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.
In addition to County Tracks, I oversee another site all about cover songs. Vermont band The Smittens made our year-end list in 2016 with a cover of a short-lived band I’d never heard of called Go Sailor.
On their new covers collection Stay Gold, The Smittens cover a number of artists like Go Sailor: pioneers and peers in their chosen genre, which sometimes is termed “twee-pop” (not everyone loves the “twee” moniker, but The Smittens include it right there on their website). They also twee-ify a few songs from very different genres, including The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” and, in an old studio recording getting its first ever release here, the Oasis classic “Live Forever.”
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.
Bow Thayer – Looney Brook Road
The first song we featured from songwriting vet Bow Thayer’s latest album found him right in his bluesy Americana pocket. “Looney Brook Road,” also off the just-released A Better Version of the Truth, pushes him in some quite different directions. Ambient and spacious, this sonic tour de force takes its meandering time getting to anything like a lyric. When words finally arrive, they sound like the Beatles at their trippy late-period peak, part Sgt Pepper and part White Album and part Paul side-eyeing Yoko in the corner.
The Aztext ft. Xenia Dunford – Everyday Sun
Last month I wrote about Xenia Dunford’s dual comeback EPs. They split along genre lines: the first singer-songwriter Americana, the second a little jazzier. Now she’s dabbling in a third genre: hip-hop. On rap duo The Aztext’s new single “Everyday Sun,” Dunford proves herself a perfect hook singer. The blend producer Rico James creates with her voice and an infectious horn line sounds like a ’70s Stevie Wonder jam.
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.
“You can’t write a good song about cats,” Max Andrucki says. “It’s not possible.”
This might be a surprise to hear after you first listen to his indiepop band the Smittens’ new single “Cats for Cats.” Because it is a good song. But it’s not really about cats.
Andrucki actually built the song around a similar-sounding phrase: “Masc for Masc,” a controversial dating term in the gay/queer community (Medium has an explainer). “That phrase is everywhere in the gay dating app world and in fact it’s almost cliche to talk about it critically,” Andrucki says. “I agonized over the lyrics in a way I rarely do, because I didn’t want to make it seem as if the song was about critiquing gay body image or gender presentation culture or anything like that. It’s not anything with a ‘social message’ as explicit as that. But the phrase stuck, so I felt like I had to rhyme it with other silly things to make it clear that I wasn’t really serious about it as a social critique.”
We normally don’t do concert previews here. My goal with this young blog is to spread the gospel of Vermont music to an audience beyond the state’s sometimes-confining borders. And writing about regionally-specific events generally goes against that mandate.
This weekend’s Waking Windows festival is an exception.
Waking Windows is the Vermont music scene in microcosm. In some respects the Burlington equivalent of SXSW, Waking Windows surrounds a few bigger names (Real Estate and Dan Deacon this year) with dozens of the state’s best local bands. Naming the best Vermont artists playing the festival almost doubles as naming the best Vermont artists period. And that is exactly our mandate.
When I launched this blog last month, I kicked things off with The Best Vermont Albums of 2016. I said after that I’d move on to what’s next, not just what already happened. Which I will, I swear (and I have a bit, highlighting great new material from Vultures of Cult (R.I.P.), The New Line, and 1881). But first, one final retrospective.
When putting together the Best Albums list, I realized many of my favorite 2016 songs were not on proper albums. They were from EPs, singles, preview tracks from 2017 albums, covers, or other one-offs. So, for one last look back, we’re counting down our favorite Vermont-made songs of the past year. Then onto 2017. Promise.