. 20. Angel Olsen: “Forgiven/Forgotten” Olsen made the leap from bleak folkie to strident punk with admirable grace and poise, corralling a small but punchy backing band to back on lovesick anthems like “Forgiven/Forgotten.” As the guitars scribble all around her, Olsen repeats each line several times, as though psyching herself up for a confrontation, then drops the bomb: “Will you ever forgive me for loving you?” She ends the song just after the two-minute mark, because how do you follow that line?
19. Adia Victoria: “Stuck in the South” Even before she has even released her first album, newcomer Adia Victoria has shown a keen understanding of American regional distinctions, especially those below the Mason-Dixon. The Nashville singer-songwriter sounds like Billie Holiday fronting the Drive-By Truckers, and she peppers her first single with sly references to Robert Johnson, R.L. Burnside, and Elmore James. If she’s stuck in the South, it’s by choice. Why would you want to get unstuck from “Dust My Broom”? 18. St. Vincent: Birth in Reverse This is how you open an album: “Oh, what an ordinary day! Take out the garbage, masturbate.” 17. Drive-By Truckers: “Grand Canyon” The Truckers have been closing recent shows with this eulogy for Craig Lieske, a close friend and long-time merch guy who traveled with the band for many years before he died of a heart attack in January 2013. Patterson Hood reminisces on a trip to the Grand Canyon, reflects on “the horrors that life throws,” and leads the band through a mighty coda that’ll give you chills. The longest song on this list, it evokes with startling clarity the kind of loss that leaves a hole in your heart the size of… well, you know…
16. Shovels & Rope: “Evil” The Great Recession has inspired a lot of pop music, but nothing so exceptionally weird as this country-goth(ic) tale of suburban normalcy curdling into something distinctly abnormal. Without condescending to the characters or the setting, the Charleston, South Carolina, duo sing-shout each line with increasing abandon, like they’ve got no money in the bank but bats in the belfry.
15. New Pornographers: “War on the East Coast” Just when you thought the New Pornographers had gone softcore, they rally with their best album in a decade, which hinges on Dan Bejar’s spirited anthem to civil unrest on the coasts. He delivers a supremely catchy chorus, but the real “War” hero is drummer Kurt Dahle, who adds the gunpowder to make the chorus chug along at its frantic clip. (Sadly, Dahle left the group in September, because God has turned His back on humanity.) 14. Future Islands: “Seasons (Waiting on You)” It wasn’t just Samuel T. Herring’s drunken-marionette dance moves that made Future Islands’ appearance on Letterman so memorable. The real takeaway was the song itself, a stirring and sturdy synthpop anthem about the frayed bonds between friends and lovers. “You know when people change, they gain a piece but they lose one, too,” Herring sings with unabashed bombast, savoring the bittersweet tragedy of being that person’s lost piece.
13. Marianne Faithfull: “Late Victorian Holocaust” Marianne Faithfull’s best single in decades was penned for her by Nick Cave, another artist who only gets better as he gets older. Ostensibly it’s about junkies in London, but it plays more like a musical memoir, hinting at her starlet ‘60s as well as her ‘70s spent as a homeless heroin addict. You can hear all of those experiences in her voice, which conveys unfathomable wonder and authority.
12. Amy LaVere: “Rabbit” On one of the most heartbreaking songs of the year, Memphis’ best-kept secret imagines herself as a prodigal teen torn between the lure of the road and the security of home. “I can’t remember why I ran,” she sings in a voice that sounds cowed by a world that’s so much larger than she expected, “or how I got so lost, or how to get back home now.”
11. The War on Drugs: “Red Eyes” Adam Granduciel punctuates the first verse of “Red Eyes” with the best “woo!” of the year: a loud, unexpected, ecstatic exhalation that sends the synths and guitars careening toward a dramatic collision. The fact that he repeats the moment in the second verse reveals that sharp-edged syllable to be the most important lyric in the song, hinting at every jittery uncertainty the band can’t put into words or riffs.