The 2019 LEO Playlist: Our Favorite Local Songs Of The Year

Art often reflects social concerns, and that can be seen in LEO’s playlist of favorite local songs from 2019. There are some happy and optimistic songs, but from others, you can certainly piece together quite a few threads of worry about climate change, gentrification, chronic poverty, mental health and how technology is making us miserable, just to name a few. As usual, we had an enormous number of songs to choose from, since, once again, a wide range of Louisville artists released records this past year. These 20 songs are just the start of what is out there, a short list of our favorites that we whittled down from a bunch of options. In previous years, it would make me mad when people would inevitably comment on social media: “How could you leave [X band] off of this list?” I was frustrated that people couldn’t appreciate the list as just an end-of-the-year reminder of some of the good songs that they might have forgotten about or missed. Now, I see those comments in a different way —  they mean people are wildly passionate about local bands. And that’s not the case in every city. Anyway, here’s this year’s list of LEO’s favorite songs, shuffled into a random order. —Scott Recker 


Wombo — ‘Sad World’
How can such an upbeat song be titled “Sad World?” The meaning of the song lies beneath the catchy, percussion click sounds created from an upturned silver trophy cup and the complementary guitar and bass notes. The fact that personal connections have taken a backseat to virtual relations is the narrative, and this song recognizes human connection as valuable currency. Sydney Chadwick sings in a matter-of-fact style of Morrissey lament: “If you’re feeling blue, shaking hands, all better,” which is a simple remedy to finding basic human contact. However, she claims she’s just as guilty: “I write of what I don’t know, most the time, out of touch.” The music video channels ‘80s MTV glory with collaged still shots and longing looks to further the heartbreak. “Sad World” is a clever protest disguised as a pop song with instrumental breaks so good that you’ll be bopping and kicking your legs like the Joker on those stairs. —Julie Gross


1200 — ‘Gentrification’
While Jecorey Arthur’s previous record, 2017’s Seance / Spirit, was a massive, 24-song semi-autobiographical mediation, his newest record, this year’s Arsnova, is a fire-breathing social critique, and “Gentrification” is the most razor-sharp three minutes from it. Arthur, a community activist who records under the moniker 1200, recently announced his candidacy for city council, and this song uses stories of injustice to inspire change. It’s honest, angry, thoughtful, striking and has the ability to just make you stop and listen. “Gentrification” — which contains elements of Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 8” — is about how wealthy developers buy, restructure and profit off of struggling neighborhoods. He doesn’t give vague references either — instead Arthur focuses directly on local issues, like when he’s recounting someone’s story, ending the verse with, “right before they knocked his home down and called it NuLu.” —Scott Recker 


White Reaper — ‘Might Be Right’
What’s that? Another sonically melodic and situationally complicated love song from White Reaper? That’s right! They did it again. “Might Be Right” doesn’t repeat the past, though. White Reaper has a recipe that they have been fine-tuning over their last three albums, and this track from their latest record, You Deserve Love, is proof. Tighter drum beats with a bassline that keeps the pace are the backbone. They take chances, deviating from the normal 4/4 time signature of rock music. This is supported by synth parts that are no longer a novelty but are used to give depth to the overall sound of the band. The two guitars bounce off of each other, reassemble and then explode into dual guitar solos without losing the soul of the song. Pairing this with Tony Esposito’s musings on potentially being put into the friend zone makes for a perfectly fun rock song that one can tune into to mend a broken heart or to just say, “Fuck it — let’s have fun.” —Nik Vechery


Bridge 19 — ‘Out of Control’
From Bridge 19’s third album, In the Afterglow, “Out of Control” is another song that examines the integrity of human relationships. Whether speaking to a lost connection, an immediate confrontation or addressing troublesome events, nothing carries these notions better than the vocal harmonies of group founders Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil. The duality of their roles as guitarists and frontwomen lends to a feel of conversation in their lyrics. “Out of Control” is direct melancholy. It’s sweet, sad and stirs up some unusual, perhaps forgotten recollections. The initial, gentle riff edges on that plane of emotional uncertainty, but it’s all eventually addressed before the last chords ring out: “Haunted by the thoughts I can’t let go / Holding on to things I can’t un-know / I’m out of control.” —Lara Kinne


Stonecutters — ‘The Living Dead’
It’s not hard to imagine Linnea Quigley dancing through Cave Hill Cemetery while blasting this slasher of a track on a nearby boom box. Chalk up “The Living Dead” as yet another absolute punisher from the metal maestros in Stonecutters, who already have a steady arsenal. And while I’m certainly always hungry for more, this particular song might be one of the band’s finest efforts to date. And maybe it’s the trioxin speaking, but if this is a precursor to Stonecutters’ future endeavors, these guys are almost certain to become legendary. And not just in Louisville but in the metal community at large, as I feel that as good as they’ve been with their last couple of records, their best is yet to come. But for the time being, as Suicide once said, “What’s wrong with you, man? Show some fuckin’ respect for the dead, will ya!?” —Phillip Olympia


Peter Wesley — ‘Dunkaroos (Just Another Afternoon)’
Whether it’s pro wrestling or “Pokémon,” Peter Wesley is passionate about his interests. But don’t get his work confused with nerd rap, as Wesley uses pop culture not as a gimmick but as the avenue for bigger themes. With “Dunkaroos (Just Another Afternoon),” Wesley explores his own innocence, referencing cartoons, snack foods and the ennui that we have all known in our adolescence. He turns that nostalgia on its head by calling out the supposed realness of the rap world; being an indoor kid is just as much a part of his experience — and just as valid — as hustling in the streets. Wesley empowers everyday folks to find the beauty in the mundane and embrace their own interests, no matter how cool or uncool that may be perceived. —Syd Bishop


Bonnie “Prince” Billy — ‘Look Backward On Your Future, Look Forward To Your Past’
Linear story songs usually aren’t Will Oldham’s thing, but “Look Backward On Your Future, Look Forward To Your Past” nails the format with a zany, satirical, Vonnegut-esque plot that unfolds in hyperbolic yet extremely socially astute ways. The song, off of Oldham’s first album of originals under the Bonnie moniker in almost a decade, is not overcomplicated or unnecessarily dense, but it’s stylistic and crafty enough to send you back to the beginning for multiple listens, searching for clues. “Look Backward On Your Future, Look Forward To Your Past” might be one of Oldham’s most out of place songs, but it has enough wit, humor and depth to rank among his best. —Scott Recker 


Marc DiNero — ‘Pressure’
“Pressure” is the intro track on hip-hop artist Marc DiNero’s latest release, Inception, and it sets an intense tone for the remainder of the album, with gritty, hard-hitting, unfiltered lyrics. Driven by a heavy bass line, DiNero delivers sharp and witty rhymes that are reminiscent of a young Beanie Sigel at the height of the Roc-A-Fella dynasty. Losing is not an option for DiNero, and your opinion will not be the measure of his success. His passion in this song is bold and motivational, and the energy is fit for a boxer’s entrance. If you know, you know, and if you don’t, find out before the pipes burst, and this guy is out of here. —Romell Weaver 


GRLwood — ‘Get Shot’
How many songs are dedicated to the advice mamas gave to live an anguish-free life? Three Dog Night’s mama told them not to go to a party, LL Cool J’s mama said to knock out his critics, and Dolly Parton’s mama wouldn’t stand for her being with a traveling man. Well, GRLwood adds to the motherly advice for the 21st century with a mouth full of tongue-in-cheek. Rej Forester bemoans the advice, “Mama said, be nice to sad boys or else get shot,” as if this is the simple solution to surviving a public shooting. Her mama includes cops and the night in general as reasons you might get shot, and all a girl had to do was be nice. Through Karen Ledford’s gunfire drumbeats and Forester’s screams of frustration, the message is clear — that public safety shouldn’t be based on gender. —Julie Gross  


Jordan Jetson — ‘Deva’
A few months ago, Louisville lost what Atlanta gained, as Jordan Jetson left town to move to Georgia’s capital, which has long been a hip-hop juggernaut. His parting gift was the album Deva. The title track finds Jetson reflecting on personal darkness and using that as his inspiration to grow. When Jetson rhymes, “Tried to end it all, put the blade to my arm / Quick slice and the gold start pouring from my wrist,” he isn’t mincing words. There is a power in admitting your own fears and reclaiming them as something that can make you stronger. Unlike so many contemporary rappers, Jetson uses his lyrics as a force for humility and vulnerability instead of a pipeline for unfiltered braggadocio. That earnestness comes through in one of the most powerful takes of the year. —Syd Bishop

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Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper — ‘Tall Fiddler’
The new album from Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper shares a name with its strongest song, a hard-driving bluegrass instrumental called “Tall Fiddler,” which, ironically, came to Cleveland by way of guitar god Tommy Emmanuel. “I first heard the song ‘Tall Fiddler’ on an album called Tommy Emmanuel Live! at the Ryman, and it blew me away immediately,” Cleveland told LEO. “I was so surprised to hear what was unmistakably a fiddle tune on a finger-style guitar album, and then, of course, I had to wonder if he had ever recorded it with a fiddle player.” Cleveland recorded his version of the song with his band Flamekeeper, and Emmanuel was also a featured guest on it. This song is the perfect example of how Michael Cleveland, in recent years, has transitioned from merely playing with some of the greats in his field, to becoming one of them himself. Plus, it is impossible to listen to this one without smiling big. Go ahead and try. —Kevin M. Wilson


Twenty First Century Fox — ‘DANCE!!!!! (New Energy)’
Even though Twenty First Century Fox’s third album, New Energy, was released last summer, we’re still buzzing about its delightful contents, and “DANCE!!!!! (New Energy),” the album’s closer, is one of the most infectious tracks. A serrated guitar riff, matched with loud, persistent bass and a determination to ignite a fire amplifies the changes that TFCF pursued in the making of this record, as they explored alternative angles in their off-kilter rock. In its nature, this song is like a dance party around a fire pit, as singer Miranda Cason rushes along its edges, before escaping into the words “Don’t. You. Want. To. Dance.” It’s one of those songs (and records) that entices picking up the nearest set of electric strings. —Lara Kinne


Joan Shelley — ‘The Fading’
Joan Shelley has continuously excelled in writing melodic and lean folk songs that provide enough information to be evocative but withhold enough to be ambiguous. That juxtaposition is at the core of “The Fading.” It’s a song about being present and thankful in the face of impending disaster — in this case, mainly the climate reaching we’re-all-fucked status, but there are other, more subtle, threads, such as a fracturing relationship, that come into play. It’s a razor-sharp and ominous message delivered in a peaceful, reassuring, sincere tone — Shelley isn’t worried, because there’s living left to do. And while the first two verses are somewhat mysterious and shrouded in poeticism, she leaves us with clear intentions: “And oh, Kentucky stays in my mind, it’s sweet to be five years behind / That’s where I’ll be when the seas rise, holding my dear friends and drinking wine.” —Scott Recker 


Boa — ‘Blue Sky Cruisin’
If there was a song that epitomized the summer of 2019, it would be this one. You can feel the heavy mugginess of a Southern July day with every slow, steady and groovy beat. Shane Spader sings, “The sun was shining, but I don’t know what for,” as if he were observing the green grass and the blue sky from his front door after awakening from an Indica-induced nap. Plus, there’s nothing like getting in your car, rolling down the windows and taking a cruise for no reason but to feel the wind crisscross through your hair, and this song is the perfect soundtrack for that. You can thump your thumb on the wheel to the groove, and the lyric “How could you lose it, if you never had it at all?” causes pause. Considering this conundrum, the song turns to an all-out jam that gets you to where you’re going before you need to answer the question. —Julie Gross


Pleasure Boys — ‘This Side of Town’
“This Side of Town” comes in quick with a kick drum and hi-hat punctuating every note from the beginning to the end, while a synth line hums an experimental atmosphere to life. These two aspects are tied together: The four-on-the-floor rhythm gives the freak-out flourishes of guitars and synths room to breathe. Psychedelic punches explore different corners of the song. Singer McKinley Moore hollers into the night, repeating variations of three stanzas that dip and dive in and out of the music, always ending with “you could be a one-night show.” He sounds encouraging, but he also sounds desperate — a range of emotions that is tied down by Lacey Gutherie’s calm, anchoring vocals. She floats in and counterpoints Moore’s franticness. Every aspect of this song has a yin to its yang and when a band like this becomes tight, both sides combine to form genius. —Nik Vechery


Blind Scryer — ‘Blind Scryer’
Who doesn’t love a song that begins with a monster bass tone playing a laid back, head-nodding groove? And the song “Blind Scryer” from the album Blind Scryer by the band Blind Scryer could be described as monstrous in every aspect — most notably, lead singer Blair Yoke’s powerful wails. Every note he hits could be summoning a demon. These guys are technically stoner metal, and that vibe is definitely evident in “Blind Scryer.” The drums are so deliberate that they feel as if they are stuck in the molasses of the riffs surrounding them. However, a song about a fortune teller must be epic, and so it enters a gallop with a few breakdowns before coming back around to the original riffs you fell in love with. —Jake Hellman 


Daniel Martin Moore — ‘Never Look Away’
The song that lands Daniel Martin Moore on this best of 2019 list has actually been with him for a little while. He wrote  “Never Look Away” in 2015 and initially recorded it back in 2017, but the song wasn’t released until this year, when it became the title track of his latest album. Moore has maintained that he sees this particular tune as a reminder that all hope is not lost, and that it is still possible to be peaceful in this day and age. With this one, Daniel Martin Moore conveys heartfelt emotion that is wrapped around a beautiful arrangement. And in a larger sense, it seems to somehow define our moment in time, making it something you’ll want to keep on repeat for years to come. —Kevin M. Wilson


Jaye Jayle — ‘Soline’
The Western swagger of Jaye Jayle has only grown more sinister with time. You can smell the whiskey on the character’s voice in “Soline” — a leathery figure who deals only in certainties and grit. With each passing year, singer/guitarist Evan Patterson embraces his gruff baritone, moving further away from his post-hardcore roots into the grim cowboy who shuns platitudes and small talk. When Patterson sings the line, “The thing about the fire is, it can’t be pretend,” he does so with a grimy sheen. Backed by dulcet harmonies from Emma Ruth Rundle, Patterson and company have morphed into a resplendent neo-noir. —Syd Bishop


Dr. Dundiff — ‘Skat’ (ft.  James Lindsey)
The Dr. Dundiff hip-hop factory is clearly never closed as this guy’s work ethic seems to only get stronger every year. And while the relentlessly growing quantity might suggest possible dips in quality, I’m here to tell ya that this guy is incapable of half-assing anything. Case in point: “Skat,” on which Dundiff is joined by the always dependable James Lindsey (formerly known as JaLin Roze). Boasting not much more than a simple piano and drum combo, this jazzy toe-tapper radiates a sense of warmth that I’ve grown to know and love from this dude. While I appreciate every track on this album, this song in particular is one of my favorites in Dundiff’s entire catalogue because there’s a hopeful vibe behind the lyrics and composition that pushes it beyond just another song. For me, “Skat” is the motivational hip-hop pick-me-up that I didn’t know I needed in my life. —Phillip Olympia 


Hazelfire — ‘The Great Famine of the Young Adult’
While Hazelfire bounces all over the spectrum of punk and alt-rock, sometimes even wandering into the outskirts of metal, “The Great Famine of the Young Adult” uses Nirvana-esque, quiet-loud-quiet grunge as the backdrop of this story about someone starving to death, eating squirrels and bites of their own body to survive. Balancing social commentary and dark humor, the song is about a lack of opportunities and options — how society is tilted in favor of some, and how certain people become invisible because of it. It’s not an outright protest or political song, but it brings you directly to the end result of greed. It’s a visceral plot, and there are things the song doesn’t have to say. We already know. —Scott Recker

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