Crafting a life-changing album is hard, and crafting just one perfect piece of that puzzle is equally hard. Albums give artists a lengthy amount of time to win listeners over; songs have to do that within an average of three minutes.
We also will naturally hear more songs than albums over the course of a year, so it’s fitting that songs are honored with the longest year-end list.
In order to qualify for this particular list, these songs had to stem from an album I reviewed earlier this year – standalone singles are not considered, though songs released last year may be eligible if they were featured on an album released this year. If you want a deeper analysis, I’d suggest checking through those reviews. As always, too, I’ve limited the list to include up to three entries per album. While this is never usually a problem, the cutoff point is used to generate more variety for the list, because ultimately this is a celebration of good music, not a competition.
Lastly, don’t get too caught up in the semantics of the headline. As a one-man operation, I’m not sure how to define the “best” anything of a given year, so think of these more as 50 songs that connected with me on a rare level.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the best songs of 2019.
No. 50 – Jason Hawk Harris, “Giving In” (from Love & The Dark)
For an album exploring substance abuse, death and the questioning of faith, on Love & The Dark, Jason Hawk Harris stands at the center of it all – someone desperate for a vestige of solace. In that sense, “Giving In” stands as one of its most important moments, where Harris tries to pick up the pieces again only to succumb to alcoholism. And despite how much he tries to hold on, Harris bluntly sees that he’s about to lose it all once more. The line says he doesn’t “want” to do it again, but the sad part about all of it is that, with its cheerier melodic groove, there’s a sense of relief knowing that Harris can give in, hit rock bottom and maybe try to pick himself back up … at least someday.
No. 49 – Dalton Domino, “Hush Puppy” (from Songs From The Exile)
Dalton Domino understands that pain is part of the healing process, and even if Songs From The Exile isn’t his first album to explore a redemptive arc, it’s certainly his most grounded. For an album that largely focuses on his personal struggles, “Hush Puppy” finds him as one piece of the larger puzzle as he and his family members cope with his father’s death. It’s the level of detail that accentuates “Hush Puppy,” showing how each family member tries to cope with the situation – Domino’s mother relies on humorous memories to get by; meanwhile, his sister and brother are both visibly shaken, and yet all of them are just trying to find peace in their own ways. It’s a relatable look at how none of us know for sure what to do when we lose a loved one, but the tones are warm and rollicking enough to give at least some sense of comfort.
No. 48 – George Strait, “Some Nights” (from Honky Tonk Time Machine)
Whether he writes a song or just records it, George Strait has always had a knack for melody. Sure, “Some Nights” is a fairly standard look at a breakup, but it’s the buildup that gives it its real punch – liquid guitar strums open the track, anchored by piano and fiddle, before unleashing that powerful chorus and hook to highlight the real bitterness of the situation. Warm and breezy, yet packed with a fiery gusto, “Some Nights” stands as a highlight that shows the king isn’t completely retiring just yet.
No. 47 – Aaron Watson, “Ghost Of Guy Clark” (from Red Bandana)
Not that Aaron Watson hasn’t had his own fair share of subpar singles, but if Red Bandana showed anything, it’s that even with a taste of mainstream success, Watson owes his heart to the soul of country music, first and foremost. And as the first song off that album, “Ghost Of Guy Clark” paints one hell of a picture – a chance encounter between a singer, not an artist, and the ghost of Guy Clark who viciously (and righteously) cuts into the lack of meaning in the singer’s songs. And while the climax comes through in the following instrumental, “El Comienzo del Viaje,” the quiet, atmospheric presence and swell of strings accompanying the track is subdued enough to let the message sit at the forefront, but also huge enough to let it soar off that tension.
No. 46 – Cody Johnson, “Monday Morning Merle” (from Ain’t Nothin’ To It)
Loose references made to other artists and songs aren’t always effective, but in “Monday Morning Merle,” they outright drive the story. On one hand, it’s a relatable story for anyone who relies on the crutch of music for comfort and solace, but this poor character is doomed to forever repeat his weekly cycle. The Beatles and the Eagles ease his comforts until the littlest event triggers his memory, and then it’s right back to the bottom of the barrel. The references made on “Monday Morning Merle” work as they are, but they’re amazingly more layered than they may appear on first glance.
No. 45 – Michaela Anne, “Somebody New” (from Desert Dove)
Whereas most of Desert Dove finds Michaela Anne questioning the true meaning of love, “Somebody New” finds her somewhere in the middle. She should be happy; after all, she found someone to love, but that also comes with having to let someone else in the picture down as easy as possible. The most gutting element of “Somebody New” is that the current relationship just … ends; no bitter remorse, no blaming either side – just a moment where one party wants to move on, which happens. The melody is gorgeous, and Anne does a devastatingly great job at showing how this decision isn’t easy, but is worth it in the long run.
No. 44 – Koe Wetzel, “Ragweed” (from Harold Saul High)
I won’t lie – I never expected to put a Koe Wetzel song on a list like this. But I’d be lying if I said “Ragweed” didn’t win me over from the moment I heard it. It plays to a high school love story in the same way only Wetzel can – by being far too explicit with the details and wrapping it around a huge hook. It plays to a darker key, with some spacious piano lingering to support the melody, but has the huge crunch in the guitar lines needed to cut through, especially when the chorus hits. And for as toxic as this relationship sounds, that’s also the point – they’re young, her parents often intervene, and the only thing they really bond over is a love for Cross Canadian Ragweed. And not to intentionally end with a cliché, but it really is the power of sharing music and memories associated with it that can cut through the toughest of differences to foster that special connection.
No. 43 – The Steel Woods, “Anna Lee” (from Old News)
Even though this is better as a prelude to “Della Jane’s Heart,” “Anna Lee” has the same kind of uneasy intensity that makes it a fantastic standalone song. And the stage is set right away from the rollicking acoustic line, steady percussion and firm, but uneasy, bass line, where our poor character tells Anna Lee he needs to see his lover, Della Jane, one last time to let her know it’s over and that he’s heading out in the morning. Ironically, for as much as he stresses the need to Anne Lee to conquer time and start their love while they’re young, little does he know what he’s getting into. It’s the sort of great backstory to an equally great song no one expected, and it’s the kind of southern Gothic love story that the Steel Woods, as always, handle excellently.
No. 42 – The Highwomen, “Cocktail And A Song” (from The Highwomen)
If I’m looking for the simplest reason as to why “Cocktail And A Song” connects the way it does, I’d easily point to Amanda Shires, who delivers one of her rawest, most heartfelt performances in this sendoff to a father. Well, that, and the beautiful, brittle, sparse piano and fiddle that hit where they need to for accent marks. The words unsaid between the dying man and a daughter trying to aspire to his level of ease don’t matter, and maybe it’s all a facade of strength on his part to let that final moment be a joyous one between them. Either way, it cuts in a way few songs could this year.
No. 41 – Lauren Jenkins, “Blood” (from No Saint)
There’s times when a song is so personal that I’m not sure how to rightfully approach it. “Blood” stands as the darkest song Lauren Jenkins has ever recorded – a confrontation between her and her sister dealing with substance abuse issues and suicidal tendencies. And maybe there’s room for debate as to how well Jenkins handles it here, but that also comes with a caveat that she herself is helpless as for what to do, which she acknowledges. The production is sparse, and Jenkins takes on the sort of ragged tone that shows she’s tried her damnedest to fight and get through to her sister. And all Jenkins can do by the end is be there for her – not give listeners an answer or closure, because that’s nearly impossible for anyone in that situation on either side. Still, “Blood” tackles a heavy-handed subject with tact.
No. 40 – Leslie Stevens, “The Tillman Song” (from Sinner)
On an otherwise quiet, subdued project, “The Tillman Song” stands as one of Sinner’s biggest moments. Led by random, blustering electric guitar riffs, a jumpier percussion line, and an absolutely killer, sinister momentum, “The Tillman Song” is also a unique moment on the album it stems from. The dichotomy Stevens sets up between her career choice as an artist and real life Army Ranger Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, in 2004, is a point of redemption for her. As she grapples with the deepest throes of depression, it stands as a moment of inspiration to choose a path that inspires us and lets us fight to do what we believe in, even if that fight, internal or external, may sometimes feel insignificant in the grander scheme of things.
No. 39 – Cody Jinks, “Which One I Feed” (from The Wanting)
I’m always surprised to find “Which One I Feed” is one of the few tracks on either of Cody Jinks’ latest two albums that features no writing credit from him, if only because it says more about him than even he probably realizes. Then again, whereas Jinks often keeps his perspective grounded, “Which One I Feed” is a moment in his discography that feels huge – no – cinematic. The imagery is sharp, but the tones are biting and fierce, and for once, a chorus of background “ohs” actually helps the tension build to even greater heights. Jinks is no stranger to probing his own mind in his best work, and as he desperately tries to overcome his vices and be the person he wants to be, “Which One I Feed” shows why that struggle is hard to even comprehend sometimes when there’s two mental wolves to feed.
No. 38 – Georgette Jones, “Skin” (from Skin)
The thesis statement for Georgette Jones’ latest album is laid out in its title track. As history will show, children of famous country stars don’t always have it as easy as we may think, at least not when it comes to forging their own identities. And as Jones finally accepts who she is, she righteously tears into her critics who want her to be a saint. It’s a welcome slap against hypocrisy that stands as one of Jones’ best songs yet, and if this is only the beginning of something more, at least she’s found enough peace to stand as an individual artist with a lot to say.
No. 37 – Mike and the Moonpies, “If You Want A Fool Around” (from Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold)
Look, that hook is good enough to solidify “If You Want A Fool Around” as a classic single in a just world, but the crisp acoustics and rich pedal steel certainly don’t hurt either. But “If You Want A Fool Around” is also the kind of song that could backfire in the wrong hands, either scanning as too clingy or obsessive. However, the framing hits that narrow window of blunt honesty in how it’s unlikely he’ll ever have a chance with an old lover anyway, and he’s an idiot for continuing to try, especially when he’s the one who said goodbye in the first place. It’s a tricky emotional balance to pull off well, but everything here comes together in the best possible way.
No. 36 – Aaron Watson, “Riding With Red”
Truthfully, “Riding With Red” works best when followed by “Red Bandana,” but they’re also meant to work as separate tracks. Both are tributes to Red Steagall, and while the latter track focuses on their relationship from the perspective of Watson as a grown man, “Riding With Red” is about those childhood lessons learned. Watson looks up to Steagall here as a hero he’ll never be able to repay. He’s going to continue chasing his dreams on the open road for that person who taught him all he knows, and then that grand swell of strings, accordion and fiddle comes to lead it all away. There’s no other to describe it than breathtakingly beautiful.
No. 35 – Reba McEntire, “Cactus In A Coffee Can” (from Stronger Than The Truth)
“Cactus In A Coffee Can” manages to both capture a moment in time and provide a heartbreaking backstory. A chance encounter with two women on a plane results in one telling a story of her fleeting connection with her lost addict mother before she died, and against the fiddle and dobro, there’s a real heft to this story. The names feel distinctive and memorable, if only because the life story details allow for a greater picture to fill in the backdrop. Stronger Than The Truth is easily one of Reba McEntire’s best albums in decades, and this song is just one small reason for that.
No. 34 – Emily Scott Robinson, “Delta Line” (from Traveling Mercies)
Whereas certain tracks on Traveling Mercies aim for an escape on the road as an answer to find peace, there’s no solace to be found on “Delta Line.” Emily Scott Robinson painfully, and slowly, sketches out the systematic breakdown of rural families, all of whom are dealt their own tragedies for which there is no recovery. Not a word is wasted, and not a single moment doesn’t feel too painful to listen to, but it’s a testament to Robinson’s craft that she’s able to make these characters feel not only real, but ghosts of their former selves.
No. 33 – Yola, “Ride Out In The Country” (from Walk Through Fire)
Even if “Ride Out In The Country” centers around the aftermath of a breakup, Yola never keeps the focus on that. Instead, it’s mentioned in passing as she takes a drive and clears her mind, finding escapism and peace along the way. We can’t run away from every problem, but there’s times when a temporary escape can provide us with the insight and rejuvenation needed to keep going, and “Ride Out In The Country” is an incredible, and relatable, example of that. And here, Yola sounds excellent on just about every song she releases, but even her tone is sunny and upbeat, because she knows she’ll be alright, especially when the focus is on the scene and beauty around her.
No. 32 – Austin Meade, “Pay Phone” (from Waves)
Right away, “Pay Phone” snarls with a ferocious intensity as Austin Meade watches his life crumble around him. I’ve compared it to a Breaking Bad story before, and that still seems like the most fitting comparison – a desperate man clinging to whatever normal life he has left with his family while keeping his secret “business” on the side. And even if Meade is never in any real danger of being caught, the focus is on the psychological toll it takes on him, enough to where he’s likely to be his own biggest downfall.
No. 31 – Michaela Anne, “Desert Dove”
Aside from its lush elegance, the title track to Michaela Anne’s latest album stands in stark contrast to the other songs. For one, instead of Anne being caught in the throes of a situation where she has to act fast, here, she watches two people hookup out of a desire to salve their loneliness, having lived too long to care anymore. And on an album exploring love and its meaning, the subtext suggests how Anne could quickly wind up in the same place. It’s not the moment in the album where Anne finds that tricky emotional balance, but it shows how she’s on to her way to finding it.
No. 30 – Mike and the Moonpies, “Danger”
Call it irony or not, but for a honky tonk band that employed the London Symphony for their latest album, the most intriguing cut tilts toward outlaw country tones. Not to say it’s unfamiliar territory for the band or that there isn’t something about it that makes it stand among their best work; if anything, despite being more fine-tuned, it’s got the nastiest sizzle I’ve ever heard from the band. The strings cut through with a pointed fury, the bass is thick enough to carry a ton of swagger, and that outro is one of the most impressive musical moments of 2019, hands down. And considering the band stepped away from their comfort zone for Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, it’s interesting that Mike Hermier offers more advice to his son on what he should stay away from in life, rather than what he should do. After all, he himself is the hard-scrabbled bandleader trying to learn and figure out those lessons, too. This is a pretty great next step, though.
No. 29 – Shane Smith & the Saints, “Parliament Smoke” (from Hail Mary)
If Hail Mary snarled louder than any other Shane Smith & the Saints project to date, “Parliament Smoke” is one reason because of that. The band has always had a knack for cultivating huge hooks and atmosphere, and when the interplay between the galloping drums and fiddle kicks in after each chorus, there’s no moment here that doesn’t feel huge. And front man Shane Smith’s deep, bellowing voice only adds a welcome, thunderous intensity, helped by the band members’ harmonies and a fantastic, snarling climax.
No. 28 – Gabe Lee, “Eveline” (from farmland)
It’s amazing that, on a debut album, Gabe Lee sings about the consequences of growing older with the rarest kind of world-weary sophistication like he does on “Eveline.” Even if he fully admits his faults in how he and an ex-partner left off, the frustration he feels is directed at him. He was too young to fully understand love or that life is more than just constantly moving from one place to another. Yet that regret is never sold with anger, but rather a fondness for the time spent, as if Lee’s learning to forgive himself and see it all as part of the natural learning experience. Still, his delivery certainly hints at the pain he still feels, and with every blast of the harmonica, that’s all the more evident.
No. 27 – Reba McEntire, “The Bar’s Getting Lower”
Reba McEntire has always known how to command the drama of her performances and scenes she sketches. Just like with “Cactus In A Coffee Can” before it, “The Bar’s Getting Lower” centers around the concept of time, namely how a woman at a bar finds herself on the wrong end of ageism and long-lost dreams. And considering the character here also watches how time and falling expectations have left such a long shadow on her past, it’s another testament to how well McEntire imbues her characters with relatable personalities.
No. 26 – Dee White, “Rose Of Alabam” (from Southern Gentleman)
For someone so young in his career to write something as excellent as “Rose Of Alabam” signals a very promising future for Dee White. Right away, the smoky piano and pedal steel licks matched against minor chords gives an air of regret to this tale of infidelity. And the metaphors for the cheating are woven in excellently – subtle, but still able to sketch out the full situation. White may still have to grow into himself as a vocalist, but his rugged delivery helps accentuate that feeling of regret for his actions
No. 25 – Emily Scott Robinson, “Shoshone Rose”
“Shoshone Rose” swings heavy in its composition from the start, leaning heavily on the sweeping, tense desert atmosphere, ponderous bass and fantastic galloping acoustics to add tension to the story. And that’s before the story even begins – a Native American revenge story where the woman seeks justice for more than just the oppression of her land, bolstered by how excellent Robinson is at continuously fleshing out her songs and making sure a moment is never wasted.
No. 24 – Randy Houser, “Evangeline” (from Magnolia)
I’m still not wild about the “baby, let’s get a little two-lane crazy” line, but this has to be one of Randy Houser’s richest songs in years. All of Magnolia felt like a return to Houser’s roots, both geographically and stylistically, as “Evangeline” just sounds southern. From the soft, earthy piano supporting the melody to the bluesier electric guitar and swell of organ, it’s a simultaneous power ballad and exercise of restraint all in one. More than that, though, Houser is finally using his tremendous voice to his advantage with “Evangeline.”
No. 23 – Georgette Jones, “Cigarettes and You (w/ Dale Watson)”
“Cigarettes and You” is one of those warm, familiar kind of songs that reminds me why I love country music. Georgette Jones is an impressive vocal talent, and Dale Watson hasn’t exuded this much warmth in a performance in years. And when the destruction both characters face in the wake of their separation cuts at them equally, it’s a devastatingly grim picture. They’re too hurt to live without each other, but will likely tear themselves down even further anyway with their addiction issues.
No. 22 – Shane Smith & the Saints, “Little Bird”
What made Hail Mary such an enthralling listen was that Shane Smith & the Saints weren’t afraid to aim for higher dramatic stakes. “Little Bird” is a fairly standard “aftermath of a relationship” song, and yet front man Shane Smith sings with one of the mightiest performances of his career. And the metaphor of comparing this woman to a bird who flew away makes all the more sense considering that, for the most part, Smith often plays the role of the weary journeyman who never settles down on Hail Mary. The most heartbreaking part is that both souls are rambling spirits, and yet she took off before she got the chance to see that.
No. 21 – Lauren Jenkins, “No Saint”
“No Saint” may keep it short for its verses, but the biting sentiment is never lost. For as much as Lauren Jenkins is angry at her ex-partner for whatever he did, the sentiment shown is often a tired frustration with herself. Something as seemingly simple as finding forgiveness in that situation is what she grapples with, and she’s aware of how much that says about her, too. Yet “No Saint” is mostly captured in a moment relatable to many, where even if the smoke will clear eventually, it’s hard to find the strength to move on for just a small point in time.
No. 20 – The Steel Woods, “Without You”
You can’t really always know what little details the Steel Woods will throw your way. From the opening skittering riff and ominous presence, Wes Bayliss howls at his friend to not fall off the wagon over seeing an ex-partner move on with her life. And yet for as forceful as he is, it might seem unhealthy if the dramatic stakes weren’t there. But then there’s that line at the end, “oh you’ve broken the mirror and now you can’t look at yourself. Oh, but if you could, you would see me and I’m asking for help,” revealing he was locked in a mental tug-of-war with himself all along. Brilliantly crafted and constantly filled with tension, “Without You” never slows down once.
No. 19 – Ian Noe, “Letter To Madeline” (from Between The Country)
The beauty of Ian Noe’s Between The Country is in its construction – barren folklore tunes that often don’t have happy endings, and “Letter To Madeline” may be the saddest of all. In a general sense, a region in decay stands as a backdrop that never fades and always seems to linger on in the minds of Noe’s characters. Here, an outlaw banker dies in a high speed chase just trying to survive, not for himself, but for the titular character, his lover. Like with most of Between The Country, there’s a strong sense of moral ambiguity, but leave it Noe to craft a compelling story anyway.
No. 18 – Alice Wallace, “Echo Canyon” (from Into the Blue)
Into the Blue saw Alice Wallace in rare vocal form, with “Echo Canyon” being the chilling highlight. As Wallace finds herself thrown from her horse to face the frigid night ahead, she cultivates a dark, foreboding atmosphere only furthered bolstered by her fantastic yodeling. And with the careening pedal steel and dark, warping smolder, it’s one of many songs on Into the Blue that blended a solid foundation with an impeccable performance.
No. 17 – Reba McEntire, “The Clown”
Again, one of Reba McEntire’s greatest assets has always been her flair for dramatic stakes and how she uses them to her advantage. “The Clown” sees her getting publicly dumped in a bar, and coming from an album that shows her capturing a moment in time, this one hits particularly hard for its level of detail. Yet for as much as she stops to look around and understand how lonely and desperate she feels in that situation, the greater focus is knowing those chances need to be taken to find love again. And if either the content or McEntire’s devastating performance wasn’t enough, that melancholic, skittering piano melody truly captures the sadness of the event.
No. 16 – Flatland Cavalry, “Come Back Down” (from Homeland Insecurity)
I’m fairly certain this was the first great song I heard this year. If there’s any reason for that, it’s for the sheer creativity packed into “Come Back Down,” another tale of a prodigal son coming home that constantly shifts perspective. From the mother who’s just happy to see her son home, the brother who learns to forgive and forget, and then to the lost soul who can’t help but be shocked that everything’s back to normal for him, it all comes full circle. And then there’s the dual meaning of the hook – how “come back down” can symbolize his literal return home and his return to find himself and step off his high horse. Plus, there’s the descending hook that you might say … wait for it … comes back down; It’s an exercise in excellent songwriting, both lyrically and in technical form.
No. 15 – Ben Jarrell, “Daddy’s Prison Radio” (from Troubled Times)
Odd as it may sound, one of the best vocal performances of the year stems from a mostly spoken song. “Daddy’s Prison Radio” reads as Ben Jarrell sitting down with someone and unfurling a painful confession and narration of his relationship with his father – marred by his father’s criminal past, yet not completely broken, if only because his father never stopped loving him. Jarrell is the key to it all, delivering a performance insinuating the regret felt not being able to see him again, yet uncomfortable at the thought of standing up for him, given the people he hurt along the way. Still, that distance between them here is likely for the best, and even if Jarrell can’t bring himself to outright forgive his father, he’s hoping to ease his mind by singing through that prison radio to him. Painful, detailed to an uncomfortable degree and delivered excellently, “Daddy’s Prison Radio” is a long-gone country classic.
No. 14 – Gabe Lee, “Last Country Song”
The song may try to be cliché, but that’s what makes it so great. The gradual thematic arc of farmland saw Gabe Lee grapple with the natural fears of growing older and understanding responsibility and love; “Last Country Song” saw him trying to complete the sequence, at least to a certain extent. Lee is optimistic, yet throws just enough caution in his performance to turn that titular hook into a subtly desperate beg rather than a joke. And given how honest he is with his faults not just here, but on the entire album, it’s easy to root for a happy ending. Now let’s just hope Lee isn’t actually done making country songs.
No. 13 – Ryan Bingham, “Wolves” (from American Love Song)
American Love Song is a messy, overlong project, but it houses one of Ryan Bingham’s best songs yet. For as quiet and understated as “Wolves” is, it’s Bingham reaching into the darkest depths of his past to address how childhood bullying shaped his rugged outlook on life. Musically, there’s not much to “Wolves,” but the interplay of the jangled acoustic guitar and mandolin provides somewhat of a cathartic solo by its end, and it’s easily one of Bingham’s most revealing moments on record.
No. 12 – Charles Wesley Godwin, “Windmill (Keep On Turning)” (from Seneca)
As the opener to Seneca, “Windmill (Keep On Turning)” kicks things off with one hell of an adrenaline rush. The song builds tension as it progresses, starting with that memorable riff before bringing in sludgy harmonica play and Godwin’s thunderous delivery. As the opener, too, it’s the first look at Godwin’s world, toiling away in West Virginia where factories are closing down and the general outlook on the economy is bleak. As is the theme of Seneca, though, there’s a danger and beauty to the land around him, inspiring respect and reverence for its harshness. Of course, it’s not the only song on the album to showcase that, but as said before, it’s a fantastic introduction to Godwin’s mindset and homeland.
No. 11 – The Steel Woods, “Rock That Says My Name”
Leave it to the Steel Woods to turn a song about impending doom into a stomping, kickass time. Of course, front man Wes Bayliss certainly isn’t selling it that way; he’s an old caretaker who’s probably seen too much in his time, and for every grave he digs, he spends his time pondering when it’ll be his turn to rest. For as morbid as it is, though, there’s a sense of general content that comes in knowing he’s already payed for past regrets, and with the stomping, crunchy swagger of the guitar tones that transitions into a melancholic fiddle outro, it’s a fitting sendoff to an awesome song.
No. 10 – Jason Hawk Harris, “Grandfather”
Love & the Dark is an album that requires explaining the appropriate context for its individual songs. “Grandfather” finds Jason Hawk Harris caught in some dream or vision of the afterlife; ironic, given his shaky relationship with faith on the album. But Harris intentionally never delves into the specifics of the situation. If anything, he has as many questions as we do, seeing visions of his grandfather who assures him his mother, a central focus of the album, is free from the pain that took her down. Harris’ delivery is frenetic, capturing the lost sense of wonder and possible excitement of an afterlife, and that’s before the song ends in a near-cinematic finish – a flurry of beautiful piano, strings and possibly the best use of xylophone ever heard in a song. I’d call it powerful, but even that feels like an understatement.
No. 9 – The Infamous Stringdusters, “Planets” (from Rise Sun)
Not that it isn’t a nice sentiment, but when artists sang about themes of unity this year, the messages often fell just on the wrong side of cloying and mawkish. In that case, I’m still not sure why “Planets” connected with me on such a rare level. In a larger sense, Travis Books’ commanding performance is one of his best yet, and that’s on top of the warm minor chords and progressions of the fiddle and dobro that allow for a track with meatier stakes. And the moment the crescendo kicks in before that chorus, allowing for that rollicking groove to ride off the hook, it’s an excellent display of instrumental prowess. In other words, “Planets” knew how to capture the call-to-action drama of the situation, and it just may be the best song in the Infamous Stringdusters’ discography yet.
No. 8 – Erin Enderlin, “Broken” (from Faulkner County)
Admittedly, it feels a bit awkward putting a two-year-old song here, especially when the recording is the exact same as before. But considering Faulkner County felt like a true critical breakthrough for Erin Enderlin this year, I’m not about to complain when an excellent song gets a second chance to catch on. And “Broken” never lets up with its achingly sad story – a showcase of how abuse and neglect turns into a vicious cycle of broken children turning into equally broken parents. And even if the two parents here make the right call in giving up their baby for adoption, it’s a cutting moment knowing they don’t want to do it. For as excellent of a songwriter as Enderlin is, she’s just as great at capturing the power of a performance.
No. 7 – Emily Scott Robinson, “The Dress”
To be honest, I debated a long time whether or not to put this song on this list. I mean, how does one rank someone else’s pain on what is supposed to be a celebratory list? And considering Emily Scott Robinson is unflinchingly honest through her characters on Traveling Mercies, “The Dress,” told from her own perspective, is the album’s most uncomfortable listen. Simply put, while it’s a short listen, “The Dress” is one of the most heartbreaking stories of mental and emotional recovery from sexual assault ever, with no moment wasted. And there’s no escaping Robinson when she’s at the front of the mix, baring her soul and making sure her words hit on the deepest possible level.
No. 6 – Robert Ellis, “Father” (from Texas Piano Man)
Robert Ellis has always been an eccentric character through his albums, and “Father” allows him to showcase that personality in a different way. As Ellis finally meets the father who abandoned him when he was too young to know him, he’s relentless in his barrage of questions. Yet Ellis is more interested in piecing together old memories he’s seen in photographs and understanding if his alcoholism is related to his father, in turn giving listeners all the details they need to know about why the father left. And perhaps it’s that sense of empathy that keeps Ellis grounded – depressed enough to know it’s too late to piece their own memories together, yet forgiving enough to see why things happened the way they did. There’s no word wasted here, and it’s one of the most gutting listens in Ellis’ discography thus far.
No. 5 – Charles Wesley Godwin, “Seneca Creek”
Alongside the obvious nod in the title, “Seneca Creek” stands as a grand thesis statement for Seneca – a full story that follows two young lovers living in harsh conditions all the way through to their end. The connection to the album in general is maintaining peace and solace in spite of adversity. But there’s a general loneliness to “Seneca Creek,” where the perspective shifts from two young kids working hard to achieve their dreams to a widower watching it all fade in the distance. And for as muted and crushing as Godwin’s delivery is in that role, the other connection to the album’s larger theme is maintaining a sense of optimism. Everything’s gone, and he’s set to join her in death soon, but they built the life they’d always wanted. As always, Godwin is an impeccable storyteller, and it’s the level of detail and progression that makes “Seneca Creek” a sobering listen.
No. 4 – Charles Wesley Godwin, “Here In Eden”
I’ll admit “Here In Eden” isn’t the most obvious pick for a standout on Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca, but it’s the one that stuck most with me every listen. If Seneca is a love letter to Godwin’s home of West Virginia, “Here In Eden” finds the thematic arc come full circle. Godwin’s tone is reverent, but also stern toward those who don’t take the land’s simultaneous danger and beauty seriously. And the tension never fades with that minor acoustic riff, hinting that, while Godwin is aware of the dangerous conditions and harshness of the land, he’s also aware that nothing worth holding onto comes easy.
No. 3 – Steel Blossoms, “Revenge” (from Steel Blossoms)
On paper, the concept of a dead spouse coming back to haunt their partner could potentially be humorous. But the most disturbing element of the Steel Blossoms’ “Revenge” is just how much is revealed with every line that unfurls. The cry of that sinister fiddle points to a character who died after years of mental and physical abuse, and the thump of the drum beat always seems to suggest something malicious is lurking around the corner. “Revenge” builds its tensions through restraint, reliant mostly on Hayley Prosser’s chilling performance, Sara Zebley’s lower harmony for added emphasis and letting the torment linger as long as possible. As they say here, revenge is sweet in the afterlife, and “Revenge” is also wildly creative by letting the subtext of its message soar.
No. 2 – Austin Meade, “Waves”
It’s better to establish “Waves” in the context of the album (of the same name) it stems from – one final blow to Austin Meade before everything comes crashing down. Whereas most of Waves is downbeat and gives Meade a chance to catch his breath and assess his situation, the title track is hard-charged, unforgiving and, as the final track of the album, finds Meade almost literally at the end of his rope. From the pummeling drums and cascading guitars, Meade takes all of life’s beatings, sees the storm brewing and braces for the worst. The lyrical content lacks a tight focus, but that’s the point – Meade’s grappling with many conflicts in his mind, from losing a lover, falling out with a friend and questioning how much of it is his fault due to not having time to maintain those relationships from living life on the road. It’s a relatable song for anyone caught in the throes of a conflict that only gets worse, but like he says, “I hold my ground until the come down goes away.” He’s beaten, but like with many situations on Waves, he’ll survive somehow.
No. 1 – Billy Strings, “Away From The Mire” (from HOME)
Billy Strings’ songs are usually up to interpretation, and even he’ll admit that. For me, “Away From The Mire” came to be an anthem of personal hope in 2019. As Strings tries his hardest to move on from a past argument that haunts him, the focus on “Away From The Mire” is both acceptance and closure. I’d be remiss not to mention that “Away From The Mire” is more of a poetic retelling of the situation with some higher dramatic stakes thrown in over anything else, but that’s its appeal. Specific enough to obviously carry a special meaning for Strings, yet written with an anthemic scope for anyone looking for the strength and courage to just move on from a past mistake, “Away From The Mire” is a grand epic that, despite stretching nearly eight minutes, never carries a moment wasted. And yes, that comment extends toward the climactic solo of the song, where the electric guitar keeps equal time with the fiddle and banjo to give this bluegrass tune the bones of an arena rock anthem before ending as it began. It feels lazy to describe a song by “feeling” over its technical moments, but no other song in 2019 hit this kind of emotional high, nor did any other song feature characters find the courage to start anew, rather than toil away in the mire.