JOPLIN, Mo. —
These are my top 11 favorite pop songs of the year:
1. Haim: 'The Wire'
What I said a few months ago about this song still applies: "If God were the head of a label and shouted, 'Get me a hit!' it might sound like this."
"The Wire," alas, wasn't a hit, but its almost archetypal pop song structure made Haim one of the most written about bands in entertainment media this year and got them a gig as the musical guests on "Saturday Night Live."
Most modern pop songs of this caliber are made in studios, not by bands, and that's what makes this such a marvel. The guitar parts, vocal harmonies, and keyboard accents are so well deployed and timed Ñ hooks upon hooks building on top of each other Ñ that it's the rare sugar rush that feels earned.
2. Kanye West: 'Hold My Liquor'
I'll write a little more about Kanye West's "Yeezus" next week when I write about my favorite albums of 2013, but I will say "Hold My Liquor" wasn't the first song I connected with off West's fifth album. Or the second. It went "Black Skinhead," then "New Slaves," then "Blood on the Leaves," and then "Bound 2."
But, man, when it hit me, it was all I could listen to for weeks, and now it's far and away my favorite song on the album.
Landing squarely in the middle of West's dark, abrasive opus, "Hold My Liquor" is equal parts depressive and angry. But really, it's all about those rich synth tones, that abrasive air-horn effect, Justin Vernon's deep-from-the-cold-forest hook, Chief Keef's stoned, dead-inside verse and West's ripping "When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratch your Corolla / OK, I smashed your Corolla."
3. Drake: 'Hold On, We're Going Home'
I really liked Drake's "5 AM in Toronto," a single Drake never even bothered putting on his hit third album, "Nothing Was the Same." It was a snarling 3 minutes and 30 seconds of score-settling and proof that Drake could rap. But "Hold On, We're Going Home" is where he sounds more comfortable, a featherweight love song that's indelibly catchy.
4. Chvrches: 'We Sink'
A handful of tracks off this Glasgow synthpop act's debut album could've landed on this list. But I tend to fall hardest for songs that could soundtrack a dramatic moment at a high school dance in an '80s movie. "We Sink" would be perfect for that, partially because of lead singer Lauren Mayberry's voice and her ability to convey romance and melodrama, transforming a song about a toxic relationship into something that sounds unbelievably sweet.
5. The Strokes: 'One Way Trigger'
This oddball track from the one-time saviors of rock 'n' roll finds the band deep in an '80s reverie, with frontman Julian Casablancas affecting a melancholy falsetto at odds with the cheap ADD keyboard riff driving the song.
I doubt this is on too many best-of lists, but I love this weird little pop song that builds to genuine emotional payoff Ñ Casablancas pondering an inert life and a stalled relationship. Plus, there's an economical guitar solo from Albert Hammond Jr. and a Fab Moretti backbeat that is vintage Strokes.
6. Vampire Weekend: 'Ya Hey'
A Vampire Weekend song was bound to be on this list. My only problem was deciding which one.
"Hannah Hunt," essentially a beautiful short story masquerading as a pop song, was my choice for a while, but "Ya Hey" is probably the track I returned to most. Not only is the processed vocal hook Ñ a deliberate warping of Yahweh so that it more closely resembles the kind of fun, sticky phrase that could be shouted at weddings Ñan unforgettable effect, but the song, a direct address to God, is impressively layered.
God refuses to intervene in the world, frontman Ezra Koenig muses, and the world continues to reject a higher power, so where does this leave his faith? He eventually decides it lies in recognizing moments of transcendence, such as a deejay at an outdoor festival "spinning 'Israelites' into '19th Nervous Breakdown.'"
7. Thee Oh Sees: 'Toe Cutter: Thumb Buster'
Every year brings a number of excellent garage rock singles. This one was among this year's best, a colossal wall of fuzz twined with a sweet vocal from garage-rock lifer John Dwyer.
8. David Bowie: 'Valentine's Day'
Since its surprise release earlier this year, David Bowie's "The Next Day" Ñ the rock legend's 24th studio album Ñ has continued to grow on me, particularly its fearsome lead single about a boy on the verge of a shooting spree. "Valentine's Day" now sounds to me as if it's always existed, a song as ageless as Bowie himself that, like "Moonage Daydream," should be playing on the radio dial somewhere at all times.
9. Beyonce: 'No Angel'
The slow-burning "No Angel" has a similar appeal to Ciara's excellent single "Body Party." Both are R&B slow jams pitched for the bedroom, but Beyonce's choice to sing in a strange breathy falsetto and the throbbing synths provided by Caroline Polachek, frontwoman for the Brooklyn indie synthpop band Chairlift, pull this song far enough to the left that it pulls double duty, sounding equally good as the soundtrack to a long, strange night out cruising in your car.
10. Courtney Barnett: 'Avant Gardener'
This songs sounds like a dozen different influences, including Jonathan Richman, The Velvet Underground and Pavement, were thrown into a cauldron and stirred. But what puts this over the top is the distinct way Barnett describes a panic attack, delivering lines such as, "I'm breathing but I'm wheezing / Feel like I'm emphysem-in'/ My throat feels like a funnel / Filled with weet bix and kerosene," so conversationally it's like a friend telling you a tragic story but with the humor that comes from years of shared experiences.
11. Brandy Clark: 'Pray to Jesus'
Clark made one of the best country albums of the year, and the lead track "Pray to Jesus" is similar in tone to her friend and collaborator Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round," a bracing unsentimental portrait of small-town life that nonetheless conveys empathy.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
These are my top 11 favorite pop songs of the year:
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