30. Andrew Combs: “Foolin’”
Andrew Combs makes the most of that double-O sound in “who” and “foolin’,” drawing out the long syllable into a sharp hook that no doubt inspires a lot of sing-alongs when he plays the song live. It’s a moment of pure pop pleasure, but one that masks a deep, lasting bruise.
29. Will Johnson: “Call Call Call”
Will Johnson doesn’t write linearly. Instead, he writes impressionistically, with each line in “Call Call Call” making internal sense yet only making the whole more of a puzzle. As a result, the Swan City Vampires standout conveys something nebulous, a familiar sense of disquiet just this side of nameable. Even that chorus — call, call, call—seems slippery and unfixed; the song’s meaning and therefore its implications shift with each spin of the record, as though it was a Rorschach blotch.
28. Sarah Bethe Nelson: “Paying”
Don’t believe Sarah Bethe Nelson when she sings, “This is the last time I’ll be making your drinks on the house.” The San Francisco singer-songwriter gets inside the head of a beleaguered barkeep on this slo-mo single, yet without saying so explicitly, she makes clear that this isn’t the first time she’s given this ultimatum. And it likely won’t be the last.
27. Kurt Vile: “That’s life, tho (almost hate to say)”
Kurt Vile may be the only person who can use the word “chillax” in a song and get away with it (barely). He’s also the only person who can (and would) write a song featuring the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and not sound (completely) silly.
26. Jason Isbell: “To a Band I Loved”
The final song on Something More Than Free, an album perhaps too mired in the past for its own good, sounds like a sequel of sorts to “Danko/Manuel,” a highlight of Isbell’s tenure with the Drive-By Truckers. But it’s not a eulogy for that band. Instead, it’s a fond remembrance of the Denton, Texas, outfit Centro-Matic, a band Isbell loved and toured with in the mid-2000s. “Though everyone tried to ignore us, we’d scare them all off by the chorus,” he sings wistfully, an old man remembering younger days and lamenting that the world didn’t stop for something so special.
25. Patty Griffin: “Rider of Days”
Patty Griffin’s latest album arrived in the aftermath of her break-up with Robert Plant, and onlookers have been quick to interpret these new songs as her commentary on the split. Whatever inspired it, “Rider Of Days” needs no backstory to get its point across. Over a shimmery guitar strum that sounds like a lens flare, she sings short stanzas that describe a sort of emotional transience, movement as the only permanence, as Griffin rides onward and away from a hurt she can’t quite name or outrun.
24. My Morning Jacket: “Compound Fracture”
On paper, “Compound Fracture” shouldn’t work. Jim James explores the concepts of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, morality vs. amorality through the filter of a skewed break-up metaphor: “Compound fracture, gotta set the bone/ Wrap it up, let it heal on its own.” Especially so early on a soul-searching album about romantic recrimination — it’s the second song on the album (but if you believe “Believe” is actually an epilogue to draw the album full circle, then “Compound Fracture” is actually the first song) — the band is actually setting up the impossibly high stakes and reminding you that there are actual human beings behind the break-up album conventions.
23. Royal Headache: “My Own Fantasy”
Royal Headache’s latest album is one of the best from the burgeoning Aussie punk scene, a blast of raw energy that borrows the Buzzcocks’ frantic whir, Radio Birdman’s surf-rock maelstrom, and the go-for-broke hardcore momentum of Black Flag. And yet, for all their obvious influences “My Own Fantasy” reveals a certain leeriness toward their record collection, a fear that it might consume rather than the other way around. The frontman, known only as Shogun, repeats that declarative title phrase in a barbed staccato, spitting venom at himself, until he finally relents and lets the guitar play — a.k.a. Law — take over.
22. John Moreland: “Heart’s Too Heavy”
Very quietly Oklahoma has cultivated one of the best singer-songwriter scenes in the country, and the latest Sooner to break out is this Tulsa resident with a booming, forlorn voice, a set of state-appropriate knuckle tats, and a lyrical style that is both nuanced in its details and evocative in its wordplay. “Heart’s Too Heavy” ponders the everyday vagaries of love and faith: “You try to keep going but the ride won’t steady,” Moreland sings, suggesting that life never slows down long enough for us to make any sense of it.
21. Bottle Rockets: “Monday Every Time I Turn Around”
Isn’t it ironic? A band takes six long years to record a new album and leads with a song about how fast time goes by. The Bottle Rockets have been in the game for a quarter century by now, but the years haven’t dulled the band’s OG alt-country attack or Brian Henneman’s knack for a sharp hook in the least.