Daft Punk feat. Pharrell - "Get Lucky"
Undeniably fun and danceable (even if you don't dance), this is the catchiest mainstream pop song in years. I defy you to sit still and do anything less than love it.
The National - "Sea of Love"
I used to hate this band, but when I heard their song "About Today" at the end of the movie Warrior, that all changed. The brilliant musicianship (their drummer is especially awesome) and the unusual yet emotive baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger have a way of slowly sneaking up on you. One day you'll just find yourself thinking, "Damn, they're really good." This song employs Berninger's knack for combining abstract lyrics with his unique vocal cadence, making it all the more engaging. (Not to mention the video is awesome.)
Futurebirds - "Heavy Weights"
A passionate indie folk rock song that's part celebration, part meditation on death (it crescendos into a chorus of multiple parts singing the words "when you die"), this is a standout track on one of the best albums of the year. A strummed banjo and reverb were meant for songs like this. Listen to a stream of the song on SoundCloud HERE.
Ashley Monroe - "The Morning After"
She unsurprisingly struck out at mainstream country radio play for being too country, but this Pistol Annie is too good for them anyway. With the honey-sweet sadness of her vocal and a steel guitar that weeps at all the right moments, I knew this song was an instant classic the first time I heard it. God knows I'm not the only one. (In addition to the live from the Grand Old Opry video below [with co-producer Vince Gill backing her up], HERE is a wonderful stripped-down version of the tune with just Monroe and her guitar.)
Kacey Musgraves - "Silver Lining"
I will admit to getting chills the first time I heard this song. It's the lead track on Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves' major label debut that was released earlier this year. It treads familiar territory (you have to mine through the rough to get to the good) with simple poetry and instrumentation that leans more toward americana than mainstream country. It may be the only mainstream country album released this year that starts with a beautiful whimper rather than a homogenized bang.
Daniel Romano - "He Lets Her Memory Go"
Romano is one the best contemporary songwriters writing in the vein of traditional country music that I've heard. This song is a perfect example of his ability to sound vintage in the best possible way yet maintain a modern sensibility. The shimmering, patient electric guitar sounds wonderful here.
Justin Timberlake - "Mirrors"
Sure, the first five minutes of this song is really well done, better-than-most, mainstream pop, but what Timberlake and Timbaland do with the last three minutes of this song, in this music fan's humble opinion, lifts it into the realm of high art. It might be my favorite three minutes in music this year.
Dawes - "Something In Common"
I feel like this song encapsulates just about everything Dawes have proven themselves to be as a band. Poetic lyrics; tight, uncluttered musicianship; epic build-ups; raw honesty; and unabashed earnestness. People have been much abuzz about this group for the last couple years, and it's because of songs like this. "I feel like a man behind a camera, who waits patiently for something he won't see."
The Steeldrivers - "Lonesome Goodbye"
When I recently saw The Steeldrivers live, fiddler Tammy Rogers said this "love song about being miserable" (my paraphrase) barely made the cut for Hammer Down, their album released in February. But damn, am I glad it did. Written by two former members of the band who departed before this album was recorded, Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson, the group's playing--and ability to hold back--have never sounded better. Watch a live performance of the song HERE.
Kim Richey / Mando Saenz - "Breakaway Speed"
Both songwriters released a version of this song on their respective 2013 albums. I personally prefer Saenz's more rocking version, but it's hard to go wrong with Richey's version too, which is backed by Jason Isbell and Trisha Yearwood on harmony. Listen to Saenz' version HERE.
Sons of Bill - "Bad Dancer"
This is completely different from anything Sons of Bill has done before yet sounds like quintessential Sons of Bill all at the same time. A Record Store Day single vinyl release, it contains the standout lyric, "Once southern boys, they all loved R.E. Lee., once southern girls love R.E.M." Be careful; it has the ability to take you back to high school or make you feel like you're in a John Hughes movie. Listen to the track at Paste Magazine HERE.