Country Universe has presented you with its top 40 singles of 2008, but as you know, singles rarely scratch the surface of a great album. Over the course of the past year, while listening to various albums, I made note of songs that stuck out for one reason or another. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of my favorite songs of 2008:
#1 “She Left Me For Jesus” (Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind)
Honestly, when is the last time you heard a song this slyly clever? This laugh-out-loud engaging? But not just anyone could pull off this song. Carll’s slow laughing drawl is absolutely perfect and he nails every punch line. He not only gets the joke, he assumes you do as well. Carll readily acknowledges that this song isn’t for everyone, but in my book, it’s an instant classic.
#2 “Red River Shore” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)
Bob Dylan, that enigmatic icon, continues to raise the bar for singer-songwriters. It’s nearly ridiculous at this point. This year, Dylan treated us to a grand smorgasbord of songs with the latest in his bootleg series. “Red River Shore” was one of the few previously unreleased songs on the set, and it’s perhaps the best on the album. I could spend hours ruminating over what Dylan intended with his lyrics about star-crossed lovers, but instead I’ll leave you with his opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live / In the moonlight shooting by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This is, as the album booklet suggests, an elegant summation of Dylan’s artistic credo. If only others took note.
#3 “I’ve Done Everything I Can” (Rodney Crowell, Sex and Gasoline)
On “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” Crowell acknowledges that incredibly delicate interplay between father and daughter; that difficult line a father must walk between wanting to protect his little girl, and preparing her for the real world. He sings: “The sun comes up tomorrow / But there are no guarantees / It can rock you like a baby / It can knock you to your knees / The path that lies between us / Is a rough and rocky rue / I’ve done everything I can / There’s nothing I can do.” This song reminds me rather poignantly of my own father, who occasionally walked that fine line with grace, but usually just blundered over it with good intentions.
#4 “Coming of the Roads” (Kathy Mattea, Coal, Written by Billy Edd Wheeler)
Every track on Mattea’s masterpiece, Coal, is worthy of recognition, but “Coming of the Roads” stands out, with Mattea giving a gorgeous performance on a wistful song that laments the big changes that come to small communities with the building of new roads and the destruction of the natural environment. This song was likely particularly significant for Mattea, an environmental activist, who has committed her time to saving the mountaintops of Tennessee and her home state of West Virginia from the same devastating tree removal referenced in the song.
#5 “Crooked Road” (Chris Knight, Heart of Stone, Co-written with Dan Baird)
Great songwriters can set the scene with a single line, and Chris Knight kicks off “Crooked Road” with just such a line: “Got married at sixteen / Had a fifteen year old wife / Guess I’ve been a grown man just about all my life.” The insightful maturity of this statement rings throughout the song, which is colored with bitter resignation, yet surprising resilience. On “Crooked Road,” Knight visits the coal mines of Logan, West Virginia, and recounts the tale of a man nearly brought to his knees by such a dangerous way of life. However, the song is a testament to all those who have had the odds stacked against them, experienced heart-breaking loss, but shouldered on, buoyed by love.
#6 “Very Last Country Song” (Sugarland, Love On The Inside, Written by Jennifer Nettles, Christian Bush, Tim Owens)
I’m not a Sugarland convert…yet. But Sugarland half won me over with “Very Last Country Song.” I typically find the band to be over the top, with Jennifer Nettles over-exaggerated Georgia accent occasionally grating, but Sugarland hits all the right notes here. I’d love a Sugarland album that displayed more of the unvarnished beauty and restraint demonstrated on this, hopefully not their very last, country song.
#7 “God Forsaken Town” (Reckless Kelly, Ragged As The Road, Co-written with Robert Earl Keen)
“God Forsaken Town” is a wonderful departure for the rockin’ Reckless Kelly. Inspired by the floods that drowned so much of the south after Hurricane Katrina, this horn-laden number is drenched in honest emotion and bolstered by great writing. The song’s defiance is accompanied by the same bring-it-on attitude that has characterized the rebuilding process thus far in New Orleans and Mississippi and will undoubtedly help on the long trek towards recovery still ahead. As Braun sings it: “They say we’ve got to leave but there’s no way to go / This ain’t the first time we’ve weathered out a storm / And I ain’t got nothing but at least I know it’s mine / And I’ll be god damned if I’m leaving here before the day I die.”
#8 “Sweetest Waste of Time” (Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones)
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s entire album, a country roots gem, was a pleasant surprise this year. Rattlin’ Bones’ charmed with sweet sexiness and brought out a side of both singers previously unexplored. “Sweetest Waste of Time” perfectly encapsulates the sheer charm exuded on the album by these two married Aussies, and showcases their remarkable chemistry. Slightly reminiscent in lyrics of the Eagles’ “Wasted Time,” the song rather benevolently cries: “If you don’t see me / Caught in your wires / If you don’t hear me / Outside your door / If all this wanting / Just leaves me waiting / You still would be / The sweetest waste of time.”
#9 “Broken” (Cherryholmes, Cherryholmes III: Don’t Believe, Written by Cia Cherryholmes)
Cia Cherryholmes gives a haunting performance on this standout track from Cherryholmes’ latest album. With a gorgeous swooping string arrangement, this gothic tale follows a young broken-hearted girl to her marble grave. While the lyrics are not precisely uplifting, it is exciting to hear two young talents – Cia and Molly Cherryholmes (who composed the orchestral arrangement) – play with the boundaries of bluegrass to create a new sound all their own.
#10 “Turn Out My Lights” (Justin Townes Earle, The Good Life, Written by Justin Townes Earle and Scotty Melton)
Justin Townes Earle released my favorite debut of the year. Charming and confident, The Good Life showcases an artist not only brimming with talent, but with a keen ear for American music–for The Good Life can only be described as quintessential American music. It was difficult to choose a favorite song from the album, but “Turn Out My Lights” struck a chord. I’ll admit that may partly be because there’s a twinge of his dad hidden in the song (whom I adore), but I also love his subtle instrumental choices on the track.
“American Tune” (Performed by Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns, Written by Paul Simon)
“Dignity (Piano Version)” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)
“God Is Mad At Me” (Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue)
“Circles and Xs” (Lucinda Williams, Little Honey)
“The Carolinian” (Chatham County Line, IV)