Best Songs of 2013

Another year, another 12 months full of brilliant music. This is the first in a few year-end posts I’ll be doing for my blog. I can’t play music to save my life, so talking about it is my passion. Here I’ve listed my 15 favourite tracks of the year, plus a few honourable mentions. Some were chart-toppers, others required a bit of searching to uncover, but all were outstanding. Let me know your thoughts – what have I missed? What should have been my #1? Check the tunes out, you may find some new music to enjoy that will send you down a glorious path. Just don’t ask me why “Riptide” is absent.

15. David Bowie – The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

You can probably count on one hand the rock stars still garnering praise well into their seventh decade. Tom Waits is one, Neil Young is another. David Bowie, the world’s most famous androgynous alien, made a triumphant return to music with The Next Day in March this year after nearly a decade away. And the rocking album’s second single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, proved that even at 66 years of age Bowie has lost absolutely none of his ability to make emotionally moving rock music. Driven by a cathartic Gerry Leonard riff, “Stars” examines mortality and the suffocating world of fame. The vocal finds Bowie in strong form as he plays with the lead line “stars are out tonight”. The immediate impulse is to view it from a literal point of view, but as the song goes on it becomes clear the word “out” takes on a much different meaning. The star-studded video, featuring Tilda Swanton as Bowie’s life, is brilliantly subversive.

14. Youth Lagoon – Dropla

Wondrous Bughouse, the second full-length from Idaho musician Trevor Powers, runs a suffocating 50 minutes, packed to the brim with wobbly synths and heavily layered vocals. But there were two quality standouts, the first, “Mute”, takes the aforementioned synths and vocals to their extreme, but its joyful, cacophonous spirit shines through. The second is “Dropla”, a beautifully melancholic ode to mental hardship. The heartbreaking couplet that comes about halfway through the track, just as the track swirls and builds around Powers’ powerfully clear, syncopated vocals, “you weren’t there when I needed you / I watched you going under”, is followed by the repeated, hopeful refrain “you will never die”. The song then winds down slowly, takes a breath, feeling that everything might just be alright.

13. Busta Rhymes – Thank You (feat. Q-Tip, Kanye West & Lil Wayne)

The second single from Busta Rhymes’ forthcoming sequel to his 1998 album Extinction Level Event, “Thank You” is one of the most effortlessly brilliant hip-hop tracks in recent times. There have been plenty of newer names making waves on the scene this year – ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper and plenty others have released good-to-great records – but the old guard still has plenty to offer.

“Thank You” rolls along for four minutes on a thoroughly enjoyable light piano riff, only occasionally interrupted by drum claps and a sample of Alicia Myers’ 1981 “I Wanna Thank You”. Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s appearances are both sweet, fly-by ad-libs, and were brought together by an enterprising Busta Rhymes, trying to cool a simmering feud between Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne’s YMCMB label and Yeezy and Q-Tip’s G.O.O.D. Music. Busta self-produced the track, and though it’s not the type of aggressive, fast-paced rap Busa Buss is best known for he works brilliantly with his own beat.

But it’s Q-Tip who’s the star – he floats effortlessly over the track, and proves that even 23 years after the release of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm that he remains one of the most talented MCs in the game. The Abstract and his peers might be getting on, but “Thank You” doubles as a note of appreciation for the careers they’ve been allowed and a laid-back demonstration of all the old guard still has to offer.

12. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Higgs Boson Blues

Nick Cave is the last person you’d have expected to namecheck Miley Cyrus in a song in 2013, but that’s exactly what happened. “Higgs Boson Blues”, the darkest, most menacing track on an album full of dark, menacing music, is eight minutes of tension, Cave’s intense vocals restrained by the minimal instrumentation courtesy of the Bad Seeds. In a year where plenty of popular tunes were marked by simple, everyman lyricism, “Higgs Boson Blues” – which really has nothing to do with the “God particle” which was discovered last year – finds Cave at his most eclectic. There’s “Robert Johnson with a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back”, “Lucifer with his canon law and 100 black babies running from his genocidal jaw”, and cleaning ladies who “sob into their mops”. The music soars and roars throughout, before slowing right down as Cave witnesses Miley Cyrus drowning in Toluca Lake. Supposedly he got the reference from a google search; how fitting then that now when one types in “higgs boson” the second drop-down suggestion is “higgs boson blues”. Check out the video – a jaw-dropping, nine-and-a-bit-minute rendition.

11. Queens of the Stone Age – If I Had a Tail

I’m not entirely sure why I listened to Queens of the Stone Age’s latest album, …Like Clockwork, this year. They’re a band that had never been on my radar – I’ve not heard any of their previous albums, always put them aside, of the belief it would be too heavy for my liking. So Clockwork was a pleasant surprise, full of quality rock songs and great hooks. The one song that I immediately adored, and constantly brought me back to the album, was “If I Had a Tail”. A filthy blues jam, it sounds like an awesome, long-lost, dirty Iggy Pop and Bowie collaboration, one that wouldn’t be out of place on Lust for Life. Vocalist Josh Homme even intones the pair, sounding at times like Pop did on “Some Weird Sin”, or Bowie on “Breaking Glass”. The film clip is the best video Gorillaz never released.

10. The Child of Lov – Fly

Multi-talented Dutch musician The Child of Lov, born Martijn William Zimri Teerlinck, passed away in early December following complications during surgery, after a life of pain of ill health. He released his self-titled debut this year, which featured Blur frontman Damon Albarn and mad villain MF DOOM. It was an impressive, eclectic set of songs, and the highlight was “Fly”, a paranoid, apocalyptic soul tune, with heavily layered vocals and instrumentation, sounding like something Gnarls Barkley might have put out had Cee-Lo smoked too much reefer. But beneath the powerful music and disguised vocals was Teerlinck, yearning for a better life. “Oh maybe this is time for goodbye / I really need my wings to fly / High / Up in the sky…” May he rest in peace.

9. ASAP Rocky – 1 Train (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.)

Two of the best tracks (“Goldie” and “Fuckin’ Problems”) from Long.Live.ASAP had already dropped by the time January rolled around. The album, Rocky’s official debut, was hit-and-miss, but a welcome surprise in the middle of the album was the monstrous “1 Train”. Effectively a more juvenile take on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck”, it features seven MCs rapping at their most lethal on top of a menacing-yet-understated beat from the in-form Hit-Boy. There is no chorus, each rapper simply drops a tight, succinct set of bars before getting out of the way for the next. Rocky, the most ordinary of the septet, opens with a calm, scene-setting verse that cites New York City’s 1 Train, running from the Bronx to Manhattan. Kendrick’s paranoid, violent verse sees him changing his flow several times before 18-year-old Joey Badass details a 6pm meeting with Jay-Z, and contemplates how he differs from his peers – “I’m thinkin’ bout signin’ to the Roc / but my niggas on the block still assigned to the rocks”. Danny Brown delivers a hilariously crude verse – “Dick so big stretch from Earth to Venus” – with a typically manic flow, then Action Bronson smooths the mood with a hazy weed verse, before Big K.R.I.T. closes proceedings with a darker, more frustrated point of view. “B.B. King saw the king in me so why can’t you?”

I’ve left the highlight of the song until last. Delivered in between Joey Badass and Danny Brown is white Alabama rapper Yelawolf’s monster verse, which grows in power with each line, craftily matched by Hit-Boy with the beat, culminating in killer final couplet, “ain’t been a rapper this cold since Tupac was froze / and thawed out for a spot date at a Coachella show, Yelawolf!”

8. Daft Punk – Get Lucky (feat. Nile Rodgers and Pharrell)

It was the biggest music event of the year. Despite not releasing an album proper since 2005’s scratchy Human After All, Daft Punk’s return with Random Access Memories, was a lesson in good marketing. There were 60 second promos on Saturday Night Live, interviews with collaborators, Coachella teasers, before finally, on April 13, “Get Lucky” dropped in full. Heavily influenced by disco and funk – it mashed perfectly with old Soul Train clips – “Get Lucky” was without doubt the biggest – and catchiest – earworm of the year, so perfectly crafted with its classic Nile Rodgers guitar riff, the easy-going, light, fun-loving Pharrell and of course those familiar robot vocals (which in themselves sparked a hilarious Peter Serafinowicz video). The song’s refrain – “we’re up all night to get lucky” – was about more than just casual sex, and it’s a credit to the production from all involved that “Get Lucky” carried that spirit wherever it was sung – Glastonbury, HTC launches or Wee Waa.

7. David Bridie – Delegate

Melbourne singer-songwriter David Bridie, perhaps best known for his bands Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend the Chocolate Cake, is not a big name. But he released one of the most important Australian singles of the year in June, the passionate, churning rock number “Delegate”, that I first heard on Triple R. Bridie, an advocate for fairer treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, delivers a brilliant yearning vocal over fuzzy, slow-burning guitar, telling an asylum seeker “you’ll fit right in with your miserable heart / your flag tattooed to your chest all tight / woe begone”. The lyrics in the verses are devastating too, pointing out that those people many xenophobic Australians so fear “are the ones who hate the least”. The accompanying video, directed by Matt Govoni, is a stunning, confronting piece of artwork that should make us all sit up and reflect on the damage being done to the souls of those needing salvation.

6. Sigur Rós – Ísjaki

Icelandic for “Iceberg”, “Ísjaki” is one of the poppier moments on Sigur Rós’ masterful latest record, Kveikur. As you would expect from the post-rock geniuses, it is brilliantly crafted, with gorgeous synth lines, clashing chimes, propulsive drumming, and a typically stellar, otherworldly vocal from frontman Jónsi. But, much like the remainder of the album, on “Ísjaki” there is still a feeling of darkness, a sense of urgency, bubbling underneath its ethereal beauty, reflected in Jónsi’s lyrics, which translated tell a bleak tale of a relationship coming to an end.

5. James Blake – Voyeur

The second album from the 25-year-old English producer James Blake, Overgrown, largely eschewed the soft, beat-less tracks that were littered across his self-titled debut for a heavier bass-led sound. It resulted in some hefty rewards for us devotees of Blake’s brand of dubstep, most notably “Voyeur”, the first Blake track you could right call a “banger”. It begins innocently enough, with a light drum tic and some deep, resonant bass lines as Blake croons about a relationship. But at the 53-second mark, the tone changes dramatically, getting much darker and more intense. The following three-and-a-half minutes drift flawlessly through minimal techno, with a persistent cowbell and a distant, repeated “and her mind was on me” refrain. And then, just when you think its pleasures have finished – indeed had “Voyeur” been produced a few years ago it might have ended early – Blake mixes in a wicked deep house beat as he rides the track to a satisfying conclusion.

4. Bonobo – Cirrus

Simon Green, better known as UK producer Bonobo, has been putting out quality downtempo electronic music for more than a decade now, but it would be hard to pinpoint a track in his oeuvre as hypnotic as “Cirrus”. The lead single from his latest masterpiece, The North Borders, “Cirrus”, all whirring, metallic percussion and dreamy chimes, dropped at the start of the year and was in heavy rotation all year. Expertly crafted, it drifts from slowly from dreamland into crunching, heavy electro before slowly unwinding. The video, directed by Cyriak, shows a series of old stock images of families which gradually intertwine into a trippy collage of otherworldly machinery.

3. Kanye West – Bound 2

Kanye West’s Yeezus was an aggressive, angry affair. Barely relenting from the time the razor-edged synths of “On Sight” start up to the final synth stab of “Send It Up”, closer “Bound 2” is an anomaly on Kanye’s sixth studio album. The first thing we hear is a chopped-up, pitch-shifted sample of the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s 1971 track “Bound”. It’s easily the prettiest moment on the record, and forms the basis of the track, the only one on Yeezus which harkens back to his soul sound of earlier records.

After spending the previous 37 minutes ranting hard and fast about racism, deities, Toyota Corollas and croissants, Kanye takes a breath before opening “Bound 2”, an ode to his now-fiancé Kim Kardashian. Here he’s at his funny, loquacious, pop-culture-loving best. He’s not an idiot, he knows he’s got a “bad reputation”, but in Kanye’s world, that’s a chance to “start a Fight Club, Brad reputation”.

When he’s discussing girls elsewhere on Yeezus Kanye is often crass – “that’s when David Grutman kicked her out / but I got her back in and put my dick her mouth”, “black girl sipping white wine / I put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” – and though he doesn’t avoid that entirely on “Bound 2”, he is romantic in his own way: “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches”. (Just be careful with the mink.) For all the criticism he cops, an insecure Kanye does appear to truly love Kim, as the lyrics show, and he will work hard to keep them together – “we made it to Thanksgiving / so hey, maybe we could make it to Christmas!”

The video that followed was an odd moment, but earlier performances of the track with an in-form Charlie Wilson on Fallon and Jools Holland go to show Yeezy is not only at the top of his game, but at the top of the game.

Watch the Fallon performance here via Daily Motion.

2. Los Campesinos! – Cemetery Gaits

Welsh indie rock sextet Los Campesinos! have always been a band happy to wear their influences on their sleeves, not afraid to use intertextuality as a gambit to separate themselves from their peers. On No Blues highlight “Cemetery Gaits” the band hit an interesting dichotomy. The title is a play on The Smiths’ classic “Cemetry Gates”, and there are similarities to be found in the lyrics – lead singer and lyricist Gareth David even asks “they boast of poets on their side / but what use will they be if this comes to a fight?” – but musically, they couldn’t be more different. “Cemetery Gaits” portrays an air of dread throughout, starting off slowly with acoustic guitar and a series of anxious synth notes, building and building until the drums kick in and Gareth’s urgent vocal begins nearly a minute in. He has never been in better form vocally, and the chorus, aided by a brilliant guitar riff and horns, soars, resulting in one of the band’s very best songs.

1. The Juan Maclean – You Are My Destiny (feat. Nancy Whang)

There was no shortage of ridiculously good dance music in 2013. But it was deep house – a genre spawned from Chicago nightclubs in the mid-80s – that had a year to remember. Ben Pearce’s wormy masterpiece “What I Might Do”, Julio Bashmore’s “Au Seve”, Duke Dumont’s “Need U 100%” and pretty much the entirety of Disclosure’s album all deserve honourable mentions.

But there was one track that stood out above them all. The Juan Maclean is American producer and DFA alumni John MacLean, and over the course of a decade he has developed a formidable reputation for innovative electronic music. Back in March, with frequent collaborator and former LCD Soundsystem back-up vocalist Nancy Whang, he dropped “You Are My Destiny”, eight-and-a-half minutes of immaculate deep house, fit for dark, dank nightclubs. Whang’s reverberated, chopped and twisted vocals are epic and a perfect companion to Maclean’s fluid, pulsating beats. A template for others to follow.

Honourable Mentions

Moderat – Bad Kingdom

A fat, fuzzy bass synth line, terrific production and an addictive, downtrodden chorus.

Tom Waits and Keith Richards – Shenandoah

Two bona fide music legends deliver a beautiful take on an old American folk song for sea shanties compilation Son of Rogue’s Gallery.

Tyler the Creator – Answer

Another reminder that beneath the juvenile exterior, Tyler is capable of affecting hip-hop.

Autre Ne Veut – Play By Play

Sensational synth-pop tune with an absolutely massive chorus.

Hot Chip – Dark and Stormy

Another deliciously dark and swirling dance tune from the evergreen British beat-sters.

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