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Ranked: The 10 Best Courtney Barnett Songs to Date

Aug 12, 2021
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Courtney Barnett, the songstress from down under, has graced us with four studio albums, an EP and several singles since 2012, and her latest ones, “Rae Street” and “Before You Gotta Go,” both precede her upcoming LP Things Take Time, Take Time (which is due out November 12 via Mom + Pop Music/Marathon Artists). The 33-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist from Melbourne, Australia, is less about dividing her discography into songs you do and don’t like, and more about grouping them into the ones you love and the other ones you really really love. Indie folk, garage rock, stoner soul, she does it all, and these 10 picks are only a taste to get you hooked on the rest and tide you over until the new album comes out. Speaking of, we’ll start with “Rae Street,” which is not officially on this list but gives you an idea of where Barnett is at now (and was #1 on our Songs of the Week list), as well as “Before You Gotta Go,” which just came out this week. Then there’ll be an honorable mention and the full Top 10. By Lily Guthrie.

Honorable Mention

Pickles From the Jar

I would be remiss if I were to leave out one of my personal favorites, “Pickles from the Jar,” a 2014 standalone single that leans into rockabilly with a contemporary spin. The lyrics lay out an irresistibly boppy push-and-pull between Barnett and her partner, underscoring the couple’s differences that consequently bring them closer together. Though “chalk and cheese,” their idiosyncratic love story plays out atop a simple, jagged chord progression that just makes you want to jump around and dance along.


"Need a Little Time"

Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018

This feels like Barnett’s gossamer descent of a mental breakdown. She expresses lingering concerns about her identity by unpacking and accepting the self care she needs; an unapologetic apology. In turn, she offers the same advice to her partner, recognizing the fragmented mirror images they reflect. Seeing what’s inside them but still wanting more, she says, “I’ll rip it out carefully/I promise you won’t feel a thing.” Though we only hear from Barnett’s perspective, it appears conclusive that this relationship must come to an end. The melody floats above the staff, but the composition isn’t absent of Barnett’s biting grit and tattered strings, giving sharp corners to her satiny vocals.


"Small Poppies"

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

The sullen drawl of this 7-minute waltz is colored by loquacious guitar melodies that interject Barnett’s ultimate demise. It was written in response to negative reviews from critics and listeners based on the burgeoning success of her music. In this context, fame is not an advantage but a burden, an incessant battle that’s “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye.” The song gradually winds up into a ravishing tizzy with a wailing electric guitar solo that wears out into pulsing sobs, fades into a petty whine. and takes the ear on a full-blown opioid trip.


"Over Everything"

Lotta Sea Lice (2017)

This matter-of-fact collaboration with Kurt Vile was the lead single off their record Lotta Sea Lice, a collection of songs that glorify the day-to-day monotonies. This track is elevated Americana, a steady, windows-down jam where each artist’s musical souls lock into place, like the last two pieces in a puzzle. Not only do they find lyrical and instrumental commonalities, but they give indie rock a good name. While primarily folk-centric, there are undeniable threads of grunge and psych rock strewn through that give it a craggy edge.


"Elevator Operator"

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

Kicking off Barnett’s 2015 album, the listener instantly meets Oliver Paul, a semi-neurotic boy running late for work. After a sudden change of heart, Paul decides to take the day off and steps into an elevator with a pompous woman who “looks him up and down with a botox frown.” Noticing his ascent to the roof, she deduces Paul plans to commit suicide, to which Paul accuses her of projecting. As anxiety provoking as this scene may appear, the happy-go-lucky air of the musicality is deceptive, dropping a final macabre curtain on Paul’s journey to work.


"City Looks Pretty"

Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018)

The opening lines of this song paint Barnett as an astray preacher, but even “heavenly prose ain’t enough good to fill that hole.” Barnett’s four-walled confinement furthers an internal collapse in which she must fight against mental and physical stagnation. The magic of “City Looks Pretty” lies in the juxtaposition of emotional stillness and the propulsion of Barnett’s throbbing electric guitar line, highlighting a hopefulness that shines throughout the upbeat refrain and glittering triplets.


"Nameless, Faceless"

Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018)

Here, Barnett contrasts normative masculinity and femininity presentation, particularly in relation to online users who hide behind their screen names. She references a quote by Margaret Atwood in her poignant chorus, “I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them/I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Women are scared that men will kill them.” The low growling of the chorus fixed in a minor key evokes the spirit of the wild west while staying rooted in her signature grunge and alt-rock. She handles the imbalance of vulnerability between the sexes with a satirical approach in her lyrics but embeds a dark omen in the tonality, a classic Barnett tongue-in-cheek composition.


"An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)"

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

I can feel this song throughout my entire body—my blood is pumping and my heart is racing from the first drumbeat, and both my hands are shaking by the time the bluesy bassline settles into place. In one of her finest moments, Barnett orchestrates sublime harmony: perfectly paced, effortlessly cool. She basks the listener in her chronic state of missing her partner, feeling free to fixate on every ounce of her delusion. Each image is so crisp that I suddenly find myself standing in her shoes, immersed in a buoyant sea of rock ‘n’ roll.


"History Eraser"

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2013)

Characteristic of Barnett’s first LP (really a collection of two EPs), this track coasts on her knack for sing-speak and emphasizes her chillwave, space rock influences. She unabashedly divulges the dirty details of a long night out, one where she brilliantly, “stayed drunk and fell awake.” The whole song is full of witty wordplay, but Barnett drops these one-liners deadpan, echoing the likes of Lou Reed’s solo work. It’s a stream-of-consciousness masterpiece that toys with unconscious thoughts, the fine line between what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, for in that small space is where history gains its value.


"Pedestrian at Best"

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

This song is a force to be reckoned with. The lead single from her 2015 album is a tsunami of identity crises, philosophical theories, and anxious turmoil fleshed out into a raucous punk song. “Pedestrian at Best” is an outburst of Barnett’s frustration with the pressures of fame and the music industry, so she defaults to self-deprecation and pleading for solitary confinement. She hardly gets in a breath edgewise, physicalizing the psychological effects of her stress.


"Avant Gardener"

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2013)

This was the crux of her gaining international critical acclaim: it’s psychedelic, it’s soothing, it’s Courtney Barnett. Funny and honest, Barnett has a complex confidence about her that’s playful but assured, which makes the pairing of her gravelly voice and fiery songs absolutely radiant. “Avant Gardener” is a culmination of all Barnett’s trademark skills. The narrative is prosaic, but her storytelling abilities cut with the hypnotic dream-pop tune turns lead into gold. There’s wisdom in her whimsy, and that’s why we want more Courtney Barnett.

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