Do you enjoy the narrative focus of traditional country music, but roll your eyes at the genre’s constant, unironic references to BBQ stains on white T-Shirts? Do you lament the sad turn that country has taken since the days of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Pete Seger? Do you skew liberal but still sort of like Wrangler jeans? Well, If you answered yes to any of the above then this list is for you.
WILCO – “I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART”
It may not have appealed to the “save a horse, ride a cowboy” set, but for country music’s more refined listeners, Wilco’s Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot (an album that takes country music’s original leftist political roots extremely seriously) was a genuine masterpiece. No song was as moving or experimental than album opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
M. WARD – “CHINESE TRANSLATION”
When it comes to alt country, few can philosophize with as much grace and economy as Portland-based singer songwriter M. Ward. While he may be best known as the “him” behind She & Him, it’s songs like this—in which the narrator traverses tall mountains and vast seas in order to ask a wise man three questions—that have made him one of alt country’s greatest unsung heroes.
SUN KIL MOON – “GLENN TIPTON”
Like most of Mark Kozelek’s work, “Glenn Tipton” is a song that requires multiple listens and a good bit of deep reading to fully appreciate. A dark, meandering reflection on childhood, it’s a song that combines several familiar elements of classic country (the murder ballad, the bittersweet nostalgic trip) and transforms them into quintessentially Kozelek.
MY MORNING JACKET – “ONE BIG HOLIDAY”
If you wear denim on denim, but still generally disapprove of the NRA, then chances are My Morning Jacket is one of your favourite bands. Referencing the guitar work of Southern rock icons like Skynryd and CCR, with their own shaggy, pyschadelic twist, “One Big Holiday” is—while not strictly an alt country song—nevertheless a serious banger.
MAGNOLIA COUNTRY – “HARD TO LOVE A MAN”
There are few sadder stories in alt country, than that of Jason Molina. The prolific, songwriting force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., Molina died of liver failure due to chronic alcoholism in 2012 at age 39. Fortunately he left behind an incredible catalogue of music including this heartbreaker of a track “Hard to Love a Man” in which Molina tells the story of an absentee father in his typically understated fashion, “It was hard to love a man like you / Goodbye was half the words you knew.“
BAND OF HORSES – “I LIKE TO GO TO THE BARN BECAUSE I LIKE THE”
If you’ve only heard the hits, you may be surprised to see Band Of Horses on this list. With tracks like “Funeral” and “No One’s Gonna Love You” leaning more indie pop than anything else, it’s easy to forget that back in 2006, their debut Everything All the Time was considered by many to be the most exciting country-tinged release in years.
JOEL PLASKETT EMERGENCY – “HAPPEN NOW”
Who says Canadians can’t get country? The nation of stampedes and endless plains has its fair share of country-inspired yarn spinners too. While Nova Scotia’s Joel Plaskett can be extremely eclectic, “Happen Now” is alt country all the way. If you like your tunes light and breezy, Plaskett’s the man for you.
Honourable Mentions: “Constant Craving” by KD Lang, “Fuck This Town” by Robbie Fulks, “Lucky Now” by Ryan Adams, “I and Love and You” by The Avett Brothers