Compiling a list of my favorite songs provides me with the welcome opportunity to revisit the music I’ve enjoyed throughout the year. I want my selections to be an accurate reflection of my listening habits while also highlighting the work of talented musicians. My hope is always that people who stumble upon my favorite songs lists will not only listen to the featured songs but further explore the artists’ discography.
The voices on this list span genres, locations, and degrees of experience. However, they all commanded my attention with songs that ranged from poignant to hopeful to sensual. The gifted musicians below demand the attention of their audience by showcasing fortitude alongside vulnerability. They are adept at the art of connecting with listeners and committed to honing their artistry.
As I put together the order I knew I wanted to open with Jessica Mitchell’s “Rain for the River” and close with Jess Jocoy’s “Long Live the Song.” That said, this isn’t a “best of” list where songs are ranked. It’s a simple show of appreciation. Hopefully you’ll enjoy these choices as well.
The acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter continued to reach new heights in 2018 with the release of her debut full-length album and first solo tour. Compositions like “Rain for the River” demonstrate why she’s so beloved. In a voice that is both weary and commanding, the narrator forthrightly acknowledges she’s been carrying burdens for two (“I’ve got this weight that I’m dragging around…and it looks a lot like you”). Refusing to dwell in discontent, she arrives at the realization that “I can take all the change/if the change is for better.” Mitchell movingly sings of the inner toil no one sees while refusing to settle for less than she deserves.
While Carter’s powerful recent single “Why Her Not Me” candidly addresses the pain of her father’s abandonment, the title track off her debut EP reverently pays tribute to her mother’s influence. As she offers apologies for the past, the Brighton-based singer-songwriter recognizes their relationship has not always been easy. Nonetheless, the unconditional love remains: “And all we’ve been through/Has given us truth/And now I can’t ever be without you,” Carter asserts, finding solace in the strength of those who surround her.
Texas native Quinn delivers blunt truths with a voice that is both silvery and steely. On “Cold War” she steadily unravels her frustrations and unresolved feelings regarding a former beau. In order to ease the strain on her heart (“I need something more than silence now”), the narrator rejects her ex’s friendly overtures. Instead, she sets up an emotional standoff. “I’m gonna hate you until I don’t love you anymore,” she decides, opting for self-preservation over breaking down.
Odysseus might weep if he had to deal with the trials detailed on the cutting title track off Hunicutt’s debut EP. Hunnicutt, however, matter-of-factly addresses adversity in a raspy drawl that refuses to entertain cheaters, liars, and fools. “Ain’t a wonder I hit the bottom/It’s a wonder it took so long,” she shrugs toward the end of the story song. The Alabama-based musician has a penchant for choosing and performing compositions (both her own and those penned by others) that stand out in a crowd. Rather than hitting rock bottom, expect that her profile will only continue to rise.
The North Carolina-based quintet described the release of its excellent sophomore album as a rebirth. Perhaps, then, it’s only fitting that The Keep feature a song with the above title. Amy Kamm, Autumn Brand, and Kaitlin Grady combine their voices in potent harmony to articulate the disillusion and desires of a couple on the verge of breaking apart. Despite the narrator’s wish that the pair remain together, she never resorts to begging. Rather, she steadfastly maintains her pride: “I see something worth saving/I see all the good in you/But I won’t sit here waiting/If you can’t see it too.”
When Mya likens a romantic interest to a quiet storm in “Damage” she could easily be describing her own vocal performance. It’s not surprising that the single, which revolves around exposing oneself to both the potential highs and lows of love, has emerged as a fan favorite. Packed with passionate declarations, the slow-swirling number builds to a feverish climax due to the seductive tone Mya creates. Nonetheless, the singer-songwriter never entirely loses her cool. Two decades into her career Mya is still crafting confident, engaging r&b. Longtime listeners are surely grateful for that.
Over the years the quartet from South Korea has skillfully tackled r&b, pop, and jazz while showcasing impassioned performances. The release of Red Moon, the second in Mamamoo’s Four Seasons project series, garnered the group its highest sales to date in the United States and a place on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. The delicate instrumentation for “Rainy Season” provides the perfect backdrop for Mamamoo’s lush, emotional vocals. The way these women convey both melancholy and resilience following heartbreak should resonate even in the most hardened souls.
Hill’s appearance on Season 15 of The Voice provided only a fleeting glimpse of the dynamic artist fans have been privileged to watch grow over the past couple years. Featuring ruminations on faith, friends, and the familiar faces and places that have shaped her, 2017’s Never Knew Love announced the arrival of sincere singer-songwriter unafraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. Of course, not everything Hill writes is inspired by personal experience, but her stirring vocals are always thoroughly convincing. Her latest single tackles the futility of infidelity. “In another world you could hold me/I’d be your girl/I’d let you love me,” the narrator wistfully notes. While the narrator may subscribe to naivete at times, Hill consistently demonstrates that she is a mature, thoughtful talent.
Pairing Lori McKenna’s stellar songwriting with her own powerful vocals was an inspired choice on Waldrup’s part. First appearing on McKenna’s Heart Shaped Bullet Hole EP, “Sometimes He Does” details the pleasures and disappointments of domestic life. The clear-eyed look at marriage manages to be both poetic and plainspoken as the narrator separates romantic fantasies from everyday realities. Waldrup’s tender tone ably conveys why the couple’s marriage lasts throughout less than perfect circumstances.
Although Jocoy hails from Washington, she’s always had an affinity for Nashville and country roots music. “Long Live the Song” chronicles the changes that have swept throughout a genre she loves. Part lament for vanishing traditions and part tribute to the eternal life of a melody, Jocoy boasts a writing style that can comfortably stand alongside her Americana heroes. Remember the name; you won’t forget the songs.