Thursday, December 26, 2013

the top ten best hit songs of 2013

Here's a fun fact about me - as much as I nitpick and criticize and say all manner of things people don't want to hear about the music they love, I've got my own fair share of popular music that I cherish, appreciate, or outright love. Sometimes, quality rises to the top, and while none of this particular list will show up on my upcoming list of the best songs of this year, I still think they're worth mentioning if only to reinforce some vague sense of populism that I have. But really, it's nice to point out that some mainstream music gets popular because it's good, and sometimes pop or country or mainstream hip-hop can be just as good as the most underground of indie hits.

Now the rules are as before: the songs have to debut on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart this year - so as good as 'Die Young' by Ke$ha or 'Some Nights' by fun. are, I can't exactly mention them again on this list after they made my list last year. And on that note, don't expect any sort of coherent theme to these picks. While my year-end worst list had an abundance of terribly vapid luxury rap (especially near the top), on a year as varied and confused as the 2013 chart would indicate, my choices might surprise you. And fair warning: you won't agree with the majority of this list.

So let's get started with some Honourable Mentions, shall we?



2013 was a year where teen starlets returned in a big way, and while Ariana Grande pleasantly surprised, Miley went 'wild' to mixed results, and Selena Gomez's output turned to garbage, the surprise came from Demi Lovato and her panicked song about the encroaching feeling of love that she can't quite understand or follow. And 'Heart Attack' works because Demi Lovato really sells how anxious and emotionally unprepared for new love that she is, and the song's fast-paced pounding energy matches the mood. And while she might be putting her defenses up, it's the sort of desperate last-minute defense that even she doubts. It's a song about being under pressure, and Demi Lovato did a surprisingly good job pulling it off.


And now we have a very good song from a band I had long dismissed for delivering weightless, generic pablum. But goddamn it if Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic don't try to prove me wrong with 'Counting Stars'. The entire song surrounds the choice to take risks with one's artistic direction, go into a direction that might prove financially ruinous - and indeed, OneRepublic's venture towards material with a pulse sounds significantly different than most their material. And yet, it might just be their best hit song yet - 'Counting Stars' has a sense of drama and stakes, Ryan Tedder sounds like he's trying with the vocal production eased back to sound a bit more raw (although it does take him too long to get going), and the instrumentation has punch and draws upon gospel elements for strong effect. It's not as good as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs experiment with gospel in 'Sacrilege', but it's a good second.


I have no idea how I feel about this song. I mean, I like it, it's clearly trying to do something interesting and thought-provoking, but AWOLNATION's 'Sail' is a song from a different universe and the fact that it somehow managed to chart, let alone for the entire year, still baffles me. The synths and dubstep-inspired beat are eerily powerful, the vocals and production occupy an odd space between raw and reserved, and the lyrics (which may or may not be about suicide) seem to operate on multiple levels of irony simultaneously. And while I can't help but wish that Muse's 'Madness' should have taken its place, AWOLNATION's odd brand of insanity manages to work.


I'll be the first to admit I was hard on 'Royals', Lorde, and her album Pure Heroine when I reviewed it. But that doesn't mean that I don't like it or think that she's doesn't have tons of talent in crafting a smart, dangerously intelligent pop song. And while I still do have issues with this song - the minimalist instrumentation doesn't do a lot for me and Lorde's insistence on dominance ('let me be your ruler') lacks a coherent rationale or endgame - I get why so many people fell in love with this teenager's unique brand of acapella-inspired music. And if this becomes an anthem for my generation finally pitching shallow luxury rap to the wolves, I might just let Lorde become my queen bee after all.



Goddamn it, I wanted this song to make my year-end list... but in the end, 'Mirrors', my favourite song of Justin Timberlake's discography ends up being handicapped by the ego in the lyrics and the song's excessive length. I've already said my lengthy, lengthy pieces about Justin Timberlake's albums this year, so I'll say this: if Justin had just made the radio edit of 'Mirrors' his album cut... well, the ego might have been a little insufferable, but it would have had a much better chance landing on my list. Because between the chamber-pop production that sounds majestic and Justin's impassioned delivery, 'Mirrors' could have been so much more.



Let me establish this once and for all the same thing I said when I reviewed Bangerz three months ago: I don't care about the 'Wrecking Ball' video. I don't think it's all that 'scandalous' when Miley decides she wants to take her clothes off and writhe all over construction equipment. I'm here to talk about the music, and Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' is a song that really works for me. Miley's vulnerable delivery on the verge of tears, the synths sounding just processed enough to keep Miley in the spotlight, the lyrics that properly frame the situation and highlight the fault by both parties, all of it comes together for me into a song that really deserved a better music video than it got. And while it's not the best song off of Bangerz, it's damn close.



Another song that missed the list by a hair. When Avicii made his ambitious gambit to fuse folk and electronica with TRUE, nobody could have predicted that 'Wake Me Up!' would have worked as well as it did. And yet, combined with a killer melody line, great vocals from Aloe Blacc, and the smoothest transition between folk and electronica that Avicii could pull together, Avicii's song managed to become a great summer jam I really enjoyed. So why isn't it on my list? Well, one little element in the lyrics did irk the hell out of me, and it's in the chorus. If he wants me to wake him when he's older, 'when I'm wiser and I'm older'... wait, how can you acquire life experience or skills, the things that make you wiser, when you're asleep? Even if you go metaphorical and suggest that 'waking someone up' is about breaking out of a funk or depression that only love will free him from, the song still uses a lot of sleep imagery throughout the verses that don't quite save it. Still, that's a great keyboard hook.

And now, the big ones! Let's go!

10. Last year, I made the comment that the only reason 'It's Time' by Imagine Dragons managed to chart in the autumn of 2012 was thanks to Glee including it when the folk/indie boom was blowing up. And while that song was good enough to land on the list, it likely wouldn't have charted or ended on Billboard's Year-End List without Glee's help.

This song needed no such assistance.


10. 'Radioactive' by Imagine Dragons (Billboard Chart Position #3)

The most appropriate word to describe this song is 'apocalyptic'. The fusion of Alex da Kid's dubstep-inspired beat with thunderous drums and Dan Reynolds' howls of rage did plenty to add momentum and surge to this lumbering monstrosity of a song - and really, I mean those adjectives as praise, not condemnation. It's yet another song that plays to Dan Reynolds' nerdier tendencies, but while 'It's Time' drew upon fantasy folk with the mandolin, surging guitar in the final chorus, and Reynolds' uncompromising sincerity, 'Radioactive' pulls from bleak dystopian imagery in the harsh tones and descriptive lyrics. If there was a criticism for the song, it's in the tone - it's a little sour, lacking the heft of 'It's Time' unwavering optimism. But then again, it's hard to be optimistic when the world is collapsing around you, especially if you might be the cause of it. 'Radioactive' casts its narrator as the one contaminated, which works if you've looking for a cool adjective to describe you (like how Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider and it gave him super powers), but it also brings along the curse of radiation poisoning and Imagine Dragons seem to understand that at least. 

And if 'Radioactive' was about waking up and making a change as Dan Reynolds' has implied... well, he seems plenty aware that such changes could have dangerous consequences. Or what's that quote, 'with greater power comes great responsibility'? Keep it up guys, I'm looking forward to more.

9. It took me a long time this year to come around to liking this song. But when I did... yeah, it just clicks.

9. 'I Love It' by Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX (Billboard Chart Position #28)

If I was hard on Lorde and 'Royals', I was even harder on Icona Pop and Charli XCX. And while I still think neither of their albums are all that good (in fact, Charli XCX's True Romance is pretty damn mediocre if not plain bad), 'I Love It' showed exactly how both acts could work pumping raw adrenaline up to eleven and slamming it into modern EDM-inspired production for a killer hit. The song isn't all that intelligent or looking to inspire a lot of thought at all beyond throwing off all restraints and just going off the rails, but that's what great dance music is made from, and Icona Pop at least understands this.

And while reveling in raw, reckless adrenaline from cutting loose is far from healthy - and the property damage inspired by this song isn't precisely good either, let's make that clear - it's a song that works more in metaphor than literally, at least on a lyrical level. But really, the lyrics are superfluous when compared to the fuzz-saturated borderline-industrial heaviness of the synths and beat, and combined with Icona Pop and Charli XCX singing at the top of their lungs, the song is intended to land with short, quick impact, which it executes perfectly. Yes, it's all so dumb and shallow, but you can do that well and Icona Pop and Charli XCX definitely deliver here. No complaints from me, I love it! 

8. You know, I was actually a little worried I wouldn't be able to find a country song that chart highly enough to make this list. The frustrating problem is that the better bro-country songs - or at least the ones I could tolerate - were mostly confined to the lower reaches of the chart and never quite reached the heights they should have. And if you were a female country act not named Taylor Swift, you'd be lucky if you had a hit that reached the list at all!

Fortunately for us all, there are exceptions to the rule.

8. 'Mama's Broken Heart' by Miranda Lambert (Billboard Chart Position #89)

Yeah, if you know more country than Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, you'll know why this song is on the list. Penned by Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Shane McAnally (three of the best songwriters in mainstream country music, and the first two released incredible albums this year, but more on that later), Miranda Lambert's 'Mama's Broken Heart' works by going straight for convention and stereotypes and ripping them out by the roots, attacking the docile Stepford-esque housewife fantasy and showing the bottled-up, deep-seated rage buried just beneath it. It's another song that runs on reckless, barely-controlled rage, but this is of an entirely different vein, curdled into frustration at outdated gender norms and 'family values' that reward one side of the gender binary far more than the other.

All of that is good, mind you, but what really kicks this song up a notch is Miranda Lambert's delivery. Between the unfair comparisons to Kelly Clarkson and mean-spirited jabs at her physical appearance, Miranda Lambert has quietly risen to become one of the most emotionally compelling and potent singers in mainstream country, and while her voice isn't entirely strident or have the greatest range, she plays the delicate emotional balance between a painted smile and white-hot fury with incredible finesse and blows her husband (you might know him as Blake Shelton) clean out of the water. It helps that the instrumentation and production has some potent smolder and isn't afraid to kick it into gear when the song dives towards pitch-black territory. It's a shame that it's the only country song that made the list, but 'Mama's Broken Heart' definitely belongs here.

7. This was the year where EDM exploded into mainstream prominence in a big way, and like most critics, I was lukewarm towards it. I've mentioned a number of times in the past that outside of trance and some assorted acts like The Chemical Brothers, I don't listen to a huge amount of electronica. I like music driven by lyrics as well as pounding instrumentation, and there are very few EDM songs that can manage one without compromising the other.

Fortunately, at the beginning of this year, I found one that managed to surprise me in the best possible way.

7. 'Don't You Worry Child' by Swedish House Mafia ft. John Martin (Billboard Chart Position #26)
While you can't claim that Avicii's attempt to fuse folk and electronica wasn't unique, you can tell that more than a few glances were made at this song, because 'Wake Me Up!' owes something of a debt to 'Don't You Worry Child' in formula and execution. In the final song of their careers as a supergroup, Swedish House Mafia DJs Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Steve Angelo manage to do something deceptively simple: take a potent synth hook, build a powerful crescendo, and marry it to the strong vocal performance from John Martin and lyrics that are really trying a lot harder than they probably had to or was expected. 

And yet it all comes together seamlessly. John Martin has a lot of texture in his vocals and it is preserved. The melody line isn't quite as immediately catchy as Avicii's, but the production in the crescendo is better and there is a much stronger payoff. But the real standout are the lyrics - they're simple reminiscences to the past, calling back to simpler times where things were good and there was love, with the crescendo rooted in the rising frustration at the current situation, at the moment where things went wrong. And yet, the hook is rooted in a concept that doesn't seem like much on the surface: that heaven has a plan, and thus you shouldn't worry. On the surface, that sort of determinism would get on my nerves on a philosophical level, but it works here because they're framed as words of comfort, not a philosophy to live by - not that we don't have free will, but that there is a greater plan because, to quote Gandalf, 'even the wisest can't see all ends'. 'Don't You Worry Child' works because it taps into that euphoria of hope, and by the time the crescendo explodes into the melody hook, I can't help but have chills run down my spine. If this was the note Swedish House Mafia were looking to go out on, they chose a great one.

6. Oh, I'm going to have to fight for this one.

6. 'My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)' by Fall Out Boy (Billboard Chart Position #40)

The opening single that alienated a good chunk of Fall Out Boy's remaining fanbase and drew the ire from plenty of haters who thought the band had disappeared for good, 'My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark' certainly makes itself easy to hate. Patrick Stump screaming at the top of his lungs, elements of more synthetic production, and with lyrics that seem on the surface to make no sense whatsoever, the song appears to be an incoherent mess and the death knell to Fall Out Boy...

And then I looked at the song in the context of the album Save Rock And Roll - and to my surprise, my opinion about the song got even worse. Now the lyrics made sense, as the song showed itself to be an avalanche of bile launched at Fall Out Boy's fanbase, framing themselves as a jilter lover-turned-monster at their fanbase's betrayal of the band. It wasn't a song looking to build bridges after the five year hiatus, but burn them, to call out all of the fans who once liked Fall Out Boy and then scorned the group once the scene trend died and they 'grew out of it'...

And then it clicked for me, and the song rocketed onto this list. Pete Wentz might present himself as an arrogant asshole in his lyrics, showing his contempt for everyone and everything who didn't stick around for five years, but the sentiment began to resonate with me with every positive review I wrote of pop and country bands I liked. I got the righteous anger that comes with being the object of hipster ironic approval rather than genuine feeling, and I understood the bile hurled at the crowd who would prefer to let their tastes in art be defined by trends rather than something real. 'My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark' calls out those former fans and screams at them to stand up for their tastes instead of kowtowing to the party line, and while 'Young Volcanoes' was a better song and 'The Phoenix' would have been a better opening single off that messy, messy album, this track has righteous fury and energy in a year full of dreary bland nothingness hiding behind the shields of irony and false idolatry. It's not a pretty song, but goddamn it if it doesn't work.

5. Okay, you all knew this one was coming.

5. 'Get Lucky' by Daft Punk ft. Pharrell (Billboard Chart Position #14)

This year the charts were run by a few major trends, and this song is the perfect fusion of them: electronic music that desired to mean something more, and a disco revival that aimed to bring the flavours of the 70s back to the mainstream. And in the middle, we found Daft Punk, the electronica geniuses who have been lurking outside of mainstream acclaim for far too long and yet finally smashed through with their extraordinary album Random Accessed Memories and the surprise smash hit of 'Get Lucky'. 

And given that every critic on the planet has already sung the praises of this song, I might as well add to the chorus. The song is incredibly catchy, the funk and disco elements in the plucky guitar and bass and synth lines have an incredible amount of flavour and texture, and Daft Punk remain some of the best producers in the industry. Pharrell's falsetto might not be as great as Usher's, but he brings a ton of energy and sheer upbeat cheeriness to a song that could have coasted on its dance vibe alone. And sheer upward emotional momentum is really what drives 'Get Lucky' to its greatest strength - it's euphoric and fun, with the lyrics throwing out notions of possessive desire that run in most sex songs for something where two people can come together - replacing the 'I' with 'we'. And better still is how perfectly the song fits within the album as a whole, calling to mind the grand circular themes of the album of the feedback relationship between the creation of art and its reception by an audience. Even though 'getting lucky' is an obvious euphemism, 'Get Lucky' as a song about raising the bar and going above and beyond - and for once, the charts responded favourably and the song got overplayed to hell and back. 

And yet, not enough to prevent Daft Punk from making the list, and thank god for that. Daft Punk - the gift that keeps on giving.

4. Last year when 'Some Nights' made my year end list, I made the comment that indie rock band fun. owe a fair bit to classic rock band Queen. And to be fair, I don't think Nate Ruess has ever denied that comparison (mostly because he wouldn't have a leg to stand on if he did). But let me be blunt: more bands that sound like Queen and do it well are never a bad thing, so it shouldn't be any surprise to anyone that this is on the list.

4. 'Carry On' by fun. (Billboard Chart Position #76)

'Carry On' is probably the least complex song that fun. has ever released as a single, but that it trades lyrical abstraction for empathy and it works like gangbusters. It's a song about dealing with the depression of a friend and trying to help however you can, and what Nate Ruess gets right is small but important: he tries his best to show empathy, but he realizes he can't quite feel everything his friend feels and thus tries to cheer her up the only way he can: by emphasizing their combined inherent awesomeness and how they're young and alive and have the ability to soar to the stars in New York City and how can they turn away from that?

Now that's a very Queen-like concept: sing about how awesome they are and buoy the spirits of everyone else by letting them latch onto it. But in 'Carry On', the subtext becomes text: the entire song is a challenge, a dare to be proven wrong, and it's a hard dare to answer thanks to Nate Ruess throwing himself into the song with wild abandon and a Brian May-inspired guitar solo that sets the Queen comparison in stone with a phenomenal crescendo that earns the theatrical payoff. It might not have the energy or grand lyrical complexity of 'Some Nights', but fun. struck gold when they saw 'We Are The Champions' and thought to turn it into something meaningful. And while the song might not handle depression with the same tact or delicacy that some would prefer, I can't argue that for me, it just works. 

Okay fun., that's two you've hit out of the park. Looking forward to that next album, gentlemen, keep it up.

3. Honestly, this song and the next one have been switching back and forth in positions in my mind for the past few weeks, and let me stress that just because I'm putting one over the other doesn't mean either song is any less amazing or worthy of attention. Because in the end, I'm a music critic and I judge music based on its composition and presentation, not the message it carries.

That being said, I can't deny the incredible risk it was for Macklemore's career to make this his next single, and perform it without holding back. There's a reason political songs don't often chart on the Hot 100, particularly those targeting one of the biggest hot button social issues in the United States with naked, uncompromising honesty. And you all should already know what it is.

3. 'Same Love' by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert (Billboard Chart Position #43)

I'm amazed this charted at all, let alone as high as it did, because Macklemore doesn't mince words in his straightforward, unrestrained song supporting same-sex marriage. If we're looking for the definition of an 'ally', it'd be hard to argue that Macklemore fills that role admirably, speaking on the topics of gay stereotypes, the power and meaning of words, the terrible things that LGBT youth go through, the American establishment's reticence and fear towards social change, the hypocrisy of religious tolerance that condemns homosexuality for poorly articulated reasons, and, most strikingly, the oft-perilous acceptance of homosexuality in hip-hop and hip-hop commentary. In short, Macklemore is calling those who are against same-sex marriage out on their shit, and combined with the restrained beat and hook and Mary Lambert's heartbreakingly emotional chorus, the song hits with a ton of emotional impact. 

And really, I can't stress how stunned I am a song like this managed to chart and gain groundswell. Politically conscientious rap gaining a foothold in the mainstream talking about LGBT issues, from a rapper who dishes out some of the most potent and sharply incisive comments against his own genre? And yet it was a message that had to be heard, and while I can't say that it's been entirely linked to this song alone, the rates of acceptance for same-sex marriage and LGBT issues have only risen. Macklemore is right to point out that the struggle doesn't end at marriage, though - it ends when societal stereotypes and conventions are battered down to remove hateful and worthless bigotry. And even in Canada where same sex marriage has been legal for just over eight years, we still have work to do.

In the end, this song is something special and something you rarely, if ever, see in rap music, to say nothing of mainstream rap. While I do have a few technical gripes - there are a few rhymes Macklemore could have tightened up, some of the technical songwriting could have been stronger - poignancy and intellect will always win on these issues every damn day of the week. 

But that's not the only spot Macklemore has on my list...

2. In a year where most commercial, record-label driven mainstream rap turned into homogeneous boring drivel thanks to poor implementations of trap instrumentation into luxury rap and where sounding like you're not trying became the next big thing for rappers, this was a shot of righteous fervour that mainstream hip-hop needed: and it was glorious.

2. 'Can't Hold Us' by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Ray Dalton (Billboard Chart Position #5)

After 'Thrift Shop' played a little closer to the comedy well than I really liked for its satire, 'Can't Hold Us' is decidedly more conventional: a song about making it and finally winning success. But Macklemore went above and beyond Drake's dreary claims of 'Started from the bottom / now we here' and injected a punch of textured and energetic hip-hop with his track that grabbed a hold of a flag and hoisted it high. And what 'Can't Hold Us' does in two verses is incredible and features Macklemore's songwriting at his best. He bites his thumb at major labels who can't hold him back, he snubs luxury rap while acknowledging how desires of it can be expected if raised on the Wu-Tang Clan, and most importantly, he hammers on the point that leaders only rule on the grace of the masses. He's a populist at heart, and 'Can't Hold Us' proves his idealistic commitment with a ton of fervor and energy, pointing out how he never rapped for success or riches, but because he wanted to give something back to the people that actually mattered, damn it - and furthermore, that the validation for his success comes from his fans! 

And if it was just that, this song would have likely made the list, but he combines it with Ryan Lewis' best production yet and a phenomenal hook by Ray Dalton, who balances dignity with energetic verve like he was born to it. The percussion is vibrant and textured, the horns have presence and support the great melody line from the piano, and even the synthetic elements only serve to pump up the energy even further and support organic swell. And while the chorus' words could have cribbed from any club handbook, you can't replicate texture, dramatic presence, or raw charisma, and that's what all three men bring to the table with 'Can't Hold Us'. For a rapper who only debuted on the charts this year, Macklemore is a huge breath of fresh air, and he got the right way: by taking intelligent risks, speaking truth to stupid, and doing it his own way. And believe it or not, neither 'Can't Hold Us' or 'Same Love' are my favourite tracks from The Heist, so if you haven't already gotten the album, I highly urge you do so.

You don't hear stuff like very often, folks, and I'm sure you're all wondering what my number one is. Well...

1. You know, I honestly wish this would have had the positioning to chart higher last year when it debuted - but indie rock needs time to gain groundswell, and like how 'Pompeii' by Bastille will explode next year, this song comes courtesy of an indie rock act who dropped their debut in 2012. It took until now for this song to chart...

But oh god, was it worth it.

1. "Little Talks' by Of Monsters And Men' (Billboard Chart Position #65)

There's so much about 'Little Talks' by Of Monsters And Men that I absolutely love that I'm kind of lost where to start. The Icelandic band effectively came out of nowhere and 'Little Talks' is similarly an anomaly in the best possible way. Some were quick to brand them as Mumford & Sons rip-offs for the shouts and pounding indie pop instrumentation, but Of Monsters And Men blow them out of the water by being better across the board.. The twinned male and female singers have both interplay and harmonies, and relying on the audience to pay attention during the quiet melancholy moments that pepper the song. Decidedly odd moments too, when balanced against the exuberant and obscenely catchy horns melody line that has its own moments of harmony. And despite the ghostly reverb in the production, the instruments still manage to have texture and creaking roughness that call back to their folk roots.

But that's composition, let's talk about songwriting, because Of Monsters And Men don't shy away from darker and more complex material for their first radio hit. At first, the lyrics seem oblique, but then the interplay, the melancholy moments, the explosive bridge that seems to shout across a gap - yes, my friends, this is a song about dealing with death. What some will immediately find odd is that it's not dark or forbidding or even eerie in the vein of 'Sail', but instead approaching death more naturally as one of the singers attempts to cope with the loss of the other. There's grief there, sure, but it's quieter and more melancholy, rooted in the little things lost when a soul passes beyond the veil. And yet there's an acceptance in the song that death is inevitable, and that while we might have our own ways of getting there, we'll all reach an end at some point, whatever it might be.

I'll admit, I loved this song the instant I heard it last year, and it's a shame the momentum of the indie folk boom of 2012 faltered the way it did, because the world needs more Of Monsters And Men, it really does. So with that, it's my favourite hit song of 2013 and had it been released this year, it may have gained a spot on another upcoming list. As it is, 'Little Talks' by Of Monsters And Men is truly something special and a sign that sometimes quality does win out - even on the pop charts.

1 comment:

  1. Lúc này nhìn anh ốm quá trời.
    Thương oppa Di Di
    dịch vụ kế toán thuế báo cáo tài chính tại tp hcm
    dịch vụ kế toán thuế trọn gói tại bắc ninh
    dịch vụ kế toán tại hưng yên
    2 thầy trò ngồi chém gió các thể loại. từ máy ảnh, hà giang, đồ đạc đi hà giang, chụp ảnh phim... nhiều thứ

    ReplyDelete