30. My Morning Jacket: “Victory Dance”
Not since 2001’s At Dawn have My Morning Jacket nailed an opener harder than they did on this year’s return-to-form Circuital. Jim James scat-sings an opening fanfare, and the band carefully assemble a towering monument to hard labor: “Hope to watch the mystery dance when the whole day’s work is done.”
29. Lana del Ray: “Video Games”
Rather than bitch about her boyfriend ignoring her to play video games, this California newcomer writes a serious, almost self-consciously sexy song that’s more aspiration than actual: The lyrics may voice the indignities of such a one-sided relationship, but the music evokes the kind of life she wishes she were living.
28. War on Drugs: “Baby Missiles”
Adam Granduciel writes songs like dispatches from the wilds of the American open road, with a touch of Kerouac and Dylan for good measure. But it’s the blend of guitar and keyboards that really fuels this song and makes it truly motivating.
27. The Felice Brothers: “River Jordan”
On this slow-moving closer from Celebration, Florida, the Felice Brothers rewrite the old spiritual as an angry letter to God, churning a ragged momentum as if pulled along by some unknown force. They let you know they’d give it all up—the stages, the studios, the music—just to know what happens when you die.
26. Pieta Brown: “Mercury”
Delicately backed by Mark Knopfler’s band, Pieta Brown delivers a dendrological love song, comparing her heart to changing autumn leaves. That rush of words on the chorus gracefully evokes the title element, “that mercury love inside me.”
25. A.A. Bondy: “Surfer King”
Bondy’s lyrics may be inscrutable—what is “a murder of roses” doing wearing “American skin”?—but the slow, chiming guitars make every word sound not only essential, but evocative of some remote dancehall where the surfer king deity holds court.
24. Bill Callahan: “Riding for the Feeling”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more chilling moment or a more insightful song about the horrors of writing songs or creating art of any kind: “With the TV on mute, I’m listening back to the tapes on the hotel bed / My my my apocalypse.”
23. Robert Ellis: “Friends Like Those”
What an introduction: This Houston newcomer opens his debut with a quietly devastating ode to old friends lost to time and distance. Ellis may be only in his early 20s, but lyrically and vocally, he sounds like an old soul, investing this tune with the kind of wisdom that only comes from experience.
22. Abigail Washburn: “Burn Thru”
This former law student may be one of the most fearless roots artists working today, effortlessly blending American and Asian folk traditions in a distinctive style that reaches its apogee in this harrowing song about battling hardships and living “to see the light, to see it burn thru.”
21. Miranda Lambert: “Fine Tune”
Perhaps the finest moment on Lambert’s second-best album of 2011 was this R. Kelly-worthy sex metaphor involving gearshifts, tow trucks, and a hunky handyman. She even manages to rhyme “defibrillator” with “love innovator” in a voice distorted with desire.