By Aaron Wallace
It’s become a tradition for me at the end of each year to look back at the soundtrack of the last twelve months. I spend the year scouting, reviewing, and studying thousands of songs before beginning the painful process of picking just thirty that stand out as the very best. Music’s changed over the last fifteen years or so. The explosion of the Internet has made music more accessible and diverse than ever before, but at the same time, label mergers, radio conglomerations, and plummeting sales have only homogenized what most of us get exposed to. So it’s a double-edged sword: there’s more good music out there, but the burden’s now on us to work hard to find it.
While I expect that you won’t agree with every pick on the list, and I’m certain there’ll be some you haven’t yet heard, I hope you can appreciate all the thought and effort that went into compiling it. Ultimately, I invest so much of myself in these lists because I love music and want to help other people appreciate and/or discover songs that I’ve found to be particularly insightful, inspiring, or — as is the case with #30 — just impressively mystifying…
30. Robin Thicke (feat. T.I. & Pharrell) – “Blurred Lines”
Turns out the only line Thicke & Co. blurred was the one between artistry and infringement, but with apologies to Marvin Gaye and everyone (understandably) offended by the song’s marginally repulsive lyrics, “Blurred Lines” is too entrancing to ignore. It’s disco, funk, and “Growing Pains” rolled into one… and isn’t that what we’ve all been waiting for? Roll your eyes to the beat.
29. Lorde – “Team”
“I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.” The song’s most memorable line also works as 16-year-old Lorde’s mantra, an alt-pop rebuke of the mainstream-music nonsense her generation’s been spoon-fed.
28. Jars of Clay – “Inland”
Jars of Clay have been steadily gravitating toward alt-rock for some time now. With Inland, their first album on their own record label, they’ve officially gone “indie,” a move that matches the sound they’ve captured on their last few projects. Dawning vests-over-plaid and at least one handlebar mustache, they look the part too. True to the band’s form, the lyrics here are enigmatic yet profound. Inspired by the Winnowing Oar in Homer’s Odyssey, “Inland” tackles themes of faith, purpose, and perspective with appropriately epic and atmospheric production.
27. Hanson – “Get the Girl Back”
Their first Billboard-charting hit since “Penny & Me” went #2 nearly ten years ago, “Get the Girl Back” helped Hanson get the world back, too. While the ample cowbell is reminiscent of “Thinking ’bout Somethin'” (not to mention a certain “SNL” sketch), the song’s retro, Motown-inspired groove and Beach Boys-esque harmony are instantly appealing.
26. The Mowgli’s – “San Francisco”
Magnificently composed with buildups and breakdowns, “San Francisco” is a feel-good jam that’s less about San Fran and more about the shared human experience of love.
25. A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera – “Say Something”
I’ve never been one to condemn Christina Aguilera for letting loose her enormous voice. But after years of wail-heavy chart toppers, she’s finally answering those critics by holding back and — I must admit — it’s nice. Sometimes it’s easier to “Say Something” with a whisper than a scream. Her delicate vocals, alongside newcomers A Great Big World, complement the song’s touchingly wistful story about a relationship at its end. As the song’s video suggests, the exact nature of that relationship is open to interpretation, empowering the lyric with universality. This is the kind of song we used to hear a lot of, but emotional ballads have gone the way of Celine Dion. Glad to see they aren’t gone for good.
24. Miley Cyrus – “We Can’t Stop”
What the hell goes on at Miley Cyrus’s house, exactly? It’s a question I’d never asked but the answer is hypnotically WTFtastic. It’d be easy to criticize the song and video’s weirdness as deliberately shocking — a child star’s desperate demand for attention — if it weren’t so artfully achieved. Intriguing, excessive, and disturbing, the whole thing is slightly Kubrick-esque, a Top 40 Clock-Twerk Orange. Hannah’s gone from Montana to Gomorrah, and that’s probably not a good thing… but for one amazingly strange moment in time, it worked.
23. Two Door Cinema Club – “Changing of the Seasons”
Quirky enough to feel fresh but with enough blazing bass and synth production to suit the dance floor, “Changing of the Seasons” is breezy electro-pop that’s easy to enjoy. Lyrically, the song offers clever perspective on love that fades: “When you say you won’t forget me / Well I can tell you that’s untrue / ‘Cause every day since you left me / I’ve thought less and less of you.”
22. Tedeschi Trucks Band – “It’s So Heavy“
“It’s So Heavy” is broad enough to be about anything that weighs you down. Whatever it is that ails you, Susan Tedeschi’s forlorn vocal is full with the bulk and burden of emotional heft. “It’s so heavy,” she sings, “I’ve gotta let a little go.” Therapeutically beautiful, her performance makes it all the easier to do just that.
(Note: the acoustic performance above is all that’s available on YouTube — it’s less polished than the studio track, but the singing really shines.)
21. Bruno Mars – “Treasure”
2013 was truly the year of the throwback jam — very good news for someone like Bruno Mars, for whom retro is both a style and a schtick. It’s not the first time his music has been compared to Michael Jackson’s early solo days, but “Treasure” is probably the closest he’s come to that yet. Bouncy, breezy, and full-throttledly disco-ish, it’s big on melody and unafraid to get a little silly (see the music video for proof of that). It may not quite rise to the level of “treasure,” but it’s certainly one of the year’s better dance songs.
20. Paul McCartney – “New”
“New” is only new inasmuch as it’s a fresh take on “old,” but when you’re Paul McCartney, that can work very well. Heavy on harpsichord with handclaps and high-note harmonies, it sounds almost like the best of The Beatles. A catchy and well-constructed pastiche of his own past, “New” is a welcome reminder that Paul is very much alive.
19. Mariah Carey – “The Art of Letting Go”
I wish the opening orchestration wasn’t so much like Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever),” but this is unquestionably the cleanest Carey has sounded in years. Ironically, the song is about her days of “oppression” as the breadwinner at Columbia Records and wife of company exec Tommy Mottola, and yet it’s very much a return to the vocal style she embraced in those early years. She’s broached the same topic in many a song since then, but perhaps never so brazenly. “Go to Mimi on your contacts,” she sings in an amusing moment of defiance, “press delete.” Composed with measured patience and vocal control, the song steadily builds into a climactic explosion of classic Carydom.
As the last of three excellent singles from the emancipated Mimi in 2013, it’s yet another indicator of promise for the future of her career. If what she’s “Letting Go” is indeed the whispery R&B excess that’s marred half of her output over the last decade-and-a-half, then we’re in for “Art” after all… that is, if she ever gets around to actually releasing an album.
18. Justin Timberlake – “Drink You Away”
I’m a little early with this one, as it’s just getting off the ground as Timberlake’s third single from 20/20 Part 2 and is likely to make a much bigger impact in 2014. But after a rousing performance at the 2013 American Music Awards, this country-inflected glass of pop on tap already stands out as one of Timberlake’s best. Lyrically, it’s like a centuries-old blues ditty. Meanwhile, the jazzy, uptempo production calls “Señorita” to mind. Surprisingly, boot-stomping rock guitar suits Timberlake well. If “Take Back the Night” is 20/20, his genre-blending artistic vision in “Drink You Away” is 20/13, at least.
17. Amy Grant, feat. James Taylor – “Don’t Try So Hard”
How Mercy Looks from Here, Amy Grant’s first all-new studio album in ten years, earned her universal critical acclaim and one of the highest Billboard debuts in a three-decades-long career. The lead single, “Don’t Try So Hard,” leans toward the spiritual end of Grant’s lyrical spectrum, but as is her style, the song feels compassionate as opposed to preachy. The legendary James Taylor — arguably Grant’s strongest musical influence — joins her on the track’s most stirring line: “you’re lovely even with your scars.” It’s a beautiful and resonant number that feels as warm and comforting as Grant’s honey-dipped voice.
16. Jake Bugg – “Broken”
19-year-old Jake Bugg’s “Broken” vocal is arrestingly unique. It has the earnest folksiness of Bob Dylan, the Brit-rock edge of Mick Jagger, and the prettiness of Ryan Adams. A somber acoustic guitar ballad, it feels like an introduction to someone whose work we’ll be studying decades from now. (Note: the real song doesn’t start until 0:53 in the video above.)
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