My 25 favorite songs of 2013, including but not limited to: hits, obscurities, disco infernos, guitar monsters, rap anthems, slow jams and karaoke room-clearers. And Kanye, obviously.
1. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
Miley is just speeding away – she thought she was Britney Jean for a day. Nothing says “it’s summer in America” like hearing a former Disney moppet sing about partying her central nervous system into a puddle of sex slush. And this was the year Miley took over as the undisputed demon queen of pop excess, with producer Mike WiLL Made It bringing her most depraved fantasies to life. Musically, “We Can’t Stop” is a sad Seventies soul ballad, with the luxurious ache of the Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her”) or the Delfonics (“When You Get Right Down To It”) or the Stylistics (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”). Except the words are about Miley’s burning desire to leave her brain cells scattered like red cups on the lawn, because she’s just being Miley. I would love to hear Paul McCartney sing this (“Ob-la-da, ob-la-di / We like to party / Desmond and Molly”) or Bruce Springsteen (it has almost the same lyrics as “Out in the Street”). But nobody will ever sing it like Miley.
2. Kanye West, “Bound 2”
The softest song at the end of the hardest album – like GN’R putting “Rocket Queen” at the end of Appetite for Destruction. Without it, Yeezus would be a totally different album, maybe one-third as powerful as it is. After all that techno-testosterone rage, Kanye finally releases all the girlie emotions he keeps hidden in his soul, and it all comes down to that “uh huh, honey.” I am obsessed with the “uh huh, honey.” Brenda Lee is the one female on Yeezus who manages to make Kanye feel something, and that scares him. He’s haunted by all these sincere love songs he hears in his head (from Brenda Lee to Charlie Wilson to Ponderosa Twins Plus Two) because he’s afraid he can’t live up to their open-hearted generosity. So he vents about his woman problems, getting more vulnerable and raw as the song goes on. But that girlie voice who keeps telling him “uh huh, honey”? She might be his one shot at emotional salvation. The realest song he’s ever written? The funniest? The most agonizingly beautiful? Uh huh, honey.
3. Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
The most soulful Canadian Jewish ladies’ man since Leonard Cohen. So many great lines (“You left your mark on me”) plus some truly terrible ones (“You act so different around me”), all flowing together thanks to Drake’s still-waters-run-deep calm. A pushier voice would smother the song, but Drake sounds like a pensive dude alone in the car, singing to his radio late at night, almost like Paul Westerberg in “Within Your Reach.” He even utters the dread words “good girl” without ruining it.
4. Taylor Swift, “22”
Girls to the front! Sister Tay is pretty much the last rock star left on the planet – playing makeup, wearing guitar – and “22” is one of those already-great album tracks that takes on a whole new life when pop radio grabs hold of it. I love how she hitches her most shameless disco tune to her most shameless indie-rock lyrics. (This could be a Hold Steady song.) She sings “uh oh” like she invented it and by the second chorus she did.
5. Speedy Ortiz, “Taylor Swift”
No idea why the band calls it “Taylor Swift,” since it sounds more like it should be “Veruca Salt.” (This sounds just like Veruca Salt, yet nothing like the Breeders. Who knew that was even possible?) But it would be a gas to hear Taylor sing this ode to punk-rock polygamy: “I got a boy in a hardcore band/I got a boy gets it on to Can/Then there’s the boy sings those sad songs I like/I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight.”
6. David Bowie, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
Hold on, we’re going home. This is Bowie’s best song since “Modern Love,” which was 30 years ago. Like all his great songs of the past 30 years, it’s about how weird it feels to be in love for (and with) the rest of your life. A song full of serious moonlight: lost boys and lost girls, bouncing off each other in the cosmos, earth below us, floating in a most peculiar way.
7. Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”
Thirty summers after “Modern Love,” Nile Rodgers gets Daft Punk to the church on time. Result: a disco jam that keeps party cosmonauts raising their cups to the stars from Bordeaux to Bushwick to Bangkok. I love that moonlight-feels-right synth solo. And I will always cherish the moment my Pretty In Pink-loving wife asked, “Who does that song about Mexican Duckie?”
8. Beyonce, “XO”
Baby love me lights out.
9. Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar & Jay Electronica, “Control”
Kendrick’s battle-rhyme rant steals it (“Blessings to Paul McCartney,” now that’s O.G.), but Jay Elec scores almost as many points, especially “I Earth Wind and Fired the verse, then rained on the hook.”
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Despair”
One of the year’s most reliable “today sucked until I put this song on” songs. Karen O testifies about how your friends can be as needy and self-destructive and idiotic as you are, but you’re still lucky you have each other to share those wasted nights. The Yeahs blow it up into a pop-glitz melodrama, building like a Pulp song over punk drums, disco synths, goth-freak guitars. What other band right now can sound so arena-massive and bedroom-intimate at the same time?
11. Britney Spears, “Work Bitch”
This bitch-perfect tinsel-disco blast is what, Britney’s 119th comeback hit? For Britney, it’s the non-comeback hits that are rarities. She never gets credit and I can’t imagine that bugs her much, but can you name another musician born in the 1980s who has this many good songs? You probably can (I can) but there’s a hell of a lot who don’t. See you in Vegas.
12. Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise”
One of the things that keeps me madly in love with pop music is how every year, crazy hijinks happen that nobody in their right mind would have predicted. So ladies and gentlemen: The Nelly revival! On country radio! Americaaaaa!
13. Pusha T featuring Kendrick Lamar, “Nose-talgia”
A perfectly titled retro drug trip. Like Slim Charles said on the The Wire, “Yeah, now, well, the thing about the old days – they the old days.”
14. Disclosure featuring Aluna George, “White Noise”
Disco heartbreak, as Aluna weeps over digital love gone bad. I’ve tried karaokeing this a few times but it just gives everybody too many feelings.
15. Sky Ferreira, “Omanko”
As Eddie Vedder could have sung (but didn’t), the kids of today should defend themselves against the selfies. Sky goes for a typical overshare here, even though there’s barely any lyrics – it’s all in the paranoid ghost-rider shiver of her voice, as she talks dirty in Japanese. There’s some graffiti in my neighborhood that says “When you dial madness, madness will pick up” and when I walk past it now, it reminds me of Sky.
16. Kacey Musgrave, “Follow Your Arrow”
Ralph Waldo Emerson in country-girl drag. Preach, sister: “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.”
17 & 18. Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rain” and Kurt Vile, “Wakin’ On A Pretty Day”
The kind of morning when you crash on the couch and zone out to the saddest music you can find, which for both these guys seems to mean Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Chance raps about his past (“I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses/And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus”) while Kurt just gets fried, but they both brood over their loved ones. And they both sound like they’ve been playing the hell out of Rumours.
19. Nick Cave, “Higgs Boson Blues”
An eight-minute guitar ramble, pondering death and the devil and Miley Cyrus. Back in March, when I first got obsessed with this song, the Miley namecheck sounded embarrasingly out of date. But then Bangerz happened and it turned out Nick was just a step ahead of the world, as he always is.
20. Lady Gaga, “Applause”
Things move fast in pop, unless you’re behind Miley in the bathroom line, but Gaga keeps hanging in there. “Applause” remains the most crass and convincing thing she did all year. What is the sound of one Gaga clapping?
21. White Lung, “Blow It South”
Grunge, for lack of a better word. This could be a lost Hole demo from between Live Through This and Celebrity Skin, except scuzzier.
22. Selena Gomez, “Slow Down”
Breathe me in, breathe me out.
23. The Babies, “Baby”
A sad girl with an even sadder guitar sighs, “Baby baby, won’t you come around,” even though she knows he won’t. The summer-1993 indie-pop vibe is uncannily precise – this does for Dillon Fence what Speedy Ortiz do for Velocity Girl, such a pointless achievement it’s actually kind of cool. And as a John Waite fan I must admit his Babies never had a tune this good (though “Back On My Feet Again” was close).
24. Radiator Hospital, “Our Song”
Now that’s how you write a break-up song. Sam Cook-Parrott says goodbye in his awesomely abrasive indie-boy squawk. (More than one friend I’ve played this for has winced in pain at the first three seconds – that’s high praise in my book.) “When you call your mom back, tell her that I’m the one leaving” might be the funniest line in any break-up song of the post-Taylor Swift era.
25. David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?”
October 1: I’m on the road in New Haven, Connecticut, on my book tour, taking a late-night walk by myself, when I pass a dive bar with a flier for a tribute group called Wham Bam Bowie Band. They’re playing Ziggy Stardust all the way through. So of course I pop in for a song or two. Do all 16 of us paying customers sing along, right to the end of Side Two? Does the band speak in English accents even though they’re from Asheville, North Carolina? Does the lady at the next table keep yelling for “Width of a Circle”? Yesses all around. Then for the encore, the singer says, “Some of you may know David Bowie released an album this year. We’d like to do a song from the new one,” and my gut reaction is, Oh noooo. Cover bands never do songs from the new album, even good ones – that’s the first rule. Buzzkill. But they begin “Where Are We Now?” and I’m shocked when nobody leaves. We can all fake the chorus, at least the second time around. I belt “Where Are We Now?” with 16 strangers I’ll never see again. It’s one of the most ridiculously happy moments in my life as a Bowie fan. Then the band plays “Rebel Rebel” and that’s cool too. Months later I’m still trying to figure out that moment. So where are we now? When you know, you know. As long as there’s me. As long as there’s you. Uh huh, honey.