“I feel like I don’t sing with a lot of emotion, it’s almost an apathetic singing voice.” That’s Phoebe Bridgers describing herself to UPROXX nine days before releasing her second album, Punisher. Not that Bridgers’ output and impact are limited to just two LPs: Since 2017, the Los Angeles 25-year-old has formed two widely hailed supergroups and dominated the critical discourse around folk music, rock music, and whatever “indie” means these days.
After Bridgers released her first single on now-disgraced musician Ryan Adams’ PAX label (Bridgers is among many women who have shared stories of Adams abusing them), she broke out with her 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps. John Mayer’s prediction that Alps’ “Funeral” signaled “the arrival of a giant” proved even truer the next year when Bridgers started the cleverly-titled supergroup boygenius with fellow rock luminaries Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. The trio’s six-song EP became all the talk among music critics for several months in 2018; both the EP and Alps rank highly on Paste’s list of the all-time best indie-folk albums.
Mere months after boygenius, Bridgers launched yet another supergroup, this time with one of her formative idols: Conor Oberst. She and the Bright Eyes frontperson, who had previously lent guest vocals to Alps’ “Would You Rather,” surprise-released Better Oblivion Community Center in January 2019 to yet more fanfare. The album showcased genuine songwriting chemistry between Bridgers and Oberst, in turn making Bridgers fans even hungrier for a proper Alps follow-up.
That album is Punisher, out now (after dropping yesterday, a day early) and named after a track about Bridgers’ very biggest influence: Elliott Smith. Like Smith, Bridgers’ voice is usually better described as a whisper than a wail, and homespun acoustics and emo influences prevail in both their work. Bridgers, though, tends to be funnier than Smith, and Punisher is the high-water mark of her brand of humorous-meets-devastating music. To celebrate the arrival of Punisher, which Paste’s Ben Salmon described as “homemade hymns sung at human scale and hand-delivered directly to your heart,” we ranked our 20 favorite Phoebe Bridgers (and Phoebe Bridgers-featuring) songs, which showcase an endlessly wry musician who continues to surprise, devastate and entertain at every turn. —Max Freedman
Having three big voices and exceptional songwriters on the same album is a difficult dynamic to navigate, but boygenius couldn’t have done a better job of it on their 2018 EP. Several of the tracks see one of them take the lead, and that’s the case with Lucy Dacus on “Bite The Hand,” who does an impeccable job of channeling the melancholia of heartbreak. But it’s always been my favorite boygenius track because of its jaw-dropping final minute where the trio each take a turn singing the line, “I can’t love you how you want me to.” That passage contains some of the most emotive singing of each artist’s respective careers, and it’s a shame it doesn’t go on for hours. The way they stagger each vocal line so they’re not perfectly parallel is nothing short of heavenly. —Lizzie Manno
“My City” feels like the most purely indulgent song on Better Oblivion Community Center, if not in the entirety Bridgers’ body of work. Like “Scott Street,” it finds Bridgers slouching down a (presumably) Los Angeles street (“This town is a monolith / This town is a crowded movie” would point to L.A.), but, like many songs about the City of Angels, it’s more about a brokenness within oneself than an actual feeling of freedom while walking the streets. In any case, it’s one of the great songs about cities written in recent memory, even if that city is a “menace.” —Ellen Johnson
On “Ketchum, ID,” Bridgers, Dacus and Baker assume soprano, alto and tenor and churn up a harmony so handsomely melancholic you’ll find yourself snatching tissues without even knowing why. It’s a fitting epilogue for their EP, too, that chronicles the band’s shared experience as touring musicians, and the emotional heaviness following those long nights in unfamiliar places. “I am never anywhere / Anywhere I go,” they sing in unison. “When I’m home I’m never there / Long enough to know.” Those are devastating words, but, at the same time, you get the feeling Bridgers, Baker and Dacus have found some sense of home in one another. Their mutual experiences are what unite them, and that bond bleeds through this music in every buzzing, beautiful bar. —Ellen Johnson
Phoebe Bridgers often gets the reputation of being cynical in her lyrics, but she couldn’t be more sincere on “Georgia,” a love song turned fretful breakdown about a parter who’s too good to be true. And, like so many other of Bridgers’ finest songs, it features a dream (nightmare?) sequence, in which this fine specimen of a man tragically drowns and Bridgers sees him float to surface. It’s scary and unsettling, but song itself is somehow simultaneously sweet. —Ellen Johnson
This track was Bridgers’ first brush with Bright Eyes frontman and emo lord Conor Oberst, and it’s hard not to have a soft spot for it. The contrast of their voices is particularly heightened here as opposed to most of the BOCC songs—Oberst’s tone sounds a tad more gruff—and it’s a wonderful juxtaposition of an effortless, flowy style with a low, grizzled and slightly fluttery one. The way they trade lines over warm guitar, oddball piano and cascading strings is just irresistible, plus what more could you want from a track right now than hearing Bridgers sing the phrase, “quarantined in a bad dream”? —Lizzie Manno
Track one of Better Oblivion Community Center’s self-titled debut, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” is perhaps the most distinctly Bridgers track out of all the BOCC and boygenius offerings—it would fit right in on Stranger in the Alps. It’s charming (“My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera / If it did I’d take a picture of myself / If it did I’d take a picture of the water / And the man on the offramp / Holding up the sign that’s asking me for help”), funny (“I know a girl who owns a boutique in the city / Selling clothes to the fashionably late”) and deeply sad (“Everyone looks happy with each other / ‘Til they step away and say the thing they really meant”). Its bare and warm-hearted nature make it perfect for a campfire sing-along, but it’s also accented with ethereal whooshes, slides and echoes that make it feel bigger and more spiritual than a typical folky acoustic number. —Lizzie Manno
“I See You” is one of the singles that arrived ahead of Punisher, and it’s one of the noisier moments on the album. The song itself is a triumph, gritty guitar strums and glistening instrumentals underpinning Bridgers’ softly-sung vocals. “I used to light you up / Now I can’t even get you to play the drums / ‘Cause I don’t know what I want, Until I fuck it up,” Bridgers sings. —Lia Pikus
Name-dropping popular ’90s actresses was just a cool thing to do in 2017. SZA did it with her incredible “Drew Barrymore” number, and Bridgers shouted out Ms. Moore in this banjo-laced dedication to dirty talk and loneliness. Sonically it’s one of the more interesting tunes Bridgers has ever composed (complete with a spooky synth), but it’s just as much of a lyrical gut-punch as her best songs. While she can crack jokes or fiddle with the sonics all day long, these are the words hanging in the air when “Demi Moore” makes her exit: “I don’t wanna be stoned / I don’t wanna be stoned anymore / Don’t wanna be alone / Don’t wanna be alone anymore.” —Ellen Johnson
In “Moon Song,” from Punisher, Bridgers traces the blurry boundaries of a complicated relationship before laying it all out in the final verse: “You are sick and you’re married and you might be dying,” she sings over a small crescendo, “but you’re holding me like water in your hands.” The word “married” practically leaps from the song, instantly imbuing it with an unsettling feel. —Ben Salmon
“I wrote a song about how, if Elliott Smith were alive, I probably wouldn’t have been the most fun person for him to talk to,” Bridgers told The New Yorker about her newest album’s title track. She’s never been shy about her Smith idolatry, and here, she renders her fandom as a twinkling, humid ballad of lost connection. “What if I told you / I feel like I know you? / But we never met” is a lyric at once gut-wrenching, self-deprecating, and demonstrative of Bridgers’ core talent: Even at her most downtrodden, she mines her introspection for absurdity and winking melodrama. Her vague, gorgeous palette of strings, pianos, and pitch-shifted vocal echo is equally effective at undercutting jokes (“I swear I’m not angry / That’s just my face”) and distorted self-portraits (“A copycat killer with a chemical cut / Either I’m careless or I wanna get caught”). Even if she and Smith never met, few carry his torch so well. —Max Freedman
At the beginning of last year, Better Oblivion Community Center was a mysterious bus bench ad and an automated phone number with a recorded message on top of an acoustic guitar riff. But even when it was announced that an act by that name was playing The Late Show on Jan. 23, we still weren’t sure who—or what—it was until Colbert announced, “Tonight, my guests Phoebe Briders and Conor Oberst are here to announce their new band.” Their album was immediately uploaded to streaming services and the rest is history. But shrouded in that initial hype (and VCR static throughout the Colbert performance) was one of the best songs either songwriter had ever written, “Dylan Thomas.” It sounds like a Summerteeth-era Wilco B-side you could’ve sworn you’d heard before. “Dylan Thomas” is four-chord alt-country bliss, complete with a guitar solo and a singalong chorus that was surely screamed back at the super-duo if you were lucky enough to catch them on tour last year. Songs—and albums—like this don’t come around all too often these days, making this one feel all the more special. —Steven Edelstone
“Punisher” is the song about Elliott Smith, but “Halloween” is the one where Bridgers best channels his spirit. (It’s also worth noting that Halloween costumes factor prominently into both her solo album covers.) Over a bare whisper of acoustic guitar plucks, Bridgers mostly murmurs as she takes in her surroundings—hospitals, sirens, a jarring murder down by the stadium—and sets a struggling relationship against the backdrop of the titular holiday. The first verse’s second stanza (“Sick of the questions I keep asking you / That make you live in the past / But I can count on you to tell me the truth / When you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask”) is a classic Bridgersism: Darkly funny, desperate for connection, vividly detailed. Following the final chorus of “Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything / Oh come on, man / We can be anything,” Conor Oberst makes a guest appearance during the piano-dusted outro and accedes, “I’ll be whatever you want.” As ever, Bridgers finds resolution in haunted places. —Max Freedman
As this string-flanked Punisher highlight swells in orchestration, harmony, and intensity, so too do Bridgers’ anxiety, loneliness, and desperation. In classic Bridgers style, she shuffles among quirky and gutting descriptions of nearby scenery, mental tailspins, and recent interactions throughout “Chinese Satellite.” She can’t control her “running around in circles, pretending to be myself.” She wants to wish upon a star, but she can’t find one in the light-polluted L.A. sky, so she goes numb. When a former lover tells her, “I will never be your vegetable, because I think when you’re gone, it’s forever,” she stays determined to reunite with them: “You know I’d stand on a corner, embarrassed with a picket sign / If it meant I would see you when I die.” The outro’s whirlwind of solemn strings, searing guitar bends, and shuffling percussion matches Bridgers’ devastation, but the bottomless depths of her yearning and despair are palpable from the start. —Max Freedman
Bridgers has a way of making mundane, depressing scenes feel profound. Folk, blues, rap and country artists are all particularly good at this as well, but what separates Bridgers from the pack is her uniquely poignant vocals that make images of “rusty swing sets” or “outlet malls” hit especially close to home. Lines like “There’s no place like my room” and “Not even the burnouts are out here anymore” really pierce the heart with its rundown, small town woes on Punisher’s final track, “I Know the End.” The song’s dramatic horn crescendo rivals Bridgers’ vigorous rock outro on BOCC’s “Big Black Heart,” but it’s much more grand and drawn-out. Though in some respects, the chorus vocals that proclaim “The end is here” are a bit cheesy, the meeting of piano, horns and ripping guitar that follows is immensely glorious—and that’s not even the best part. Whoever is delivering blood-curdling screams (presumably Bridgers, but it could be an array of voices), which turn into exhausted, creepy exhales at the tail end of the track, should be given a medal. —Lizzie Manno
On “Scott Street,” Bridgers condenses a day in the life into five minutes of tender, humorous folk-rock. She sets the scene with soft acoustic strums and memories of feeling adrift in her native Los Angeles (“Walking Scott Street, feeling like a stranger / With an open heart, open container”), and then she recounts a run-in with an old connection via some of her funniest lines to date (“I asked you ‘How is playing drums?’ / You said ‘It’s too much shit to carry’” is an all-timer). After the second chorus, she adds strings, electric guitars, and, yes, sporadic bike bells and train horns, transforming “Scott Street” from a heartwarming ballad into a stirring, softly overwhelming breeze of nostalgia, regret, and distance. “Anyway, don’t be a stranger,” Bridgers sings during the outro, and with “Scott Street,” it feels like we’ve known her forever. —Max Freedman
Tucked in among her new album Punisher’s memorable melodies, clever arrangements and impressive guests are a steady stream of details that lend plainspoken perspective to Bridgers’ emotional highs and (mostly) lows. These kinds of details ground her work in the same way shading makes a still life painting pop. They make them feel not just sad, but real. As an example, look back to “Funeral,” one of the highlights of Bridgers’ 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps. It’s a devastating tune about death and depression, and if it ended at the three-minute mark, it would still be a stunner. But she tacks on an extra bit that contextualizes the rest of the song: “It’s 4 a.m. again,” she sings flatly, “and I’m doing nothing again.” And all of a sudden … you’re there. Because you’ve been there (probably), and because Bridgers has been there, too, and she knows how to make this song about a stranger’s overdose into a highly relatable moment. The story now has a place to sit—in a dark room, screen glowing, silence deafening, thoughts racing. Again. —Ben Salmon
Phoebe Bridgers adopts a specific songwriting model on “Smoke Signals,” the first single from her untouchable debut Stranger in the Alps, and many of her best songs use the same style. It’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling told with a surge of both wit and dread. Lines like “I want to live at The Holiday Inn / Where somebody else makes the bed,” “It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life” and “You are anonymous / I am a concrete wall” alerted us in 2017 that Bridgers was a different kind of songwriter. And lines like “All of our problems, I’m gonna solve ‘em / With you riding shot-gun, speeding, ‘cause fuck the cops” (truly timeless!) let us know that she could master both nonchalance and empathy in the same sentence. The slow-burning desperado guitar, the highs of the “pelicans” circling around the chorus, Bridgers’ cool tone: It all points to one of the best dang folk-adjacent songs of the last 10 years. —Ellen Johnson
“Kyoto” followed the previous single released from Phoebe Bridgers’ forthcoming album Punisher, the somber “Garden Song.” Originally set to be filmed in Japan earlier this year, the global pandemic halted those production plans. But Bridgers opted to cheekily use a green screen in order to create a magical video, donning a skeleton-print onesie, gliding on electric train tracks and flying over the ocean. “This song is about impostor syndrome,” Bridgers says. “About being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, and playing my music to people who want to hear it, feeling like I’m living someone else’s life.” —Natalia Keogan
Max Bridgers is one of few pugs who could say that his owner included him in a rock anthem. Max joins Phoebe for an impossible view from a spaceship on “Me and My Dog,” one of two songs Bridgers brought to the boygenius sessions. The soaring track arrives in a neat package of chorus-drenched guitars and Bridgers’ satin voice only to explode into arena-ready power chords, faint banjo, a drumbeat aimed straight for outer space, and heavenly harmonies courtesy of bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Rarely has Bridgers sounded so hopelessly enamored (“We got no sleep / ‘Cause we were kissing”; “I had a fever / Until I met you / Now you make me cool”), and whether she’s gushing, joking (“I didn’t wanna be this guy / I cried at your show with the teenagers”), or dramatizing (“I wanna be emaciated / I wanna hear one song without thinking of you”), she sounds over the moon. Lucky for her, she brought Max along for the ride. —Max Freedman
In just four minutes that fly by like a goth on a scooter, “Motion Sickness” boasts everything unique and unparalleled about Phoebe Bridgers’ songcraft. Her breakout single regularly alternates between hilarious and crushing: Insults (“I faked it every time,” “Why do you sing with an English accent”) precede sighs of resignation (“That’s alright,” “I guess it’s too late to change it now”), and the chorus’ equally witty and heartsore metaphors paint an unsparing picture of abuse. Bridgers’ voice rarely exits its usual whisper-sing territory, a style as indebted to Elliott Smith as to the mere fact that it’s just tough to speak up so frankly. Then there’s the music, which sits at a gently rollicking, endlessly catchy intersection of blues, twang, rock, and lounge that few musicians before or after have ever quite attempted. Sure, “Motion Sickness” is about Ryan Adams, but it’s so much more than a trauma tale—it’s high art disguised as surrendering to the sound. —Max Freedman