As was said in reference to the Best Albums of 2016 So Far, it has been fairly slim pickings for the first part of the year for finding music that really touches the heart, and has the fortitude to last beyond the calendar year. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, and 2016 already boasts a number of serious, gut-punching songs that will likely go on to contend for the Song of the Year in December.
One thing 2016 has been good for is some great music videos to coincide with these great songs. In 2015, Saving Country Music suspended its regular rundown of the best videos due to a weak field. 2016 has already topped 2015 when it comes to videos with impact, including one for a Song of the Year contender, “Dry Up of Drown” by Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers.
We’re not looking for songs here that are just enjoyable or catchy. There is a time and place for those songs as well, but Songs of the Year contenders have to make you feel something. As always, your own suggestions and observations of the best songs so far in 2016 are welcome in the comments section below.
Brandy Clark – “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven”
2016 has been an incredible year for loss and tragedy in country music and beyond, and we regularly turn to music as a remedy for the pain. But instead of trying to take a soothing, comforting approach to deal with losing a loved one, Brandy Clark portrays the cutting reality of how life seems to fall apart around us when we lose someone close to us, causing the grief to compound upon itself, and sometimes plummeting life into a downward spiral that in some cases never seems to end.
But instead of reeling you deeper in depression, what “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” does is articulate how hurting and struggling to get straight with life is something most everybody suffers with, which creates its own healing through wisdom and commiseration. Adding to it the all-too-common narrative of general economic struggles, and the very personal perspective of a child losing their parent, “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” has a message most everyone can identify with.
Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers – “Dry Up or Drown”
*Also Best Video contender
Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers released a song and video that delicately, yet accurately portrays the devastation river communities face, and how even when the flood waters subside, things are never the same. From the small community of McClure, Illinois—right on the banks of the Mississippi—Even Webb looked to capture the despondency of living in a dying town. When the Mississippi overran its banks once again earlier this year, life imitated art.
The video for “Dry Up or Drown” was shot in McLure (pop. 400) and the greater Alexander County area, and takes real life footage of the recent flooding to match with Evan Webb’s poignant portrayal of life in a flood plain.
The images are powerful enough. Shot by Reginald, it shows the true life destruction floods can cause, with homes surrounded by water, and the double yellow lines of roads descending into swamped out landscapes where little hope seems to remain. Yet it’s the true life lines of the song like “Hope left here on a prison bus. Guess this town ain’t good enough for the worst of us” about the recent closing of the nearby Tamms Correctional Facility that really set the loss of community the song and video look to portray into stark perspective. (read full review)
Austin Lucas (feat. Lydia Loveless) – “Wrong Side of the Dream”
We are all the products of broken dreams. There are thousands of politicians, but only one can be President. There are 30 major league baseball teams, but only one can win the World Series, while thousands of players dedicate their entire lives to playing baseball, but never even make it to the big leagues. Scores of musicians travel the country making music, but only a select few get to make a decent living at it, and many times it isn’t the ones who work the hardest, or have the greatest wealth of talent.
There is no shortage of songs about broken dreams, and for good reason. From childhood we are instilled with this idyllic sense that whatever we dream, we can do, and told to let nothing stop us. But for every dream realized, there are thousands that are not. What makes Austin Lucas’s “Wrong Side of the Dream” so unique is beyond the excellent composition of the track and Lydia Loveless’s harmonies, is how the song offers a different perspective on an all-to-common theme. It’s one thing to have a dream shattered. It’s a whole other issue to be juxtaposed on the opposite end of it, where glimmers of hope will never let it completely die and allow you to move on. Making the song even more injurious is that you know it’s coming straight from the real life struggles of Austin himself.
Parker Millsap – “Heaven Sent”
You almost have to remind yourself to regard Millsap as a songwriter too while listening to The Very Last Day, but that’s not hard to do when he broadsides you with the cutting “Heaven Sent.” Taking a slight detour off the blues trail, Millsap calls upon his experiences in the devout Pentecostal environment to tell the story of a preacher’s son who is in conflict with himself and his father because of his sexual preference.
It’s so often that the sons and daughters of preachers and others who grow up in devoutly religious households become embittered and angst-filled about religion later in life. Sometimes these sentiments go on to define them as people, or artists, and sometimes it does so to their detriment. This was a slightly underlying concern when Parker’s “Truckstop Gospel” took off. Was he trying to tell an entertaining story about a funny character, or was he mocking the church in his own sly manner? “Heaven Sent” convolutes this question even more as Parker is willing to use story to expose hypocrisy on an issue that also carries political implications. It’s a little risky, especially when “Heaven Sent,” just like “Truckstop Gospel,” could be so defining of Parker’s career from the quality of the effort.
Parker Millsap does not come across as the wildly rebellious, angry, and judgemental preacher’s kid in total, though many of his songs, like the title track of this album, draw from his own religious experiences. But will that be how he is defined by religious listeners of a touchy nature, or will they heed the deeper message Parker is trying to convey, or just enjoy the music for its aesthetic value defined by his dynamic blues voice and good storytelling? (from the review of The Very Last Day)
Ryan Scott Travis – “Someday”
It’s hard to put into words how ell composed this song is.
Other Notable Songs:
- Jeff Shepherd and the Jailhouse Poets – “Son”
- Dori Freeman – “Go On Lovin'”
- Dori Freeman – “You Say”
- The Cactus Blossoms – “Change Your Ways or Die”
Best Video Contenders:
Lew Card – “Condo Town Rag”
Gentrification within America’s artistic communities and entertainment corridors is one of the greatly overlooked and fundamentally underlying reasons that music and other artistic expressions are under siege in the modern age. Affordable housing and friendly, inspiring environs are as significant of factors into the fostering of of the creative process as anything. The two major epicenters for American country and roots music—Nashville, TN and Austin, TX—are both going through eerily similar and equally sweeping changes to their urban landscapes, and it’s affecting the music directly.
Lew Card took his song “Condo Town Rag” and teamed up with Seymour.tv to create a brilliant depiction of how when a city’s identity changes, so do our memories and sense of home and place. Using historical photos matched up with modern-day perspectives, it shows the troubling way the Austin skyline has been retooled in recent years by people who move there to take advantage of the artistic community, but ultimately become the catalyst for its demise. (read full review)
Chris Stapleton – “Fire Away”
Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away” is wetting tissues and disturbing workdays all across the country with its candid and gripping portrayal of suicide and mental illness in the see-saw world of a bipolar reality. We already had a good sense that Stapleton’s “Fire Away” was about heartbreak, but the heartbreak portrayed in the video directed by Tim Mattia takes it to an entirely new level. The manic, then depressive moods are evidenced with biting, ghostly accuracy in a well-crafted short where Stapleton plays a bartender early on, and then lets the professionals do the rest. It’s hard not to get pulled in as the drama unfolds from the very real recollections we most all have of when mental illness resulted in tragedy in our own lives.
Fearlessly the “Fire Away” video meets a very real issue head on—an issue that seems to have no governor on who it affects: rich and poor, men and women, and individuals from stable homes with ample love, concern, and attention surrounding them. It also delves into how even the purest love can be a flimsy firewall for the destabilizing, and sometimes catastrophic effects of mental illness, and re-imagines the trope of the first responder having to come to grips as personal and professional lives collide. (read full review)