20. Richmond Fontaine: “I Got Off the Bus”
Twenty years into the band’s career, Willy Vlautin is calling it quits to write more novels, but that’s what he’s been doing all along. Everything you need in a good story is here on this standout from their swan song: a rich and relatable tragic character, enough of a storyline to move the song but not too much to wrap things up too neatly, a world that doesn’t care, and a new assertion of that old truth that you can’t go home again.
18. Lydia Loveless: “Heaven”
(Lydia Loveless, Todd May)
Like Ryan Adams with something to actually say, this native Ohioan writes songs full of barbed humor and tough truths, none more barbed or tougher than this inverted country tune about the reality of any relationship. “Paradise is only for the weak,” she sings. “Man, no one goes to heaven.” There’s something about the way she spits out that syllable, that “man,” with its slight Buckeye drawl, that sounds like a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes.
18. Lambchop: “The Hustle”
(Kurt Wagner, Ryan Norris)
Somehow Lambchop are the most adventurous and the most consistent band around, switching everything up to maintain a high level of output over the years. FLOTUS is perhaps their biggest departure, a fantasia of programmed beats and manipulated vocals that elevates rather than obscures Kurt Wagner’s lyrics. Best might be this eighteen-minute epic about dancing to cheeseball ‘70s hits at weddings and finding ever new ways to love someone.
17. Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker”
Give or take a few words, Cohen has been singing, “I’m ready, my lord,” for most of his career, and just because he died about a week after his fourteenth album doesn’t make this song any more or less sincere. Just better timed. Cohen was a master of the ambiguous love song, and it’s impossible to tell if this title track is addressed to his many fans or to a distracted God.
16. Shovels & Rope: “The Last Hawk”
(Michael Trent, Cary Ann Hearst)
Moved to tears by an article about Garth Hudson making one (presumably) last visit to Woodstock, Trent and Hearst penned this ode to The Band and their immense legacy: how they changed the world and then how the world changed them. It’s a moving meditation on the whole idea of a legacy, as each of us wonder what we’ll leave behind for future generations. The Band’s is undeniable, Shovels & Rope are on their way to changing the world as well.
15. Miranda Lambert: “Running Just in Case”
(Miranda Lambert/Gwen Sebastian)
Lambert’s life lately has been the stuff of tabloids, but she handled all the rumors and strife with dignified reticence, declining to promote The Weight of These Wings but instead letting songs like “Running Just in Case” speak for themselves. She finds a bit of herself in the country convention of the lover/leaver, implying vast depths with just a few economic lines before realizing, “There’s freedom in a broken heart.”
14. David Bowie: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
One of the best farewells in rock history, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” lets Bowie go out on the highest note imaginable, simply by letting him maintain a bit of mystery. One of the biggest rock stars in the world had to keep part of himself for himself, but the subtle strain in his vocals, especially on that chorus, proves he gave us more than enough.
13. Beyoncé: “Daddy Lessons”
(Beyoncé Knowles, Wynter Gordon, Kevin Cossom, Alex Delicata)
Dismissed more for its singer than for its sentiment, the unlikeliest country hit of the year shows just how malleable the term “country” can be and how universal its themes truly are.
12. Mitski: “Your Best American Girl”
Two lovers torn apart by cultural differences, one half-Japanese and the other All-American. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” Miyawaki sings as the guitar churn the song into something like an anthem. “But I do, I think I do.” That “I think” catches in your gut, as it reveals the ambivalence of a tune that is part tragedy and part celebration—a tricky balance for a song about cultural self-annihilation in the name of love.
11. Sturgill Simpson: “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”
This is Sturgill’s “Hey Jude,” an ode to his newborn son that could have been mawkish but instead reveals the soft heart beneath the hard demeanor. He’s blessed on the first verse, but then pulls back the curtain to reveal the hard realities of this sad old word: “But if sometimes Daddy has to go away…”