2013: The year a smug rapper and self-declared deity became a walking, croissant-demanding sound bite. The year our favorite forward-thinking French androids flipped the script and beamed us back to 1978. The year you couldn't swing a microphone without hitting some band's cooing backup children's choir. The vocals were like honey, the beats were like machine guns, the guitars were as noodly as a Christmas lasagna.
Listening to the hundreds of great songs from the past 12 months and whittling them down to a solid, tight, diverse list was nearly impossible. But here are the ultimate victors, 50 tracks that stunned, defied genres, shook the dance floor, and made hearts flutter. Below, we've included videos for some of the top tracks as well as our musings on the absolute favorites. And the best news? You can check out every song on our four-hour Spotify playlist below. So grab your headphones, get cozy, and hit play already. Happy Holidays!
Leave it to those jokers Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to craft both the year's catchiest song (more on that one later) and its most divisive. "Touch" had some DP fans crying foul: "Why the hell was the dude who wrote a ballad for Kermit the Frog singing a track produced by techno and house royalty?" "Did that slinky disco guitar need to be soooo vintage-porn literal?" "A choir? Of little brats?! Telling us, 'If love is the answer, you're home'?!!!" So yeah, you get the point. "Touch" is an eight-minute, bursting-at-the-seams, sci-fi-meets-showtune cheesefest that's excessive, self-indulgent, and cloying. It's also the boldest, most unexpected, most strangely moving song of 2013.
9. Local Natives - "You & I"
The opening track from the young Los Angeles quintet's excellent second album, Hummingbird, is the perfect distillation of what they do best. A blend of adept guitar work, gorgeously aching vocals, and metronome drum beats, it unfolds with a haunting, slow-burn intensity, capturing solitary yearning without ever veering into the maudlin. As singer Kelcey Ayer asks--practically wails--"When did your love grow cold?" you feel his confusion and desperation reach down and freeze the bottom of your guts. You wish you had the answer to this heartbreaking question, but you never will, so you just tumble down that lonely, frigid abyss with him.
8. Julia Holter - "Hello Stranger"
In the best remake of the year, experimental songwriter Julia Holter takes a classic 1963 Barbara Lewis hit about a surprise reunion and strips it down to its soulful core. Gone are the original's jaunty organs and spry shoo-bop-shoo-bops, replaced here by the anodyne sounds of crashing waves, seagulls, swelling strings, and cymbals that trickle in like raindrops on a canvas. In this graceful, ethereal rendition, you wonder when--or if--the couple's encounter even happened. Is it a distant memory? A reverie? A ghostly homecoming on some faraway shore? Regardless of Holter's intent, "Hello Stranger" is that rare find: a song of singular, subtle beauty that you slowly fall in love with, maybe lose touch with, and then rediscover years later.
7. Majical Cloudz - "Bugs Don't Buzz"
How do Montreal-based singer-songwriter Devon Welsh and his producer, Matthew Otto, manage to wring such palpable emotion from such a spare song--one consisting only of a few piano keys, some humming ambient fuzz, and Welsh's resounding baritone? The answer lies in their ability to shut out all the din of the world and capture real, raw intimacy that's amplified by imagery you can almost touch. There's the "slimy wet darkness"; the roaches that may or may not be dying that serve as a metaphor for the narrator and his lover; the "edge of existence" that the whole track seems to cling to. "If life could be forever one instant/ Would it be the moment you met me?" Welsh sings. Even forever may not be long enough to appreciate moments like this.
6. London Grammar - "Wasting My Young Years"
The key to London Grammar's blisteringly melancholic "Wasting My Young Years" isn't what the British trio's gifted vocalist, Hannah Reid, does--it's what she doesn't do. Each verse begins with her wandering, downcast heroine walking the streets, reflecting on her charred past, terrified of the blackness ahead that is her future. Then, just after she laments her inability to stop "chasing old ideas," the track begins to gallop forward, racing toward its refrain and threatening to tear away from her control. You expect Reid to finally just unleash some diva wallop, some helpless plea or declaration of empowerment --or for the whole thing to erupt into a robust, chaotic finale. Instead, the song ditches a bridge or third verse and dissolves into a simple piano melody, and the singer resigns herself to her present state, feebly delivering the closing lines "I don't know what you want/ Don't leave me hanging on." Ironic, given that that's exactly what Reid does to us.
This summer's sunniest song was also its most overlooked. Perhaps that's because "Sonsick," written by composer and Yale grad Ellis Ludwig-Leone, really sounded like nothing else in 2013. OK, so it was a little Dirty Projectors, a little Sufjan Stevens, a dash of Janelle Monae. But with the layered vocal acrobatics of singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig--belting about their attempt to turn a resistant lover into a lifelong partner--and the track's big, brassy fanfare soaring into the stratosphere, Ludwig-Leone's optimistic confessional moves beyond the label of "grand-gesture indie" to trigger some sort of sonic umami. The emotion of "Sonsick" shoots out like a cannon, then leaves you feeling as giddy as a kid at the circus.
4. Kanye West - "Black Skinhead"
Primal, populist, heart-pounding, harrowing. Visceral, vulgar, terrifying, titillating. Off-putting and yet undeniable. A searing diatribe, a tribal chant, the kinda shit that seems tailor-made for soccer games and smartphone ads. "Black Skinhead" reeks of an insanely pompous artist's egomania, but also showcases his relentless ambition, blasting through religion, race, crime, sex, anxiety, and self-destruction in just over three minutes. Yeezus was Kanye West's darkest, most incensed, and most disturbing album to date, and with its thunderous industrial percussion, erotic panting, and torture-chamber yelps, this track was the closest he's come to sounding not like the god he claims to be, but to some vengeful demon spitting fire at the gates of hell.
3. Disclosure (feat. London Grammar) - "Help Me Lose My Mind"
One of 2013's most refreshing musical success stories came when babyfaced brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence (19 and 22, respectively) released their stellar debut, Settle, a perfectly sequenced set of minimal, '90s-inspired club cuts. But the record's final track, "Help Me Lose My Mind," their collaboration with British peers London Grammar, took their simmering, throbbing house to the next level, lending it a richness and poignancy that its 13 previous songs (which feature impressive cameos from Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, and AlunaGeorge) hadn't quite tapped into. Amid the hi-hats and rattles and chugging bass, singer Hannah Reid implores her dance partner to whisk her away from her troubles, reignite the spark, and, as it were, complete her. As Settle draws to a close, we're left feeling like we've just attended the coolest party of the year--and are now, feet tired and buzz wearing off, ready to head home with the one we love.
From that opening stripped-down disco beat and those first sultry oohs and ahhs, you know Drake is on to something. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke kept bars and cars filled with their suave, come-hither heat for most of the summer, but when Drake dropped this single in the beginning of August, he proved that five-and-a-half-minute pop epics about fancy attire and corny boasts about dick size weren't the secret to showing your moves in the bedroom. Straight-up, heart-on-your-sleeve candor was. The rapper has never sounded so swoony, so head-over-heels infatuated. He's also never offered up a pop song anywhere near as elegant and pitch-perfect as this. "Hold On, We're Going Home" is the closest thing we came to musical foreplay in 2013 from a musician who, if he spends a little more time channelling his inner softie into Miami Vice-era gold like this, could become the smoothest criminal of R&B.
1. Daft Punk (feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers) - "Get Lucky"
Further proof that simplicity really is beautiful, especially in the hands of four musical masterminds. "Get Lucky" came shimmying into the pop landscape this spring, perhaps sounding a bit less gobsmacking and progressive than some Daft Punk lovers were hoping for--at least at first listen. These were, remember, the techno-and-house wizards instrumental in spawning the EDM movement that's now, some 20 years later, threatening to buckle under its own ubiquity. Meanwhile, the piecemeal marketing campaign for their first studio album in eight years (SNL spots, Coachella ads, a 10-second teaser) had anticipation reaching a fever pitch before the single even saw the light of day. So what to make of top 40 staple Pharrell Williams crooning over a neatly packaged, repetitive disco tune? Was this the duo's bid for the mainstream? And though DP's most memorable lyrics up to that point had probably been "Music's got me feelin' so free/ We're gonna celebrate," a line like "We're up all night to get lucky" seemed just a little goofy--even for two dudes who've been running around in helmets and emoting through vocoders for the past two decades. Were our beloved French androids officially selling out?
We needn't have worried. A month--and a few more spins of "Get Lucky"--later, Random Access Memories came out. Not only did it strike the perfect balance of infectious and ingenious that early Daft Punk masterpieces Homework and Discovery had achieved, it was the duo's most surprising, audacious effort yet. Here was a record that pissed all over a genre the pair had essentially created, instead taking a deep dive into disco, prog-rock, muzak, science fiction soundtracks, Broadway, and sappy AM radio--some of the most maligned, "uncool" sounds to come out of the late '70s and early '80s--and then refashioning them for the modern age. In this context, "Get Lucky," underpinned by producer and former Chic member Nile Rodgers's irresistible fretwork, made complete sense. Like all of RAM's retro offerings, it was a charming, impeccably produced, analog homage to Daft Punk's heros, of then and now. When it eventually topped the Billboard Hot 100 and became their most commercially successful song to date, it wasn't because it was another ginned-up jam about staying out late and getting laid. It was because, yet again, Daft Punk had thrown us a curveball. They were giving us something original, organic, genuine--and they sounded like they were having the most fun they'd ever had doing it. Turns out these robots were human after all.