40. Avett Brothers, “Apart From Me”
On this wistful tune from their latest album, the Brothers reckon with their life on the road, where the departures outnumber the homecomings and where they miss the ones they love the most. What makes the song so chilling despite its delicate melody—one of the loveliest in their catalog—is that they never figure out if all their efforts are actually worth the heartache.
39. Howe Gelb, “Vortexas”
The Giant Sand man steps out of his trailer into the desert heat, opens a beer, and lets the Arizona sun—the ultimate hallucinogen—melt his mind a bit. One verse in, Bonnie “Prince” Billy pulls up a lawn chair to shoot the breeze.
38. Barton Carroll, “It Had To Be A Train”
This North Carolina-born, Washington State-based lifer isn’t upset that his woman left him. What really sticks in his craw was her mode of transportation, as if the world needed another train song: “You couldn’t take a car, you couldn’t hope a plane, like everyone else does these days?”
37. Amanda Shires, “Devastate”
Desire is a storm brewing in a lover’s eyes—an old metaphor but one that finds new menace in Shires’ song about romantic insecurity. “Why wait for landfall? Go on and go,” she sings, and her violin braces for the wind and rain to come. “Devastate” does exactly that.
36. The Mavericks, “Back In Your Arms Again”
Raul Malo nurses an uncertain heart, while the Mavericks interject a modified Tex-Mex beat so spry, so infectious, so jubilant that I keep thinking they’re making fun of his romantic indecision.
35. Chvrches, “The Mother We Share”
My nominee for best music moment of 2013: 0:46 of this smash from the Glaswegian pop trio, when the synths turn iridescent and Lauren Mayberry launches into that towering chorus. Rarely does pop music of any genre convey so much compassion.
34. John Murry, “California”
William Faulkner’s distant cousin kicks heroin and pens a dissonant ode to marriage in the Golden State. “I swear it ain’t you / it’s California I can’t stand,” he sings in that West Coast-via-Tupelo drawl, as the guitar trash Americana like a hotel room.
33. Bill Carter, “Anything Made Of Paper”
“Anything made of paper” was what visitors were allowed to bring Damien Echols in prison, yet Carter’s song—which played over the closing credits of West of Memphis—focuses on everything else the falsely accused prisoner received in time: life, freedom, love, and dignity.
32. Mandy Jewell, “Senator’s Daughter”
With a slew of homemade YouTube covers under her belt, this Ohio singer-songwriter-single mom ponders an epic break-up and plays romantic what-ifs over a jangle-pop riff half-remembered from an old VHS of “120 Minutes”: “ Maybe you would love me if I could be just anybody else.”
31. Holly Williams, “Railroads”
Hank’s granddaughter condenses a Great American Novel into a rangy country-music story-song about a preacher’s son who jumps freights, marries a brothel whore, and never quite figures out if he prefers the rags or the riches.