40. Apache Relay: “Good As Gold” Usually the romantic hero makes a last-ditch effort to stop the woman he loves from catching that plane or walking down the aisle, but occasionally he turns out to be a stone coward. But at least Michael Ford Jr. owns up to his own spinelessness on this sneakily catchy tune from Nashville’s Apache Relay. “If I wasn’t so afraid I would chase her down tonight.” 39. Hamilton Leithauser: “Alexandra” The dapper Walkmen frontman went solo with this stylish and rambunctious debut single, electrified by some rumbling hopscotch drums, a rambling harmonica, and his shout-sing vocals. Leithauser pleads with a lover to remember him when they “swing apart,” yet he delivers it with such heady urgency that he might as well be addressing the listener directly to ask for a little space on your playlist. 38. Tweedy: “Summer Noon” We all knew Jeff could write a solid tune full of fragmented images and singsong melodies, so the real surprise of “Summer Noon” is his son Spencer’s drumming. The younger Tweedy plays his snare and toms like he’s strumming a guitar, adding a gentle breeze to the song’s fatherly advice: “Never leave your mother’s womb, unless you wanna see how hard a broken heart can swoon.” 37. Lucinda Williams: “Burning Bridges” Ten or fifteen years ago, a double album by the notorious perfectionist Lucinda Williams would have sounded like science fiction, but Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone presents a woman letting her hair down a bit and enjoying the imperfections in her music. Even if the hollerin’ at the end of “Burning Bridges” verges on histrionic, the song’s sentiment still stings. “I can add you to my list of things that keep me up at night,” she sings in that familiar slur. 36. Ryan Adams: “Kim” Adams has written hundreds of tunes (or is that thousands?) and played countless shows, but he’s never been able to milk a simple syllable for so much romantic anguish as he does on “Kim,” the standout on his self-titled comeback. Over a guitar riff rummaged from 1982, he scratches her name with a key on the wall, walks around aimlessly, then reveals the song’s twist: “Kim” rhymes with “him,” as in “another dude.” 35. Ex Hex: “Radio On” The latest project from DC’s legendary Mary Timony shrugs off hardcore urgency and indie-rock artistry to emphasize hooks hooks hooks—the catchiest of which is the chorus of “Radio On.” This three-minute pop song sounds like Dwight Twilley sitting in with Cheap Trick, and Timony makes “Whoa-oa-oa! Oa-oa-oa!” sound like a heady bit of hard-won wisdom. 34. Miranda Lambert: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” The gentlest song on Lambert’s extravagant fifth album, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” is a bittersweet reminiscence about first loves, first heartbreaks, and long nights spent with good friends in front of a fire that just won’t burn out. Little Big Town harmonize beautifully, and Lambert provides a gorgeously understated performance, sounding like she’s not even in the studio but somewhere back in Oklahoma ca. 1999.
33. Jack White: “Would You Fight for My Love?” Forgoing the duochromatic palette that distinguished his old band, Jack White made Lazaretto as a technicolor explosion, and no song was more brilliantly hued than “Would You Fight for My Love?” On the surface it’s about barely requited love, but White orchestrates the song like his real mistress is the music, in particular the bloodstained film scores of giallo director Dario Argento. 32. First Aid Kit: “Stay Gold” Just barely out of their teens, these two Swedish sisters are young enough to quote Robert Frost in their song title, but old enough to pepper their Laurel Canyon power folk with deep dread. “What if the hard work ends in despair? What if the road won’t take us there?” Those are dark questions about messy subjects, but those soaring harmonies make them sound beautiful. 31. Justin Townes Earle: “White Gardenias” With his history of drug problems, it’s little wonder Justin Townes Earle might identify with the notoriously troubled Billie Holiday, but “White Gardenias” proves there is an even stronger musical kinship between them. On this stately hymn inspired by Lady Day’s signature corsage, he paints a detailed portrait in as few words as possible, and sings them all with a graceful phrasing obviously learned from his hero. It’s moving without being maudlin.