Courtney Barnett has invaded the vanguard of modern songwriters in a few short years by painting her weary worldview one insanely catchy, deadpanned song at a time. Self-effacing yet confident, frank yet timid, her four-chord indie-rock yarns tumble out in bursts of melodic inner monologue, bubbling with quick observations, random ideas and a nervous emotional logic. Whether she’s singing about messed-up relationships or ramen addiction, the language Barnett speaks is her own and it’s universal. To mark the announcement of her second studio album, Tell Me How You Really Feel (third if you count the double EP Sea of Split Peas from 2013, and fourth if you count her 2017 duo album with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice), we put our heads together and compiled our 12 favorite Courtney Barnett songs.
This 2014 single about loving someone who’s the complete opposite of yourself is a tongue-in-cheek, quick-paced, bouncy romp through the contraries between Barnett and wife Jen Cloher. But it’s also a good allegory for anyone: You can have a loving relationship no matter how different you and your significant other are. “You like mornings, I like nights /I love you till the day I die,” Barnett sings. You can’t help but smile—the love she has for Cloher is infectious and shines through on this simple little love song. —Annie Black
One of her originals from Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett’s 2017 collaborative album with Kurt Vile, “Let It Go” finds her stretching out with a finger-picked, serpentine guitar lead and a dazed lyrical take on how she survives as a traveling songwriter. There are many moments on Sea Lice where Barnett and Vile lock into a tortoise-speed dialogue on life and music, but we see most clearly through their signature fog on “Let It Go”: “What comes first / the chorus or the verse? / I’m a bit blocked at the moment / They say the more you learn the less that you know.” As always, Barnett manages to take a detail or observation from her life and make it empathetic for any listener. —Matthew Oshinsky
This is Courtney at her most playful. Appearing on a 2016 compilation for her own Milk! Records imprint, “Three Packs a Day” is a whimsical little ode to Barnett’s apparent crippling vice—a “three pack” addiction to instant noodles. Its literalism can’t help but make you smile, with lyrics like “that MSG tastes good to me / I disagree with all your warnings,” and “it can’t be true that they use glue / to keep the noodles stuck together.” Featuring some uplifting harmonica and a bouncy beat, this track is simple, pure sunshine. —Jim Vorel
“Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” should be the anthem of millennials everywhere. Barnett’s lyrics on this Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit track are as relatable as it gets. Barnett whines in her signature monotone, “I wanna go out, but I wanna stay home” over and over again, and really, we all know what that listlessness feels like. Paired with the pounding, understated bass line and simple, repetitive guitar chords, this is truly the soundtrack of never being fully satisfied. —Annie Black
As the lead single of Sometimes I Sit and Think, “Pedestrian at Best” came out guns blazing, establishing right off the bat that this album’s Courtney was going to be one with a harder edge. It’s a jaded-sounding song (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you…”) exemplified by its excellent video, which imagines Barnett as a formerly beloved clown who is now disrespected by all. Possibly a rebuttal to the criticism that tends to fall upon an artist for their sophomore recording? Fuzzy and squealing guitars are the centerpiece of this composition, along with Barnett’s pissed-off vocal. In particular, the way she modulates the word “funny” in the chorus was one of the most irresistible sing-alongs of 2015. —Jim Vorel
This is one of Barnett’s best traditional stories, a brisk yarn about a young office worker who is fed up with his existence, gone rogue. At first, we think the tone might be meant to be grim as he ascends a skyscraper, but never fear—he’s just a slacker who always wanted a job that would allow him to daydream rather than toil. With a great drumbeat and some nice subtle touches (I dig the perky little handclaps around the midpoint, but they’re easy to miss), it’s a fun, rollicking record opener that reflects the garage-rocking tone of Sometimes I Sit and Think. And it’s nice to be reminded that Barnett is a nerd, what with her Sim City references. —Jim Vorel
It’s curious that on “Out of the Woodwork,” Barnett sings that she’s “a little shady on my history,” and then follows it up a couple songs later with one titled “History Eraser.” Regardless, this track is a great example of her perspicacity as a lyricist and performer; she has a way of wrapping an idiosyncratic turn of phrase around a catchy melody in such a way that you find yourself repeating odd little passages to yourself later. It’s positively Dylanesque. In this song, that could be something like, “We drove by tractor there / The yellow straw replaced our hair / We laced the dairy river with the cream of sweet vermouth.” It’s something of a dream quest that Barnett describes, a series of shifting and warping visions that likely approximates the more mind-numbing effects of touring, travel and sleep deprivation. But through it all there’s Courtney, reminding you of her roots, as she does with a reference to the 1980s Australian rock band The Triffids. —Jim Vorel
An update of The Dandy Warhols’ song “Lance,” which itself took a cue from Nirvana’s “Polly,” “Lance Jr.” introduced Barnett as a talented songwriter unafraid to work explicitly with the building blocks of ‘90s grunge and garage rock. Because even if those first four chords felt eerily Cobain-esque—an image aided by her left-handed guitar playing—what ensued was pure Courtney. Nodding to those famous forebears, she sings matter-of-factly: “I masturbated to the songs you wrote / resuscitated all my hopes / It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long / much appreciated all your songs.” “Lance Jr.” was among the earliest indications that Barnett was a natural at singing the same words, perhaps more artfully arranged, that meander through anyone’s mind—provided you’re really into The Dandy Warhols. —Matthew Oshinsky
The prettiest song on the Sea of Split Peas EPs, “Anonymous Club” ropes a companion into Barnett’s world of the bashful, the two of them going AWOL for a few lovely hours, turning off their phones and enjoying a home-cooked meal. Tendrils of feedback waft into the background as Barnett sings, “Leave your coat at the door / along with your troubles.” The song follows its own hazy momentum, with barely-strummed chords leading to a languid harmony in the later verses, evoking a sense of comfort in companionship. Beyond its quiet beauty, “Anonymous Club” is all the more striking for the contrast it sets against Barnett’s usual neuroses and self-consciousness. —Matthew Oshinsky
The first Courtney Barnett song you’d have heard if you listened to her Sea of Split Peas double EP before ever catching “Avant Gardener” on the radio, “Out of the Woodwork” sets the mood on her first major release with lush but morose-sounding piano. Barnett’s voice (and her genre) is often tagged with the “slacker rock” distinction, not always fairly, but here the term is apt. She initially sings with a dis-attachment that implies a certain emotional malaise, making us feel every syllable is an effort. But before the song can settle into that lower-energy groove, it gathers its strength and ascends. Thunderous, pounding drums highlight the big conclusion, supported by honky tonk-esque piano glissandos. It’s one of her strongest finales. Kurt Vile presumably agreed, given that they chose to revisit the song together on Lotta Sea Lice. —Jim Vorel
Breezy but tinged with her signature languor, “Depreston” may be the finest example of how Barnett can write a compelling song about pretty much anything—in this case, shopping for real estate—and manage to give it meaning. A story about house-hunting in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, it describes a sad little town where the crime is in plain view and there’s nowhere to get a cup of coffee. “This place seems depressing,” but Barnett finds somber beauty in a house for sale; it’s got a lovely garden and nice pressed-metal ceilings, for starters. More than that, as she wanders around she begins to piece together a picture of the woman who had lived (and maybe died) there: the hand-rail in the shower, a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam. This house was a home, and it could be again. On the other hand, “if you’ve got a spare half-a-million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” —Matthew Oshinsky
Barnett is such an evocative lyricist that every song she writes could be taken as some clever excerpt or verse from the mission statement of a ball of nervous energy. But there’s something about the anxious yet placid narrator in “Avant Gardner” that encompasses all the victories and defeats coursing through an otherwise mundane Monday. Barnett speak-sings us through a day in the life: waking up late, cringing at the sun, feeling like she might as well try to clean up her disaster of a front yard (“I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab”) and plant a nice garden. Wouldn’t that be nice? Tumbling over her words as she proudly digs into the dirt, she collides with the brick wall of half-ass ambition: “I’m having trouble breathing in.” Three chords and an undercurrent of guitar squeal carry Barnett through an ambulance ride, an adrenaline shot (“I feel like Uma Thurman post-overdosin’ kick start…”), and a chatty paramedic. The moral of the story: “Should have stayed in bed today.” —Matthew Oshinsky
Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me What You Really Think is set for a May 18 release via Mom+Pop MOM+POP / Marathon Artists / Milk! Records. Check out the first single, “Nameless/Faceless” and some upcoming tour dates here.