Two of the best singles of the year are part of this roundup, courtesy of Jessye DeSilva and Rhiannon Giddens.
“Proud and Lonely”
Written by Alex Calabrese and Jessye DeSilva
JK: What’s most striking about “Proud and Lonely” is how Jessye DeSilva and their co-writer Alex Calabrese translate the frustrations of this exact cultural moment into a song that speaks to a broader human impulse to belong. “Proud and Lonely” is about how people choose to respond to vicious attacks, and how the experience of being attacked is inherently isolating, even as it can provide opportunities to build intentional communities.
That’s a powerful, heady sentiment, and it speaks to how the most personal art is always political by the very act of its creation. DeSilva’s wonderfully nuanced performance– they’re a voice professor at Berklee College Of Music– heightens their direct connection to the overt political and cultural hostility toward the LGBTQ+ population. DeSilva captures the high stakes in finding one’s voice. A
ZK: This is a stunningly beautiful record, emphasizing its hollowness and struggle not only in the production – anchored through tempered acoustics and the beautiful cries of its fiddle play – but also in its nature-based imagery. It’s got the bones of an old folk ballad through its wordplay and composition, but its message of isolation couldn’t be more timely. A
KJC: There is so much pain in this record.
The lines that keep haunting me:
Twilight woods quiet as a graveyard
Well-worn paths haven’t been the same
Strangling vines cover where I carved my name
Proud and lonely
The LGBTQ+ community is under attack in a way I haven’t seen since the heights of the AIDS epidemic, and what’s our message of support? Here’s some Pride gear! We’re just going to put it in the back of the store because domestic terrorists are threatening to kill us.
Being proud only gets you so far when you’re under attack and your so-called allies are nowhere to be found. DeSilva speaks for their community so poignantly by coupling pride with loneliness.
Okay, I’m proud, they say. I carved my name with pride, and now they’re trying to wipe it away.
Where the hell are you and why aren’t you helping? A
Lori McKenna featuring Hillary Lindsey
Written by Luke Laird, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna
ZK: Given how the main hook repeats, “Would it kill you to be happy?,” I’m actually not surprised that this is probably Lori McKenna’s most groove-driven single in quite some time. There’s some polished drive to this that continues where 2020’s The Balladeer left off, but there’s also the same desperate urgency present that’s always anchored her best work.
I’m not sure I’d place this quite on that same pedestal, given the slight lack of pure gut-punch details her more intimate moments often carry; it feels like this song could have used a third verse or stronger bridge. But McKenna’s passionate plea and haggard delivery is enough to fill in that blank space, especially with this being a more accessible tune overall. It’s a good start – let’s just hope the best is yet to come. B
KJC: I don’t think there’s a singer-songwriter better at capturing the inner workings of marriage than Lori McKenna. The challenging part of that legacy is that when she returns to ground that she has already covered, it’s difficult to replicate the impact that earlier works had when she first explored those same themes.
“Killing Me” is a solidly constructed lyric that McKenna sings with fiery emotion. It’s just overly familiar after so many other songs in this vein that the law of diminishing returns inevitably kicks in. “Shake,” “Stealing Kisses,” “If He Tried,” “Confetti,” and “How to Survive” shocked my system when I first heard them. This one feels a bit redundant now. B
JK: I’ll admit that I wasn’t as immediately sold on McKenna as were a whole lot of folks, present company included, but I’ve grown to appreciate her earlier records more over time. So, for me, “Killing Me” doesn’t have the same history of maybe-unfavorable comparisons to some of the songs from her first run of albums. I like the way McKenna and Lindsey structure the reversal in the lyric of the hook, and I’m delighted to hear something this spry and uptempo as the lead single from a new McKenna album.
What works about “Killing Me” is that the weariness of McKenna’s narrator hasn’t yet metastasized into bitterness, and I love that she’s such a skilled writer that she can walk that finest of lines. B+
“You’re the One”
Written by Rhiannon Giddens and Lalenja Harrington
KJC: Rhiannon Giddens is a lot of things, including most recently a Pulitzer Prize winner for Music. She is passionately committed to restoring the rightful place of African-Americans in the development of country music in general and the playing of the banjo in particular. Her last couple of albums have had powerful thesis statements that she successfully explored, most impressively on the landmark Freedom Highway album, which built potent and powerful connections between our nation’s legacy of slavery and the continued debasement of the civil rights of Black Americans today.
But you know what else was on Freedom Highway? Killer hooks and joyous love songs. “You’re the One” is cut from the same cloth as “Hey Bebe” and “The Love We Almost Had,” but with all of the musical journeying she’s done over the last few years incorporated into its sound.
“You’re the One” is smart and sophisticated, but it’s also sensual and sincere. I’m not sure there’s a harder song to write than the love song of a reformed cynic, and this is one of the best variations on that theme that I have ever heard. She sees her new relationship with clear-eyed gratitude, and is re-examining her own sense of self and her own belief in the possibility of unconditional love with the new information that her partner has provided.
But at its core, “You’re the One” is a joyous love song packed to the brim with killer hooks. She’s so damn good at this. A
JK: The only disappointment here is that part of me was hoping to hear Giddens bust out a Dwight Yoakam cover. Beyond that? This is just aces from the opening bars. The technical accomplishment of Giddens’ work is a given, but there are flourishes in the production here that make it impossible to take her skill as a musician– the MacArthur Foundation has named her a genius, and who am I to argue– for granted.
I’m a sucker for song structure, and that’s where “You’re the One” is a true standout, in the slightly off-kilter shifts in tempo and phrasing that so perfectly capture someone trying to find secure footing in the thrill of a new relationship. A
ZK: It’s a cliché usually reserved for writers who can’t think of a better introduction, but it’s fitting here: One truly can’t place expectations on where Rhiannon Giddens will next follow her muse. The bulk of her discography thus far has reached back through centuries of tradition, creating works that stand as much as historical documents as they do sources of entertainment (indeed, though that’s still to be found, it’s often in the uncomfortable yet needed variety).
So admittedly, it’s strange to hear her announce an album of wholly original songs, but still welcome, all the same. And “You’re the One” alone proves she’s got a pop sensibility that can pave the way for a monster hit. It starts off with an already strong, well-developed banjo-driven groove accented by liquid touches of fiddle, but it’s that transition to the chorus, where the crescendo of her performance is the star of the show – especially in bringing life and actual passion and urgency to a common trope: love. It’s a huge, bubbly hook that leans into it with all its glory, and it’s a winner. A