The Best and Worst Singles of 2013

It was a banner year for music, if you knew where to look for it, and music critic Chris Gerard has found 10 best to prove it

2013 was a great year for music, if you knew where to look for it. Sure, the pop charts were generally loaded with a lot of generic fluff, but if you dug a little deeper there were some remarkable gems to be found in 2013. Here are 10 of the best.

Villagers

Villagers

(Photo by Rich Gilligan)

The Best

1. Villagers, ”Nothing Arrived” – You won’t hear anything more exquisitely written, performed, produced and arranged this year than the profoundly moving ”Nothing Arrived” by Irish band Villagers. It’s a mid-tempo track built around a piano/acoustic guitar base, beautiful vocal harmonies, and heartbreaking lyrics and melody. The song builds in power, culminating in a stunning climax of layered sound. ”Nothing Arrived” is the centerpiece of the band’s superb {Awayland} album, which was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.

2. David Bowie, ”The Stars (Are Out Tonight”) — From his incredibly dark and powerful comeback album The Next Day, ”The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is classic Bowie. It’s a sardonic look at the strange co-dependent relationship between the stars and the mere mortals, and how they end up supporting and ultimately needing each other. A hard-rocking track with wickedly clever lyrics and a brilliant vocal arrangement, ”The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” was the second single from the rock legend’s first studio album after a ten year hiatus. Don’t miss the terrific video co-starring Tilda Swinton.

3. John Grant, ”GMF” Grant’s wry, self-deprecating humor, tinged with a deep sadness and bitterness, make for a remarkable song. ”GMF” exemplifies the type of powerful but graceful honesty he infuses into his songwriting. Grant touches on his struggles with addiction, relationships, and his life as a gay man living with HIV. The video for ”GMF” is a must-see, with a concluding scene that is all-too-familiar to many of us. ”GMF” is from his fantastic album ”Pale Green Ghosts,” loaded with similarly great songwriting.

4. Arctic Monkeys, ”R U Mine?” — A smokin’ hot rock song from the best band out of Britain, ”R U Mine?” is a killer track with a terrific vocal by Alex Turner, searing guitar riffs, a wicked bass-line that is way up in the mix, and absolutely unhinged drumming by Matt Helders. ”R U Mine?” is an in-your-face rock jam that is made to heard at maximum volume. Play this track on a great pair of speakers or headphones and prepare to be blown away. From the band’s stellar album, AM.

5. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert, ”Same Love” — Even though their album The Heist came out in late 2012, ”Same Love” was one of the pivotal singles of 2013. It was huge from a cultural standpoint, especially in the genre of hip-hop, for a rapper to be coming out strongly in support of same-sex marriage. Even without its cultural significance, ”Same Love” is a great track, and it’s clearly completely sincere. The incorporation of Mary Lambert’s ”She Keeps Me Warm,” which is itself a beautiful song, is a brilliant touch. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had bigger hits with ”Thrift Shop” and ”Can’t Hold USs,” but ”Same Love” is a classic that will be remembered for many years to come.

6. Janelle Monàe, ”Dance Apocalyptic” — ”Dance Apocalyptic” is a frenetic jam from Monàe’s audacious The Electric Lady and it should have been a monster hit. It’s a pastiche of old-school ’60s R&B with a modern twist, reminiscent of Outkast’s ”Hey Ya.” It’s fun and funky, brimming with energy and Janelle Monàe’s particular unique charm. She’s gifted at taking old-school influences and modern sounds and making them work together in a way that’s exciting and innovative.

7. James Blake, ”Retrograde” — James Blake’s delicate, Jeff Buckley-like vocal on ”Retrograde” floats over layers of gentle electronics with a melody that will break your heart, and lyrics that convey a fragile vulnerability. ”Retrograde” was the first single and one of many pieces of sheer beauty from Blake’s superb album Overgrown.

8. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, ”Get Lucky” — The jam of the year. From their acclaimed Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s mix of old-school funk and R&B, co-written by legendary Chic bassist and famed producer Nile Rodgers, ”Get Lucky” was a dance-floor and radio favorite all year. It’s irresistibly catchy, cleverly written, and most of all sexy as hell.

9. Kanye West, ”Black Skinhead” — Say what you want about Kanye West, the man is a wizard in the studio. Listen to ”Black Skinhead,” or anything from his 2013 album ”Yeezus,” and marvel at the sounds this man is able to create. His urgent, rapid-fire delivery over a propulsive beat and thundering bass is spot-on. ”Black Skinhead” is one of the definite high points on Yeezus, a dark and abrasive album that can be a difficult listen at times.

10. Lorde, ”Royals” — The young prodigy from New Zealand broke through in a huge way this year with the wonderfully produced and conceived track ”Royals,” from her debut album Pure Heroine. With a sweepingly melodic chorus that sticks in your head and won’t let go, the track caught fire and became one of the better singles to hit the top of the pop charts this year. The rest of Lorde’s debut album is just as good, and she seems to have a bright future.

The Worst

1. Katy Perry, ”Roar” — How many cliches can you fit into a three-and-a-half minute pop song? Katy Perry and her team of writers do their best to find out. She’s got the eye of the tiger, ya’ll. Did it really take five songwriters to come up with this obnoxious, overblown piece of disposable pop fluff? One of the worst assaults on the senses to hit No. 1 in recent memory.

2. Cher, ”Woman’s World” — Cher is a legend, but her new album Closer to the Truth is an auto-tuned nightmare, and first single ”Woman’s World” is one of the worst culprits. The vocals are way too high in the mix, and the way she yells her way through the chorus sounds like a screaming match on some Real Housewives of Wherever. Completely unlistenable unless you have a migraine fetish.

3. Brad Paisley & LL Cool J, ”Accidental Racist” — Perhaps as well-intentioned as it might have been, this ill-conceived collaboration was remarkably tone-deaf and cringe-inducing. A collection of stereotypes that seems more likely to inflame racial tensions than defuse them (especially in a year in which tensions were at a high point with the Trayvon Martin case), ”Accidental Racist” is an embarrassment to everybody involved.

4. Ylvis, ”The Fox” – Yes, I know it’s meant as a novelty song, but this jittery dance track is so extraordinarily annoying and that it’s impossible not to include it here. Thankfully the fever seems to have abated and it’s been allowed to fade into oblivion.

5. Baauer – ”Harlem Shake” — This remarkably obnoxious track was inescapable for a while this year. It ended up being one of the biggest singles of the year, which is a harsh indictment of the current state of the pop charts. Fortunately, the insanity finally passed and it will take its rightful place alongside other terrible one-hit wonders that pop up from time to time, somehow catch fire, and then disappear.

Also, check out The 30 Best Albums of 2013.

Music writer for Metro Weekly. Contact at cgerard@metroweekly.com.