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10. “Royals,” Lorde
Its politics are iffy — the “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece” that Lorde decries aren’t just hip-hop symbols, they’re way out of date. But holy heck did (then-16-year-old) Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s debut single ever connect with people. It’s a pointed rejection of the aspirations that have been foisted on the victims of capitalism (just like Kanye’s “New Slaves”!), it’s got a fantastic minimal groove, and it lets Lorde’s ordinary-girl voice tremble in the spotlight until luxurious harmonies buoy her up on its choruses.
9. “Cups,” Anna Kendrick
The fact that a lesser Carter Family song from 1931 became a hit single in 2013 — by way of a scene from last year’s musical comedy Pitch Perfect, inspired by one viral video that was itself inspired by another — is remarkable in itself. Even apart from the plastic-cup-percussion trick that spawned a zillion response videos, Kendrick’s version has a terrific arrangement, and it gets bonus points for being a hit single that’s just over two minutes long.
8. “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy),” David Bowie
At first, Bowie’s age-crinkled voice seems like just another sound element in former LCD Soundsystem leader Murphy’s crisp, ricocheting ten-minute remix, less important than the rhythmic motifs it borrows from Steve Reich’s 1972 avant-garde landmark “Clapping Music.” Then Murphy drops in another riff — from Bowie’s own “Ashes to Ashes” — and “Love is Lost” snaps, chillingly, into focus: it’s an aging hero of style looking back at a lifetime of looking back, as his life’s work becomes a hall of mirrors and the audience’s applause becomes the song.
7. “We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus
If you didn’t listen to the words of Miley’s surprisingly downbeat party-whipper-upper, you’d assume that it was a heartsick Rihanna-style lament. What she’s actually singing about is an exhausted, tooth-grinding, 3 AM kind of not stopping (hence the plausible-deniability drug references), anchored in hip-hop tropes from eight years before she was born: “can’t stop/won’t stop,” hands in the air, the hook from “La-Di-Da-Di.” Maybe the slyest detail in a song full of ’em: the totally country inflection Cyrus adopts for “can I get a ‘hell no’?”
6. “Cut Copy Me,” Petula Clark
Yes, that Petula Clark — of “Downtown” fame, who was 80 years old when she released this gorgeous little song. Aside from the romantic conceit of its title, she could have sung it half a century ago, but its recording is entirely of this moment: Clark’s voice is digitally pixelated around its edges, and a quietly strobing synth line suggests the echo of an electronic dance club somewhere down the block. The emotional vulnerability that’s always been the core of Clark’s performances is still present, but now it’s the battery of a broken-hearted android.
5. “I Got a Boy,” Girls’ Generation
The nine-woman South Korean group Girls’ Generation is a ridiculously effective hook machine, and a major phenomenon in Asia, whose biggest pop acts make One Direction and Katy Perry sound like audience-alienating avant-gardists. If you like songs that do everything at once, go straight to YouTube and call up the over-the-top video for this monomaniacally charming hybrid of bubblegum, dubstep and hard rock, whose Korean lyrics are sprinkled with incongruous English phrases (“Ayo, stop, let me put it down another way”).
4. “Ohm,” Yo La Tengo
An ohm is a unit of electrical resistance; an “om” is a mantra whose meaning encompasses everything. The crown jewel of the Hoboken rock trio Yo La Tengo’s Fade album, and maybe their 29-year career to date, is this song about surrendering to change and maybe mortality, and no longer “resisting the flow.” It’s boldly electric, as Ira Kaplan’s free-form scrawl of a guitar solo attests. It’s also mantric in its way, sung in unison by the band’s three members, and built around a single, reverberating open chord that they could go on playing forever.
3. “Control,” Big Sean feat. Jay Electronica & Kendrick Lamar
The most talked-about hip-hop track of 2013 wasn’t actually officially released, and the news was Kendrick Lamar’s verse. In the course of his 600-word atomic blast, the up-and-coming new guy of the last few years proclaims himself king of both coasts (“one hand, I juggle them both”), declares war on his entire generation of MCs (by name), and shows off his mastery of decades’ worth of lyrical techniques. It triggered more than a dozen responses — mostly from rappers Kendrick didn’t do the honor of attacking.
2. “The Wire,” Haim
This trio of sisters folds a whole skewed history of California guitar music into one deliciously wordy bundle: Laurel Canyon-style lyrical self-analysis, Fleetwood Mac harmonies, desert-rock riffing and soloing, and a beat lifted from, er, the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight.” Secret ingredient No. 1: Danielle Haim’s precise, clipped alto voice, which pretty much carries the entire opening verse by itself. Secret ingredient No. 2: the glam-rock shouts of “hey!” that pivot the song back onto the dance floor whenever it threatens to get too introspective.
1. “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk
Like this year’s other inescapable party jam, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,””Get Lucky” is built on the scaffolding of 35-year-old disco staple and features a guest appearance by Pharrell Williams. But Daft Punk enlisted an actual disco hero, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, for the magnificent, flickering guitar part that’s the secret to this lighter-than-helium groove. Williams’ singing recalls Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, the French duo’s own robotic vocal turn is hilarious, and the song’s surprisingly deft wordplay gives it an extra lift.
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