When I decided to write this post for the blog, I knew I wanted it to spotlight some artists whose work I truly enjoyed this year. This is not a “best of” list, although I’d whole-heartedly recommend any of the albums on which these tunes were featured. These are simply songs that spoke to me, favorites from both mainstream and independent acts.
The songs are ordered by the artist’s (last) name. If I found a live version of the song that I particularly liked, I included it instead of the album version.
Some of these artists may be familiar; others may be new to you. All of them are worth your time.
I’m constantly surprised that Combs isn’t a bigger star; despite quite a bit of critical acclaim, he still seems to get overlooked. On the opening track from his latest release, he encourages the heartbroken to press on in the midst of adversity. “Laughing ain’t a pleasure till you know about crying,” he observes in a gentle nod to the the inevitable pain associated with personal growth.
Dukes puts her soulful vocals to good use on this simmering ballad about a passionate yet fragile relationship that’s flickered out. “I admired the damage in you,” she acknowledges, noting the red flags that were present from the beginning of the courtship. Nonetheless, she claims some responsibility for the demise of the romance, knowing excessive finger-pointing won’t heal her heart.
Who would have imagined a tale of whether a teenager should purchase an instrument or a firearm could be so suspenseful? In the more than capable hands of gifted storyteller Hoge, the narrative that unfolds is nuanced and exciting. The fact that there is no clear-cut resolution to the story makes the song even more compelling.
I love the image MacDonald constructs of someone who’s technically done everything right – everything she should – meeting someone who’s seemingly without a care or direction. The narrator appears flummoxed (and a bit intrigued) by this person’s casual approach to life. Inevitably, no matter how much a person plans, there are always unknown variables that knock that person’s world off its axis.
Most reviews of Maddie & Tae’s (Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye) debut rightfully singled out this song as one of the album’s highlights. Penned for Marlow’s best friend following the loss of her father, the tune gently affirms the bond between the longtime pals, offering support and comfort. The vow to help a loved one cope with the aftermath of tragedy is a touching proclamation of devotion. (Queens of Country and Country Exclusive also included this song on year-end lists.)
In an interview with My Random Jukebox, Nelson describes “Your Man” as a “straight forward love song steeped in an acknowledgement of my shortcomings and a statement of my commitment.” A bluesy slow-burner, the song manages to be sweet and sensual without sacrificing its rough edges. Nelson nails the tenderness of the number with husky conviction.
Rogers and Bowen’s collection of duets is full of excellent traditional country, and this story song is one of the set’s standouts. Functioning partly as a cautionary tale to those who would follow in his footsteps, “El Dorado” chronicles the final days of an outlaw coming to terms with his lonely existence. Listeners can’t help but wish the desperado had found the kind of camaraderie shared by Rogers and Bowen.
While the expression “Bless your heart” is generally used in scornful way, angelic-voiced Spence reclaims the phrase, choosing to offer an ex well wishes instead of derision. “Bless your heart” becomes a prayer for her former love to find contentment and peace of mind. As the closing track on Spence’s acclaimed sophomore album, it ends the record with a potent hush.
This moody meditation on a family’s struggle to survive following the death of its matriarch poignantly addresses the way people grapple with faith. The group focuses on both the practical (“Mouths to feed when she went away”) and spiritual void left by the loss. When the narrator entreats mourners not to bring flowers because “nothing here grows”, his weariness is heartbreaking.
I wrote about this song in my recommendation for Leave the Light On, and months later I still love it. This Kentucky band remains one of my favorite discoveries of the year.