A song can change a life, and a song can change the world. And if you’re a real music fan, you know this to be true because you’ve felt it, and seen it yourself. We’re not looking for fanciful ditties that get stuck in your head here. There is a time and a place for those, but that’s not here. We’re looking for songs that barrel you over, that make grown ass men weep, that make you take stock of yourself and your world, that work like guideposts on your life’s timeline when you came to some important realization and were made a better person for it.
Lots has been made at Saving Country Music about the lack of truly excellent albums in the last 18 months or so, with some exceptions of course. The same can not be said for songs however, especially in 2016. If anything, the level of quality songs has only gone up, which leaves us with some downright masterpieces that we somehow have to sift through and choose which one is the best.
As was said prefacing the Album of the Year candidates, this is an exercise that is not meant to exclude anyone, and only represents the opinion of Saving Country Music. The point of picking a Song of the Year is not to pit art against art, but to hopefully expose more people to more quality music that may enact some change in their lives.
Your opinion is not only welcome, it is encouraged to be shared in the comments section, including who you think should win, and your suggestions of your song or songs of the year. This is not an up or down vote however. Vote volume is considered, but your job is to convince us all of why your opinion is correct, to hopefully rigorously vet out the eventual victor.
If we’re clear on the rules, touch gloves and come out swinging.
Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers – “Dry Up or Drown”
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. 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)
Justin Wells – “The Dogs”
Isn’t it interesting how somehow losing can result in our greatest inspiration, and ultimately give rise to our greatest work. There’s something about getting kicked when you’re down the brings out the best in people. It took Justin Wells virtually quitting music to find his purest voice, and maybe his widest recognition. This may be a song about underdogs and losers, but it also might be the top dog of the 2016 pack.
From Justin’s album Dawn in the Distance.
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.
Lucinda Williams – “Dust”
Many artist attempt to instill their music with dark or disturbing sentiments, but I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a more disturbing and true lyric than the one at the heart of “Dust.” We’re told to cherish our thoughts and memories because they can’t be replaced by money and we can take them with us when our times comes, but ultimately we don’t know that to be true. This fear really comes into form when you see the toll memory loss takes on the elderly. Lucinda says something we all settle upon when we’re troubled of mind, and with such haunting truth that it stoves right to your bones. Yet at the same time there’s a strange solace you find when hearing this simple idea spoken.
The fact that Lucinda is still writing songs of this power in her career speaks to her singular gift of insight through songwriting.
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)
Karen Jonas – “Wasting Time”
It’s amazing that you can happen upon a song like this, and it’s just sitting out there undiscovered by the masses. “Wasting Time” is one of those songs you can’t believe isn’t a cover the first time you hear it. The melody is so perfect, the lyrics are so true, surely in this retrodden world someone has done it before. But no, this is all Karen Jonas. It’s a song that if there was any sanity or righteousness in the world, some massively popular artist would scoop it up and make it a timeless classic of the modern era. Or, it’s strength would make a massive star out of Karen Jonas.
And no, it’s not some hard country song, but there are plenty of those on Karen Jonas’ Country Songs album.
Erik Dylan – “Fishin’ Alone”
Dealing with loss is never a bad idea for the premise of a song when you want to get deep, but doing it in a way that captures the true essence of that emotion is something even the strongest songwriters struggle with. Many times it’s not just the enormity of the loss that hits us, it’s those little things we do and see, those everyday moments that make us realize that loved one is no longer there that add up to eternal heartbreak. Doing something you cherished with a loved one for so many years, and now having to do it alone is the moment Erik Dylan captures exquisitely in this song.
Matt Woods – “The American Way”
Trump may not be the answer, but who would question that the American dream is laying on the dirty floor of an abandoned building in shambles for so many in America’s great forgotten middle? Songwriters like Matt Woods, BJ Barham, and a select few others seem especially equipped to put those downtrodden sentiments to song and somehow make you crave to listen to them even though it makes you hurt and angry. This former Saving Country Music Song of the Year winner turns in another track worthy of top distinction off his latest record How to Survive, and the timing couldn’t be better.
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.
If you want to check out an expanded list of some of the best songs of the year, as well songs from many of the Album of the Year candidates, check out Saving Country Music’s “Best of 2016” Spotify Playlist, and make sure to follow Saving Country Music on Spotify for future playlists.