40. Real Estate: “It’s Real”
With its crackling guitar licks and unabashedly pastoral lyrics, this standout from Real Estate’s second album exudes both an overcast melancholy and a joy in tactile pleasures: “I walked on decomposing leaves / I skated on the frozen sea / it’s real as far as I can see.”
39. Destroyer: “Savage Night at the Opera”
Destroyer settled into early ‘80s soft-pop decadence, toying with luxuriant synths and flanged drums, not out of parachute pants nostalgia but as a means of commenting on contemporary music. “Savage Night at the Opera” worries over the idea of aging and loosing touch with a scene, but Dan Bejar presides over it all with enough authority to make “ba da da dam da da da” sound wickedly profound.
38. Those Darlins: “Waste Away”
Those Darlins took a short break from their rabble-rousing for a quietly devastating missive to an addict friend. “I don’t wanna watch you waste away,” Jessi Darlin sings with conflicted emotions. “You don’t wanna watch me do the same.”
37. Marissa Nadler: “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning”
The perpetually underrated Boston folkie sounds like Leonard Cohen with a spacier determinism on this standout from her Kickstarter-funded fifth-album, which marries earthy folk, ethereal synths, and tough-minded songwriting.
36. Eleanor Friedberger: “My Mistakes”
Has a bicycle crash ever inspired a better song? Going solo, the sometime Fiery Furnace surveys her various flubs and accidents, delivering her jumble of words—not to mention a song-closing sax solo—with such charm and warmth that you barely notice she’s put a brick on the song’s gas pedal.
35. Matraca Berg: “You and Tequila”
Sure, this song has been sloshing around for nearly a decade, covered by the likes of Kenny Chesney and Deana Carter. But Berg makes it sound completely new, her steady vocals and gentle way with a melody lending this tale of drunk-driving around Los Angeles fresh resonance.
34. tUnE-yArDs: “My Country”
Merrill Garbus cribs from the National Anthem for this break-up song with America, which musters not only the most percolating percussion of 2011 but also the most incisive class dissection. Her anger sounds both eloquent and entirely reasonable.
33. Lykke Li: “I Follow Rivers”
The Swedish dance-pop eccentric had songs both gutsier (“Get Some”) and sadder (“Sadness Is a Blessing”), but “I Follow Rivers” is nevertheless the greatest achievement on her brazen, melancholy second album: an understated dance anthem of desire and devotion.
32. Steel Magnolia: “Bulletproof”
Meghan Linsey announces herself as the biggest, grittiest, brashest voice in Nashville with this towering single, which sounds almost comically defiant but conceals a vulnerable heart beneath the tattoos and tequila shots.
31. Laura Marling: “The Beast”
The British folkie—a mainstay on the London scene that produced Mumford & Sons—didn’t cross over with American audiences, but songs as dark and unflinching suggest it’s clearly the fault of American audiences.