2004: “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire quickly proved that they weren’t afraid of big moments. “Wake Up”, off the band’s 2004 debut Funeral, is one long series of unapologetically grand gestures, with crunching guitars, symphonic elements, and a Motown-flavored coda. Win Butler bellows out the lyrics with abandon, speaking for an entire generation of youngsters whose childhood promises remain unfulfilled. Yet the song ends on a triumphant note with the narrator, somehow empowered by his failures, soaring above the carnage and shouting, “You better look out below.”
2005: “Gold Digger” by Kanye West
His latest releases have adopted a more serious bent, but Kanye West’s playful side ruled on this brilliant single from 2005’s Late Registration. Jamie Foxx sings the hook, a variation on Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman”, and West does the rest in a hilariously thorough examination of men with money and the women who love that money. His verses are endlessly inventive, name-dropping everything from Geico to Tyco, and there are hooks galore, even in the edited version (“I ain’t messin’ with no broke..broke.”)
2006: “O Valencia” by The Decemberists
The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy carved out a niche in the indie-rock world with hyper-literate lyrics dramatically embellished by his crack band. “O Valencia”, from 2006’s The Crane Wife, is the quintessence of this approach. Meloy tells a Shakespearean tale of lovers divided by warring families, right down to the tragic finish. Yet the pumping rock arrangement never lets things get maudlin, and, when Meloy’s narrator promises to “burn this whole city down” in response to his lover’s death, it’s musical catharsis at its most stirring.
2007: “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver
Justin Vernon, broken-hearted and recovering from illness, decamped to a Wisconsin cabin, emerging with an alter ego (Bon Iver) and the 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago. “Skinny Love” is the showstopper. Stream-of-consciousness wordplay is pitted against rustic folky strumming. The narrator begs his love to end the torment and “cut out all the ropes and let me fall.” Vernon alternates between falsetto crooning and serrated shouting, and the end result is a song which registers both aching tenderness and harrowing intensity.
2008: “Ruby And Carlos” by James McMurtry
Lots of songwriters claim to tell it like it is, but few can deliver that kind of unvarnished truth like James McMurtry. His 2008 stunner “Ruby And Carlos” spotlights a middle-aged waitress, her Gulf War vet boyfriend, and the widening gap between their youthful dreams and unforgiving reality. While he doesn’t grant them a happy ending, McMurtry does portray them with dignity and empathy, so that their sad fate, to be separated and in possession of nothing but their loneliness, is all the more heartbreaking.
2009: “I And Love And You” by The Avett Brothers
The title track to their breakthrough 2009 album, “I And Love With You” is like an alt-country “Hey Jude” in that it’s a piano ballad that’s both sweeping and bittersweet. Producer Rick Rubin assists with the former thanks to a pristine arrangement, but Scott and Seth Avett deliver the latter via a song that suggests the only way to escape heartache is to physically vacate to a new location. Thus the refrain of “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in” is part hopeful cry, part desperate plea.
2010: “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National
The National’s unique talent is their ability to combine the moody, existential malaise of American post-millennials with music of bracing energy and power. On “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, Matt Berninger moans cryptically about bees before veering into a pointed recession-themed one-liner: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe.” Meanwhile drummer Bryan Devendorf beats the devil out his instrument as a way to fend off all the encroaching demons in the lyrics. By song’s end, you’ll be blood-buzzed too.
2011: “Another Like You” by Hayes Carll
The old adage says the heart wants what it wants. Hayes Carll took that to the extreme on this charmer from his 2011 album KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories). He and duet partner Cary Ann Hearst play out a he said/she said scenario of dueling insults, some based on differing political views and some just low blows. Yet this combustion leads to an elevator make-out session and a tryst in Room 402. If Crossfire had been this entertaining, it’d still be on the air.
2012: “Birmingham” by Shovels & Rope
All great bands need a little mythology. In the case of Shovels & Rope, they provided it with the stomping, self-referential “Birmingham,” which recounts the false starts and hiccups that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst encountered in their musical careers before they found each other. Eventually, as their stirring harmonies prove, they realized what they could do together and rose above all obstacles “with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.” A marriage and Americana star status soon awaited.
2013: “My Favorite Picture Of You” by Guy Clark
Nearly four decades after writing “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train,” Guy Clark was still demonstrating how to combine authentically rough edges with unabashed sentiment. Inspired by the death of his wife of 40 years, “My Favorite Picture Of You”, co-written by Gordie Sampson, doesn’t settle for the sap that Clark easily could have piled high. Instead he pays tribute to his wife by detailing an instance when she almost left him, her strength and independence, qualities now sorely missed, the focus of his touching reminiscence.
2014: “The Body Electric” by Hurray For The Riff Raff
Most Americana and roots artists automatically revere the common tropes of folk and blues songs. Alynda Lee Segarra, the firebrand leader of Hurray For The Riff Raff, not only questions one of the most well-worn of those tropes but dares to rebel against it on “The Body Electric,” the centerpiece of her band’s 2014 triumph Small Town Heroes. Over gentle acoustic guitar, plaintive violins, and ominous drums, Segarra imagines resurrecting a murdered heroine to right the wrongs done to women in countless songs going back through the mists of time. Segarra doesn’t shout out her argument that excusing such violence in songs is tantamount to ignoring the reality of abused women all across the world. Instead she sings it calmly like the common sense it should be. “Like an old sad song, you’ve heard it all before,” she sings. “Well, Delia’s gone but I’m settling the score.” Segarra couldn’t have anticipated the way that the issue would become front-page news time and again throughout 2014, but her point is that it never should be taken for granted. In the song’s closing moments, she suggests to the rifle-toting men who might perpetrate such violence that a day could come when their daughters are the victims. Thanks to “The Body Electric,” you’ll probably never hear a murder ballad in quite the same way again. And thanks to brave artists like Alynda Lee Segarra, one can imagine a time when news about a woman battered or killed by a man isn’t accepted as the same old song.