The Outside Rail

The website title says horse racing so you should expect some horse racing in this spot. This is not it. OK, here’s a little . . . the Eclipse Awards voting choices for 2020 were difficult, maddening and kind of weak at the same time. Here’s to better stuff in 2021. But, let’s turn to something else. Music.

I might be the least musical person on the planet. I can’t sing (well), play an instrument, read sheet music or otherwise do anything even remotely musical. Somehow, however, I became a person who gives away music for Christmas. First, they were CDs. Now, they’re playlists (Apple Music and Spotify). Weird, right? I’ve been doing this since 2013, my family hasn’t told me to stop yet and Cool Songs 2020 was the eighth edition. I think. If you’ve got an older version out there, let me know.

The songs come from all over and trend toward singer-songwriter, Americana, old-school rock (or what sounds like old-school rock to me), sad songs, ballads, a little bit of everything. I listen to WXPN, the commercial-free radio station at the University of Pennsylvania, and when I hear something I like I use Shazam to figure out what it is – or try to remember – and by December I’ve got a list. In general, the songs must have been released during the year in question so Cool Songs 2013 consisted of songs released in 2013 and so on. Occasionally, an exception is warranted – like when Tom Petty made the 2017 list as a memorial. Also, this is the second year without CDs. The playlist is easier to make, easier to share but not quite as cool to hand out as a present.

I like them all, but Cool Songs 2020 might be the best one yet, a sign that one good thing to come out of the pandemic was some really good music. The playlist consists of 27 songs.

  1. How Lucky, Kurt Vile (feat. John Prine). Sometimes you need a reminder.
  1. Cigarette (Age of Innocence), Mondo Cozmo. I heard this artist’s breakthrough song “Shine” on XPN a few years ago and got hooked. Josh Ostrander (that’s his real name) has a great story and should have a bigger following. His newest music came from a flood of writing after punching his hand through a glass door at a recording session.
  1. Count On Me, The Lone Bellow. I love the encouragement of this song. The world was at times a terrible place in 2020. It was nice to have someone to count on.
  1. The Perilous Night, Drive-by Truckers. A protest song.
  1. Lockdown on Date Night Tuesday, Ondara. A pandemic song.
  1. Coney Island, Taylor Swift (feat. The National). Never thought she’d make one of these lists, but everything changed in 2020.
  1. Strong Enough, Ray LaMontagne. I forgot he released a new album in 2020. My wife Sam and I saw him in concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center years ago and he seemed to have stage fright. But he stood there and played beautiful music.
  1. Long Violent History, Tyler Childers. A new country song. Sounds like an old country song.
  1. Chinatown, Bleachers (feat. Bruce Springsteen). How many bands can get Bruce to be a “featured” contributor? Total XPN find. Just heard it one day and was hooked.
  1. Under The Table, Fiona Apple. This one is for Sam. She heard it, identified with it (cookie, don’t push her) and told me how much she liked it. I agreed. We’ve all been there.
  1. One More Second, Matt Berigner. I didn’t realize he was the lead singer of The National when I first heard this. Really cool voice. I put this song on a Corona Coping playlist that grew to 73 songs and lasted more than five hours (Safety Dance and Don’t Stand So Close to Me are also on there).
  1. I Remember Everything, John Prine. What a voice. What a loss.
  1. Cold, Chris Stapleton. This song and this artist would have been home in the early days of country music, alongside Willie, Waylon and the boys.
  1. My America, Ben Arnold. Recorded during the pandemic, this just made me think. Critics compared this to songs by Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie.
  1. Strange Girl, Laura Marling. She’s an English folk singer and actress with a beautiful voice. Just listen.
  1. Turntables, Janelle Monae. Angry song. Do the dishes.
  1. Foolish and Blue, LadyCouch. I had never heard of them, then XPN played this song. Cool new band out of Nashville.
  1. And It’s Still Alright, Nathaniel Rateliff. Encouraging song.
  1. My City of Ruins, Wesley Schultz. Yes, it’s a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s song. I didn’t know Schultz was the lead singer of The Lumineers until later. I also didn’t know this song is part of a full album of covers called Vignettes. Listen to it.
  1. Hold On, Yola (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby). I’m a massive Brandi Carlile fan. My wife and I saw her at The Mann in Philadelphia years ago when she opened for Ray LaMontagne. I remember thinking, “Who is this?” Now we know.
  1. World’s Not Gonna End, Josiah Johnson. The band The Head and The Heart might be responsible for this whole playlist thing. I heard them on XPN – Rivers and Roads I think – and was hooked immediately. Johnson used to be the lead singer, but went to rehab and lost his job. This song sounded like old The Head and The Heart to me. It’s also a bit of an anthem for our time. World’s Not Gonna End, or at least it’s nice to think it’s not.
  1. Letter To You, Bruce Springsteen. Yeah, I know, Springsteen is too mainstream. This is a great song though. It’s like a poem.
  1. Help Me, Low Cut Connie, Based in Philly, Low Cut Connie is an XPN staple. They remind me of a good bar band that took off. This song is part of a new album with some other good tunes you should hear.
  1. Drown In Love, Mondo Cozmo. Told you I was a big fan. I’ve seen him in concert twice and we had tickets to go in March 2020 (before the pandemic). Love this song. It’s sad, powerful, cool.
  1. A Beautiful Noise, Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile. The song was released to encourage voter turnout in 2020. Consider it a success.
  1. Five More Minutes, The War and Treaty. Another XPN find. Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount Trotter were the subject of a World Café interview and have a powerful story. He was in the military, served in Iraq (where he played a piano in a wrecked Saddam Hussein palace) and has the PTSD to prove it. This song title comes from what his wife told him when he sat on the stairs of their home and contemplated suicide.
  1. Peter’s Autograph, Jason Isbell. Beautiful song and fitting finale.

Thanks for reading, or listening. Listen to the whole playlist at Apple Music or Spotify below.



Opinions Archives

Opinions from 2013 to Present