As with my 2013 Top 50 Album’s List, this is meant to be an individualistic approach to describing the music from the year that affected me the most strongly.
You’ll find a few pop hits here, but the selection draws mostly from the genres I follow: ambient, experimental, post-punk, rock, electronic, and indie music.
This list is all music that I love and want to celebrate, and I hope that it inspires a reader or two to discover new music that they enjoy.
There is always a question in the back of my mind about whether or not I should drop this entirely on the grounds of the general ridiculousness of a “top songs” list and the weird mix of genres that I doubt will match the interests of many readers (how many people out there are fans of both Justin Timberlake and The Haxan Cloak?).
But I won’t, because this is fun. If the idea of what one dude thought about music this year doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t read any further. If it does, then I hope you enjoy it.
25. Lana Del Rey, “Young and Beautiful”
Lana Del Rey’s heart-wrenching contribution to the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby adaptation is an appropriately bloated portrayal of a woman wondering if love can survive age. Lana Del Rey has a voice meant for cinematic heights – tellingly, her contribution steals the show on the star-studded soundtrack.
24. Flashbulb Fires, “Unseen Things”
The only new song since Flashbulb Fires’ knockout Gasconader from last year was reportedly composed in a week in response to a request for a song to be played in the background of a William H. Macy movie. Though passed over, it boasts an eloquent array of electronics and Patrick McGuire’s typically frenetic and engaging vocals. It’s a welcome treat to help pass the time until their next LP.
23. Editors, “The Phone Book”
Editors deliver an affecting a love ballad, with haunting vocals from Tom Smith echoed by a murmuring guitar line to evoke a rare sense of grace and subtlety.
22. Phoenix, “Trying to Be Cool”
Just as endlessly catch as “Entertainment” but less artificial, “Trying to Be Cool” finds Phoenix strutting, empowered by the superlative musicianship that marks Bankrupt! The lyrics are delightfully meaningless, and the hooks among the group’s strongest.
21. Yuck, “Lose My Breath”
Glow & Behold was the most hearbreaking musical disappointment all year. Yuck’s awesome debut felt like the scrappy work of a group about to hit it big, but frontman Daniel Blumberg’s sudden departure (like Christopher Owens’ from Girls) signified that the band’s glory days might be over early. Although early single “Rebirth” was terrific, the album did not deliver on the hopes it raised, settling for easygoing, inoffensive pop-rock. It’s all good, but nowhere near the wacky greatness of the debut. As Tim Sendra from Allmusic put it, “Daniel Blumberg’s defection from the group pretty much ruined Yuck.” Even more than “Rebirth”, though, “Lose My Breath” stands above the surrounding tracks. It’s a scruffy and cute ballad with some sharp riffs that would be at home on an early-career Yo La Tengo record.
20. Savages, “Husbands”
The first single from Savages’ debut portrays a confused moment of panic at the loss of the familiar. Jehnny Beth’s stomping lyrical repitition of “husbands”, matched with a ferocious barrage of sharp chords, is disorienting and alarming. “It’s on the final hour/It’s on the final hour/Of myself, of myself” is juxtaposed with “Get rid of it/Get rid of it”: The lyrics imply that the comfort of a settled and married life is actually a repressive mechanism, one which the narrator nevertheless tries to crawl back into.
19. Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
The 20/20 Experience‘s lead single fluidly incorporates the extended R&B treatment that caused many of its album tracks to stumble. You can call it ridiculously drawn-out and saccharine, but for me Timberlake’s suave vocal delivery and the lovely message make it a gorgeous listen.
18. Kurt Vile, “Wakin on a Pretty Day”
The opener to Vile’s masterful new solo album stretches out for nine relaxing minutes, bringing to life through witty lyrics (“I gotta think about what wisecrack I’m gonna drop along the way today”) and a typically intricate guitar line the central image on going on a walk to find yourself and a sense of spirited satisfaction.
17. Dirty Beaches, “Love Is the Devil”
The most straightforward and relatable track from Dirty Beaches’ daunting double album is also the most distanced from the other material. “Love Is the Devil” acts as the heart of the 75-minute journey, wordlessly conveying a sense of heartfelt tragedy from which the early escape into neon nightlife and the later sense of solemnity derive. The “Adagio for Strings”-like melody bursts through the heavy production for this raw, unnerving three minute composition. It’s an unforgettable album’s most unforgettable moment.
16. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Subway”
Mosquito may have self-destructed under the ridiculousness of its own concept, but the most ‘different’ song it signifies a promising new direction. The loop of underground noise that forms the backdrop of “Subway” allows Karen O’s quiet falsetto to shine.
15. Jon Hopkins, “Immunity”
Within the structure of the album, “Immunity” functions as a pronounced shift in style from the massive club-oriented electronic pieces that preceded it. It emerges from the fading airiness of “Sun Harmonics” (loosely meant to represent a bright morning after a night of clubbing) as the most cathartic and astonishing transition all year. The only track on the album to feature notable vocals, “Immunity” adds a new reflective and human dimension to Hopkins’ music. On its own, it’s also a stunning piece reminiscent of Ágætis byrjun-era Sigur Ros.
14. Beyoncé (Ft. Blue Ivy), “Blue”
A lot of people have already fallen crazy in love with Beyoncé’s completely unexpected release, which hit #1 worldwide has already topped the iTunes charts in over 100 countries with no advance promotion. The strength of Beyoncé’s songs draws from both feminist empowerment and straight-out fetishism of the feminine body, unfortunately with perhaps a bit more success with the latter than the former. Even the long out-of-decent-ideas present run of South Park examined (in an episode that coincided with Beyoncé’s release) the massive and unfair pressure placed on women’s images through Photoshop-era technology more gracefully and realistically than, say, the clunky video for “Pretty Hurts”. There is an awesome album of feminine empowerment that came out this year, and it’s by Savages. Still, the more R&B-oriented “Blue” is a welcome surprise that tastefully draws from Beyoncé’s impeccable persona in an image of motherly love that adds a contrasting dimension to a hyper-sexualized album. Beyoncé’s vocals are as spectacular as ever, and the bluntness of its warmth (“Each day I feel so blessed to be looking at you/Cause when you open your eyes, I feel alive”) ends the record on lovely note.
13. Chromatics, “Cherry”
Released officially on the excellent After Dark 2 collection this year, Chromatics’ bubbliest synth-pop song finds them recapturing the Italian Disco style that made the opening section of Kill for Love (my pick for the 2012 album of the year) so much fun. Ruth Radelet’s wonderfully icy vocals create a melodramatic character whose plight (“I can’t keep crying/All of the time”) is conveyed with smoothness and grace by Johnny Jewel’s catchy electronics.
12. The Haxan Cloak, “The Drop”
If you aren’t willing to give yourself over to an entire album of moody, ambient noise, then at least turn off the lights and experience this one 12-minute journey that closes producer Bobby Krlic’s gothic third release. Although the first section carries an ominous (and unusually melodic) sense of arrival at a grim destination, the airy last few minutes are more open-ended. Is the song a journey into the afterlife coming to an end or eyes opening from a nightmare?
11. Flaamingos, “Expressions”
The highlight from Flaamingos debut, “Expressions” lets out the darker energy of the surrounding tracks with a series of snazzy hooks and rhythms that make a good backdrop for Jerry Narrows gloomy vocals.
10. Crash of Rhinos, “Luck Has a Name”
The fantastic opener to the UK-based rock band’s second record Knots is thoroughly packed with energy and adrenaline. It relates a feeling of rushing out of your normal life to embrace more aggressive instincts (“We’ll sleep when we’re dead/And we’ve got scores to settle”) and sets the mood for the rest of the album.
9. DIANA, “That Feeling”
The catchy second track from DIANA’s Perpetual Surrender delivers a sorrowful message of passively fading attraction true to the album title with aplomb and glitzy melody. Carmen Elle’s vocals mesh perfectly with the music.
8. Local Natives, “You & I”
Local Natives kick off a troubled album with a moving depiction of lost love. The interlocking falsetto vocals and straightforward lyrics make the song somber and relatable.
7. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
Backed by a Haitian-influenced dance beat, Reflektor’s title track signifies the (nearly) perfect transformation of Arcade Fire’s sound that takes cues from “Sprawl II” instead of many of The Suburbs’ more forgettable, MOR tunes. Boasting David Bowie’s most delightful guest appearance since Fire Walk With Me, it’s a joyous cacophony and one of the year’s best songs.
6. Steven Wilson, “The Raven That Refused to Sing”
The nine-minute finale and title track to Wilson’s triumphant solo album is the most moving of its diverse set of story-songs. Vividly animated in its accompanying music video, the title track deals with a man facing death and dreaming of a sister who died in childhood, whose essence he tries to imagine exists in a captured bird. Although brutally tragic, Wilson injects a majestic beauty into the scene, ending the song (and the album) with a soaring and cathartic coda.
5. Jon Hopkins, “Open Eye Signal”
The throttling and intense single from Hopkins masterful Immunity unleashes a propulsive stream of energy driven by bass and surrounded by a careful arrangement of airy ambient.
4. Deadbeat Darling, “Insomnia Salvation”
A random find from WRVU, the super-catchy opener to Deadbeat Darling’s The Angel’s Share packs a terrific drum line and all-around performance from the Brooklyn-based band. It’s a big, punchy rock song that sounds like the great late career single U2 never delivered.
3. Daft Punk, “Instant Crush”
Julian Casablanca has tried to work a processed form of his voice in every Strokes album since Room on Fire, a strategy that has sounded, at best, goofy. Leave it to Daft Punk to find a new way for his vocals to function effectively. “Instant Crush” is a bitter title for a song about a someone hiding his feelings for a friend’s love interest, although the brilliant video for it cleverly applies the storyline to mannequins.
2. My Bloody Valentine, “New You”
The most whimsical and blissful moment from My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited new album is its only track that could have just as easily come from before their 20-year hiatus. They don’t sound the least bit aged here, but young and full of life. Propelled by throbbing bass, “New You” encapsulates their approach of getting lost in a whirlwind of noise with no sense of place and time and ends with a gorgeous, humming vocal line.
1. White Lies, “Big TV”
The best song off of this year’s most surprisingly superb album hit a nerve with me not just because it’s a great work of 80’s inspired post-punk but also because it’s about moving into a new city, an experience I can relate to having recently moved to Atlanta. As I touched on in the album review, Big TV relates the story of a couple moving from a rural to an urban setting. The song is self-aware and darkly humorous towards its narrator, who thinks that owning a big television means that she’s made it in her new environment. It also packs an impressive array of muscular hooks, especially when it takes off after the second chorus. Cinematic, powerful, and catchy, “Big TV” takes the #1 spot.