20. Kim Richey, “Breakaway Speed”
The best song off Richey’s criminally overlooked Thorn in My Heart not only unites Jason Isbell and Trisha Yearwood (finally?) but recounts an inevitable breakup with a lover who goes from 0 to 60 in a single heartbeat.
19. Aoife O’Donovan, “Red & White & Blue & Gold”
Like a novelist immersing you in a different world, O’Donovan understands the importance of tactile details: the grit of sand between toes, the festive colors of fireworks, the teasing warmth of skin against skin, the slur of pedal steel. In this setting, a line like “my heart gets sore from wondering if you’re mine” takes on an almost palpable pang.
18. Sarah Jarosz, “Over The Edge”
Jarosz plays the mandolin like a magician, displaying fleet fingers and a sleight of hand that produces extra notes out of thin air. In other words: same ol’ same ol’. With each album, though, she has honed her songwriting to a sharp point, and “Over the Edge” may be her best tune yet, with both the acoustic groove and her tightrope couplets evoking the invigoration of danger.
17. The Civil Wars, “The One That Got Away”
The opening track and first single from the Civil Wars’ second album obliterated the pastoral politeness of their debut and introduced a rawer, heavier sound. It’s about as aggro as nu-folk gets, but it’s a fitting setting for their voices and perhaps a sly commentary on the rumors that almost broke up the duo.
16. Mount Moriah, “Bright Light”
To get to the bright light, you have to delve into the deep dark. That’s the wisdom on this truly wise tune, which evokes the chiaroscuro catharsis of self-reckoning via the scorched tone of Jenks Miller’s guitar and Heather McEntire’s glow-in-the-dark vocals.
15. Bill Callahan, “The Sing”
The only words I said today are “beer” and “thank you”
“Beer,” “thank you”
“Beer,” “thank you”
14. Ashley Monroe, “Two Weeks Late”
One of country’s true heroines this year, Monroe writes about women constantly besieged but unbowed by everyday miseries: empty wallets, possible pregnancies, disapproving mothers. But the worst, according to “Two Weeks Late,” has to be living up to all the conventions you try to avoid: “Southern man done gone, what a damn cliché,” she shrugs, hopefully aware that she’s so much better off without him.
13. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”
The first single from the erstwhile Fiery Furnace’s second solo record, “When I Knew” (penned by Wesley Stace) packs a full (and wonderfully odd) rom-com into a three-minute pop song, like Annie Hall for millennials. There’s a meet-cute, a happy-ish ending, and both Soft Machine and Dexy’s Midnight Runners thrown in the middle of it all.
12. Caitlin Rose, “Only a Clown”
It’s hard to believe anyone capable of a hook as sharp as “Only a Clown” could ever be the social pariah described in this tune. Rose’s self-deprecation is funny and charming, the guitar riff killer, and the video damn near perfect.
11. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Higgs Boson Blues”
On this roadtrip reverie across Europe, Cave ponders race and rock music in America, time-traveling to Memphis on April 4, 1968, and wondering to himself if Miley Cyrus sold her soul to become this generation’s Robert Johnson. Bonus points for predicting Twerkgate with eerie accuracy.