the producer’s inbox.
But listeners to Weekend Edition this summer heard a new segment about a song that came out in 2012. Vermont band Swale joined host Scott Simon to discuss “If You Get Lost.” The “news peg,” such as it was: They’d submitted it to the annual NPR Music Tiny Desk contest. Though they didn’t win, they got one hell of a consolation prize.
Two years before releasing “Don’t Let the Darkness In,” Anders Parker worked with Jim James, Jay Farrar, and Will Johnson to record an album of unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics (still enough left over after two Mermaid Avenues, apparently). One wonders if diving deep into Woody’s work affected the veteran artist’s own songwriting.
“Day of the Dead” is as much a short story as a song. And like many good short story writers, Hana Zara offers enough evocative details to sketch a few narrative outlines while leaving much of the specifics to the imagination.
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.