Lorde was easily 2013’s most significant newcomer. The New Zealander was only 16 when her breakout hit, “Royals” crept up to #1, becoming one of the biggest hits in the entire world this year. The song pretty much crossed over into almost every format imaginable, all before becoming an actual pop hit. What makes the song so great is how simple and understated it is. “Royals” has that cool, stripped down, “hipster hop” vibe to it that relies heavily on Lorde’s charismatic and memorable melody. There’s nothing about the song that doesn’t come together in a cosmic fashion, so you really have to acknowledge her for crafting probably the biggest overall tour de force of the year. It’s unfortunate that it has all the makings for a one hit wonder.
24. “Late Night”
Why Foals isn’t one of the biggest bands on the planet is an ongoing mystery that has yet to be resolved. The English group released their outstanding third studio album, Holy Fire, this year after a pair of singles that rounded out the end of 2012, the latter of which, “My Number” became their biggest hit to date. On this side of the New Year, though, it was “Late Night” that got the spotlight. It may not have been the most recognized single off the record, but it is easily the best. The band really relied on the power of layers here, weaving together delicate parts that build and build to a soaring climax. When it all drops off and that almost funky bass line pumps out, the goosebumps have started spawning goosebumps of their own. The song is pure magic.
After spending most of 2012 cranking out incredible tunes for artists like Solange and Sky Ferreira, Dev Hynes, under his alias Blood Orange, gave us some music of his own. His album Cupid Deluxe is jam packed with impeccably crafted pieces of music, but there is one that truly does stick out above the rest. Fittingly the album’s first single, “Chamakay,” featuring additional vocal help from Caroline Polachek, is so incredible, it’s gobsmacking. Hynes really showcases just how talented he is as a songwriter, producer, musician, and vocalist here. “Chamakay” is R&B for the “hipster” crowd, but there’s no pretension about it. There’s a smoothness throughout, but it’s really just how rough around the edges it is that makes it so powerful and endearing.
22. “All The Time”
By this point, we know that when The Strokes release new music, it’s going to be pretty great. These reliable alt rockers graced us with their fifth studio album, Comedown Machine this year, lead by the anthemic “All The Time.” The track is textbook Strokes from start to finish, which, by definition, makes it awesome. The way they were able to, yet again, create a relatively laidback track that feigns intense energy just goes to show that these guys know exactly what they’re doing. The chorus feel like a jubilant release that will unrelentingly lodge itself in your brain and empower you to throw your hands up in the air; basically, it’s the perfect concert sing-a-long. “All The Time” really exemplifies how important of a band The Strokes continue to be.
21. “Hearts Like Ours”
The Naked And Famous
The Naked And Famous are proving that synthpop can still have the same creative spark it did back in post punk’s hey day, and you have the praise them for it. This year, the New Zealand band released their greatest single to date, “Hearts Like Ours,” lifted from their second studio LP, In Rolling Waves. The track has the same playful fight for prominence between guitar and synth that drove this genre in the 80s, but there’s nothing particularly lighthearted and carefree about it. “Hearts” relies heavily on the powerful atmosphere it creates to drive its simple, almost predictable melody. When the track hits its stride, there’s a weary euphoria that explodes from it and pinpoints just the right emotion. The band got it really right with this one.
20. “Kiss Land”
There’s no one as enigmatic in music at the moment as The Weeknd. The Canadian artist released his first official studio album, Kiss Land, this year to much acclaim, but it was really its lead single and title track that sucked up most of the excitement. This 7 and a half minute opus takes hip hop and R&B and completely turns them upside. The track is menacing and anxious, juxtaposing the super-low roar of the bass with his soulful vocals that delicately approach the upper regions of his register. There are two distinct phases to the song that are seamlessly strung together, making for an experience that never feels redundant or contrived. “Kiss Land” is the kind of song that an artist has to be both crazy and genius to make; The Weeknd is clearly both.
19. “White Noise”
Disclosure featuring AlunaGeorge
No one in EDM was nearly as exciting and rejuvenating as Disclosure was in ’13. The English duo finally released their debut album, Settle, this year, which brought them enormous commercial success in their native UK, but earned them international attention. Through it all, “White Noise” was showcased as their magnum opus and became their biggest hit. Prominently featuring another one of 2013’s incredible breakout acts, AlunaGeorge, the song doesn’t play into any of the clichés or cheap tricks. They never cross the line of excess, yet delicately approach it, and still manage to create euphoria; it’s genius.
18. “Young And Beautiful”
Lana Del Rey
In a strange twist of fate, once all of the hype and excitement surrounding Lana Del Rey cleared, she actually then became a commercially viable artist. 2013 saw the worldwide commercial emergence of the former-Lizzy Grant, thanks largely in part to her contribution to The Great Gatsby soundtrack, “Young and Beautiful.,” one of her greatest tracks to date. In many ways, it’s all textbook Lana… trilling vocals on top of a big, orchestrally tinged arrangement coming together to form a lush ballad… but it works. “Young and Beautiful” is so strikingly poignant and powerful that it made us all take a step back and remember how great of an artist she actually is. Lana Del Rey is making the multi-facted genre of “pop” that much broader.
17. “Came Back Haunted”
Nine Inch Nails
The return of Nine Inch Nails was, in all honestly, predictably awesome. In their 5 year absence, Trent Reznor and co. subtly stepped into “living legend” status, so when they decided to make their comeback, the anticipation was through the roof. “Came Back Haunted” had a thick air of expectation around it, but it fearlessly lived up to it, and then some. Electro-rock is a dime a dozen these days, but the track proves that no one can tackle it quite like N.I.N. can. Part of “Haunted” feels plucked right from new wave’s hey day, but it never strays too far from that classic industrial sound they made so iconic. Even the fact that it tackles the idea of “comeback” right in the lyrics doesn’t hurt it. Clearly, Trent is still a genius who knows how craft one hell of a track.
This year, Phoenix became heroes. The French alternative pop rockers have long been acknowledged for their keyboard-heavy anthems, but with the release of their 5th studio album, Bankrupt!, the group were officially welcomed up to a higher pedestal. The album’s lead single, “Entertainment,” set the tone for the whole thing. The track shines brightly around a euphoric pentatonic motif reminiscent of Bowie’s “China Girl,” but it’s really the drawn back chorus that inarguably begs for a festival-like sing-a-long that makes it so epic. The group’s natural personality confidently comes shining through in a way that solidifies them as a tour de force in the ever-growing world of euphorically emotional electro-rock.
15. “Blurred Lines”
Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell
There was absolutely no pop juggernaut in 2013 that even came close to comparing to “Blurred Lines.” Unlike most of “those” tracks, though, this one is actually really damn good. I’m not sure anyone would have thought that 2013 would have been Robin Thicke’s year to shine, but when you’ve got Pharrell on board, anything is possible. Throw in a rap from T.I., and it just seems all too obvious. “Blurred Lines” plays into the whole “70s soul throwback jam” craze that saturated pop music this year, but did so was such finesse and sleaziness that there was no way to stop it. Thicke’s unapologetically authoritative delivery bares a stark contrast to how someone like Marvin Gaye would have delivered it 40 years ago, but I guess that’s why it’s a hit now.
James Blake’s “Retrograde” was one of the most awe inspiring musical moments of the entire year. The track, written, performed, and produced exclusively by Blake himself, is eloquently simple, relying on a hip hop-lite beat to drive his trademark hollow vocals and landscape of synthesizers. The parts themselves are all very basic, reduced down to just simple chords at times, but the way everything comes together is completely masterful, and the result is undeniably powerful. Even the lyrics come across just another layer of instrumentation, heightening the overall atmosphere. “Retrograde” showcases James Blake’s intuition and confidence to make something resonate so incredibly out of practically nothing. It’s really no surprise that it had such a strong impact.
13. “Power Trip”
J. Cole featuring Miguel
J. Cole’s Born Sinner LP was easily one of hip hop’s brightest moments this year, and its lead single, “Power Trip,” was an absolute force to be reckoned with. The track certainly packs a punch, but it remains laidback; the vocal assistance from Miguel certainly adds to that vibe. Bobbing in and out of samples, hooks, and purposely subtle beats, J has complete control from start to finish. He manages to take a track that reeks of desperation and blind determination and make it actually sound romantic and purposeful. “Power Trip” could be the song that ultimately defines J. Cole’s already impressive career, and that will only end up working in his favor. At the end of the day, a truly great track will always resonate, and this is a truly great track.
Janelle Monáe featuring Erykah Badu
It’s a pairing that makes so much sense, but the fact that it actually happened feels too good to be true.. When you take Janelle Monáe, modern soul’s current resident genius, and pair her with Erykah Badu, nu soul/hip hop’s eternal goddess, the end result is bound to be incredible, but “Q.U.E.E.N.” just takes it a little further. You can compare the track to everyone from Prince to Diana Ross, but despite how classic in nature it sounds, the track could not be more relevant to R&B in 2013. The melody is slick, the production is masterfully intricate, but nothing resonates more than the charisma of these two brilliant ladies. “Q.U.E.E.N.” is psychedelic, it’s groovy, it’s soulful, but, most strikingly, it’s actually commercially viable. You’ve got to give it up for Janelle once again.
11. “Step Up For The Cool Cats”
After building all the hype and excitement last year, 2013 saw the proper emergence of Palma Violets. Just prior to the release of their incredible debut album, 180, the British indie rockers unveiled their second single, “Step Up For The Cool Cats,” and it felt like the stars had aligned. Furnished with a peaceful organ progression and a memorable set of guitar riffs, the band lets simplicity work its magic. The end result is a track that’s beautifully catchy and anthemic, but masterfully walks the tightrope between polished and underproduced. “Cool Cats” could have been an indie anthem 30 years ago, and it will still feel like one 30 years from now, and that really goes to show the greatness of Palma Violets. The band has every opportunity at its hands now.
10. “Do I Wanna Know?”
There may have been a year and half gap in between singles from the Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, AM, but that time was filled with an appearance at the the London Olympics Opening Ceremony and a coveted headlining slot at Glastonbury. By the time “Do I Wanna Know?” was released, they were set up to shine. The funny thing is that the song is so good that it didn’t even need any additional prep work. With a thundering drum beat, laidback melody, and searing guitars, “Do I Wanna Know?” is textbook Monkeys, and that, by definition, makes it brilliant.
09. “Master Hunter”
British songstress Laura Marling dispelled the myth that folk and folk rock had to become too bastardized, contrived, and uninventive to gain any attention. Her Once I Was An Eagle LP was one of 2013’s most awe inspiring landmarks, and its lead single, “Master Hunter” proved just how important this genre could still be. The track has a cacophonous intensity and rawness about it that rides a linear, emotionally jarring, Bob Dylan-inspired melody; the result is nothing short of beautiful. “Master Hunter” is the kind of song that feels so brutally honest both lyrically and musically that it actually becomes endearing. Laura Marling crafted a song that feels so timeless and multifaceted, that it’s difficult not to get completely submerged in its greatness.
“Falling” was HAIM’s proper declaration that they were a force to be reckoned with. After a pair of highly regarded singles in 2012, this was the track that proved they had some commercial viability to boot. The track has an exciting aura about it that playfully toys with our expectations and emotions, but showcases the depth of talent these three sisters have as both musicians and as songwriters. Between Danielle’s atmospheric guitar solo, Este’s funky bass line, and Alana’s delicate touch on the keys, it’s when they all come together to unleash that masterfully intricate hook that the magic happens. “Falling” is the kind of track that feels like a statement, both for the sisters Haim, and for alternative pop as we know it.
Australian hip hop artist Iggy Azalea fearlessly upped the game this year with her breakout single “Work.” The track is far beyond a demo or mixtape fixture, but it has that same innate charisma, and it refuses any sort of candy coating. There’s no bullshit in or around it, and what ends up coming out is a naturally catchy and cleverly pieced together electro-hip hop song with plenty of “moments” to keep you wanting to go back for more. Truthfully, though, it’s her audacious one-liners that showcase her desire to push boundaries and make a serious name for herself. “Work” definitely perplexed and divided hip hop enthusiasts, but at the end of the day, no matter what vantage you’re listening from, you genuinely have to call the song a total knockout.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It had been a solid 4 years since we’d last heard anything new from the incredible Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so when they announced their Mosquito album, there was an air of excitement surrounding it as if they’d been gone for 20 years. It’s always best to expect the unexpected with them, but I’m not sure anyone could have conceived just what lead single “Sacrilege” would end up being. The joyousness of the music juxtaposes incredibly with the conflicted lyrics, giving frontwoman Karen O the opportunity to shine in ways that never cease to impress. The meat of the song swirls with anticipation all before launching in the greatest gospel choir climax since “Like A Prayer.” Believe me, there will be goosebumps every single time.
05. “Diane Young”
Long story short, “Diane Young” was easily 2013’s indie anthem. In just under 3 minutes, Vampire Weekend managed to jam-pack so many ideas into one song that it all feels like a whirlwind, but the ride is nothing but a good time. Between the greatest melody Buddy Holly never got the chance to write, the playfully haphazard wall of guitars, and the knob-happy (borderline inappropriate) vocal distortions, the only reason the song actually works is because the band know exactly what they’re doing. “Diane Young” has a sincere “caution to the wind” mentality about it, which pairs well with the lyrics, and the end result is the kind of song that is not only impossible to ignore, but impossible not to like.
04. “Black Skinhead”
When Kanye West is at his bat shit craziest, we all reap the benefits. The audaciously titled Yeezus LP was unleashed on the world without a lead single to stand on, but “Black Skinhead” was so ingeniously captivating that it’s safe to say that it assumed that position all on its own. Initially thought to sample Marilyn Manson, the track is built around a simple, breathy syncopated beat decorated with a noisy metal guitar riff, all co-produced by none other than Daft Punk. However, it’s Kanye’s possessed, but empowered vocals that bring everything together; the way he manages to weave in and out of the beat just goes to show how intuitively off the wall he is. On the whole, “Black Skinhead” was really hip hop’s crowning jewel of 2013.
It was no surprise to anyone that Arcade Fire’s 2013 output was particularly awesome. “Reflektor,” the title track and lead single from their fourth studio album, was just a little more awesome than anyone could have anticipated, though. The 7 and a half minute epic is so impeccably thought out that every second of it feels intentional, which is an incredible accomplishment considering how circular it is. To top it all off, as if it couldn’t get any better, “Reflektor” features a brief, but noteworthy guest spot from none other than David (Effin’) Bowie. This song has serious implications surrounding it; I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes down in history as Arcade Fire’s greatest piece of music.
02. “Where Are We Now?”
After the ball dropped welcoming us into 2013, I’m not sure that anyone would have believed that the surprise comeback of the year was only a week away. Stealthily and unannounced, David Bowie unleashed brand new single, “Where Are We Now?” on his 66th birthday, a decade since we last heard anything from him. Needless to say, the shock and awe were palpable, but they paled in comparison to the stunning quality of the track itself. It’s beautiful, it’s reflective, it’s powerful, it’s fragile, but, most importantly, it’s still as cool as anything Bowie’s ever made. Within 8 days of the year, we were gifted a track that had enough importance and quality to resonate for the remaining 357, and beyond.
01. “Get Lucky”
Daft Punk featuring Pharrell and Nile Rodgers
In 2013, Daft Punk cemented their legacy as both icons and legends. Who would have thought that this level of commercial success would have been a part of the package, though? On paper, Daft Punk + Nile Rodgers reads like a musical wet dream, but it’s nothing compared to how it actually sounds. When you throw the smooth, charismatic vocals of Pharrell Williams into the mix, the whole damn thing just elevates to an inconceivable level of “awesome.” “Get Lucky” is so much more than just another one of 2013’s strangely trendy 70s “throwback jams,” it’s a track born out of an indulgent three-way of genius talent. The progression is simple, the guitar is iconic, and the melody is sweet and memorable, but the way it all comes together is so cosmically momentous.