10. Alabama Shakes: “Don’t Wanna Fight”
It’s not news that Brittany Howard is a force of nature, with a powerful voice and an even more powerful stage presence, yet she opens Alabama Shakes’ single with a falsetto howl so weird and disarming that it’s almost an act of violence. It makes the band’s Shoals groove and the song’s distressed blues structure sound all the more desperate and confounding.
9. Jessica Pratt: “Greycedes”
A folk minimalist at heart, Pratt expresses a great deal with as few words and notes as possible. “Greycedes” is full of lines you think you’ve heard many times before – “Turn the pages of a book …” or “The soldier’s home from war …”— in what Greil Marcus has called the “folk-lyric” style. As her voice reshapes the words into sounds both foreign and familiar, these lines form something unique and mysterious, a song that discloses much less than it withholds.
8. The Deslondes: “The Real Deal”
This New Orleans country band — no, that’s not an oxymoron — strike a curious tone on this standout from their self-titled debut, describing real-life romantic woes in a tone that’s less aggrieved and more self-deprecating. Or maybe it’s the music animating Riley Downing’s lyrics: the keyboard riff that recalls Fats Domino, the guitar riff all but quoted from the Meters, the sense of style picked up from Allen Toussaint, and the sense of movement learned from pretty much any bar the tourists don’t know about. They’re bright students of local history who understand that the number-one lesson of New Orleans music is: Whatever the song is about, you gotta be able to dance to it.
7. Car Seat Headrest: “Something Soon”
Millennials tend to get a bad rap as whiny and entitled, but Will Toledo — the mastermind behind indie-rock-upstarts Car Seat Headrest — understands that there’s something deeper and darker motivating his generation. “Something Soon,” a song he wrote and recorded in his college dorm room and re-recorded for his Matador Records debut, turns youthful anomie into a series of seriocomic vignettes: “I want to kick my dad in the shins,” he admits. “I want to shut my hand in the car door.” It provokes a choked laugh, perhaps a sigh of recognition from those of us who remember that dire sense that something was on the horizon and that dreadful uncertainty of not knowing if it’s good or bad.
6. Craig Finn: “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son”
Songs are often described as short stories, but Craig Finn wrote a whole novel in this lead-off track from his second solo album. The narrator wanders around America, joining cults and reading news of mass shootings and coming to the realization that spiritual upheaval may be the only sane response to life in 2015. Finn has peppered his songs with Catholic imagery before, but few resonate so nervously as this man telling Maggie (Mary Magdalene perhaps?) that he’s been searching for their son (or is that Son?). Maybe that narrator is God trying to find one honest man in America, or maybe it’s just a human at the end of his rope; either way, there’s not much faith in the future.
5. Ashley Monroe: “The Blade”
The title track from Ashley Monroe’s new album pivots on a gory and devastating metaphor about catching the worst in a break-up. It’s a simple turn of phrase, but country songwriting at its finest: “You caught it by the handle, baby, and I caught it by the blade,” she sings. Any other singer might belt that chorus, but Monroe downplays it, trusting her words to carry the weight and sounding like a woman resigned to immense and unfathomable heartache.
4. Dave Rawlings Machine: “The Trip”
This is the longest, weirdest song in Dave Rawlings’ career, a 10-minute picaresque along some dusty railroad right into the strangled heart of America. He narrates the trek in bundles of rhyming lines, gathered up into short journal entries, observations and insights delivered in a voice that sings and speaks simultaneously. He sounds like a huckster, a confidence man, a raconteur of the railcar who might just be pulling one over on you: “So take a trip wherever your conscience has to roam,” he cajoles. “It’s much too hard to try to live a lie at home.”
3. Kacey Musgraves: “Dime Store Cowgirl”
Country is full of songs asserting country bona fides, but few sound quite so melancholy as “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a travelogue that rambles from the trailer parks of Palm Springs to the cliffs of Dover but finds its heart in a small-town dime store. “I had to get away so I could grow,” she sings, more wistful than proud, and the line contains a hard-won lesson: You don’t appreciate your home until you leave it, and you don’t love the road until you come back home. Musgraves writes like she’s torn between the wonders of the world and the comforts of Golden, Texas.
2. Courtney Barnett: “Depreston”
What’s left out of Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston” is every bit as important as what’s left in. The Aussie singer-songwriter piles on the details — the new percolator, the California bungalow in a cul de sac, the shower railing, the old kitchen tins, the photo of a soldier in Vietnam, all the other mementos that make up a life — but she leaves it up to the listener to figure out what they all mean. Her lyrics sound so matter-of-fact, tossed off even, jutting against the meter of the melody, but they conceal big ideas about life and death that are almost too frightening to state outright.
1. Dawes: “All Your Favorite Bands”
This isn’t just a song. It’s a graduation speech. It’s a toast at last call. It’s the closing credits of a coming-of-age flick. It’s the soundtrack to catching up with old friends over Facebook. It’s an end-of-summer anthem. It’s a compendium of yearbook quotes. It’s a collaboration between Dawes and Jonny Fritz that balances the heart-on-sleeve sincerity of the former with the tongue-in-cheek humor of the latter. It’s the best the band has sounded, possibly the best they ever will sound. It’s stray memories and wild nights, El Caminos and “Let’s Party” hats, “late-night drives and hot French fries.” It’s an early-morning reverie, a wide-eyed and big-hearted ode to close friends grown far apart. It’s the song of the year.