10. Sun Kil Moon: “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” Before he wasted all that good will with a war on the War on Drugs, Mark Kozelek was enjoying some of the biggest raves of his twenty-year career for Benji, a collection of absolutely harrowing accounts of personal loss, national tragedy, and the unstoppable passage of time. The centerpiece is a meditation on the deaths of serial killer Richard Ramirez and actor James Gandolfini. Kozelek ain’t feelin’ too good himself, either. 9. Old Crow Medicine Show: “Sweet Amarillo” Ten years after Ketch Secor had the temerity to rewrite a Dylan song, Bob himself sent him another set of lyrics to play around with. Tthe result is “Sweet Amarillo,” a lusty, lonely little number about a horny cowboy tracking down his lover across an old, weird America. Old Crow play loud and loose like the Band, and Secor sings with gleeful abandon about “gunnin’ the throttle for the Llano Estacado.” Wild and wooly, the song is true to the spirit of The Basement Tapes than, for example, the New Basement Tapes. 8. Old 97s: “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” A quick bit of math: The Old 97s have been at it for two decades, which means the “you” in this musical memoir is still a teenager. Does the band even have fans who postdate 1995’s Hitchhike to Rhome? Or is this a story Rhett Miller is telling his kids, sort of like How I Met Your Mother? Either way, few careers get such a wry and knowing sum-up, as he admits to doing too many rock jumps, ingesting too many drugs (“none of the hard stuff, that shit kills”), and even occasionally dialing it in. Here’s to 20 more. 7. Perfume Genius: “Queen” A slow, deliberate strut of a song, “Queen” finds Perfume Genius mastermind Mike Hadreas both embodying and exploding gay stereotypes. In one verse he is the gay man “riddled with disease.” In another, he prowls military barracks “for an ass to break and harness.” The synths whoop and boom dramatically, evoking both the boldness of self-determination and the violence of insults hurled so ignorantly. When Hadreas declares, “No family is safe when I sashay,” it’s hard to tell if it’s a glorious boast or an ironic joke. That ambiguity, of course, is the whole point. 6. Sharon Van Etten: “Your Love Is Killing Me” Sharon Van Etten has proved herself a poet of romantic pain, but “Your Love Is Killing Me” may be her best and most masochistic tune yet. The guitars chime and grind in a long, slow build, and the quiver in her voice turns violent when she demands, “Break my legs so I can’t walk to you / cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” Such self-annihilation, however, is preferable to the horrors of such a sour relationship. 5. Jenny Lewis: “One of the Guys” Beck’s production is playful and inventive, and Jenny Lewis’ songwriting is wry and precise, but that only underscores the tangled emotions of “One of the Guys,” which includes one of the most devastating admissions of the year: “When I look at myself, all I can see,” Lewis sings on the bridge, “I’m just another lady without a baby.” 4. Strand of Oaks: “Goshen ‘97” A volley of power chords delivering at a blistering pace, “Goshen ‘97” is a portrait of the artist as a young man “singing Pumpkins” in the mirror and “buying Casios with my friend.” Strand of Oaks frontman Timothy Showalter recalls his first forays into making his own music, and fittingly the song sounds raw and desperate, like it was cut in somebody’s basement in one take. The details (“porn and menthols under my bed”) give the song weight and specificity, but ultimately this is a story about a self-described “fat drunk and mean” kid finding sweet salvation in rock and roll. 3. Hiss Golden Messenger: “Mahogany Dread” The video for this lovely country-folk tune shows singer/songwriter M.C. Taylor driving around America and playing with his wife and children in green fields and deep woods along the way. Such a poignant evocation of the joys of family, however, plays against the song’s own ambiguities and uncertainties. “Mahogany Dread” contains a whole novel’s worth of creeping anxiety, the kind that wakes up any father and husband late in the night. Love and devotion produce a kind of misery, but that’s exactly what makes it so powerful: “The more it hurts,” Taylor sings in a voice full of wonder, “the more you think you could stand a little pain.” 2. Sturgill Simpson: “Turtles All the Way Down” Sturgill sounds a whole lot like ol’ Waylon, but none of the outlaws ever sang quite so openly about Buddha, psilocybin, or “reptile aliens” who “cut you open and pull out all your pain.” But this Kentucky native isn’t Tim Leary sneaking backstage at the Ryman. The lyrics may read like a True Detective monologue, but Simpson is more philosopher than rabble rouser, finally concluding that “love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” Can’t wait for the inevitable Willie cover. 1. Hurray for the Riff Raff: “The Body Electric” Alynda Lee Segarra takes more than 100 years of murder ballads to task on this standout from Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes, calling out anyone who has sung along with “Delia’s Gone” or “Banks of the Ohio” or “Knoxville Girl.” “The Body Electric” is a bold reminder of the misogyny latent in those songs, which typically get a pass because they represent the prejudices of an earlier time. Her subject, however, isn’t merely violence against women. Instead, she questions the use of any kind of violence: “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow.” Her voice sounds slow and burdened, as though the song’s topicality in 2014 is a sad reminder of the state of the union.
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