Music tastes are highly personal, so I’ll kick this off by saying that this list is not my idea of the absolute best songs of 2013—I’m nowhere near qualified enough to make those kinds of statements for anyone other than myself. These are just the albums and songs I liked best. If you like alternative pop/rock, maybe you liked (or will like) some of them too. Please note that not all of these will be appropriate listening for younger ages.
I’ve already posted this in pieces, so here is the full list. It is also available as a Spotify playlist (I highly recommend at least using the free trial of Spotify Premium), and as a YouTube playlist. The YouTube list is somewhat incomplete, since some of the videos were only available elsewhere, but most of the videos are there. With that out of the way, let’s jump right in:
Just missed the list (alphabetical):
Foals: Holy Fire
Franz Ferdinand: Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
The Joy Formidable: Wolf’s Law
Lorde: Pure Heroine
White Denim: Corsicana Lemonade
5. San Fermin (eponymous)
It’s one of those stories out of a fairy tale, I guess, if your fairy tales involve going to Yale. Composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone retreated to the Canadian rockies upon his graduation and composed this album, returning to recruit vocalists in friend Allen Tate and the duo Lucius (Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig), a group which met at Berklee and which has their own acclaimed debut album out this year. The album is a story of characters in a relationship, and Tate is a real standout vocalist on the album.
4. Jake Bugg: Shangri La
Bugg’s vocals are probably an acquired taste, and the Dylan comparisons are certainly premature, but this guy is still really, really talented. His debut album was just out in 2012, and his sophomore effort to me is a little more well-rounded, as well as more up my alley in terms of rock style. He ought to be blowing up right now worldwide, and not just across the pond.
3. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
Few current bands are as consistently appealing in both a popular and critical sense, but Vampire Weekend seem to be regularly approaching that threshold. I still prefer 2010’s Contra among their albums and “Cousins” as their most impressive song, but the letdown here is only minor. It’s a more cohesive set of thoughts on Modern Vampires, if ultimately a little less interesting musically.
2. Arctic Monkeys: AM
The best rock album of the year. Arctic Monkeys have five #1 albums in the UK and none to date in the US, so anyone who is clamoring for a big rock band to succeed ought to hitch their stars to this one. Alex Turner’s vocals are almost as good as the album in the live recordings that I’ve seen, although for him, quality is more about delivery and tone than it is range. Several songs will be represented on the Top 40.
1. CHVRCHES: The Bones Of What You Believe
What a debut from this Glaswegian synthpop band. Lauren Mayberry seems like a potential star, and the album shows exactly the kind of way with words you would expect from a former music writer with degrees in law and journalism. I could take or leave the backing duo (depending on how much they contributed to the lyrics), but her vocals and lyrics are spectacular. There are at least five pop single–worthy songs on The Bones Of What You Believe, including several of the year’s best, in my opinion.
Just missed the list (alphabetical):
Beware of Darkness “Howl”
The Boxer Rebellion “Diamonds”
The Civil Wars “The One That Got Away”
The Features “This Disorder”
Foals “My Number”
Moon Taxi “The New Black”
Portugal. The Man “Purple Yellow Red and Blue”
Switchfoot “Who We Are”
If you describe your group as a “paranoid electronic pop music duo,” you have immediately caught my interest. “Dangerous” is a catchy tune over a distorted bass line that drives the song, and as you might guess from their name (and certainly the “facehawk” video, which I recommend trying), technology is the driver of that paranoia.
The live video will give you a sense of all the percussion going on in this song. The vocals are just OK to me, but it’s still incredibly catchy as a whole.
This song is bound to end up on a guilty pleasures list at some point, but it definitely belongs in the top 40 for me this year. It’s one of those hands-in-the-air-clapping type pop/rock songs.
There are at least three, or maybe four or five, albums among the 2013 Mercury Prize nominees that I preferred to Blake’s eventual winner Overgrown, but “Retrograde” is still a pretty excellent song. His voice is excellent—I just prefer singers who attempt to limit the runs and other things that distract from the melody.
36. The Almost “Fear Inside Our Bones”
Album: Fear Inside Our Bones
Videos: Official lyric video
The title track from The Almost’s 2013 release builds to a soaring, screaming conclusion for the chorus. We all feel that fear inside our bones, but how will we respond to it?
“Elevate,” and most of the St. Lucia album in general, feels like some kind of reggae/latin cross. Generally this might not be my style, but the strong rhythm and bass is what keeps this song interesting for me after multiple listens, since the lyrics are kind of light.
34. White Denim “Distant Relative Salute”
Album: Corsicana Lemonade
Videos: Live version (camera phone)
There is so much going on in the song that the drummer sounds like he is half a beat ahead of everyone else, but in a good way. It’s exactly the kind of song you’d expect a jam-oriented band to release for a single, although they haven’t released it yet to my knowledge, or even performed it for any kind of studio-quality live recording (like most of what is linked in this post). Regardless, it certainly hits all the right notes. I’m hoping White Denim will get more alternative airplay in 2014—they certainly deserve it for this song and album, which places another song higher on this list.
Arguably the most creative song on the Modern Vampires album from a lyrical standpoint, “Step” doesn’t pack quite enough punch for me musically to be among the very best overall.
The line that always strikes me in this song is the first line of the second verse, about the “Blackpool bright light.” I’ve never been to England, so I have (perhaps dangerously) relied on my Premier League fandom for what little knowledge I have of English cities. Blackpool is a tourist trap–type town in the English northwest, so I guess you could substitute in the name of any number of similar US beach cities to understand the idea.
“Mercy” was a one-off single from between-albums TV on the Radio, and it has proven to be one of their more accessible songs for me. The video for this one gives some excellent visuals to the conflict described in the song. Live? Not so great, although Letterman is clearly a fan in the clip I’ve linked.
30. Arctic Monkeys “Arabella”
Videos: Live version
Subtlety is not really one of Arctic Monkeys’ strengths, so let’s not mistake this song as anything other than an ode to a particular female in singer Alex Turner’s life (or specifically, the passenger seat of his car). The metaphors in this song are literally otherworldly, and the guitar solo is the same, but in a metaphorical sense.
Including this song is technically a cheat in terms of the release date, but this Australian band’s album didn’t make it to the US until 2013, and I hadn’t heard of them. “Awkward” is an interesting story progression, if somewhat light musically. You should also check out their cover of “Get Lucky,” which I will take over Daft Punk and Pharrell any day. “Fred Astaire” is another solid one from San Cisco that didn’t quite make the cut.
It seems like there is always a math-rock or math-pop song that catches me every year, and “Fester” is the 2013 iteration. A marimba is not an instrument you would typically find in a song on this list, but here it is.
Two Door Cinema Club’s 2012 album Beacon didn’t grab me in the same way as their 2010 debut release, Tourist History, but the one-off release of “Changing of the Seasons” is a step back in the right direction. The band is basically full of pop hooks, but don’t ignore the guitar work of Sam Halliday, which is arguably the band’s trademark within the youthful pop/rock sub-genre. The guitar adds life to an otherwise uninteresting drum/rhythm section.
Arguably the best vocal performance of the year comes from Aloe Blacc, who unquestionably deserves the main credit on this song. Sure, Avicii drops a beat in there (an annoying, droning one), but crediting this song to him just seems wrong, and the tendency to give the main credit to the DJ (as a regular practice) doesn’t boost my opinion of the DJ-driven pop/EDM genre. The live version linked above with (Incubus guitarist) Mike Einziger should help demonstrate the real stars who were involved in this production.
I saw this band described somewhere as a folk version of Arcade Fire. That’s not high praise for me, since I have never cared much for the hyped Canadian group. This indie-folk band seems pretty down-to-earth, almost literally as a result of their rural home-schooled background, and Switzerland is a compelling song, with an equally compelling video. Their cover of M83’s “Midnight City”—an excellent song in its own right—is also amazing.
24. Regina Spektor “You’ve Got Time”
(no album as of yet)
Videos: Live version (camera phone)
This is the theme song for a show I haven’t seen (Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black”), but I have enjoyed the song anyway. It’s a strong piano-rocker that shows off Spektor’s range, as well as the talent of her band’s drummer.
Is it just me, or does Jake Bugg write like he has lived through a lot more than 19 years? His voice is not for everyone, I will concede, but I like him a lot. This is a strong lead single for his second album. You should listen to both of them, but as I mentioned in the album review, I like 2013’s Shangri La better—he’s more polished, and it has more of a rock sound.
“Sonsick” is a compelling song about being resolved to an uninteresting (in the singer’s view) suburban idea of love, and it represents a strong self-contained version of the excellent larger album from San Fermin, one of the few great albums of the year in my view. The ladies take the lead on this one, and the live version particularly shows off
Jess Wolfe’s Rae Cassidy’s range. Allen Tate is strong on the rest of the album when he takes the male lead. It was actually quite difficult to choose a standout song from this latecomer among my favorite albums of the year.
UPDATE: Not being very familiar with the group Lucius, which lended vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig to the recording, I didn’t recognize that the live performances instead feature Rae Cassidy as the female lead. She’s the one with the terrific range in the live performance.
There is no “1901” or “Lisztomania” to be found on Bankrupt!, which was not a particularly memorable album to me beyond this song. “Trying To Be Cool” is just not cutting it as a second single. Its placement on Alt Nation’s year-end list was baffling to me, since I doubt that song and could have even made the cut on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. “Entertainment” certainly would have, with its excellent beat, a worthy sing-along chorus, and an interesting Eastern twist.
I enjoy a straight-ahead pop-rock song with slightly off-kilter lyrics, so that probably explains this song’s placement this high on the list. Maybe I’ve got a bad sense of humor—a little rough around the edges.
Bastille are an interesting pop band, an extension of what was initially a solo project for Dan Smith. The rest of their album has hooks, but the historical tie-in to “Pompeii” pushes it past the rest. Not that the hook on “Pompeii” is lacking—it only takes a few seconds to draw you in.
Thanks to the release of Wolf’s Law early in 2013, “Cholla” was one of my most-played songs of the year. It’s no “Whirring,” but this Welsh band now have two nice rock albums and a handful of solid singles to their credit. The double-kick on the bass drum through the chorus gets me tapping every time. I think this is a generally tighter song than the lead single “This Ladder Is Ours,” which didn’t make my cut. If you haven’t seen them perform “Whirring,” check that out too.
“Slumville Sunrise” is another good example of why I like Shangri La better than Bugg’s 2012 debut album. Rock is more my style, and he lets it fly with a nice solo on this song about his roots. The video is pretty ridiculous, though.
This band is a Southern/garage rock throwback who sound a bit out of place in today’s music landscape, but in a good way. While not truly spectacular as a whole, White Denim fill a nice role in this year’s list as one of just a handful of bands on the alt-rock fringes who feature some genuinely talented instrumentalists. “Pretty Green” and its closing solo are among the album’s highlights. Also perhaps the weirdest video on the list.
While not lyrically groundbreaking, this is a fun pop-rock song that deservedly received a lot of alternative airplay in the latter part of the year. Although this is yet another band that has fallen into the perhaps necessary trend of SEO (search engine optimization) naming—note the British ‘u’ despite the band’s California roots—I think it’s kind of cool that they don’t follow the female-backup-singer-slash-keyboard-player convention. Maya Tuttle is a capable drummer and rounds out the chorus nicely, even if she’s not exactly singing a harmony in this song. That’s two female drummers so far, if you’re counting (San Cisco’s Scarlett Stevens being the other).
This song contains maybe the best sing-along chorus of the year. The band have entirely too many singers and a superfluous apostrophe in their name, seemingly just to annoy me, but I can put that aside for a catchy song. Do you feel the love? I feel the love.
Franz Ferdinand’s songs always seem to border on the absurd, and this album is no different. The creative lyrics and solid rhythm section are still holding my interest eleven years after “Take Me Out.” The realization I get from this song is that good intentions should be followed by action, and the lyrics are playfully dismissive of that idea ever being realized. “This time, same as before, I’ll love you forever.” The line containing the song and album title is incredibly catchy, but it may be the repeating three-beat bass line that sticks most in my mind every time I hear it.
12. Foals “Inhaler”
Album: Holy Fire
Videos: Live version, don’t bother with the official video
Yannis Philippakis is not my favorite vocalist on the list, but this is a fine rock song. You could say he really explores the “space” provided by the interesting guitars/synth/bass lines. I’m also a sucker for a prog-ish ending like this one that shows off the band’s instrumental talent.
Yeah, so, um, wait a second—this is a pretty good song as long as the singer stays on pitch. He doesn’t in several online live versions I’ve seen (the best I’ve found is linked), but it’s still a neat tune., a lyrically and rhythmically strong call to action. I love the image of “that eureka moment [hitting] you like a cop car.”
10. CHVRCHES “We Sink”
Album: The Bones of What You Believe
Videos: Live version
“We Sink” is a devastating song about love that was never realized, instead becoming a lifelong match of inconvenience. The primary chorus lyric—”I’ll be a thorn in your side, ’til you die”—exemplifies that theme in a much poppier way than you would expect, adding to the charm of the song for me.
9. The Postal Service “A Tattered Line of String”
Album: Give Up (re-issue)
Videos: Official video
I was actually somewhat shocked that this song didn’t get more airplay on outlets like Alt Nation, given Ben Gibbard’s status as alt/indie royalty and the strong reviews that Give Up continues to get ten years after its release. “String” would fit right it on that acclaimed album.
8. Vampire Weekend “Unbelievers”
Album: Modern Vampires of the City
Videos: Live version
If more of the world would at least engage with matters of faith, I think Christians like myself would be better off. I might disagree with the end reasoning, but it’s a lot easier for me to relate to doubt than apathy. Ezra Koenig spends much of the Modern Vampires album wrestling with the big questions a young adult faces, and “Unbelievers” makes no secret about where he lands, at least for the time being. As for the music, “Unbelievers” has one of the more memorable refrains of the year.
7. The Almost “Ghost”
Album: Fear Inside Our Bones
Videos: Live version (acoustic and not that great)
There were just a handful of hard rock songs to make my list this year, which I suppose is either a testament to the desolation of that genre today or a symptom of my own changing tastes. Actual guitar rock is practically absent from the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart (Mainstream is a little better), so it’s not just me. The top 5 as I am writing this contains 2 Lorde songs, Imagine Dragons, Passenger, and The Neighbourhood (the underwhelming “Sweater Weather”—not their decent “Female Robbery” song). The Almost had a nice little album in the midst of all that. “Ghost” is the strongest song on it and one of the best true hard rock songs of the year.
I think CHVRCHES have demonstrated their mastery of the dysfunctional relationship pop song this year. In this one, the woman has all the power and seems to enjoy it, so you can again contrast that depressing note against the song’s decidedly upbeat sound. I find myself tapping along to the electronic beat in much the same way as Martin Doherty does in the live version. We are not winning any dance contests.
This song became inescapable in the later part of the year, and for good reason. Aside from a minor complaint about the singer-harmonizes-with-herself dynamic that has worn on me over the years, it’s a catchy pop song that, thanks to its counter-cultural theme, is right in my lyrical wheelhouse. It also has a (slight) baseball connection, which is cool.
Technically this song was released as a stand-alone single in 2012, but I hadn’t heard it much, and it still meets my criteria since it first appeared on an album for the September release of “AM.” This one is more of a straight-ahead rocker than the album-opening slow burn that is still to come on this list. Any rock stations that are left in this country ought to be playing songs like this.
This was one of my most-played songs of the year, thanks to my musically-inclined son Matthew’s willingness to bob up and down and sing the “baby, baby, baby” line over and over. The child has even woken up from a nap multiple times when this song came on in the car. The lyrics are not all fun and games, however, as it’s obvious from the start that this song is not directly about a woman named Diane. As evidenced by many of the other songs on this year’s list, I like that sort of tension in a song between the lyrics and the mood—it’s not often done with such an inescapably catchy tune. Maybe that tactic will wear on me one day, but I could probably go at least another year playing this one a hundred times or more.
“So have you got the goods?” The way Alex Turner can sing a slow song with rhythm is mind-blowing. The lead track for AM starts slow and intensifies in support of regretful lyrics expressing insecurity over the singer’s un-reciprocated love. Easily my favorite rock song of the year. One of my bigger music-related regrets this year was not getting to see Arctic Monkeys when they played at Track 29 in Chattanooga, due to a prior engagement. It was also the night the Braves were knocked out of the playoffs, but it was a work conflict (promise).
Lauren Mayberry’s voice soars in the chorus of the best pop song of the year. Like The Colourist, CHVRCHES may have stylized their name for search engines, but otherwise they’ve avoided least-common-denominator pop tendencies to create a great song that represents the highlight of their debut album. It is the most fully-formed song they have, and the potential they showed on other songs already has me hoping they can create an album full of songs like this one next time around.
That’s the list. Hope you can find something you like in all of that, and if not, I’ll be back next year with more. I may also try my hand at a ranking of the top 100 songs of the 2010s (to date). Until then, have a happy new year!