I have a Spotify playlist called Hidden Gems and it’s one of my favorites to return to a couple times a year. There’s no genre distinction, no particular theme; these are just great songs that are generally unknown. There are killer songs from well known artists who weren’t as popular at the time of release, amazing tunes from artists who flamed out before they ever got over, forgotten gold, little heard gems from stalwarts, and just damn good songs not many people have heard. I’m going to pick a few of these from time to time to spotlight.
Joshua James “Coal War”
“Coal War,” from Joshua James’ 2009 album Build Me This, starts out as almost a call and response blues song like you’d hear on Alan Lomax field prison recordings. Later on, it takes flight as a gospel rocker with a huge crescendo, before returning to the “I’ve been working on the railroad” bit. It’s very effective and pretty unique. The rest of James’ discography has not grabbed me as hard, but this is a hell of a song. “Coal War” was used on the show Sons of Anarchy and appeared on its second soundtrack. Take note, pop country. (Not that this is in any way related to pop country) This is how you do clap beats.
Simple and gorgeous, “Ocean” is a plaintive folk-pop song about settling down, mentally and literally. Hanna-McEuen’s gentle harmonies carry the song, but it’s all about the vibe. This is a “close your eyes and meditate on kicking back in a beach chair and letting the waves lap at your feet” kind of song without any of the Buffett and Zac Brown Band cheesiness. A true hidden gem, “Ocean” was released as a single to country radio in 2005 but did not chart. The duo peaked at 38 and 56 respectively with their other singles “Something Like a Broken Heart” and “Tell Me.” They disbanded in 2007. McEuen now records as a solo act, while Hanna plays with both Gary Allan and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as guitarist. (Both Hanna and McEuen are sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founders)
K’NAAN is a Somalian-born singer, songwriter, and rapper who has had moderate success in the US and UK. His song “Wavin’ Flag” was the official song of the 2010 World Cup. “Fatima” from the same 2009 album was never released as a single, but it has had the most lasting effect on me. It’s a sorrowful but musically uplifting true story. K’NAAN was born in Mogadishu and became close friends with a girl next door. Not long before he was granted a VISA to the United States, she gave him a letter written in English to wish him well and encourage him to learn the language. Mere days after arriving in the US, he heard that she’d been shot and killed. This is a beautiful tribute to her. It’s jaunty, catchy, thought-provoking, and most of all, full of heart.
John Popper & The Duskray Troubadours “Champipple”
Just good ol’ dumb fun. Popper, lead singer of Blues Traveler, lets himself get loose with this side project band and “Champipple” is the best of the bunch. If you’re not in the know like the rest of us Fred G. Sanford fans, champipple is a sweet concoction made of champagne and ripple. This is John Popper’s ode to this delightful beverage that’s “almost free.” The song is silly, easy going, and danceable. It reminds me of something Shinyribs might put out. Kick back and enjoy!