Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 in Review: The Top 30 Songs

Amazingly, 2013 is almost over. I don't know where the time went, but I wish I had more of it to properly roll out the end-of-year festivities here at The Entertainment Junkie. To start things off, here are my completely subjective choices for the 30 best songs of the year. Enjoy!

30. "Bitter Rivals," Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells came out of nowhere this year with a follow-up to their divisive sophomore album, Reign of Terror. The titular lead single, which accompanied the announcement, is a punky blast of chainsaw-riffage and singer Alexis Krauss' pissed-off cheerleader lyrics. It signaled that though the band will probably never match the left-field energy of their debut, they've found a way to stay aggressive while leaning more toward the "pop" end of their noise-pop sound.

29. "Chain Smoker," Chance the Rapper

On his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, Chicago MC Chance the Rapper proved himself to be a genuinely gifted up-and-comer with a voice that's unlike anything else in rap. On "Chain Smoker," the closing track, he combines his various skills: his formidable flow, clever wordplay, jazzy singing, spirited production. This is a track that easily worms its way into your head and doesn't let go. Listen to it a few times and try not to sing along.

28. "Pompeii," Bastille

Maybe it's the "hey-ohs" that background the entire song. Or maybe it's lead singer/songwriter Dan Smith's dark, almost apocalyptic lyrics ("Grey clouds roll over the hills / Bringing darkness from above"). Or maybe it's the percussive, almost primal beat that feels like it would inspire many a war dance. Whatever it is, there's no denying that "Pompeii" is one of the catchiest alternative songs of the year, prompting many a sing-along to the grim refrain "how am I gonna be an optimist about this?"

27. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," David Bowie

After ten years away from Earth, David Bowie came back with The Next Day, an album that looked back upon his own career while pushing it forward. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is a shimmery blast of Berlin-era glam rock about one of Bowie's favorite subjects: celebrity. This time around, his lyrics are filled with vitriol, singing "we will never be rid of these stars / but I hope they live forever." It's a welcome return from a man who's own celebrity and his relationship to it are always evolving.

26. "Brave," Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles is not cool. Her brand of piano-based pop has been out of style since at least 2008, and since then she's been branded with the label "secretary rock." "Brave" is not necessarily a cool song, either, though it's by far the closest she's come to making a mainstream pop song. But it's also one of her best, the earnestness in her voice selling the be-yourself message much better than Katy Perry's over-processed "Roar" does. It may not the kind of song that'll top the lists of "hip" critics and music blogs, but this is fine, unabashed pop.

Numbers 25 - 1 after the break.

25. "The One That Got Away," the Civil Wars

Just when it seemed that the Civil Wars were set to rule the country world, news broke late last year that the duo were taking an indefinite hiatus, citing creative differences. When their self-titled sophomore album came out this year, it looked dark. "The One That Got Away" is a bitter send-off, a goodbye dipped in acid as Joy Williams and John Paul White harmonize "I wish you were the one who got away." Luckily, their acrimony produced this haunting number for us to enjoy.

24. "Wrecking Ball," Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus' year has certainly been…eventful. But through all the European (alleged) weed smoking and grinding on Betelgeuse, what she should be remembered for is singing the year's best power-pop ballad. It's easily the best vocal performance that Cyrus has recorded yet, and the emotion behind her belting proves that she has what it takes to hold her own against the pop elite. This is the song that really proved how much she's grown these past few years.

23. "My Song 5," Haim

Haim were among the buzziest new indie pop bands of the year, and though their debut album Days Gone By has no shortage of great songs, "My Song 5" stands out. With a constantly shifting beat accented by whomping brass and scuzzy guitar, this kiss-off is loaded with you-don't-own-me attitude ("honey you're not my honey pie"). Haim proved themselves masters of several different styles, and this one suits them well.

22. "Wildest Moments," Jessie Ware

Technically, "Wildest Moments" is from 2012, but it only really made an impact stateside this year. And what a year: in a year full of British R&B/electronica/pop divas, Jessie Ware stood out with this simple ode to a lover who brings out the best and worst in each of them. It's a stunningly gorgeous song, thanks to Ware's full, warm voice that nonetheless seems to be tinged with pain and weariness. This was a terrific introduction to her talent.

21. "3005," Childish Gambino

I don't know how many Community fans are out there reading this, but I for one am glad that Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is taking on a reduced role on the show to focus on his music career. "3005," from his sophomore album Because the Internet, is a bouncy, bass-heavy jam that showcases his playful flow and clever rhymes while being accessible and fun. Gambino is a mashup of various influences, but it's here that he comes off as wholly himself.

20. "Save Rock & Roll," Fall Out Boy featuring Elton John

Fall Out Boy set themselves up for backlash when they named their poppiest set yet Save Rock & Roll. Yet the titular, closing track on the album explains the sentiment: they're not saving the genre for the world, just for themselves. "You are what you love, not who loves you," Patrick Stump croons, and he's never sounded so simultaneously defiant and hopeful. When his voice blends with Elton John's on the final refrains, it just may make you a believer in rock & roll again - or at least in Fall Out Boy.

19. "Collard Greens," ScHoolboy Q featuring Kendrick Lamar

Of the Black Hippy crew, Kendrick Lamar is the one who broke out the biggest (and deservedly so). But ScHoolboy Q deserves his fair due as well, and "Collard Greens" is a great example of what he can. Sure, Lamar delivers a typically twisty and incredible verse (some of it en EspaƱol), but this is Q's song, and he brings his confident flow to the pounding beat with vigorous energy. Hopefully more widespread fame will follow for him as well.

18. "Doin' It Right," Daft Punk featuring Panda Bear

Though Random Access Memories was an album tinged in disco throwback (see #5), one of the album's standouts was the simple, thudding ditty. What really elevates this exercise in 808 bliss is Panda Bear's warm, soulful voice; it breaks through the AutoTuned "doing it rights" and fat beats like a burst of sunshine. That's not a knock against the robots, though: this song will work its way into your brain and take up residence quickly.

17. "Let the Groove Get In," Justin Timberlake

After seven years absent from the music scene, Justin Timberlake returned with not one but two new albums, The 20/20 Experience. Part One was a noodling, experimental soul journey, and the highlight was this Latin-flavored boogie jam. Over stuttering percussion and blasts of horns, Timberlake gives us reason to give ourselves over to the music and dance the night away. It was never destined to be a pop hit the way "Mirrors" was, but it's worth listening to all the same.

16. "Wildfire," John Mayer featuring Frank Ocean

On his studio debut, Channel Orange, last year, Frank Ocean turned over 88 seconds of the album to John Mayer and his guitar on the track "White" (Mayer also did uncredited guitar work on "Pyramids"). On Mayer's latest, Paradise Valley, he returns the favor, letting Ocean riff on a subdued variation of "Wildfire." It's very short - it almost sounds like something Ocean would have posted on his Tumblr late one night. Yet you won't find a lovelier 1:26 this year.

15. "Step," Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend's latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, was a sonic departure from the Ladysmith Black Mambazo by-way-of Brooklyn sound of their previous work. The highlight was "Step," a glockenspiel-laced track that features some of lead songwriter Ezra Koenig's most clever and heartfelt lyrics to date. If a modern band could be the Paul Simon for the millennial generation, Vampire Weekend has made their case for the honor here.

14. "Sacrilege," Yeah Yeah Yeahs

What's most remarkable about this song from New York art-punk trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs is that, despite its title, there's a holy fervor in Karen O's voice. She sings about a lover who seems heaven sent, and the song's slow build gives their mounting passion momentum until finally, the gospel choir comes in and O wails "I plead and I pray" with come-to-God conviction. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally came back this year; hopefully they won't say away so long again.

13. "Hold On, We're Going Home," Drake

Drake is, and should be, primarily known for his introspective, often painfully so, rapping. Every once in a while, though, he simply croons, as he does on "Hold On, We're Going Home." The '80s-inflected beat, reminiscent of perhaps Bad-era Michael Jackson, is instantly catchy, and Drake's soulful vocals are among the best he's ever put to record. It's not going to win over any of his detractors, but it does prove there's so much more to him, and cements him as one of today's most fascinating and unpredictable working rappers.

12. "1 Train," A$AP Rocky featuring Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T.

If A$AP Rocky's studio debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP., didn't exactly set the rap world on fire this year, it should be remembered for unleashing an undeniably talented MC into the mainstream. The centerpiece of the album was this posse track, a summit of some of mixtape rap's brightest stars unleashing their various styles over a thudding, string-laden beat. Everyone delivers a stunning verse, but it's the ferocity of Big K.R.I.T.'s closer that demonstrates the treasures of "underground" rap (as well as the depths of A$AP Rocky's connections).

11. "Recover," CHVRCHES

This Scottish electro-pop outfit had a major breakout this year, and "Recover" was a big reason why. It's a perfect primer for getting into the band: the lush, magnificent beat is matched by singer Lauren Mayberry's gorgeous voice describing the end of a relationship and the pain on both sides. It's a complex and intimate look at relationships that the band would explore on other songs (see #2), but "Recover" is the one that grabbed people's attention early.

10. "Primetime," Janelle Monae featuring Miguel

Janelle Monae's new album, The Electric Lady, found her jumping through all manners of R&B styles, from Prince-like funk to sock-hop pop. The best song, though, is this slinky, sexy duet with Miguel. Their voices blend together beautifully, and the thrilling guitar coda make this a damn near perfect love song. For all of her futurist, gender-bending concepts, it turns out Monae is at her best when she's tapping into her humanity.

9. "Clarity," Zedd featuring Foxes

This was the perfect alchemy of pop and EDM: an otherworldly beat from acclaimed DJ Zedd paired with the howling melodrama of Foxes' lyrics and vocals. What's incredible is how this club-ready banger carries such a strong emotional undercurrent, particularly in the build: the "ohhhh-ohhhhs" slowly rising, culminating in Foxes' impassioned, heaven-help-me cry "why are you my clarity." Then the beat drops, and dance-floor transcendence is achieved. It's impossible not to like.

8. "Sirens," Pearl Jam

It seems amazing that Pearl Jam has managed to survive the end of grunge and continue to make music today. What's even more incredible is how great they still are. "Sirens," the standout track from their great album Lightning Bolt, is a classic PJ power ballad, and it sounds like a long-lost gem from the band's early-1990s heyday. As Eddie Vedder launches into the stirring chorus, he's never sounded better. Nobody would have expected Pearl Jam to put out one of their best songs long after grunge's popularity faded. Yet "Sirens" is.

7. "400 Lux," Lorde

"Royals" was the enormous pop smash. But take a look at the rest of Lorde's debut, Pure Heroine, and you'll find melancholic pop gems like "400 Lux." The song's a reminiscence of being young and doing nothing, but Lorde's sharp lyrics are what set it apart: "we're empty like the bottles that we drain," she sighs at one point, while remarking "I love these moments where the houses don't change." It's a feeling that anyone who's been young and alone can attest to.

6. "Black Skinhead," Kanye West

With Yeezus, Kanye West created an album that dared people to try to enjoy it. Doing so was no easy feat, but "Black Skinhead" is the most accessible song on the album, and also the most representative of West's intentions. It's a three-minute burst of West's wrath, as he raps some of his most charged lyrics ("They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor / They gone come to kill King Kong") and unleashes primal screams over an angry Marilyn Manson-esque beat. We're used to West's ego, but this was his id unleashed.

5. "Get Lucky," Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rogers

The Daft Punk comeback could have ended just with this first single and still have been one of the greatest musical events of the year. The year was stacked with great disco throwbacks, but none were as infectious and giddy as "Get Lucky." Riding a funky groove that sounds like it was brought in directly from 1978 (no doubt the touch of Chic guitarist Nile Rogers), everyone's favorite robots jam out, while Pharrell Williams makes the unlikely transition from producer/rapper to slinky singer. The chorus is the most joyous pop earworm of the year. No wonder pretty much everyone covered it this summer.

4. "Graceless," the National

On their last album, 2010's High Violet, "Bloodbuzz Ohio" was the song that proved everything the National was capable. "Graceless" is the follow-up to that song, in spirit if not in content. Over a propulsive beat laced with haunting guitars, singer Matt Berninger's melodic baritone croons some of his strongest lyrics to date, even including a little wry humor ("God loves everybody / Don't remind me"). But it's when the band reaches the explosive chorus that he hits his stride ("I am not my rosy self / Lay my roses on the shelf"), and the result is pure musical bliss.

3. "Afterlife," Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire is a band that has had plenty of songs that were capable of shaking arenas ("Wake Up," "No Cars Go"). But until this year's Reflektor, they'd never really made music you could actually dance to. "Afterlife" combines the catharsis of those earlier songs with their new, Haiti-inspired dance grooves, resulting in a propulsive reflection on life ("your love is gone / where did it go?") that's as haunting as it is soul-cleansing. It's the kind of song that stays with you long after it's over. Plus, it had this amazing Spike Jonze-directed performance featuring Greta Gerwig.

2. "We Sink," CHVRCHES

Here's a perfect example of what set CHVRCHES apart from other indie pop outfits this year: this driving, busy song makes an excellent point about the nature of serious relationships and how you never fully "get over" someone. As she sings to the lover who's jilted her, "I'll be the thorn in your side / For always;" those people we really love are always a part of us. The fact that this emotional profundity is married to such a danceable, exciting track just makes the case even more that CHVRCHES are an indelible act.

1. "The Wire," Haim

The breakup anthem of the year wasn't recorded by Taylor Swift ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" has nothing on "The Wire"). Instead, it was done by these three L.A. sisters, who trade harmonies over a track that sounds like a lost '80s gem. It has everything you could hope for: great guitar licks, delicious lyrics, beautiful vocals, and that pounding beat that was made for dancing around your bedroom and singing into your hairbrush. Quite simply, there was no other song this year that was this much fun.

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