Infinite apologies if you came here looking for your next favorite boot scooter, because that’s not what Song of the Year is all about. There will be a Single of the Year category coming up too. But what we’re looking for here is the most unabashedly slow and sentimental sad bastard songs possible—songs that make you feel miserable, but in the most transformational way to where you’re a changed person after listening, with greater insight into this life.
Though these songs must fit into the greater roots music catalog, genre isn’t as important as emotional impact, and elaborate writing. A Song of the Year nominees doesn’t have to be slow and sparse, but it certainly helps.
PLEASE NOTE: Just because a song isn’t listed here doesn’t mean it’s being snubbed or forgotten. Picking the best songs of a given year is always even more personal and subjective than with the best albums. We’re not looking to pit songs and songwriters against each other, we’re looking to combine our collective perspectives and opinions into a pool of musical knowledge for the benefit of everyone.
By all means, if you have a song or a list of songs you think are the best of 2022 and want to share, please do so in the comments section below. Feedback will factor into the final tabulations for the winner, but this is not an up and down vote. Try to convince us who you think should win, and why.
Wade Bowen with Vince Gill – “A Guitar, a Singer, and a Song”
Songwriters: Wade Bowen, Lori McKenna
Apropos to commencing a discussion about the impact of songs on all of our lives is this stunner of a well-written song, co-authored by Lori McKenna and featuring Vince Gill. Like McKenna and Gill, Wade Bowen is one of the good guys in country music who whenever he picks up his guitar, hopes to leave the world a little bit better of a place when he puts it back down. Putting that philosophy in a song that all of us lay citizens cannot only understand, but find as enriching as any story set to song takes an entirely other set of meta songwriting superpowers.
“The whole point of doing what we do is to not be forgotten, to try to leave a mark on the world with a guitar and with your songs and with your voice,” says Wade Bowen. “We don’t think about it until we get a couple decades into our career: ‘Have I done enough that people will remember me?’”
This song from Bowen’s album Somewhere Between The Secret and the Truth will be very hard to forget.
Tommy Prine – “Ships in the Harbor”
Songwriter: Tommy Prine
Anyone who’s studied country and roots music over the years knows how important pedigree can be, and doesn’t need to be sold on the importance of the songwriting legacy of John Prine. The music legend died in 2020 at the age of 73, but his memory lives on through his music and his label Oh Boy Records. It will also live on through his son, who with the release of his debut single, immediately started a promising songwriting career charting a legacy all his own.
You hear that processing of grief at the death of his father in Tommy Prine’s “Ships in the Harbor.” With a poetic grace that doesn’t need a famous name to be compelling, Tommy exquisitely encapsulates how all the happiness and grace in life—however enjoyable—is invariably fleeting. From the warmth of seeing a bluebird perched on a fence, to the unconditional love of a father, eventually it will go away due to the rhythms of life. As much as “Ships in the Harbor” is a lament on inevitability, it’s also a lesson to enjoy the sweet moments of life while we’re in the midst of them. (read review)
Anna Tivel – “Heroes”
Songwriter: Anna Tivel
When you’re looking for the most potent and gifted of today’s songwriters, Portland, Oregon’s Anna Tivel deserves inclusion in that camp right beside the James McMurtry’s and John Moreland’s of the music world. Though not as well-known or venerated as others—at least not yet—she’s proven in the past to be worthy of being enumerated among that elite class. And with her new album, Outsiders, Anna Tivel codifies that assessment, while offering cunning antidotes to the societal ailments plaguing the here and now.
“Heroes” takes a gripping and merciless assessment of the decay of influences and mentors, which is especially relevant in the realm of music. “Your heroes grow unruly. They overdose or just leave. Their lives are fucked up movies. And you’ve studied every one,” Anna Tivel sings, with the important observation of how the same mistakes get conferred from one generation to the next.
Her song “Black Umbrella” also from Outsiders deserves honorable mention.
Courtney Patton – “Casualty”
Songwriter: Courtney Patton
Those intimately familiar with the music of Courtney Patton will need no coaxing to be convinced of why a selection from her new album Electrostatic is being included in the topmost class of songs for 2022. Her extraordinary songwriting along with the organic and grassroots way she approaches her career has created a personal connection with her fans both in her home of Texas, and in listening rooms well far beyond.
If you want to know how to successfully accomplish an emotional crescendo in a song, study “Casualty” intently with the way the melody and writing resolves in a “moment,” the words fold unto each other to reveal their wisdom, and how the harmonies seem to be sung an octave too high at first to eventually reveal themselves as perfect. It all make for a song that stays resonating in your soul well after the last note.
Willi Carlisle – “Tulsa’s Last Magician”
Songwriter: Willi Carlisle
Those who’ve seen this whimsical and enthralling folk country storyteller from Arkansas in person will swear by the natural showmanship he exudes, the enchantment of the old traditional songs and tall tales he unearths, and the magnetism of the original songs he composes. Carlisle is like few things you will experience in music. His songs are strongly literary with rich characters, and his delivery is deeply compelling. And whether he gets you to laughing, crying, feeling unsettled, or infinitely satisfied, Carlisle always leaves a lasting impression.
The soul and authenticity inherent in Willi Carlisle’s music is emblematic in the song “Tulsa’s Last Magician” inspired after hanging out with a group of magicians in Florida, and exploring the idea of a decaying occupation. The recorded single is compelling enough. But seeing the imposing but gentle 6’4″ Willi Carlisle perform the song via Western AF really exemplifies the magic of Willi Carlisle.
Adeem The Artist – “Middle of a Heart”
Songwriter: Kyle Bingham (Adeem the Artist)
We’re all instilled with a set of values (or lack thereof) and a range of habits through our upbringing, which like a pebble cast into still water, reverberate outwardly through the unfolding of our lives. Though the ratio of nature vs. nurture is different for everyone, nurture is always there looking to express itself, or to be suppressed, including a reverence (or lack thereof) for life.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of “Middle of a Heart”—and one that unfortunately isn’t shared by all the songs on Adeem’s the Artist’s album White Trash Revelry—is that Adeem leaves the moral of the song up for interpretation. Adeem tells the story, sketches the lines, and lets the personal lineage and upbringing of the individual audience member color them in. Adeem draws a perfect circle—or bullseye if you will—and then takes their best shot at not stopping a heart, but changing one through the work of music.
John Fullbright – “Stars”
Songwriter: John Fullbright
In an industry full of egomaniacs, phonies, and viper Capitalists, it’s kind of refreshing to happen upon a reluctant and conflicted performer who seems almost embarrassed to proffer up music for your listening pleasure. Prone to social anxiety and seemingly outright repulsed at the idea of fame, John Fullbright nonetheless becomes ferocious force of nature when he sits down in front of a piano, evidenced in the composition and performance of “Stars.”
Gripped by the mortifying fear of our own mortality in the quietest and most lonely moments of our lives, we are also often afforded the most infinite wisdom and insight ever endowed to man. Religious, yet ambiguous enough to be universal, “Stars” is the ultimate reassurance upon man’s most diabolically vexing question.
Caroline Spence – “Scale These Walls”
Songwriter: Caroline Spence
Caroline Spence continues her run of critically excellent albums full of exquisitely-crafted and beautiful songs, validating how criminally under-the-radar she continues to be compared to the quality and resonance of her music, making as strong of a case as ever for herself in her latest distinctive effort called True North. A true Americana artist who resists the urge to get too freaky or too preachy to meet arbitrary trends of the day, Spence instead just focuses on writing and performing emotionally impactful songs, and letting the music speak for itself in a refreshingly unpretentious manner.
With the steel guitar mimicking the tugging of heart strings, “Scale These Walls” is Caroline Spence admitting to the building of emotional barriers, but only for them to be compromised by someone who cares enough to win her heart, resulting in a come hither message, but one as complex as actual human relationships.
Ian Noe – “Ballad of a Retired Man”
Songwriter: Ian Noe
The intensity of the writing and delivery of an Ian Noe song is virtually unparalleled. Part Dylan and Prine, part hillbilly from the dark holler, his new album River Fools and Mountain Saints underscores this virile brew of influences.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire record is born off the simple, fingerpicked melody and background organ of “Ballad of a Retired Man,” where a Vietnam vet and former road worker resolves himself to his fate in a way that makes us all ponder our mortality and the passage of time in an inescapably unsettling, but still strangely gorgeous and inviting manner.
It should take a lifetime of living to compose a song like “Ballad of a Retired Man.” For Ian Noe, it only took 30 years, and his second record.
Tami Neilson with Willie Nelson – “Beyond The Stars”
Songwriters: Tami Neilson, Delaney Davidson
Giving you chills bumps from the eerie similarities to Patsy Cline—of whom Willie Nelson wrote the iconic song “Crazy” for—with just a hint of Marty Robbins as well with its Western wind-swept air and Countrypolitan approach, “Beyond The Stars” was inspired by the passing of Tami Neilson’s dad, who was also her musical mentor in the family band she grew up performing in. Neilson debuted the song with Willie at his annual Luck Reunion in Luck, TX in March, where the video for the song was also shot.
“Beyond The Stars” works to help remedy all loss, giving hope for a reunification someday in the future in the eternal dwelling of the cosmos. It’s a sweet message delivered via the soaring voice of Tami Neilson, and the timeless tones of Willie’s guitar Trigger.
- Kendell Marvell – “Hell Bent on Hard Times”
- American Aquarium – “The First Year” and “Waking Up the Echoes”
- Arlo McKinley – “Stealing Dark from the Night Sky”
- Ryan Culwell – “Colorado Blues”
- Lyle Lovett – “12th of June”
- Kaitlin Butts – “jackson”
- 49 Winchester – “Russell County Line”
- Sunny Sweeney – “Married Alone”
- Ashley McBryde, Benjy Davis – “Gospel Night at the Strip Club”