“Some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring / Oh but I know love as a fading thing / Just as fickle as a feather in a stream.” So begins “Song For Zula,” a beauteous six-minute ballad courtesy of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Matthew Houck and co. It’s a delicate, swelling ode to love’s ebb-and-flow, replete with lo-fi beats, strident strings, synths shimmering in the distance, and Houck’s broken, soulful voice. A sonic poem that tugs at the heartstrings.
What a bizarre act of reappropriation this is. The standout track off Kanye West’s fascinating sixth solo LP, Yeezus, is a mélange of charging brass, ADD lo-fi beats, auto-tuned vocals, and a sample of Nina Simone’s anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” all in the service of a rap melodrama about power-hungry MC dealing with his side piece. The tune combines the soulfulness of 808’s & Heartbreak with the vitriol of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and encapsulates West’s penchant for compelling hyperbole, as well as Yeezus’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
No, not the (recently retired) American tennis player. This is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from London whose sophomore album, Overgrown, won the Mercury Prize in 2013. “Retrograde” was inspired by musical session last year between Blake, Bon Iver, and Kanye West, and the result is a stunning, four-minute track featuring Blake’s delicate vocals—a mix of Antony Hegarty and Justin Vernon—over some eclectic lo-fi beats. It’s simultaneously ethereal and funereal, and will haunt your ears for days.
This track best exemplifies why Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, established them as a potentially great band. It’s title is derived from “Yahweh,” the Hebrew word for God, and the song illustrates someone’s—singer Ezra Koenig’s?—inner struggle between religious conformity and blasphemy. “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am’ / But who could ever live that way?” croons Koenig, his serene vocals perfectly complimented by an instrumental cornucopia: piano twinkles, shining synths, handclaps, piercing vocoder, gospel hymns, and more. This is Dante’s Inferno by way of Paul Simon and Brooklyn; a symphonic ode to the plight of overeducated, disillusioned millennials.
“Royals,” this 17-year-old, husky-voiced New Zealand chanteuse’s satire of “money, cash, hoes” hip-hop imagery, may have dominated the airwaves, but the most addictive song off Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s debut LP Pure Heroine is “Team.” Lorde is a siren for the small-town kids—ones that feel divorced from the cultural zeitgeist—and this wonderful tune, with it’s soaring, addictive chorus, tells them that they’re not alone: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen / Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things / Living in ruins of the palace within my dreams / And you know, we’re on each other’s team.”
This funky, synth-y track hit the Internet in mid-2012, but wasn’t officially released as a single until this year. Produced by Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced recent albums by Haim and Vampire Weekend, it’s an ‘80s dance-pop tune in the vein of Madonna chronicling a bad breakup, with Ferreira’s airy, sexy vocals refashioning the somber tale into a lusty plea for crazy, stupid, love.
This very ‘90s-sounding garage rock tune chronicles the trials and tribulations of a stoned dude ambling around Ridgewood, Queens, in search of some tasty grub. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? It’s our Ulysses… sort of. It sounds meandering and repetitive, but after repeat listens, grows into an addictive mantra filled with shrieking guitars, rollicking drums, and a heavy dose of contempo malaise. Plus, any time Swedish Fish get name-checked is a plus in my book.
The best songs by this ever-impressive Brooklyn-based indie rock band are slow-burners—low-key ballads that swell into towering, operatic ones (“About Today” being a prime example). “I Should Live in Salt” is the standout track off the group’s sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me, and is dedicated to singer Matt Berninger’s eccentric brother, Tom. It’s a heartbreaking plea for forgiveness that sees Berninger crooning, “I should live in salt for leaving you… behind… behind.” Really powerful, moving stuff.
OK, I’m cheating a bit here by including a remix but this addictive one combines two of my favorite new acts to emerge in 2013: New York-based electro duo MS MR and Scottish synthpop outfit Chvrches. Both are led by dynamic front women, the former being the colorfully-haired record label exec-cum-singer Lizzy Plapinger, and the latter, spritely journalist-cum-singer Lauren Mayberry. This remix merges Plapinger’s dark, haunting lyrics—“Welcome to the inner workings of my mind / So dark and foul I can’t disguise, can’t disguise,” she sings—with Chvrches’s bouncy synths to create a wildly addictive pop tune.
It’s the rap verse that turned the hip-hop world on its head. While the track may be credited to Big Sean, it’s Kendrick Lamar’s second verse on it, which called out virtually every rapper in the game—including song-mates Big Sean and Jay Electronica—that stood out, putting everyone on blast for their complacency and bullshit materialism.
Here’s a taste:
“I heard the barbershops be in great debates all the
‘Bout who’s the best MC? Kendrick, Jigga and Nas
Eminem, Andre 3000, the rest of y’all
New niggas just new niggas, don’t get involved
And I ain’t rocking no more designer shit
White T’s and Nike Cortez, this red Corvettes anonymous
I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ with
But this is hip-hop and them niggas should know what time it is
And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, Wale
Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake
Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller
I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas
Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas
They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas…”
Queen B surprised the world by secretly dropping her eponymous fifth solo album, Beyoncé, on Dec. 13 via iTunes. Featuring dazzling production by The Dream and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder—an eclectic mix of shimmering synths, charging beats, and electro bleeps—it’s an uplifting and absolutely massive arena-ready pop anthem featuring a big ol’ monster of a chorus with Bey, aided by echoing backup vocalists, singing, “In the darkest night, I’ll / I’ll search through the crowd / Your face is all that I see / I’ll give you everything / Baby love me lights out / Baby love me lights out / You can turn my light down.”
12. Disclosure Feat. AlunaGeorge — “White Noise”
This electro tune features two of the most exciting new acts to come about in 2013—the UK electronic duo Disclosure, consisting of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, and songstress Aluna Francis (of AlunaGeorge). “White Noise” is the second single off Disclosure’s debut studio album, Settle, and features a ridiculously manic beat—swirling xylophone-esque synths and clubby bassline over even more layered synths—with Aluna’s gorgeous, pitched vocals purring over it. “Lately I’ve been thinking if you wanna get tough, then let’s play rough / I don’t need you, giving it straight to me, giving it straight to me / Just gonna get my back. / I don’t need you, telling me how to be, telling me how to be / Just gonna get my back.” Hypnotizing.
13. Miley Cyrus — “We Can’t Stop”
What do you do when your last album tanks and you’re struggling to shed your cherub-faced Disney image? If your name is Miley Ray Cyrus, you try to Inception everyone into thinking that cute lil’ munchkin never existed by twerking, fellating, tongue-wagging, and weed-smoking like there’s no tomorrow. But, image and cultural appropriation issues aside—which is nothing new in pop music, by the way—Cyrus did manage to create one of the most addictive pop anthems of the year. “We Can’t Stop,” off her schizo LP Bangerz, features dazzling production by Mike Will Made It, carefree lyrics, and the catchiest (and most sing-along worthy) chorus of the year.