ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the american diaspora
November 26, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
I can't say why it seems to be more difficult for me to write about my favorite songs than about my favorite records for the year. The last couple years I've sorta sidestepped songs in place of albums. What with my extra time as 2016 shudders to a standstill, I seem to have collected a list of 25 quality cuts for your listening pleasure. I believe I'll even order them for you.
FAVORITE SONGS of 2016
2. "The Dogs" by Justin Wells, from Dawn in the Distance (August, August 5) -- Wells' service with Fifth on the Floor only hinted at his fierce energy and deep talent. "The Dogs" is one of the most unromantic road songs I've heard, painting such a bleak picture of a band's neverending tour that it might persuade young alt.country types to put down their guitar and get a job pulling espresso. It's a nasty way of living sometime / My jar ain't holding a single dime / My glass is holding the last thing I want to do. / I'm gonna drink every dime I make tonight / I'll die just to get a room ...
3. "Baby Blue" by Mount Moriah, from How to Dance (Merge, February 25) -- Such an evocative sound conjured by electric guitar, droning organ and the yearning delivery of vocalist Heather McEntire. It's a sound that both embraces and keeps its enigmatic lyrical distance. I've woken up countless times this year with the refrain echoing in my head, Are you gonna let me win. For a bonus treat, track down last October's "Calvander" single which also features a more raw "garage demo" of "Baby Blue". Plus, it's the best video I've seen this year that features a guy peeing on a couch.
4. "Heartbeat Smile" by Alejandro Escovedo, from Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy, October 28) -- I'm sure I'll have time to rhapsodize about Escovedo's new record when I reveal my favorite albums of 2016. This first single rivals 2008's "Always a Friend" for pure pop shock 'n awe. From the "Bad Case of Loving You" guitar riff to the bubblegum girl group backing vox, it's a real highwater mark on a collection characterized by reminiscence, regret, absence and sharp guitars. Escovedo is nothing short of a national treasure.
5. "Give All You Can" by Cody Jinks, from I'm Not the Devil (Jinks, August 12) -- There are more upbeat songs on Jinks' 2016 record, and better singalongs, but this one might be the songwriter's most deeply introspective. Singing about The dark places I go, and admitting, I got a bad tortured soul, in the end it's an uplifting country ballad that challenges the listener to push past that dark night. With its barroom piano and soul stirring choral spirit, "Give All You Can" is the year's best Saturday night / Sunday morning moment.
6. "Ain't We Free" by Austin Lucas, from Between the Moon and the Midwest (Last Chance, May 27) -- I flitted between the ballad "Pray for Rain" and the opener, "Unbroken Hearts" before landing on this youthful romp as my representative from Lucas' stellar collection. With some help from John Moreland, the song blasts a chorus that demands to be belted from car windows (trust me): Ain't we free / Ain't we terrible and young / Just like the spark in the east / Turns into the sun. A great guitar break and a hellbent tempo simply drive the spirit of abandon to 10 and beyond. Even if you're more terrible than young ...
7. "Longer" by Lydia Loveless, from Real (Bloodshot, August 19) -- Is Lydia too mature to be playing guitar and eating cheesepuffs in her bedroom dressed only in her unmentionables? Or is that part of her indelible charm? On a record that continues to rage against expectations, "Longer" is a quintessential song of pining for love lost. It's also an earworm with a remarkable growth rate, from the artist's telling drawl to guitars and keys that speak more to 90s pop than to contemporary roots.
8. "Wild Flower" by the Vandoliers, from Ameri-kinda (State Fair, October 21) -- Don't tell me that the Vandoliers is a good name for a band, or that Ameri-kinda strikes you as a particularly smart choice for a record title. But I dare you to listen to the Dallas ensemble's debut without being charmed. "Wild Flower" was my first delicious taste of their punk vocals, mariachi horns and jagged romantic streak. One of the year's latest victories, it's one gorgeously sloppy piece of work that continues to delight.
9. "Can't Close the Door On Love" by Lucinda Williams, from Ghosts of Highway 20 (Hwy 20, February 5) -- An uncharacteristically gentle, earnest ballad from an artist who's more at home in the bluesy dumps. With her lazy slur, Lucinda's vocal is simply sweet melancholy. It's an understated gem that's stuck with me: You're just a little rough around the edges / Tough as nail, made of stone / But that's exactly what I expected / 'Cause baby, you're one piece of work. It's a bouquet, with some of the weeds still hangin' on like I like.
10. "Piedmont Sky" by Caleb Caudle, from Carolina Ghost (This Is American Music, February 26) -- Another album from which I could've tagged a number of cuts. Caudle and co. generate an effortless sound, shot through with 70s country and soul. Like much on Carolina Ghost, it's deceptively, masterfully simple from the lyric to the subtle arrangement and the repeated catch, A decade of hot and heavenly summers / Waitin' for an angel to call my number.
11. "Brake Dust" by Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, from Constant Stranger (Big Legal Mess, September 30) -- So hushed and understated, you almost feel like an eavesdropper on this most intimate of JPKS's pieces. Sunday morning / Chokin' on brake dust / Feelin' me rust / How will I know / When I am broken and I've had enough / Just take your sins and make them feel like love. Nothing beyond a chiming piano and fingerpicked guitar, but the hymnlike tune resonates.
12. "Wake Up Ray" by Richmond Fontaine, from You Can't Go Back if There's Nothing to Go Back To (El Cortez, March 18) -- From the Portland band's apparent swansong, it's one of at least 4 songs on this list that are at least tangentially about birds. "Wake Up Ray" is the sort of slice of real life scenario in which writer Willy Vlautin is a master. It's just a story about a guy who buys his girlfriend a finch that she releases into the snow. Nobody sounds like Richmond Fontaine, and this short vignette epitomizes the record's genius. All I remember now is running through the snow / Looking for Little Joe.
13. "Finches" by Arliss Nancy, from Greater Divides (Gunner, May 13) -- Yeah, birds. Sorta. The Fort Collins alt.country force fits no fewer than 3 distinct movements in this brief 3 minute cut. It's like a short, rootsy "November Rain" ... In all honesty, "Finches" is another slice of life song, sneaking a glimpse into a relationship that's begun to fray at the edges. And maybe we can meet them at the Hi-Dive around seven or eight; a beer and some whiskey for the shaking in your leg. And if you ever get to thinking about home, that's when you'll see it's been here all along.
14. "Filthy and Fried" by Drive-by Truckers, from American Band (ATO, September 30) -- I'm tempted to call American Band the perfect album for its time. That said, amidst all the collection's sociopolitical commentary, my favorite song is simply about how the ladies can be driven by the basest of desires just like us guys. Not one of the songs that'll generate much dinner table debate ... But sometimes all you want to hear is good 'n dirty alt.country with lots of drippy meat on the bones. Bottles falling in a dumpster / And a stale smell rising through a sickening summer haze / To the rhythm of a boot-heeled hipster cowgirl's clunky sashay of shame. End of argument.
15. "American Tobacco Company" by BJ Barham, from Rockingham (BJB, August 19) -- With this week's release of their new live record, it's been a good year for BJ Barham's day band, American Aquarium. A really fine, steady rocking stage act, their frontman's debut solo album pared back the proceedings for a personal reflection on small town, blue collar reality. No tune spoke louder to me than this story of the dead end drudgery of a factory job. Now I sit here on the line / And watch these big machines crush my hopes and dreams / Into Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes.
16. "Loveless Prayers" by Kent Eugene Goolsby, from Temper of the Times (KEG, November 11)
17. "Biloxi" by Hiss Golden Messenger, from Heart Like a Levee (Merge, October 7)
18. "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" by Courtney Marie Andrews, from Honest Life (Mama Bird, August 19)
19. "Bob Dylan's 78th Hangover" by Harvest Thieves, from Rival (Harvest Thieves, January 8)
20. "Blacktop Blues" by Left Arm Tan, from Lorene (LAT, April 16)
21. "Solving Problems" by Brent Cobb, from Shine On Rainy Day (Elektra, October 7)
22. "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" by Jayhawks, from Paging Mr. Proust (Sham, April 29)
23. "Opening Statement" by Hard Working Americans, from Rest in Chaos (Melvin, May 13)
24. "Rock 'n Roll" by Girls Guns & Glory, from Love & Protest (GGG, November 4)
25. "Lucky Cigarette" by Matt Haeck, from Late Bloomer (Blaster, June 3)
We'll get our favorite records for the year on these pages in the next couple weeks, crisply appointed and ready for your cruel derision. At present, they're arrayed alphabetically, but I'm starting to get a good sense of what belongs where with regards to personal preference. While you can not presently enjoy these lists on your terrestrial radio, you can stream them merrily below.