They’re the most wonderful sounds of the year.
At least that’s one guy’s opinion.
It’s time for the annual Skeleton at the Feast tracklist — my picks for the year’s best songs. I make a physical mix disc with these cuts for a handful of friends annually, as a sort of DIY Christmas present that blends my love for exploring new music with my graphic design hobby for an album cover. That’s also my excuse for posting the list on The Dew.
For more on the tradition and the origin of the name, check out the first time I wrote about it, in 2012. And if you’re curious about who made the cuts in succeeding years, you can find 2013 and 2014 editions on The Dew Abides as well.
1. Alabama Shakes, “The Greatest” — Kicking things off with a strong dose of British-Invasion-style punk rock. It’s my favorite song on an otherwise soul-drenched record.
2. Matthew E. White, “Vision” — Listen to this track and try to imagine what Matthew E. White looks like. Did you picture a schleppey, bearded, hipstery white dude? Didn’t think so. (And that may play to the point of this song.) Three of White’s songs were shortlisted for “Skeleton,” so check out his whole record if you like this one.
3. Wilco, “Where Do I Begin” — Thematically, this song could be paired with Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding.” Here in Carson’s hometown, that’s nearly a shoe-in, even before I first heard the fantastic explosion of drums near the end of the song. (In the season of gifts, it’s appropriate for me to remind folks that Wilco released the album that houses this song, “Star Wars,” for free.)
4. The Vaccines, “Denial” — Does this song make the cut despite the fact that the lads lifted the riff from Blue Oyster Cult, or because they did? You decide.
5. Damien Rice, “Trusty and True” — Two-plus minutes of guitar and piano noodling at the end seems a bit excessive, even on a phenomenal song like this. I faded it out early to make room for more tunez. Sorry Day-Day.
6. Indigo Girls, “The Rise of the Black Messiah” — Damn, but it’s good to hear Amy Ray sing with rage again.
7. J. Ralph, “We Will Not Go” — A world-music all-star cast show up on this heart-wrenching track, which closed out the aching documentary “Virunga” (on Netflix. Watch it). So why didn’t this song get an Oscar nomination alongside the film last year?
8. Ethan Daniel Davidson, “Delilah v Samson” — Filter Mingus’s “II B.S.” through the apocalyptic drone of T. Bone Burnett and you might get this song. Davidson has never charged for a record in his life, and his songwriting is stronger than ever on the album I plucked this one from. The full album can be had here.
9. Brian Wilson, “The Last Song” — The days of layered Wall-of-Sound Wilson might be gone for good, but this song is absolutely precious, in the best possible way. Also, go watch “Love and Mercy.”
10. Steve Earle, “The Tennessee Kid” — Speaking of apocalypses. Steve Earle still spits fire and is maybe the only rocker who can sing “forthwith” and name-drop Niccolo Paganini without causing a raised eyebrow.
11. Cracker, “March of the Billionaires” — OK, correction. Cracker might also be able to name-drop Paganini, considering this song’s lyrics might could drop into a social studies textbook with a slight rewrite. The bridge: “Isn’t this the same old shit they tell you as they march us to the rice fields? Isn’t this the same old shit — a bright and better future for the robber barons?”
12. Titus Andronicus, “More Perfect Union” — This song loses me when it goes all Kansas-style prog for the last half, but the first half is unbeatable. (I did a fade-out, a la Damien Rice. Sorry Patrick.)
13. Jason Isbell, “If It Takes a Lifetime” — This is Isbell’s album opener. If you don’t own an Isbell record, the one to buy is still the previous album, “Southeastern.” But this song is on par with anything on that classic record.
14. Kellylee Evans, “Hands Up” — Jenn and I heard this track while streaming a Paris jazz station and fell in love.
15. Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July” — He rhymes “Fourth of July” with “Firefly” throughout this song, about dying. Firefly is what Jenn calls her mother. I’ll stop talking now.
16. Mountain Goats, “Foreign Object” — Just because sometimes you want to sing along with someone else as they say, “I will personally stab you in the eye with a foreign object,” followed by a cheery chorus of “ba-da-da-da, da-da-da”.
17. Guster, “Simple Machine” — So damn catchy. God help you if this is the song that’s playing when you stop the car, because it won’t. go. away.
19. Lady Lamb, “Violet Clementine” — I love Lady Lamb’s new record. Jenn doesn’t. But this is the song we both agreed on.
20. Lone Bellow, “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” — So the chorus is, “If heaven don’t call me home, Georgia will.” I like to think they were pandering to me to be included in the mix.
21. The Milk Carton Kids, “Sing, Sparrow, Sing” — Haunting, quiet, pretty. Ending with this reminds me of U2 ending “Achtung Baby” with “Love Is Blindness.”
Whatcha think, fellers?
Here are the liner notes from the physical editions:
Look at this year’s collection in two halves, beginning and ending with lovelorn pleas — “don’t ever let me go” cry the Alabama Shakes, and 80 minutes later, The Milk Carton Kids ask, “spare us a world of what fate destroys” — bisected by a cataclysmic meeting at the crossroads with Beelzebub, courtesy of Steve Earle. As usual, sadness abounds (thanks, Sufjan), but there’s a lot of joy, too, from the likes of Kellylee Evans and Guster and others. And even when there’s not outright glee, there’s often a grim strength to steel us with hope (“We Will Not Go,” “Lowly Deserter,” and “Black Messiah” stand as prime examples). Perhaps most importantly, remember that at midnight, love is a decision. Happy Holidays from Brad and Jenn
And a few honorable mentions:
Jake Fussell for “Pork and Beans” or “Raggy Levy” — Technically the “Skeleton” rules preclude cover tunes. I very nearly had to make an exception for one of these fine tracks from Jake. (“Raggy Levy” was selected for The Oxford American’s music issue this year. Congrats, Jake.)
Neil Young for “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” — He nearly had us just with the line, “Monsanto/Let our farmers grow/What they want to growwwwww.” But the song’s late verses sound like he basically wrote a blog scree, then sang the rhymeless words over the raucous guitar.
Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil for “Comedian” or “In Layers” — A 2014 release that was too late for last year’s mix. Hope this comeback record was a warm-up for more great music from one of the guys who made Christian rock not embarrassing.
Waxahatchee, “Poison” — Sample lyrics: “I watch you anxiously/You paint it celestial, you paint it serene/What do you want, what do you need?/A welcome mat/You get lazy, you get boring/You jump the track”.
Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator” — Who can’t love an album titled, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”?