Picking favourite songs of the year turned out to be a little more challenging than I thought – some songs were easy to choose as they connected instantly, others slowly worked themselves into my consciousness after listening over a longer period of time. My only criteria for inclusion on the list was that the songs must appear on albums released in 2017, so any singles from albums released last year or next year were excluded. I have loved so many songs this year – writing the blog has opened my ears to so many amazing artists and it was so hard to decide on only a few but here goes my top twenty, for what it’s worth.
20. Holly Macve – Heartbreak Blues
I love the bruised melancholy of Holly’s music – she sings like no one else around right now and that’s what makes her special. This song updates that Hank Williams heartbreak for the modern world. Pessimism never sounded so good.
19. Lucinda Williams – Driving Down a Dead End Street
This is an old song reworked and remade into one of the most poignant things you’ll hear all year. Maybe we’re all driving down a dead end street but with Lucinda to sing to us with her usual compassion and wisdom somehow it doesn’t feel so desolate.
18. Denai Moore – Does it Get Easier?
This is a slow, soulful heartbreaker about the struggle to survive the normal everyday troubles of life. Moore’s voice is rich and her uncertainty about life actually gives her vulnerable music a core of strength.
17. St Vincent – New York
Sounding both classic and futuristic at the same time this is one of those songs that slowly grows on you until you feel like you’ve been singing along to it all your life. Annie has created this whole album as concept art through a series of stylised and polarising performances. Yet when you just listen without the artifice, she’s as emotionally honest and direct as she’s ever been.
16. Feist – Any Party
Well even miserable goths like myself sometimes appreciate a good love song and the chorus of this is the best one I heard all year.
15. Adia Victoria – Ugly Brown
It might be a cover but this is an original vision from start to finish. Adia takes an old Lee Hazlewood song and transforms it into an eerie evocation of society’s cruel discrimination. The end though is all new, a poetic tribute to a lost friend and a admission that she has nothing left to lose. The future might be bleak but then again that just means it’s a perfect time to sing the blues.
14. Weaves – #53
I love this song and how it just tears the roof off with its stomping beat and brilliantly weird vocals. In a year where classic indie rock was declared ‘too girly’ this is the exact kind of song which shows why that’s something to celebrate.
13. Angaleena Presley – Cheer Up Little Darling
There are so many great songs on this album it is really hard to pick one. As much as I love the biting wit on some of the other tracks I find myself returning often to the sweet sound of Cheer Up Little Darling. Co written with Guy Clark, whose gruff voice can be heard in the opening, it really feels like an instant country classic.
12. Jade Jackson – Finish Line
My favourite song from a hugely underrated album and artist. I love this kind of doom, gothic Americana. Jackson sings of escaping her small town life, bad relationships and how you only really know who you are when you push yourself past the point of no return. Plus the slide guitar on this song sounds as good as I’ve heard on any record this year.
11. Lilly Hiatt – Trinity Lane
My musical sweet spot is right at the point where indie rock and country music meet so discovering Lilly’s music has been a real highlight of this year for me. She takes us by the hand, walks us along her street as though we’re old friends and by the end you really feel like you know where she lives and who she really is. She wants to do better, be better, work harder and keep faith in the future. It’s an inspiring resolve and a kick ass tune too.
10. Valerie June – Got Soul
Here Valerie embraces all her influences and writes an ode to the sweet soul music that’s as much a part of her as country or blues or Americana. I just love the sound of her voice and the distinctive way she sings throughout the whole album but this one feels like the most joyful expression of her unique songwriting talent.
9. Rhiannon Giddens – We Could Fly
Seeing Rhiannon sing this one live was an incredible experience which brought the whole venue to tears, myself included. This song is the story of slaves who invented myths of freedom to give them comfort and hope in their chains. It’s a simple folk ballad but the weight of history makes it soar.
I was delighted to see this appear on a Guardian end of year songs list – although to call it a ‘secret sound you didn’t hear’ is a little presumptuous considering how well received this album has been. I guess sometimes these buried tracks are overlooked when in fact they are the most powerful songs on the record.
8. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed
Rightfully taking its place on the top of many year end country music countdowns this song has power you can only get by singing with the brutal honesty country music was built on. Here Sunny explains the heartache caused by her infertility and along with co-writer Lori McKenna she writes a love song to the child she may never have. It’s emotional and raw but it’s the essence of hope which makes this song so memorable.
7. Rachel Baiman – Shame
Rachel sings this song in sheer defiance at how women are treated in society – I won’t feel shame she says, exposing the hypocrisy of men and religion while sounding ready to set the world and her violin on fire. I’m right there with her.
6. Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
This euphoric song has an astonishing vocal performance filled with the joy and love the Staple Singers have always tried to convey. Mavis isn’t afraid to address her racial identity – but she wants people to understand who she is beyond the surface of her skin. You can hardly blame her and Jeff Tweedy for their ‘all you need is love’ answer to society’s ills, sometimes you need a song to remind yourself of the simple truths of life.
5. Margo Price – All American Made
I first heard this song on the NPR Tiny Desk concert which was recorded the day after Trump was elected. Looking tired and almost tearful Margo sings this song like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. The lyrics survey her own life and how her country has been shaped by politics. It’s a sharp and devastatingly beautiful deconstruction of a nation and alongside her autobiographical song Hands of Time, proves that Margo is one of the most important voices in music right now.
4. The Wild Reeds – Only Songs
To me this has everything a perfect song needs: an uplifting melody plus lyrics that break your heart and piece it back together again. A song about childhood optimism, lost love, the dark world and how a song can save your life. The harmony of this band is exquisite and I’m kind of perplexed as to why they aren’t getting more attention. Maybe this brand of heartfelt indie rock is too far adrift from the electro leanings of the current indie scene and not twangy enough to fit in the Americana genre. Hopefully music as good as this will find a way to be heard.
Learn the words and sing them at the top of your lungs – the only thing that saves me are the songs I sing baby.
3. Nikki Lane – Highway Queen
Naming a blog is a really hard thing to do but when I heard this song something clicked for me instantly. This is a feminist anthem, sure, but also an ode to independence and freedom. The song smells of exhaust fumes, open roads and singing at the top of your lungs as you drive away from all the crap you’ve ever experienced in your life. So thank you Nikki Lane for this – this blog is inspired by you and the female rebel spirit your music is infused with.
2. Paramore – Fake Happy
Nowadays the singles chart is made up of sanitised sludge full of fake happiness for the masses. So it’s a sad truth that a pop song which exposes that reality can no longer become the hit it deserves to be. But for those who do want to hear it, for those that need to hear it then you can seek it out. There’s still someone singing for those who don’t belong, who hate the fake Instagram perfection of the world and who want to crawl back underneath. But this isn’t a depressing song at all, it revels in the shared collective pain – in the video Hayley skips through the streets of New York in a mermaid skin onesie singing out her misery and knowing that everyone feels the same – we’re ALL fake happy. There’s not been a song about despair this catchy and true since Everybody Hurts.
1. Hurray For the Riff Raff – Pa’lante
Invoking the spirit of the best political punks of the past this song isn’t just a call to arms against oppression, it’s a hymn to humanity and hope in a world gone mad.
Using an epic Day in the Life style structure, with a perfectly placed poem from Piedro Peti this is as ambitious a song as Alynda has ever recorded. It’s a fusion of her personal, political and musical identity which has elevated this band to many of the end of year album lists. Of course the political intent of Alynda’s music has always been clear, The Body Electric proved that, but here everything fuses and feels like this is what she’s been waiting to sing her whole life and this is what the dispossessed, the lost, the defeated have been waiting to hear.
I don’t know if there’s many better moments as a music fan than chanting this at the top of your lungs in a room full of people with their fists raised in unison. Protesting sometimes feels like the only thing you can do to make your voice heard. Other times I listened to this song when I felt despair and I found solace, a space to understand what society has done to us and how we can survive.
The answer is in the song: onwards, forwards, together.