While 2013 turned out to be an off year for many of my favorite bands, there was surprisingly no shortage of new music from them anyway. While every year I seem to lament the decline of the album as a cohesive narrative and more as a home for a single or two, 2013 proved me wrong in that regard - many of my favorite songs (the songs that stuck with me long after I put down my headphones, etc.) happened to be from my favorite albums but when making this list I have only two rules: 1) No songs from my favorite albums should be on the favorite tracks list. 2) No repeat appearances by the same artist. This year more than any other it was harder than ever to stick to these rules (I've broken them in the past but not this year! I promised myself.) So without further delay, here's some of my favorite tracks of this year in no particular order other than release date.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)", II
I'm ashamed to admit that I essentially forgot all about this tune/this year's latest UMO record until right around Best Of season. While the majority of II sounds rather like it could've easily been included UMO's self-titled debut, "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)" stuck out as one of those tunes that's so remarkably distinctive. Much of Unknown Mortal Orchesta's songwriting aesthetic involves such heavy repetition that it's hard to remember that it's actually pretty damn inventive. Take "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)" whose lyrics I never really took note of until UMO released their acoustic Blue Record - manages to spin a whole delicate yarn out of a fun fact about sharks. It also really highlights Ruban Nielsen's vocals in a way I never appreciated them before - soft and supple, even as the track pulses forward unrelentingly.
Local Natives - "Breakers", Hummingbird
It's no coincidence that my favorite track from Local Natives' triumphant sophomore effort is the first single. While Hummingbird is unfettered emotional flood, "Breakers", curtails a little bit of that in favor of a subtle build and noticeable pop sensibility much like a port in the storm. It's no coincidence that it's smack dab in the middle of the album either. It's a refreshing breath of exactly why you should like Local Natives and delightfully so. The swooping, craning vocals, the intense drumming, the surging melodies and atypical songwriting structure, these are all undeniable parts of not only what makes "Breakers" work but also Local Natives' own strengths. "Breakers" is Local Natives operating at peak performance. Maturing between albums but still creating something not wholly unfamiliar with just the right influx of new ideas, "Breakers" is a track that has dominated an insane amount of my time since its initial release and rightly so - it's an utterly captivating piece of pop songcraft while serving an important purpose in the context of its album. It's great - no ifs and or buts about it.
The Cave Singers - "Have to Pretend", Naomi
A very special (one-sided) relationship formed between the Cave Singers and I when they opened for Fleet Foxes at United Palace. Despite being absolutely incredible, when they played a dancier number ("Black Leaf" and invited the audience to leave their seats to rock out with them, no one did. It was tragic and in retrospect I should've gotten up and made a total goof of myself if only to validate the band's awesomeness. "Have to Pretend" is essentially another go at infectious dance music for the folk rock band and it's a rather valiant effort. The kind of song that'd probably move a venue full of jaded/lazy New Yorkers easy that manages encapsulate what makes Cave Singers so damn enjoyable. The band continue to demonstrate a charming familiarity in creating ear catching folk rambles and Peter Quirk remains a consummate front man his rasp adding a bit of grit to easy breezy melodies of "Have to Pretend".
Night Beds - "Ramona", Country Sleep
My introduction to Nashville based singer/songwriter Winston Yellen aka Night Beds was in "Even If We Try", a emotive little ditty that made ample use of the man's golden immaculate falsetto. Little did I know a song like "Ramona" could come from such a man. That's not to say the two songs are that remarkably different - Yellen's lyricism is still top notch as are his vocals but "Ramona" far more faster paced than I expected from the man whose vocals flourished at such a slow crawl. Unsurprisingly, "Ramona" marked the end of Yellen's sole proprietorship of Night Beds and shift towards that as band leader, lead vocalist, and songwriter. "Ramona" is an entirely different breed of song but one that ultimately still finds displays what's so endearing about Yellen. Even finding room for his falsetto at the song's apex.
Born Ruffians - "Needle", Birthmarks
In terms of a contender for outright best track from an indie pop group released in 2013, Born Ruffians would win that coveted honor. There really is no arguing that fact. In addition to being an absolutely brilliant album opener, it's got big pop hooks which is sort of casually slides into. It's not big from the get go. No, instead Born Ruffians perform a magnificent slow build that cements the track's complete and utter pop decimation. The band is firing on all cylinders after the triumphant return and it shows. "Needle" is a pretty much immaculate piece of songcraft that pretty much transcends Birthmarks. Normally that might be a bit of a bad thing but here's it's quite good and hopefully a sign of things to come. The bar has been set and Born Ruffian pretty much have only themselves to beat.
Night Panther - "Fire", Shaking Through Vol. 4
It's always a good sign when the live version of a song is favored above the recorded version and that's the case with Night Panther's "Fire". Already a favorite cut on their self-titled debut record they released this year, there's a certain magic of the group that's thankfully been captured by those dedicated engineers over at Weathervane Music and their Shaking Through sessions. "Fire" is perhaps the best introduction to Night Panther for the tragically uninitiated featuring their trademark sassy dance pop and creamy falsettos which is guaranteed to make you want to dance - unless you're dead.
Empress Of - "Tristeza", Systems EP
Empress Of's "Tristeza" is a testament to how you can be completely consumed by a piece of music by feel alone. The emotive gem is in Spanish and yet is so beautifully sung and played that you don't even really understand what she's singing to be utterly captivated by her words. There's very little else to focus on besides the words but even despite the language barrier - enough of its meaning can be gleaned from tone. That and Rodriguez's brilliant vocal choices as she mimics the intense intakes of breath that occur during an extreme cry session.
Thin Hymns - "Lady Mountain", Black Water EP
While Thin Hymns had essentially won me over with their Logic & Theory EP, this year's Black Water EP was beast of an entirely different breed. Where Logic & Theory was more experimental than it was pop, Black Water carried no such distinction. That's not to say that they hung up their tonal shifts and textural interplay entirely but Black Water took Thin Hymns propensity for complex soundscapes and pinned them to melodies whose poppy tendencies were far more immediate. "Lady Mountain", arguably the most stellar of Black Water's four tracks, is the perfect blend of Thin Hymns experimental proclivities and a noticeable forward momentum. It's expansive - clocking in at 6 minutes and change but never suffers even an instant of lethargy. It rolls forward pretty much unceasingly while the band interlocks in a multitude in an interesting array of formations.
BRAIDS - "Amends", Flourish//Perish
While Montreal art pop trio BRAIDS create the kind of albums that not only follow a cohesive flow but seems to take organic songcraft to its very limits, there's always a song tucked in their that I manage to love more than the others. On Native Speaker it was "Plath Heart" and on Flourish//Perish, it turned out to be the very first single "Amends". While not officially a dance band everything about "Amends" lends itself towards that reaction. From its steady (though syrupy) pulse, to its wide expanse, it's not only serves a dance fodder but it's also one of those tracks (especially live) where BRAIDS sophisticated polish is entirely responsible for that effect. Each layer is regarded with an exceptional amount of care like the assembly of a stain glass window and the combined effect is way more impressive than all of its various moving parts.
San Fermin - "Sonsick", San Fermin
If I'm being completely honest, almost any off the San Fermin record featuring the lovely ladies could probably ended up on a list like this. While San Fermin in its whole is a complicated, varied, and potentially polarizing record there's no doubt to anyone who hears say "Crueler Kind", "Sonsick", "Oh Darling", or even "Daedalus (What We Have)" that while Ellis Ludwig-Leone is a talented composer, he can write an exceptional pop hook. And yet, the success of that is certainly due in part to the appearance and delivery of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. Their vocals are bold, brassy, and immaculate. What separates "Sonsick" from San Fermin's other brushes with pop however is in the just-so way everything comes together in it. The brass, the lyrics that resonate outside of the album's concept, the way that slowly rises into triumphant splendor - not as an ebb and flow but as flood of heartwarming emotion.
Son Lux - "TEAR Part 1"/"TEAR Part 2", TEAR
Son Lux has a had a pretty exceptional year. Working with yMusic on their new album, as well as with Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti on their collaboration Sisyphus (formerly s/s/s), it's hard to imagine Ryan Lott has any time for his own music and yet, he certainly has. While 2013 saw the release of another full length in Lanterns, Lott's experimental piece TEAR is more than worthy of its own praise. A song in two parts, TEAR does precisely what Son Lux does so well - takes a song apart at its very foundations and plays around with all the various combination those parts can make when paired differently. It's a nifty enough idea in theory but even more impressive is how Son Lux can pull such a thing off without revealing his hand. By inviting you into to his creative method somewhat, he shines a light on his own brilliance but also obscuring the truly important bits of what he's doing by music sleight of hand.
Mister Lies - "Magichour" ft KNOWER
While the summation of his debut record Mowgli did very little for me, "Dionsyian" and the constant almost unrelenting praise from mutual friends has essentially insured that I approach each Mister Lies release from now until pretty much forever with an open mind and a trusting heart. This approach was rewarded quite quickly with "Magichour". Featuring Los Angeles duo KNOWER's Genevieve Artadi on vocals, "Magichour" is like a rocket ride. Slow and methodical as the gear is checked and everyone prepares for lift off before everything gels in the most magical way. It's the kind of track where absolutely everything about the track works to its favor. Mister Lies' own touches in the form of the arrangements and construction and even the little experimental flourishes create a unique and engaging path while Artadi's vocals light and feathery serves to illuminate that path and all it's wonderful curves and bends.
Hop Along - "Sister Cities", Shaking Through Vol. 4
Frances Quinlan is the kind of frontwoman every rock band should have - articulate both in her songwriting and vocal delivery, openly emotive with a punky edge "Sister Cities" spotlights all Quinlan's strengths without sidelining the rest of band. Probably Hop Along's best song thus far, "Sister Cities" takes everything that worked so well on Hop Along's 2012 debut Get Disowned and distilled them into a single song. Quinlan's narrative voice is clearer and sharper, the band tighter and fiercer when the need arises. There's none of the genre-suspension of Get Disowned but that's hardly necessary. Instead " Sister Cities" is content to be the sort of intelligent rock song that keeps you coming back over and over again. In that it succeeds in spades.
The Shakin' Babies - "Easy Meal", Stoked Casual
While I was almost instantly charmed by Minnesota doo wop/garage rock hybrid The Shakin' Babies at this year's FMLY Fest Brooklyn, it wasn't until I was home curled up with their excellent debut record Stoked Casual that I realized just how many levels the band operate on. Songs like "Mary Wants to Rock" sounded like your standard rock 'n roll jam but as I listened to deeper cuts The Shakin' Babies revealed themselves are clever and occasionally humorous songwriters hiding tales of devil worship and drug addiction under sugary sweet melodies. "Easy Meal" just happens to be my favorite of those dual operating tracks. Lyrically describing a shark attack I was at a loss for whether it was an elaborate metaphor or if it was really just that. The correct answer may never be known (I suspect it's both) but the track is downright infectious - a perfect demonstration of the bands 60s inspired garage pop.
North Highlands - "Halo", "I'll Do My Best"/"Halo" 7"
When news that Brooklyn indie pop outfit North Highlands had new songs in the works I could hardly contain my excitement. Their debut album Wild One was a surefire favorite and an eclectic blend of styles that converged into this interesting folk-inspired dance-pop played on rock instruments. No one could accuse North Highlands of copying their style. On their latest release the "I'll Do My Best"/"Halo" 7", North Highlands didn't pick up where they left of. No, instead they turned their sights toward surf rock. But North Highlands are nothing if not creative and their dip into summery beach pop was anything but typical. "Halo", surprisingly doesn't sound like North Highlands jumping the shark and trying a new genre on for size. Instead "Halo" (and "I'll Do My Best") is their own take still featuring their sweetly sung, dance inducing brand of indie pop goodness. A slightly new look for North Highlands sure but not one that incredibly far removed from their Wild One days.
Salt Cathedral - "Fields", Salt Cathedral EP
Arguably one of my favorite discoveries of 2013, Salt Cathedral are a band that appeal to virtually ever part of music-loving ways - a fantastic live band with intricate yet accessible song composition and real sense of original vision, Salt Cathedral (formerly il Abanico) are hopefully destined for big things. To the great benefit of the Brooklyn via Columbia band, pretty much any song from the sextet's EP could've ended up here but "Fields" with its radiant, sunny sheen just happens to properly articulate what's to love about the band. The progressive rock recalling layering, the rhythmic complexity,the soaring emotive and deeply felt vocals - it's all there, masterfully doled out and interlocked into a heady rush of pure elation that is "Fields"
Kishi Bashi - "Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!"
There really is no denying Kishi Bashi's unique talent for layers. Which seems unsurprising considering it's the main method of his song composition but K. has an ability to exceed above and beyond your expectations there. Another one of K.'s fantastic psychedelic trips, "Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It" takes flight almost immediately with its vibrant, soaring melodies. Kishi Bashi always seems to be at his most innovative when dreaming up unique ways to dress up love songs and there's certainly no shortage of creativity here. "Philosophize With It! Chemicalize With It!" is a wildly enjoyable flight of fancy that finds the perfect balance between its high energy and an emotive core. K.'s words ring true but they also shimmer and glide while they do so. They're a fresh take on an age-old idea that Kishi Bashi finds a way to make extra resonant.
Gracie - "Jackson II"
Gracie is anything but a conventional artist and that's probably most apparent on "Jackson II" a track for the mixed media project for Kai Flanders' novella 'The Red Bicycle'. Inspired by/accompanying the novella's first chapter Gracie makes pretty inventive use of the chapter's two most important elements - a plane and the titular red bicycle. But they're subtle touches - not utilized to excess while the track bops along at it's leisurely pace on just the right side of dance-y. It's the kind of track the even separate from 'The Red Bicycle' soundtrack manages to be delightfully engaging and charmingly clever.
The Debauchees - "I've Got Energy", Big Machines and Peculiar Beings
What can I say about The Debauchees that I haven't already said before? I've written about them a bunch of times in their rather short band life and they continue to amaze. On "I've Got Energy" they put their absolute best foot forward allowing their music to speak for what could've been an agonizing/annoying gimmick. Teaching themselves their instruments after deciding to be in a band, being young with clearly classic music tastes, the single ahead of their excellent debut album Big Machines and Peculiar Beings combines fiery intensity with Sydney Chadwick's cool purr. The Debauchees offer up the kind of tunes that'd make any rock purist proud and rightly so.
ARMS - "Sleepwalker", EP2
Truth be told, a large part of my excitement concerning the release date of ARMS Summer Skills follow up EP2 was purely based on my ability to own and listen to "Sleepwalker" whenever I damn well pleased. I had spent over a year hearing the track at every ARMS show I attended (which happened to be A LOT) and it always stuck out to me the best display of Todd Goldstein's pop chops and my new favorite ARMS songs. That's not to say the other songs weren't enjoyable in their own ways but "Sleepwalker" was at the forefront of my memory and the wait for their EP to find a home was made all the more laborious due to its absence from my collection of dangerously repeated tracks. While Goldstein set out to tell stories outside/separate of ARMS supernatural thriller Summer Skills, "Sleepwalker" delivered where no other EP2 cut did. Invoking a visceral reaction due not only to Goldstein's intelligent, descriptive lyricism but also the track's moments of pop mastery. When Goldstein sings "I want you always", it's evidently the track's climax, the tipping point where the track finally lets loose all its built up energy and the result is nothing short of deeply enjoyable. It doesn't barrel forward to the end like such a dam burst is to wont to do but there's no more build up, the track unravels and marvelously so. "Sleepwalker" succeeds where no other EP2 track does because it pairs arresting musical moments with the frenetic energy ARMS reserves mostly for their live sets. Goldstein still retains the knack for building these engaging little worlds but the charm of "Sleepwalker" is in its domino effect as Goldstein's meticulous world building crumbles in ts frantic finish.
Chris Holm - "Sealed", Kilos
Chris Holm's solo record Kilos, his first stepping out from bands Young Dreams and Bloody Beach (and a multitude of others, I'm sure), happens to be an album of experiments. That sounds a little like Holm putters around unsure of what he's doing but he does that much is exceptionally clear. The album is a blend of Holm's varying influences and inspirations that somehow managed to be stay moored by his passions in them. From the sort of tropicalia hip-hop hybrid of "H.A.A.R.P." to the psychedelic rock stylings of "Raleigh's Peak", it's an album of unprecedented musical exploration. Each song is special and good in its own way but, and forgive me if I'm gushing, "Sealed" is a real standout. It's Chris Holm's try at singer/songwriter pop game like pals Sondre Lerche and Matias Tellez but it's uniquely his own, making extensive use of layers and textures and this sound and that in a way that embellishes not distracts from Holm's songwriting. There's some poignant lyricism crafted here that definitely establishes Holm's solo talents and not just his talents are an ensemble artist. "Sealed" is the moment I realized Kilos would not be enough. Holm's needs to make more solo music and often. Here's hoping he does so.
R. L. Kelly - "Feels Real", Angeltown
Since being introduced to R.L. Kelly's empowering brand melancholy pop at Orchid Tapes' Brooklyn showcase, it's been my utmost pleasure to keep taps on her, watching and hearing her grow her small but powerfully engaging collection of songs. While there's been no shortage of great R.L. Kelly songs this year, my favorite might very well be "Feels Real" which was featured on Orchid Tapes Los Angeles show compilation tape Angeltown. Not quite sparse as "Life's a Bummer" but not as crunchy as "You're Not the Only Monster in Hell. It's a pleasant little number that engages in some absolutely earcatching musical moments with not only the vocals but its guitar melodies.
Lapland - "Metal Lungs", Lapland
Brooklyn based singer/songwriter Josh Mease underwent a bit of a renaissance, reemerging under the moniker Lapland. It takes a particularly gifted songwriter to have not only a song but a whole album engage bases on songwriting talents alone but that's precisely what Mease does with Lapland. "Metal Lungs"combines normal singer/songwriter heartbreak fodder with a rather uplifting take on it. Invoking dusty Midwestern plains, "Metal Lungs" sounds like a rallying cry as Mease's moving, creamy vocals are employed like a cleverly concealed weapon.
Sondre Lerche - "Rejection #5", Public Hi-Fi Sessions #01
Despite the fact that 2013 held all the faint whispers of a full length record in the works from Norwegian popsmith Sondre Lerche, sadly it was not meant to be. Instead it seems like in 2014, Lerche will be doubling down on releases and that suits me just fine. However 2013 wasn't completely without its fair share of Lerche jams and in addition to takes on Scott Walker's "The Plague" and Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball", Sondre Lerche let two songs free from his majestic pharaoh's tomb of an archive in the form of Two Way Monologue era "Rejection #5" and "Screen Door" for Jim Eno's Public Hi-Fi Sessions. The twist being of course that "Rejection #5" was unfinished until recently and was recorded with Eno taking part for the release. Though written around Two Way Monologue it's got a very Phantom Punch era sassiness thrown in for good measure. The fact that it's basically a new track at this point shows that not only has Lerche not lost touch with his roots but that his genre-bending ways aren't long forgotten. "Rejection #5" is a funky little number which manages to bring the past 5 years or so of Lerche's musical career full circle with a clever little reference to George Lazenby. Unexpected collaborations and inspirations abound and the result is a song of pretty much boundless confidence. The kind of song that'd soundtrack Travolta's cocky strut if Saturday Night Fever was remade with modern music for some weird reason. A jam in every sense of the word that's a more than suitable placeholder for Lerche's forthcoming 7th full length.
Alex G - "Joy"
Conveyor - "Pushups", "Mammal Food"/"Pushups" 7"
Daughn Gibson - "Kissin on the Blacktop", Me Moan
Gracie - "Creature Pleaser", Bleeder EP
Hiss Golden Messenger - "The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)", Haw
Incan Abraham - "Tuolumne", "Tuolumne"/"Whidbey" 7"