20. Lucinda Williams: “Sweet Love”
Nobody does sweet and simple quite as easily as Lucinda, who lately has been leaning more toward the latter than the former. But as frustrating as Blessed may have been, “Sweet Love” remains a keeper—a beautifully heartfelt, sincerely happy love letter.
19. PJ Harvey: “The Words That Maketh Murder”
Perhaps the headiest concept album of the year, Let England Shake is a collection of songs inspired by the horrors of the battlefield. Blending the pastoral with the martial, “The Words That Maketh Murder” argues that carnage extends from the pen rather than from the sword. Harvey’s shoutout to Chuck Berry’s “30 Days” adds some deliciously grim irony.
18. Bright Eyes: “Haile Selassie”
“In Rastafarianism, they’re talking about fighting back against an imperial power with the best tools at their disposal, which are music and soul and weed and community,” Conor Oberst told Rolling Stone back in January. “The symbolism in that music seemed very potent to me, and very appropriate.”
17. Radiohead: “Lotus Flower”
Thom Yorke has never been the most effusive singer (nor the most graceful dancer), but when he sings, “There’s an empty place inside my heart, when the weeds take root,” that dark Radiohead groove becomes that much more menacing.
16. Paul Simon: “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”
Paul Simon of all people came up with one of the most inspired samples of the year? He duets with the Rev. J.M. Gates—or, more precisely, a tape of a 1940 sermon—on this chipper tune about the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and the God watching over it all.
15. Feist: “The Circle Married the Line”
Feist’s quiet tunes resonate loudly, especially this geometric love song that pairs a low-key hook
with the most basic description of a sunset ever. “All I want is a horizon line,” she sings, trying to get some linear perspective.
14. Decemberists: “Calamity Song”
Of course Colin Meloy has read all of Infinite Jest, but who knew he could turn all that literary geekiness into such a catchy bit of lit crit? Those ah-whoooo’s at the end may be the best eulogy for—or celebration of—the late David Foster Wallace.
13. Bon Iver: “Perth”
Lyrics aren’t necessarily central to Justin Vernon’s songs; far more compelling are the unexpected sonic flourishes, like the rollout snares that give this song an easy majesty. “Holocene” may have earned the Grammy nominations, but “Perth” immediately hooked any listener who pressed play on Bon Iver’s second album.
12. Fleet Foxes: “Grown Ocean”
If their 2008 debut introduced Fleet Foxes’ indelible harmonies and expansive take on American folk, their follow-up revealed Robin Pecknold to be a fine songwriter with a distinctive voice. Gorgeous and heraldic, “Grown Ocean” dreams up an afterlife so intense even he can hardly believe it might actually be real.
11. Jessica Lea Mayfield: “Trouble”
Few songwriters deal with sex, recrimination, and regret quite as candidly or as pointedly as Mayfield, who cheats in cheap hotels, does blow with questionable men, and admits that “I lied because it’s what I know how to do.” Somehow she manages to come across as sympathetic. She did, after all, warn him she was trouble.