50. Diamond Rugs, “Christmas In A Chinese Restaurant”
John McCauley gets drunk, finds an out-of-tune piano, and sings the loneliest, saddest Christmas carol imaginable, somehow managing to rhyme “how’s the ham?” with “moo goo gai pan.” Best part: a street-corner Santa digs a saxophone out of a dumpster and solos on the bridge.
49. Beach House, “New Year”
This Baltimore band usually emphasize sound over song—and why not? Their sound is gorgeous, woozy—but on their fourth album, Victoria Legrand reminds you she’s a sharp lyricist, penning some of her most concrete imagery (“Our father won’t come home, ‘cause he is seeing double”) to match Alex Scally’s dreamiest guitar riff.
48. Will Johnson, “Vehicular & True”
On his long-in-the-making solo album, the Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel frontman and Denton’s favorite son does the unexpected: he writes an honest-to-God love song and then sings it in that exquisitely wounded voice of his, which makes a line like “I’m saving up for you” sound like the most moving pledge of devotion imaginable.
47.Lost In The Trees, “Red”
This North Carolina band’s second album was partly inspired by the suicide of singer-songwriter Ari Picker’s mother, and on this standout track, he affectionately constructs a haunted house on the edge of two worlds, where the living and the dead can commune.
46. Jessie Baylin, “Hurry Hurry”
Breaking out of the dull folk-pop mode of previous albums, Baylin launched her own label and dramatically rethought her approach to music. On the opener of what might as well be her debut, she channels Dusty Springfield and every other luxuriantly voiced singer of the 1960s, pleading with her love to hurry hurry home.
45. Erin McCarley, “Just Another Day”
This Texas-born/Tennesssee-based singer-songwriter’s latest single is all hook, a supremely catchy tune jubilantly celebrating everyday occurrences and slyly turning random syllables into scat-sung solos. In other words, this is pop that pops.
44. Tift Merrit, “Drifted Apart”
Sometimes the worst break-ups aren’t accompanied by arguments and recriminations, but by the quiet distance between two lovers: “The same things keeping us together begin to make a wreck of our hearts,” Merritt sings with Andrew Bird, who proves her ideal duet partner. Love will tear them apart, indeed.
43. Mumford and Sons,”I Will Wait”
The trick with this surprisingly divisive band is that they’re writing pop hymns, which means—banjos aside—they’re naturally going to veer more toward U2 than Sacred Harp. Their patience in the face of impending Rapture would be admirable if the song didn’t sound they were trying to reach up into the heavens.
42. Jack White, “Sixteen Saltines”
White’s solo debut was a break-up album, with no song more vicious than this one about a incontrovertible maneater and a guy who drinks her perfume in secret. Is he playing his guitar with a sharpened stiletto heel? And is that the most elaborate lifeboat metaphor in rock history?
41. Divine Fits, “Civilian Stripes”
It’s a short, spare song on a supergroup’s debut, which means it’s bound to get skipped, but what makes “Civilian Stripes” so hefty is how Dan Boeckner refuses to blame his bandmate/wife for breaking up their band/marriage. Instead, he admits the lure of the quiet life while reasserting that rock-and-roll is a higher calling. Maybe it’s worth the sacrifice.
40. Sinead O’Connor, “The Wolf Is Getting Married”
O’Connor making a comeback in 2012 once seemed about as likely as Mumford & Sons covering “Number of the Beast,” but her latest album is her best and most harrowing in twenty years. Best of all is “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” an angry, sarcastic, lovelorn, spiritually and emotionally generous wedding toast that offers some precious solace to a troubled artist.
39. Kathleen Edwards, “Chameleon/Comedian”
The guy twiddling knobs in the control room got more press than the woman actually writing and singing the songs, but Edwards’ lyrics and characterizations have always been sly and subtle and so well crafted it’s easy to take them for granted. “Chameleon/Comedian” may be her finest moment, an unflinching examination of guys who hide behind jokes and the women who see right through them.
38. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Blue Country Mystic”
M.C. Taylor reimagines the story of the prodigal son on this deceptively breezy-sounding country-folk tune. As those gorgeous reeds and horns usher him farther and farther from home, an everyday horror begins to dawn on him: we may never truly know the people we love the most.
37. Tim McGraw, “Better Than I Used To Be”
Twenty years and millions of records into an auspicious career, McGraw really is better than he used to be: Losing the hat-act affectations, he’s developed a finer-grained voice and a more authoritative interpretive approach, both of which turn a song like this into a hard yet hopeful examination of what it really means to be a man.
36. Aimee Mann, “Living a Lie”
Nobody bites her tongue while laughing better than Aimee Mann, although the Shins’ James Mercer comes close. Their equally deadpan performances add a little heart and humor to this tale of a couple held together only by their mutual repulsion.
35. Fun., “Why Am I The One?”
No other charting pop band managed to reference both Queen and Nilsson this year, mainly because no other pop band charted. Overshadowed by their other, bigger hits, “Why Am I the One?” remains their finest moment, not only because of its sophisticated chorus but mainly because they drop some real wisdom in there.
34. Cat Power, “Nothin’ But Time”
Reportedly written for her new stepdaughter, this standout from Cat Power’s underpraised Sun rewrites Bowie’s “Heroes,” rambles on for ten minutes, unleashes some corny bromides, and somehow manages to be completely amazing, partly because Chan Marshall means each and every word and partly because surprise cameo Iggy Pop does too.
33. Rhett Miller, “As Close As I Came To Being Right”
The hit-or-miss history of this Old 97’s solo career may be due to his hit-or-miss history writing straight pop songs. So it’s no surprise that his best non-band composition is also his country-est. Recruiting Roseanne Cash as a duet partner is as close as he came to being right this year.
32. Dum Dum Girls, “Season In Hell”
This cathartic EP closer had more spiritual uplift than anything on Babel, and few moments were more inspiring this year than Dee Dee asking, not at all rhetorically, “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” It’s been a season in hell, but she managed to find a moment of beautiful clarity.
31. Eric Church, “Springsteen”
The Church uses The Boss as the ultimate rock totem, a nostalgia prompt for bittersweet nostalgia. By musing on how music triggers memories, the country singer indulges in a deeply personal, deeply moving bit of rock criticism.
30. Jens Lekman, “The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love”
Whether or not it comes on December 21, as the Mayans and Roland Emmerich predict, the end of the world will indeed be bigger than love, an iceberg, the stock market, and the pharmacy department at the Flatbush Avenue Target.
29. Frank Ocean, “Thinkin’ About You”
By the time Channel Orange dropped, Frank Ocean’s status as hip-hop’s first openly bisexual star had eclipsed discussion of his actual music, but this Princely opener proves a persuasive argument for the power of his incredible soul falsetto and his curious lyrical imagery.
28. Joe Pug, “Hymn #76”
You’ve been warned: Loving Joe Pug is an adventure of Lord of the Rings proportions: “To trust me is to travel past the towers,” he warns, like some Middle Earth oracle. “Those that make it back from here are few.”
27. Bonnie Raitt, “You Can’t Fail Me Now”
Joe Henry and Loudon Wainwright III wrote the song, but we doubt anyone else but Raitt could sing it so well. The moment she makes your jaw hit the floor: “Mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow.”
26. Paul Burch and Waco Brothers, “Flight To Spain”
Rather than pop sleeping pills during transatlantic flights, these two Bloodshot mainstays nurse tiny bottles of booze, reminisce about the Spanish Civil War, and wallow in their regrets. A nine-hour trip condensed into five glorious minutes.