50. Titus Andronicus: “Dimed Out”
“Dimed Out” is the lynchpin on A Most Lamentable Tragedy, Titus Andronicus’s ambitious triple album about fear and self-loathing in New Jersey. “I only like it’s when it’s dimed out, dimed out!” Patrick Stickles shouts. Push all the dials to 10. Get everything in the red. Go to extremes. The sentiment explains both the album’s exciting, exhausting length and the band’s go-for-11 performance.
49. Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: “It’s All Going to Pot”
Wait, Buddy Cannon, Larry Shell, and Jamey Johnson wrote “It’s All Going to Pot”? Not Willie? Everything I know is wrong.
48. Brent Best: “Queen Bee”
Brent Best entertains several odd metaphors to explain the distance between two lovers in this bittersweet rustic reverie. “You are a space-age helicopter,” sings the former Slobberbone frontman. “I am a horsefly in a stockyard full of sheep.” It’s the imaginative details (“… in a stockyard full of sheep”) that gives these lyrics their impact and the song its intense melancholy.
47. Mount Moriah: “Calvander”
There’s been some controversy this year over North Carolina’s poet laureate, so I’d like to nominate Heather McEntire for the position. She writes locally, populating “Calvander” with real Tarheel landmarks — not just the title town, but also the Bogue Inlet, Carteret County, Jacksonville, among other points on the map — and connects them only loosely. Like any good poet, she knows the words left out are often more powerful than those on the page.
46. Son Little: “Go Blue Blood Red”
Drawing from old r&b tropes without explicitly trying to re-create them, Son Little’s debut went under the radar. But songs like “Go Blue Blood Red” suggest a producer with a keen ear for making old sounds new again but also a songwriter with a fragmented and evocative style. The song bristles with combative energy, and Little sounds like he’s ready to take on the whole world.
45. Sufjan Stevens: “Should Have Known Better”
Inspired by his one-again/off-again relationship with his parents, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is obviously very personal and extremely bleak, which only makes the brief moments of hope all the more precious. “Should Have Known Better” finds the singer-songwriter caught between aggrieved memories of his mother (“… my black shroud”) and the joy of a new niece (“the beauty that she brings …”). His words are measured, his performance stoic and understated, as though distrusting that joy. “Nothing can be changed, the past is still the past,” but the future? Now that’s something he can work with.
44. Father John Misty: “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)”
Father John Misty may in fact be the most divisive man in indie rock, a mantel that he accepts eagerly with a no-fucks-given attitude that occasionally becomes too wry, too evasive. That makes “Chateau Lobby 4” all the more impressive and actually moving. The details may be fantastical (something about “Satanic Christmas Eve,” something else about a “wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”) but the sentiment is unguarded and even sincerely sweet. And it includes the sweetest denouement of the year: “You left a note in your perfect script, ‘Stay as long as you want.’ I haven’t left your bed since.”
43. Elephant Micah: “Demise of the Bible Birds”
At the heart of this rustic folk waltz is a fantastical bit of Hoosier lore. In the small town of Noblesville, just north of Indianapolis, Rev. Wendell Hansen trained a troupe of exotic birds to perform Bible-themed tricks, selling tickets to tourists and travelers. Joe O’Connell, better known as Elephant Micah, is less concerned with Hansen’s motivations than the spiritual impact it had on the birds themselves, and his loose harmonies with Will Oldham imply a happy ending that the lyrics never disclose.
42. Maddie & Tae: “Shut Up and Fish”
Maddie & Tae have a knack for upending bro-country conventions, and their follow-up to last year’s game-changing “Girl in a Country Song” shows they’ve still got their priorities straight. They’d rather cast another fishing line than hear another pick-up line. And when they finally push their would-be suitor in the water, it’s one of the most satisfying comeuppances of the year. On the other hand, why’d they even let him in the boat in the first place?
41. Calexico: “Tapping on the Line”
Joey Burns’ songwriting blurs the distinctions between the personal and the political, the individual and the international, and this standout from Calexico’s Edge of the Sun imagines a world tour as a form of cultural espionage. The tone is both melancholy and conspiratorial, with a bad phone connection portending the unimaginable distance between people as well as something slightly more sinister: a low-thrumming paranoia that someone is listening in, that the signal is really just noise.