30. Tristen, “No One’s Gonna Know”
Tristen sings like a freelancer: paid by the word. Her motor-mouthed delivery animates this tale of… well, who can actually keep up with the lyrics? But the song shapeshifts with impeccable fluidity, and its stop-start momentum and infectious melody turn the song into an M.C. Escher drawing.
29. Parquet Courts, “Stoned & Starving”
The NYC-via-Texas quartet get high, wander around Queens, hum some obscure ‘90s indie rock song, and face an impossible choice: gummy bears or Swedish fish?
28. Low, “Just Make It Stop”
These Duluth veterans are known for a glacial sound—slow, yes, but also chilly—but “Just Make It Stop,” recorded with Jeff Tweedy, quickens the pace… and then quickens it some more. It’s a model of carefully, patiently, precisely built tension, as though the song is about it burn itself out. Turns out Low still have some new tricks to show us.
27. Josh Ritter, “A Certain Light”
Ritter’s latest is his most personal album to date, a generous and rueful account of his recent divorce that refuses to vilify his ex or whine about loneliness. “A Certain Light” wishes her well even as he sees her likeness in his new lover. “She only looks like you,” he admits, “in a certain light, when she holds her head just right.”
26. Savages, “Shut Up”
This UK band put their foot down and demand your full attention, opening their debut, Silence Yourself, with “Shut Up.” After a snippet of dialogue from John Cassavetes’ savage ’77 flick Opening Night, the song kicks off with a brash intensity whose stridency is match—and excused—only by their furious energy.
25. Janelle Monáe, “Dance Apocalyptic”
Monae’s mercurial stage movements—she’s the best pop dancer since Michael Jackson—often overshadow her equally nimble music, which careens wildly from rock to funk to soul to any- and everything else shy of bluegrass. “Dance Apocalyptic” kidnaps Prince Rogers Nelson and the Crystals, send them all to the future, and makes good on the song’s title.
24. The Flaming Lips, “Try To Explain”
Evoking a celestial weightlessness that’s more emotional than existential (and certainly not narcotic), “Try to Explain” reflects a period of deep personal turmoil for the band: Was that sense of impossible communication inspired by Wayne Coyne’s divorce? Steve Drozd’s relapse? Or is that just the bleak reality of humanity?
23. Neko Case, “Night Still Comes”
In what is either an examination of her creative process or an ode to prescription medication—or, most likely, both—Case takes a journey to the center of her mind, where she arm-wrestles with the Muse and wonders aloud: “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?”
22. Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, “Livingstone Bramble”
A song so matter-of-fact shouldn’t be so good: Kozelek recounts a bout of insomnia, watches old boxing matches on ESPN, calls his tour manager, and noodles on guitar. All pretty mundane, sure, but he makes it sound like a most acute and affecting existential explication.
21. Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, “When You Get To Asheville”
An epistolary lyric for the digital age, with the former wild-and-crazy guy and the one-time New Bohemian asking for an email instead of a letter. It’s a wisp of a song that places the emotional burden of departure on a dog named Dodie, who got into a fight and still waits for the sound of her master’s ’84 Ford—which is en route to Asheville and probably not coming back.