I’m always happy for an excuse to put together a mix CD or playlist, and the impending conclusion of 2013 provides me with the opportunity to do just that. I’ve compiled a playlist on Spotify of my favorite songs from the past year. Here’s what I liked.
1. CHVRCHES – “Recover”
The album I’ve listened to more than any other album this year is CHVRCHES’ The Bones of What You Believe. It’s an incredibly catchy synth pop album with an indie sensibility and some pretty smart lyrics. “Recover” is the first track that I got hooked on back when it was released as part of an EP, and it’s still my favorite off the album. I could pretty much listen to lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice all day.
2. Blood Orange – “Chamakay”
The Weeknd came out with a new album this year, and it was kind of a letdown. Besides ripping off a Portishead beat without giving them credit, it was just kind of bland compared to his previous efforts. Thankfully, disappointed fans of trip-hoppy alt-R&B were treated to Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe, a solid album from the guy who produced that one Solange Knowles song everyone was into last year. Fun fact: that guy is Dev Hynes, who previously recorded music as Lightspeed Champion. The difference between the two projects is pretty astounding.
3. Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
In a year when a new Arcade Fire album is released, what are the odds one of its songs won’t be on nearly every critic’s best-of list? Pretty low, if those critics have any damn sense. “Reflektor” is an epic song with so many elements going on it can be dizzying. Also: David Bowie. I’ve listened to this song dozens upon dozens of times now and it still sounds fresh every time.
4. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”
I feel like Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady was probably the most criminally underrated album of 2013. Sure, its convoluted sci-fi underpinnings can be a little off-putting for some, but if she were fronting a prog rock band no one would think twice about that. At any rate, “Dance Apocalyptic” made me want to shake my ass more than any other song this year. I didn’t shake my ass, but I wanted to.
5. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
Although its inclusion in a seemingly endless number of movie trailers and TV commercials has inevitably dulled its aggressive, iconoclastic edge, “Black Skinhead” was an impressive statement of purpose from Kanye West when it was first released. The song matches a dirty, fuzzed-out sound that would not be out of place on a Death Grips album to lyrics that are both defiantly political and head-scratchingly silly, occupying that gray area between genius and narcissistic absurdity in which Kanye is so comfortable.
6. Sky Ferreira – “You’re Not the One”
If you’ve seen the uncensored cover for Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time then you know that she isn’t exactly shy. Her Internet presence bears that out, too. She’s also on tour with Miley Cyrus right now, so she certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Unfortunately, her debut album is somewhat of a mixed bag that doesn’t quite match the hype she has drummed up for herself. That fact aside, “You’re Not the One” is still a singularly excellent track that is likely to get stuck in your head and play on repeat until you start to not want it there anymore. At least, that’s certainly been the case for me.
7. The National – “I Should Live in Salt”
The music of The National is often derided as “dad rock.” Whatever. I’m a dad. I like The National. If that makes it dad rock, then so be it. I wasn’t as into Trouble Will Find Me as I was High Violet, which remains my favorite album of theirs. Still, it’s a great album for sitting in a comfy chair, sipping on some whiskey, and thinking about sad dad stuff. “I Should Live in Salt” was the standout track of the album, and its refrain of “You should know me better than that” will likely be mouthed at The National’s concerts by dads such as myself for years to come.
8. Sigur Rós – “Brennisteinn”
I got the chance to see Sigur Rós perform in Detroit for their most recent tour, and man was it one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever attended. They really go all-out in creating a memorable experience. Of course, all the spectacle in the world would mean nothing if their music wasn’t good, but Kveikur is arguably their strongest album since Ágætis byrjun. It’s dark, but not suffocatingly so, and it has a focus that has been missing from their last few albums. “Brennisteinn” was the first single off the album, and it’s one of the best songs they’ve ever done.
9. Los Campesinos! – “What Death Leaves Behind”
The title of the latest album from Los Campesinos!, No Blues, is a bit of a misnomer. The band has always trafficked in music that is insanely upbeat until you listen to the lyrics. Then it can be a bit of a downer. You pretty much know what to expect from a Los Campesinos! album, and this newest one is no different, but consistency isn’t always a bad thing. “What Death Leaves Behind” is right up there among the best songs the band has released, even if you might feel like you’ve heard it before.
10. Daft Punk w/ Pharrell Williams – “Get Lucky”
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a bit of an odd duck. It is their most commercially successful album to date, but also their most challenging. It’s not much of a singles album, instead rewarding listening to it all the way through as a cohesive whole. With that said, though, “Get Lucky” is an exception to the rule in that it’s one hell of a single and as catchy a tune as they’ve ever released.
11. Jon Hopkins – “Open Eye Signal”
You’re probably not alone if you’re not overly familiar with Jon Hopkins. He’s an electronic music producer with a fairly forgettable name that has until now made some nice atmospheric music that was, well, fairly forgettable. With Immunity, though, he added some real beats to his music and made it downright danceable. Yet despite its newfound danceability, it’s also possibly his most introspective album yet. “Open Eye Signal” is like a dance party going on in your brain, and all your anxieties are invited. Listen to it on a good pair of headphones or a hella loud sound system for maximum effect.
12. Boards of Canada – “Reach for the Dead”
When Tomorrow’s Harvest came out, it had been eight years since Boards of Canada had released an album. To say expectations were high would be an understatement. Then “Reach for the Dead” hit the Internet and was pretty much everything one could hope for from a Boards of Canada song: beautiful, haunting, and with a twinge of melancholy. Unfortunately the rest of the album was a bit of a letdown with few standout tracks, but “Reach for the Dead” pretty much made the whole thing worth it.
13. Volcano Choir – “Byegone”
It’s seeming more and more likely that we’re never going to get another Bon Iver album, but Volcano Choir is a nice consolation prize for fans of Justin Vernon’s work. Make no mistake, Repave is no For Emma, Forever Ago. It has its own subdued charm, though, and those same falsetto vocals. The rousing chorus of “Byegone” is pretty great, and would probably be out of place on a Bon Iver album, so that’s a definite plus for Vernon branching out into new territory.
14. Lorde – “Royals”
America, you’ve got to step it up. All the best megahit pop stars seem to be coming from elsewhere these days. A few years ago it was Adele, busting out of the U.K. like no one could have expected with pop music that was refreshingly mature and free from auto-tuning. She didn’t need auto-tuning, because she has what so many of our domestic pop stars are missing: real vocal talent. New Zealand’s Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by the blessedly shorter moniker “Lorde,” might not be as mature as Adele, being only 17 years old, but despite her youth she is a talent to be reckoned with. If you haven’t heard “Royals” at some point this year, you probably haven’t turned on your radio. You can certainly be forgiven for that, but this is one radio-friendly song that isn’t utter garbage.
15. David Bowie – “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy)”
David Bowie is pretty spry for an old guy. His most recent album, The Next Day, sounds thoroughly modern without betraying a desperation to sound modern. Bowie hasn’t always gotten away with that in the past. But take one of those tracks, hand it over to James Murphy for a remix, and listen as he turns it into a sprawling dance epic that clocks in at over 10 minutes long without ever seeming excessive. Between this and his work on Reflektor, Murphy is a producer at the top of his game.