These are one hundred songs that stayed in my heavy rotation throughout 2013. In a year that saw personal advancements including eight weeks studying abroad in France and graduation from college, these songs soundtracked my year, each song appealing to me through instrumentation, lyrics, or just its overall mood. Read on for descriptions of each track, access the whole playlist on SoundCloud to listen, and judge away.
A Great Big World – “This Is The New Year”
Glee introduced me to this band early in the year with their cover of the hopeful, uplifting “This Is The New Year.” 2014 should be another big year for the breakout band now signed to Epic Records, currently rocketing up the charts with “Say Something.”
Alpine – “Gasoline”
“There’s gasoline in your heart / There’s fire in mine,” begins the rhythmic song from the six-piece Australian group’s debut A Is For Alpine. Just like the combination of the two elements, the song explodes with snappy guitars, layered vocal parts, and punchy drum beats.
Anoushka Shankar f/Norah Jones – “Traces Of You”
Anoushka Shankar teamed up with half-sister Norah Jones in a touching tribute to their father, Ravi Shankar, who passed away late last year. Shankar’s sitar combines with Jones’s trademark croons that truly shows how traces of Shankar’s legacy live on.
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
I came late to the party on Arcade Fire, finally introducing myself to the band a few weeks after the release of Reflektor, the group’s fourth album. Funnily enough, my introduction was seemingly tailor-made for me: my preferred combination of male and female vocals, lyrics that connect with many of us in the digital age, and splashes of French. Looks like “I found a way to enter” the critically-revered band’s discography after all.
Ariana Grande – “Honeymoon Avenue”
Much of Ariana Grande’s debut album Yours Truly excels at displaying her penchant for catchy rhythms, formidable range, and all other things Mariah Carey, but “Honeymoon Avenue” is the A-grade standout, with amusing driving metaphors and a belter of a pre-chorus.
As Animals – “Ghost Gunfighters”
One of my favorite discoveries from listening to the radio this summer in France, As Animals is a French indie pop group. Despite the clunky malapropisms and the fact that I still have no idea what ghost gunfighters have to do with the song, this was a good slice of pop that has me looking forward to their debut album, coming next March via French label Atmosphériques.
Ashley Monroe – “Like A Rose”
Though Kacey Musgraves became the poster child of lyrically-intelligent contemporary country this year, the title track of Ashley Monroe’s short-but-sweet second album (and her first on new label home Warner Bros.) tells a story of perseverance following childhood small-town hardships. Monroe’s sweet voice and the soft instrumental carry the lyrics well.
Avicii f/Aloe Blacc – “Wake Me Up”
Along with Lorde’s “Royals” and Passenger’s “Let Her Go” (below), this is one song I first heard in France this summer and correctly predicted its fall success stateside. Not much of a feat considering dance beats, folk vocals and instrumentation, and hand-clap accompaniments were all flavors du jour on pop radio, but I’ll take the point for it anyway. The only shame is the lack of credit to featured vocalist Aloe Blacc, who has since signed to XIX/Interscope, released an EP, and will release third album Lift Your Spirit stateside next year.
Avril Lavigne f/Chad Kroeger – “Let Me Go”
After marrying widely-panned Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger in July, Avril Lavigne released duet “Let Me Go” to adult pop radio following two underwhelming performances in “Here’s To Never Growing Up” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll.” The reminiscing breakup ballad, a track with forlorn strings, delicate piano lines, and Kroeger’s husky harmonies, brings Lavigne back to her prime, recalling 2002 hit “I’m With You.” See
BANKS – “Waiting Game”
The strong debut single from Harvest Records artist BANKS begins softly before expanding after the first chorus with pulses, jittery beats, and uneasy harmonized background vocals, illustrating her worries about the pace of her relationship. With blog praise piling up and a placement in the new Victoria’s Secret ad (previously a building block for M83’s hit “Midnight City”), 2014 should be a big year for BANKS.
Bastille – “Pompeii”
Comparing the end of a relationship to the catastrophic volcanic eruption that buried a city, “Pompeii” cleverly plays with the metaphor while adding in chants and heavy drum beats. “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” With that kind of ending, good question.
Beyoncé – “XO”
The latest in an unending (though not entirely unwelcome) deluge of Ryan Tedder tracks, Beyoncé’s “XO” shines with clear adoration of husband JAY Z. When the titular lines – “I love it like XO / You love me like XO,” etc. – finally appear in the middle eight, the song explodes with Tedder-typical drum beats and background vocals that elevate the song to a roaring declaration of love.
Bonnie McKee – “Sleepwalker”
Through her Epic Records deal, Bonnie McKee finally made a name for herself this year with debut single “American Girl” after writing scores of pop hits for artists like Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Britney Spears. While her next single has yet to be announced thanks to her perpetually-slow label, in-between preview “Sleepwalker” was released in time for Halloween and would have ideally been given single treatment. With a chorus that displays both her talent for catchy hooks and her upper vocal range, plus the heavy electronic foundation on which they sit (following the much-buzzed-about return of Daft Punk), McKee hit hard with a single that unfortunately never made it past YouTube and SoundCloud.
Capital Cities f/André 3000 – “Farrah Fawcett Hair”
In what is likely the first song feature to the credit of NPR announcer Frank Tavares and another for Outkast member André 3000, “Farrah Fawcett Hair” combines spoken word, brass, rock, and hip-hop into one of the most bizarre, yet enjoyable tracks of the year. “It’s good shit” indeed.
Cassadee Pope – “11”
After winning the third season of NBC’s The Voice, with mentorship from Blake Shelton and a recording contract from Republic Nashville, Cassadee Pope’s pop/rock career turned toward country on debut solo album Frame By Frame. Album track “11,” first released on iTunes as a preview song, recalls the painful divorce of Pope’s parents when she reached the titular age.
Céline Dion – “Loved Me Back To Life”
Though Dion sings of a relationship as the source of revival, perhaps she should thank songwriter Sia, who provided her with a fresh and modern return to form. The title track introduced Dion’s first album in six years and is a high point in her discography so far this century, including strong duets with Ne-Yo and Stevie Wonder and fluidity in a range of genres that the diva makes her own.
Chlöe Howl – “No Strings”
Though originally released in 2012, Chlöe Howl’s debut single “No Strings” introduced England to her spunky attitude and clever lyricism with an official single release at the end of the summer, along with a placement in the Kick-Ass 2 soundtrack. Since then, Howl has continued to impress with current single “Paper Heart” and is poised to build her career next year.
Chris Brown – “Fine China”
Setting aside Brown’s despicable personal behavior, the throwback R&B style of “Fine China” was a diamond in the rough, both in Brown’s discography and the landscape of pop radio, where it got a release following rhythmic radio success. The bass groove and vocal stylings similar to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder were a surprising change of pace from Brown’s past dance-pop success.
Christina Perri – “Human”
Late in the year, Christina Perri released the gorgeous “Human,” the lead single from upcoming album Head or Heart. Perri’s voice is pristine over a soft arrangement of strings, piano, and drums that builds more and more anxious until the end of the last bridge, where she belts so perfectly about imperfection. I expect “Human” to be one of my favorites throughout the first few weeks of the year.
Coldplay – “Atlas”
While artists like Sia, The Weeknd, Lorde, and Christina Aguilera got the most attention for their contributions to the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, my favorite track was the Coldplay cut that came first, “Atlas.” In typical Coldplay fashion, Chris Martin’s love-them-or-hate-them vocals soar over a moody piano and rhythm arrangement, which bursts at the seams upon the start of each chorus.
Conor Maynard – “R U Crazy”
Conor Maynard, England’s anti-Bieber, went a touch darker from debut album Contrast with “R U Crazy,” the lead single from his upcoming second album. The song’s wobbling electronic beats and reverberating vocal effects sit comfortably behind Maynard’s voice, which in a stroke of genius stays nearly monotonous during the chorus but flies both high and low in the verses and middle eight. If only the studio version of the song began with the great swung variant that precedes it in the official video.
Crystal Bowersox – “Dead Weight”
The folk-inspired runner-up of American Idol‘s ninth season released second album All That For This in March through indie label Shanachie Records. Though the message of letting go to unnecessary baggage probably didn’t refer to her earlier Jive Records contract, which was dissolved with the label’s absorption into the RCA Records brand, it was at least somewhat appropriate to her situation.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t On The Dancefloor)”
Detroit-based group Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. introduced newest album The Speed of Things with “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t On The Dancefloor),” a bouncy indie-rock number filled with buzzing synths and busy rhythms. Try not to tap your toes, I dare you.
Daughtry – “Long Live Rock & Roll”
Daughtry’s new album Baptized is a beacon of a family-friendly album, with nods to classic rock alongside cheesy, modern pop. Pre-release single “Long Live Rock & Roll” is an ode to the rock and roll era, with kitschy name-drops galore (Bob Seger, KISS, and Van Halen, to name a few) that would seem as corny as Train’s recent output if they weren’t so earnest about it.
Delta Rae f/Lindsey Buckingham – “If I Loved You”
After becoming mildly obsessed with Delta Rae’s Carry The Fire late last year, which continued into heavy rotation early in 2013, the Durham, North Carolina sextet released a new version of “If I Loved You” as a single, featuring guitar work from Fleetwood Mac member Lindsey Buckingham. The track peaked at #5 on AAA radio during the summer and is making its way up HAC charts now.
Demi Lovato – “Heart Attack”
From sawing violins, lurching electronic effects, and synth-encased guitars in the chorus, “Heart Attack” is packed with sonic treats even before approaching Lovato’s vocal. The lead single from her album Demi is both catchy in melody and captivating in vocal range, and the packed harmonies and soaring end of its middle eight (“and I burst into flaaaaaAaAaAAAMES”) make “Heart Attack” easily one of the best pop singles to grace radio in 2013.
Disclosure f/AlunaGeorge – “White Noise”
The February release of “White Noise” built my anticipation for Disclosure and AlunaGeorge’s respective debut albums, neither of which managed to grab my attention later in the year. However, “White Noise” was one of the better dance tracks to grace my music library this year, with the cold electronic spine of the beat under the hazy vocals of Aluna Francis.
Drake f/Majid Jordan – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
After the more traditional “Started From The Bottom” began the Nothing Was The Same era, few expected an moody 80s-inspired, synth-filled track to come next. This sonic variance gave “Hold On, We’re Going Home” the momentum to top the rhythmic radio chart and place in the top five on pop as well. Perhaps we can expect a Phil Collins collaboration on the next album.
Elle Macho – “Allez La Dance”
Butterfly Boucher’s self-titled album was among my favorite albums of 2012, so learning early this year that she was joining a rock trio with fellow vocalist David Mead and Ben Folds’ drummer, Lindsay Jamieson, was welcome news. Though no other French was spoken beyond the song’s title, “Allez La Dance” rocks with a smoldering guitar solo and no skimping on the drums. Though Elle Macho’s album Import received virtually zero press attention aside from the NoiseTrade EP that introduced me to the trio, I hope to hear more from them in the future.
Ellie Goulding – “How Long Will I Love You”
Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon Days re-release of her 2012 sophomore album Halcyon came full of quality music, but the heartfelt “How Long Will I Love You” stood out among the rest. While most of her material, particularly the singles that have seen American success, cater more traditionally to the current pop landscape, this ballad was stripped bare in comparison, with just piano and occasional strings and harmonies accompanying Goulding’s tale of a timeless love.
Emeli Sandé – “My Kind Of Love”
While initially fond of Our Version Of Events track “My Kind Of Love” in its original 2012 release, I rekindled my liking for it upon the release of the RedOne and Alex P remix that graced airwaves this fall. The new arrangement breathes life into Sandé’s original, with heavier backing instrumentals, haunting background vocals, and a stripped-bare pre-chorus before the loud echo of the final refrain.
Erik Hassle – “Talk About It”
Since America received no Erik Hassle releases after the commercial failure of Pieces in 2010, I had figured we were out of luck for any future releases in his native Sweden. However, after signing with RCA Records, “Talk About It” marks Hassle’s American return and another standout track. Hassle sings wistfully about his cheating lover over a softly-throbbing soundscape, pierced by the cries that “nothing would be beautiful between us” if they discussed their predicament.
Everything Everything – “Cough Cough”
Everything Everything’s debut album Arc impressed with its musical frenzy, as Jonathan Higgs’s often-falsetto vocals spike in and out of its usual range while guitars and drums pound below. Lead single and opening track “Cough Cough” is a prime example – snare drums employ a flurry of triplet patterns with synthesizers fluttering above in the hook before Higgs trades phrases in the chorus with the bouncy intervals of the electric guitar. Definitely one of the more sonically adventurous singles of the year.
Florence + The Machine – “Over The Love”
As The Great Gatsby soundtrack’s “Over The Love” begins, it sounds as if Florence Welch’s contribution will be a soft ballad. As she enters the chorus, her vocals soar to some of her highest recorded notes yet, so when the strings and percussion pick up in the second chorus, the power behind her pain becomes nearly palpable. Then the choir kicks in at the end.
Gentlemen Hall – “Sail Into The Sun”
After a few Gentlemen Hall tracks released to little fanfare, “Sail Into The Sun” lit up this summer with a placement in ad campaigns for Target and Samsung, along with a few TV syncs. The sunny tune marked a pop-friendly shift for the sextet from Boston; it should have seen all of the success of recent rock-to-pop crossovers like Imagine Dragons’s multiple hits and American Authors’s “Best Day Of My Life.”
Glee Cast f/Adam Lambert – “Marry The Night”
While essentially an Adam Lambert solo track, it was his Glee cameo that caused the Idol finalist’s Lady Gaga cover to come to fruition. Lambert does more than hold his own on the track, but improves the original with more vocal spunk and a harder instrumental background. Hopefully 2014 brings us another album to follow up 2012’s great Trespassing.
Graffiti6 – “Washed My Sins”
After a bit of a breakout year in 2012, Graffiti6 was quiet throughout most of 2013, dropping “Washed My Sins” in May as the first of two preview tracks for their upcoming album slated for release early next year. Though the song is lyrically short, its strength is its instrumental arrangement, which builds and moves between bluesy bass lines, heavy drum solos, and a twisting synth-filled bridge. 2014 should be a big year for vocalist Jamie Scott, producer TommyD, and the rest of the British band.
Great Good Fine Ok – “You’re The One For Me”
One of many SoundCloud discoveries made by my friend Alfredo Tirado, “You’re The One For Me” is a blissful slice of electro-pop, the only track yet to be released by Great Good Fine Ok. One of many 80s-inspired arrangements released this year, but the bubbly personality of it all makes it a standout. Grab this one for free on SoundCloud.
HAERTS – “Wings”
Since I first heard this in fall 2012, I had planned to pick a different track from HAERTS’s Hemiplegia EP, but “Wings” was too good to pass up. The five-piece group mixes two trends with great success by pairing indie-rock stylings with 80s, synth-fueled instrumentation, and “Wings” is a well-told spin on the classic post-breakup song. A full-length debut is still to come in 2014 from the group, now signed to Columbia Records.
Hedley – “Anything”
One of many songs to be released this year about following dreams and carving one’s own path, Hedley’s take on the trope is more “f**k the haters” than “silence the haters.” However, this adds to the fun, especially with the racy video that accompanied its release. Hedley’s latest album Wild Life was released in their native Canada earlier this year and will see a stateside release through Capitol Records in 2014.
Hunter Hayes – “I Want Crazy”
A few weeks after the release of Hunter Hayes (Encore) lead single “I Want Crazy,” I saw Hunter Hayes open for Carrie Underwood at my college campus and was impressed with his energy, instrumental prowess, and the blues and folk inflections in his country material. These traits are all evident on “I Want Crazy,” which substitutes the electric guitar in the chorus with a mandolin on the hooks and fast-paced lyrics that fly over the midtempo arrangement. It’s probably the closest thing I could have called a barn-burner in my music library this year.
James Blake – “Retrograde”
I promptly forgot about James Blake as the fresh spring bloom of “Retrograde” faded, but was luckily reminded of his talent by his recent Best New Artist GRAMMY nomination. “Retrograde” grew on me for its throbbing beat and the jumping intervals of his hummed hook, and the falling synthesizer line as the chorus begins with “suddenly I’m hit” is brilliant.
Jamie Cullum – “You’re Not The Only One”
Jamie Cullum’s stunning Momentum was surprisingly full of relatable songs, but closing track “You’re Not The Only One” hits home due to its inspiration being the young and hopeful musicians Cullum met while judging on the reality show Must Be The Music. Along with the lyrics, the vocal hooks cause the song to be as catchy as it is lyrically accessible. One of the standout tracks from an album that meant a lot to me this year.
Janelle Monáe f/Erykah Badu – “Q.U.E.E.N.”
As the lead single from Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady, “Q.U.E.E.N.” continues the “androidgynous” singer’s storyline pleading for acceptance and tolerance. If the lyrics didn’t do it alone, the funky bassline and spitfire delivery from guest rapper Erykah Badu add to the song’s appeal. Monáe’s creed: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”
Jesse McCartney – “Back Together”
Why wasn’t this as big as any Justin Timberlake single this year? Mixing the retro vibe of his “Suit & Tie” (sans ego) with the rhythms of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3,” “Back Together” was one of the most ebullient, upbeat pop songs of the fall, if not 2013 as a whole. With the recent release of EP In Technicolor (Part I) on indie label Eight0Eight Records, an album is in the works for next year.
Jessie Ware – “Imagine It Was Us”
Jessie Ware’s Devotion was one of my favorite albums in 2012 (when it was released overseas); its stateside release in April included this new track produced by regular collaborator Julio Bashmore. Its rhythmic grooves and hand claps are infectious, producing an upbeat track that gleams in relation to the more slow and subdued material on the rest of the album.
Jillette Johnson – “Cameron”
Singer-songwriter Jillette Johnson’s Water in a Whale is one of the most underappreciated albums I’ve heard this year, having received very little fanfare beyond the coffee shop crowd. However, its second single and highlight track “Cameron” builds up both the titular subject of the song, who faces unjust discrimination for being transgendered, and the arrangement in which it is delivered. It’s a track with heart and courage that will hopefully receive its due time in the spotlight before long.
John Legend – “All Of Me”
It has surprised me how little praise I have heard for John Legend’s newest album, Love In The Future, which mixes a myriad of influences and genres into a solid final product. “All Of Me” is a warm romantic ballad of unconditional love. The slight touches of reverb on Legend’s vocals play into the “future” idea circulating around the album without taking away from the raw emotion of the songwriting.
John Mayer – “Wildfire”
The Americana influence found on John Mayer’s fifth studio album, 2012’s Born & Raised, bled into his sixth, Paradise Valley, released a year later. The album’s opening track mixes the western sound with his piano-based roots while Mayer kindles the fire of love: “you and me been catchin’ on like wildfire.” With hand claps galore and a toe-tapper of a guitar solo that fades out at the end of the song, the song proves to be just as catchy.
John Newman – “Losing Sleep”
Since the stratospheric success of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” in 2011, the mixture of rollicking piano lines and dramatic strings is a hot commodity, particularly among British acts. John Newman filled the quota this fall with the anxious shuffle of “Losing Sleep,” the third single from his solo debut Tribute. Newman’s rough tone carries the pleading, soulful message of the song well, and I anxiously await the US release of Tribute on January 7.
Justin Bieber – “Bad Day”
The innovative #MusicMondays project (which later became a full album, Journals) offered up a much more R&B-influenced Bieber, continuing a trajectory that began with 2012’s Believe. Though “Bad Day” clocks in under two minutes and thirty seconds, it showcases his falsetto (perhaps inspired by the Justin below) and the end of his famed relationship with Selena Gomez.
Justin Timberlake f/JAY Z – “Suit & Tie”
In January, Justin Timberlake dropped “Suit & Tie,” ushering in a year of retro, horn-spiked crossovers to the mainstream. With a cool, catchy chorus and the snappy horns that pepper the ends of each chorus, this kept me moving all year. Luckily, it wasn’t as unnecessarily lengthy as much of Timberlake’s 20/20 material, which often dampened its appeal.
Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves had a breakout year with the critical acclaim of debut album Same Trailer, Different Park, particularly due to highlight single “Follow Your Arrow,” which advocated alternate lifestyles much unlike the stereotypical country song. Though her arrow didn’t quite point toward the top of the charts as it deserved, she rightfully gained a lot of positive attention for the song and has a long career ahead of her as a songwriter and musician.
Karmin – “I Want It All”
After the bizarre but catchy “Acapella” underperformed in the summer and rumors brewed of trouble in the Epic Records camp, Karmin’s future seemed unclear. Then, at the end of December, the duo began promotion for its follow-up, “I Want It All,” which jumped on the retro trend that was so prevalent throughout the year. With Nick Noonan’s penchant for brass and the not wholly unwelcome lack of a rap verse from Amy Heidemann, the Berklee-bred duo moves in the direction of another pop hit and a sound that is hopefully more representative of upcoming album Pulses.
Kelly Clarkson – “Underneath The Tree”
Though new musical entries into the Christmas canon have been few and far between, with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the only definite candidate in my lifetime, Kelly Clarkson had a strong contender this year with “Underneath The Tree,” one of five original tracks on Wrapped In Red. Implementing Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, the song is swathed in horns, bells, and background vocals, with Clarkson’s impressive vocal at the center. Layers of catchy accompaniments to her Carey-like message make it an earworm even after the gifts have all been unwrapped.
KT Tunstall – “Feel It All”
After a history of releasing more mainstream contemporary pop/rock, KT Tunstall’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon fell more into the vein of folk and Americana. It’s a sound that works just as well for her, with heartfelt and vulnerable lyrics more at the forefront, while not entirely abandoning the changing sound of her core radio format.
Lady Gaga f/R. Kelly – “Do What U Want”
While her Born This Way era was wrought with societal and religious references that occasionally tried too hard, Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP began with the one-two punch of lead single “Applause” and “Do What U Want,” a more straightforward pop song featuring R. Kelly. Gaga belts and growls emotively as she sings of media manipulation with lyrics that seem to double as having a more romantic source.
Laura Mvula – “Green Garden”
Laura Mvula was one of my favorite discoveries last fall, beginning with soft ballad “She.” For lead radio single “Green Garden,” from stunning debut Sing To The Moon, Mvula adds more rhythm with the consistent backbeat of snare and vibes. Under these instruments and layered background vocals, she sings of devoted love while painting romantic landscapes to see with her loved one: “Take me outside / Sit in the green garden … I’ll go wherever you go.”
Leona Lewis – “One More Sleep”
Following the release of the very pop-fueled album Glassheart, Leona Lewis took a trip to Motown on “One More Sleep,” the lead single from her similarly-inspired festive album Christmas, With Love. Much like the aforementioned Christmas entry from Kelly Clarkson (and Mariah Carey before that), “One More Sleep” touches on the hope for love on Christmas Day, delivered with festive horns and bells.
Lissie – “Further Away (Romance Police)”
I still have yet to dig into Lissie’s debut album Catching A Tiger in full, which is proving to be a worse decision with every great release she continues to offer. With a covers EP and lead single “Shameless” in between, “Further Away (Romance Police)” gave a proper introduction to Lissie’s folk-rock sophomore album, Back To Forever. With spunk and attitude, a killer countermelody in the chorus, and a blast of energy from the electric guitar solo before the final refrain, this was easily one of the best singles this year.
Little Mix – “Move”
My only introduction to The X Factor-winning quartet Little Mix was their poppy single “Wings,” whose British success was not quite replicated in the US. Therefore, spunky rhythmic offering “Move” was a bit of a surprise leading into their second album Salute, which drops in America this February having already been released in Europe. The crisp, club-friendly production, instrumentation (cowbell!), and R&B style provide well to the upbeat nature of the titular lyric while providing a new facet to the group’s sound.
Lorde – “Ribs”
While “Royals” took the crown for Lorde this year on numerous charts, debut album Pure Heroine has multiple strong offerings. While a soft, pulsing dance beat accompanies her typically sparse production, the lyrics paint a more morose image of friendship and growing older. A relatable stress considering how this year marks somewhat of a turning point for me as well.
Lucius – “Turn It Around”
An NPR Tiny Desk Concert offered my first peek into the group Lucius early this year, after which I downloaded their self-titled EP and enjoyed their upbeat, percussive rhythms and feisty vocals. “Turn It Around” is one of three tracks that made the jump from that EP to debut album Wildewoman in October, which showcases the same formidable traits.
MAGIC! – “Rude”
Despite their origin of Toronto in Canada, MAGIC!’s debut single “Rude” recalls warmer and sunnier locales like the Caribbean. The song’s easygoing reggae vibe contributes to this idea, but also acts as somewhat of a veil to the disappointment and stress portrayed in its lyrics. Vocalist and songwriter Nasri questions why his lover’s father refuses to give his blessing to marry her, but the carefree Caribbean vibe accompanies his sentiment: “I’m gonna marry her anyway.” I look forward to more sunny, catchy melodies from MAGIC! once their debut album arrives next year.
Mariah Carey f/Miguel – “#Beautiful”
Miguel offered one of my favorite albums last year, Kaleidoscope Dream, and assisted on one of my favorite singles of this year as well. Much of the song features his vocals an octave under Carey’s, which display more of her trademark embellishments and whistle notes as the two sing soulfully and romantically. Its only downside: the trendy-yet-tacky hashtag in the title.
Max Frost – “White Lies”
Another friend-recommended SoundCloud discovery, Max Frost has seen his star grow this year after signing to Atlantic Records and scoring a prominent advertising sync for Beats by Dre. “White Lies” was the catalyst for Frost’s rise to fame, with a cool, genre-bending sound and soft falsetto vocals. Big things are likely to come for Frost, who will send “White Lies” to alternative radio in January ahead of his debut full-length album.
Max Marshall – “Pressure”
Max Marshall mixes elements of dance, pop, and hip-hop music in “Pressure,” the title track from the EP released this fall in her native United Kingdom. The combination of solid lyricism, strong vocals, and fresh production sets up Marshall for future success. No word of a definite stateside release yet, but she is currently gaining attention with her Matrix & Futurebound collaboration “Control,” which is currently climbing the charts in the UK, including on BBC Radio 1.
Mayer Hawthorne f/Jessie Ware – “Her Favorite Song”
Two big mainstays on my Zune in the latter half of my college time were a soulful pair, fellow Michiganian Mayer Hawthorne and British songstress Jessie Ware. Hearing the duo had collaborated on the lead single from Hawthorne’s Where Does This Door Go gave me high hopes that were quickly fulfilled upon its premiere in May. With a dash of funk, a pinch of pop, and a fair amount of retro-inspired falsetto, the song delivered in a big way personally, though not evident on other charts. The video was also a favorite of mine, parodying the Dogs Playing Poker paintings.
Michael Bublé – “It’s A Beautiful Day”
Following in the footsteps of pop hit “Haven’t Met You Yet” in 2009, the lead single from Michael Bublé’s To Be Loved utilized a similar soundscape, with a poppy shuffle beat laced with snappy rhythms and a few stray horns. At first, the titular lyric in the chorus suggests the joyful emotion of a blossoming relationship, but the chorus continues by revealing it’s really a kiss-off song. The sunny music contradicts the usually-sad series of events told in the lyrics, one of my favorite compositional tricks in pop music.
Mikky Ekko – “Kids”
Mikky Ekko is one of several names on this list whose future is looking bright. In addition to a major-label EP release, tracks, in February, featuring buzzed-about song “Pull Me Down,” Ekko scored a major hit on Rihanna’s “Stay” as well as a song on the deluxe version of the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. Meanwhile, this summer brought what might be our first taste of his upcoming full-length major-label debut, the single “Kids.”
Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
Before all of the antics that surrounded “Wrecking Ball” — the video, the parodies, the performances — the Dr. Luke-written and -produced song dropped a few hours before its official iTunes release. Back then, all that stood was a banger(z) of a pop song. Wide-interval melodies in the verses, triplet rhythms in the prechorus and chorus, and minimalistic production were all underutilized musical choices in pop music, but all served to add to its appeal. Say what you want about Cyrus, but her vocal skills were displayed well on the track and Dr. Luke added a strong ballad to his credit.
Natalia Kills – “Problem”
Nothing on Natalia Kills’s sophomore release Trouble grabbed me quite like pre-release single “Problem.” With hook after hook and a heavy dosage of attitude in her brash vocal delivery, it’s a shame that such a powerful and pop-friendly song only received attention in a ShoeDazzle commercial, having never received any radio promotion.
Naughty Boy f/Sam Smith – “La La La”
One of the biggest singles across the pond this year was Naughty Boy’s debut single, “La La La,” featuring Sam Smith, who was also prominently featured on Disclosure single “Latch.” The song cleverly uses a childlike reference of covering one’s ears and blocking out what you do not want to hear, applying the idea on a more mature relationship theme. The single finally gets its chance on US pop radio in January.
Neon Jungle – “Trouble”
As Neon Jungle’s debut single “Trouble” begins with a throbbing dance beat, it seems like any typical upbeat dance-pop song. Then the chorus kicks in, a monotonous but energetic anthem much akin to Icona Pop’s breakout hit “I Love It.” Hopefully Neon Jungle can replicate their success as their string of releases continues, with new single “Braveheart” set for a UK release early in the new year.
Nikki Yanofsky – “Something New”
Canadian Nikki Yanofsky is one of a small pool of artists prominently incorporating elements of the jazz genre into more contemporary pop music. The “Something New” in the single is her original songwriting, but there’s something old too: a throwback, retro feel, with the structure of a twelve-bar blues and samples of Quincy Jones’s “Soul Bossa Nova” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
NONONO – “Pumpin Blood”
Swedish trio NONONO spent most of 2013 building a career with the release of debut single “Pumpin Blood,” from their EP of the same name. With bright, breezy synths and light percussion, the song bounces along with the sound of exuberance and joy. As they suggest in its biggest hook, the whole wide world isn’t whistling just yet, but I think they will be by this time next year.
One Direction – “Story Of My Life”
The early buzz that One Direction’s third album Midnight Memories would contain a sound similar to Mumford & Sons, which has become tired and diluted over the past year, initially worried me. However, with the news that Graffiti6 singer Jamie Scott had co-written half of the album, I became more optimistic. With his first composition to be released as a One Direction radio single, “Story Of My Life” featured the folk-flavored guitars as predicted, but with a warmer, more acoustic sound and a welcome lack of stomping and clapping.
OneRepublic – “I Lived”
OneRepublic filled third album Native with percussive, upbeat, and pop-friendly anthems, positioning them even closer to the pop success they have slowly but surely attained on many prior singles. It took them until third single “Counting Stars” to score a big hit, but with one of their biggest yet now under their belt, their next move is the inspirational “I Lived.” Hand-claps, belt-worthy runs in the chorus, and synth-surrounded beats combine for what is likely to be one of 2014’s early pop hits.
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Paramore’s trajectory took aim toward the pop genre this year, with a successful crossover smash in “Still Into You,” not to mention frontwoman Hayley Williams’s feature on Zedd hit “Stay The Night.” Paramore album track and upcoming single “Ain’t It Fun” continued this pop-leaning trend, and like the aforementioned “It’s A Beautiful Day” from Michael Bublé, its cheerful title betrays the depressing tale of single life found within its lyrics.
Passenger – “Let Her Go”
After first hearing Passenger’s “Let Her Go” in fall 2012, I grew to love the song as it began climbing radio charts this past spring. Once I heard it on vacation in France this summer as it had entered their national chart’s top ten, I knew it was destined to be a similar big hit in America. One of those songs that you either love or hate, much like James Blunt hit “You’re Beautiful” or Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” I was fond of his abnormal vocal style and the soft, twinkling arrangement of acoustic guitar and xylophone.
Peter Thomas f/Betty Who – “All Of You”
Betty Who had a major breakout year in 2013, beginning with a Billboard premiere of free EP The Movement, the use of standout track “Somebody Loves You” in a viral proposal video, and a label deal with RCA Records. Producer Peter Thomas lent his talents to The Movement as executive producer, and Betty Who returned the favor as the featured vocalist on his own debut single, “All Of You.” A heavy hitter of a song, look for big things from the pair next year, and grab the track for free download within the SoundCloud playlist.
Quadron – “Hey Love”
The Danish duo known as Quadron had a busy year both together and apart: vocalist Coco O. appeared on the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby, while producer Robin Hannibal also released a record as one half of Rhye and produced singles and remixes for Yuna, Laura Mvula, and Wild Belle. Together, their sophomore album Avalanche (and their first on Epic-partnered boutique label Vested In Culture) brought numerous silky smooth R&B melodies atop lush grooves. Lead single “Hey Love” was the poppiest cut of the ten-song set, with galloping rhythms and rollicking piano while not abandoning the R&B style of the rest of their work.
Ra Ra Riot – “Dance With Me”
Ra Ra Riot gave me one of the first albums I enjoyed in 2013, Barsuk Records-released third album Beta Love. The modern, technology-influenced set began with lead single “Dance With Me,” which mostly abandoned their earlier fondness for orchestral strings with keyboards and synthesizers galore. The high-tempo neon buzz of the song makes it hard to refuse lead singer Wesley Miles’s command: “come and dance with me, bittersweet fool.”
Rhye – “The Fall”
Previously mentioned Quadron member Robin Hannibal introduced a second duo, the secretive Rhye, with vocalist Mike Milosh in 2012. In 2013, debut album Woman was released, featuring many of the same lush soundscapes as Hannibal’s work in Quadron. Where it differed was with Milosh’s soft, often-androgynous vocals, which recalled Sade and flowed gently across instrumentals of strings, keys, and occasional brass. Piano-driven preview single “The Fall” is light and soothingly romantic, Milosh’s pleasant melody floating above Hannibal’s warm orchestration.
Sam Smith, Disclosure, Nile Rodgers, and Jimmy Napes – “Together”
Late in the year, rising stars Sam Smith and Disclosure dropped a funky dance collaboration with Chic co-founder/guitarist Nile Rodgers and producer Jimmy Napes. “Together” is an ode to loosening one’s tie at the end of the week, its few lyrics advocating unwinding and losing track of time. Too bad it’s a one-off track (under three minutes in length, no less) from a Nile Rodgers studio session: I’d love a full album from this group.
Sara Bareilles – “Chasing The Sun”
Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’s move to New York was a major impact on her third album, GRAMMY-nominated The Blessed Unrest. As such, album track “Chasing The Sun” encourages moving forward and chasing one’s dreams. With 2013 being such a pivotal year for my own trajectory, such a sentiment resonated with me, especially as I first heard it during my final days studying abroad in Tours, France.
Sarah Jarosz – “Over The Edge”
Folk/bluegrass wunderkind Sarah Jarosz released third album Build Me Up From Bones at the ripe age of 22, just after completing her undergraduate degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. While the lyrics are well-written and delivered with nice harmonies, the instrumentals are the best draw, with mandolin and guitar lines that wind and twist throughout the verses.
Sheppard – “Let Me Down Easy”
One of many discoveries passed along to me from good friend and fellow music blogger Adam Soybel, Sheppard is an Australian sextet who released their first single to Australian radio in 2013, “Let Me Down Easy,” from a self-titled EP originally released the year prior. The song’s breezy island vibe is catchy though once again betraying of its sadder lyrical intent, and the pairing of the chorus under the repeated first verse at the song’s end interlocks the two sections well. Sheppard plans to release a full-length album in 2014, which I am greatly anticipating.
Sheryl Crow – “Easy”
Moving into a full album of country songs for the first time after occasional flashes in the pan like Kid Rock duet “Picture” and Cat Stevens cover “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” Sheryl Crow did well to incorporate instrumentals and thematic elements of the genre while staying true to her contemporary rock and pop roots. Feels Like Home lead single “Easy” was a sunny ode to the “stay-cation,” with light guitars accompanying her key inquiry: “who needs Mexico?” Crow’s vocals are as strong as full as ever throughout the album, as she cements her place among country artist’s rising number of talented female stars.
Stromae – “Papaoutai”
Thanks to my study abroad trip to France this summer, I was introduced to Francophone hit “Papaoutai” from Belgian artist Stromae, who made waves worldwide a few years earlier with the song “Alors on danse.” A dark thematic change from his breakout hit, “Papaoutai” is French slang for “Papa où t’es,” translated as “Dad, where are you?” Stromae’s beefy vocals carry the fatherless cry, which was inspired by the loss of his father during the Rwandan Genocide. While Stromae’s sophomore album Racine carrée (“Square Root”) features a bonus version of the track with an English verse by Angel Haze, I could see the foreign language hindering any chance at American success should it be given a release down the road.
Tamar Braxton – “Love and War”
Leading into 2013, one of my favorite tracks came from singer, reality star, and Braxton family member Tamar, whose debut single “Love and War” rocketed to #1 on iTunes hours after its initial December 2012 release. With a powerful voice reminiscent of already-accomplished sister Toni and a more airy tone, Tamar Braxton soars in delivering a first-person plural account of the ups and downs of a relationship.
Tegan & Sara – “I’m Not Your Hero”
Pop hooks filled Tegan & Sara’s seventh album, Heartthrob, which gained the duo new fans (myself included) through the album’s more modern sound. Though never released as a single, “I’m Not Your Hero” glimmered with a golden pop sheen, using the twin sisters’ oft-employed harmonies within a thick swath of synthesizers and drums.
The Band Perry – “DONE.”
One of the highlights of The Band Perry’s second album Pioneer, its second single “DONE.” is a feisty kiss-off to a damaging relationship. Lead singer Kimberly Perry sings with gusto and crisp articulation, sending the message loud and clear: all she wants to be is done. The burning electric guitars and fast-paced fiddle solo additionally contribute to the urgent feel behind the need to cut ties with old baggage.
The Civil Wars – “The One That Got Away”
Through personal strife and turmoil that has yet to be definitively explained, contemporary folk duo The Civil Wars released their self-titled album, their second and potentially last record. Lead single “The One That Got Away” kept the pair’s guitars and harmonies, but the minor key and less romantically-inspired pairings added a dark undertone, especially knowing the personal distance growing between the two. Another step closer to becoming this generation’s Fleetwood Mac, if nothing else.
The Lone Bellow – “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”
Brooklyn-born group The Lone Bellow’s self-titled debut album was one of the more underrated albums I appreciated this year, an album from a group that seemed to openly accept its metropolitan roots. Album opener “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” was an optimistic look at personal difficulties, noting issues monetarily and in way of life but ultimately promising that “it’s all right.” It was a touching, realistic slice of hope through hard times.
The Neighbourhood – “Afraid”
Following a string of pre-release EPs and singles, The Neighbourhood’s dense and moody debut full-length album I Love You. dropped in April on Columbia Records. The anxiety and worry expressed in the lyrics find a suitable home in the dark production that surrounds them.
The Preatures – “Is This How You Feel?”
Possibly the catchiest rock song of the year went to Sydney, Australia group The Preatures, with their debut Universal Music Australia/Harvest Records single “Is This How You Feel?” The sly guitar groove that introduces the song (following maybe the only rock-genre beatbox of the year) ramps up through the verses before the chorus’s explosive arrival, which digs in with its repetitively catchy qualities. Like HAIM and the aforementioned HAERTS, The Preatures’s combined interests in indie rock and ’80s styles make for a good pair.
Tori Kelly – “Daydream”
Tori Kelly has a strong list of names backing her, including manager Scooter Braun and Ed Sheeran, whose Madison Square Garden performance in November featured Kelly as its sole opener. In addition, her talents as a singer-songwriter shone on her debut EP with Capitol Records, Foreword. Its closing track, “Daydream,” remarks on the adventure in finding one’s way in life and enjoying the journey while searching for identify and following one’s dreams. Kelly’s fame should continue to grow in 2014 with the planned release of a debut full-length album.
Trixie Whitley – “Breathe You In My Dreams”
Trixie Whitley’s emotional, deep voice carries solo debut Fourth Corner, which includes standout track “Breathe You In My Dreams.” The song tells of love that stays on the subject’s mind despite being unable to be close to her lover. Whitley nearly overflows the song with her forceful vocal, which is held back as the melody uncharacteristically dips low toward the end of the chorus.
Yuna – “Someone Who Can”
I had high hopes for Yuna’s second full-length international release and her first on Verve Records, Nocturnal, following an enjoyable self-titled debut in summer 2012. While the coffeehouse melodies of its predecessor become more full of strings and synths on Nocturnal, the evolved style works well for the Malaysian musician, particularly on the buoyant, cautionary album cut “Someone Who Can.” Light strings expand into reverberating trip-hop beats and sweeping violin lines as Yuna warns that if her lover is unwilling to adequately care for her, she will leave in search of someone more accommodating.