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Top 10 Songs of 2013 – #1: “Pompeii” by Bastille

31 Dec

Bastille Band

We have reached the end of our annual countdown and standing alone on the top is “probably the happiest song about volcanic destruction you’ll ever hear.” It’s an apt quotation from the band. It is true that I have not ever heard a song about a pernicious volcano that I have liked more. I have also not heard a song in 2013 that I have liked more than “Pompeii.”

Bastille has been going at this whole music thing since 2010, but it goes without saying that 2013 was its most successful year. The London-based rock band was founded by Daniel Smith as a solo project. Not long after, he decided to form a band, and he added two multi-instrumentalists (Kyle Jonathan Simmons and William Farquarson) and drummer Chris “Woody” Wood. Signed by Virgin Records, the band started releasing singles in 2012 to moderate success in the UK. “Flaws,” a track from Bastille’s excellent debut album Bad Blood, worked its way into the top 40. Then, in February of this year, the band released “Pompeii,” and like Mount Vesuvius, the song literally blew up, reaching top 10 chart positions in more than 15 countries.

Bastille is a distinguished part of a new crop of alternative/Indie rock bands that are sweeping the musical climate. This list includes bands like Imagine Dragons (who had quite the 2013), The Neighbourhood, Young the Giant, Foster the People, and Grouplove. Out of all these bands (and there are some more I am leaving out), though, I am most excited about Bastille, whose Muse-like epic musicality makes each song potent,  infectious, and unique.

Although quite different, “King of Spain,” “The Afterlife,” and now “Pompeii” – each #1 song on respective annual Music Court countdowns – share a similar quality: the songs all near perfection (hence their #1 placement!) “Bastille” scores high marks on all qualities of an excellent song (rhythm, melody, lyric, vocal, and instrumentation).

The song begins with a Blue Swede-like vocal rhythm. This rhythmic chanting sets an almost allegorical tone, meaning the melody is representative of intense Roman religiosity. One can almost hear this dark chanting in a temple of worship – overwhelmingly spiritual and subtly lugubrious. Dan Smith’s airy voice breaks the chant and carries effortlessly over clacky percussion. This culminates in a choral diapason with crashing percussion, melodious harmonies, and the chanting. The song swoons until it breaks into war-like percussion (the percussion in this song is ridiculously skilled) and a repeated bridge (partially a cappella). The lyric completely fits the song. Over the “tumbling” “walls” and “darkness from above,” Smith urges listeners to “close your eyes” where “it almost feel [s] like nothing changed at all?” While the song is quite literally representative of the destruction of Pompeii, it is difficult not to take it as a metaphorical look at when any unwelcome change occurs in life. Sometimes it is difficult to be “an optimist” and you must “close your eyes” and dream of better days.

Top 10 Songs of 2013 – #2: “Say Something” by A Great Big World

30 Dec

A Great Big World

Back on November 1 I wrote a post urging readers to listen to “Say Something” and brace themselves for the inevitable Great Big World rise to the top. Three days later, an eager Christina Aguilera paired with A Great Big World to release a “Say Something” duet, which she recorded with the band. After a consecutive performance of this duet on “The Voice,” the song has ballooned, reaching the #1 spot on the iTunes charts, selling more than 180,000 copies in a week (and more than one million copies overall), and ultimately propelling Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino to high-profile performances and an eagerly awaited upcoming album.

But let’s back up. Admittedly, I was late on the Great Big World train. Prior to the performances on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, “The Voice,” and even the initial “Say Something” feature on the final of “So You Think You Can Dance” (seven days after it was released as a single in September of this year), A Great Big World was already a known commodity in the Indie Pop world. Signed in May of 2013 by Epic Records, the group previously went on national tours with Ingrid Michaelson, Five for Fighting, and Matthew Morrison. The now long forgotten song “This is the New Year” was featured on Glee, ESPN, The Amazing Race, and One Tree Hill. While the meteoric rise of “Say Something” teetered on an overnight success story, it was more approbation for the hard work put in by the two songwriters who met while attending the Steinhardt school at NYU.

This, though, is a countdown of songs, so let’s get to the #2 song on the countdown. As you are now noticing, I included the version of “Say Something” without Aguilera. I enjoy the uber-popular Aguilera version. Unlike most songs, Aguilera does not actually out-sing the song. She has an incredible voice with almost excessive range, but instead of gratuitousness, she holds herself back and provides a heart-wrenching complement to Axel’s sincere, clean vocal. But, like in most cases, I like the untampered original. A Great Big World, however, might think the contrary. While some misguided YouTubers actually label the song as “Say Something” by Christina Aguilera feat. A Great Big World, which is shameful in its inaccuracy, the band certainly has the Staten Island diva to thank for its rise to the top.

The song, as I expressed in my initial post about it, is minimalistic. It demonstrates musical simplicity at its finest – a soft piano and tender vocal. The lyric is also simple, featuring choral epistrophe and concise verses. While simple, the song is never banal. Conversely, it is one of the freshest songs released in a few years. Perhaps it is its candor or wholeness. The song packs ardor and intelligence into a four-minute piano ballad punch.

Top 10 Songs of 2013: #3 – “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by The National

26 Dec

The National

In 2010 The National appeared on the Music Court’s incipient end-of-the-year countdown. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” reached the eight spot, and, three years ago on Dec. 22 I wrote the following about the song:

When the lyric, voice and instrumentation all join together to struggle with the same concept that the song represents, well, that demonstrates musical experience and intelligence, two things that The National has a lot of.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” probably deserved a higher placement on the 2010 list. I’m making up for that now. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a single off of the National’s sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me (May 17, 2013), is a perfect demonstration of the above quotation. The new album, which was recorded in New York (north of NYC), debuted at #3 on the US Billboard 200, the same spot as the band’s 2010 release High Violet. While both releases are similar in content and ratings, the new album represents an expected maturation for the band, and this musical efficacy is best displayed in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the #3 song on the Music Court’s 2013 list.

One of the rare negative reviews of Trouble Will Find Me stated that the music seemed emotionally dry. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, the melancholic baritone of Matt Berninger is even more saturated with driving, lachrymose rhythms and candid, painful lyrics. It is easy to be deceived, though, because it does seem that the musicians in the National are finally comfortable with who they are. Comfort does often lead to complacency, but for the National it has led to newfound puissance.

While Berninger’s distinctive baritone absorbs the vast majority of the National’s praise, it is essential to point out the two sets of brothers who lay the groove and hold down the musical fort with adroitness. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who also produced the album, take care of the guitar and airy keyboard that provide the complement to Berninger’s somber vocal. Scott Devendorf helps drive the rhythm forward with an effective bass guitar, and his brother Bryan is responsible for the persistent drumbeat. For the first 30 seconds of “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the band is in full force. Perhaps most impressive in the song’s inception are the effervescent keyboard sounds that are high-pitched (relatively) and alien-like. The sounds set an eldritch scene, one that Berninger snugly fits into when he opens his mouth.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is yet another quintessential lugubrious lyric that features such gems as “I have only two emotions, Careful fear and dead devotion” and “Don’t think anybody I know is awake.” It’s a song about loss and grieving, and Berninger’s croon glides throughout the song like a figure skater, effortlessly manipulating the thin ice. Excellent song by an excellent band.

Top Songs of 2013: #5 – “Royals” by Lorde

20 Dec


We are halfway through our Top 10 countdown, and we have reached a song that may warrant some legitimate complaints because of its placement. Many can make an excellent case that Lorde’s minimalistic mega-hit “Royals” should grace the top of all Top 10 song lists for the year 2013. It does represent the rare piece that transcends all music, gaining frequent mainstream radio play and Indie appeal. This year saw several infectious hits (“Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” and “Roar”), but these songs were geared towards and remained in their mainstream niche. “Royals” and another song on this list that was not mentioned yet literally blurred music lines, but not in a lewd, egotistical (but somewhat sardonic) manner. For that and a slew of other tasty reasons, “Royals” leads off the homestretch of this 2013 song countdown.

What can be said about “Royals?” Well, first, I guess it is important to mention that Lorde – Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor – was born during the height of Los Del Rio’s vexatious dance-craze “Macarena,” which quite literally swept the world (much like “Royals”) and was #1 on the Billboard charts when Lorde was born in New Zealand. So, yeah, she is 17. Mature beyond her years, Lorde is known for her musical precociousness. She was signed by Universal at 13 and immediately started writing songs. It was only a matter of time before one of the songs stuck. She released her debut EP The Love Club on SoundCloud in November of 2012, and by March of this year “Royals,” track two on that album, hit #1 on the New Zealand Top 40 and rapidly started its Godzilla-like destruction of global charts. And wow does this song have staying power. Months later, it is still voraciously consumed by eager ears – meaning, while some over-played hits get stale (OK, ALL overplayed hits), “Royals” has this mysterious lasting power that draws in listeners and doesn’t let go of them prior to the passing of a three-minute sing-along.

The song is a reflection of the artist. Lorde’s mother is an award-winning New Zealand poet (Sonja Yelich), and this poetical artistry bleeds out in the song. Lorde maintains a delightfully dark presence (almost Adele-like) and this esoteric passion is reflected in her performance and vocalizations. “Royals” would not be nearly as good of a song if it weren’t performed by an individual whose vocal is authentic and almost pained. That quality is invaluable.

Let’s delve into the piece. “Royals” is clearly carried by its basic percussion. The song is just percussion, basic synth, and vocal layering. Compare this song with “Get Lucky,” which features a slew of electronic instrumentation. Both songs are equally viral, but “Royals” does a lot more with a lot less. This is just one endearing quality of this song. Lorde’s vocal is haunting and oddly sensual. She is able to create a tremendous sound without any garishness, which is actually the main theme of the lyric. The song features heavy emotion and verisimilitude while remaining comprehensive and shrewd. It’s a tasteful, zaftig piece that is well-constructed and melodically astute.

The lyric is also quite keen. The motif of “a different kind of buzz” stands out in the song. While many songs on the radio talk of extravagance (“jet planes,” “islands,” “diamonds,” and “Cadillacs”), Lorde speaks of these items as mere fantasies (well, they may not be for her now!). The “luxe” of the so-called rich and famous doesn’t “run in our blood” and she aptly says that the subjects in the song will never be “royals.” It’s not a song about the joys of modesty, but rather it is an acute portrayal of materialistic youthful aspirations that are often marked by misguided avarice. Smart song, huh?

And if this is #5 … can you imagine what is next? Scroll down for #6-10 as well as the preview post, which outlines songs 11-19, and make sure to stay tuned for the rest of the countdown!

Top 10 Songs of 2013: #6 – “New Lover” by Josh Ritter

18 Dec


Josh Ritter is no stranger to the Music Court’s end-of-the-year countdown. In 2010 he placed #4 with his ode to Annabel Lee, “Another New World.” Readers of the Music Court will recognize that I do maintain a sort-of music reviewer crush on Mr. Ritter, but let me assure you that … well … ok, the selection is inevitably biased. Although I cautioned all readers that the selections were obviously biased, I did judge songs based on a metric, and did so as objectively as possible. Honestly, I did not want any repeat performers from past years and I ended up with (spoiler alert!) two, but I believe this is more of a testament to each artist/band’s potency and productivity than any unconscious subjectivity. Truth be told, Ritter absolutely deserved a spot on this year’s list. “New Lover” encompasses a rare blend of masterful, spiteful lyrics and deceptive acoustic pacifism. Don’t be fooled; Josh Ritter has constructed a subtly epic “f*ck you” to his old lover.

Ritter released his seventh full-length studio album in March of this year. The album just continued his streak of excellent releases. Although some could aptly argue that all of his albums are excellent, Ritter hit his stride with The Animal Years and has since sailed through his Historical Conquests (his best album) and So Runs the World Away, where 2010’s #4 song appears. The Beast in Its Tracks, this year’s release, combines Ritter’s one-two punch – infectious acoustic instrumentation and witty, daedal lyrics that bounce effortlessly with the rhythm and make ink imprints in the mind of the listener.

“New Lover” represents Ritter’s split with Dawn Landes. The song so well portrays the thoughts and feelings of a forlorn lover that it would actually be a disservice for me not to include some of my favorite lines in this post. I would literally be depriving you of lyrical mastery. Future lyricists of the world, check out Ritter’s words for inspiration.

I can’t pretend that all is well, it’s like I’m haunted by a ghost
There are times I cannot speak your name for the catchin’ in my throat,
There are things I will not sing for the sting of sour notes.

Ritter starts the song with an inevitability. Breaking up is indeed hard to do, and one reason for that is that the individual haunts you and causes pain even when he/she is gone. He even compares the entire process to music (understandably, that is his trade) and it is true that a split carries the “sting of sour notes.”

Moving on, Ritter writes:

I’ve got a new lover now, I know that she’s not mine,
I only want to hold her, I don’t need to read her mind,
And she only looks like you when she’s in a certain light.

I don’t need to read her mind. Burn. But he still can’t escape his former love, as described by the looking like you portion. Throughout the song, Ritter sings that he hopes that his ex has also found happiness, but one can almost tell in the song that there is some facetiousness in his vocalization, which throughout the song is subdued but noticeably sardonic and pained – almost Dylan-like. How does he end the song, though?

I hope you’ve got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who
Can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do.
But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true,
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too. 

Tell me you didn’t smile. Tell me you haven’t felt this way. Ritter is human. You are human. He demonstrates the ineluctable post-breakup spite with such poise and finality. Just freaking perfect.

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