40. Frankie Lee: “High and Dry”
One listen and you might mistake this song for commentary on marijuana legalization. “You’ve got to grow your own,” the Minneapolis singer-songwriter declares, referring to love but it’s still a chorus Willie Nelson needs to sing. The song is more about sustainability and independence, whether you’re growing your own food or making your own music.
39. Okkervil River: “Okkervil River R.I.P.”
Will Sheff has been fronting Okkervil River for almost twenty years and fighting off an encroaching cynicism maybe even longer. One of the most sobering songwriters around, and one given to fantastical tangents and literary asides, he ponders the legacy he’ll leave behind, never quite bitter but fatalistic as he ponders the sad fates of the Force MDs and Judee Sill. When he admits, “It was a big waste,” he might be referring to their sad lives or to the energy he has spent digging into their music.
38. Steve Gunn: “Ancient Jules”
Best known as a guitar player, Steve Gunn writes songs as road movies. “Ancient Jules,” like most of his tunes, is less about getting from Point A to Point B and more about enjoying the space in between, with a friend’s advice his only guide: “Figure it out, Jules would say.” Gunn is traveling without a destination, and those guitars trace routes on a map whose scale is 1:1.
37. Michael Kiwanuka: “Love & Hate”
(Michael Kiwanuka, Brian Burton, Dean Josiah)
This London singer-songwriter had to tear it all down: Faced with severe self-doubt after the success of his 2012 debut, he started from scratch, writing songs in the studio with producers Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and Dean “Inflo” Josiah. The title track to the resulting album gracefully straddles the past and the future of soul music, with a sentiment that might have come from Sam Cooke and some backing vocals that sound like 2017.
36. Kenny Chesney: “Jesus & Elvis”
(Matraca Berg, Hayes Carll, Allison Moorer)
FADE IN: Int. bar, somewhere in Texas, night. A sad barmaid, middle aged, serves beer and shots of whiskey to a string of regulars, two women and one man, who look like they know every nick and dent in the counter. Behind the bar, velvet paintings of the King of Kings and the King of Rock & Roll watch the patrons and the Patron. DISSOLVE TO: the fresh-scrubbed face of Kenny Chesney, obviously new to this watering hole, nursing a Bud Lite and looking like the luckiest man in the world.
35. case/lang/veirs: “Atomic Number”
(Neko Case, k.d. lang, Laura Veirs)
This Pacific Northwest supergroup take a page from The Band on this introductory track, the first off their self-titled debut. Each distinctive voice joins the song one at a time, like they’re re-writing “The Weight” with even trippier lyrics. These three distinct singer-songwriters examines what makes you indelibly you, except they’re looking at it on a chemical level, and how many songs can you name that are concerned with the infinitesimal different admixtures of elements that produce profoundly different personalities and voices?
34. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”
Who knows what a “low-flying panic attack” actually is (a drone? an airborne virus?), and who cares if that stabbing string arrangement lends this single more jittery paranoia than its lyrics. Burrowing deep into the language of English folk music, Radiohead rewrite “Karma Police” for the new millennium, as if gobsmacked that this sentiment is still relevant twenty years later.
33. Paul Simon: “The Werewolf”
That first verse—about the Milwaukee man with the perfectly average life getting killed in a perfectly average way—is a damn near perfect American tableau, the set-up for a wry joke about greed, corruption, and complacency. The apocalypse makes for a funny punchline, too. Good prepper advice: “You better stock up on water, canned goods off the shelves, and loot some for the old folks who can’t loot for themselves.”
32. Wilco: “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”
At this point their longevity may be the most compelling aspect of this Great American Band, who several great albums back discovered their greatest subject—the small compromises and contradictions that comprise family life—and made dad rock a legitimate subgenre. On this deep-album cut from Wilco Schmilco, whose title borrows from Nilsson Schmilsson, Jeff Tweedy communicates with song titles, rewriting the great charity hit from the ‘80s as means to shirk a little responsibility.
31. Whitney: “Golden Days”
(Julien Ehrlich, Max Kakacek)
Is it too early for millennials to wax nostalgic about their golden days? Sounding like the Flying Burrito Brothers guesting on The Muppet Show, this debut from a pair of indie-rock refugees (Ehrlich from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kakacek from Smith Westerns) reminisces over a crumbled relationship with warmly generous lyrics to match the summery strum of the music.