Every year this list stirs a little controversy because people misunderstand that these are not supposed to be the songs you “like” the best, but instead is supposed to be compositions in a given year that have the most impact.
They’re songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself. This year, I may put out a list of “singles” that would better represent the lighter side of the music. But the Song of the Year is reserved for those few compositions that have the ability to change lives and to change the world.
Some of the songs that find themselves on the outside looking in, but are still excellent and worth your ear include virtually any track on both Chris Knight’s Little Victories album and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. The problem with putting out an album where every song is great is trying to pick the best one. If it wasn’t for Tom Morello’s guitar solo, Shooter Jennings’ “The Long Road Ahead” would have made it, and the only reason why Shooter’s”Daddy’s Hands” didn’t is because of this year’s strength of the competition.
A couple of other oddball considerations that almost made it were T. Junior’s “Man in Gray” and Sara Watkins’ song of epic sadness, “When It Pleases You”.
Normally I’d gab a little bit about each song, but this year the songs are so strong and remarkably each has an excellent video. So except for a few quick notes, I think I will sit back and let the music speak for itself. Vote for your favorite(s) below, and comment feedback will be taken into consideration for the winner.
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man – from Wreck of a Fine Man
About Hank Williams and James Hand. If you’re interested, you can read the story behind “Wreck of a Fine Man”.
McDougall – The Travels of Fredrick Tolls (Part 2) – from A Few Towns More
Justin Townes Earle – Unfortunately, Anna – from Nothing’s Gonna Change…
On my mid year list I included “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from Nothing’s Gonna Change too. The competition is so stiff, it didn’t seem fair to include two songs from the same artist. But if I had, it would have been from Justin Townes Earle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell – Grifter’s Hymnal
There were a few other songs from Grifter’s Hymnal that could have made the cut, but they didn’t call a record executive a “son of a bitch” or quote Martin Luther King.
Billy Don Burns – Stranger -from Nights When I’m Sober
A really powerful one.
Turnpike Troubadours – Good Lord, Lorrie – from Goodbye Normal Street
In my mid year list, I picked “Gone, Gone, Gone” as the standout with “Good Lord, Lorrie” as a runner up. Over time, “Good Lord, Lorrie” has proved to be a timeless song. It’s the “Me & Bobby McGee” of 2012. An excellent use of story.
Sturgill Simpson – Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean
I’ve gone back and forth over the years if I should include songs not released on albums as candidates. This song is just too strong to leave off. I would be lying if I didn’t say this is one of the front runners. (read full review)
Eric Strickland – Drinking Whiskey – from Honky Tonk Till I Die
This song may even be better live.
Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go ‘Round
I admit this song is not perfect. The reason it made the list is because for a song with such a subversive message, it has been performing amazingly well on radio. It is touching a nerve with people from Americana to the mainstream. It is a song about awakening, and it may just awaken some folks to the fact that there’s a whole other world of music out there waiting for them. (read full review)
Olds Sleeper – Bigsky/Flatland – from New Year’s Poem
Last, but certainly not least.
Tom VandenAvond is one of these wheel guys. James Hunnicutt is another. They may not be the flashiest of artists, but when you sit back and study the music, you find these wheel guys are essential to it in so many ways; how everything seems to revolve around them. They are the trunk from which so much other music grows. Trace the veins of the music and you find that their songs and work create foundations and inspiration for so many others.
Just in recent memory VandenAvond’s name could be found on albums by Willy Tea Taylor and Scott McDougall. Some will tell you Larry & His Flask are all grown up from the underground roots world, but here they are once again backing Tom up, just like they did on his last album. The weighty respect other performers and songwriters have for VandenAvond illustrates just how influential his music is.
VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.
Luckily though, VandeAvond had the ridiculous talent pool of Larry & His Flash backing him up on Wreck of a Fine Man. This allows his compositions and brushy voice to be bolstered with magnificent arrangement and instrumentation, displayed no better than on the title track for this album that I truly believe is one of the best songs so far this year. The song “Wreck of a Fine Man” rises to that level from the combination of excellent lyricism and structure from VandenAvond, and the gorgeous harmonic sighs and ascending string lines in the chorus that create a musical mood unmatched.
Another marquee track was “Busted Knuckles”. What VandenAvond does so well is to stencil broken down characters you can believe in when their stories are told through his shaggy voice, and he creates lyrical lines that he calls back on throughout a song to mold a catchy, revolving theme, like he also does in “But, Anyway Now I Gotta Go” and “Where They Say You’ve Been Livin’”. Another great track was “Meet Me At Weber’s Deck” where regardless of your knowledge or participation in the annual summer ritual outside of St. Paul, MN, you can relate to the story of a place to feel comfort and camaraderie.
Even diehard VandenAvond fans must admit that it’s difficult to characterize his music as accessible. He is a hard sell. This isn’t helped by the slight amount of muddiness in this recording, just like some of VandenAvond’s other albums. Tom does not have a stark voice, and doesn’t use sharp lines or a consistent cadence in his phrasing that people are used to. You must get over that and understand this is his style, and that it benefits the music and the broken down themes he sings about. But the recordings can be a little frustrating to the ear, especially because Tom’s words and Larry & His Flask’s arrangements and performances are so spectacular, you want them right out there and clear for you to enjoy. I appreciate the lo-fi approach, but just a little more clarity might have awakened some of the dynamics of these tracks and created a more approachable work.
But the substance is all here, and I can’t help to think of what an impressive song catalog VandenAvond is amassing, which could be pilfered in years to come by bands looking for that deep soul that only the most serious of songwriters can evoke, while at the same time challenging his current songwriting peers to match his substance and depth, promoting a healthier, more vibrant music world than it would rather be without him, for now and into the future.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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