Best Unplugged Sessions Countdown 2019
Posted on December 9, 2019
This is the seventh consecutive year that I’ve compiled a year end list of my favourite unplugged, live musical performances on video, and this year was really tough. As I combed through the usual sources like KEXP, eTown, Paste Studios and many others, I realized that there was far too much good material. I ended with 142 suitable videos, and after short listing the best ones still had 65. Getting down to the usual 30 would be too difficult, so I set the target at 40 tracks. The ‘short list’ was reviewed closely by myself, my wife, Nancy, and our daughter Anna Priemaza (author of Kat and Meg Conquer the World and Fan the Fame). Their input was combined with sundry opinions from family and friends to come up with this year’s countdown list. I hope I’m not making this sound like it’s work, because every moment is pure fun, for music lovers like ourselves. We get to listen to a lot of music, and talk about our responses to it. Every song on the list awed us; there’s so much incredible music out there. Now here is the playlist on youtube, from good to best. Commentary follows below.
If you enjoy this list, please share, as artists receive compensation based on view counts. If you are an artist on this list, please share with your audience; a musical artist doing the same for you may bring you new listeners, as well. A rising tide lifts all boats.
40. I always try to position a well known act at the anchor position to try and attract viewers with something familiar. In this case, that’s Of Monsters and Men (currently 14K views on this track.)
39. But my real goal is to help publicize the deserving, and lesser known, acts which abound in this post-hit musical era. And perhaps convince a few more folks to get out to concerts and music festivals, where you can really enjoy the efforts of the musical artistic community. ‘Wild Rivers’ is a band from Ontario, Canada with a fairly conventional folk-ish lineup and here, an impassioned performance of ‘Moving Target’ (3K views).
38. The Strumbellas have attracted a large following with their hit called ‘Spirits’ first released in 2015. I like this natural sounding performance of “I’ll Wait” with a great female vocal line responding to the lead. (16K views).
37. Desperado by the Cactus Blossoms. Not quite unplugged/ acoustic but close enough for a country song. Don and Phil have passed on. Long live Don and Phil! (32K views).
36. Cairo, Illinois by the Brother Brothers. You know how one line can just punch you in a song, and you’ve got that here. “When you can’t rely on what you make to pay the rent on time, so I’m going away …” Sounds like the musician’s lament, unfortunately, but everything else in this plaintive ballad just works. (<500 views).
35. Until Morning by Kate Rusby. Rusby is a seasoned English folk singer-songwriter with a lovely lilting voice in the tradition of Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. This is her latest offering. (28K views).
34. Without You by Joseph. Joseph is a high energy trio of singers who often work with rock accompaniment and have attracted a considerable following. But here it’s just three voices and one guitar, and frankly, to my ears, this is so much better. (2K views).
33. Don’t Disappoint Me by Ruth B. Ruth B’s song ‘Lost Boy’ was a certified platinum download in the US, but this song proves her versatility as a songwriter. Emotional vulnerability in a lyric, a sing-able melody and an evocative vocal will appeal to her followers and fans of pop music in general. (274K views).
32. Blood by Kelsey Lu. You’re going to love or hate this track. If you’re not immediately won over, try this trick. Put the background orchestral track into the foreground and listen less actively to the vocal line. The idea is to try and appreciate everything that is going on here; which is considerable. (500K views).
31. Paper Cut, Chinese Burn by Passenger. After Kelsey Lu, you’re back somewhere safe and sound, with this Passenger song. Lovely finger picked acoustic guitar, and the aching melancholy that would satisfy the Robert Burtons among us. (291K views).
30. Tap my Toes by Andy Shauf. Shauf has shown time and again that he’s a brilliant melodist, but in this track the guitar riff, best described as chunky, also stands out. Infectious, as is usual for Shauf. (2.5K views).
29. Red Lights in the Rain by Stephen Fearing. No hook here. Just consummately fine song writing and superb guitar accompaniment. A guy and a guitar, but one of the very best. (2.5K views).
28. A Safe Place to Land by Sara Bareilles with John Legend. Yes, it’s the ‘David Foster’ school of certain pop hit success, and you know what’s coming around the next corner, climaxing with some giant held notes. But it still grabs you, right? Be honest. I do think we get the raw ‘song’, the singing is superb, and the accompaniment remains relatively unobtrusive. (1.75 million views).
27. Joy Comes Back by Ruthie Foster. I’m personally not fond of what I’ll call the ‘sing along’ style of folk music. It’s fine when you’re singing, not so great for pure listening. But that reservation goes out the window when Ruthie Foster sings. And I also like the message of the song, which does have a fresh appeal. “I wanna be ready | when joy comes back to me | I’ve been surrounded by midnight”. I’m convinced, very convinced. (4.2K views).
26. Shrike by Hozier. Hozier had a mega-hit with ‘Take me to Church’, but how talented is he really? Phenomenally. The really talented ones are not afraid to perform with just voice and guitar. Okay, and a bit of fill from violin and keyboard. Revel in the lean sound which makes Hozier’s voice that much more deep and bluesy.
25. Meridian Ground by Kaia Kater. This begins with some pretty notes plucked on the guitar, and a bluesy flat drawl. Good, but I might be getting bored, and then comes a 90 degree turn and a superb chorus. The song builds from there and we’re transported to ‘a one-room house on the top road |With the candles cold … We swim out under the ships and flirt with pain like a mistress | Like the hemlock blade that bathes in the boiling tea’. So good; we’re transported to another place and time by Ms. Kater. (200+ views).
24. Kalangala by River Whyless. If this group performs anywhere near where you live, just go. I’ve seen them a few times now, and look forward to seeing them again. This is one of the few videos that somewhat translates what River Whyless does on stage, which is rhythmic intensity, innovative instrumental technique and uncatchy but pleasing riffs, the kind that sound better and better on repeat. (45K views).
23. Younger Years by Milk Carton Kids. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, the Milk Carton Kids, have been exploring some different musical directions lately. Some of it worked and some, not so much, but it’s still all good. Here’s a newer song presented in a genre that will always work for them: Simon and Garfunkel-ish vocal harmonies and guitar. This time, it’s a Mokum Sessions track in the streets of Amsterdam, looking a little rough around the edges. But striking the perfect chord, or chords. But do keep working on a larger ensemble sound; it will get there. (1K views).
22. Castles by Freya Ridings. This is a leaner version of the pop hit. I don’t even like the official version to be honest. The reason is an excessively punchy, on the beat, percussion track, which just gets in the way, to my ears. But there’s none of that here, and so, you’ve got a great song that only needs a piano, and of course, Ridings’ inimitable alluring vocal style. Good stuff. (605K views).
21. Solid Ground by Micheal Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka is fantastic when he and his band are plugged in, and he’s very big in Europe at the moment. In this track, it’s just his warmly textured expressive vocal and a minimal organ accompaniment. It works. If you like this, try out his older, massive hit, ‘Cold Little Heart’. (410K views).
20. Stay Human II by Michael Franti and Spearhead. Earworm alert. Franti is awfully good with a hook. Joyful. (2.8K views).
19. Blankets of Sorrow by Bear’s Den. This does sound very much like one of the previous Bear’s Den’s songs, but it’s such a good one we don’t mind hearing it again. (29K views).
18. Feelings are Fatal by mxmtoon. Mxmtoon is a young singer-songwriter who writes brief, melodic, wry tunes like this one. She publishes directly to youtube, so try out some of her other work. (<400 views).
17. Don’t Settle by Glen Hansard. Don’t bail early on this one. This is one of those Hansard songs that builds gradually, and then Glen takes the intensity over the top. See if you can catch the homage to Liam Clancy toward the end. (5K views).
16. Ultestakon by Jeremy Dutcher. I caught and blogged about Dutcher’s riveting performance in Halifax in October 2018. Then he came to Kitchener and played with our local symphony, and while that was a really good concert, I still prefer this basic ensemble lineup with cello and drums. Dutcher’s mellow, sonorous tenor is a superb vehicle for this lost and refound music of the Mi’kmaq. (1K views).
15. Hallelujah by HAIM. Haim is one of the best rock trios going these days, but they do very well here entering the province of Handel and Leonard Cohen with a Hallelujah. (1.3 million views).
14. Library Magic by the Head and the Heart. This is one of the stronger songs on Head and the Heart’s best selling recent album. Here the singing and production is not nearly as polished, but the track is very evocative and much more intimate, suiting the lyric very well. (2.1K views).
13. Youth without Youth by Metric. I don’t usually include covers of older songs, but to my ears this sounds so much better than Metric’s original alternative rock version. In comparing view counts, it does seem like 3 million people might not agree with me, but please listen for yourself. Emily Haines’ performance, and the way it flows, is outstanding. (100 views).
12. Silver Civic by Charlotte Cornfield. We’re starting to get to the point where every song should be ranked higher than it is, but of course, that’s not possible. Cornfield’s gravelly, textured voice could captivate an audience singing something as simple as ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’, but here you get a lyric that will grab you. It’s poetry. (650 views).
11. Don’t Let Go by Molly Tuttle. Tuttle’s new album is not what I expected, best described as pop-bluegrass, maybe on the pop side of Alison Krauss. Mind you, it’s an excellent record. In this video, you might miss her guitar virtuosity, which is pushed a bit more into the background than I like. The coda to the song is an unexpected bonus. (8.6K views).
10. Seven Days by Twin Bandit. Not only is it 1952 once more, but aren’t you glad that there are young women who are writing and performing music like this in 2019. I know I am. (600 views).
9. Head over Heels by the Maes. I’ve been listening to the Maes for a few years now, and their music is often understated as it is here, but consummately beautiful and soft. On repeated listening I have found that their songs wear extremely well, the kind of song that sounds even better the twentieth time you hear it than it did the first. (3.4k views)
8. Into the Sun by Mandolin Orange. Time to relax and soak this up, folks. If you’re not relaxed, just put Mandolin Orange on repeat until you are. And that mandolin. Aahhh. (90K views)
7. American Dream by J.S. Ondara. 8 minutes. Essentially one seven word line. A minimal guitar line. Why does this song work? Because this is as entrancing and magical as a vocal can get. (11.3K views).
6. Musta Been Something by Lake Street Dive. I’ve been waiting for something from Lake Street Dive that’s at the level of ‘You Go Down Smooth’ which topped this list a few years ago. And this is at that level; a vocal performance that keeps you hanging on every note, every turn, every nuance. (183K views).
5. Body by Julia Jacklin. There’s a thin line between hypnotic and boring. If this is boring for you, try paying closer attention. This is poetry first and foremost. Try not to miss a word, and see how the music serves the lyric, in the manner invented by Leonard Cohen. (25K views).
4. Sparrow by Emeli Sandé. For me, Ms. Sandé is the best voice in pop music today. And. She writes the songs. I could do without some of the elements of this arrangement which gets a bit overcrowded on the crescendoes, but most of this is sparse and dynamic enough for my taste. Could have been top of my list though with the availability of a solid alternative acoustic arrangement. (1.5 million views).
3. Hard to Love by Hamzaa. Here is Hamzaa, proving how much can be done with a few words, a piano and a voice. A lot, a heckuva lot. (447K views).
2. Singularity by Darlingside. As a song, this is number one. I sing this. Our daughter sings this. Our seven year old grand daughter has begun to sing this. Did you know this is about the end of the Earth, she was asked? Oh, okay, she says and keeps singing. And Darlingside sings this – to send shivers up your spine. (5.8K views).
1. We the Drowned by Lisa Hannigan and s t a r g a z e. This song was originally released on Lisa Hannigan’s record ‘At Swim’, a boundary-stretching collaboration with Aaron Dessner, the minimalist melodist prodigy from the band, the National. With her winning vocal coloratura, Hannigan could make ten more albums like her earlier record, Passenger, and I’d be a perfectly happy fan, but no, the ‘At Swim’ release demonstrated that Hannigan is a musical artist who will accept risk. Three years after its initial release, the risk factor increases again with this very brave orchestral and vocal re-arrangement of ‘We the Drowned’ from that album. This is much more than orchestral accompaniment; the performers clearly believe in the song and make every instrumental line and note count. Each time I listen I like this more; it’s an absolute tour-de-force performance and merits its position at the top of this year’s list. (26.5K views).
Now here is the extended list of unplugged videos for this year, if you’re eager to listen to even more. Truthfully, any of these songs could have been in the top 40, but there wasn’t enough room for all 141.
Note that the following is the extended list of songs. The top 40 songs are near the beginning of this post
Note. If you have a big screen smart TV or an Apple TV or Roku box, you can find these two playlists within your ‘youtube’ app by searching for ‘artsfols 2019’, or peruse all my playlists by searching for ‘artsfols’ only.
Any feedback left in the Comments box below is much appreciated.