10) "Power Trip"
by J. Cole & Miguel
from Born Sinner
Peak position: #19
Year-end position: #48
Edit 24 Jan 2014: This song replaces "My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light 'em Up)", which previously sat at #10.
I admit I never thought much of North Carolina rapper J. Cole when he broke out in 2011; his first hit, the Paula Abdul-sampling "Work Out" did nothing for me apart from that Paula Abdul sample. Guess I should've checked out the rest of his album. Well, apparently he and I got off on the wrong foot, because when he re-introduced himself with "Power Trip", I was pleasantly surprised. The beat is dark, but not in a lethargic Mike Will Made-It kind of way, but an intense Wu-Tang Clan kind of way. Meanwhile, the lyrics are all over the place, going from rags-to-riches tales (and far better than Drake's attempts -- plural) one moment to picking up chicks the next, but as a rapper, J is skillful at handling the speed and throws in the occasional clever moment. More importantly, he keeps his braggadocio just restrained enough to not be either soulless or obnoxious, which is all I ask from a rapper these days.
9) "Counting Stars"
Peak position: #3
Year-end position: #63
Speaking of artists delivering pleasant surprises, OneRepublic. With few exceptions, none of their songs have stood out to me, and that goes double for the songs frontman Ryan Tedder wrote for other singers. In fact, if their last song "Feel Again" had been an actual hit, I would've put it on the worst-of list, simply because his singing is horrendously off-key. Fortunately, that is not the case with "Counting Stars". This song is adventurous: both in the musical sense with its folk-slash-native-American beat, and in its lyrics, which talk about shrugging off the material establishment and forging off on your own adventure, whatever that may entail. And when nearly everything surrounding "Counting Stars" is so boring (to repeat my recurring theme for this year in music), I'll gravitate to anything with some personality like a fly to a bug zapper. Except without the horrible shocky death.
by Wale feat. Tiara Thomas
from The Gifted
Peak position: #21
Year-end position: #59
Okay, now I put Lil' Wayne's "Love Me" (no) through the ringer for its promotion of unhealthy gender roles, but at least we may take heart in the fact that not everybody plays the same game. The chorus, delivered either by Tiara Thomas or Rihanna depending on which version you're listening to, contains lyrics such as:
Is it bad that I've never been loved?These are some of the song's first lines, and already I've been given a lot to mentally chew on. I mean, she's making the distinction between physical lust and emotional love, two things which have often mistakenly been confused for one and the same. And this isn't just some doe-eyed groupie playing up the shallow stereotypes of women in the rap community -- the verses also deal with similar themes. If you're thinking about the ramifications of all the shallow sex you're having, it's not the same (not necessarily worse) as creating a meaningful relationship, but anything that gets you (either the first-person or the listener) thinking deserves its place in the world. Also, you may be wondering about that repeating springy noise in the back of the track. The Rap Critic has a... disappointing explanation for that in his review. Hint: it involves an inappropriately-chosen remake of a really bad song. ...Still good though.
No, I never did
But I sure know how to [verb]
7) "Just Give Me a Reason"
by P!nk & Nate Ruess
from The Truth About Love
Peak position: #1
Year-end position: #7
Recording artists making guest appearances on other people's songs were a dime a dozen in 2013, and have been for some time, actually. It's getting so that the guest rap verse has become the new guitar solo. But it's rare that you see an actual duet these days, where the singers appear to interact with one another through the lyrics. In a relationship that's hit the skids, their song is an... overly dramatic attempt to rekindle what they once had, but hey, it's the drama that makes it work.
6) "Get Lucky"
by Daft Punk feat. Pharell Williams
from Random Access Memories
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: #14
I've already talked about this song, and even compared it to the song which blocked it from number one. Do I think that was an unfair episode? Yes, but neither is "Get Lucky" my favourite song of the year. I mean, repetition in both lyrics and music has always been a weak point of Daft Punk, and this is no exception. But I suppose bringing on a guest vocalist softens the blow, because in the midst of such repetition (such to the point that I can't even think of a new word for "repetition"), I'm down for any new ideas. BUT but, that's not to say "Get Lucky" is bad, by any means. It wasn't the first of 2013's retro-R&B jams, but by correctly mimicking the late-70s mindset of cautiously experimenting with the possibilities of synthesizers whilst still maintaining a background of traditional instrumentation, it's the most true to its roots, and arguably the best. Unless my #5 choice have something to say about it...
5) "Locked Out of Heaven" / "When I Was Your Man" / "Treasure"
by Bruno Mars
from Unorthodox Jukebox
Peak position: #1 / #1 / #7
Year-end position: #11 / #8 / #30
Make that choices, plural. I make it a policy of mine that no matter how bad somebody fouls up, I am always ready to forgive them if they sincerely make up for their mistakes. Even you, Capcom, but first I’ve gotta see results. For example, no matter how much of a clusterfail “The Lazy Song” was, Bruno Mars managed to put out some half-decent music afterwards, such as this. The first thing that hits me about "Locked Out of Heaven" is the restrained, classic rock-style production, which automatically gives it a leg up over the competition. And the lyrics take a more spiritual approach to a subject matter which has lost much of its spirituality over the years. By claiming that he used to feel "locked out of Heaven" until he has sex with his girlfriend, he realises how much he's been missing by not having sex over the past few... however long it was.
And then along comes "When I Was Your Man". Whilst piano-ballads were a dime a dozen in 2013, and it didn't take a lot of listens for me to change the radio station whenever this came on, I can at least appreciate the sentiments described therein. In the song, Bruno apparently suffered a breakup due to his own ignorance, and now all he wants is for her to be happy and for her new boyfriend to not make the same mistakes. Humility? In a pop song? What has this world come to!? ...Whatever it has, don't stop, please. Add to that "Treasure", which is basically a self-esteem anthem like his own "Just The Way You Are" but as a post-disco jam virtually precisely in the style of acts like Evelyn "Champagne" King, and Bruno Mars is officially on my "nice" list again.
4) "Don't You Worry Child"
by Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin
from Until Now
Peak position: #6
Year-end position: #26
Full disclosure: I’m a fan of dance music. No, not that nigh-identical in-da-club pop-rap that passes for dance music these days; I’m talking real EDM, genres like techno, trance, house, drum-and-bass, even a little dubstep, from artists like Ian van Dahl, Armin van Buuren, Armand van Helden... a lot of "van"s. This sort of music doesn’t get popular, though, except for maybe a few hits in the early 2000s, but lucky for me, another handful of these songs broke the top 20 throughout 2013. And whilst one could point to David Guetta for making this sort of music popular again, I refuse to dignify that suggestion and instead point to this track by a band who had the amazing foresight to break up after notching their first hit. ...Huh. But back to "Don't You Worry Child": isn't it nice to have a dance song that isn't set in da club, but instead talks about a meaningful episode of doubt and consolation? And one that doesn't rely on a "dirty bit"? Remember when I coined that phrase?
3) "Swimming Pools (Drank)"
by Kendrick Lamar
from Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
Peak position: #17
Year-end position: #79
We get a lot of positive representations of alcohol in popupar music these days, particularly in hip-hop. So leave it to a rap song to take boozing down a peg. In his relatively short verses, Kendrick Lamar paints himself as an unconfident person who drinks to fit in with the cool crowd, and whilst he tries to maintain moderation, he takes peer pressure which threatens to push him past his limits. And he does this by playing multiple roles, not only him, but the jerk who's trying to get him drunk through the chorus, as well as his own conscience in the second verse ...I get the sneaking suspicion that alcohol can be a bad thing. If you don't believe me, check out the Rap Critic's review.
2) "Catch My Breath"
by Kelly Clarkson
from Greatest Hits - Chapter One
Peak position: #19
Year-end position: #68
Edit 14 Jan 2014: This song replaces "Hold On, We're Going Home", which previously sat at #9.
One of my many problems with Kelly Clarkson is that she keeps recycling the same independent-woman anthems for each one of her singles. But when you do the same sort of thing often enough, people can form opinions on what are the best and worst examples of that thing. And "Catch My Breath", a new song from a compilation album of all places, rises above its many peers. I guess what sets this apart is its performance. The way she forcefully sings her lines, especially later in the song, give her words some much-needed defiance. And the chord structure, which to be fair may have been adapted from Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", adds some not-quite-major-key, not-quite-minor-key mystique to the composition. Could you imagine how good something like "Mr. Know-It-All" could've been if she employed some of those tricks...?
1) "Thrift Shop" / "Can't Hold Us" / "Same Love"
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, et al.
from The Heist
Peak position: #1 / #1 / #11
Year-end position: #1 / #5 / #43
Believe it or not, Macklemore is not the only independent rapper from Seattle to have a number-one album, and man was that an overly narrow classification. But anyway, he and Ryan Lewis did the same with The Heist and it was awesome. The song that broke them into the mainstream was, of course, "Thrift Shop", and since I've already reviewed it, I'm just gonna link you to that review and throw on some additional comments. Now, in that review, I expressed concern that the music might grow annoying and that few of the lyrics would stick in my head, but over the course of the year I've heard it just enough for it to grow on me. "Thrift Shop" hits me much in the same way as Jay-Z & Kanye West's "[nouns] in Paris" did last year, albeit on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. And if I'm going to side with the 99 percent, I should at least support them.
So let's move on to their next song, "Can't Hold Us". At first, I was wary of this song, since whereas "Thrift Shop" took potshots at our materialistic culture, "Can't Hold Us" is merely a song about celebration. But it's a well-deserved celebration; Macklemore makes comments about how hard he's worked for his success (oddly prophetically, assuming he recorded this at the same time as "Thrift Shop", and therefore, before he could've dreamed it would be a hit), and how he's dissing the record labels in favour of giving his products directly to the people. Yup, musical communism. ...Some things work out better than they sound. And whilst he still plays fast and loose with the concept of rhyming, this song makes him rap faster, and man is he on point. He could've stopped the track after any line in the song and it would be the most awesome moment ever recorded.
Finally, there's "Same Love", their treatise in defence of same-sex love and marriage. Musically, there's not much more than a piano and drums, but in this case that's a good thing, because that way the production doesn't overshadow the message. Like Wale's song did at points, "Same Love" treats emotional love as a separate entity as physical sex, which is doubly notable because that hardly ever seems to be done in the context of homosexuals. But it's not preachy about it, either, it's actually quite confessional at parts, such as the opening where he talks about questioning his sexuality as a child. (Spoiler alert: he's straight.) How good is "Same Love"? If I had to pick any song out of these three to officially represent #1, it would be this, but really, if you have any respect for real music and want to change the course of our culture in a positive direction, buy their album, The Heist. In fact, and I know it was created in late 2012, but I dare say it was the best thing ever to happen in 2013.