We’ve finally made it to the grand finale of this Top 50 Songs list for 2013. It’s been a wild and fun ride, and I hope you’ve had the chance to go through this full list and discover some songs you may not have heard before. A few shopkeeping notes I’d like to take care of as we wrap this list up. First, next week will mark the beginning of the Top 50 Albums of 2013 list, which is something I promise you won’t want to miss. Secondly, there will be an addendum post that will be up on the site sometime between Christmas and New Year’s which will be called “The Best of the Rest.” In a nutshell, that will contain 50 more songs that I loved from 2013 that failed to make this list, plus a few other small lists dealing with other music-related topics. So call that a Listmas bonus. Lastly, in case you missed any of the other parts of this Top 50 Songs countdown, let me point you in the right direction with some links:
A couple of quick stats about the songs featured below. It’s a 50-50 split between male and female vocalists. There is one hip hop track, two tracks by electronica artists, three tracks featuring guest vocalists (if you count David Bowie), and a wbole lot of incredibly addictive hooks. Now if you’ll join me after the jump, here are my 10 favorite songs that appeared on records released in 2013.
10. Savages – Waiting for a Sign
There is a lot of anger and general insanity all over Savages’ debut album Silence Yourself, and about half of the songs also make for great singles. “Waiting for a Sign” is absolutely not one of them. Instead, it’s one of only a pair of slow ballads on the record, falling right at the center and creating the impression of two halves with their own distinct moods and predilections. And though the song occupies a key slot on the record, I’m much more interested in how it uses that power. If you want to know why Savages attracted so much attention this year, it’s fully revealed when you closely analyze this track’s construction. Bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Faye Milton provide a strong rhythmic anchor through the main verses and chorus, which Jehenny Beth wails through like she’s in pain. But for the final 100 seconds or so, Gemma Thompson does things with her guitar that is so piercingly loud and feedback-laden that it speaks volumes without uttering an actual word. It’s so emotionally draining that I still break down in tears while listening to it on occasion. Now that’s what I call raw power.
9. Kanye West – Blood on the Leaves
For all the animosity and rage that takes precedence throughout Yeezus, nothing is quite as powerful and creatively inspired as “Blood on the Leaves.” On the surface, the lyrics are about a bitter and difficult divorce that finds Kanye trying to navigate issues like alimony payments and meetings with lawyers while also reflecting back on the good times and questioning where it all started to go wrong. Yet the less obvious issue being addressed here ties into the record’s larger theme of black oppression and slavery. The use of the Nina Simone “Strange Fruit” sample conjures up visions of the lynchings that took place primarily in the southern U.S. during the Civil War era, but her sweet vocals also remind us of a better and more idyllic period of American history. Pair those ideas with the blaring horns from TNGHT’s “R U Ready” and it only ups the emotional intensity even further. And so while the composition of the track attracts us like moths to the light, the words ask us to reject the images of suffering both past and present being presented to us. In other words, it’s insanely deep and naturally brilliant.
8. Vampire Weekend – Hannah Hunt
In my review of Modern Vampires of the City, I spent one lengthy paragraph talking only about “Hannah Hunt.” It’s an incredible song and my absolute favorite on a record that’s packed with attention-grabbing moments. Within this single ballad there are multitudes of Vampire Weekend sonic and textural innovations while the the lyrics and especially Ezra Koenig’s vocals overflow with emotion in a rousing and powerful way. The story of two lovers on a cross-country road trip does such a great job of providing us with details that we almost feel like we’re riding along in the car with them. Hannah is painted as a free spirit with a bit of a reckless streak, meaning she’s a lot of fun but will test your patience and trust quite a bit. The frustration with her is channeled into the final minute and a half of the song, which goes from a slow and meditative ballad to a soaring and gorgeous piano crescendo as Koenig yelps, “If I can’t trust you, then damn it Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer.” Simultaneously graceful and angry, this is a perfect example of how much Vampire Weekend has grown and evolved since their inception.
7. Foals – My Number
Foals have a distinctive sound to the point where many bands have attempted to copy them over the years and all have largely failed. What’s great is that with each new record, they continue to refine that sound and tweak it so it serves a particular need or purpose. On their latest album Holy Fire, the song “My Number” turns Foals into a shiny dance rock band, wherein they trade their oft-unconventional song structures for one that’s pop oriented to the extreme, hitting you with that chorus and hook again and again and again until nothing else occupies your brain. It turns out to be a suit that fits them and their interweaving math rock guitars exceptionally well. Yet what’s also striking about this track is how in spite of its addictive and giddy fun, the lyrics are about rejection. “You don’t have my number / We don’t need each other now,” Yannis Philappakis sings in the chorus. Of course it’s also a statement of individuality and a break from expectation, which you could say is what Foals have been doing since Day 1. But it’s just that sort of paradigm which also serves to elevate this particular song above so many others. They sing about freedom and individuality while conforming to pop structures and force feeding the chorus to you over and over. It’s a ballsy move from a ballsy band.
6. Disclosure – White Noise (ft. AlunaGeorge) [Video]
Realistically speaking, every song on Disclosure’s Settle record is a worthwhile single, and choosing just one to put onto this list is pretty much a fool’s errand. Why I “settled” (see what I did there) for “White Noise” was largely because I think it’s the best example of what a collaboration with another artist can accomplish. Disclosure is being hailed for their revival of the 90’s house music style of electronica, while AlunaGeorge is basically R&B 2.0 as they work to evolve that particular sound. Both duos make significant and equal contributions to the final product, signifying a modicum of respect and stylistically bridging the past with the present. This is also one of Aluna Francis’ best vocal performances to date, filled with a certain intensity that’s both angry and fiercely independent. She feels like she’s not getting the respect she deserves out of her relationship, so she’s kicking him to the curb and taking back her freedom. In essence, everything about this song is worth celebrating, whether you’ve got a dance floor to do so or not.
5. Daft Punk – Get Lucky (ft. Pharrell & Nile Rodgers)
What can I say? It was the theme song of Summer 2013. I heard it everywhere, and like pretty much every massive summertime hit, I grew tired of it as fall rolled around. Now when it comes on the radio I change the station. And though my words seem to indicate that “Get Lucky” isn’t worthy of inclusion on this list, let alone in a Top 5 position, please know that I don’t choose songs based on how I feel about them at that very moment, but instead what they’ve meant to me over the duration of their existence in the world. In this case I danced like a maniac to it at several weddings and in several bars and clubs. When it would come on the radio or a clip would play between innings at a baseball game, it almost always made my day better. Given the sheer number of times I’ve heard it in 2013, far more than any other song, of course it was only a matter of time before it became played out. Frankly, I’m just glad Daft Punk finally hit the big time with this single, because prior to this year most people probably only knew them thanks to Kanye West’s sampling of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” It may not be the most lyrically or sonically complex song in the world (though it does do some fancy footwork trying to make it seem like it’s not about sex), but Daft Punk does a fantastic job of hiding that fact with an epic, interstellar approach. If the general public was just a little less attuned to that particular frequency, this song might not have been as lucky as it has been.
4. Chvrches – Recover
In late 2012, “Recover” was my introduction to Chvrches. Its 80’s style synth pop repurposed with a sci-fi angle felt remarkably fresh at that time, and continues to feel fresh even a year later. That’s a testament to the band’s strength as songwriters and composers, among other things. The first 25 or so seconds of the track trickle down like the starting lights at a drag race – the few moments of calm before the hook comes in and sends everything soaring towards outer space. In turn it makes the lyrics about a relationship on the brink of destruction seem almost like a life or death situation. Yet it’s Lauren Mayberry’s measured vocals that keeps things grounded and in the proper state of mind. A lesser talent would have attempted to match the anthemic scope of the melody and driven the whole thing well past the point of overblown. Instead intimacy and emotion are allowed to be fully felt, and Chvrches back it up with such unwavering conviction that you can’t help but be drawn in. The hook is a big help with that, too.
3. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
As our first taste from the album with the same name, “Reflektor” represented a dynamic shift in the public perception of Arcade Fire. To put it one way, they had gone disco, injecting African-styled rhythms and other world music influences into their already stadium-sized sound over the course of 7.5 minutes. Credit producer and former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy for the push in that direction, though the band will probably argue they were headed there anyways. But you can also feel Murphy’s influence on how the track is structured, specifically in how it builds and builds in intensity while varying elements (saxophones, strings, Bowie) come and go as needed. More thematically speaking, “Reflektor” is a song about connection or a lack thereof. It’s about what is lost in our lives when we stare into a mirror or a smartphone or even a computer all day instead of actively engaging with others in the world around us. And when you really think about it, that’s also the exact reason why Arcade Fire have embraced dance music, because it’s a communal art form. Because you can’t mess around on your phone if you’re dancing. You’re required to live in that moment, so embrace the connection it at its fullest. It’s no fun dancing alone.
2. Lorde – Royals [Video]
Many will argue this is the pop song of the year, and I’m not one to dispute that. It spent an incredible 9 weeks in a row at the top of the Hot 100 chart, and was the first solo female track to top the Alternative chart since Tracy Chapman in 1996. Not only that, but it beat out Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” for the most weeks in a row spent at the top of the Alternative chart by a solo female. While I am typically at odds with the masses when it comes to deciding what music should be considered popular, I genuinely admire what the New Zealand teen is doing not only on this track but several others on her debut album Pure Heroine. She’s still very young, but her lyrics are far wiser and better than her age might indicate. “Royals” is a scathing indictment of our culture today, which tries to make us think that living the rich life (with things like ball gowns. gold teeth, and Cristal) is something that youths should aspire to. But it’s also about the (in)experience of being a teen and thinking that you’re invincible and have life all figured out. “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us, we crave a different kind of buzz,” she sings in the chorus. It’s a flat-out rejection of conformity, and that’s what really makes Lorde an alternative artist. Hopefully somebody took this song’s success as a hint that the music world wants more Lordes and less Katys. We’d all be so much better off if that was the case.
1. Haim – The Wire [Video]
This decision on my favorite song of 2013 ultimately did come down to “The Wire.” Much like the HBO television show of the same name (which is not what the song is about, though that’d be equally as great), this song achieves a level of perfection that leaves its peers in the dust. Its brilliance stems from a variety of factors, chief among them being an efficient yet artful construction. Everything is balanced in such a way that the song’s many moving parts never become too transparent or forced. In a world where perfect songs are few and far between, that even keel is one of the commonalities they share. That, and the unique ability to speak a universal language that attracts everyone from age 8 to 80. If you can’t find something to love about “The Wire,” you’re either tone deaf or dead. You’ve got plenty of choices, from the just-right levels of emotion injected into the vocals, to the breakdown and rebuilding of the melody at the bridge, or even the random “ooh’s, chicka’s and yeah’s” that add a little extra spice to the already amazing lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, one of the most classic and best things about this song is how it’s about a break-up, yet still manages to avoid every cliche and stereotype that goes along with it. Instead of wallowing in pain or celebrating the freedom found from exiting a bad relationship, the focus here is far kinder and even-handed than you might expect. She’s breaking up with him, but wants to make sure he knows it’s not really his fault. She doesn’t really blame herself either, rather it’s one of those situations where two people simply drift apart and have no reason to stay together. “I just know, I know, I know, I know that you’re gonna be okay anyway,” each of the three Haim sisters sings during her verse in an attempt to soften the blow a bit. You can hear the sympathy in their voices, and it’s that level of subtlety that really sells everything they’re saying and doing on this track. Honestly, I could go on and on about the different aspects and elements that make this song great, but ultimately I think the best endorsement comes from the general public. In the span of a year, Haim have gone from relative unknowns to the sort of band your parents might even have heard of. They’ve been all over late night talk shows, including Saturday Night Live, have toured around the world, and will be touring the U.S. this spring at venues that are at least three times larger than the ones they played in just a year earlier. A large portion of that success can be attributed to their hit singles, “The Wire” being chief among them. Between Haim and Lorde, sometimes the majority surprisingly gets it right.
Coming Soon: Faronheit’s Top 50 Albums of 2013!