The 25 Best Songs of 2013

December 21, 2013

I do recognize how grandiose it sounds to label my favorite picks as “the best” of anything, as if my own opinion is definitive in anyway. I’ve been doing these lists at the end of each year for five years now, and I simply love doing it; I love sorting through everything I’ve listened to, read, saw, etc. in December each year and taking my time ranking them, re-evaluating them, compiling playlists that I can go back to in the years to come to help me remember other details of that year, to think of what was going on as those songs or films accompanied me. I love seeing how other lists compare to my own, be they choices of friends of mine, major magazines, other blogs, etc. So yes, these are my choices for the “Best 25” songs of the year in full recognition that there were many great songs and that these only capture a fraction of one person’s best attempt at describing the best of the diverse creativity to be found in 2013.

A reminder on my considerations–when I pick a song for this list, I consider that song as it stands alone. I used to exclude any songs taken from any albums that made my best albums list to better expose other records that may otherwise go unmentioned, but I changed gears on that method a few years ago. I now think about how that song played by itself, on the radio, in videos, on the internet, on personal playlists; how excellent does that song work as a song divorced from the context of its album. This means that some of these songs come from albums I’ve picked on my preceding lists and that others do not. I may have a top ranking album I love in which all the songs are great but I then may go on to not list any songs from it for my top songs because I feel that particular art works best cohesively; or I may include a song that I found to be excellent pulled from an otherwise abominable album.

Okay. Here goes.

Chvrches

25) The Mother We Share – CHVRCHES

I’m a sucker for synth pop and thanks to the success of artists like M83 in recent years, there’s been more of it this decade than at anytime since the eighties. The best of it has often been lyrically and conceptually deeper than the catchy outfitting it has would suggest and this track certainly follows that pattern. Even Drake gave us a synth pop track this year, but this is one of the best I heard all  year.

foboy

24) My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark- Fall Out Boy

A band no one really expected (and that few likely sat around wishing) to make a comeback did so with better than could be expected results. FOB fully embraced their cheesy and over-the-top pretensions and released one of the best singles they’ve ever had. Minus the emo and plus some hair-metal and the result is a stick-in-your-head power pop gem.

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23) Started From the Bottom – Drake

I mean, everyone has cracked on Drake for exaggerating how far towards the “bottom” he truly started. Quickly transitioning from a Canadian hit teen melodrama to a signed deal with Cash Money records by Lil Wayne and instant platinum sells long before he’s even hit thirty doesn’t really seem like too much of a professional struggle. Anyway, overlooking that we still get a catchy, thumping, hooky track that sounds great and has likely served to amp up and inspire many a young hip hop fan whilst driving around the city (or suburbs).

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22) Heartbreaker – Motorhead

My favorite song from these speed metal standard-bearers since “Ace of Spades.” All hail Lemmy and co.

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21) Applause – Lady Gaga

I don’t think Gaga has ever released a “classic” album but she’ s certainly made some of the best mainstream (yet quirky and eccentric) pop songs of recent years. Far better than the “Do What You Want” follow-up (which despite its intentions of commentary just sounded creepy as a hit song likely being sung along to by schoolchildren everywhere). “Applause” is just a superb ear-worm in the vein of “Bad Romance.”

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20) Cut Me Some Slack – Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic & Pat Smear

How cool is this? For the Sound City Soundtrack, Paul McCartney played front-man for a reunited Nirvana, rocking harder than he has in years (though he’s never really fallen off anyway).

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19) Obvious Bicycle – Vampire Weekend

This is one of my favorite album-openers/tone-setters in recent years but it also holds up superbly as a single song and is by far the track from Modern Vampires of the City that I played the most this year. It’s got excellent, timely lyrics, beautiful vocals, and multiple appealing melodies and quirky flourishes, not to mention a perfect little piano-pecking close out.

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18) From a Window Seat – Dawes

The best track from Dawes new record sticks with me for a number of reasons; that oddly captivating first verse which compares the take-off prep routines of flight attendants to ancient rituals which “bloodline reaches through” and of course the perfectly repetitive back-beat. One great Dawes song to me is worth 10 Avett (or Mumford) songs and this one is one of their best yet.

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17) Satellite – Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor gives us a gothic tinged techno dance track about government surveillance, perfect for this year of NSA news.

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16) Black Skinhead – Kanye West

Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” may be one of the best metal songs of all time, largely due to its simple yet unavoidable tribal rhythm drumbeat. Kanye takes that beat and condenses it down to make it even more rhythmic as a sample for this track. His rhymes aren’t his best ever here but there are some flashes of his wit and lyrical skill nonetheless; his flat out screams between bars punctuated by severe bass hits just pummel the listener and then Kanye’s out barely cracking the three minute mark.

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15) You’re Not Good Enough – Blood Orange

Another synth pop track to make the cut here, but this one owes much more to Prince than New Order. In fact it sounds like a missing cut from 1999. His vocals even echo Prince, and those female accompaniment vocals may as well be Sheila E. Funk electronic synth pop at its finest (is that even a current sub-genre?)

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14) Kevin Gates – Paper Chasers

Like I mentioned in my 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013 post, “Paper Chasers” is simply the best sing-songy gangsta rap track since the first (and only good) 50 album. Yet it has a subtle emotional pathos that 50 would never dare to exude or even tolerate. There’s a sense in the best of Gates’ work that consequences and moral uncertainty always lurk beneath even the most nihilistic of boasts.

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13) Do I Wanna Know? – Arctic Monkeys

This current sound suits Arctic Monkeys much better than their Garage Punk phase back when they first broke (somewhat) in America. This sound throws in a large dose of funky R&B with smoother vocals, addicting bass-lines, and musical seduction. This is the catchiest, most enjoyable song on the whole record.

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12) This is Love (Feels Alright) – Camera Obscura

Okay, so there is something about Camera Obscura that makes one think they were tailor crafted for your average NPR listener or Starbucks addict. They are nostalgic, arty, and nonthreatening. This is warm, country-tinged, beach-music recasting, world folk music that is capped by the warmest vocals on record this year. This stand-out track even makes use of the triangle! But it’s just so catchy, fun, romantic, and actually un-pretentious despite all of the elements which would be as such from many lesser artists.

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11) Sea of Love – The National

The National haven’t historically made much that could serve as hit singles despite being on a run of at least three classic albums by this point; but “Sea of Love” rocks harder and more convincingly than anything they’ve ever done on the harder edge. Matt Berringer’s complex, nuanced, often cryptic, lyrics are the draw for most National fans but they’ve always been presented with a captivating (if monotonous to some) baritone and backed by seriously talented musicianship. Here on this song, the more “listener-friendly” elements of the band come together–a good chorus, some great break-downs, excellent drum-beat, etc.

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10) Reflketor – Arcade Fire

I almost chose several tracks from the great new Arcade Fire record, but I ultimately felt like this opening title track is the best single song on the album and also an excellent encapsulation of the album as a whole as well. It’s over 7 minutes long but never wears out its welcome. From it’s slow burn opening to its David Bowie assisted closing, the elements of Carribean, Afro-Pop, Disco, Techno, Indie Pop, and  Synth Pop make for a perfect dance-floor soundscape which support some great thematic and captivating lyrics that ask big questions, and express big concerns. The idea of technology assisted isolation, the concept that we all exist together alone in the social media age is perfectly distilled here without weighing down a great rock song.

smith westerns

9) Idol – Smith Westerns

I loved the entire Soft Will album these guys released this year. I listened to it all summer long and it is likely one of the closest albums to making my final best-albums list that I haven’t mentioned so far; this second song on the record shows what they do best. It’s Big Star like power pop with elements of the Smiths in the background. It’s melancholy and joyful at the same time, a perfect summer song that kind of emotionally recreates the last summer of everyone’s high-school– it looks forward and backward simultaneously, transforms nostalgia into creative new ground and yet never deviates from a perfect (and perfectly simplistic) pop song.

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8) Tennis Court – Lorde

Lorde had an unexpected smash hit with “Royals,” and now this anti-pop anti-consumerism alt-teen who seemed to be making hip hop influenced pop with tongue placed firmly in cheek is now herself a pop star. “Royals” is fine but I prefer “Tennis Court” which is just so precocious yet captivating. A great beat, surprisingly competent rapping, and a great self-conscious hook.

tegan

7) Drove Me Wild – Tegan and Sara

The surprise pop album of the year; Tegan and Sara have long made excellent music, but I doubt anyone ever expected them to forgo their emotionally meditative emo-tinted indie rock for a full-on dance pop record. The whole Heartthrob album is fantastic, but this romantic bedroom reminiscence buoyed by high-energy beats, melodies, and T&S’s soaring vocals is my favorite cut thereon.

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6) Burnin’ It Down – Steve Earle & The Dukes (And Duchesses)

Steve Earle regrouped with his Dukes this year, a band that usually assisted him in making his rock-country upper music, yet that here give him suitable backing for his folk Americana tales. “Burnin’ It Down” is a full on outspoken anti-WalMart song. The narrator describes visiting his home town, a place he had always thought he would return to in retirement, yet finding it decimated by the new Wal-Mart. So he sits in his truck in the parking lot contemplating arson. It works as a strictly anti-corporate track but even more powerfully as a song about the sadness one realizes when they find they never can really go home again.

haim

5) If I Could Change Your Mind – Haim

When I read the pre-release buzz for Haim I expected to hear a hard rock (or at least full tilt rock and roll) girl group. Instead, Days Are Gone is yet another 80s inspired pop rock record in a year full of them. But that’s fine, because the songs on it are beautiful, Stevie Nicks led Fleetwood Mac meets Cindi Lauper style post-aughties pop. There are a lot of standout earworms on the record, but the best to me is this one.

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4) Broken – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg released two records this year and is quickly proving himself to be a great new young talent, a folk singer who draws on the oldest of rock’s folk re-appropriations to do the same thing to them that they did to the classic folkies yet again in a new, modern manner. The best cut from his first record is this single, “Broken.” It’s just an achingly beautiful love song.

neko man

3) Neko Case – Man

This is Neko’s best single since “This Tornado Loves You.” Her voice is still the best instrument in practically all of modern popular music and her talent for writing excellent (if sometimes indiscernible in meaning) lyrics continues here, all of which is propelled relentlessly forward by a groove-oriented rock and roll rhythm section. Is she critiquing the entire concept of gender roles, labels, expectations, etc? I think so?

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2) Jason Isbell – Elephant

Isbell made the best record of the year, Southeastern. I have several rotating favorite cuts from that record, yet as I mentioned in my album review, this song I have perhaps played the least. Yet I think it is by far the best song on the entire album. There is a short list of songs that I keep, songs that I love, that I think rank among the best ever written but that are so powerful, emotional, haunting, or troubling that I find it difficult to casually listen to them. I’ve started to spin this one a bit more now, but it was beginning to drift into that category for me. It’s just so raw, honest, and real; he retells a friendship with a woman dying of cancer in such an achingly present manner that it is hard to listen to without getting very sad. “No one dies with dignity” hits like a punch to the gut and speaks a deep if troubling truth by the time you reach it as a listener. Isbell’s voice is in top form here, the music is sparse but memorable, the hooks perfect, the chorus low and properly under-stated, and the lyrics likely the best written by any major popular musician this entire year.Local_Natives-_Bryan_Sheffield1

1) Local Natives – Ceilings

I didn’t know this would be my number 1 song until rather recently. It always seems to me like my top pick should represent something about the year as a whole; either because it signifies a style, genre, scene or theme or because it carries a message appropriate to where the world was that year. This year though, I have to opt for this dreamy, perfect little indie rock ballad. I’ve never ranked a Local Natives album at the top of anything but they always make good music; they also manage to occasionally make single songs that stick with me and cause me to relentlessly listen to them repeatedly, to include on a dozen separate mixes, and to revisit  for years to come. Such was the case with “Wild Eyes” in 2010 and such is the case with “Ceilings” this year. I played “Ceilings” more than any other new track this year and I will likely listen to it quite a bit in the future. I love the vocals, the melody, the lyrics. None of these things are unusually progressive, forceful, extraordinary literate or daringly proficient. Everything just comes together simply, fully, cohesively. The feel of one perfect album, movie, or moment in life just comes down drastically condensed into a song that is six seconds short of three minutes. My favorite song of 2013.

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