Friday, 10 January 2014

Best Songs of 2013: #15 to #1

The first part of this list, which includes songs #25-#16, can be read here. 

15. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
I’m not sure if “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the instant classic some say it is; the song works best as part of Nothing Was the Same’s overall emotional arc, where it has a proper fadeout instead of the single version's strangely abrupt ending. There's no denying Drake's suaveness and charm, though, or how the song immediately makes you want to dance. 

14. Lana Del Rey – “Young and Beautiful”
It's probably for the best that "Young and Beautiful" was only briefly featured in Baz Luhrmann's mixed-bag adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Lana Del Rey's song deserves to heard separate from the film it was written for - a sweeping ballad showcasing Del Rey's nuanced vocals. Free of the heaviness that occasionally dragged down Born to Die, “Young and Beautiful” shows why listeners were drawn to Del Rey’s music in the first place. 

13. Matt Pond – “Love to Get Used”
The first time I heard “Love to Get Used,” I honestly assumed Matt Pond was Canadian – the opening lines mention Athabasca, but more than that, I couldn’t figure out why this song wasn’t getting more exposure. Since then, I’ve learned that Pond hails from New York and has been active for over a decade as the frontman of the indie rock band Matt Pond PA, but that doesn’t dampen the song’s impact. “Love to Get Used” feels effortlessly cool, boasts a killer chorus, is subtle but tuneful, and has a perfect bridge - and yet it's the sum of all these parts. 

12. She & Him – “Turn to White”
Zooey Deschanel has written many songs influenced by the music of the 1960s and ‘70s as a member of She & Him, but “Turn to White” is one of the few that feel like a genuine lost classic, gentle as a summer breeze with lyrics that are at once melancholy and upbeat. Deschanel's wistful delivery, along with M. Ward's stellar guitar work, make "Turn to White" one of the duo's finest compositions to date. 

11. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
The visuals associated with a song have always had some degree of impact on the song itself. However, since the birth of YouTube in 2005, visuals have become so inextricably linked with music that a video frequently draws more attention than the song itself. If there was ever a song that deserved to be heard on its own, outside the context of its accompanying music video, it's "Wrecking Ball." The song's emotions and imagery may not be particularly subtle, but there's enough grit and humanity in Cyrus' voice to separate "Wrecking Ball" from its bombastic, over-processed kin. 

Head below the fold for #10 to #1. 
10. Neko Case – “Night Still Comes”
“Night Still Comes” is in waltz time, but it’s far from romantic; it has the same bittersweet tone and candour that characterize Case’s most underrated, or underappreciated, work. (“Vengeance is Sleeping” and “Stinging Velvet” come to mind as prime examples.) At the heart of the song is its perfect one-line chorus, but “Night Still Comes” is far more than just a showcase for a single turn of phrase. 

9. Eleanor Friedberger – “Other Boys”
Eleanor Friedberger’s quietly devastating “Other Boys” is a lyrical masterpiece: tender, barbed and empathetic in equal measure, it inventively describes the various flames of the narrator’s lover (“the spider you kissed in her stairwell”, “the blonde who’s in a band with her twin”) while asserting that “there are other boys, too,” a claim that becomes increasingly suspect as the song continues, building at a stately pace until it's overcome by its own emotional weight.

8. Haim – “Falling”
I originally considered including both “Falling” and “The Wire” on this list, but I decided to go with “Falling” in the end. While “The Wire” demonstrates the Haim sisters’ talent for making great singles, “Falling” shows why they will have a career beyond Days Are Gone, rising above the album’s other flawless pop gems to create something even more immediate and powerful.

7. Janelle Monáe – “Dance Apocalyptic”
Endlessly enjoyable, “Dance Apocalyptic” is so light-footed and fun that it’s easy to overlook how meticulously crafted it is. This attention to detail, however, doesn’t distract from the immediate rush the song provides. Monae makes music with a conscience, and “Dance Apocalyptic” is no different, but it’s not by any means didactic  it's celebratory, but knows that celebration doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

6. Daft Punk – "Get Lucky”
"Get Lucky" approaches perfection without being too self-conscious about it. A song such as "Get Lucky" arguably lives and dies based on its percussion, and the track blends synthetic beats with handclaps and finger-snaps, reminding listeners that while technology can help you make an excellent song of any genre, there has to be some human element there or it simply won't work.

5. The National – “Don’t Swallow the Cap”
On “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” The National frontman and lyricist Matt Berninger crafts a perfect blend of effervescence and self-doubt. Includes the second-best of backing vocals all year (we’ll get to the best use below), and hopeful yet heartbreaking lyrics delivered by Berninger in his trademark wry, occasionally weary baritone.

4. The Lone Bellow – “You Never Need Nobody”
I came across “You Never Need Nobody” in May, five months after its release in January, but it didn’t take long for the song to become a bit of an obsession of mine. As with several other songs on the band’s self-titled debut, “You Never Need Nobody” could have benefitted from a more pared-back arrangement, but the sheer power and passion in Zack Williams’ voice, both live and on record, more than make up for it. 

3. London Grammar – “Wasting My Young Years”
The first time I heard “Wasting My Young Years,” I knew that it would be among my top five songs this year, and my initial instinct has held up. Hannah Reid’s vocal performance is absolutely spellbinding – she sings with wisdom and insight that seem impossible coming from someone in their early twenties. “Wasting My Young Years” moves beyond mere chronicle to become truly timeless and, dare I say it, near-transcendent.

2. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
One of the most subtle and sophisticated singles released in 2013 – and, cleverly, one of the easiest to sing along with. "Ya Hey" is a summation of all Vampire Weekend say on Modern Vampires of the City and a brilliant song all by itself. While it requires more thought to fully comprehend than the average pop song does, the effort is well worth it, only deepening one's admiration for what Vampire Weekend have managed to pull off. 

1. The National – “This is the Last Time”
I had tremendous difficulty choosing a song that would comfortably sit at the top of this list, a song I could call the best song of 2013 with genuine confidence. Most of the songs I had decided would be in the Top 10 seemed to be perfectly happy with where they were ranked.

There was one song, however, that had been on my mind all throughout this process, a song I felt ought to be mentioned in some way but was far too good to be an Honourable Mention or receive a Special Jury Prize.

That song – my pick for best song of 2013 – was “This is the Last Time" by The National. 

I knew, in selecting it, I would be breaking one of my personal rules: only one song per artist, no exceptions. But in a year where several of my choices were already breaking a rule of mine – no songs released in 2012 – I figured I could get away with disregarding another.

“This is the Last Time” is the best song of 2013 for myriad reasons. The skeletal guitar that opens the track. Bryan Devendorf's inventive drumming. The way "This is the Last Time" constantly surprises the listener, always adding some new sonic touch that strengthens, but never overpowers, the song as a whole. How it breaks into an absolutely perfect, string-led ending, an effect the band last used, in a slightly less accomplished form, on 2003’s “Cardinal Song.” Annie Clark’s backing vocals, which speak for themselves, and are the best use of backing vocals all year. And, of course, Matt Berninger’s own expressive baritone and emotionally complex lyrics, which could be addressed to a partner, a child, or even Berninger himself, depending on which line you look at.

There's so much to talk about with "This is the Last Time,"but nothing comes close to the experience of putting the song on, closing your eyes, and simply listening to it. Marrying the visceral and deeply human with the evocative and abstract, "This is the Last Time" is a genuine masterpiece. 

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