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The 50 Best Songs of 2013

December 4, 2013  |  10:31am
10. Okkervil River – “Down Down the Deep River”
The Silver Gymnasium is one of the best lyrical albums of the year, and the epic “Down Down the Deep River” is a microcosm for the entire album, dealing with a small town in New Hampshire and the experience of growing up there. Essentially, it takes a personal experience, highly specific, and delivers it with such universal warmth and direct language that it is not difficult to decode, but no less smart or poetic. Will Sheff, Okkervil River’s songwriter, knows that difficult to understand does not make something more meaningful. And better yet, the sentiment is packaged as a Dire Straits or Bruce Springsteen song, giving the period piece a little extra nudge of authenticity. “Tell me about the greatest show, or the greatest movie you know, or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio.” As about one of the youngest people that can recall doing this, it was songs just like “Down Down the Deep River” that we would record from the FM dial, and Sheff makes those experiences relevant not just as nostalgia, but as the building blocks that shape us.—Philip Cosores

9. Lucius – “Hey Doreen”
From the very first resounding beat, “Hey Doreen” has all of the hallmarks of a soulful pop hit. The chorus feels familiar even on the first listen, harkening back to danceable favorites like Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.,” but with an added lyrical depth, balancing the energetic highs of the chorus with tempered, even verses. The song is so bright and catchy, you might even forget that the lyrics sound like they’re probably about murder.

8. Kanye West – “New Slaves”
One of the first cuts we gathered from Kanye West’s controversial Yeezus was also one of its most pithy offerings. Setting the stage for the album with bare-bones synth-driven production, Kanye deconstructs modern ownership and the social constructs that bind many to a life defined by consumption, all dressed up with references to Alexander Payne, Hampton houses and Kanye’s run-in with a camera-toting paparazzi. “Fuck you and your corporation,” indeed.—Tyler Kane

7. Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
If country radio balked at the notion of “kiss lots of girls—if that’s something you’re into” and “Roll up a joint—just follow your arrow wherever it points,” Musgraves’ bit o’ sunshine declared country fans are willing to embrace the modern world as it really is. In spite of its exuberance, the slight songwriter nails hypocrisy from both sides (“if you can’t lose the weight, you’re just fat/ but if you lose too much, you’re on crack” and “if you don’t go to church, you’ll go to hell/if you’re the first one on the front row, you’re a self-righteous son of…”) and embraces the notion to live life as you wish, be kind and enjoy the ride. Easily country’s true single of the year. —Holly Gleason

6. CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
Endless comparisons can be made to other contemporary synthpop names—M83, Grimes, the Knife, Cut Copy—Lauren Mayberry and CHVRCHES’ sugary track “The Mother We Share” contains within it a certain universality that extends beyond the realm of catchy dance music for club-dwellers. Mayberry’s song speaks of oneness and her voice often sounds like a girl left alone, thinking endlessly about all the challenges of the human condition.—Nick Petrillo

5. Mikal Cronin – “Weight”
If you were looking toward the big stage for the best hook crafter of 2013, you should have been keeping your ear to garages of Southern California. Cronin, who cut his teeth as a bassist in Ty Segall’s live band, released his second album this year, and it’s damn near pop perfection.“Weight,” a clear highlight, touts a Beatles-like sense of melody, one that makes it feel like you’ve heard it a thousand times from its opening bars.—Tyler Kane

4. Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
Remarkably, “Reflektor” not only lives up to all the carefully orchestrated brouhaha, but actually exceeds it. For a band that defined 2004 and inspired a new chest-thumping emotionalism in indie rock—the tendrils of which can be heard in Coldplay and even Mumford & Sons—Arcade Fire refused to live in that moment and repeat its career-making debut. If Funeral was introverted (it was, after all, inspired by the deaths of family members), then Neon Bible and The Suburbs were markedly the opposite. The band tinkered with that big, booming sound, adding nuance without losing scope. “Reflektor” suggests a culmination of those experiments. Such a mix of high-minded indie and thrusting dance beats could easily have pulled the band out of their comfort zone and sounded silly or awkward, yet “Reflektor” shows just how large Arcade Fire’s comfort zone actually is. It sounds as big and urgent and monumental as “Wake Up” or “Keep the Car Running” or “Ready to Start,” except they’ve found new ways to convey those ideas.—Stephen Deusner

3. Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”
With the fizziness of an Alka-Seltzer hitting water, Daft Punk returned with this slice of straight-up, no apologies dance music circa 1977. Echoes of Studios 54 and faceless disco avatars like Tavares, this silky call of the wild is sheer euphoria with a rubber beat and that insatiable ear worm chorus, “we’re up all night… to get lucky, we’re up all night… to get lucky…” —Holly Gleason

2. Phosphorescent – “Song for Zula”
As the first single from Muchacho, “Song for Zula” wasn’t indicative of the album to come, except in sentiment. Beginning with the opening from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Matthew Houck, the only constant element of Phosphorescent, takes on the near-impossible task of saying something new and essential about love. And taking on that task is almost as admirable as accomplishing it, which he also does by turning his pain into a universal experience—but one that never ceases being distinctly personal. “Some say love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring,” he says, but clearly he thinks differently, answering that love can fade as “fickle as a feather in a stream” or even hurt, “disfiguring.” The song sees Houck paint love as a cage that he welcomed, and later vowing to never experience again, even calling out the audience that comes to witness his pain. It’s poetry, it’s purposeful, affecting and just pleasant to hear without intellectualizing. But the ability to enjoy on several levels is something special, something Houck’s done for album after album and seems to be just starting to receive his fair due. —Philip Cosores

1. Janelle Monáe – “Q.U.E.E.N.” – Feat. Erykah Badu
Part of Monae’s “musical weapons program from the 21st Century,” “Q.U.E.E.N.” stings like a bee. An empowerment dance nugget bouncing on a funk guitar line, shafts and squiggles of ‘80s synthesizer and staccato beats, it’s a declaration of independence underscored by Erykah Badu’s earthy soul witness that “the booty don’t lie.” A chorus of glamazons chants “Am I freak for getting down?” as Monae’s saucily recounts the objectors’ scowls, outlines the issues and bats them away with a flick of her spider leg-length lashes. Four minutes in, the track pulls back, jazz trumpet drifts across the hush and Monae raps with a ferocity that suggests she’s serious. Strings swell, making it an elegant refusal to be shamed. —Holly Gleason

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