The Top 20 Songs of 2013

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)


20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.


16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.


12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.


11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.


7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.


6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”


5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.


4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.


3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.


1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

What’s In My Discman, March 2013

Let's Get ReadyMystikal – Let’s Get Ready (2000)

It’s amazing what context can do to a listening experience. For a dozen years or so, I’d always thought of Mystikal as a flash-in-the-pan MC who rode a legendary Neptunes beat to fame, his voice a grating, angry growl tailored to please a DMX-infused marketplace. But then I heard “Hit Me,” a leaked single from his forthcoming record that makes a serious argument that Mystikal is carrying the torch of James Brown with more wit, energy and raw ability than any artist around. My expectations thusly altered, and my ears hungry for whatever Mystikal I could get my hands on, I picked up Let’s Get Ready, his breakout 2000 release. And while no cut on here can touch “Hit Me,” it is an insane adrenaline rush from beginning to end, that voice I once saw as an annoyance making me feel I could punch my fist through a brick wall, the beats blunt and dirty, as relentless as a hurricane. Mystikal’s new album is apparently called Original, and it’s slated to come out in June. Until then, Let’s Get Ready will keep my heart pounding just fine.

ArethaAretha Franklin – 30 Greatest Hits (1985)

I recently had the honor of interviewing Aretha Franklin in advance of her show at a local casino (which I also reviewed), and in the name of psyching myself up and keeping the butterflies at bay, I spent the week beforehand listening to her 30 Greatest Hits in my car. It’s still the best collection of its kind, zeroing in on Aretha’s classic Atlantic years with no glaring omissions. Of course, it’s tough to screw it up when you’re talking about one of the most prolific and evergreen periods of any artist, ever. When “Respect” strutted its way onto my speakers, it sounded as fresh and imaginative as the first time I heard it – no matter how many commercials or Bridget Jones movies try to rob it of its essence, “Respect” will never gray. It’s the ultimate unkillable pop song and a gender role gamechanger to boot. Then there’s the knee-buckling pleas of “Ain’t No Way,” the swooning romance of “I Say A Little Prayer,” the slow-building gospel reverie of “Spirit In the Dark” … I won’t mention all 30. If you haven’t heard this stuff, I’d suggest stopping everything in order to fix that problem.

Jim JamesJim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013)

At one point in “A New Life,” the most immediately beautiful tune on Jim James’ proper solo debut, the moonlighting My Morning Jacket frontman delivers the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near” with NPR-ready elocution, painstakingly pronouncing the “t” in “stardust.” It’s not your typical rock singer diction to be sure, the sound of a man who isn’t writing pretty lyrics to sound cute or sensitive – he believes in this stuff, with evangelical fervor. The album title gives you a good idea of the ground James is covering here – a cosmic theology of love, forgiveness and the passage of time that’s certainly headier (and a bit flakier) than My Morning Jacket’s last few records. Musically, it has the homespun feel of a solo record, be it one with the occasional crackling vibraphone sample, huge Eastern melody, and sweeping string arrangement. Then there’s James’ Neil Young/choirboy voice, still as expansive and expressive as ever, making the clunkiest passages feel like mantras. Regions feels a bit less substantive than it wants to be, but it’s still more intriguing than anything James has been a part of since Z, the last time his music was pointed heavenward.