GRAND PRIZE JUDGE, ROY ELKINS, COMMENTS ON 2016 SONG CONTEST WINNERS
As always, I am privileged to be part of this great songwriting competition. I have listened to all the tracks multiple times and along with my thoughts, the results are below. My process is simple. I put all the songs in this contest in my player and hit random, so I don’t have preferential treatment to a specific song. This year I was given 27 songs to listen to. This winner was number 26 in the queue and it was my favorite from the beginning and remained in the #1 spot all the way through my process.
Usually, after the first listen, I have a few favorites and they usually move up and down the list each time I listen through it. It is very difficult for an instrumental to win a song contest and I don’t think I have ever picked one as a winner, but Enchanted Kingdom clearly the best in this crop of songs. I was more impressed each time I heard it.
2nd through 7th could have been anyone of 6 different songs: Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart, Cleansing Rain, It Could Be You, Hearts Wide Open, Small Town Masquerade and Still Enough. It was very difficult to pick the other places, but unfortunately I have to pick winners and losers. I am asked to judge each song in 6 different categories. Here are my favs by category: Hooks - Enchanted Kingdom, Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart, Cleansing Rain and My Unsung Hero. Melody - Enchanted Kingdom, My Unsung Hero, It Could Be You, Still Enough, Sanctuary, The Warmth Of Your Love, Eenie Meenie and Roly Poly With You. Lyric - Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart, Cleansing Rain, Hearts Wide Open, Small Town Masquerade and The Christmas Song No One Knows. Structure - Enchanted Kingdom, Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart and My Unsung Hero. Originality – Enchanted Kingdom, Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart, Cleansing Rain, It Could Be You, Pills, Insignificant Other, Sanctuary, Two Trains, Hearts Wide Open, Grow Up and Eenie Meenie. Truth – Just Can’t Drown A Broken Heart, Cleansing Rain, It Could Be You, Hearts Wide Open, Halleluyah Today and My Unsung Hero.
After re-reading through my critiques, I found myself saying similar things in different songs. One of the hardest things to do is write a song with a unique hook and lyrics that have never been said. And once you have a hook and lyrics, you have to marry it to a melody. I found many in the contest have done a brilliant job at this and some that need tweaking. While it is arguably the most important part of good songwriting, it could be the hardest thing to get right. It’s even harder to create that memorable experience for the listener when lyrics aren’t present. Enchanted Kingdom does just that.
I also include my suggestions for improvement and many times I state, “If this was my song.” I believe we all hear music differently and it doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and another is wrong. So take the constructive feedback for what is, one man’s opinion.
Congrats to the winners and everyone who made it to the finals.
Enchanted Kingdom – This is a brilliant piece of work. This is one of the most powerfully crafted instrumentals I have heard, not only in this contest, but EVER. Initially, it reminded of David Arkenstone or Howard Shore’s work in the Lord of the Rings. When one closes their eyes and listens to this, you can see a horse running through field, a ship sailing the seas and so on. The crafting of this music and melody is world class and I would love to pass this along with permission of the writers. The theme is carried by numerous instruments throughout the piece. It starts with a plucked string sound then is carried by orchestral strings, then a break and then a staccato version with the energy building. The peaks and valleys in the song are amazing. I listened, rewound, listened, rewound, etc. Masterful work.
Nice swell at the beginning into plucked strings, with a backing flute. At 40 seconds, the first phrase concludes, then at 53 the energy in the melody takes over and pulls the listener in. At 1:21, a forceful melody from the flute takes over for a second. Then an unexpected Zappa like break at 1:28 and it worked. This section from 1:31 on to 1:59 is as good as composition gets. It is the heart of the piece as this theme repeats throughout the song. Then back to the forceful flute. Then at 2:22, there is a slight change in the melody, but still reminiscent of the original. More unique and unexpected breaks at 2:36. I had to listen to these a couple of times as the sound selection is so different I thought there might be a technical problem with the recording. Then when I heard it again, I smiled…..brilliant. At 3:15, a nice piano bridge that is quite different from the rest of the tune, but has a similar rhythmic feel. The ending didn’t feel as if it resolved the piece and would probably be my only critical comment. Fantastic work and very easily my choice to win this competition. This could be the best composition I have ever heard in this competition. I would love to hear more from these writers.
Just Can't Drown A Broken Heart – “You woke me up this morning, by not being there” is a great opening line. This is an example of saying the same thing uniquely and differently. Many times my critical commentary about overused phrases gets too carried away, but this is an example of how you say the same thing in a different way. An inexperienced writer would have written, “I woke up this morning and you weren’t there.” Another line, “The shower wasn’t running and the coffee wasn’t on” creates imagery that doesn’t really happen. Awesome stuff. Really good lyric writing. I bet this writer has more great stuff like this as he/she is a cut above…….The structure of the melody in the verses is very effective. This usually isn’t my cup of tea, but I think these “short” phrases are perfect for this song. I don’t think the second verse is nearly as strong as the first, but the chorus and the set-up to the chorus are excellent. If it was my song, I would re-write the second verse in the same manner as the first. I would also replace the line “hanging out with my friends” with “missing my best friend.” I love the last line of the last verse, “At the bottom of the bottle……amends.” Excellent imagery and writing. Like a couple of the other tunes in this collection, slight tweaks and this song is huge. Love to hear more from this writer as well. This is really well done!
Cleansing Rain – Simple melody, with a simple lyric. Loved this on the first pass and loved it more each time I heard it. Nice resolution at the hook, “Take a walk through Cleansing Rain.” This is really a great line and creates a memorable visual moment in this song. He sings it like he’s walking. The voice feels like it’s moving away from you when you listen to the hook. Much of that is performance, however with a different line it doesn’t work.
Verses are staccato lyrically, like to hear a little more melody in this type of song. Meaning – stretch the vowels at the end of the melodic phrase a little longer in each subsequent verse. I believe this will help the verses grow and develop the song for the listener. Great chorus, good melody, very strong hook, memorable and relatable for every listener. If I heard this song, I would buy this album.
It Could Be You – This a great song with a powerful lyric that fortunately for the song, but unfortunately for the world, it will always be current. This writer captured the sad state of human suffering with a very well done lyric. A very Beatlesque writing style, especially in the chorus. The verses remind me of Billy Joel with lots of simple rhymes within the lines and very easy to comprehend. At 1:08, “Do you think it’s really true when you say there’s nothing we could do….” is a good match of lyric and melody. The words flow here and are very memorable. It gives “truth” and believeability when lyrics and melody are in concert like this. Billy Joel is a master at this and this writer is not far behind. The bridge at 2:11 is extremely strong….nice break. My only bit of feedback is that the listener doesn’t really know that this is about refugees until the end of the song. It is vague until that point. With that said, I am assuming the writer experimented with putting the closing verse in different positions in the song. I picked up my guitar and played around with it and found that it might be a little too contrived with the closing lyric too close to the front. It does work how it is currently structured, but something tells me that there is a little better answer here. It doesn’t need much, just a little. Great work and I would like to hear more from this writer as well. Great work!
Hearts Wide Open – A real John Prine feel to the lyric writing in this song. “From the dogs at addiction that tug at our sleeves….” This is a great line along with so many others in this song. “…laying our pride at the foot of the cross” is another one. Very strong. Could be the best set of lyrics in this entire competition. This is thoughtful, unique and exceptional lyric writing. If this was my song, I would put this in 6/8 in a heartbeat and I believe it would take it to a whole new level. It feels as if the tempo is drifting and the time signature is moving between 3/4 & 4/4. Not sure if that was the intention, but this song has huge potential with a more solid rhythmic foundation. I struggled trying to determine if this was the production or how it was written. My advice would be listen to Prine, hone this structure and supporting chord progression, and this song will shine. Other than this one structural issue, I find very little to improve upon here. This is excellent.
Small Town Masquerade – Nice effective song about the social issues of a small town. I love the chord progression in this song and how the melody twists around it. A great line - “…………he is a Baptist Ayotollah.” Another great line - “the more things change around here, the more they stay the same” Nice setup - “when the liquor runs low….” Another unique line that I didn’t see coming - “The homecoming king is a homecoming queen.” My only suggestion is to work on a chorus around “Small Town Masquerade.” As is, the song is strong, but I believe it would help the song if there was an expanded hook around the title. As I was listening, I was trying to figure out if this song came from an actual experience or was this just crafted by a couple of brilliant lyric writers. If it was crafted, it’s believeable and kudos to the writers. Regardless of how it was created, it is an excellent song and very well done.
Still Enough – “Pray to God it’s Still Enough” is a great hook. “Sometimes I say the damndest things...” is a great opening line. Very well crafted lyric. My sense is that the writer(s) spent some time on this as the lyric and melody work well together. “Sometimes it seems that all of my dreams…” and “Mountains of gold and riches untold” are great examples of melody and lyric in sync with each other. The melody doesn’t really cover a lot of notes on the staff, but the way the writer uses this small range is really creative. There is one part that sounds a little awkward, “I don’t have much money….” This line feels a little forced. I think the writer could lose the word “much” in this phrase or replace it with “no” or leave the “I” off the front of the phrase. This is one of the best in this collection and very well written. Very simple lyric with a melody that is married to it.
I wish I had time to write detailed reviews on every finalist, but here are my thoughts on some of the other songs in alphabetical order.
The Christmas Song That Nobody Knows – I have heard this song before, possibly in this contest or in another in previous years. This is so imaginative and creative, the image of a drunken cousin wearing the sweater that the entire family discusses when they are not in the room, comes to mind. I imagine this is probably at least two writers, maybe more as the structure, verse, chorus, bridge is so well done. Generally, teams create this kind of a strength in a song. “B-b-b-butchering each syllable and note” is a great line that demonstrates the great songwriting on display here. Interesting and engaging. When listening, one is waiting for the next line. Excellent work!
Grow Up – Great opening, grabs you immediately. I can hear a metal band, broadway cast or like this production, a singer playing a ukelele singing this lyric and melody. Good basic lyric and melody and the song has strong cross over potential. It’s an unusual song and at one point it comes to a complete halt. Usually, I like the unexpected when listening to songs, but in this case the song itself is so different that I don’t think a tempo-less bridge is necessary. I am assuming the writer is the singer and I’m curious to hear their other work.
Halleluyah Today – This is a good song, a good arrangement, structure and very honest. When the singer hits it at 23 seconds, the melody and lyric clearly connect and the believability is evident. This melodic phrasing is repeated in each verse. Very well done. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t nearly as thrilled with this as I am now. I’ve heard this 10+ times and it seems to improve with every listen and has been slowly moving up the list. The chorus is memorable with a good hook. But maybe it’s too predictable and needs a rhyme with Halleluyah. But at the same time, it is a unique twist on Halleluyah and it works. Lyrically, I felt the song was good in the verses. I thought the line “God is my strength” sounded forced. Maybe change this to “God’s my strength” or “With God’s strength” as there is one too many syllables here. (Production note – Kudos to the producer. He/she brought this to life and really connected the production to the song.)
Insignificant Other – Good opening line - “……kill me makes me stronger…” “Comet……..sonnet” is also a very good rhyme. Very good melody in the verses. The first two lines of the chorus are a perfect marriage of lyric and melody. Unfortunately, the hook of the song is almost a spoken word melody. I listened to it many times and like it a little more, but also feel it needs a little more. It’s a good concept, but I am not sure the melody in the hook helps it. That may be where I would explore further if it was my song. I do think the concept and originality of this song is very strong.
Let My Heart Take It From Here – Nice love ballad with a very good melody. I love the line, “as my words dance around with your tears.” “I see heaven in your smile” is one of the best lines in this entire contest. This is saying what’s been said a million times with unique words. Great work. With that said, some of the lyrics seem a like they might have been pulled out of the oven too soon. Here is what I mean, “The fact is you blow my mind” is not nearly as strong as many of the other lines in the song and I think a little more time is needed on the words. If this were mine, I would probably swap the 2nd & 4th lines in the song or re-write the “blow my mind” line. There are a few others like this as well. Overall, the melody, structure, truth and hook are extremely strong. A little more time on just a couple of the lines and this moves into a different league. It is a favorite and with slight lyrical tweaking, it’s a hit. One could easily hear, Garth, Vince Gill, Randy Travis or more contemporary singers like Scotty McCreery cutting this.
My Unsung Hero – I love the sentiment of this song, concept and the heartfelt and meaningful words written here. This has a great melody, strong truth and well written structure to the song. (Production note – beautiful strong voice singing this.) My only criticism of the song is that many of the phrases, (“I wake up in the morning”, “it’ll be alright”, “lying here next to me”, “….all through out the night”, “….you’re my everything”, etc. ) have been used so many times in song. There is such a nice melody here and if this was my song, I would re-write with different words with the same meaning …. or I would maybe take the story to a different place. There is real truth to the song as it probably comes from an experience from the writer, but songs with commonly used phrases need an undeniable and unique connection between the lyric and melody to make it effective. A simple re-write of a few phrases could make all the difference in this song as this is one of my favorite melodies in this competition.
Pills – Fun song, good concept, good hook, good melody. “Baby there ain’t got no pill gonna get you off my mind”, “Baby there ain’t got no pill gonna get me over us” are great “bring it home” lines. This is good songwriting, very manufactured, but it works. Job well done!
Praise You – Nice mesmerizing melody. Very simple. Verses in the melody are engaging, as well as the first half of the chorus. The first half of the chorus is memorable and one can imagine the audience singing, “We will praise you.” I am not sure the words “Jesus My Lord” are needed as it is fairly evident. I think something a little more lyrically unique would have worked better. It’s so hard criticizing lyrics that are so meaningful, passionate and heartfelt to the writer. Overall, the melody in the chorus carries the tune. Good work on this!
Sanctuary – Interesting song. Love the triplet feel on “Need a place where you can hide.” Very Carole King like. It seems it might have been accidental in the performance. If I was the writer, I would write it in and drive it home as it could be a hook within the song. I could easily hear Adele or Lady Gaga performing this song. Very nice melody. I don’t believe it was as lyrically strong in the verse as the chorus. I do like the line, “you try to run but you can’t move your feet.” The break between the verses at 58 seconds needs to be re-cut as it just doesn’t work. If it was my song, I would cut it in half and lose the synth arpeggios. Key change at 2:50 is very good writing. This is definitely the most contemporary and current song in this whole collection. A few slight tweaks and this song goes from very good to great.
Sunrise – Great melody. Clearly a song someone like Katy Perry could cut and knock it out. When this song hits the chorus, “When the sun shines……”, it is big. This is fun to listen to at this point. With that said and as I write this, I remember the big voice, but don’t remember the hook. My recommendation is to create a melody in the chorus that the average listener can follow and let the singer jam around backups singing this part.…..If this was going on the singers’ record, this arrangement is good with the aforementioned suggestions. If it is being pitched to another singer, this voice may be too good for a demo.
The Warmth Of Your Love – Very good songwriting. Nice soft song. It’s good lyric and a good melody, but I’m struggling to provide good feedback on this song. At this point, I have listened to this list 10+ times and this is one of those songs I have to re-hear. Not sure why, I think the melody is excellent, the lyrics are good and the progression is fine. A pleasant key change at 2:40. Very tasteful and well-done. The hook, “The Warmth of Your Love” is performed as well as anything in this collection. With that said, I kept thinking I would like to hear this lyric on a completely different melody. And the melody with different lyric. Maybe the tempo is a little slow and could be about 10 beats faster, but I’m not sure. There is a good writer behind this, all the parts are there, but…..I am not sure what to recommend here, but maybe trying a different melody in the verse and continue experimenting. But my sense is, that this song is done and this writer probably has already written a dozen more. I would love to hear them.
GRAND PRIZE JUDGE, ROY ELKINS, COMMENTS ON 2013 SONG CONTEST WINNERS.
GRAND PRIZE JUDGE COMMENTS ON 2012 WINNERS
It was an interesting year to judge. After several listens, many songs moved up the list. Songs like Adenine and The Voice seemed to get better the more I listened to them. The instrumental Half Past Dawn had a melody I found myself humming over and over again but it just missed the Top 10. The uniqueness of Memories was hard to ignore and good rock songs like You're Everything and It Should Be Me made the list. My Samlor and One Foot On Your Doorsteps are songs with strong hooks and deserved to be in the final consideration as well. All of these songs moved up as I listened more. I had the same experience for the winners. The more I listened, the more I realized that No Hard Feelings, River Dance and Oliver Otter are so well-crafted they deserve to finish 1-2-3, respectively.