And here’s the Top 10 of the Best Songs of 2013! If you want to check out everything in one place, go visit the Spotify Playlist with all these songs. Thanks again for reading and listening along!
10. I Should Live in Salt by The National – I’ve found that The National are an all-or-nothing experience for many people, and the crux of the argument (for either side) is the baritone voice of Matt Berninger (it’s either a loaded powerhouse or brutally boring). The band isn’t especially flashy, so it’s all about the details. A typical album is full of slow-burn songs that have wrecked emotional cores built around curious lyrical observations and haunting instrumentation. In the context of The National, “Salt” is a showstopper, dripping with regret and held up by dark drum tones. If you aren’t a fan of the band, there’s probably no convincing you at this point. If you’re without opinion, give this one a try and hold on for the first instance of the refrain. It’s brutally beautiful.
09. White Noise by Disclosure – This is the best Daft Punk song of the year. “Get Lucky” and the other disco revival fare is catchy, sure. Meanwhile, Settle has everything I was hoping for in a true Discovery successor. Relentless beats makes “White Noise” pitch-perfect dancing music and the electronic winner of the year. I’m sure you’ve seen praise for “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” the bare-bones sibling of “White Noise.” This track makes my list for being more fleshed out, a bigger statement with better (and more memorable) singing.
08. Sacrilege by Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Sacrilege” manages to be the best YYYs song in some time because their singer is allowed to inhabit her entire spectrum. The greatest Karen O performances are captivating, terrifying, and pull your sympathy (often all at once). Here’s she’s quietly cooing one verse before screaming the next, a wonderful display of range. Of course, the YYYs aren’t a one trick band, and a memorable melody keeps the song in your mind hours after the sub-four minute playtime. Led by a wandering guitar line and a gospel choir, “Sacrilege” is miraculously on-point and avoids bloat despite all the ingredients in play.
07. Awkward by San Cisco – I am a damn sucker for perfect power pop (so much so that you’ll find another entry from this genre in the top 3). Jangling guitars, medium-fast temp, boy-girl singing blend, unintrusive-but-essential drumming below the fray. Yep, check all those boxes. It’s catchy, charming pop and that’s already a good start. “Awkward” is elevated further by its personality, as the chemistry of the aforementioned singers drives them away and together. The content is reasonably simple, but it plays perfectly.
06. Stay (originally performed by Rihanna) by Low – Grab a box of tissues, maybe a pint of ice cream (or a drink to cry into?), curl up on the cough. It’s sad-times you guys, but also haunting grace. “Stay” is the sound of two voices sharing a desperate cry for each other. “I want you to stay” doesn’t seem overtly touching when read in text form. Mimi Parker sells it completely, laying her soul bare with every strained line. I’ll admit ignorance of the original version before hearing Low’s “Stay” on the radio, but I now believe that the indie band cover is the definitive take.
05. Collard Greens (feat. Kendrick Lamar) by Schoolboy Q – It starts with that bass, reason along to listen to the song. It’s that same two bars repeated over and over, as it drive and bores into your ears, into your mind. And then the actual verses happen. Kendrick Lamar’s dazzling skill is on display in his appearance, but Schoolboy Q manages to summon your whole attention during the rest of the song. His distinctive delivery and voice sell some great storytelling. I think the right word for all this is “entrancing.” Don’t skip this song.
04. Ain’t That the Way by Divine Fits – The original Divine Fits songs were good (especially “Would That Not be Nice”), but their debut was stuck alternating between synth-rock songs and Spoon-copy material. Their 2013 double-single fixes the division, and the resulting sound is a band growing together. Suddenly synth tendencies and warm guitars are partners inside songs. “Chained to Love” is a great song, but “Ain’t That the Way” is the winner thanks to the typically-perfect singing of Britt Daniel. Yes, Spoon fans will enjoy this song. The better news is that any music fan should find some joy here.
03. Is This How You Feel? by The Preatures – Pitchfork had it right when they shared this track. Writer Mark Pytlik noted the song “explodes into one of the year’s best choruses.” And that is the draw, of course. It’s a perfect-pop relative to “Awkward” (the no. 6 song on this list), and the same superlatives apply. Jangling guitars, great singing, a perfect bouncing rhythm. But man alive, that chorus. Every time it plays, it just blows me away. In particular, that last go-around really hits it home as the singer digs in deeper, straining to ask “Is this how you feel baby?” An absolute gem of a song.
02. Heavy Feet by Local Natives – It’s hard to explain exactly what makes “Heavy Feet” such a great song. I think a starting point is the craft involved from Local Natives. They’ve managed to distill and polish the best elements of their genre. Yeah, it’s that whole jangle guitar/emotive lyrics indie thing, but it’s near-perfect here. And at the apex is this song’s refrain. The band harmonizes around the reflective phrase “After everything,” perhaps considering the loss of a loved one. It’s a gorgeous and touching moment each time they revisit the section, and it holds up just as well after one listen or 180. This is the cornerstone to a brilliant album.
01. Song for Zula by Phosphorescent – “Song for Zula” makes you feel. On a musical level, it gets to you with faint echos of strings and guitars that float in and out of focus throughout the song. It’s all carefully arranged, undulating above an echoing bass and carrying along throughout. And then your attention turns to the delicate singing of Matthew Houck, his voice seemingly moments away from emotional breakdown… until it becomes clear that he’s fighting to not be pitied.
It begins with a nod to “Ring of Fire,” but Houck quickly turns the story away. “Oh but I know love is a fading thing / Just as fickle as a feather in a stream.” Houck has been hurt, maybe betrayed. “Yeah, then I saw love disfigure me,” he tells us, even describing love as “Just a killer come to call from some awful dream.” And his response to the pain of love? Solitude. “I will not open myself up this way again,” he affirms. His smoldering response finishes as the song closes, explain to “all you folks, you come to see,” telling us that “I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.”
He’s offering a threat, but it also betrays the key problem for the singer: he’s not free and his fiery words are toothless. Yes, this quiet and reflective song is brutally angry at its core. It’s about the loss of love, but it’s a love that Houck is trapped within. It’s about regret and deep, deep sorrow. It’s also the most striking song of 2013, totally different from any other song I heard in 2013 both in sonic and lyrical content. The peculiar blend of exquisite composition and narrative of ensnared rage are unforgettable.
“Song for Zula” is my pick for the best song of 2013, but it’s not to be taken lightly. You’ll be swept into its amazing reach, and it’s worth the ride.