20. Natalie Prass: “Why Don’t You Believe in Me?”
An r&b vocalist disguised as an indie-pop singer-songwriter, Natalie Prass has a knack for penning intensely probing lyrics and soundtracking them with a mélange of ‘70s soul, ‘80s quiet storm, and ‘90s funk. So when she poses that not-at-all rhetorical question on this single, the moment is unsettling in its intimacy. Ironically, she leaves you no reason not to believe in her.
19. James McMurtry: “Forgotten Coast”
Easily one of the best and most underrated songwriters in America, James McMurtry threatened to chuck the whole music thing and head for parts unknown. “Forgotten Coast” daydreams of losing yourself in America, and he sounds like he’s going to have a blast out there by himself: “I’m gonna fix a roadkill black bear roast,” he deadpans, “and get fat on that forgotten coast.” If he ever makes good on the threat, he’ll be sorely missed.
18. Wilco: “Random Name Generator”
Wilco released its ninth album for free and with little warning, a strategy that churned up a lot of publicity but nearly overshadowed their best effort in years. It’s been a while since Tweedy & co. have sounded quite as squirrelly as they do on “Random Name Generator,” with its percolating pace and fragmented lyrics. The title is a mouthful, but somehow they twist it into a sing-song hook to anchor a four-minute meditation on the malleability of artistic identity.
17. Corb Lund: “S Lazy H”
This story-song has the narrative force and character specificity of a short story, so think Jim Harrison rather than Townes Van Zandt or Annie Proulx instead of Lucinda Williams. Few roots songs are quite so business-oriented either, with Lund’s narrator explaining in tragic detail how he lost the family farm and the legacy that went with it. No spoilers, but that last verse will rip your heart right out of your chest.
16. Lucero: “Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles”
Don’t act like you haven’t gone to a city and sought out the landmarks you’ve heard in songs. Ben Nichols went to L.A. and tried to see it through Zevon’s eyes, walking down Gower Avenue and searching for the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. The song is about the impossibility of living through your heroes, about the rift between our rock dreams and our realities. All he gets is a picture and a song, but that’s a lot more than most people bring back from Los Angeles.
15. Chris Stapleton: “Traveller”
Fittingly, Chris Stapleton wrote the title track to his CMA-conquering debut while on the road — somewhere along I-40 between Nashville and Phoenix. Unlike Patty Griffin’s similarly themed “Rider Of Days,” he’s not running from heartache, but chasing something more valuable but much more elusive. Transience is his only constant, and Stapleton’s declaration that “I’ll just keep rolling till I’m in the dirt” is cause for celebration rather than commiseration. The song plays like a statement of musical purpose, as though the noblest thing an artist can do is simply keep going.
14. Kendrick Lamar: “Alright”
The most obviously controversial song on the list, but that makes it perhaps the timeliest, as hip-hop more than most other genres bothers to provide real-time commentary on current events. Lamar sounds more Woody Guthrie than all those well-meaning folkies trying to be Woody Guthrie, and not just because Ferguson protestors chanted this song like it was a rallying cry, a new “We Shall Overcome.” Lamar speaks not for African Americans; he speaks as all African Americans, who at least in this song must constantly battle the demons and the angels on their shoulders. Lamar is a bit of both: an artist who traffics in hard, insoluble contradictions that give us a starting point toward empathy and understanding.
13. Torres: “Strange Hellos”
This isn’t a love song. It’s a hate song. And it contains the most bracing opening lines of 2015: “Heather, I’m sorry that your mother’s diseased in the brain, cannot recall your name. Heather, I dreamt that I forgave. That only comes in waves. I hate you all the same.”
12. Sleater-Kinney: “Surface Envy”
On first listen Sleater-Kinney’s comeback single sounds like the band members recommitting themselves to the band and its guiding principles after an eight-year hiatus: “We win, we lose/ Only together do we break the rules,” Corin, Carrie, and Janet sing together and presumably to each other. But the song reveals new facets with each listen, until it becomes apparent that they are singing to their fans, not only the ones who’ve followed them since the 1990s but those who only just discovered them on their return.
11. Bully: “I Remember”
This Nashville band kick off their debut album with a visceral portrait of an irreparably fractured relationship, dragging out all of the dirty laundry into the street and lighting the pile ablaze. Alicia Bognanno shouts a litany of memories as though exorcising demons, throwing everything on the fire: the good (“I remember what you do on Christmas!”), the bad (“I remember throwing up in your car”), and the unspeakable. It’s the most intense two minutes of the year, not to mention a helluva way for a band to introduce itself.