It’s easy to look back at the year in music and only see images of Miley Cyrus twerking, Robin Thicke skeeving and Pharrell dominating. With this list, I’m shining a spotlight on the best that pop music had to offer this year, whether it involved blurred lines or diamonds in the rough. I combed over every Billboard Hot 100 chart from this year and picked my favorite songs that cracked the Top 40.
You’ll notice there are 12 songs on this list. Why not? Ten is just as arbitrary. These are 12 songs I really like. I hope you’ll find something worth celebrating here. No use cutting corners. (To make my life easier, I did my best to exclude songs that made bigger splashes in 2012 than they did in 2013, including Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank).”)
You’ll also notice that these songs are in alphabetical order by the artist’s first name. Why? Because it’s too difficult for me to decide which of these songs is better than the others. They’re good for different reasons, and I don’t see any value in fussing with which reasons matter more.
(The playlist isn’t in alphabetical order – in fact, it’s not in any order at all, except my vague attempt to create a pleasurable listening experience.)
Without further ado, my favorite Top 40 songs of 2013.
Ariana Grande feat. Mac Miller, “The Way”
Written by Harmony Samuels, Amber Streeter, Al Sherrod Lambert, Jordin Sparks, Malcolm McCormick and Brenda Russell; Produced by Harmony Samuels
Grande, a former Nickelodeon star who’s also dabbled in Broadway, broke big this year with this slick, shiny R&B gem, which makes up in vocal range and finger-snapping rhythm what it lacks in lyrical depth or originality. Mac Miller’s rap is far from revelatory, but Grande has a pleasant rapport with Miller that affirms her hip-hop chops. This song is sweet but rarely sugary. It goes down easy.
Bruno Mars, “When I Was Your Man”
Written by Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Andrew Wyatt, Produced by The Smeezingtons
Mars had a stellar year, expanding up on the success of his late 2012 album Unorthodox Jukebox with a sellout tour, a solid contender for Song of the Summer (the shimmery “Treasure”), an awe-inspiring Grammys collaboration with Sting and the title for Billboard’s Artist of the Year. This song kicked off his year on the right note. You can practically pinpoint the moments inspired by Elton John and Michael Jackson, but Mars’ soulful tone and committed vocal delivery keep the song refreshingly current despite the old-school production and tender lyrics. Best of all, Mars’ live performances of this song showed off his ability to captivate an audience without pyrotechnics or choreography.
Ciara, “Body Party”
Written by Ciara, Future, Michael L. Williams II, Pierre Ramon Slaughter, Carlton Mahone and Rodney Terry, Produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, P-Nasty, Ciara and Future
If you’ve already written off Ciara as a mid-00s phenomenon whose time has passed, this year offered compelling reasons to reconsider. Chief among them is this slinky jam, which Ciara underplays to gratifying effect. She’s authoritative but never overbearing, and the vocal reflects a playfulness that keeps the song light even as the lyrics get hot and heavy. The remix, featuring B.o.B and Ciara’s boyfriend Future, retains the original’s charms and adds an extra frisson of sexual tension.
Drake feat. Majid Jordan, “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Written by Drake, Noah “40” Shebib and Majid Jordan (Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman); Produced by Nineteen85, Majid Jordan, Noah “40” Shebib
During the release cycle for his largely effective album Nothing was the Same, Drake cited Marvin Gaye as one of his foremost musical idols. Ten years ago, those words would have been unthinkable coming from the mouth of one of the world’s most popular rappers and hip-hop stars. It just goes to show that genre lines have been getting increasingly blurry (Robin Thicke, you’ve done it again).
“Hold On, We’re Going Home” isn’t remotely a rap song. Rather, it’s a warm declaration of affection from a rapper who’s always worn his heart on his sleeve. The plaintive beat leaves plenty of room for Drake to show off his breathy but confident vocals. When Drake asks for “heart, love and emotion,” no one with a beating ticker can resist.
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky”
Written by Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, Produced by Daft Punk
On the charts, this song lost the battle for Song of the Summer glory to a tune that shares many of its essential elements: sexual lyrics, Pharrell Williams, disco aesthetics. For whatever reason, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” captured the zeitgeist this summer, remaining perched atop the Hot 100 even as it was hit with one scandal after another. Accusations of sexism and plagiarism came and went, but the song remained a cultural force.
With a few months of critical distance, though, the song’s charms, such as they are, have worn thin. By contrast, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is as effervescent and groovy as it was when we first heard it back in March. Thicke was posing as a master of grandpa soul while two robots quietly assumed the mantle. Nile Rodgers’ terrific guitar line envelops Pharrell’s lush vocals in a cocoon of unapologetic dance bliss. The truly lucky ones? Listeners who can’t dance nearly as well as they think they can.
Eric Church, “Like Jesus Does”
Written by Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, Produced by Jay Joyce
At his lowest moments, Eric Church is just a grimier, gritter iteration of the country-rock frat boy who has become the dominant persona in the country music landscape. But when Church pulls back and wears his emotions on his well-worn sleeve, the results are often magical. This effortlessly simple and subtly moving song is a worthy successor to his massive 2012 smash “Springsteen,” which married pop sensibilities with a country traditionalist’s command of melody. There’s said much to be said for a few guitars accompanying a stripped-down vocal on an original and spiritual appreciation of Church’s lover.
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Written by Justin Timberlake, Timothy Mosley, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon and James Fauntleroy, Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon
Plenty has been written about Timberlake’s refusal or inability to rein in the lengths of his songs this year. It’s hard to quibble with this tactic when the result is as lovely and full-bodied as this epic saga from the first half of his megalithic 20/20 Experience. The song’s radio edit recalls the thumping aggression of “Cry Me a River” crossed with the heartfelt grace of “My Love.” When the album cut takes a dark and gothic turn, the record reveals its true colors as a song about passionate yearning. Timberlake’s dexterous vocal runs in these last minutes are among his most wrenching ever because they feel like a departure from the smooth façade we’ve come to expect from him.
Written by Lorde and Joel Little, Produced by Joel Little
What is it about Lorde that sets her apart from the pop mainstream she consciously and blatantly rejects in every aspect of her presentation, from her lyrics to her wardrobe? Perhaps it’s her mysterious vocal tone, smoky and well beyond her years, innocent with a hint of quaver, revealing the 17 year-old underneath. Perhaps it’s the breathtaking cadence of her lyrics, from “Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom” to “We crave a different kind of love.”
Or maybe Lorde speaks to us because she’s speaking to us, about us. We “didn’t come for money.” We’ve “never seen a diamond in the flesh.” We’re definitely “not caught up in your love affair.” And we’re tired of being the silent majority. Lorde is rising because she understands us in a way that her richer, more famous counterparts can’t. This song reveals Lorde as the voice of our people. It’s about “we.” To quote another solid pop song from this year, “we run things, things don’t run we.” No one agrees more than Lorde.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “Can’t Hold Us” (feat. Ray Dalton)
“Can’t Hold Us”: Written by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Produced by Ryan Lewis
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis started the year as unlikely rising stars and ended it fully integrated into the pop mainstream. They kicked off the pop narrative of class warfare with their cheeky “Thrift Shop,” the year’s bestselling single. With their summer hit “Same Love” (featuring a magnetic chorus from Mary Lambert), they managed to enter the conversation about same-sex marriage in pop music without alienating close-minded audiences or couching their views in platitudes about the importance of self-empowerment.
In between those two songs, they raised spirits with the least-lauded of their three hits: “Can’t Hold Us,” an anthem of sweeping scope and instrumental aesthetics. Ray Dalton’s soulful chorus bookends two barn-burning rap verses from Macklemore, whose lyrical chops are undeniable. The song reaches its emotional crescendo during its unexpectedly moving bridge, which features a surprise horn section and a chanting chorus that feels earned rather than obligatory. If “Thrift Shop” introduced Macklemore and his anonymous producer compatriot as energetic artists with a unique authorial voice, “Can’t Hold Us” confirmed their abilities as pop craftsmen.
Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
Written by Dr. Luke, Maureen Anne McDonald, Stephen Moccio, Sacha Skarbek, Henry Russell Walter; Produced by Dr. Luke and Cirkut
Even though the writer credits imply that it was assembled by committee, “Wrecking Ball” oozes genuine heartbreak and searing emotion, thanks to Cyrus’ committed and undeniably impressive vocal performance. This song wears its “power ballad” label on it sleeve, and the production leaves ample space for Cyrus to show off her vocal gifts. You won’t find this much feeling on the recent albums by Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna or even Lady Gaga. Songs as good as this one make Cyrus’ problematic antics appear even more unnecessary.
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Chuck Ainlay
Maybe next year at this time, I’ll be praising a smash hit with Musgraves and/or Clark credited as the lead singer, but for now, I’ll have to settle for this rampaging breakup romp from a characteristically feisty Lambert, who rips into the vivid lyrics like a tiger seizing its prey. This isn’t merely a revenge anthem, though. It’s about a woman struggling with her image and wrestling with societal and familial expectations. It’s the kind of aggressively female-centric song that needs more attention on country radio.
P!nk feat. Nate Ruess, “Just Give Me a Reason”
Written by P!nk, Jeff Bhasker and Nate Ruess, Produced by Jeff Bhasker
It’s no wonder that this song was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards – it’s exactly the kind of perfectly crafted, emotionally accessible ballad that mainstream tastemakers like the Grammys can get behind without looking like old coots. This song is modern and classic in equal measure. It sounds like it belongs in the 80s but never feels retro thanks to the chemistry between P!nk and fun. lead singer Ruess. Songwriting is fast becoming an undervalued craft on Top 40 radio. This song proves it’s far from dead.
Just Missed the Cut: Daris Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”; Eminem, “Rap God”; J. Cole feat. TLC, “Crooked Smile”; Paramore, “Still Into You”; Taylor Swift, “Sweeter Than Fiction”
Alright, enough praise. Now it’s time to get negative. Here are my least favorite Top 40 songs of the year.
Worst Top 40 Songs of the Year:
will.i.am feat. Justin Bieber, “#thatPOWER”
Written by will.i.am, Damien Leroy and Justin Bieber
Let’s talk about that title. I hate the hashtag. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it. (I should note that this song isn’t the only offender in that regard. Mariah Carey and Miguel’s “#Beautiful,” Miley Cyrus’ “#GetItRight” and Jennifer Lopez’s “#LiveItUp” jumped on the Twitter bandwagon as well. The sooner this fad transitions into the irony phase and then out of music altogether, the happier I’ll be.)
I hate every single lyric. What power do you have, Justin Bieber? Judging from your increasingly unhinged antics this year, the answer is “the power to systematically ingratiate myself against the American public who used to think I was cute and adorable.”
And let’s dissect that chorus. “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.” Good to know, Justin. Good to know.
“I can fly, I can fly, I can fly.” No, you can’t, Justin.
“And I’m lovin’ every second, minute, hour, bigger, better, stronger, power.” Whoa, Justin! Show your work! How did you get from Point A to Point B? Just because you think you can fly doesn’t mean you have power. Worse yet, that’s the chorus. A bunch of words strung together with punctuation marks. High art.
Will.i.am’s cringeworthy verses are almost as frustrating as Bieber’s robotic chorus. A scintillating example: “Imma take it higher, and higher, higher, higher / I stay in fly attire / keep burning like that fi-yah.” I’ll let you decide whether that line is going to cut it on the dance floor, let alone in my earphones.
I hate the production. I’m glad will.i.am is a fan of recycling, but I wish he would do it with his soda cans instead of his music. I don’t remember the last time I heard a will.i.am song and thought, “Huh. That’s new!”
This song is a metallic machine leeched of humanity and basked in alien declarations of superiority. “#thatPOWER” has me waiting for an electrical outage.
Enrique Iglesias, “Turn the Night Up”
Written by Enrique Iglesias, Niles Hollowell-Dhar, Marty James and Rome Rodriguez; Produced by The Cataracs
Last time I checked, the night cannot be turned up. I’ve never seen, nor do I want to see, a nightswitch. And if anyone’s going to turn my night up, how about someone other than the phoniest pop star of our time, Enrique Iglesias, who never passes up an opportunity to keep the pitch-correction software business afloat.
Jay Z feat. Justin Timberlake, “Holy Grail”
Written by Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, The-Dream, Timothy Mosley, Jerome Harmon, Ernest Wilson, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; Produced by The-Dream, Timbaland, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon and No I.D.
Let’s take a moment and shed a tear for Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, two fabulously rich men who are very sad because they’re famous and it’s lonely being at the top. Forgive me if I’m not sympathetic to two of the savviest businessmen in pop history, who hitched their wagons to each other in January and never let go, even when their collaborations grew stale. (Let’s not even talk about that time Jay-Z favorably compared a woman’s private parts to Yoko Ono on Justin Timberlake’s “Murder,” OK?) “Holy Grail” is a robotic amalglam of everything that’s formulaic about pop music, from the misguided Nirvana interlude to the winded rap verses and the overwrought chorus. (Where was that vein-popping sincerity on your own album, Justin?) Holy grail? More like bottom of the heap.
Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kind of Night”
Written by Dallas Davidson, Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley; Produced by Jeff Stevens
Zac Brown says it’s the worst song ever. He’s wrong, but not as wrong as I wish he were. This song is a miscalculation at every turn. Bryan gains no hop-hop credibility from dropping a T-Pain reference, and a “catfish dinner” from the man who says he’s got that “real good, feel good stuff” seems decidedly unappetizing. This song seems desperate to please at every turn, which is exactly its failing: Bryan doesn’t trust his legitimately charming personality to do the trick for him.
Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin, “Don’t You Worry Child”
Written by Axel Hedfors, Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso, John Martin Lindström and Michel Zitron; Produced by Swedish House Mafia
Bombastic, phony and awkward.