To all the critics who deemed 2013 the worst year for pop music in recent memory, well... I can't quite agree. (I'd suggest 2007 myself, but that's another story.) I'll be honest, in addition to the stuff that actively sucked, there was a lot of boring, safe schlock padding out the top 40 throughout the year. Even some of the stuff I put on my best-of list couldn't hold my interest after just a few listens. Sometimes being a critic is about letting your personal tastes take the bullet in favour of what really matters. But seriously, folks, the fact that I could pick out so many other songs I liked in addition to my top ten should give the hint that maybe, just maybe, there was enough good to balance out the bad.
"Alive" by Krewella
from Get Wet
Peak position: #32
Year-end position: N/A
Among the EDM songs to hit it big this year, this was my second-favourite behind "Don't You Worry Child". The beat is pulse-pounding, the instrumental parts have just enough melody for them to have their own personality as opposed to the usual background noise we're often subject to, and the lyrics are affirmative but just vague enough that they work as a party song but aren't strictly limited to the dance floor. And as somebody who's suffered from the neo-disco storm of '10, that's all I ask. Yes, it could've made my best-of list if it had been a bigger hit. Sorry, Paramore, but consider yourselves lucky.
"Applause" by Lady Gaga
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #37
Lack of personality was a common crime among the hits of 2013, but Lady Gaga was acquitted on that charge as far as I'm concerned. "Applause" is one of the few "image songs" to come out from America, and the character Lady Gaga plays in the song is Lady Gaga herself. She leverages all the fame she's garnered over her career thus far and invites us to learn her take on it all. At least she would, except the second verse was just garbage. "One second I'm a Kunst / And suddenly the Kunst is me", eh? You do know you're just saying the same thing with the words switched around, right? But apart from that, it incorporates tasteful, if watered-down, elements of dubstep without bringing its momentum to a screeching halt, as is often the case with dubstep, intentional or not.
"Hold On, We're Going Home" by Drake feat. Majid Jordan
from Nothing Was the Same
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #34
One of the songs from my Best Hit Songs of 2010 list was "Find Your Love" by Drake, an emotional retro-R&B jam. I'm not going to say too much about its spiritual follow-up, "Hold On, We're Going Home", because I'd just point to that mini-review and say, "pretty much that". Unfortunately, the emotional stakes aren't as high this time around. Whilst both this and "Find Your Love" were about picking up a girl, the other song was more desperate in its approach, whereas "Hold On, We're Going Home" is instead more upfront with its promise of sexy time. But hey, at least this would work better than some other songs Drake's been on...
"Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake
from The 20/20 Experience
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: #6
Among the Justins of pop music, for once the Timberlake:Bieber ratio was skewed towards the former. It's not like Bieber didn't put out music last year, but it was relatively easy to avoid -- not like Timberlake's world-conquering The 20/20 Experience albums. But I didn't know what to make of "Mirrors". I think it's supposed to be a song about rekindling a dying relationship, about discovering the magic that had once been lost with his significant other. But then he says she's like his reflection in the mirror, and I'm like, "What's that supposed to mean? Is he realizing that which he thought was lost, or is he just stroking his ego?" With "Mirrors" having come out after the uber-slick "Suit & Tie" (discussed below), it could go either way, really. Also, this song lost some points for its haphazard beatboxing in the background, which sadly leaves it sounding more like "Cry Me A River" than "What Goes Around (Comes Around)".
"My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)" by Fall Out Boy
from Save Rock and Roll
Peak position: #13
Year-end position: #40
When last year I described Linkin Park, Maroon 5, and even Nickelback as the only rock bands to have halfway decent success in the 2000s, I regret that I seem to have undercut Fall Out Boy by leaving them out of that statement. Sure, they got lumped into the emo-rock scene which was apparently the only way we could get actual rock hits in the dark times that were the middle of the decade. But now they're back with one of the most catchy and powerful songs of their career. The beat has real headbanging potential and the lyrics involve fire motifs, so what's not to like? Maybe that the lyrics are also mega-stupid. See, whoever's writing the songs in Fall Out Boy, no one told them that the title phrase doesn't make any sense. Also, the music video stars 2 Chainz. But whatever, I'm still having fun.
"Safe and Sound" by Capital Cities
from In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
Peak position: #8
Year-end position: #29
The popularity-deciding public seems content with letting numerous indie-esque singles slowly filter up to the top ten, and "Safe and Sound" felt like a deserving success story when it did. Even when compared to its genre peers, it's an incredibly bouncy tune, with judicious uses of retro synth washes and non-traditional instruments. When's the last time you heard trumpets in a pop song? Unfortunately, the same melodies are recycled throughout the verses, which was something I really paid attention to this past year. Eventually, it was enough for me to change the station whenever this came on, and enough to keep it off my own top-ten list, but our times were good while they lasted.
"Still Into You" by Paramore
Peak position: #24
Year-end position: #100
In a year where so many female vocalists got through 2013 by the musical equivalent of sleep-walking, the same cannot be said of Hayley Williams. True, I took it off my list because she sang off-key for much of the song. But still, her staccato delivery on the verses of "Still Into You" provide a sort of '80s-rock swagger, and some much-needed edge to lyrics that could honestly have come off as lovey-dovey otherwise. But lacking that, I'd still be loath to describe this song as "lovey-dovey". I mean, this is a girl who knows times can be tough, and still manages to see the good in her significant other. She and her song just ooze good times and pass those good times along to us.
"Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z
from The 20/20 Experience
Peak position: #3
Year-end position: #20
In the midst of the casual Internet's fascination with the word "swag" back in 2012, I saw an image macro with the caption "Swag is for boys, class is for men". Somehow, Justin Timberlake exhibits both swag and class in his comeback single "Suit & Tie". The vintage R&B music (it reminds me the most of the theme song to Diamonds Are Forever) provides the class, and the swag comes courtesy of Timberlake's reasonably self-confident lyrics and attitude. Oh, except for the line "So thick / That I know why they call it a fatty". Dude, I know you're talking about a girl's hindquarters being in pleasant proportion to the rest of her body, but you have to realise what you sound like. Jay Z throws in a guest verse, and while it switches to a slower, chopped-and-screwed beat that dates his part of the song somewhat whilst killing the momentum, lyrically it doesn't exactly clash with anything before it. Leave it to JT to pick a topic to which you could tack on any luxury-rap guest verse and no one would even notice.
Personally, if any of the songs from JT's The 20/20 Experience albums (yes, plural) would've made my list, I'd have placed "Take Back The Night" in my top 5 at least. For having come out in the midst of the year's disco revival, this one arguably did it the best, with the funky grooves of its soundscape transcending the experience beyond the normal "carpe diem" anthem. But sadly, it didn't meet my requirements, and I didn't think it noteworthy enough to warrant a Wildcard slot, but do check it out anyways.
"Timber" by Pitbull & Ke$ha
from Meltdown [EP]
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: N/A
I can't believe it! This is the least awful Pitbull song yet! How could this be!? Maybe it's because they followed the same formula of "Feel This Moment", except the elements are more congruous this time around. Whereas Christina Aguilera seemed more detached from the mood Pitbull was trying to promote in that other song, Ke$ha sounds like she's having much more fun in this one. But any old Pitbull song could do that and I'd still think less of it because it's Pitbull; however, his own verses aren't as in-your-face this time around. Instead of treating his good fortune as an exclusive privelege, he appears content with having a reasonably good time and letting everyone join in. Sure, there are some questionable lines -- the Miley Cyrus reference is bound to become dated fast, and "slicker than an oil spill" is a Funny Aneurysm Moment waiting to happen -- but there's nothing that warrants a revision to my Top 10 Worst Pitbull Lyrics or anything.
"Troublemaker" by Olly Murs & Flo Rida
from Right Place Right Time
Peak position: #25
Year-end position: #82
Speaking of awful rappers having less-than-awful moments in 2013, Flo Rida's verse on "Troublemaker". I don't know about you, but I'm used to him bringing out the same bottles-and-models lyrics for each one of his outings. So you can imagine my surprise when his guest verse here actually carried the topic of the song! Olly Murs is at least partially tortured over his less-healthy-than-desirable relationship, and by gum, so is Flo Rida! Also, the instrumentation is what Maroon 5's last album should've sounded like. I mean, cowbells and violin blasts! Doesn't that spell funk to you? I'd like to think this started the whole otherwise-inexplicable '70s-retro thing that we got this year.
"Wake Me Up" by Avicii & Aloe Blacc
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #19
So folky indie-pop and electronic dance music were two genres that gave us a good number of hits in 2013. Who'd've thought that combining the two would yield such a good result? I don't care what some of the critics say, I think the transaction between the acoustic and electronic parts are handled rather smoothly... for the most part. The occasional cliched lyric holds it back, as does what they did with the chorus. In the original version, Aloe Blacc sang a bunch of long "oh"s over the interlude, but the remix dropped them out in favour of a completely instrumental break. Yeah, if I have any problems with vocal dance music, it's when they try to restrict any efforts for the singer to show off his or her personality. I'm looking at you, David Guetta. But it'll take a lot more than that for me to kiss off the genre, and for that matter, 2013's music in macrocosm.