Below are my picks for the 20 Best Songs of 2015 from below the Mason-Dixon line; the South being defined as D.C. down to Florida, over to Texas and up to Kentucky. I know that’s wildly up for debate but that’s how I see it. And the bands have to be living in the South. If they’ve moved to LA or NY or London etc, I’m not considering them a southern band. Some of these songs feel southern in the way that we traditionally define southern music and some don’t fit that bill at all. Some are bands you might know; others you’ve probably have never heard of. That’s the fun right? Consensus and sameness is boring.
So, off we go. You can listen to the tracks individually or all of the songs are on this nifty Spotify playlist. For dramatic effect, and maybe to keep you reading, they are in reverse order. If you want to catch some of these bands live, I’ve marked the bands that have been confirmed and announced for Savannah Stopover Music Festival in 2016 with an *.
20. “A Peer” by Living Grateful. Austin, TX. Let’s start with a real sleeper. Living Grateful is a newish project from Ryan Sambol and Greg Enlow of The Strange Boys who sadly called it quits in 2012. The album, Peace Mob, was recorded in 2013 but just released this summer. Not sure how many people outside of the Austin music scene know much about this band but I love the southern stoner, garage vibe coupled with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics about a musician going to a music festival and being blown away by someone else’s performance.
19. “The Marshes” by Tedo Stone. Athens/Atlanta GA. If there’s a better opening/title track by a Southern band this year, I haven’t found it. Stone’s sophomore album, Marshes, was produced straight to tape by Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, of Montreal) and it has a raw, raspy quality that’s infectious. This is a ‘crank up the volume and hit repeat’ kind of track that wouldn’t suffer from enjoying with a few cold ones.
18. “That’s Love” by Odissee. Washington, D.C. Odissee is Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, the American/Sudanese rapper and producer whose 2015 album The Good Fight is my favorite rap/hip hop album of 2015. I love the sheer joy of this song with it’s jazz rhythms and wonderful message~~ that we can never give enough thanks to the family and friends who support our dreams.
17. “Long Shadow” by Twin Limb*. Louisville, KY. There’s a lot of great new bands coming out of L’ville but none more cinematic and sweeping than Twin Limb. Consisting primarily of Accordion and Drums with an innovative use of sampled beats added in, the trio’s ambient folk sound feels both ancient and modern. They dropped an EP this fall and their debut album is slated for 2016. Til then put this one on your very late night playlist.
16. “Mont Blanc” by Quiet Hollers. Louisville, KY. Another new band from Louisville that really caught my ear this year. This track has stuck in my psyche like no other. If you’ve ever read Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, this song feels like it’s soundtrack, a post-apocalyptic alt-country love ballad with lyrics that will have you living life to the fullest while you still can: “I use to worry what clothes I had on/ the school recitals and the manicured lawns/ and I had a laundry list of people I could count on if it all went wrong/ and then the bomb”.
15. “A Nimbus” by Jeff Zagers. Savannah, GA. We don’t get to see enough of Jeff Zagers here in Savannah but I got to catch one of his somewhat rare shows about a month ago and was compelled to go back and listen to his 2015 release Still/Alive and boy am I glad I did. It’s really an album that needs to be listened to in it’s entirety. You can almost feel it being built brick by experimental brick with the past to ground it and the future propelling it forward. This short, simple track is one of many standouts; seemingly about cloud visions but maybe it owes as much to the spirit of LA’s Nimbus Records that was putting out great “black jazz” in the late 70’s as it does to Nimbus clouds… but perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Take it for a spin:
14. “Don Taco and His Hot Sauce Toss” by Des Ark*. Pittsboro, NC. Signed to Savannah’s own Graveface Records, Des Ark is essentially Aimée Argote, sometimes solo and sometimes with a rotating group of band members. Known to be blunt, forceful and a fierce protector of individualism, here she is lovely and delicate with her banjo at the forefront. If feels as if she is reinventing Appalachian folk music;snatching it back from it’s Deliverance roots and creating a canopied utopia where all are safe and hearts burst with joy (just try not humming along to that da-da-da-da-dum chorus).
13. “My Baby Is My Guitar” by Thunderbitch. Nashville, TN. Thunderbitch is the side project of none other than Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes but not your ordinary side project. This one comes with members of two other killer Nashville bands, Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle.Thunderbitch had only played the occasional live show in Nashville over the last few years but the band begin to take on mythical proportions but no one thought it would really see the light of day given Alabama Shakes’ commitments… when bamm!, a 10 track album was released this fall. If you’d like your Alabama Shakes dirtier, sweatier and downright raw, you’re in for a treat.
12. “Anybody Else” by Phil Cook. Durham, NC. This track comes from one of the most overlooked albums of the year, Phil Cook’s solo debut Southland Mission. It’s a pure cornucopia of southerness covering everything from blues to gospel to folk (and blending them seamlessly) but it’s this ‘duet’ with Frazey Ford that steals the show. It’s got that easy, breezy “it” factor and there’s something about Ford’s tonal quality (which I have always loved since The Be Good Tanya’s days) that makes it downright sexy. Cook keeps busy with his other projects (Magafaun, GAYNGS, Hiss Golden Messenger, etc.) but here’s hoping more solo efforts are in the mix.
11. “Wasted” by Rainbow Kitten Surprise. Boone, NC. Our intern Cattie Mae Williams (you’ve see her running merch at all of our shows!) turned me on to this band. They don’t sound anything like their name and they don’t look anything like they sound. Once you get past chuckling over that name, be prepared to be amazed. One of my favorite albums of 2015 and I’m pretty sure RKS is headed for world domination in 2016. I know bands hate to be compared to those that have come before but damn if this track doesn’t feel like some crazy cross between Edward Sharpe, Alt-J and early Kings of Leon.
10. “Open Passageways” by All Them Witches. Nashville, TN. Dying Surfer Meets His Maker is hands down one of the best albums of 2015. It’s epic. From the very first track, the music says ‘take my hand, follow me deep into these woods. It’s going to be dark and scary and bad things might happen all around you but life will be reaffirmed and you will be ok.” I can only hope that this beautiful track will lure you in to dig deeper.
9. “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Cold” by Matthew E. White. Richmond, VA. The first track off Matt White’s 2015 album Fresh Blood was released back in January so I feel like a lot of people forgot about it on their year end lists. White’s music always manages to sound nonchalant at exactly the same moment it’s delivering something of immense heft. Combing Gospel, R&B and folk into a song that turns genre cliches upside down is pure bliss. White’s poking fun at the whole industry where “everybody likes to talk shit” but we’re in on the joke and in for the ride, because there’s no one more serious about his craft than this guy.
8. “Hurtin On The Bottle” by Margo Price. Nashville, TN. Margo Price had quite a year in 2015 but I don’t think it’s gonna hold a candle to what 2016’s got in store. She recently signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records who will release her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in March 2016. This, the first track from it, feels like an old classic. I kept thinking, “wait, who wrote this song?” but the story is that Price and Caitlin Rose (another favorite Nashville singer/songwriter) co-wrote it. They had just polished off a large bottle of Bulleit together when Price said “Man,we sure put a hurtin’ on that bottle” and Rose replied “we are writing that song right now”. And they did. If you haven’t checked her out yet, say hello to (real) country’s next big star.
7. “Something Soon” by Car Seat Headrest. Leesburg, VA. When I hear the term “bedroom project” (usually followed by the words low-fi and DIY), I’ve been known to roll my eyes. But I wanna hang out in this kid’s bedroom. I can’t remember the last time I heard a song that so perfectly captures that apex where teen angst and rock and roll collide: “biting my clothes to keep from screaming /taking pills to keep from dreaming/ I want to break something important/ I want to kick my dad in the shins”. Remember? Will Toldeo, aka Car Seat Headrest is only 22 but he’s been at it for 5 years now and recently signed to Matador Records which just released Teen Style, an album which includes many of those songs that have been floating around that DIY scene for a while.
6. “Yellow Eyes” by Rayland Baxter. Nashville, TN. Every once in awhile a perfect pop song comes along that sits just to the alt-country/americana side of things but still defies genre labeling. This is one of those songs and you could listen to for days. It comes off of Rayland Baxter’s sophomore album Imaginary Man. A breakin’ up and movin’ on song that should be playing on every radio station across the south. And that guitar riff? Don’t get me started.
5. “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t” by Mothers*. Athens, GA. When bands submit to play Savannah Stopover, we create a massive playlist with a few tracks from each band and that playlist pretty much stays on repeat for a few months. THIS is the one track that every single time it came on, it stopped me dead in my tracks. It takes a twisty turn at the three and a half minute mark, slowing down to almost a crawl and then delivering the most beautiful final 2 minutes of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time. Mothers debut album comes out 2/26/16 and was produced by Drew Vandenburg (see # 19).
4. “Your Fool” by Natalie Prass. Virginia Beach, VA. Everything that comes out of Spacebomb Records in Richmond, VA ( Matthew E. White’s Recording studio and label) is lush and richly textured with an attention to orchestral perfection that’s rare these days. Prass’s debut album feels like this generation’s Dusty In Memphis; an instant classic and no more so than on this track. Live, she’s a powerhouse, a tiny bundle of sheer energy. Her encore performance of The Supreme’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” at Hangfire in Savannah this past March was one of my musical highlights of the year.
3. “Snakeskin” by Deerhunter. Atlanta, GA. Bradford Cox of Deerhunter was badly injured when struck by a car in Atlanta in December 2014; an experience that shaped the album that would become Fading Frontier (their 7th). It is the band’s most accessible work to date but that doesn’t mean it’s not complex and contemplative. Beneath the tight bass lines of this funky little (dare we call it dance) number stirs a demented musical voodoo soup; a sort of fever dream on the road to recovery: “I was lost in that home for the aged and lonely/ I cried and I choked, I was sick and I was boney/I was feeling kinda ill, I was feeling kinda lonely/And time was erased, yes, but I was still homely”.
2. “Don’t Wanna Fight” by Alabama Shakes. Athens, AL. Alabama Shakes could have come out of the gate with a second album that played it safe. To say that they didn’t is an understatement. This was the first single released ahead of the album and I remember listening to it for the first time and hearing that trademark YOWLLLL at the :38 second mark and just shaking my head and thinking, “wow, did they just do that?”. This song sonically embodies every ounce of it’s title.
1. “Comin’ Home” by Leon Bridges. Fort Worth, TX. Not sure I’ve seen an artist rise as fast as Leon Bridges did this year since I’ve been in the music biz. In November of 2014, thirty seconds into first hearing this song, I sent his management an email about playing Stopover 2015. We were a bit too early; he didn’t even have a backing band yet. A year later, the rest is history-this track has 18 millions plays on Spotify. He’s the real deal. A 26 year old who croons like an old soul. Otis Redding and Sam Cooke reincarnate.
“The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” by The Mountain Goats. Durham, NC
“Rodeo” by Futurebirds*. Athens, GA
“My Me” by Hardy & The Hardknocks*. Athens, GA
“Milkman” by Bully. Nashville, TN
“Slip’n” by Triathalon. Savannah, GA
Full Spotify Playlist: