It’s Friday, which means the first week in our 2013 Annual Report has wrapped up. But, what better way to start the weekend than with our Top 50 Songs of 2013? For this list, we zeroed in on the tracks that waved ears around in 2013, pieces of work that grasped the growth of each respective artist, engaging their mind, genre, and sound. No need to reach for Enya or Moby, the spiritualism ends there.
Feel free to let us know what you think, including some tracks you’ll take into 2014 with you. Also, stay tuned as our 2013 Annual Report continues next week with our picks for Live Acts of the Year, Artist of the Year, Band of the Year, Music Festival of the Year, and Top 50 Albums of the Year.
50. Deap Vally – “Lies”
That the Californian blues rock combo of Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards shares a love of knitwear may be less than apparent at first glance. Having met up at a crochet class, the duo has gone on to beat a familiar denim ‘n’ leather path with a big splash of hot pants ‘n’ fishnets glamour and good looks to counter the masculinity typically associated with these sounds. “Lies”, from debut album Sistrionix, channels vitriol at male mistreatment into positively giving the woman the upper hand through sheer, raucous, raging energy. “These legs are closed to you,” screams Troy. And you better believe it. —Tony Hardy
49. Cage the Elephant – “Come a Little Closer”
Kentucky quintet Cage the Elephant used this fall’s Melophobia as a means of separating themselves from previous releases. And this dirty jewel of a track — which roared to the top of the Billboard Alternative Charts — proves their efforts were not in vain. Lead singer and guitarist Matthew Schultz was inspired to write “Come a Little Closer” after waking up in a São Paulo hotel. He noticed the favelas across the way looked like anthills packed with people who each went about their own isolated lives while internally clutching an anonymous bounty of thoughts and desires. This stunning realization rings clear in Schultz’s vocals, which beg us to come together and bridge our emotional distance before it’s too late. The empowering chorus is also one of the year’s most inviting sing-alongs, so much so that it even roused David Letterman to greet Cage the Elephant with this ovation: “I mean, my God, really, that’s it, no more calls, we have a winner! What do you want? This is all you need! For God’s sake, come on you guys! Let’s go out there and do something! Let’s go get in fights or something!” —Dan Pfleegor
48. Blood Orange – “Chamakay”
Soaked in tropical vibes, Blood Orange’s “Chamakay” transports you to the island environment in which Dev Hynes shot the song’s video. Joining him is Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, whose gentle background vocals swell and swirl along with the lush, rhythmic drumming and very, very light synth use. It’s the vocals from the two that dominate the summery track, proving that both artists are due for their time in the spotlight after years of stacking up indie credibility. As well as being the lead single from Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe, “Chamakay” is by far the strongest track on the album, showcasing the soulful singer’s effortless ability to make some of the sexiest songs of this century. –Pat Levy
47. Disclosure – “Help Me Lose My Mind” (feat. London Grammar)
Settle worked so well as a debut not only because it showcased Howard and Guy Lawrence’s songwriting and production skills, but also because it featured tons of spectacular UK-centric guest vocals. Though Sam Smith and AlunaGeorge get the airplay for singing on hit singles “Latch” and “White Noise” respectively, London Grammar’s Hannah Reid co-wrote and dazzles on closer “Help Me Lose My Mind”. Her unearthly, soothing alto is punctuated by a throbbing retro dance beat, making for a mesmerizing ending to the masterful debut. Though “Help Me Lose My Mind” didn’t take off commercially like the other singles on Settle, Reid’s voice soaring in the chorus is one of the best moments on the album. –Josh Terry
46. ASAP Ferg feat. ASAP Rocky – “Shabba”
What’s amusing about “Shabba” is how it takes everything the ASAP Mob is criticized for and contorts it into hedonistic, trunk-rattling goodness. Southern influences a little too on-the-sleeve? Well, what about reaching even farther down south — as in Jamaica. Rhyming isn’t technical enough? Well, here’s ASAP Ferg rapping out of beat, switching flows, and slipping in ad-libs while making time to sneak in a Batman reference. All the parts should clash, but they manage to work together to teach a lesson: a banger is a banger. “Work” established ASAP Ferg as the next potential star in the ASAP camp, but it was “Shabba” that solidified him as one of rap’s most entertaining up-and-coming personalities. —Brian Josephs
45. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Nothing Was the Same
Drake’s career has centered on maintaining a dichotomy between hardened MC and romantic crooner. Thus far, he’s had plenty of success, but nothing quite like “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. By momentarily abandoning his pursuit of street cred, Drake frees himself to truly indulge his sentimental side, crafting a synth-heavy slice of ’80s R&B that sounds as progressive as it does a straight Phil Collins homage. More than that, though, he helped further legitimize his own career path by proving that even after the testosterone-fueled “Started from the Bottom”, you can still offer something emotionally visceral. While subsequent singles continued the search for that balance, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” raised all sorts of questions about just which half of Drake is the most intriguing and viable. —Chris Coplan
44. Yung Lean – “Ginseng Strip 2002”
Sometimes there are songs or artists that defy classification, emerging from some dark corner of the Internet and immediately deserving their own sub-sub-genre. Yung Lean is such an artist, and “Ginseng Strip 2002” is such a song. Before anyone knew who the 16-year-old Swede and his Sad Boys clique were, the spacey single dropped on YouTube and helped to spawn the sadwave movement that continues to move through the recesses of the Internet thanks to cosigns from artists like Earl Sweatshirt and websites like Vice. Each and every bar is quotable, from “Poppin’ pills like zits/ While someone vomits on your mosquito tits” to “Fuck fat hoes like Adele/ Get my dick stuck inside a lamp shell,” and paints a vivid picture of what goes on inside the mind of an emotional Swedish kid who spends his time smoking weed with his two friends/producers and playing Super Smash Bros. and Pokemon Stadium on N64. –Pat Levy
43. Big Sean – “Control (HOF)” (feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica)
The moment Kendrick Lamar finished his vivid, verbose, voracious, visceral bomb, Big Sean knew that “Control” was never going to make his album. Rappers have been loath to be shown up on their own songs at least since Nas told Jay Z that “Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” Kendrick, then — with his Jeopardy-level references, his “King of New York” braggadocio, his assassination of every rapper on his footing, including rappers on the same song — doomed “Control” to non-album status. Which is a shame, and not just because of that verse. It’s a shame because of legendary producer No I.D.’s warped and woozy organs, his layers of laser beam gospel vocals, his channel-swapping snares. It’s a shame because, while a technically competent verse from Jay was to be expected, Big Sean’s verse on “Control” is his best moment as a rapper. Basically, Kendrick’s impressive verse was just a microcosm of how everyone involved in “Control” came correct. –Chris Bosman
42. Jamie Lidell – “why_ya_why”
Compared to Jamie Lidell’s romantic past, “why_ya_why” is a haunted nightmare that twists the typical R&B track into a wonderland fit for experimental legends like Tom Waits. It’s an odd product considering his goal, really. Many genres have experimented with adapting EDM/house electronic influences, but Lidell makes sharp, jagged rhythms and vocals pounded through a megaphone sound jarring. His torn-up croons shed addicting melodies that bring the likes Cee Lo Green and Andre 3000 to life, but with a freakier shock factor. R&B becomes as dance-y as ever on Jamie Lidell, and “why_ya_why” forcefully throws this new experimentation into nasty overdrive. —Sam Willett
41. Deerhunter – “Monomania”
Bradford Cox has always been transparent about his insecurities, aurally and sonically transforming them into something old, something new, something cathartic, but, mostly, something true. The title track of Deerhunter’s 2013 release is a meditative reflection on the concept of monomania, a pathological obsession with a singular idea that Cox himself identifies with. By making the track “Monomania” the primary conceptual focus of the record — a work already laden with many scuzzy avant-punk gems — Cox sharply critiques, in his self-depreciating own way, the pathologizing nature of our society. The abrasive swells of “mono-mono mania” become much more than a mantra here. “Monomania” is at once a demonic hymn, a self-reflexive exercise that forces the listener to reflect on the importance of ideas, a sign of the times and, most of all, a unifying concept. –Paula Mejia
Regions of Light and Sound of God
Jim James is the bushy-haired leader of the psychedelic southern rock outfit My Morning Jacket. But, this heap of responsibilities has not prevented him from pursuing a prolific solo career. And thank god for that, because “A New Life” stands proud as one of the most heartfelt and romantic songs of the year. James’ soft, hymnal vocals (“Babe, let’s get one thing clear/ There’s much more stardust when you’re near”) make the first third of the tune feel like a reluctant preacher down on his hands and knees, pleading for the favor of his future love. There’s a subtle optimism to it all, offset by a quiet desperation. But, as the song builds, the church pews begin to swell and an uproarious congregation of saxophones, pianos, and holy handclaps join in to create a rapturous sock hop that’s sure to leave true believers smiling in praise of him. –Dan Pfleegor
39. Palma Violets – “Best of Friends”
Palma Violets’ debut, 180, just sounds great, plain and simple. It’s not a record that’s prone to severe psychoanalysis, but rather a fun, unapologetically tuneful stab at ’70s punk, garage rock, and psychedelia. It also helps that it’s propelled by a rock solid single that encapsulates its best attributes. “Best of Friends” has a lot of shit working in its favor, namely the hollowed out guitar parts, stomping drums, and devilishly catchy chorus. When wildman Chilli Jesson bellows how he wants to be your best friend, it’s a hard invitation to turn away. –Ryan Bray
38. HAIM – “The Wire”
Days Are Gone
HAIM slowly worked their way into the hearts of under-the-radar music lovers as early as 2012, but it wasn’t until the release of “The Wire” that the sisters started their steady march into the mainstream. Far poppier than earlier live performances but no less potent, Days Are Gone’s fourth single showcases all three sisters, each given a verse to bid adieu to their respective lovers, with the as-expected excellent harmonies to boot. “The Wire” followed through on the promise of early singles and EPs, doing nothing to disprove the belief that the story is just beginning for HAIM and that the future is sure to be full of slick, intelligent, multi-faceted pop rock for years to come. But, no pressure. –Justin Gerber
37. Arctic Monkeys – “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”
Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys made an album full of borderline R&B rock, and standout single “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” is the slinkiest R&B/funk track in the bunch. Singing about the protagonist’s problem of late-night booty calls, Turner adopts a clean falsetto that flits along on top of fuzzy bass, Black Keys-esque guitar, and a drumbeat delivered with machine-like precision. Turner’s unreal talent for vocal melody is on full display as he sings the verses and one of the catchiest choruses of the year. The whole song sounds like a 3 a.m. lamp-lit street corner when all you want is a warm bed. —Nick Freed
36. MØ – “Waste of Time”
No Mythologies to Follow
Danish singer MØ, whose real name is Karen Marie Ørsted, turned heads with her first three singles, “Pilgrim”, “Glass”, and “Never Wanna Know”. Often compared to Purity Ring, Twin Shadow, and Grimes, her personal blend of R&B-tinged vocal delivery and glitchy electronic beats is more abrasive, but just as infectious. With her fourth track, “Waste of Time”, she gives a dramatic kiss off to a scorned lover, complete with frenetic drum machine blasts and skittering guitars. Now that she has her own Diplo-produced track on her recent Bikini Daze EP and a prominent vocal feature on Aviici’s hit “Dear Boy”, look for MØ to blow up even bigger in 2014. –Josh Terry
35. Pusha T – “King Push”
My Name is My Name
Perhaps it’s better that Joaquin Phoenix didn’t actually produce “King Push” as originally reported. Pusha T needed this album-opening moment to himself after spending so much time playing the seasoned second man to Kanye West’s egotistical ambitions. “King Push” isn’t Pusha T calling back to his We Got It for Cheap–Hell Hath No Fury peak. He’s carving out a haunting, more ominous new space. “I rap nigga, ’bout trap niggas/ I don’t sing hooks,” Pusha decrees, while female vocals chirp in the background as if they’re bowing for his coronation. “King Push” is Pusha T’s compelling mission statement before he brings the doors down on the next track: “Numbers on the Board”. —Brian Josephs
34. Eleanor Friedberger – “Stare at the Sun”
Personal Record, Eleanor Friedberger’s latest aptly titled pivot away from her (former?) band Fiery Furnaces and towards the confessional territory of 1970s singer-songwriters, reaches a gleeful sort of fever pitch on the jittery, loose-limbed “Stare at the Sun”. Only one track prior the heroine bemoaned that she would “never be happy again” and cursed love as “an exquisite kind of pain”; here she sounds positively intoxicated by it, finding herself “far from town, in the suburbs of your pleasure” as a jaunty, power pop progression beats out that ephemeral bliss. It’s hard, of course, to track the individual threads of Friedberger’s romantic exploits on Personal Record — whether fictional or otherwise — but it’s the feelings they summon that count, and in all its blooming warmth, “Stare at the Sun” feels a long way from the Fiery Furnaces’ willfully tangled obfuscations. —Zach Schonfeld
33. Charli XCX – “You – Ha Ha Ha”
It’s easy to recognize Charli XCX’s similarity to music icons from past decades, with her ’80s preppy-punk style, ’90s pop band tendencies, and ’10s electronic sound, but she also epitomizes female millennial culture of 2013 by way of her frequently updated Tumblr and Instagram, which are saturated with sparkly GIFs and heavily filtered selfies. In “You – Ha Ha Ha”, she throws her modernity right in your face by declaring, “You were old-school, I was on the new shit.” The track admirably juxtaposes Charli’s sultry-sweet vocals with a sample of Gold Panda’s frenzied electro jam “You”, but it conveys the same post-breakup rally message used by many of the pop musicians Charli has been compared to. The distinction lies in the sincerity of the song. Given the accessibility of musicians to their fans via social media, people expect more honesty and parallels from their pop stars. With the blunt lyrics and natural talk-singing on the track, Charli delivers the candor everyone’s been craving. –Danielle Janota
32. Speedy Ortiz – “No Below”
Major Arcana, the biting debut album from Speedy Ortiz, blended the fuzz of Dinosaur Jr., the sardonic wit of Pavement, and the aggressive energy of Superchunk to craft a remarkable record that shouldn’t be dismissed as ’90s indie rock pastiche. Lead singer/songwriter Sadie Dupuis is Speedy’s strongest asset, and on “No Below” she trades the sarcasm and one-liners for frank vulnerability. Her voice cracks when she talks of being teased as a kid, aching with the tough memories of adolescence. The band kicks in, bringing home the depressing refrain “I was better off just being dead” and making it an unlikely earworm. –Josh Terry
31. Daft Punk – “Doin’ It Right” (feat. Panda Bear)
Random Access Memories
Part of Random Access Memories’ grand design was that no two songs can play the same role. “Get Lucky” was conceived as “the one”; centerpiece “Touch” was always meant to be its clear epic. But “Doin’ It Right” is the master class. Taught by two mutually respected artists of contemporary soundcraft who tend to hold down opposite ends of the body/head spectrum, it’s essentially a clinic in economy, a demonstration that even two incongruous minds, if they’re good enough, can find collaborative pop gold by taking it down to a single element – in their case, interweaving four-bar mantras about simply doin’ it right – and building from there. If you still identify with the class of listeners who contend that anyone with their resources can do what Daft Punk or Panda Bear do, only “Doin’ It Right” can convince you that you’re doing it wrong. –Steven Arroyo
30. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
The 20/20 Experience, Pt. 1
If only we could show the late-’90s, early-aughts versions of ourselves that ‘N Sync’s golden boy would one day write an epic, eight-minute love ballad for 7th Heaven‘s Mary Camden (a thought most intriguing for those born in the late ’80s, I’ll admit). As if the identity of the track’s muse wasn’t already apparent, Justin Timberlake tells Biel during the song’s more hip-hop-than-rock second half, “Baby, you are the inspiration for this precious song” before crooning over his own repetition of the line “you are, you are the love of my life.” Timbaland’s club-ready production and co-writing credits make the single reminiscent of the Futuresex/LoveSounds days, although this year’s JT isn’t as concerned with bringing sexy back, as he is consumed by his love for his wife. —Amanda Koellner
29. SZA – “Ice.Moon”
In the video for “Ice.Moon”, SZA explores a forest that’s trapped in the ether between reality and fantasy. It’s the perfect accompaniment for the 23-year-old’s blend of pop and R&B that also straddles many realms. “Ice.Moon”, in particular, is sweet and airy, but full of power and grit, while also being deeply optimistic and equally full of forlorn and heartache. Each emotional arc is as vital as the one it follows, which makes her sound not only beautifully layered, but an impressive cultural construct. Plenty of acts tout a fusion of sounds, but SZA and “Ice.Moon” effortlessly combine ideas and sentiments while maintaining pure accessibility. –Chris Coplan
28. ASAP Rocky – “1 Train” (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T.)
“1 Train” was too big to fail, in the sense that it encapsulates the assurgent “New New York” and shows the movement’s broader appeal, bringing in supporters from Cali (Kendrick Lamar), Alabama (Yelawolf), Detroit (Danny Brown), and Mississippi (Big K.R.I.T.). In contrast to Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”, 2013’s most noted posse cut all told, it’s a deluge of words without space for a hook. Every guy does his thing here: There’s Action Bronson claiming he fixed college football’s Bayou Classic, Danny Brown squawking about the strength of his molly, and an on-fire Big K.R.I.T. dispelling myths about the clumsiness of Southern rappers. Arriving a couple months after good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick’s verse is practically buried by the subsequent five, and ASAP Rocky became the new man of the moment. –Mike Madden
27. Queens of the Stone Age – “My God Is the Sun”
The lead single from arguably the best rock album of the year, “My God Is the Sun” was a massive return for Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age. With Dave Grohl on drums and Mark Lanegan assisting with songwriting, it marked a semi-reunion of the classic Songs for the Deaf lineup, though Homme stressed that this new material shouldn’t be compared to the Queens’ 2002 opus. Different songs from a different time, …Like Clockwork came from a far more personal place for Homme, who cited a near-death experience as the muse for the album. He harnesses the power of that experience on “My God Is the Sun”, an aggro, guitar-driven monster that’s as thought-provoking as it is heavy. –Jon Hadusek
26. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Contemporary Man”
Blue Chips 2
“Get it together Justin, we gotta get it together, fam,” Action Bronson instructs a coughing Party Supplies as “Contemporary Man” starts to warm up into its first of several dope ’80’s samples, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. It’s hard to say who’s the real star of this track because it’s such an incredible success in every regard. Party Supplies switches up the beat five times, collecting samples from Gabriel, Phil Collins, John Mellencamp, Huey Lewis, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, and with such a vast array of sounds you’d expect a jumbled mess, but what’s left for Bam Bam to rap over is the most expertly crafted production of the year. Action brings the heat as usual, name checking 19th century fashion maven Beau Brummell, Randy Quaid’s turtleneck from Christmas Vacation, and Pistol Pete Maravich in another impressive addition to his ever-expanding catalog. –Pat Levy
25.Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Sacrilege”
Back in January, Karen O told Pitchfork that the tracks comprising Mosquito were a prescription for what the group was feeling while recording: a sort of identity crisis for Karen, heartbreak for Nick Zinner, and overall band blues. “Sacrilege”, the album’s first song and lead single, declares itself as the strongest dose of musical uppers delivered over the release’s 11 tracks. As “Maps” turned 10 this year, its howling mama proved that her Yeah Yeah Yeahs have just as much of a spot in 2013 as they did in 2003, largely thanks to Mosquito‘s crown jewel: the band’s take on soul, complete with a gospel choir. –Amanda Koellner
24. Cut Copy – “We Are Explorers”
Free Your Mind
“We’re on a journey ‘til the morning sun,” chisel-faced Dan Whitford sings, inviting you along for the trip. Tight and upbeat, “We Are Explorers” shimmers and envelops its listeners. Uniquely versatile and perfect for all-night road trips, sweaty dance floors, and intimate get-togethers alike, the Free Your Mind single comes primed to charm the pants off both mainstream audiences and loyal fans. “We are explorers when the beat goes on,” Whitford continues. We are explorers, you guys – all of us, moving to the beat as one, trying to reach the sweet spot in the middle of the dance floor without spilling our drinks. –Katherine Flynn
23. Local Natives – “Colombia”
The explosive nature of Local Natives’ debut album, Gorilla Manor, did several things: it gave them a personable quality, won them a slew of fans, and helped them take the live scene by storm, but it also hid the emotional core underneath the banging and shouting. Their second album, Hummingbird, was a large step in terms of maturity — musically, as well as lyrically, tapping into those feelings of loss and doubt and turning out a set of heartrending songs. The centerpiece of these is the masterful “Colombia”, written by Kelsey Ayer as an ode to his mother. The song’s simplistic, slowly lurching piano gives ample opportunity for the song’s front-and-center message, “Am I giving enough? Am I loving enough?”, to deliver its weighty emotional punch. The knockout blow comes when the song has worked up steam to include multiple voices, strings, and booming drums, and Ayer’s mother is namechecked personally: “Patricia, am I loving enough?” It’s a deeply personal, but universally resonant moment. –Rob Hakimian
22. Nine Inch Nails – “Copy of A”
The amount of meta-critique in “Copy of A” is staggering. Layers of dark, hypnotic noises repeat themselves over and over, simultaneously shifting and adding new textures. Lyrically, lines like “Everything I say has come before” and “I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow/ Always trying to catch up with myself” work as much as a commentary on the human condition as on the state of music’s endless cycling of “influence.” It all reflects back on NIN as the track recalls earlier works, a fact made all the more poignant as this is their “comeback” record. All of this, and the song is still oddly danceable, terribly likeable, and a pulse-raising show opener. –Ben Kaye
21. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
Oh, Miley. What a year it’s been for you. It seems like just yesterday that I was hate-watching Hannah Montana and wincing at the bright colors and laugh track, not to mention your father’s highlighted mane. I won’t rehash your list of accomplishments in 2013, only say that, yes, you have succeeded in proving to us all that you’re anything but a Disney princess. And, while you had a team of writers to pen “Wrecking Ball”, your delivery of the breakup ballad is one of the most heartfelt performances this year. (And who can forget that single tear running down your face in the infamous video? Hello Oscar.) Bottom line, Miley: You’re a little annoying, but no one’s denying that you’ve got chops, and you certainly know how to make us all stand up and pay attention. –Katherine Flynn
20. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “Jubilee Street”
Push the Sky Away
More mirage than ballad (murder or otherwise), “Jubilee Street” lets you in by remaining obtuse. Make no mistake—this is everyone‘s walk through a war-torn red light district, not just Nick Cave’s. It’s a world where a “fetus on a leash” has the same weight as Ohio Express’ “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”, a mob-occupied stretch where the greatest temptation might be something other than sex. The same four doom-chords loop over and over, giving you plenty of opportunities to dive in and explore your lust. Or run away from it. Or pretend it doesn’t exist, despite Warren Ellis’ strings slithering in to coil around your ankles. “What’s your poison?” asks the serpent. “What’s your fetus on a leash?” –Dan Caffrey
19. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
It almost sounds like a sports anthem, a companion to “Rock and Roll Part 2”, something to boom out around the diamond or the field. That’s the trick it plays. Just like distant figures in a football game mask burning muscles, cold, and pain, “Black Skinhead” ropes its tensions inside slick, easily consumed production. The drums tell you to get pumped; the screams warn you you’re about to get punctured. Paradoxically, “Black Skinhead” might be Yeezus‘s most single-ready cut even though it’s also the best example of the album’s strongest aesthetic conflict. The drums and bass march on with industrial precision while gasps, breaths, and yelps make up the torture between the beats. It’s mysteriously catchy even while it grapples with the line between terror and exhilaration. “There’s no way to slow down” could be the rallying cry of someone about to take over the world or the last words of someone about to crash a van into a concrete wall. “Black Skinhead” lets you live as both. —Sasha Geffen
18. Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Two years ago, Brooklyn band Liturgy became the talk (and, for many, the bane) of black metal, having divulged their M.O. in an evidently pompous manifesto. A song called “Dream House”, howled by a guy who looks like Win Butler, from an album called Sunbather – this was obviously the start of an unusual black metal record, even if the purists weren’t constantly reminding us. Where by-the-books black metal is grainy and claustrophobic, “Dream House” is elating. George Clarke’s vocals pounce alongside the guitars before the riffs are broken down, and the nine-minute song feels like one great free fall. The expertly placed lead guitar spirals suggest post-rock, but by then, genre labels are irrelevant. Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix calls his stuff “transcendental black metal”; Deafheaven’s music might be rooted in one form, but it’s no less inviting for fans of heavy music across the board. —Mike Madden
17. Janelle Monáe – “Q.U.E.E.N.” (feat. Erykah Badu)
The Electric Lady
Queer. Untouchables. Emigrants. Excommunicated. Negroid. Janelle Monáe clarified this is what the backronym for The Electric Lady’s lead single stands for. It’s a bit surprising that a definition that looks limiting at first glance applies to a song that feels so universally danceable. It has the makings of a hit with the unapologetically funky bass line and the empowering nature of the chorus. While accessible, each instrumental element carries a sense of urgency, like Monáe’s best songs usually do. “Q.U.E.E.N.” also succeeds because it’s as affectionate as it is feminine. Erykah Badu’s “The booty don’t lie” and Monáe’s soapbox rap at the end are easily digestible, as they don’t ram the obvious themes down listeners’ throats. By the time the five-minute dance party is over, it hits you that the categories under “Q.U.E.E.N.” may not be so small after all. You don’t always have to play femme fatale to teach folks what’s what. —Brian Josephs
16. The National – “I Should Live in Salt”
Trouble Will Find Me
The National’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, is chock-full of great songs, but finding the best of the bunch is easy to do. Just start from the beginning. In only a matter of seconds, we hear something is wrong in “I Should Live in Salt”. It’s the guitar medley, which starts off simple before slight hesitations finish the line, perfectly mirroring what Matt Berninger is conveying lyrically and vocally (“You should know me better than that”). This is The National in a nutshell. Berninger is absolutely, unequivocally the band’s singer, but is he the “frontman”? I’d argue no. There is no frontman in The National. The Brooklyn quintet is a proper unit, each aspect contributing to the song’s deeply effective power. The song itself is full of regret, but sets the stage beautifully, in a grandiose, tragic fashion, for the words and music to follow. Trouble Will Find Me needs this song to make the album complete, but “I Should Live in Salt” can live comfortably on its own. – Justin Gerber
15. The Knife – “Full of Fire”
Shaking the Habitual
After seven years away, Swedish duo The Knife returned with a vengeance on “Full of Fire”, nearly ten minutes of furious, wrenching, percussive electronics and expressive, challenging lyrics (which is to say, full of the Andersson siblings’ groundbreaking brand of napalm). The concussive track escalates and escalates, dagger-point synths and thudding drums burrowing into the core, each successive layer somehow scraping away that much more of the world around it, until you stop dancing long enough to look around at the rubble.
Karen Andersson sings from the middle of that shellshocked landscape, her voice melting and morphing from wounded and uncertain to aggressive and dominant, male to female, reedy to dense, human to anything but. “Questions and the answers can take very long,” she wavers, but this isn’t a song about passive acceptance. “Let’s talk about gender, baby/ Let’s talk about you and me,” she sneers as the song draws to a close. The Knife are, as always, challenging preconceptions, particularly here preconceptions of both gender and of what dance music can achieve. —Adam Kivel
14. Mikal Cronin – “Weight”
It sucks growing up. It sucks even more for rock ‘n’ roll. “I hope I die before I get old,” Roger Daltrey famously stuttered decades back, and, since then, so many have followed that creed. On “Weight”, Mikal Cronin tussles with age, waxing poetic about the future, where to go, and all that other queasy shit, yelping: “The time is right, I’m only getting older/ I’m not ready for the second wave, the weight of seeing through.” He makes it quite clear he’s not ready for a lot of things, but what he’s really not prepared for are the consequences of age.
The song’s a philosophical alarm clock, a timeless fear shared by all. Whether we like it or not, age haunts our souls forever, and the fools that think they can shrug it off will only find themselves struggling with it again ten, 15, or 35 years down the road. Cronin’s decision to open his sophomore album, MCII, with existential trail mix is a genius move on his behalf, as it immediately sheds light on how far he’s come with his songwriting. Remarkably, his instrumentation matches that penmanship in a marriage that grows together throughout the record’s entirety, eclipsing with the very funereal “Piano Mantra”. But, oh how sweet that beginning is. –Michael Roffman
“My big homie died young, just turned older than him,” remembers Chance the Rapper on “Acid Rain”. He hasn’t had a direct hand in Chicago’s youth violence epidemic — violence that has been enough to earn the city a new moniker, Chiraq — and “Acid Rain” only exists in its shadow. But, as a song about looking around and maintaining your realism but wishing things were different, it seems to carry the weight of an entire metropolis. Some of the juxtapositions here are unexpected (acid tabs and diagonally-sliced grilled cheese), while others are familiar but nonetheless tragic (hoop dreams and funerals for kindergartners hit by stray bullets).
“Good Ass Intro” has that communal feel, brightened with fluttering horns and clap-along backing vocals. “Juice” is the exuberant earworm with a pyramid of flows. But, of all the songs on Acid Rap, “Acid Rain” is the real time-freezer. Jake One’s beat, a somber and puddle-like thing, is perfect for Chance’s tone. The whole thing has a lot in common with Kendrick Lamar’s 12-minute “Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst”, but where that song takes its time, “Acid Rain” is more blunt. Which is not to say it doesn’t progress: You can just about hear Chance picking up his head as he transitions from a conflicted teenager to a wide-eyed new man, hesitant to make his next step, but sure enough that he’ll make the right one eventually. —Mike Madden
As Rhye approached the public eye, it wasn’t unusual to see headlines like “Men of Mystery Find a Feminine Sound” or to find singer Mike Milosh being mistaken for a lovestruck woman. Such gender association misinterprets Rhye’s vision for their music. Falling in love is universal, and the duo want to break down the taboo walls of intimacy with every swooning arrangement and simple lyrical confession.
“Open” is the best example of discovering this feeling and longing for hope to last. Milosh’s croons admire the simplest fascinations of his lover and places them on a religious pedestal: your things, sighs, belly, love. The couple labels sex as building towards perfection, something only they can produce. In popular music, it’s easy to become familiar with lust and instant pleasures. Rhye strives for long-lasting gratification, a feeling that can reap the most beautiful reward and live in their hearts forever. Even though they’re young and daring as mainstream musicians, they truly value what is gifted to them and refuse to take it for granted. —Sam Willett
11. Disclosure – “White Noise” (feat. AlunaGeorge)
It’s been said that art is a collaboration between God and the artist. And that the less the artist does, the better. But, until the bearded man in the sky decides to don a neon mesh tank top and roll on molly, us mere mortals will have to settle for the best UK dance partnership of the year. “White Noise” skyrocketed up the charts thanks to a happy foursome of the brothers Lawrence and AlunaGeorge (known separately as Aluna Francis and George Reid), who came together to produce a heterogenized house groove that would make Don DeLillo jealous.
As Disclosure tells it, Francis immediately fell in love with the song’s magnetic bass line. And that doting infatuation shines through the singer’s cherubic vocals, which mature as her boldness swells: “Lately I’ve been thinking if you wanna get tough/ Then let’s play rough.” The captivating track is replete with all manner of mesmerizing beeps, tonal shifts, and happy crescendos, making it the most anticipated part of any EDM festival or night in the club. Your move, Almighty. –Dan Pfleegor
10. CHVRCHES – “Recover”
The Bones of What You Believe
The release of “Recover” turned out to be one of the rare “where were you?” musical moments that doesn’t involve a legend dying. Where was I? It was a chilly February night in bed at an unremarkable locale, yet I still recall the moment when CHVRCHES instantly became the band I listened to seemingly daily, and in excess, thanks to the endless pleasure of “Recover”. The following evening, my musical soulmate revealed she had played it 30 times in the last two days alone, putting my opening night marathon session of a dozen plays to shame.
Prior to the debut of “Recover”, the last time the band had crossed my thoughts was during a discussion with someone who lamented that “CHVRCHES don’t even have an album, so why is it so hard to get a ticket to their show?” Good question. Sure, “Lies” and especially “The Mother We Share” went viral and sent the Glaswegian trio to the top of the hype list, but the arena of catchy synthpop is a dangerously clusterfucked one. Just another buzzed-about European electopop outfit with a couple good songs, right? Well, “Recover” is when everything came together.
On the blindingly bright track, the shimmering synths of Iain Cook and Martin Doherty playfully sweep under Lauren Mayberry’s irresistible melody. It’s not just the sweetness of Mayberry’s hooks that make them so addictive; it’s also that unmistakable tinge of melancholy that haunts throughout the catharsis of one of 2013’s most anthemic choruses. Other popular electropop groups of today merely channel the sounds of the ’80s, but with “Recover”, CHVRCHES capture the allure of heartache and breaking up that underscores the dance and sing-along sensation often found in the all-time greats. In the future, “Recover” will prove to be one of those hits that we will seek to play at our favorite karaoke bars, and we will squeal with delight when it’s dropped by a DJ at a ’10s-themed party. —Frank Mojica
9. Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
Modern Vampires of the City
Duh, “Diane Young” is about dying young. It’s also the best song on Vampire Weekend’s latest record, Modern Vampires of the City, a triumphant treatise on matters of G-d, mortality, and Saab torching. On the whole, gorgeous tracks like “Everlasting Arms” and “Hudson” embrace the album’s existential quandaries head-on, approaching inquiries on communal faith and adulthood with charm, grace, and limited whimsy. “Diane Young”, on the other hand, sprints in the opposite direction, skirting lyrical profundity for misdirection and skronk.
And, oh, that sax skronk, the most mellifluous fart I’ve heard all year. It ushers Ezra Koenig’s spritely voice into a maelstrom of “Wipeout” guitar licks and tommy gun drumming, resulting in the fizzy-eyed offspring of Kenny Loggins, Devo, and They Might Be Giants. It’s thrilling, to be quite honest, capturing the adventure of a life lived loose, both lyrically and musically. But, it can’t be that simple, and it’s not. Rostam Batmanglij’s electronic manipulation of Koenig’s voice during the “baby, baby” breakdowns transforms it into that of a quivering old crone, a reminder that youth is fleeting, and much of it has already fled.
In an interview with Spin, Koenig says his success “doesn’t answer any of the big life questions, actually. You could do it for a few years, and then what?…What is there beyond this?” “Diane Young” confronts this question by pretending to avoid it. More importantly, though, it’s fun, the kind of song that doesn’t make you feel so much as it makes you feel like you could live forever. –Randall Colburn
8. M.I.A. – “Bring the Noize”
I’ll be honest: I have a bad history of ignoring pop icons with children. Typically, the cold shoulder’s reserved for the rebellious sort, those larger-than-life personalities that thrive on the fringe. They could be fictional, they could be real — either way I get the jitters. Take the later Star Wars novels, for instance. I couldn’t handle a smuggler like Han Solo and his prospective Jedi partner Princess Leia juggling their adventures with… twins. A more grounded, IRL example would be Johnny Depp. The former ’80s heartthrob carved out a career for himself with eclectic roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now he’s a household name for his annual commitment to quirky (not eclectic) family-friendly roles, no doubt inspired by his own. Why do I feel this grinchy? Any freshman psychology major would point to daddy issues, or a fear of responsibilities, and they might be right. Personally, I just hate the idea of rebels growing up. Having a kid is the most responsible thing anyone could have to deal with, where literally everything has to take backseat, especially “frivolous” activities like stealing Imperial weapon plans, getting frozen in carbonite, or tripping on mescaline to chase the American Dream.
So, when similar alternative hero M.I.A. announced her pregnancy back in 2009, I thought, Well, there goes another rebel. It was a ridiculous notion somewhat validated with the disappointing album, Maya, and its ensuing nonsensical Gingergate. It wasn’t until last year’s “Bad Girls”, a good track trumped by an exceptional video, that I started hearing echoes of the rebel again. (Maybe it was the divorce?) Then came “Bring the Noize”, which led to external bleeding at the throat, the nose, the ears, and groin. “I’m so tangy, people call me Mathangi/ Goddess of word, bitches I’mma keep it banging,” M.I.A. spits over a glossary of punk, house, and bass. Produced by UK DJs Switch and Surkin, the nearly five-minute assault finds our renewed rabble-rouser tackling truths about wealth, ethnophobia, and her own personal identity. It’s like her spin on “Power”, and by the time she says, “Truth is like a rotten tooth, you gotta spit it out/ I left the bottom two, let my wisdom work it out,” there’s absolutely no stopping her. She’s still a rebel, only now with plenty of cause. #VickiLeekx –Michael Roffman
7. Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
Arcade Fire has been spoiling their fans every three years since their debut masterwork, 2004’s Funeral. Every album since builds upon the groundwork of that initial effort, complete with call-to-arms verses and epic codas. A decade into their career, a decision had to be made by the Canadian outfit: “Do we ride on our success, or do we veer off into uncharted waters? Long songs or short songs? Dance music or rock music? James Murphy or no James Murphy?” Most artists that stay relevant or maintain being defined as “adventurous” need to swim away from the comforts of home. Sink or swim.
Enter September of this year. After rumors and suggestions ran rampant upon fan-shot videos of performances in small venues, we had our first real taste of Arcade Fire. Love it or hate it, the title track of the band’s fourth LP transforms Arcade Fire into something new. Its accompanying black-and-white video with frontman Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne on the road (on the run?) signified a break from their past, but not from each other. They remain as present on record as the rest of their bandmates, particularly Tim Kingsbury’s guitar line in between Butler/Chassagne’s “It’s just a reflector” chorus line, and drummer Jeremy Gara proving once again that drum machines cannot compare.
The first single from an impending release should represent the tone of the album. “Reflektor”, with its lengthy run time and unchanged rhythms, served its purpose very well. Thanks to contributions from producer James Murphy (whose LCD-fingerprints are all over the track) and a cameo from David Bowie (whose presence is felt well before his iconic voice appears), for the first time the band was able to light their flame pre-album release — riding the waves into a new album as opposed to depending on word-of-mouth. Arcade Fire burned down the house in order to build a new one. So far, so good. –Justin Gerber