10. Sam Baker, “Say Grace”
Baker’s grizzled voice and Lone Star upbringing have earned him comparisons to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, but his storytelling is more akin to that of recent Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. An understated gem about a woman living in the shadow of her long-dead bother, the title track of his third album is less concerned with one particular event than on how she lives her full life around one stinging tragedy, suffering quietly and barely even realizing life could be different.
9. Brandy Clark, “Stripes”
The most feted songwriter of the year puts a sharp twist on one of country’s favorite themes: catching your man in bed with a bottle blond. Even in the face of betrayal, Clark knows orange isn’t the new black and his sorry ass ain’t worth the bullet.
8. Patty Griffin, “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”
A WWII vet find himself trapped in the Sunshine State in Griffin’s ode to thwarted wanderlust, which is no doubt the Florida Tourism Bureau’s least favorite song of 2014. As she recounts the character’s last will and testament (“If you catch me dying in Orlando…”), the Dickinson brothers lay down a desperate country-blues groove that sounds like a northbound freight train that doesn’t stop till the Peach State.
7. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)”
Hiss Golden Messenger frontman Mike Taylor is too undecided in his theology to be classified as a “Christian artist,” but few songwriters of any denomination are tackling the contradictions and awing complexities of faith with the insight and nuance he brings to the powerful “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror).” As the violins trace tributaries through the North Carolina landscape, this father of two struggles to “learn to love my conqueror” and wanders about the perversity of such an arrangement.
6. Valerie June, “Workin’ Woman Blues”
Listening to this song from the Tennessee native’s debut, it’s impossible to decide what’s more impressive: that piercing, powerful voice that conveys hardship and determination in equal measure? Or that nimble fretwork that makes the blues sound as modern as a Kanye sample?
5. Phosphorescent, “Song For Zula”
Finding solid ground between the Oldham-isms of his early material and the Willie-isms of his more recent albums, Matthew Houck wrote the finest and most devastating love song to love songs of 2013. His references to “Ring of Fire” and “The Rose” portray a dude who realizes even the best country music cannot prepare you for the deep pang of a broken heart. Which itself is heartbreaking.
4. The National, “Pink Rabbits”
If Trouble Will Find Me is their funniest album (and it is!), then its penultimate track, “Pink Rabbits,” may be the band’s biggest downer, an ode to a departed lover that namechecks Morrissey and throws in a vague reference to their own back catalog (specifically, “All the Wine”). “You said it would be painless,” Matt Berninger sings, referring either to a break-up or the National’s run as one of the best bands in America. “It wasn’t that at all.”
3. Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
Proof that it gets better: Who knew a famously conservative medium like country music could so wittily explain the double standards young women face today or could accommodate such a breezily progressive message? It helps that Musgraves, along with co-writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (currently the Avengers of the Nashville New Wave), couch that sentiment in a singsong melody and a sly hook.
2. Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Is there a worse Nashville export than the cancer ballad, with its manufactured emotions and pat life lessons delivered by dying kids? On Southeastern, his best album by a damn sight, Isbell performs the Herculean task of writing a cancer ballad that never sounds manipulative, one with lifelike characters and a chilling epiphany: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity.”
1. Guy Clark, “My Favorite Picture Of You”
Even if you don’t know who Susanna Clark is — even if you didn’t know that she and Guy were married for 40 years, even if you didn’t know the role she played in his career, even if you didn’t know how she played mother to generations of aspiring singer-songwriters — you could still be moved hearing her widower describe this artifact from their life together. She died in 2012, but his careful description of this photo is a moving tribute to an inspiring woman.