I considered breaking with form and giving this post the name “My 16 Favorite Songs of 2013”. As I alluded to in Part One of this series, however, this list of songs could easily change if I compiled it tomorrow, and I’m already staring at changes I wish I would have made before drawing this Top 16 up. But at this point, we can’t go back. We also can’t fall any further if WE CAN’T FEEEEEL ORDINARY LOVE. (And no, U2 at its generically U2-iest did not make this list.)
Here at Kevin Reviews Things, we make those tough decisions on your behalf. We whittle down a year’s worth of fantastic music to just 16 shining moments. And we continue to refer to one person as if he was a group of people.
Let’s start the countdown – My 16 Favorite Songs of 2013, at this particular moment in time:
16. CHVRCHES, “Recover”
Ask me tomorrow and this spot might go to “The Mother We Share” – but you’re not asking me tomorrow, are you? (What’s that? You’re not asking me at all? Oh.) The second spot for CHVRCHES on the list starts our 16 ranked songs thanks to another glittery vocal from Lauren Mayberry, singing so sweetly that you just want to hug her. It’s soft but sharp electro-pop bliss, elevated to another level by Mayberry’s vocals, which switch from nearly pleading to putting her foot down in the same chorus. “And if I recover”, she asks, “will you be my comfort?” Yes, Lauren. Yes, we will.
15. Drake feat. Majid Jordan, “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Even Kanye West might not have realized how his least-critically-acclaimed album would change the game. 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, where Kanye poured his heart out to a mixture of Auto-Tune singing and drum machines, seemed jarringly out of place at the time. Just over five years later, we have the most recent host and musical guest of SNL singing “Heartless” at karaoke. The game’s been changed – and Drake may be the new leader of hip-hop’s synth-driven, heartfelt movement, putting together an atmospheric, soulful work with “Hold On, We’re Going Home”, which eclipsed just about anything on pop radio this year. It’s no surprise Drake’s on record as wanting the song to be “timeless” and played at weddings – this is a song you could stick right into the 1970s, and it wouldn’t sound out of place.
14. Foals, “Inhaler”
After an airy, tension-filled start to “Prelude”, the opening track on British rockers Foals’ terrific third album Holy Fire, the band kicks into overdrive with “Inhaler”, a buzzy, bursting number that explodes in the chorus like a bottle of Diet Coke mixed with Mentos. This is rhythmically mesmerizing stuff, with vocalist Yannis Philippakis seemingly threatening to tear his vocal chords out time after time. Jack Bevan’s drum line sets the pace before occasionally kicking into action for an extra adrenaline shot – not that the song needs it. But Foals’ desire to spiral higher and higher into organized chaos turns “Inhaler” into an unforgettable showstopper.
13. Phosphorescent, “Song For Zula”
Says Matthew Houck, the man behind Phosphorescent, of Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, “that record sounds very moon-bouncy to me…I got the underwater floatiness that I wanted there.” We could say the same about Muchacho, the 2013 Phosphorescent release inspired by Eno, which is fronted by the exquisitely gorgeous “Song For Zula”, a vividly descriptive six-minute ode to the heartbreaking power of love. “I know love as a caging thing/Just a killer come to call from some awful dream”, Houck sighs over a lush wall of sound, in a devastating song that would turn poetry teachers to mush. “I will not open myself up this way again”, sings Houck, and even if this is the last time we explore this personal of a touch from Phosphorescent, it’s a breathtaking achievement.
12. Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
I rarely channel-surf. I have no interest on picking up a show or a movie from some arbitrary midpoint, so I prefer to watch TV only at scheduled times or check something out on Netflix. The last time I randomly scrolled through my Channel Guide, though, the universe rewarded me by settling on The Late Show with David Letterman just in time for a performance by a young woman named Sky Ferreira. Four minutes and one “You’re Not The One” later, it was love at first song – and the relationship continues with the third and final song from Ferreira’s extraordinary freshman release, Night Time, My Time. “I Blame Myself” is as bitingly personal as anything on this or any list, with Ferreira pointedly asking us “is it because you know my name? Or is it because you saw my face on the cover?” “How could you know what it feels like to face the hounds of hell?”, she continues, refusing to shy away from a past that includes some public troubles. And as always, Ferreira’s vocal delivery is sharp enough to make us feel like we’re standing right near the microphone in the recording studio. I can’t wait for what she does next.
11. The Joy Formidable, “Maw Maw Song”
Before Ritzy Bryan begins singing the first verse in “Maw Maw Song”, we’ve gone through a musical minute that tops just about everything else this year. An opening piano riff that sounds like it’s been filtered through a flute gives way to a brief buildup of drums, followed by the most awesomely bizarre musical moment of Wolf’s Law – the band members snarling like cats over the song’s instrumental hook. They simply can’t restrain themselves from further histrionics – and with a whoosh around the 45-second mark, it’s all gone, making room for a pulsating background that leads us, finally, to actual English words. A few maw-infused choruses, surging tone shifts and an epic prog-rock guitar breakdown later, I find myself at the mercy of anything and everything Joy Formidable, having succumbed to the most glorious six minutes and 48 seconds’ worth of my favorite album of 2013.
T-9. Arctic Monkeys, “Do I Wanna Know?”
Arctic Monkeys, “R U Mine?”
Friend of the blog Dan Kaplan put it best in his review of the year’s best albums – I’d been kind of ignoring Arctic Monkeys for a while, not out of dislike, but out of general disinterest. That all changed with this year’s AM, which stakes a claim as perhaps the group’s best album right from its opening late-night, bar-stomper of a single, “Do I Wanna Know?”, and continuing with the musically and vocally dizzying track two, “R U Mine?” I listened to this two songs in tandem throughout the final third of the year, and since I make the rules here, there’s absolutely no way I can separate them. Structurally, they’re the album’s first two singles (“R U Mine?” was originally released as a single way back in February 2012) and first two tracks, and both feature question marks in the title. Sonically, though, they’re polar opposites. “Do I Wanna Know?” sways between Alex Turner’s satisfied swagger and withering self-confidence in a hazy, post-dance floor setting, while “R U Mine?” is all mischief and winking madness (“I’m a puppet on a string/Tracy Island”), zig-zagging through its 3:22 running time. They’re inseparable in my mind – may they be forever inseparable in yours.
8. Pearl Jam, “Sirens”
I’ve spoken quite a bit about the vocal delivery of lyrics on those blog, with a particular nod to Sky Ferreira. But with all due respect to Ms. Ferreira, Eddie Vedder is our unquestioned winner of Best Emotional Vocal Delivery in 2013, leading a haunting ballad, “Sirens”, that may drive you to tears if you’re not careful. This is love, folks. “Let my catch my breath to breathe, then reach across the bend/Just to know we’re safe, I am a grateful man.” Sniff. And that ending. “The fear goes away”, repeated over and over and over until you just can’t deal with this song with dry eyes anymore…I saw somebody earlier this year say that Pearl Jam should only write ballads. While I quite enjoy the harder songs, I’d still be fine with that, so long as those ballads are one-third as affecting as “Sirens”. It’s tender perfection in musical form.
7. Kurt Vile, “KV Crimes”
Kurt Vile sounds like your average acoustic-guitar stoner guy on first blush. On second blush, it’s apparent we’re dealing with a musical force far beyond that generic description. Vile’s guitar licks, knack for melody and sly, wordy witticisms dominate his super album Wakin On a Pretty Daze, with album standout “KV Crimes” featuring the album’s best guitar hook and some wonderfully relaxed vocal lines. “I should have known”, drawls Vile, “my heart has overgrown/’do you risk it exploding all over?'” Vile’s having all sorts of fun without needing to shout or amplify the volume to do so, and the result’s a slow burn of satisfaction.
6. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
I would like to begin this section by quoting a wonderful writer, masterful reviewer and all-around great guy: me. This is from yesterday’s “Normal Person” review: “Arcade Fire’s Reflektor unravels a bit in its second half under a mix of every instrument under the Sun – but good grief, that first half!” I agree, Kevin! Reflektor‘s total track lives up to every bit of hype that surrounded Arcade Fire after its guerilla marketing campaign and wait for a follow-up to Grammy-Album-of-the-Year The Suburbs, with seven blissful minutes of conga drums, saxophones, piano solos, breakdowns on breakdowns and backup vocals from DAVID FREAKING BOWIE! Was there a cooler musical moment this year than listening to “Reflektor”, thinking “boy, that sounds like David Bowie” and then realizing it actually IS David Bowie? …well, probably, but that was pretty damn cool.
5. Nine Inch Nails, “Came Back Haunted”
In 2009, Trent Reznor stated “it’s time to make NIN disappear for a while”, after releasing three albums of the band’s material in two years. Over the next three-and-a-half years, he…deep breath…got married, formed How To Destroy Angels with his wife, produced and won an Oscar for The Social Network‘s score with Atticus Ross, scored The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, appeared in Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City while writing a song for the soundtrack with Grohl and Josh Homme, contributed to Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork, teamed with Dr. Dre and Beats Electronics for a streaming music project and did whatever else I’m forgetting that Alex Brewer will surely post in the comments.
June 2013, thankfully, was time to make Nine Inch Nails reappear for a while, and Reznor responded with the group’s best track in…eight years? 14 years? Whatever the time frame, “Came Back Haunted” launched NIN back into the musical world in a way that wildly impressed even the most fervor Reznor-heads. There’s just about nobody better-equipped to go soft-to-loud than Reznor, with his whirlwind of electronic samples, screaming guitars and powerfully varied voice. He’s a man changed from the one that temporarily destructed his group four years ago… (“Saw some things on the other side”)…but maybe not that changed. (“Made me promise to never tell/but you know me, I can’t help myself.”)
4. Kanye West, “Black Skinhead”
“Came Back Haunted”, our previous pick, is a Nine Inch Nails song. Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”, our next pick, merely sounds like a Nine Inch Nails song. It’s unlike anything we’ve heard from West before – as is, frankly, most of Yeezus – and comparisons to Reznor’s industrial-rock mantra are totally valid. With a tribal chant and heavy breaths dominating the soundscape, this is West in a different zone from the rest of the musical world, racing through his mind at “500” miles per hour, “possessed”, “an omen”. It’s an absolute shot of adrenaline, a thrill ride that threatens to slice off the track at every right angle before jolting its passengers back for the grand finale. And what a finale it is: Kanye reaching deeper and deeper into his guttural voice, chanting “GOD” with pleading abandon, as he sets up for a direct discussion in the album’s next track. Ultimately, if you hate Kanye West, you’ll never want to hear “Black Skinhead” again. If you love him, you’ll bang out the drum beats, howl at the moon and watch that Wolf of Wall Street trailer over and over again for the rest of your life.
3. Jake Bugg, “Lightning Bolt”
Am I cheating with this pick? Yes, I’m absolutely cheating. “Lightning Bolt” was released as a UK single on April 27th…2012. Jake Bugg, the album that features this song, was released in the UK on October 15th…2012. BUT – loophole alert! Bugg didn’t make its way stateside until April of this year; therefore, “Lightning Bolt” makes this year’s list and not last year’s. (Never mind the fact that there was no list last year. NEVER MIND, I SAID!) And here on this list, “Lightning Bolt” is the best pure rock and roll song of them all, clocking in at a mere two minutes and 24 seconds, and using each and every one of those songs to blaze full speed ahead and blast your roofs into another dimension. Bugg – who’s only 19 now, meaning he was probably 17 when he wrote this song – brings to mind a little Dylan here, a little Gallagher brothers there, and a whole lot of songwriting chops all over. This is turbocharged, electric rock-and-freaking-roll, folks. No synths, no loops, no beats. Sit back and let your mind do everything but relax.
2. Washed Out, “All I Know”
I went back through the rest of this post before getting to this section – because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t yet used the word “beautiful”. I hadn’t. And I’m glad, because it wouldn’t be fair to Ernest Greene, a.k.a. Washed Out, to compare, even by a single word, any other song from this year to “All I Know” – a majestic, sweeping, can-this-be-real? offering of music you’d be honored to even dream about. Perhaps “heartbreakingly beautiful” is the appropriate term, considering the chorus: “In the silence I hear your fading call/In your eyes I see and feel it all/In my mind I try to let go/It’s so hard cause you’re all I know”. It’s difficult to even imagine a relationship that could inspire this level of otherworldly musical power. “All I Know” might be the best U2 song released in a decade – it’s just masked behind a wall of chillwave, but if you listen, you can practically hear Bono and The Edge nodding their silent approval.
1. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers, “Get Lucky”
You can certainly make an argument for another song as the #1 song of 2013. You’ll just be wrong. We’ve already anointed 2013 as the Year of Pharrell, and yet “Blurred Lines” – which topped the U.S. charts for 12 consecutive weeks (12!!) – is only his second-greatest contribution. “Get Lucky” may not have surpassed Robin Thicke’s runaway smash on the Billboard charts, but it’s #1 with a bullet in our hearts. This song is so effortlessly brilliant, it sounds as if the entire thing was conceived in one revolutionary dream and then cut to tape immediately after. Nile Rodgers’ funk-tastic guitar riff, Pharrell’s joyously light vocals, the wondrous beeps in the outro – it’s all perfection. The guitar riff and the chorus, in particular, are destined to dwell in our collective human memory (random…access…memory? Eh?) for the eternity of time.
tl;dr “Get Lucky” is the funkiest, catchiest, happiest, best piece of music this year. End of story. Good night.