Day number three of this Top 50 Songs countdown, and you could say that we’re really starting to hit a stride. There’s a lot of really great songs that have been covered so far on this list, and a whole lot more still to come. I’m excited to reveal everything to you, even if it is at a rate of 10 songs at a time. For those that are just jumping into this list right now, let me make sure you’re aware of Part I and Part II. Stay tuned over the next couple days for the final two installments! In the meantime, please enjoy the official middle portion of this list, with songs 30-21!
30. Big Black Delta – Side of the Road [Video]
Big Black Delta is the project of former Mellowdrone frontman Jonathan Bates, and unlike his former band, this project is focused on psychedelic electronica. “Side of the Road” is a perfect example of how to make a soaring and anthemic electro pop song with a serious focus on technology. The melody itself sounds like it was borrowed from the Tron soundtrack, replete with heavily pulsating synths. But it’s how the vocals are handled that’s most telling, as Bates makes great use of a vocoder to give his singing a decidedly robotic edge. Yet it doesn’t stop his emotions from leaking out, and in such a way that you might interpret his attitude differently depending on who you are or how many times you listen to this addictive dance track.
29. DIANA – Born Again [Video]
It only makes sense that DIANA’s is paired with Big Black Delta, given they’re both largely dance tracks with a heavy synth/80s edge to them. But DIANA is a very different act, and “Born Again” ultimately a very different song. Vocalist Carmen Elle is the real star on the track, inflecting just the right amount of romanticism and sex into the verses before she soars during the chorus. Yet there’s a lot going on instrumentally with this track too, and the closer attention you pay to the light touches of guitars and use of samples amid the synths, the more you come to appreciate its many subtle nuances. This may not be the most danceable track in DIANA’s catalogue, but it is the best thing they’ve ever done. They’d be wise to use it as a template for the next record.
28. Cayucas – High School Lover [Video]
Zach Yudin knows his way around an indie pop song, and while his previous work as Oregon Bike Trails somewhat reflected that, his latest material under the Cayucas moniker feels like the next evolution. To be clear, that’s a personal evolution for him, and not one for the state of indie pop. You could easily argue that “High School Lover” and probably more than half the songs on Cayucas’ debut album Bigfoot are direct descendants of (early) Vampire Weekend. Yet there’s something that feels fresh about it too, in spite of everything that’s been copied and pasted. I’m not sure what it is, and maybe it’s just the strength of the hook, but I couldn’t stop listening to this song all year long. The fact that I’ve still not yet grown tired of it should be enough justification for its place on this list.
27. Chance the Rapper – Good Ass Intro
There are many great things about the Acid Rap mixtape, as evidenced by hopefully a lot of love you’ll see for it on year-end lists all over the internet. For me, nothing quite epitomizes its excellence better than “Good Ass Intro,” which more than lives up to its name and is more worthy of being called a great ass intro. Not only are his rapidfire and playful rhymes part of the track’s charm, but the girl group harmonies, jazzy piano and horn section courtesy of Chicago collective Kids These Days help to make it innovative too. In an era where attention spans are hard to come by and people taste test something new by listening to the first track, this is one that sucks you in completely and naturally only makes you want more.
26. Phoenix – S.O.S. in Bel Air
After recording a number of albums that improved on what came before, it was about time for Phoenix to stumble a little. Bankrupt! isn’t a bad album by any means, but coming off something so successful like Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a daunting task for any band to follow-up on properly. Though many of the songs on that record dress to impress, none accomplish the feat so heartily as “S.O.S. in Bel Air.” The oblique nature of the lyrics lets you interpret them in whatever way you choose, which is a huge part of its strength. I’m also extremely appreciative of the way the verses and bridge ratchet up the tension, which then gets released in that memorable, hook-driven chorus. This has the potential to be a huge hit ala “1901” or “Lisztomania,” yet the band and their management have yet to release it as a single. Maybe in 2014.
25. Rhye – The Fall [Video]
Rhye’s Woman is an incredibly sexy record, anchored by Milosh’s sultry, androgynous vocals. As such, it’s not something you’d call fast-paced or fun. Such is the price of effortless beauty and intimacy. Why “The Fall” succeeds is because it hits a sweet spot. As evidenced by the first video for the song, you can dance to it but that doesn’t mean you’ll do so with a smile on your face. “Make love to me/one more time/before you go away/why can’t you stay?” Milosh asks at the start of the song. It’s a melancholy look at the end of a relationship, or at least a last ditch attempt to save a failing one. All the briskly paced piano, horns and string sections only slightly soften that devastating blow.
24. James Blake – Retrograde [Video]
I really like James Blake and his innovative take on R&B, but there’s very little in his catalogue that I’d consider outright catchy. There’s not technically a hook in “Retrograde,” but thanks to a creatively hummed vocal loop it certainly feels like there is. Above all else, that’s what always gets stuck in my head every time I hear the song. But there’s a host of other amazing things about it too, including its slow burn quality and the way the synths just bleed into it until they nearly overtake the vocals. Thematically speaking, as the title implies, the song is about rediscovering your best self, and returning to a state of symbiosis in a relationship. In that sense, it’s practically the antithesis of “The Fall.”
23. Sky Ferreira – You’re Not the One [Video]
In a year with a whole lot of strong pop records (far more than usual, if you ask me), Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time appears to be a bit of an outlier. Her associations with a lot of indie artists and a heavy DIY attitude seem to have taken her in that direction, and that’s not a bad thing. Especially when it results in songs like “You’re Not the One.” As the album’s first single, it also represents a shift in direction for Ferreira as she traded out the synths that dominated her earlier work for some serious 80’s style guitars. Seriously, if this song were released a couple decades ago it’s very likely it’d be a major hit. Today it’s only a minor hit, because it goes against the grain of the Miley’s and Katy’s of the pop world. That kind of only makes me love it more.
22. Nine Inch Nails – Came Back Haunted [Video]
It’s fascinating to me that “Came Back Haunted” was NIN’s big “comeback” song, yet nothing else from the Hesitation Marks record has taken hold (yet). Heralded as a return to form and a modern twist on the synth-heavy 80’s classic Pretty Hate Machine, I was initially disappointed that it wasn’t the hard left turn in a completely new direction that Trent Reznor had originally implied would happen with the revival of the Nine Inch Nails name. Yet much like the title itself, I was haunted by the song for months before being forced to admit it had grown on me and might just be the best NIN single in over a decade.
21. NONONO – Pumpin Blood [Video]
Everything about “Pumpin Blood” is cheerful. When you’re worn out after a long day and just want to sit around doing nothing, this is your motivation to get off the couch. When you’re having a “case of the Mondays,” this song will suddenly make you feel like it’s Thursday or Friday. The whistle that makes up the core of the song is a hook in itself, and then the actual chorus kicks in and there’s a whole other hook there too. Bright, fun and quite danceable, you need to have a heart made of stone to not be taken in by its charms.