Tag Archives: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

My Top Thirteen Songs of 2017

This was an incredibly hard list to make cuts from, and I already have a playlist ready to publish which includes sixty-six of the best tracks from this year and can be accessed on Spotify and Apple Music. But this is here to highlight the absolute best of the best, and in a ridiculously strong year for songs, that’s even more of a distinction. If you’re wondering why this isn’t trimmed to ten or lengthened to twenty, well, I had to stop somewhere, and this was the number I chose on the midyear list, so…

Very Honorable Mentions

  • Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”
  • Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters–“Eden”
  • Ags Connolly–“Do You Realize That Now?”
  • The Secret Sisters–“Carry Me”
  • Kasey Chambers–“Jonestown”–
  • Colter Wall–“Kate McCannon”
  • The Steel Woods–“Straw in the Wind”

#13: Chris Stapleton–“Scarecrow in the Garden”

From From a Room, Volume 2

This song perfectly explains the reason we wait until mid-December to publish these. An incredible story song of a family farm started by an Irish immigrant and then passed down through generations, through seasons of prosperity and hardship, until the current narrator, the grandson, is faced with seeing the land he loves deteriorate around him. There are also biblical undertones to this, underscoring possible sin haunting the family, as the grandson sees Lucifer in the scarecrow in the garden and reads Revelation with a pistol in his other hand.

#12: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real–“Forget About Georgia”

From Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

What a brilliant way to write a song, linking the name Georgia with the state and his father’s song “Georgia on my Mind.” Of course he can’t forget Georgia because he’s forced to say her name in the song each night; it makes perfect sense, and even though it’s specific to this woman and that song, it’s universal because we all have associations like this that will forever make us think of certain things and people. “I pray I’ll forget about Georgia, but a part of me hopes that she’ll never forget about me” is right up there for Lyric of the Year. Also the guitar outro is definitely the Instrumental of the Year.

#11: Turnpike Troubadours–“Pay no Rent”

From A Long Way From Your Heart

Written about Evan Felker’s late aunt, but also written in that universal Evan Felker way that makes it somehow relatable to anyone who has ever lost someone. It’s even ambiguous enough to mean a former friend or lover, but at the same time, it’s the detail and unique turns of phrase that elevate this above so many other songs about loss. It’s at once grieving and reflective, sad over the loss but looking back fondly at the memories. And “in my heart you pay no rent” is up there for Hook of the Year.

#10: Angaleena Presley–“Wrangled”

From Wrangled

This is a gorgeous song both melodically and lyrically, and yes, wins Melody of the Year. There are a lot of frank moments of honesty on Angaleena Presley’s latest record, but this one is delivered in such a subtle way. The woman in question is not angry so much as tired, defeated, sick of her life and her husband and perhaps most underrated about this song, sick of the church women around her who seem to enjoy all of this. I think Presley is saying so perfectly what so many women are feeling and probably would like to say, but she’s also not saying it with hatred or in a polarizing way, just a quiet, calm resignation that ultimately speaks more.

#9: Sarah Jane Scouten–“Acre of Shells”

From When the Bloom Falls From the Rose

This one I’m actually struggling for words to explain, as it’s just the beauty in hearing it. A brilliantly written love song; I know in that department this year, we’re all focused on “Vampires,” but this is just as hard-hitting. And the actual Lyric of the Year goes to “How could I ever love somebody else? IN an acre of shells, you’ll find just one pearl. And how could I ever love somebody else when I know that you’re in the world?” What a perfect illustration; stand on the beach and think of the infinite number of shells around you. Hell, think of the number of shells just within your reach or field of vision…and in all that space, you’ll find just one pearl. What a special and simple way to describe someone you love.

#8: Jaime Wyatt–“Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues

I wish I could give this Opener of the Year, and if it weren’t for a song coming up on this list, I would award it. You think we can’t have fun songs up here in the top ten of the year? Well, Jaime Wyatt can. And it’s because despite this one being easily the most playable and fun, even almost radio-friendly, of the bunch, it’s a deep and personal song to Jaime about second chances and starting over in life. And we can all relate to it, maybe not to her exact circumstances, but to that feeling of praying for better days but learning to deal with what we have–“bought my ticket for the rainbow, but it just hasn’t come through” is another incredible lyric and something we can all understand.

#7: Shannon McNally–“Banshee Moan

From Black Irish, featured in Memorable Songs

If you’re saying: “who?” right now, please listen to this ridiculously underrated song. This is why we have the Memorable Songs feature, as this gets the honor of being the only one here not from an album we reviewed. This is what Keith Urban couldn’t say with “Female” and what Margo Price could have said with “Pay Gap,” but the former was made for radio, performed by a male, and written by committee, and the latter was too shallow for these kinds of sentiments. This is a beautiful, subtle, yet timely and honest portrayal of the discrimination that women do face in the workplace and in society, as well as a call to those women to mourn for all their sisters, past and present, who have gone through this.

#6: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–“If we Were Vampires”

From The Nashville Sound

What a beautiful and terrifying way to look at love, knowing you or your lover will one day be gone. It’s both a morbid way to look at things and a reminder to treat each day as if it were your last; indeed, as Isbell sings, “maybe time running out is a gift.” Another thing that hasn’t been praised enough about the song are the little details in the first verse that he lists off; he’s saying “it’s not” to all of these things before explaining that “it is” the fact that one day one of them will be gone which gives him urgency. We get to that part and forget the specificity and the beauty in all of the “it’s nots,” as he lists unique details that could only be specific to Amanda Shires and speak of a love deep and familiar. Add the fact that she sings with him here, and this is just a brilliant song through and through.

#5: Jason Eady–“Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled record

IN terms of sheer idea for a song, this has got to be the best of the year. It’s written about the man who was set free in order that Jesus might be crucified, yet nowhere, aside from the title, do we hear Barabbas or Jesus mentioned. It’s both deeply personal to those of faith and universal to all, and this speaks to the subtlety in the storytelling of Jason Eady. Also, we like to talk about Amanda shires and Morgane Stapleton adding a lot to their husbands’ records, but Courtney Patton’s harmony here adds a gorgeous element to this as well.

#4: Aaron Watson–“Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero

This song is the perfect explanation for why we have to separate songs from albums, and even songs from artists. Yeah, Aaron Watson made a pretty light, fun record–and then there’s this, the best story song of the year. It’s the tale of Mariano and his daughter, Isabel, who flee to Texas to escape the cartels of Mexico. It ends happily for Isabel, as she ends up married to the narrator. But Mariano is deported and ends up shot in the back before he can come to America legally. Another timely song that speaks to issues facing us in 2017, but again, not told with hatred, but rather told in the form of a story, to educate and unite as only music can. Add in the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream,” and this song gets even better.

#3: Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True”

From Wrangled

Well, this definitely gets Opener of the Year. Who opens a record by telling their audience dreams don’t come true, and not only that, “don’t let anyone tell you they do?” It’s 2017, we’re all supposed to be living our lives to the fullest and such; there are so many songs telling us we’re perfect how we are, and if we believe in ourselves, our dreams will certainly come true…and then this comes at you like a complete reality check. Instead of making hit records, Angaleena wound up pregnant. Instead of being famous for three chords and the truth, she’s struggled in the industry to get the recognition she deserves. And it’s sadly a reality much truer for many of us than the platitudes we hear so often these days. Yet this song is told with enough humor that it lightens the blow a little and is delivered as fresh, candid honesty that sometimes not even our closest friends and family can give us.

#2: Jason Eady–“Black Jesus”

From Jason Eady

This one was only an Honorable Mention on my midyear list, but it has come out of the blue over the past few months to earn its place here. This is exactly the song we need in 2017, not dividing us into races and classes and sexes, yet not preachy and judgmental and ultimately accomplishing nothing with its message. Its subtlety was the reason it hadn’t earned a top spot by the middle of the year, but that’s the exact reason it has earned this now–Jason Eady simply tells a story of two men, one white and one black, coming together, side by side at work, bonding over music. We need more songs like this, spreading unity and peace, and yet at the same time, there are a lot of them that just come off preachy. This song has been covered on two other albums that I know of in 2017, and that speaks to how it’s impacting many people in its own special, subtle way.

Song of the Year: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–“Last of my Kind”

From The Nashville Sound

This, as I say, was a ridiculously difficult list to make, but I kept coming back to this song. It’s a picture of nostalgia for days past and people now gone, something we can all relate to, but it’s the aforementioned details in Jason Isbell’s writing that blow me away here. The narrator is unhappy with life in the city; seems like an ordinary theme, but a line like “nobody here can dance like me, everybody clapping on the one and the three” is just insane. It’s a sentiment many of us can understand, yet it also seems to be personal to Isbell, reflecting the dichotomy he experiences as a Southerner with often very different views from those around him. It’s that feeling of being caught in the middle, of never belonging, of life seeming to have passed you by. It’s ironic that he feels like the last of his kind because so many of us feel this way too. Ultimately, this is that perfect balance of personal and universal, specific and timeless, and this, in a very strong list, is the best song of 2017 and the one that has affected me the most.

Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell is a fascinating, thought-provoking songwriter, and this is exactly the type of album that should, and does, stir conversation and differing perspectives. It seems like every person I’ve talked to who’s listened to this and every review or opinion I’ve read has added something different to my own thoughts. So it seemed like the perfect record for Brianna and I to collaborate on and share our thoughts in conversational form.

Conversation

Megan: I think we have to start out by making the point that this really didn’t turn out to be a political record.
Brianna: I was pretty afraid it would be, given the title of “White Man’s World.”
Megan: “White Man’s World” is really about as political as it ever gets. I already talked about that song, but I think it was a great message and better coming from a white man. And I think it’ll be more effective on this album that really isn’t too political otherwise.
Brianna: I think that was more effective too, but I have to agree with Trigger from Saving Country Music–we should all stop labeling each other and just be people. But yes, the song was very well done, and I liked it. It was very intense musically, and I liked the theme. It’s a very political time, and he did well with that song and the message he expressed about privilege.
Megan: Yes, I think the “stop labeling each other” bit was sort of what Jason was going for with “Hope the High Road.” I know that’s one place we disagree here; you enjoyed that song, but I think it has some mixed signals. Like that’s the message, but then he has the line, “there can’t be more of them than us.”
Brianna: I do think that line complicates things. I like the energy of the song, though.
Megan: You said something to me the other day about this record that fascinated me, so I think you should share it, and that was that this is a very restless album. So please, elaborate on that.
Brianna: Well, you have songs like “Anxiety.” I think that one best shows it. He’s very emotional and unsure; he’s anxious. I just think that theme gets played out a lot over the album. I mean, he’s wondering if he’s the only one who feels empathy on “Last of my Kind.” He’s wondering how the world will be for his daughter once she’s grown. I think it’s all very emotionally restless.
Megan: Yes, I think you’re right. I’d also say that restlessness comes out in sound. You have folk and rock and country, and I think he called this The Nashville Sound for a reason, because it’s almost like it can’t settle on anything.
Brianna: I’d have to agree with you on that. I mean, of course I like that it’s quite varied, but it just fits in very well with the whole restless theme. Adding to all that the many influences in Nashville, and I think you may have something there with the name.
Megan: At first, I didn’t like the hard, rocking “Cumberland Gap” sandwiched between “Last of my Kind” and “Tupelo,” both softer, more acoustic songs, but after you pointed out the restlessness, I realized that’s what connects them. The characters in those first three songs are all unhappy in the world they’re living in, and the difference is just that the guy in “Cumberland Gap” explodes about it, lol. By the way, “Last of my Kind” is a killer song. It hit me hard in a personal way. One of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Brianna: OH, now that’s a great point. It makes total sense now that you pointed it out. And I also loved “Last of my Kind.” There’s a moment where he talks about an old man being ignored by everyone but him–that moment was just so poignant.
Megan: What hit me most was that first verse, him not being happy in the city and people not dancing like him, all “clapping on the one and the three.” Actually, I just thought all the first five tracks were brilliant.
Brianna: I like that verse too, but something about the old man being ignored by everyone just got me. The first half is definitely the best for me too. After that, I start to have some issues. “Anxiety” is a really good song, and we’ve talked about how emotionally restless it is. I like that. However, the production is really messy, and it didn’t work for me. I also have pretty big issues with the production of “Chaos and clothes.” There are some layered vocals in that song that really distract me and keep me from digging deeper into the song. “Molotov” is one I’m still trying to figure out, and if you have any kind of insight into that one, I’m all ears.
Megan: “Chaos and Clothes” is awful. I don’t care how deep the lyrics are, or how artsy and cool it’s meant to be, that layering of the vocal track renders it unlistenable. Jason Isbell can make, or at least agree to, better production decisions than that. That’s what makes it even worse, he’s just better than that. “Anxiety” has really grown on me, and I do agree that he didn’t need the angry production behind him to help with the song. I’m struck enough by lines like “I’m out here living in a fantasy” and “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” on their own,” so the production takes it down a little. I feel like he was trying to be vulnerable, and it would have been better stripped back. I’m really enjoying “Molotov” after a few listens. Nice, nostalgic love song. It sort of pales in comparison to the genius that is “If we Were Vampires,” but it’s still a great song.
Brianna: Again, I completely agree with you about “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s weird and distracting, and it doesn’t sound great. I’m glad you figured “Molotov” out. Also, nothing will beat “If we Were Vampires” this year. I’ts impossible. I mean, it’s all about mortality, and the fact that because we have it, everything means so much more. I love that song.
Megan: It’s incredible. I think the closer will be a bit underrated, but “Something to Love” is a fine piece of writing too.
Brianna: OH, you have to appreciate “Something to Love.” From my perspective, it’s all about his daughter, and how he hopes she finds something that makes her happy despite the world’s darkness. I really like the song.
Megan: I agree, closes out the restless album with some hope. All in all, after some listens, strong 8 for me. The first half and the closer are stellar, with a couple of other good songs. It’s one of those rare times I actually wish the album had been longer, because on say, a 12-song project, this might be an 8.5 or even possibly a 9, but “Chaos and Clothes” and, for me, “Hope the High Road,” bring it down too much.
Brianna: I agree with you, I have to give it an 8 as well. I was thinking 7.5 at first–I know, unpopular opinion–but honestly? “If we Were Vampires,” “Last of my Kind,” and “White Man’s World” are fantastic. Add to that the fact that I really like all the rest aside from “Anxiety” and “Chaos and Clothes,” and I like 80% of the album…so 8 it is! I too think there was a bit too much filler and/or weird production choices to bring this album up to an 8.5 or 9. All in all, this is a solid album for me, but I still say Southeastern and Something More Than Free are better albums.
Megan: I like the songs of Southeastern, but it’s too dark for me as a fan. I love Something More Than Free, and I think this, in places, is stronger. That got a 9 from me here, and it was more consistent, but honestly, I’ll play this more. This is the Jason Isbell record I’ve connected to and enjoyed most overall.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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My Top 13 Songs of 2017 So Far

Editor’s Note: I wrote “my” instead of “Country Exclusive’s” for a reason; this does not necessarily reflect the views of our entire site. Also, these are not, and I repeat, not, in any order. Finally, with the exception of one song which I felt it would be idiotic to leave out, these are all from stuff we have covered in some fashion, either by a full-length review or perhaps through a feature in our “Memorable Songs from Overlooked Albums” pieces. Normally, I would restrict this to stuff one of us has actually written about, but that would leave out one song which, like I say, it would be a glaring sin not to bring up here. So take all this into consideration, and feel free to leave your own lists of songs and thoughts about these in the comments below!

Aaron Watson: “Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero
The first song to really blow my mind in 2017, this is a great and timely story about Isabel and her father, Mariano, who flee to America to escape the cartels of Mexico. Isabel ends up married to the narrator of the song, but her father is deported and later gunned down. It’s an honest and heartbreaking look at immigration, not to mention a brilliant song. Even better with the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream.”

Jaime Wyatt: “Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues
Jaime Wyatt is probably the name I’m most excited about breaking out in 2017. She has a way of singing about hardship that still manages to put a smile on your face, and this is just a stellar song that gets better every time I hear it.

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

This one comes off Puxico, which we didn’t review in full, but it was partly responsible for the “Memorable Songs” features because this track about the lonely, forgotten river town of Cairo, Illinois, is one of the best songs of the year and should by no means be overlooked.

Jason Eady: “Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled album
Purely from a songwriting standpoint, this has to be the cleverest thing to come out this year, telling us the story of the man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus, yet never mentioning Jesus or religion, and instead allowing the song to be a timeless track for everyone, although connecting even more deeply with those of faith.

Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True

From Wrangled
This just blew me away on the first listen; who’s going to tell you, especially at the beginning of their record, that look, dreams don’t come true, and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise? But it’s Angaleena Presley’s reality, and credit her for confronting it head-on to deliver us something so powerfully painful and honest.

Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”

Also from Wrangled
Angaleena Presley has the distinction of being the only one on the list with two entries, but this song is equally deserving. From the wonderful melody to the thought-provoking lyrics about being “wrangled” by her life and husband, this song stands out just as much as “Dreams Don’t Come True.”

Brad Paisley: “Gold All Over the Ground”

From Love and War
What, a mainstream name like Brad Paisley? Yes, that’s what I said. This is Paisley’s musical adaptation of a poem composed by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s, and they don’t make love songs like this anymore. Between the poetry of Cash and the arrangement of Paisley, it has definitely earned its place among the best songs so far in 2017.

Colter Wall: “Kate McCannon

From Colter Wall’s self-titled album
There were many outstanding songs on Colter Wall’s debut record, I just picked the one that shined a tiny bit brighter than the rest.

Chris Stapleton: “Either Way”

From From a Room, Volume 1
I didn’t always think Chris Stapleton showed emotion on his new album–sometimes he just belted songs, and they lost a little of the passion. But this is one moment where he absolutely killed it, and this version might be better than the original LeeAnn Womack version.

The Steel Woods: “Straw in the Wind”

From Straw in the Wind
What a dark, ominous tale–this one comes from one of our collaborative reviews, and Brianna and I both agreed that this story of a town where strangers “disappear like straw in the wind” is a standout of the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “If we Were Vampires”

Yeah, here’s the one I didn’t review, but this is one of the best songs of Isbell’s career, and when I said they don’t make love songs like that anymore about Paisley’s, I guess Isbell proved me wrong. He mentions all the details he loves about his wife, and more than that, he makes you think of death as a gift because it allows you to be a better lover and make the moments last. What a beautiful and morbid picture of love; I’ve never been sad, happy, and scared while listening to a love song before, but that’s what Jason Isbell does here.

Kasey Chambers: “Jonestown

From Dragonfly
The standout of Chambers’ recent double album, this one deals with hardship and discrimination and tells a great story. Probably the most underrated and least known one on the list.

Trisha Yearwood: “Maggie’s Dream”

This one is from the Gentle Giants album, and like I said before when I mentioned this song, I don’t care that it’s a cover, it’s still one of the best songs of the year. Trisha Yearwood delivered a better rendition of an already great song, and she’s earned her place on this list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Eady: “Black Jesus”
  • John Moreland: “Love is Not an Answer”
  • Lauren Alaina: “Same Day, Different Bottle”
  • Zac Brown Band: “All the Best”
  • Kelleigh Bannen: “Church clothes”
  • Rhiannon Giddens: “Better Get it Right the First Time”
  • Sam Outlaw: “Everyone’s Looking For Home”

Song Review: “White Man’s world” by Jason Isbell And the 400 Unit

Rating: 8.5/10

Let me first say I didn’t want to review every single from the new Jason Isbell album, so I didn’t cover “If we Were Vampires,” but that is one of the best songs of jason Isbell’s career. I wouldn’t have covered this one either, except that I feel it needs discussing, and more than a couple sentences in an album review. More than that, I see, understandably, that people are hesitant to review it because of the political backlash that could ensue. But we all pretty much knew Jason Isbell was going to get political at some point on this albu, and he released this song ahead of The Nashville Sound for a reason; he didn’t want it to be an album cut that people ignored or passed over, he wanted people to be talking about it, so I’m rising to that challenge.

Jason Isbell is quite up front in his delivery of this, speaking as the white man in a “white man’s world,” a “white man’s street,” a “white man’s town,” and “a white man’s nation.” This is what makes this song speaking out against discrimination arguably more hard-hitting; it’s not coming from a minority, it’s coming from a white man who recognizes that it’s a white man’s world and wants to change that. He looks at his daughter and notes that “thought this world could be hers one day, but her mama knew better.” He goes on to explain that “her mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her.” It’s acknowledging both the discrimination against women in general and specifically within Nashville and country music. Isbell goes on to lament that the highway was built over a Native Ameircan burial ground–“got the bones of the red man under my feet” and then regrets that he ever turned a deaf ear to “another white man’s joke” when he looks “into a black man’s eyes.” It’s told with frankness and honesty, and the little details like that last fact, that he has been guilty of ignoring such things in the past, make the song real and regretful as opposed to just preachy. He ends the song by saying that he still carries hope, maybe because of the “fire in my little girl’s eyes.” It’s exactly the kind of song we need in 2017, and credit to Jason Isbell, a white man, for being the one to deliver it.

My slight criticisms with this song have to do with the fact it doesn’t quite stick melodically. The verses do, when he’s listing the examples I mentioned, but the chorus isn’t really grabbing me, and in that sense, it sort of reminds me of the first single, “Hope the High road,” because the melody doesn’t stand out all that much. There’s some really nice blending of country and rock instrumentation, and the fiddle solo adds a nice touch. Still, although the music is where my criticism lies, it’s the lyrics that make this song important, and it’s the lyrics that Jason Isbell wanted us to be discussing and pondering. So, overall, it’s a very nice and timely song that has me looking forward even more to Jason Isbell’s record.

Written by: Jason Isbell

Song Review: “Cumberland Gap” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Rating: 9/10

I took some time with the second song from Isbell’s upcoming album before commenting on it here because “Hope the High Road” grew more and more forgettable as I listened to it. Brianna reviewed that, and she was quite impressed; so was I at first, but as I say, it started to get more generic. So I gave “Cumberland Gap” several listens, and I’m happy to say it’s having exactly the opposite effect, getting better each time.

“Cumberland Gap” speaks directly to the life and hardship in that region, but even if you’re not from that little stretch of a Appalachia running through Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, you can relate to a town with little else besides “churches, bars, and grocery stores” if you come from any little town in America or across the world. It’s that universality that makes the lyrics of the song stand out and will help many understand the pain the narrator feels as he tries to avoid facing the window at the local bar so he can imagine himself in any other town. It’s remarkable how these lyrics can still speak even with this heavy production–because let me tell you, this is not country or folk or singer/songwriter, this is rock, or perhaps more accurately southern rock. This is what Jason Isbell promised ahead of The Nashville Sound, and it’s certainly present on this song. That production works here, as it adds an edge and an anger to the darkness of these lyrics.
The one criticism I have against “Cumberland Gap” is sometimes the lyrics can be lost in the recording, and I wish I could hear them more clearly. It took several listens to make out some of them, and once I could, the song got even better. overall, though, this made me look forward to the album much more than “hope the High road.” But definitely be prepared for the rock production because if these two tracks are any indication, this will not be another Something More Than Free. Take that as you will; so far, I’m on board.

Written by: Jason Isbell