50. Slaid Cleaves, “Texas Love Song”
In this love triangle between a man, a woman, and the Lone Star State, Slaid Cleaves manages to rhyme “deep in the heart of Texas” with “where nobody can text us,” which by itself would warrant placement on this list.
49. Lorde, “Royals”
Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor was the anti-Miley this year: a teenager who showed immense self-possession by rejecting the trappings of fame before she even became famous. That kind of insouciance is more subversive than a stuck-out tongue.
48. Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, “Cheater’s Game”
Willis and Robison cement their status as country’s best power couple (sorry, Jason and Amanda) with a song as bleak as anything they’ve done: “A little heartache, a little pain / a little stick opens the vein.”
47. Motel Mirrors, “Meet Me On The Corner”
Rewriting “Dark End of the Street” is sheer folly, but somehow Memphis’ dynamic duo—John Paul Keith, who sounds like Roy Orbison, and Amy Lavere, who sounds like she’s going to steal your wallet—managed to make this ode to illicit hook-ups sound fresh and positively inviting.
46. Elvis Costello & The Roots, “Walk Us Uptown”
The year’s more daring collaboration opens with what sounds like someone turning up the volume on a laptop—a witty semi-joke about the nature of creativity in the digital era. Or something. Costello and the Roots play off each other’s best urges, with the former spitting caustic rhymes, the latter laying down a Cubist groove, and everybody strutting way uptown.
45. Son Volt, “Down The Highway”
Jay Farrar’s best song in more than a decade celebrates life’s immense unpredictability, extolling the world of wisdom within a fiddle tune. “Throw this love down the highway, see where it turns” he sings, his voice steady as ever, sounding like a man who’s content with his lot—all the ups and downs, the failures and triumphs, the traces and straightaways.
44. Richard Thompson, “Good Things Happen To Bad People”
Even into his late 60s, Thompson’s fingers haven’t slowed on the frets and his lyrical bile has not dulled, as evidenced by this spryly strummed, exquisitely bitter kissoff to a woman who left a relationship like a bird uncaged: “You want to fly high, mess on me.”
43. Paul McCartney, “New”
Fifty years—that’s five decades! half a century! longer than most of you reading this list have walked this earth!—after the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the States, the Cute One is still finding new ways to write superlatively catchy pop tunes. Bonus points: Toasting the Beach Boys with that outta-nowhere outro.
42. Anna von Hausswolff, “Mountains Crave”
Which sounds more immense on this Swedish singer-songwriter’s single? The pipe organ whose chords convey desire as monumental as an Alp? Or the voice that bends its syllables toward the firmament and makes those mountains sound human?
41. Luke Winslow-King, “The Coming Tide”
In an alternate universe, “The Coming Tide” is a century-old hymn passed around Southern snake-handling congregations and survivalist compounds. In our universe, it was written by this Michigander turned Big Easy troubadour.