Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Art of the Song 2016: The Year’s Best Singles

The members of A Tribe Called Red. (Photo: Falling Tree Photography)

Sometimes a single track can go a long way… to inform, entertain and genuinely change the way we think of ourselves. This past year’s political, environmental and social events were certainly magnified by a U.S. Presidential candidate who raced all the way to the bottom and won. But out of all that muck, these songs in particular cleared the haze and showed us some light. They graced us with humour and passion. They spoke truth to power and put the spotlight on the rich subtleties of life. We’re going to need a lot more of them in the years ahead.

Love Is A Stranger” by Sam Beam and Jessica Hoop. This classic 1982 cover of the Eurythmics tune gets as sublime as any interpretation as you’d ever hear. Hoop’s new album, recorded in a Moroccan Restaurant last winter, is coming out in February and is called Memories Are Now.

The Wheel” by P.J. Harvey. Passion, power and a socially conscious song that is so musically intense that you can’t look away.

I’m A Black Man in a White World” by Michael Kiwanuka. A boldfaced statement of identity in the age of anxiety. His album is equally moving to the ears.

Too Late” by Bonnie Bishop. From an inspired comeback record for the Nashville songwriter who’s penned some great tunes for Bonnie Raitt, among others. This track could also be called Dusty in Memphis for the 21st Century.

Anyhow” by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. An inspired performance equally matched by the perfect mix of a great jam band from one of the best records of the year.

I Dreamed Donald Trump Was President” by Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright’s well-crafted and humorous take on the Trump campaign of 2016 that was just too accurate to ignore, much like the next POTUS.

Color of the Blues” by John Prine. Prine’s duet with Susan Tedeschi on his most recent album of classic country songs is another fine example of what I like to call beauty in simplicity.

AK-47” by Digging Roots. An up-tempo psychedelic swampy tune that puts the notion of violence to shame with one line: “Wish I could load a gun with love and fire at everyone.” This under-recognized Canadian group won a Juno for Aboriginal Album of the Year in 2010.

Jamie Cullum recording "Show Me The Magic" at Abbey Road Studios.

We Are The Halluci-Nation” by A Tribe Called Red. Canada’s best export in Aboriginal hip hop. This is rap from “the land,” not some urban jungle. A well-crafted song featuring the voice of the late poet John Trudell and the Northern Voices ensemble that has just the right mix of satire, political consciousness and an appealing backbeat.

Purple Rain” by Dwight Yoakam. Recorded during the studio sessions for his most recent album, Swimming Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass musicians, Yoakam’s straight-ahead version of the song by Prince works perfectly as a respectful tribute to the late musician’s cross-generational appeal.

Liar” by Mike Todd. A great single that reminds me of Robert Palmer crossed with Leon Russell via Guelph, Ontario. The video was shot on an iPhone 6 that actually undermines the strength of the track. But then again Mike Todd doesn’t take himself too seriously and neither should we.

Just Your Fool” by The Rolling Stones. Originally recorded by Little Walter in 1960, the Stones kick it for two minutes of gold for the “re-start me up” fans, including me.

Dead Alive” by The Shins. James Mercer’s psychedelic single is full of so many musical hooks that you want to hear it over and over again.

Show Me The Magic” by Jamie Cullum. Recorded in the studios of Abbey Road, this original Christmas song is a fresh approach to an old style that Michael Bublé and Matt Dusk seem only to imitate. I don’t need another version of the tried-and-true songs we get every Christmas but I’ll gladly endorse this spirited original by Jamie Cullum. It’s a great single for this year and for years to come.

You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen. The B-side to “Hallelujah” (in my opinion) is a truly beautiful arrangement and one of Cohen’s most poetic songs from a very personal album.

Blowhard Nation” by Stephen Fearing. Why point the finger at one candidate when you can sharpen your pencil and stick it to a whole “nation” while sending proceeds to War Child Canada? Fearing’s new album will be released next month, but this song won’t be on it.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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