Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year – Karen Jonas’ “The Garden”

Every year more and more great songwriters are rising up the ranks in country and Americana music. 2016 was no different, as old and new faces all rose to challenge to deliver fantastic music. The bar just continues to rise and at times it feels like there’s too much good music to keep up with. This is a nice problem to have of course. But when it comes down to picking the best song of the year, it’s quite difficult.

There were so many excellent songs to choose from for Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year. Really what it comes down to is your own preference and appeal. Any of the nominations were worthy of this award and you the readers made many great arguments. But there was one song that ultimately stood out to my ears. From the very first listen this song floored me and it’s only gotten better with more listens. So it’s with great pleasure and honor to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year award goes to Karen Jonas’ “The Garden.”

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This song is absolutely phenomenal and it shines in every area: lyrics, instrumentation, vocals, production and distinctiveness. The entirety of Jonas’ sophomore album Country Songs features great songwriting on each song, but it was “The Garden” to me that was the crown jewel of the record. You start with the production, which gives the song the perfect mood of being mysterious, alluring and slightly dark. It meshes perfectly with the lyrics, which are not only poignant, but detailed to perfection. This allows the lyrics to paint a pristine picture in the listeners’ heads of what the song is about: a woman reminiscing of a forbidden love from 20 years ago between a 17-year-old girl and 21-year-old boy. She remembers the night of passion she shared with him and the disapproving mother’s voice upon finding them. And she now looks forward to the day they meet again in that garden to make it whole. The song’s innate ability to perfectly set a scene makes me draw comparisons to one of my favorite novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the novel’s ability to perfectly set the scenes in your head too.

Jonas excellently conveys the heartache, longing and passion needed to really let the lyrics shine. She also does a great job slowly letting the words roll out. This allows the song to really simmer and carefully sink in. The twangy steel guitar throughout the first three-fourths of the song was enough to win me over instrumentation-wise. But then seemingly out of nowhere producer Tim Bray lays down some smoking electric guitar play to put the big damn cherry on top of this song. It gives the song an almost psychedelic-like feel and adds the type of spaciness to really let the song resonate with the listener and ensures you won’t forget this song anytime soon. It’s a detail like this that allows a song to rise up above it’s peers and go from fantastic to classic.

It really didn’t surprise me at all that Karen Jonas delivered a song like this. She impressed me with her debut two years ago and I knew she would only get better with subsequent releases. Jonas is clearly one of the best songwriters in country music today and there’s perhaps no artist more sure of their sound and writing than her. She’s an artist you won’t forget after you hear her perform. “The Garden” is the type of song you will always remember after hearing, which at this point perfectly represents the talents and skills of Jonas. This is why Jonas’ “The Garden” is Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year Nominees

You can find many good songs. You can find a good bit of great songs. But finding truly excellent songs that grasp your mind, heart and soul is something that is no easy task. It takes a true artist pouring blood, sweat and tears into their music. It takes guts and honesty to create something truly lasting and spectacular. Of course it’s not just fantastic, soul-reaching songwriting. It’s the perfect instrumentation to complement it and an artist’s voice to truly connect with the music at hand. This is the criteria it takes to win Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year award.

In addition other factors taken into consideration are impact and the way it relates to the current year’s events and happenings. I will ultimately determine which song will win, but I also want to hear from you the readers who is deserving of the award. Your comments will be considered for determining what wins and you could possibly sway what should be the winner. So be sure to sound off in the comments! Without further ado the nominees for Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year (in no particular order):

Lori McKenna – “Old Men Young Women”

Many probably expected another Lori McKenna song to land here, but this was by far the best song on her album The Bird & The Rifle in my mind. McKenna ruthlessly picks apart the dynamics of an older man and younger woman dating, speaking from the point of view someone who’s dated the older man before and the hell she went through in the process.

Margo Price – “Hands of Time”

Margo Price opens her debut album with an absolute bang, “Hands of Time,” and it’s stuck with me ever since. As she grows older with each year she learns the cruel lesson of father time while fighting the everyday obstacles of life and trying to fulfill the lofty goal of restoring the former family farm to its rightful owner.

Turnpike Troubadours – “Come As You Are”

They didn’t even release a new album this year and yet the Turnpike Troubadours land a Song of the Year nomination for a second straight year. This one comes courtesy of The New Waltz series and co-written by Felker, the song is about a man admitting his reckless and drunken lifestyle is hurting him and everyone around him. In typical TT fashion, it’s quite biting.

Parker Millsap – “Heaven Sent”

Perhaps one of the most overlooked songs of the year from an overlooked artist. Parker Millsap delivered a fine album in The Very Last Day, but “Heaven Sent” is the shining jewel of the record. The song is from the point of view a gay man who has come out to his father and desperately seeks for him to love him like he did when he thought he was straight. It’s a very cutting and emotional song on a subject that’s not common in country music.

Sturgill Simpson – “Call to Arms”

Sturgill landed here two years ago with “Turtles All The Way Down” and it was the only award he didn’t win of the three he was nominated for. Once again he has three nominations and lands here with perhaps the most visceral song he’s ever recorded, “Call to Arms.” Fueled by anger and conviction, Simpson rips the systems of society from the war on drugs to actual war to the everyday bullshit in media. It was certainly an ear-catching exclamation point to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Brandy Clark – “I Cried”

Brandy Clark released a pretty good album in Big Day in a Small Town. There were many good songs on that album, but it was her appearance on Southern Family that caught my eye the most. Heartbreak is what Clark excels at and “I Cry” fits her like a glove. The song is about watching a grandparent lose their significant other and the heart-wrenching pain one goes through as you not only watch someone go through it, but experience your own emotions. Clark nails it.

BJ Barham – “Unfortunate Kind”

Sticking with heart-wrenching, BJ Barham released the darkest and most depressing album I heard all year. But its brilliant at the same time. I thought reader Brett summed it up well a few days ago in the comments: “strong writing, but makes you wanna drink yourself to a comma.” Well this song is the center-piece of this fantastic tragedy, as Barham sings about a husband and wife falling in love, only for one day the wife to die tragically young and leaving the husband in pieces.

Karen Jonas – “The Garden”

I didn’t think Karen Jonas could top her fantastic debut Oklahoma Lottery, but she somehow did with Country Songs. The album is chockfull of great music, but the absolute standout to my ears was “The Garden.” The most dynamic song of her young career so far, it’s about a mysterious falling out of forbidden love amongst young lovers and the woman looking back on it years later. If the songwriting isn’t enough to impress you, the song goes even further with absolute killer instrumentation in the bridge you have to hear for yourself.

Lydia Loveless – “Real”

Lydia Loveless is anything but conventional and her newest album Real really proves this. With out any care in the world for genre lines, Loveless delivers honestly great music and deep lyrics. But it’s the album’s title track and final song that really delivers. It explores the mindset of a young woman and the helpless they can feel when it comes to love. It’s one of the most real love songs you’ll hear all year.

Kelsey Waldon – “All By Myself”

Kelsey Waldon really broke out this year with the release of her sophomore album I’ve Got A Way and was one of the best I heard all year. It’s pure country music throughout with even better lyrics to accompany it. It can be hard to pick the best song on an album like this one, but I found the one that really shined the most was “All By Myself.” It’s empowering anthem that’s lesson to the listener is you should follow the beat of your own drum, particularly women. You should only be yourself and nobody else’s.

Zac Brown – “Grandma’s Garden”

Who’d thunk Zac Brown of all people would land a nominee for Song of the Year? This comes a year after Zac Brown Band nearly walked away with Worst Song of the Year for the dreadful “Beautiful Drug.” I guess this speaks to the magic of Dave Cobb, as he brings out the absolute best in Brown here with the perfect song choice for him. It’s a tear-jerker of a song about a man who grew up helping his grandma with the garden and the life lessons she bestowed upon him. Eventually she passes away and the man realizes at her funeral what an impact she made on him. On an album full of great music, it’s speak to how great this song is.

Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules – “Leave Me to Bleed”

I would have to say that 2016 has probably been a pretty good year for Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules. They were not only chosen to open up for Sturgill Simpson on a European swing of his tour, but released a really good album too. Let Me off at the Bottom is probably one of the most under-talked albums of the year and it shouldn’t because this group is as good as almost any other in the genre. The group really excels at making fun and engaging music, but here they show they’re just as good at making darker music. This song is about a man finding his bride committed suicide right before they were to wed and being left to live with survivor’s guilt. It’s even darker than it sounds.

Breelan Angel – “Rhinestone World”

This song was one of the early song of the year contenders and I can confidently say it’s held up well. Breelan Angel is an up and comer in the Texas scene that immediately caught my attention upon hearing this song. We’ve had a lot of protest songs in country music the past few years, even ones concerning women in the genre. But “Rhinestone World” addresses the latter in the best way, calling out sexist perverts in the industry and the emphasis placed on looks over music when it comes to women. The song shouts out pioneering women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn who experienced the same. I think those legends would be awfully proud of a song like this one.

Miranda Lambert – “To Learn Her”

Miranda Lambert absolutely delivers in spades on her new double album The Weight of These Wings. As I said in my review, it’s the crown jewel of her career so far and that’s in big part to the raw and honest songwriting throughout it. There were many standouts you could pick on this album, but to me the one I’ll probably never forget and the best on the album is “To Learn Her.” First off it sounds like a classic country song with the thick pedal steel guitar. Then you get to the song itself, which is about how you can never truly learn someone just by asking how they are. There’s so much honesty in the lyrics and Lambert sings them with conviction.