A list of seven songs I liked this year, in order by artist
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“It Gets Easier”
“It gets easier, but it never gets easy.” For addicts struggling to persevere in sobriety or people just trying, failing, and trying again to stay disciplined, this line is many things all at once. It’s a letdown, a wakeup call, a feeling of steeled resignation, a breath of fresh air. And it’s all of those things because first of all it’s a message spoken by a comrade who gets it.
Jason Isbell has been sober for nine years, and he routinely celebrates others fighting for sobriety on his Twitter account. “It Gets Easier” is an anthem for the long haul. It’s a story of the mundane temptations to relapse (“Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking/Same dream I have ’bout twice a week”) and the cost of giving in (“How tight the handcuffs feel/My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed”), but there’s a glimmer of hope: though it doesn’t ever get easy, it does get easier, and, most of all, it’s worth it.
Best line: “It gets easier, but it never gets easy”
In the tradition of “A Dustland Fairytale,” with its female protagonist and 80s rock sheen, “Caution” is the story of a small-town girl who’s finally getting out. She’s exhilarated that she finally decided to break free, and “Caution” bottles up that feeling of euphoria and releases it in a chorus so explosive you’ll get a catch in your breath.
Best line: “She got Hollywood eyes / But you can’t shoot what she’s seen”
“Remember This House”
Mon Rovîa released this track in time for Juneteenth, a day that, thanks to worldwide racial justice protests, the country was just starting to give due attention. As its timely release date indicates, it was a song for this moment, but it also was grounded in history.
Words like “safe,” “survival,” “scars,” and “blood pressure” fill the song, communicating the imminence of the violence being protested. The title, a reference to James Baldwin’s reflections on key civil rights leaders, links this year’s movement to those of the 1960s. Mon Rovîa weaves this present and the past together, saying, “Scars on me carry years of oppression.” And again tapping into the moment, he calls the listener to action against this oppression: “lines been drawn, no time to sit em.”
Also, this song was special for me, because I listened to it on repeat for days before realizing it was sung by a man I went to college with. So that was a cool connection.
Best line: “Scars on me carry years of oppression… / We gonna make ’em hear us / We gonna make them see us.”
Mumford & Sons
Forever (Garage Version)
More of this, please. Mumford & Sons records are produced with polish and exactitude, which I didn’t even realize until they released the Garage Version of “Forever” and had a great time hearing them let loose. I drove around with this song all summer, and the privacy allowed me to reach for the high “ooos” and shamelessly yell “DARE I SAY FOREVER.”
The band’s genre journey has always been winding. The banjo stood out in Sigh No More and Babel but was dropped in favor of the electric guitar on Wilder Mind. Both instruments returned on Delta, and who’s to say what’s next? But this track opens up a new horizon of sound for the band, and I, for one, would be fine with a future Mumford album with some of these garage jams.
Best line: “And you may not be pious and I’m afraid that I’m not saved / But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed”
nobigdyl. & Andy Mineo
The track is first-and-foremost a great time. Bar after bar is a joke, but a double entendre hides beneath the barrage of references to the Kardashians, Miss Piggy, Bill Simmons, and more. Under the smiles and the goofy robber outfits, nobidgyl. and Mineo are presenting their indie artist bonafides; “Willy” is both a manifesto of the independent artist life and a diss track to those who aren’t legit enough to swing it.
It’s in this paradox that nobigdyl and Mineo gain accessibility. They won’t suffer fools as they chart their careers, but they’re willing to goof off and act like fools in order to make us laugh along the way.
Best line: “I know arrogance can feel like heroin inside a dome”
When I first heard “Radio Cloud,” I texted friends and said, “Crazy! Just listened to the new Ruston song and did not feel sad!” Those sad songs are a gift, but on “Radio Cloud,” Kelly seems to have traded catharsis for celebration, or at least “mid-2000s emo” energy, as a friend put it. (I mean, just look at that music video screenshot—those emo vibes are strong.)
For a long time, the meaning of the song was as confusing as its tone was surprising (Kelly’s explanatory tweet—“radio cloud is about smart phones FYI”—was…less than illuminating). But after careful re-listens, clarity emerges, and that’s exactly what seems to have happened in Kelly’s life, too. He describes the clarifying nature of taking action in the midst of confusion, saying,“I remember what my name is now.” Though the process of growth has been unpleasant, Kelly has re-discovered his priorities and is ready for what’s next.
Best line: “The world shakes when the truth breaks out/the fire takes what ain’t worth a damn now”
In three minutes, “mirrorball” packs so many things I love in a Taylor song, like a shimmery pop sound, intimate lyrics, and a central image that keeps me thinking. It’s quieter than we’re used to from her (“hush” is the song’s second-most important word, after that central image “mirrorball”), but it demonstrates that Taylor can wield an understated song just as well as a straightforward smash hit. Mostly, I just think it’s gorgeous, and it gets me every time.
Best line: “I’m still on that trapeze/I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me”