Feature: The 40 Best Songs of 2013 – Part One: 40-21


FEATURE: The 40 Best Songs of 2013 – Part One: 40-21

by Chad Jewett and Trevor Johnson

40) “Pusher Love Girl” Justin Timberlake
Look, you can think of the very idea of placing a Justin Timberlake track at the tail end of a “Best Songs of the Year” list as some sort of intervention. I won’t fight you on it, and indeed, in a year where Timberlake put out over twenty songs, and only about eight of them were good, I think he could use a wakeup call as much as we could all use a bit of painful honesty. It’s the first step in the healing process. If you had told me in 2007 that Justin Timberlake, he of “SexyBack,” “Cry Me A River,” and “My Love,” would release an album whose singles were so bad that I wouldn’t even impulse-buy 20/20 Experience Part 2 at Target, I’d have said you were crazy. But here we are, and even though “Pusher Love Girl” is a gorgeous, no-expense-spared, luxury-appointed pop-soul song, one that integrates every piece of technology and craft developed in the last half-century of pop music (great bass, thrill-ride-giddy auto-tune, confectioner-sweet production flare), I can’t help but deduct points for Justin’s botched handling of the “Take Back The Night” situation (my suggestion: make it a stand-alone single, donate all the money to the deserving Take Back The Night organization, be everyone’s hero) or the botched handling of keeping Jay Z’s “Suit & Tie” verse (ugh). “Pusher Love Girl” is smarter than “Suit & Tie,” more interesting than “Mirrors,” and the one song that doesn’t feel like a let down after the achievement of FutureSex/LoveSounds. But really, I have to stop before the falsetto on the chorus (“’Cuz all I want is you baby”) breaks my resolve and I make this song like, number three or something. It’s tough love Justin, please don’t make this harder than it already is. – CJ

39) “Roar” Katy Perry
“Teenage Dream” it is not. It’s probably not even “Firework;” but everything that “Roar” is allowed Katy Perry to resume her mantle as the Princess of Summer Pop. While Perry’s albums always come across as collages of her fans’ myriad musical tastes, her singles are always the proper representation of her abilities. “Roar” smartly follows the same formula as “Teenage Dream;” its catchiness starts in the pre-chorus – that simple, perfectly placed “Hey!” that just barely eeks out the “y” sound – the fall into the gigantic chorus and then the post-chorus, the expansion on the already good idea. In this case, it’s “uh-uh-uh-oa-ooh-oar.” That, the ability to rhyme “heart racing” with “skin-tight jeans,” is what keeps Katy Perry from being just another pleasantly ignorable pop act. -TJ

38) “Night Still Comes” Neko Case
I always end up binging on at least one song annually purely on the strength of the chorus. There were a few this year (“Wild for the Night,” “Becoming the Gunship”), but no track exemplified the literal definition of “hook” quite like “Night Still Comes,” the second track from Neko Case’s enigmatic The More I Love You…. Featuring the boozy lilt of vintage Stax/Muscle Shoals soul with some serious harmonies “Night Still Comes” makes you realize just how quickly you’d race to the Amazon Pre-Order page if Case ever got around to a Frank Black/Elvis Costello-style rhythm & blues throwback LP. While The More I Love You… is largely quite exemplary of Case’s knack for misdirection and oblique approaches (the tunes are catchy, but almost never easily so), there is something undeniable about the sheer, muscular melody of “Night Still Comes,” though Neko gets to comment on how unusual the directness of the tune is with the very words she delivers so infectiously: “You never it held it at the right angle.” Oddly enough, it’s in the moments where she points out this tendency toward angularity that Neko Case gives us her greatest blunt-force melody. – CJ

37) “Breakers” Local Natives
In way too many cases, developing something smooth, something inviting, out of the instrumental and vocal chaos that acts similar to Local Natives employ from song to song can seem as futile as toying with that soaked match. “Breakers,” with all its moving parts, offers little more than a scoff at such difficulty. Across two albums now, Local Natives have been fine with getting you in the door with their musicianship. They want to keep you with their songcraft. As the climax rips through anxious lyrics – “Breathing out, hoping to breathe in / I know nothing’s wrong but I’m not convinced” – they’re laid over soothing coos. Sour and sweet: enjoyed as the latter with ignorance to the former. – TJ

36) “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” Arcade Fire
While “Afterlife” obviously takes blue ribbon in the “Crying-in-the-Disco” contest (more on that later), “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is stiff competition. Those whispery back-up voices, Régine Chassagne’s high-wire desperation, all set to a four-on-the-floor shimmy that lets the beat drop out just in time for Win Butler’s entrance, and just in time for you to pay too-close attention to lyrics that contemplate the peril and promise of our dearest and direst emotions. Throw in that this is the most audibly James Murphy-esque production (the harmonies at the 4:30 mark, pushed to the forefront, the plastic-y keys, the Bowie-specific mix of major and minor) and you have one of the most indispensable tracks on a double LP that is very much dependent on the way its pieces add up. – CJ
(Check out our review of Arcade FIre’s Reflektor here.)

35) “Low F” Superchunk
Mac McCaughn seems to have a never-ending supply of perfect, nostalgic love songs based around the smallest events. “Low F” takes its place in line with the likes of “Driveway to Driveway” and “Watery Hands” — songs about those moments through life that are so rarely written about because they’re quick, not because they’re unimportant. But Mac captures something as simple as being caught singing to himself, and before he can be embarrassed, he’s greeted with a willing duet partner, waiting for the right moment to join in (that moment being the low F note). A small laugh and a smile, a look away and a look back. Hopefully you have a few memories like this with your significant other. “Low F” is how we catch back up with them. – TJ

34) “A Dime is a Titan” Two Knights
It’s 2013, and talking too much about the influence of Mike Kinsella on certain wings of indie rock is like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube. So thank god for bands like Two Knights, who are making the twinkle and shimmer of the math-y, Chicago sound of contemporary emo work in a variety of new settings. In the case of “A Dime is a Titan,” that means letting the amazing drum work of Miles DeBruin do a lot of the talking, especially at the song’s opening verse, where Parker Lawson’s near-jazz-like fretwork is allowed to bounce, the duo finding a groove where most bands might have been satisfied with cerebral algebra. The song covers an amazing amount of ground in its brief two minutes, ending with a rousing coda, set to Parker’s pleading, “You shouldn’t be alone,” capping off an album that manages to feel both strikingly adolescent in its emotional spectrum yet surprisingly adult in its ability to understand where too many dudes would be cool to just blame. – CJ
(Check out our thoughts on Two Knights and the Emo Renaissance here.)

33) “The Shaking of Leaves” Into It. Over It.
When you lose someone close, you will forget about it. That is, there will be moments when that person isn’t on your mind, and then quickly, they are. Things will snap back in a few dream-like seconds: “I should call him/her,” a thought not even completed before realizing your folly. Evan Weiss gives us a heartbreaking recollection of just such a moment on “The Shaking of Leaves.” Weiss combines the subject matter with a beautiful, even haunting, collection of keys, guitars and percussion that properly supports the song’s lyrical weight. “Leaves” has you reeling by its conclusion, not from over the top theatrics, but the ability for one man to encapsulate in song just how hard it is to ever come to terms with the sudden departure of a good friend. It’s a song that hopefully most will enjoy from an observer’s prospective and through which those that know the feeling will take solace. – TJ
(Check out our review of Into It. Over It’s Intersections here.)

32) “Wave Forms” Islands
There are a few too many moments on Ski Mask, Islands’ fifth album, that sound like writer’s block. But even a (self-admittedly) frustrated Nick Thorburn is good for at least one brainy pop confection, and “Wave Forms” is it. Synthesizing the digital neon jitters of the band’s high-water mark, Vapours, with the pop-Africana of Return to the Sea (check the marimba!), along with a call-and-response hook that has Thorburn bouncing between harmonies and a falsetto other-self, Islands’ songcraft is still undeniable when working at full capacity. You find yourself wishing they still gave MacArthur genius grants to popular artists so that Thorburn and company could make a worry-free record, one where the legacy of Unicorns and the fickle-but-lucrative attentions of indie-dom wouldn’t be a factor. As it stands you almost feel like the artist-formerly-known-as-Nick-Diamonds tends to block his own shots trying to balance his pop-making abilities with the frustrations of shifting trends and market shares, even if his best songs, like “Wave Forms,” feel effortless in their ability to connect and captivate. – CJ

31) “A Detailed and Poetic Physical Threat…” Pet Symmetry
Jesus Christ, that title is way too long for me to attempt. Thankfully, the song itself is so much simpler in all the best ways. Pet Symmetry probably didn’t get the attention and praise they deserved this year but that seems understandable when you’re only the second biggest All Star squad your singer has started as of late. Thankfully, Pet Symmetry doesn’t really compare to much else that Evan Weiss is involved in these days. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated; just three minutes of chunky bass, crash symbols, guitar chords and catchy, melody-rich vocals. It all succeeds without otherworldly guitar chops or inventive signatures. It’s just damn fun, well written indie-pop about how bad you want to kick the ass of the guy that fucked with your car. Maybe the two don’t seem so synonymous, but that’s only if you skipped out on Pet Symmetry. – TJ

30) “The Medic” Foxing
I’m guessing the composition timeline is a bit off for this to be true, but it at least feels like Foxing have Miguel and “Hold On We’re Going Home”-level Drake in mind on “The Medic,” the closest that modern emo has come to Marvin Gaye. The drums have the dotted-eighths of rhythm and blues, and Conor Murphy balances falsetto and throat-scraping shouts like a post-rock David Ruffin. The song is a triumph, not just for its adventurousness, but also for its ice-cold execution, serving as a snapshot of a band at its young peak and offering a glimpse at what emotive indie rock can look like when those glimmering guitars are cobwebbing complex melodies, when drums are nimble and share space with prickly drum machines. “The Medic” is peerless, not only because it’s so thrillingly different, but also because so many bands that share the same categorical spaces as Foxing have a hell of a lot of catching up to do. – CJ
(See our review of Foxing’s The Albatross here.)

29)  “The Mother We Share” Chvrches
This is the template for dreamy, female-fronted synth pop from here on out, agreed? That spacing in the verses, it not only sets up the fullness of the chorus but also sets off the delicacy of Lauren Mayberry’s vocals. My issue with electronic music is that too often the different materials end up meaning different mechanics to the songwriters in question. “The Mother We Share” never tries to be more than a very classic pop song in its structure. And, God, that chorus just soars. Chvrches achieve a starkness in their verses that never feels empty and a chorus that doesn’t fly too close to the sun. It’s a bit twee, but for a song about childhood, everything is in its right place. – TJ

28) “Sunday” Earl Sweatshirt feat. Frank Ocean
I am a sucker for the following: Hammond organ; songs where each rapper takes his turn on the hook; electric guitar and room-noise drums on backpack rap tracks; Frank Ocean rhyming. “Sunday” features all four, and Frank Ocean’s narrative of his altercation with Chris Brown, wherein Brown attacked Ocean and volleyed homophobic hate-speech at the queer-identified singer. “Sunday” is an ear-worm standout on an album (Doris) that seems structured around inter-song cohesiveness, forgoing singles and radio tracks for deep through-lines of mood and motif.  The major-key soul riff of swirling organ and fuzz guitar lining the song’s hook, dedicated to the emotional numbness of drug abuse, is the album’s most salient pleasure, and Earl and Frank’s verses, both dedicated to different kids of self-consciousness and vulnerability, are the album’s most affecting narratives. That the song is co-produced by Ocean just means that his winning-streak is holding strong in 2013; that Earl’s rhymes are just as spectacular over organic-Motown warmth as they are over eerie gloom is incredibly promising for whenever he does decide to drop that LP full of singles. – CJ

27) “Get Lucky” Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
It’s rare that “The Track That Wouldn’t Go Away” is also the one we didn’t mind hanging around (take note, Robin Thicke). I don’t know if anyone expected Daft Punk to go full disco, like seriously, Nile Rogers shredding the clean channel, DISCO. But then again, Daft Punk were the ones that taught a large number of us what we liked about electronic dance music in the first place. So why should it come as a surprise that they could give the people something they had no idea they wanted and turn it into the most successful single of the year? The Aliens even coyly made us wait about as long as any human could be expected to wait for the robot voices. But that first time they come in… – TJ

26) “Lindsey” Little Big League
Michelle Zauner’s voice is a special, special instrument, coy and confident, delicate but muscular, playful yet direct. “Lindsey” is a character-study pop drama worthy of Neko Case, even if Zauner is willing to be direct in language (though never simplistic) where Case is still rarely willing to be unequivocal. The song starts off with a charming piano-and-guitar riff not too far off from golden-era Get Up Kids (complete with crisp, reedy guitar work from Zauner and Kevin O’Halloran), but travels a considerable distance from there, outgrowing its quaint, dusty-vinyl emo to become an impressionist crazy-quilt, asking you to give oblique lyrics like “I can see the water from my house” a chance to gestate, trusting that they’ll mean something, even if they could mean anything. The song plays with both the promise and peril of looking ahead in a way that pairs coincidentally well with a similarly foreboding relationship with the past that Arcade Fire pursues on Reflektor. When the trickling guitars of the track’s third verse come along, they feel as wide as the fields you spot from the interstate, even if they start off feeling like something you’d leave in your glove box, forget-me-nots for a future self. – CJ

25) “100 Degrees” Mansions
“100 Degrees” is more or less one of the best Counting Crows songs ever, run through the deep, dark meat grinder that is Mansions. What begins as a bright, acoustic ballad is quickly paired with distorted bass, distorted drums, distorted vocals… you get the point. Amongst the landscape of Doom Loop, “100 Degrees” comes off like a radio friendly pop gem, lacking the album’s predominantly minor nature. It does, however, feature a huge chorus, a constant for which Mansions should be repeatedly commended. Even in a song about the mounting pressures and nuisances of daily life, those second verse “whooooa ooohhhh” choir vocals could never accompany something completely hopeless. – TJ

24) “Mediocre At Best” Sorority Noise
It’s appropriate that both Texas Is The Reason and The Clash put out remastered discographies this year, at least for Sorority Noise, who on “Mediocre At Best” just about split the difference between either band’s version of pop strut. Pairing some committed punk-soul groove to a theatrically melodramatic vocal performance from singer Cam Boucher, you can picture The Clash’s “Police and Thieves” with a little bit of “Something to Forget” (add a dash of Strangeways, Here We Come) and get a pretty accurate picture of Sorority Noises’ “stomp-and-emote” aesthetic. Getting the creeping-vine guitar flairs, group vocals, and self-deprecating narratives of emo in perfect balance, while managing to keep all of them out of cliché territory (an increasingly dire task in 2013), “Mediocre At Best” sounds like a lost Blue Album classic from back when Rivers Cuomo was funny. – CJ
(Check out our review of Sorority Noise’s Young Luck here.)

23) “#Beautiful” Mariah Carey and Miguel
You didn’t know how much you missed MiMi until you heard “#Beautiful” this summer. All it took to bring her back was Miguel’s flare for what’s sexy and about five chords. Pop music at it’s best really is just that simple. Once that clean guitar comes in halfway through Miguel’s verse, you’re already hitting the repeat button. And then there’s Mariah. She doesn’t just tell you running red lights is a thrill, she shows you with that famous range. The simple instrumentation lets the vocalists determine the peaks and valleys here. By the time the drums fall out you’re begging for just one more chorus, though when it doesn’t come, it isn’t entirely crushing. It’s just as fulfilling to hit the left arrow and take the ride again. – TJ

22) “Pusha Man” Chance the Rapper
Set to jittery club-soul, then a left-field electronic maze, “Pusha Man” gives Chicago-born Chance the Rapper his first opportunity to really introduce himself. In this case, that means a two-part track divided between the sing-songy first half’s braggadocio and a second half devoted to troubled evocations of life in Chicago in a year that saw over five hundred murders city-wide. The contrast is stark, and Chance’s prayers for “a little more Spring,” since Summer weather means more violence, is a poignant and heart-breaking crystallization of a traumatic time for the Windy City. Indeed, in a contemporary America in which national attention doesn’t seem willing to seriously prevent any kind of gun violence, Chance deserves a hell of a lot of credit for a line like “Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a f**king parking spot,” especially since, as he notes, no one seems to be paying attention, ironically pleading “Somebody get Katie Couric in here.” But perhaps the most affecting moment comes in the song’s denouement, when the twenty year-old MC half-whispers: “I know you’re scared; me too,” deviating from his usual course of literary tongue twisters for a touchingly direct statement of desperation. That Chance ties his most overt and heartbreaking political statement to a first-half Kanye-esque slow jam is illustrative of a young rapper whose brilliant mix-tape, Acid Rap, positively brims with new ideas and fresh ways of looking at hip hop narrative. -CJ

21) “Upstate Blues” Into It. Over It.
You can tell from this list that Evan Weiss had a big year. One of the biggest accomplishments of Intersections was its very unpretentious maturity, both in sound and subject matter. While many of his peers in a heavily documented, resurgent emo community are content to recreate the sounds of their initial influences, Weiss developed his sound thoroughly on this, his second proper full length. This is no more evident than on “Upstate Blues,” an upbeat pop song about outgrowing your friends that should avoid most genre tags. It’s fitting that in a song that is musically one of his most mature, Weiss covers returning to a familiar small town to see so many people in their late-20s still putting off starting their lives. It’s not a judgmental song; rather it’s a lament for friends that seem to put off moving on as if, to quote Weiss, “satisfaction’s going out of style.” A sentiment as small as “change is good” can inspire pretty big responses. – TJ
(Check out our review of Into It. Over It’s Intersections here.)

Be sure to check back here tomorrow for Part Two of our Best Songs of 2013.

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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

3 Responses

  1. December 17, 2013

    […] here for Part One, Songs […]

  2. December 19, 2013

    […] we are; our picks for the 10 best songs of 2013. For a look back at songs 40-11 check here and here. Enjoy, and see you again next […]

  3. May 21, 2014

    […] at their best when their pointing fingers at themselves (the reason why “Mediocre at Best” was one of the best songs of 2013). On “Rory Shield” Sorority Noise widens the spartan arrangements of Young Luck to more […]

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