Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the top 50 best songs of 2013

Some of you are probably scratching your heads with confusion at the title of this list and wondering, 'Wait, didn't he already make this exact same list a few days ago?' Well, this list is significantly different than the last one, mostly because we're no longer talking about the hits. No, these are the songs, singles or otherwise, that appeared on the albums I listened through this year and stuck with me. They aren't the hits - most of you might not recognize the songs I mention, but all of them bear the highest of my personal recommendations. That's right, from the 135 albums I reviewed this year, these were my favourite songs. I'm not segregating them by genre or success - singles or deep cuts all have a chance to make this list, which was initially reduced from thousands down to 436, which was then narrowed down to fifty. And believe me, even with that I had to make some painful cuts, and what is on this list will surprise you. So, without any more delay, here are my Top 50 Songs of 2013! Let's get started!

50. 'No I.D.' by Colette Carr ft. Frankmuzik (from 'Skitszo')

Yeah, it's not the most well-written song in the universe from a technical standpoint, and it's a bit of a shame Colette doesn't rap, but 'No I.D. works as a great pop song thanks to a solid and memorable piano hook, some slick production work and both performers jumping in with unabashed sincerity and a lot of energy. Sometimes, a simple pop song can work all on its own.

49. 'Blowin' Smoke' by Kacey Musgraves (from 'Same Trailer, Different Part')

From shiny pop energy we dive into the sleazy grime of a small-town diner, where Kacey Musgraves sketches a vivid, textured and all too familiar picture for so many people. 'Blowin' Smoke' is a strikingly bleak song, mostly because Kacey includes herself in the picture, showing that she's just as trapped and desperate and hopeless, but the sharp lyrics, the muted frustration, and surprisingly catchy melody elevate it into something rather special.

48. 'The Phoenix' by Fall Out Boy (from 'Save Rock And Roll')

This really should have been the opening single for Fall Out Boy's hopelessly broken album, because it accomplishes everything 'My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark' in a much tighter, energetic, potent package. In fact, it does more, swapping out that song's acrid bitterness for fist-pumping populism (well, as populist as Fall Out Boy get) and a better flow. The lyrics still are overloaded with ego, but the tone is less rooted in contempt and more of a challenge for their fans to step up. If they had led with this, they probably would have won more of them over.

47. 'Sacrilege' by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 'Mosquito')

I stand by my review stating that most of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' fourth album was a step back, but 'Sacrilege' follows the energetic explosion of It's Blitz! with a surge of dark religious iconography and perversely genius gospel swell. Lyrically, it's relatively simple in its exploration of love scorned and cast aside, but Karen O's hushed delivery, the guitars' ragged riffs, the surging crescendo, and the pseudo-gothic blend of gospel cries of 'Sacrilege!' gives the song a ton of unexpected weight. Melodramatic? Absolutely, but no less effective.

46. 'The Wire' by HAIM (from 'Days Are Gone')

Yeah, I'll admit I was hard on HAIM's debut album, but that doesn't make 'The Wire' any less of a great pop song. The bass riff is catchy as hell, the sisters have solid interplay with voices that seem designed for critics to draw comparisons to Stevie Nicks, and the guitar has a surprising amount of sizzle. For me, the song becomes something special in the last chorus, when the strings kick in and the guitars get a little more strident. And while lyrically it's the indie pop equivalent of Demi Lovato's 'Heart Attack', there's room in this world for both of them.

45. 'Aw Naw' by Chris Young (from A.M.)

Yes, it's bro-country, but Chris Young's brand of it is noticeably smarter and better produced than the average song in this vein that came out this year. The guitars are rougher and heavier, the percussion has weight, Chris Young still has one of the best baritones in mainstream country, and the song has a fun twist in that Young is spending the entire night trying to leave. He ends up mostly enjoying the ride he gets dragged on, but the hesitation does mean something in the end. Perhaps a meta-narrative suggesting that the neotraditional country artist's frustration at trying to escape from bro-country? You decide!

44. 'Everything' by Nine Inch Nails (from 'Hesitation Marks')

Stop the presses, I'm putting the song where Trent Reznor actually sounds, of all things, happy on my list. Why? Well, it works. A fusion of the tightness that defined NIN's early work with an explosion of heavy guitars, it's a song that sounds triumphant and earns it. Trent Reznor has spent over two decades singing about misery and putting himself through hell, and 'Everything' was the climatic moment where he realized he had come out the other side with the skill and power to do anything and everything he wanted. And when set against NIN's discography full of depression and misery, in contrast 'Everything' looks all the more striking and memorable.

43. 'Ashtrays And Heartbreaks' by Snoop Lion ft. Miley Cyrus (from 'Reincarnated')

'Reincarnated' was an odd album to sit through, mostly because Snoop Lion's idea of where he wanted to take his direction with reggae - more in the serious, politically minded Marley-esque direction - ran in a totally different direction than his producers and guests, but the song that realized the vision was 'Ashtrays And Heartbreaks', a song less about the high and more about the comedown. The subdued skag riff, the reverb-heavy production, the surprisingly somber atmosphere and grief-stricken lyrics, belied by one of Miley's best vocal performances, it was a sign that Snoop Lion's brand of reggae could have been something truly special if fully realized. Shame it wasn't.

42. 'Permanent Stain' by The Backstreet Boys (from 'In A World Like This')
With the surge of boy bands this year, it shouldn't come as any surprise that the masters of the format returned this year to drop their best album in almost a decade, with 'Permanent Stain' being the big highlight for me. With handclap percussion, a surging chorus, great vocal harmonies and lyrics that balance melancholy reflection and futile desires, it's a pop song that turns depression and wistful longing into something sonically 'bigger', and yet doesn't come across as overwrought or whiny. Fine work, gentlemen (especially Nick Carter, who was the primary songwriter on the track), looking forward to more from you.

41. 'Life Of The Party' by Jake Owen (from 'Days Of Gold')

Man, this was a surprise. Jake Owen's Days Of Gold was a pretty lightweight album and had its fair share of problems, but 'Life Of The Party' takes the archetypal bro-country chorus about partying and fits it with verses that tell a whole different side of the story. It helps that Jake Owen has a lot of natural charisma, but listening to him try to hold it all together and put on a happy face if only to hold back the heartbreak adds a surprising amount of heart to the song. Coupled with the best technical songwriting that Dallas Davidson has ever provided, a solid and clear guitar hook, and Jake Owen's emotional delivery, 'Life of the Party' proves that even the bro-country subgenre can have a heart.

40. 'Dance Apocalyptic' by Janelle Monae (from 'The Electric Lady')

Oh, I'm sorry, are you not aware that Janelle Monae is awesome yet? You've all officially run out of excuses. And while The Electric Lady wasn't quite as strong as The ArchAndroid, 'Dance Apocalyptic' fuses retro-70s cool with a jittery guitar line and Janelle Monae proving how to make an upbeat dance song so much more. It's a song for the end of the world, and it's got the slick, manic energy to back it up, plus lyrics that have a sly punch to all of those who prefer to stay normal and conventional. And frankly, why would I go for normal if I could have this instead?

39. 'Young Volcanoes' by Fall Out Boy (from 'Save Rock And Roll')

Yes, Fall Out Boy is on this list twice (they won't be the only ones, a friendly warning). But 'Young Volcanoes' would have made the list anyway because it kicks ass. It's a song that pitches the fury and disappointment with my generation that defined the album with exuberant upbeat guitar-driven flavour that belies the adventurous spirit of the song - although the subtle keyboard shift in the final chorus is awesome in its own little way. And that's before we get to the lyrics, where the triumphant lyrics assert that simply by coming back and keeping that spark of wry intelligence, Fall Out Boy has already won. It might be arrogant, but here... yeah, it works.

38. 'Pop Culture' by Icon For Hire (from 'Icon For Hire')

Icon For Hire's criminally ignored sophomore album might have alienated some fans with a shift towards a more electronic direction, but the heaviness was still there, and 'Pop Culture' shows it in the percussion and thunder in the chorus. But even the synths are tolerable, and the calls of sell-out contribute to the ongoing theme of the album and this song in particular, a punk scream against corporate marketing and increasingly homogeneous pop trends - yet Icon For Hire are willing to admit we're all addicted to the convenience it brings. Plus, the song is awesome - any track that has the lyric 'the American dream mainstream just bores me' wins big points in my book.

37. 'Copenhagen (Let Me Go)' by Vienna Teng (from 'Aims')

Another criminally ignored artist, Vienna Teng's Aims might have contained some of the most strikingly original, intelligent, and melody-driven indie pop I heard this year. The phenomenally textured percussion, the strings drifting in with perfect counterbalance, the multi-part a capella harmonies, all complimenting a song where Vienna Teng has her eyes on the horizon. Her yearning to travel and break free of hollow conventionality is solid, but what really lends the song dramatic force is the hesitant moments, the points where she second-guesses herself, and yet it's all woven together by superb technical songwriting that builds to an uncertain ending. And it's also one of the best songs of the year - if you haven't checked out Vienna Teng yet, you're missing out.

36. 'Joan Of Arc' by Arcade Fire (from 'Reflektor')

Those of you who remember my contentious review of Arcade Fire's critically flawed album Reflektor probably remember me not being kind at all to that album... but I can't deny that 'Joan Of Arc' just kills for me as a great song, mostly because the lyrics don't go into the self-obsessed mirror-gazing that Arcade Fire thought we'd find compelling. The guitars have smoldering, ominous presence, the chorus is catchy as all hell, and both vocalists play off each other excellently (although I wish the drums had more presence and force on the track). Hell, even the hazy vocal effects do a lot for me, adding to the atmosphere of encroaching doom the lyrics excellently evoke. Shame the rest of the album doesn't quite reach this height, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

35. 'Popular Song' by Ariana Grande ft. Mika (from 'Yours Truly')

Okay, I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this kind of song, but I can't deny that it works incredibly well for what it is. Both Mika and Ariana Grande are a natural fit for the original Wicked sample's deranged upbeat energy (along with a pretty damn catchy riff), but the upending of the 'popular' type has enough flair and is enough of a gentle subversion that it manages to come together shockingly well for me. Yeah, it's plastic and pretty ephemeral, but that's what you get with songs decidedly lodged in silly high school popularity contests, and in that vein, 'Popular Song' works even if you think that both Mika and Ariana Grande know how silly it is - which they probably do.

34. 'Open' by Rhye (from 'Woman')

As much as I tend to love bombast, this is one of those songs where restraint is key, and Rhye's precise grasp on melody, modulation, and production is what makes this song work so damn well. The horns could have been overpowering, the vocals could have been overwrought, the strings and woodwinds could have become distracting, but it all fits seamlessly together into a song that is quiet and organically beautiful. Yes, I'm still a little amazed the singer is male, but that doesn't make the song any less compelling.

33. 'Counting On Hearts' by Icon For Hire (from 'Icon For Hire')

Okay, if you wanted more of the alternative metal side of Icon For Hire, 'Counting On Hearts' definitely fits the bill as a killer album closer and a phenomenal song on its own, even if it is simpler than 'Pop Culture'. The shout for their fans to keep the band honest is a tough song to make well, especially considering the harsh rhetoric Ariel uses, but Icon For Hire kills it through instrumental heft (particularly in the guitars), a great bridge, and Ariel's phenomenal delivery, showcasing a band that really deserved more attention than they got.

32. 'Love Game' by Eminem ft. Kendrick Lamar (from 'The Marshall Mathers LP 2')

I will straight-facedly admit this song is ridiculous and took a while to grow on me - and kind of hilarious all the same. 'The Game Of Love' sample, the blowjob digression in the first verse, all of the third verse, and the fact that Kendrick and Eminem play off each other shockingly well. What's so fun about this song is the framing - it has a vaudeville-esque melodrama to it, initially casting both Slim Shady and Kendrick as put-upon boyfriends (the latter continuing the story from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City), the song very quickly reveals that neither of them are going to be getting anything close to a stable relationship - and that neither might deserve anymore than the lousy straits they're in. In other words, a perfect dark comedy that both men execute flawlessly.

31. 'The Correction' by LMNO & Evidence (from 'After The Fact')

(this video is not on YouTube - believe me, I tried to find it)

Man, this was a welcome surprise from deep in the underground (he couldn't even find a video with the song and the album cover on it). LMNO is a great technical lyricist and 'The Correction' is a punishingly bleak exploration of a former criminal trying to reform his ways, an exploration of 'the trap' far better than many acts attempted this year. But where this song truly becomes something special is in the production and atmosphere - Evidence's fusion of acoustic guitar with a chilling piano riff does wonders for creating that desperate air of inescapable perdition, and I'll be thrilled to cover his new collaboration album with The Alchemist coming out in a month.

30. 'I Was A Fool' by Tegan And Sara (from 'Heartthrob')

I stand by the fact that Tegan and Sara are a better pop act than indie rock act, and this 80s-inspired piano ballad is all the more proof I need. The harmonies are gorgeous, the piano is understated yet compelling, the production doesn't overwhelm either singer, and both deliver an emotionally evocative performance. A song in this vein, reflective upon how both partners contributed to a relationship's failure, could have come across as catty, but they make the wise decision for Tegan's more expressive voice to carry the emotional resonance in the song, and it ends up being one of their best. Fine work, ladies.

29. 'FU' by Miley Cyrus ft. French Montana (from 'Bangerz')

If you had told me I was going to put Miley Cyrus twice on this list a year ago, I'd have laughed in your face. But yeah, 'FU' is the best thing Miley has ever touched, and easily the best track off Bangerz. And really, it's a song that shouldn't work as well as it does: Miley singing with the raw sultriness of a bordello singer fused with bombastic horns and dubstep in a kiss-off song supported by French Montana doing whatever the hell he does mostly in the background - none of this sounds like a good idea! And yet 'FU' works because Miley is trying, the instrumentation is easily the most polished and professional, and the songwriting is shockingly strong. Miley, friendly bit of advice: you want another number one? Drop the boring 'Adore You' from being your next single and put this in instead - you will clean house.

28. '...Like Clockwork' by Queens of the Stone Age (from '...Like Clockwork')

For an album about enthusiastically embracing change and shedding the elements of the past that hold you back, the title track of '...Like Clockwork' is the beautiful, haunting, exceptionally well-written slap of reality. With a tempered melancholy that recalls some of David Bowie's darker ballads, '...Like Clockwork' features some of the best lyricism of Josh Homme's career and one of his better vocal performances. It sounds raw and real and informed by genuine feeling - and considering Homme has spent so much of his career dividing his band into smaller and smaller pieces, it might well be, and the words 'not everything that goes around / comes back around you know' develop a whole new impact.

27. 'Old School Country Song' by Joe Nichols (from 'Crickets')

I said when I reviewed Joe Nichols' album that this song was going to make my year-end list, and I wasn't lying. 'Old School Country Song' may have a conventional form of melody, instrumentation and production, and Joe Nichols' voice has a familiar country flavour, but that familiarity only enforces the message of the song brought through in the terrific lyrics: that all the themes that resonate in traditional and neotraditional country are just as relevant and moving today as they were fifty years ago. It's a song that proves you don't need diamond studded tailgates or hip-hop shoutouts to make relevant country music, and the fact that it's pretty damn great all the same only helps the matter.

26. 'Level Up' by Vienna Teng (from 'Aims')

If you're looking for a song that just makes you feel better about life in general, Vienna Teng's 'Level Up' is the song you need. Vienna Teng's rich and emotive delivery coupled with a beautiful blend of modern electronica and chamber pop, all fused to a song that rises above the standard self-esteem anthem into something better. It's not just a feel-good song, but a dare to be better, stronger, smarter, to rise above calamity and keep rising - call it what you want, just do it! I repeat what I said when I reviewed Aims - Vienna Teng deserves more attention. Get on it, record labels!

25. 'Southern Comfort Zone' by Brad Paisley (from 'Wheelhouse')
Brad Paisley got a lot of mostly deserved flack for 'Accidental Racist' this year, but the real tragedy is that it took away from how remarkably solid and exploratory his album was, starting with the blast of energy and reality that was 'Southern Comfort Zone'. A song about confronting the world beyond what you know, learning and seeing more and experiencing what it might feel like to be an outsider - the exact opposite of the southern pandering that has monopolized country music over the past several years. Combined with phenomenal guitar work and the fun fact that Brad Paisley has always had a gift for killer hooks, 'Southern Comfort Zone' took the risk to go international with country, and it paid off.

24. 'Blood On The Leaves' by Kanye West (from 'Yeezus')
A song that fuses the best elements of 808s and Heartbreak with the best of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and goes pitch-black in a hurry, the only way to describe 'Blood On The Leaves' is audacious, but in a nastier way than the rest of Yeezus. The opening verses show how Kanye's relationship failed in heartbreaking detail as the woman he loved did it for the fame over him and things fell apart accordingly, with the final verse being a warning to both golddiggers and those who allow themselves to be manipulated by sex and the heady drug of fame of the nightmarish horrors that could come. The sample of Nina Simone's 'Strange Fruits' only cements the macabre price of empty celebrity (of which Yeezus was an album exploring, as Kanye sought to expose all the costs of giving him a platform and fame). In the end, a hard song to like or listen through, but definitely worthy of inclusion.

23. 'I Sat By The Ocean' by Queens of the Stone Age (from '...Like Clockwork')

How often do you find a rock song with at least three memorable and distinct riffs that you manage to love? And yet 'I Sat By The Ocean' nails it effortlessly and stands out as one of the best tracks of the year for its trouble. It also helps matters that the lyrics are incredibly solid, reflecting how a guy misrepresented himself to gain something of a stable relationship, and now he has no idea how to move on or advance with his life even as he sees disaster coming closer and closer. It's a song rooted in petulance and inertia, and yet Josh Homme still manages to make it stand out!

22. 'Evil Eye' by Franz Ferdinand (from 'Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action')

Okay, as much as I'm a sucker for shallow teen pop, I'm a bigger sucker for grotesque 70s exploitation, and 'Evil Eye' is essentially the soundtrack of the schlockier material on display. And the fact that Franz Ferdinand (mostly thanks to their deep affection for the late 70s) just gets this material better than most works obscenely in their favour, concocting a song overloaded with creeping feelings of paranoia that manage to create the atmosphere effortlessly. It's not a song that's looking to do anything other than unsettle you or bring back memories of spookhouse horror, and on that standard, I can't imagine a better song. Also, that guitar riff is catchy awesomeness incarnate.

21. 'Watching You' by Natalia Kills (from 'Trouble')

I'll admit, I was really hard on Natalia Kills' sophomore album Trouble, but it grew on me all year and this song was one of the reasons why. It sheds some of the iciness that put me off most of that album and goes for raw vulnerability - and dear god, it works terrifyingly well. It adds emotional weight to the bombast, and the fact that Natalia Kills doesn't shy away from framing herself in a very questionable or even negative way adds a surprising edge to this song. None of her described behaviour reflects anything close to stability - and the thing is, the song knows that, so you're never quite sure how far she'll take it, particularly when she starts referencing chainsaws in her metaphors. An unsettling song to be sure, but I can't help but dig the hell out of it.

20. 'Lightning Bolt' by Pearl Jam (from 'Lightning Bolt')

Over two decades into their career, Pearl Jam traded melancholy dirges for straightforward rock and roll with their newest album, and in the process made one of the most energetic and fun songs of their career. This year's equivalent of the Zac Brown Band's 'Natural Disaster' last year, 'Lightning Bolt' is easily as that country smash, with Eddie Vedder proving he still has one of the best voices from the grunge movement with a ton of energy and flair. But really, this song is carried most by Matt Cameron on the drums - Stone Gossard's guitar might have more presence in the mix and the riffs are awesome, but the drums carry this song's titanic momentum and it's glorious.

19. 'No Face' by Savages (from 'Silence Yourself')

Savages were one of the best bands to debut this year, providing a shot of molten hot bass-driven fuzz-saturated post-punk into the veins. And while the album produced all manner of awesome songs, 'No Face' immediately stood out as the highlight, with a menacing bass riff that always lurked in the mix, the explosive smolder of the guitars, and Jehnny Beth's disdainful strike against a relationship devoid of personality. What's kind of amazing about this song is how measured and controlled it sounds, despite the distortion, all feeding into the image that Jehnny Beth will be just fine when the relationship concludes. Whether or not the faceless man in question will survive is an entirely different question, but it doesn't make the song any less amazing.

18. 'So Far...' by Eminem (from 'The Marshall Mathers LP 2')

One of my favourite songs from the original Marshall Mathers LP was the title track, and with its guitar-driven hook and constant wry commentary on his relationship with fame, success, and getting older, 'So Far...' is the natural sequel to that song and it's more than a worthy successor and my favourite track on the album. The callbacks to the previous album are natural (including one to 'The Real Slim Shady' which is well-earned), the punchlines are hilarious, and yet Eminem still manages to include enough fresh commentary to make the song more than just a corny hook from The Eagles (who I don't hate, by the way). And sure, the song is kind of crotchety and it's a little hard to believe that one of the most successful artists in the past few decades has to deal with such mundane problems, but Eminem makes it work in one of his lightest, funniest, and surprisingly strong songs of his career.

17. 'Landsailor' by Vienna Teng ft. Glen Phillips (from 'Aims')

Oh, I'm sorry, do you not have enough reasons to listen to Vienna Teng yet? Well, here's another one, and it's the best one yet. The rollicking guitar hook, the deftly paced percussion that somehow sounds incredibly organic for a drum machine, the gorgeous instrumental interlude, Vienna Teng's passionate delivery and perfect interplay with Glen Phillips, all fused into an adventurous song with enigmatic lyrics exploring the relationship between people and technology, a relationship that might carry deeper costs but can still create something truly marvelous in the end. It's some of the smartest, most invigorating indie pop released this year, and sends a chill down my spine every time.

16. 'Phase III: Entanglement' by Ayreon (from 'The Theory of Everything')
(skip to 45:01 for the song)

One of the criteria I've always striven to maintain for this list is that the songs have to stand on their own regardless of deeper album context, and for the longest time, that disqualified everything off of Ayreon's magnificent album The Theory Of Everything (which really works so much better as a single piece). But the more I thought about it, 'Phase III: Entanglement' does enough on its own to warrant its inclusion. The dramatic stakes are at their highest, the writing is at the best, and the instrumentation's masterful fusion of progressive metal and electronic elements are at their peak. And then Troy Donockley's bagpipes kick in and the song leaps to a whole new level, and I had to include it. All the more proof that Arjen Lucassen is a genius and Ayreon is awesome.

15. 'Treason! Animals' by Franz Ferdinand (from 'Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action')

The second the bass line started and led into that killer guitar riff, I knew this would easily be one of my favourite songs of the year. And the fact that 'Treason! Animals' explodes into one of the silliest 70s-inspired songs on an album overloaded with silly 70s-inspired kitschy songs meant 'Treason! Animals' exploration of delusions of grandeur was just destined for this list. What's kind of amazing about this song is that even though it is patently ridiculous, Alex Kapranos still manages to make his grand gestures come across with a shadow of pomp and circumstance even as everything crumbles to pieces - but either rightful king or delusional twit, he still manages to put a broad smile on my face every time.

14. 'Demons' by The National (from 'Trouble Will Find Me')

The National's excellent album 'Trouble Will Find Me' is a depressing listen about everything going wrong and falling apart (with the majority of it being the narrator's own fault), and 'Demons' is the slow-burn highlighting that toxic frustration in all of its ugly glory. The fact that lead singer Matt Berninger manages to find a way to make a song like this palatable is incredible, but the fact that he actually inspires empathy is a testament to a phenomenally measured string section that matches the percussion's naturalistic feel, a muted guitar swell, and a crescendo that knows precisely when to break. Berninger has seldom sounded this good as a vocalist, and 'Demons' manages to rise above its subject matter into something truly special indeed.

13. 'Can't Take It Away' by The Brilliancy (from The Brilliancy EP)

And from depression we jump to one of the happiest songs about just being happy that I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. Lead singer Austin Leadley sings like he has a wide smile on his face, and the second the polished yet textured guitars leap into the mix, you'll have one too. Really, this song really becomes something special thanks to Rob Raco's drum breakdown in the bridge, punctuated with measured squeals of Brenden Friel's guitar as Austin laughs in the face of those who would try and break his happy spirit. He knows that it won't always be butterflies and rainbows, but goddamn it if he's going to enjoy it while he can - which is exactly the same attitude I take when listening to this song, which is all amounts of awesome. Great work, guys, looking forward to more!

12. 'Summer Painter' by Bill Callahan (from 'Dream River')

Bill Callahan's textured and measured grasp of Americana has always given his material something distinctive, but 'Summer Painter' goes even further into something truly incredible: a song that feels like it captures the hurricane that strikes the bay from the perspective of a man who might know much less (or much more) than he's telling, the simple man who paints the boats of rich and poor, and leaves just as a storm smashes them to pieces. A song about isolating oneself from natural tragedy that has enough texture and perfectly balanced instrumentation to effortlessly evoke the stormy skies, 'Summer Painter' leaps into the list of Bill Callahan's best, and one of the most chilling, powerful songs of the year.

11. 'Merry Go Round' by Kacey Musgraves (from 'Same Trailer, Different Park')

The debut single from Kacey Musgraves' brilliant debut album, 'Merry Go Round' doesn't shy away from taking the myth of the rural American dream and gutting it. Less country than folk-inspired Americana, 'Merry Go Round' avoids being preachy through Musgraves' weary delivery, impeccable and vibrantly detailed songwriting, and perfect framing: she knows she's in the exact same boat as the people she's singing about, and it lends the song a sad honesty that's impossible to fake. And for a generation like mine who find it harder and harder to even replicate the fragile success that even their parents achieve, the song's feeling of helpless despair resonates all the more powerfully. What Lorde did for pop, Kacey Musgraves is doing for country - and I reckon Kacey's doing it a fair bit better.

10. 'Above And Beyond' by Deep Purple (from 'Now What?!')

Sometimes, you need to leave it to the masters. Deep Purple has never been the most critically respected band, but they hit it out of the park this year with their seventeenth album Now What?! and 'Above And Beyond' was the song that jumped onto my list above the rest. On sheer technical competency and ability to craft an interestingly complex melody line, only Ayreon and Dream Theater came close to Deep Purple, and  'Above and Beyond' was the star for an phenomenal keyboard hook, Ian Paice's brilliant drumwork, and songwriting paying tribute to the deceased Jon Lord, the insanely talented organist who helped make Deep Purple the iconic rock band they are today. And this incredible song is a fitting tribute.

9. 'Higgs Boson Blues' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (from 'Push The Sky Away')

A nine minute song exploring existential crises of religious faith in the face of scientific progress and the discovery of 'hidden knowledge', that references Robert Johnson, civil rights, mummified cats, and Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana? You'd better bet NIck Cave's bleak, blues-inspired epic is making this list! And while I can't quite deny that it's chilling how eerily prophetic Nick Cave's Miley references seem now after this year, 'Higgs Boson Blues' deserves so much more recognition for its phenomenal slow burn, brilliant lyrics, and muted guitar line that says so much more than words. Bravo, Nick Cave, you brilliant apocalypse prophet!

8. 'Follow Your Arrow' by Kacey Musgraves (from 'Same Trailer, Different Park')

It's the flip side to 'Merry Go Round', and it's arguably even better, taking the somber depression of that song and flipping into upbeat cheer to walk down a third path. It's light, it's relaxed and playful that hits the lines of what you could get away with in mainstream country and then goes past them, referencing pot, same-sex relationships, and open denigration of those who would impose contradictory standards of gender and religion. And what works so damn well about it is tone: Kacey blows through stereotypes and conventionality in a typically conservative genre with perfect ease. Sure, it's flighty and breezy and only transgressive if you stick with mainstream country, but Kacey's exuberance and the folk-inspired organic production makes it special all the same.

7. 'Blue Ridge Mountain Song' by Alan Jackson (from 'The Bluegrass Album')

Once again, sometimes you just need to leave it to the masters. The reason I unironically Alan Jackson's 'Blue Ridge Mountain Song' is the same reason I love Steven Spielberg's War Horse - it's simple, it's corny, and it really shouldn't be nearly as emotionally effective as it is, but Alan Jackson is just that good. Taking the template of Tim McGraw's 'Don't Take The Girl' and stretching it past the ambiguous ending of that song into something much darker and sadder, Alan Jackson brings real heart to this country-bluegrass song, supported by gorgeous violin and banjo work to a story that ends up being much more lonely than any song about love should be. Beautiful and heartbreaking, it's a sign that Alan Jackson has not lost his chops and deserves to be called a living legend of country music.

6. 'Sea Legs' by Run The Jewels (from 'Run The Jewels')

If we're looking for the masterclass in how to build simplicity out of fiendish complexity, 'Sea Legs' by Run The Jewels would be the final exhibit - mostly because the assertion of dominance El-P and Killer Mike bring to the table with this song has layers upon layers of excellence and awesomeness that are fused into one of the best songs of the year. El-P's dense and tumultuous production that manages to sound cohesive and textured and build to a phenomenal chorus that cements underground grime over mainstream opulence, coupled with disgustingly dense lyrics from both artists that take aim at both Jay-Z and Kanye West and buries them both. Not only is this smart hip-hop, it also has the good workman's sense to use that intelligence as a subtle selling point and overload the verses with multi-layered punchlines that would take a master to deconstruct or stop. And even with that, up against El-P and Killer Mike... yeah, I'd probably just surrender.

5. 'Feel Good Summer Song' by Scotty McCreery (from 'See You Tonight')

If we're talking about true surprises for me this year, it was this song from this artist. I did not expect anything from Scotty McCreery when I reviewed his new album, but 'Feel Good Summer Song' hit me like a ton of bricks. Easily the darkest country song I've heard in a long, long time, Scotty McCreery pulls the deep melancholy from this Shane McAnally-written tune into something damn near transcendent. Instrumentally in the vein of Garth Brooks' 'The Thunder Rolls' with the smoldering guitar and dreary piano, the song balances real grief at a failed relationship with broad cannon shots taken at the dominance of vapid bro-country. The song seethes with frustration and grief, and Scotty McCreery handles the emotional balance with the best performance of his career so far. Scotty, if you're looking for your next single, I can't imagine one better.

4. 'We Real Cool' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (from 'Push The Sky Away')

The bass line growls, the strings slide in and out at precisely timed moments, the piano is steeped in minor chords, and Nick Cave's voice nails the balance between bitter sarcasm and genuine sadness. 'We Real Cool' might not have the grandiose ambition of 'Higgs Boson Blues', but it's better for it, with a tighter focus on how humanity has accumulated so much knowledge in the age of the internet, yet we know, think, and remember less and less. There wasn't a song with more potent sarcasm released this year, but Nick Cave takes the far riskier option and includes himself in the framing, showing just how wretched and pathetic humanity has sunk in the devaluation of the mind over data. Yeah, 'we real cool' indeed...

3. 'Karate' by Brad Paisley ft. Charlie Daniels (from 'Wheelhouse')

See, here's what most don't know about Brad Paisley - he's got a taste for comedy, and a lot of his songs have jokier elements. I mean, for Christ's sake, he got Eric Idle of Monty Python for a song on this album! But Brad Paisley has a taste for serious material and can bring a pretty heavy punch when he needs to - and thus, we get 'Karate'. And really, there's a lot I love about this song, from the perfectly balanced variety of guitar tones to the riotous squeal of the fiddles to the production that gives them real force to Charlie Daniels' sports commentator on the bloody beatdown that takes place during the bridge.

Now granted, this is where the song gets into tricky territory - because some would make the argument that a song this upbeat and cheesy shouldn't be made surrounding the very real struggle of fighting against domestic abuse, and playing it for vicious catharsis can be hard to justify. But I'd argue Brad Paisley keeps it archetypal and broadly sketched enough that it works, with cleanly cut motivations for both sides with no moral ambiguity and only becoming punishingly visceral during Charlie Daniels' gleeful commentary track. It's borderline martial arts exploitation that practically begs to have the music video star Cynthia Rothrock - and yet, still has enough real force and energy and righteous anger to make it work, and work damn near perfectly in a Tarantino-esque explosion. Yeah, I said it. Brad Paisley, congratulations on making my favourite country song of the year - you earned it.

2. 'Touch' by Daft Punk ft. Paul Williams (from 'Random Accessed Memories')

There was not a more emotionally compelling song released this year. Daft Punk's Random Accessed Memories was a tour de force, but 'Touch' was the moment that soared so far above the rest of the album that it couldn't help but pale in comparison. For a electronic duo who have always specialized in making emotional and evocative music, it was a match made in heaven when they recruited one of the best songwriters of the 70s to make a song with cinematic ambitions to cross a half-dozen genres in a single song, from spacious electronica to funk and disco to a cacophony of instrumental swell to the horns of a swing dance breakdown that feels transplanted from half a century ago! Paul Williams' imperfect but perfectly poised delivery captures something truly special with his longing urge for something beyond simple contact, and it's hard not to feel incredibly moved in his tremulous delivery that suggests dreams he cannot quite put to words.

And after Paul Williams comes Daft Punk themselves, and goddamn it if those vocoder robots weren't going to try their damnedest to make you care about their struggle for love or contact or something more. It's the very same throughline that has always underscored the kitchy silliness of the Muppets, and Daft Punk make you care about them in the exact same way. Even as futuristic sound effects whir and the strings explode to the ultimate climax of silence, Daft Punk perfectly encapsulate the lonely longing for a special connection with another, and then the ecstasy of finding it. It's 2013's 'Rainbow Connection', and it nearly topped my list of the best songs of the year. What beat it?


1. 'Odds Are' by The Barenaked Ladies' (from 'Grinning Streak')

When I heard this song six months ago off the only decent album Grinning Streak, I knew immediately it would be the song to beat this year. To me, this song is pop perfection, and if it had been given to any mainstream artist, 'Blurred Lines' would not have ruled the summer this year. And the fact that's coming courtesy of one of my favourite bands of all time makes it even better (and a Canadian band to boot!), managing to recapture some of the 'lightning in a bottle' magic that made early Barenaked Ladies so special.

And every element works, from the steady percussion to the rollicking guitar riff, the bouncy piano line to Ed Robertson's wry delivery that balances amusement at the oddball lyrics to genuine heart when he brings it all together. It's a song that balances some pretty dark humour with the confidence that somehow it was all going to be all right in the end. But it goes beyond apocalyptic comedy into something a little bigger, the omnipresent hope that though the odds are long, you can still find love and hope and get that happy ending  - and you know what, by the end of the song, I believed it! And while I don't typically comment on videos, any music video produced by the guys who made Red vs. Blue and features volcanoes spewing baby dinosaurs cannot possibly be anything less than awesome.

I've been listening to this song nearly every day for the past six months, and I've never gotten sick of it. It's undiluted, pure pop rock perfection, and it's my favourite song of 2013! Let's only hope that we get music as incredible as this next year - but odds are, we're going to be alright.

1 comment:

  1. Dịp lễ kỷ niệm 10/10 này bạn chưa biết đi đâu?
    Vậy tại sao lại không cùng bạn bè và người thân đến Hương Sen và cùng nhau khám phá thiên đường Buffet Hải Sản Ngon & Lạ
    trong một không gian thật sang trọng.
    dịch vụ làm báo cáo tài chính tại bắc ninh
    dịch vụ báo cáo tài chính giá rẻ
    học kế toán tổng hợp thực tế
    Hôm nay thực sự hơi hụt hững . Nhưng đó không quan trọng , khi mình làm tốt hơn ng mà còn vượt qua cả bản thân mình .
    Khâm phục cả cái anh âm thầm lên kế hoạch