In the heat of summer, in this furnace of unrest, we’re all in need of solace. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, music is refuge. Here are the fifteen songs I’ve had on heavy rotation this season. Most are new releases from this year, with a few 2015 faves plus a Joe Ely tune in the mix.
Anthony D’Amato + Parker Millsap + The Mynabirds + Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals + The Flatlanders + Margaret Glaspy + Kevin Morby + Sturgill Simpson + Blake Mills + David Ramirez + Miles Nielsen & the Rusted Hearts + Justin Wells + David Wax Museum + Vandaveer + Joe Pug
1. Anthony D’Amato – Blue Blooded
“I drained the well this morning just trying to quench my thirst / I hollowed out the mountain just to see what it was worth.”
The energy of dual drummers propels a compact song that conveys social critique through poignant imagery. I love the grittiness of the lyrics and the widescreen quality to the production by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit).
2. Parker Millsap – Heaven Sent
Oklahoma native Parker Millsap combines Delta blues snarl with gospel heart and Waits-esque trickster charm. This affecting song – from an anguished son to a preacher father – is just the sort of hymn we need.
3. The Mynabirds – Numbers Don’t Lie
Laura Burhenn crafts catchy pop hooks with a soulful authenticity. “You know that the numbers don’t lie … two wrongs will not make it right.” How ’bout a cross-the-aisle dance party to break up partisan gridlock?
4. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals – Call It What It Is
“Government ain’t easy. Policing ain’t easy. Hard times ain’t easy.” This one goes out to every city whose name has become synecdoche for lives lost.
5. The Flatlanders – Homeland Refugee
Joe Ely is a damn fine storyteller. This song strikes me as a Grapes of Wrath story updated for our time.
6. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math
The eternal tension between feeling and logic finds expression in this plainspoken, minimalist song from the remarkable Margaret Glaspy. I’m entirely unsettled by the simultaneous familiarity and alienation I experience with lines like “shivering in an ice cold bath of emotions and math.” Between talk therapy and talking heads on TV, there must still be space for love and longing.
7. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
The spare and stark arrangement is the perfect counterpart to Morby’s haunting rumination over the double-edged nature of things – “thought I saw a singing saw cutting down a willow.”
8. Sturgill Simpson – Breakers Roar
This song is balm for all that feels raw and ragged. It’s an elegant though bittersweet lullaby to his son – and the narrator had me choking back tears when, in conversation a few months ago, he spoke so honestly about the darkness that we self-medicate in varied ways and the healing place of music in his own life.
9. Blake Mills – It’ll All Work Out
I’m charmed by the disaffected, talky delivery of the lyrics here – wry turns of phrase over a clockwork guitar progression. Mills is still not a household name, but his guitar voice is utterly compelling, as is the voice coming out of his body. With collaborators like session drummer Jim Keltner and producer Don Was, it’s clear that musician greats recognize Mills’ talent. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of us figure it out.
10. David Ramirez – Harder To Lie
Countless miles logged and stories that become fable – that’s what Ramirez’s songwriting invokes. This song of first impressions and lasting connections gets me every single time.
11. Miles Niselen & the Rusted Hearts – Is This Life
This band’s striking amalgam of roots, rock, and soul makes for one of the strongest albums I’ve listened to this year. The crystalline harmonies and guitar riffs undergird a narrative that’s equal parts heartache and defiance.
12. Justin Wells – Going Down Grinnin’
Wells shoots straight from the heart and lays down all the cards in debut solo album Dawn In the Distance. The album mixes old-school country and rock grit with lyrics both intensely personal and universally relatable.
13. David Wax Museum – Lose Touch With the World
David Wax Museum songs fit naturally between cuts of Calexico and Andrew Bird, referencing Mexican folk as much as modern Americana. They push the sonic envelope in “Guesthouse,” layering synths and keys and electric guitars in a colorful, playful soundscape. “Lose Touch With the World” is a quieter song, imbued with moonlit, dreamlike longing: “Come on, kiss me like you mean it – my life’s a film but I haven’t seen it.”
14. Vandaveer – Holding Patterns
I’ve tried for years to find the right words to describe the vocal textures that form the core of Vandaveer’s sound. The imagery conjured by the song title – I think of nonlinear flight paths and infinite circling above the destination point – is autumnal, yet hopeful. Sometimes it’s not about blazing triumph but about steady perseverance.
15. Joe Pug – The Measure
“Every inch of anguish laid out side by side, cannot make a full yard the measure of our lives.” Pug has few equals among his contemporaries when it comes to lyricism. He distills life experience into potent metaphors that make me feel both gutted and renewed. The title of this playlist is derived from “The Measure.” In the final calculus, all we’ve lost is nothing to what we found.
Click here for the full playlist.
Cover photo: Abandoned Car, Namib Desert, 2015.