Steven Hyden recently ranked his top 30 Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit songs, and I was tagged by a few people that asked for me to do a similar list of my own.
That’s the thing: this list is my own. These types of lists are entirely subjective, and generally, music fans are pretty respectful of those types of conversations. Steven’s list was great! It was his list! But as Isbell and his band have become the favorite band since E-Street of your favorite sports bloggers, there’s some kind of forced objectivity in it; as if there’s just one right answer. I, for one, celebrate the entire catalog.
It’s a thing that has taken a lot of fun out of a lot of things—the culture of sports talk—the thing I did for a solid decade of my life in one form or another. Sports is almost entirely objective—there are winners and there are losers, there are players that score the most points—but for some reason, its argumentative nature has infiltrated every single thing in our society. It’s ripped the fun out of lists like these and it’s transformed politics into teams rather than right and wrong. And it’s not the sports that I’ve grown to hate; it’s that the culture permeated our daily lives.
That said, here’s my list. I bet your list is good, too! I’m just stoked that so many people love this band now that people feel compelled to make such lists! What a thing. I remember when album press runs included guys like me; now the first stops are the New York Times and The Daily Show.
I’ve heard “Reunions” once. I love it a lot. But I’m not including anything from “Reunions” on this list because those songs haven’t sat long enough. It’s my list!
- TVA. – The reason Jason’s music attracted me in the first place is because we grew up the same way, in the same place and he wrote about things that were real to me. My grandfather worked at TVA for years, and my family owes a great deal to that place. And nothing I can say about that debt can be better articulated than the way that Jason did it in this Drive-By Truckers B-Side.
- Cover Me Up. – The sex song! A lot of people think that this song is about sobriety, but at its heart, it’s a song about sex. But I have found that the part of this song that I love the most isn’t anything within it. It’s that every person in every city I have seen this band play in (in 22ish? states) raises their alcoholic beverages and cheers for the line, “I sobered up/I swore off that stuff/Forever this time.” It sounds stupid. But after dozens and dozens of times watching it happen, a thing occurred to me. Those drunks (myself included) see a better version of themselves that is attainable within Jason. They wish that they could face their demons without the substance. They wish that they could be alone with their own fears and anxieties. But they give in, every time. Seeing that Jason can and did is hopeful. The cheers aren’t hypocritical; they’re hopeful.
- Elephant. – What’s the best movie that you have seen in your life that you only needed to see once? For me, it’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Brilliant, brilliant movie. But I’m good. Don’t really need to see that again. That’s “Elephant.”
- Goddamn Lonely Love. – I don’t know what to say about Goddamn Lonely Love other than it has a redneck Don Draper vibe. I’ve never seen one episode of MAD MEN, but I stand by this take.
- Alabama Pines. – When I first heard “Alabama Pines,” I thought, “Well, alright. Maybe this dude from T.M. Rogers High School is gonna be a thing now.” I think it’s the first time he really found what he was gonna sound like on his own. The experimentation looking for that sound for the two records that preceded “Here We Rest” included some of my favorite moments because there was an element of surprise. But this was the beginnings of a Pirate becoming a captain. Or something like that.
- Speed Trap Town. – This is one of at least three songs on this list that I feel like I know what a large chunk is actually referencing. But I won’t spoil that! In a more recent piece with Hyden, Jason said, paraphrased, that there’s no reason to steal your own connection to the art. So whatever you think it’s about, I’m sure that’s true, too.
- Decoration Day. – And then here’s one that I’ve seen folks recently believe was something bigger than what Jason has said it is—an old local tale that he was told when he was young that he managed to beautifully paint.
- Something More Than Free. – This is the first time that I felt Jason was taking a very specific thing that he had perfected (writing songs about the places he had grown up and the things that he knew) and broadened the scope to allow a larger audience to connect.
- Outfit. – It’s a song that makes Kendale Gardens sound interesting. More on that later.
- Dress Blues. – This song captured the reality of a world that fancy East Coast libs often unfairly stereotype. And those fancy East Coast libs aren’t wrong about a lot of their assumptions, but they also have never bothered to really learn why. It’s an extremely complicated thing that everyone pledged to fix in the wake of the 2016 election, but have still left ignored.
- Tour of Duty. – Remember that Saturday Night Live Weekend Update “Jon Bovi: the Bon Jovi Opposite Band?” This song is that for “Dress Blues,” and played together live, they’re wonderful companions. Another song that is mostly about sex.
- Something to Love. – The most hopeful song Jason has ever written. And that’s a needle in a haystack within this catalog. A few songs bring me peace when I’m anxious; this is one.
- Danko/Manuel. – I 100% know what inspired this song (aside from the obvious). And that makes it even more special. Seeing it live at Shoals Fest with someone else that definitely knew a backstory on it was one of the most special moments I’ve experienced in 110 live performances by this band.
- Never Gonna Change. – At McFarland Park years prior to Shoals Fest, Jason played the Spirit of Freedom Festival on Independence Day. There was a shirtless guy a few rows up from me, and between every song, he’d stand up and shout, “NEVER GONNA CHANGE!” with an immaculate North Alabama accent. It gradually got a little louder and more prolonged each time. Until it reached a peak of, “NEEEVVVVVVVVERRRRRRRRR GOOOOONNNNNAAAA CHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNGE!!!!!” and I think that’s when the band played it. Dude really raged.
- Seven Mile Island. – I talked to John Paul White at Billy Reid Shindig several years ago (maybe 2013) and I asked him, “Why do we say we’re from ‘Muscle Shoals’ when we ain’t? I’m from Rogersville. You’re from Loretto, Tennessee.” And his short answer to that was, paraphrased, “It’s a suburb thing. If you’re overseas and someone asks where you’re from, you say ‘New York,’ you don’t say ‘Yonkers.’ People identify with it.” But he kept going. And he mentioned this song. He mentioned how Jason wrote about the places we were from in a way that no one had. “Man, Kendale Gardens wasn’t cool. Seven Mile Island wasn’t cool. But Jason made em sound cool.”
- Palmetto Rose. – This song is wildly underrated.
- Cumberland Gap. – Another perfect example of taking a story set in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and turning it into something anyone, anywhere could relate to—it’s even right there in the lyrics. “If you don’t sit facing the window you could be in any town.”
- Chicago Promenade. – This track from “Sirens of the Ditch” probably makes the least sense in the catalog when consumed as a whole, but Jason’s ability to do songs in styles that didn’t end up being his own may be his third greatest talent (behind the hot licks and songwriting, you know).
- New South Wales. – Slaps.
- Grown. – This was the first solo song I heard. Jason was in studio with Scott Register on Birmingham Mountain Radio (or maybe it was even Live 100.5? I think it was Live 100.5) and I tuned in mid-song. Didn’t recognize his voice immediately. Hung around. “Oh yeah!”
- Flying Over Water. – The most underrated live jam in the catalog. Maybe the most underrated jam period. Sometimes, I think this song is more of a “sobriety song” than “Cover Me Up,” from the same album. Because “Cover Me Up” is 100% about sex.
- Songs That She Sang in the Shower. – Big time entry in the, “I’m pretty sure I know what this is actually about, but I’m gonna keep it to myself” Club.
- Hope the High Road. – See 22.
- Hudson Commodore. – Another big time underrated banger.
- Try. – This 100% feels like a leftover DBT song. And it was just too good to leave off of the new thing. It’s the song that most perfectly bridges DBT to now.
- The Magician. – It’s a song about a magician!
- However Long. – I have this tattoo I want. And I have zero tattoos. It involves this song. I’ve probably told like 8 people. Maybe one day. (Jason, if you are perchance reading this, please message me about this tattoo that I want. It would be really awesome.)
- Good. – Extremely worried that I will never hear Good again live. It’s all I really want.
- Yvette. – This song may be the darkest song on a record that included a song about having sex with a woman dying of cancer.
- Streetlights. – I love “Streetlights” all well and good, but I most love the story about “Streetlights.” Which he’s told plenty of times, but I won’t ruin for anyone that hasn’t heard it.
In hindsight, I should have done this in reverse order. It’s late, and I did this in one take and I lost steam at the end. But you know what? It’s my list! I bet yours is good, too.