It’s already December. That means Thanksgiving is over, Christmas is right around the corner, and then that's it for 2013. All there is left to do is some holiday shopping and read a bunch of year-end lists. That’s right, there’s nothing that says “holiday season” like
the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" piped in through the speakers at Rite-Aid your in-laws sleeping on your couch year-end lists.
It’s been an eventful year. (It's kind of hard to imagine an uneventful year, isn't it? A year's a pretty long time. There are bound to be some events to fill it up.) So much has happened over the past eleven month, it’s hard to even remember every song we fell in love with. There were the massive Billboard hits we couldn’t escape like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the street anthems that blasted out of passing cars like French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried About Nothing,” the indie gems we couldn’t stop telling our friends about like Autre Ne Veut’s "Counting," and those album cuts that we kept on repeat (even if it sometimes felt like we were the only ones) like Eminem’s “So Far.”
Like every year, new artists showed and proved, big stars shined even brighter than they had before, and wily veterans found yet another way to impress us. Okay, so let's start our annual look back at the year that just was. Here are the 50 Best Songs of 2013.
RELATED: The Best Songs of 2013 (So Far)
RELATED: The Best Albums of 2013 (So Far)
50. Lorde "Royals"
49. Young Jeezy f/ 2 Chainz "RIP"
48. Earl Sweatshirt f/ Frank Ocean "Sunday"
Label: Tan Cressida, Columbia Records
Producer: Frank Ocean & RandomBlackDude
When "Sunday," the two-hander from Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean, finally splits open, when the big organ riff falls out like at morning mass and the rest of the drum kit starts snapping, Earl goes in: "State to state for the profit, it ain't a stain on me, nigga/My momma raised me a prophet, I play for dollar incentive." The rhyming of profit and prophet, the way the roar of the music confirms his anointment, is a clear high point on a sometimes sleepy album. But then Frank Ocean begins to rap and you start rethinking what it is exactly you want from the R&B singer—maybe you'd rather he rap.
In a thoroughly brilliant verse, Ocean takes a few bars out of his thoughts on Los Angeles and drugs to dismantle Chris Brown, "I mean he called me a faggot/I was just calling his bluff/I mean how anal am I gone be when I'm aiming my gun?" If he was feeling merciful, he might've stopped there. But he continues, "And why's his mug all bloody/That was a three on one?/Standing ovation at Staples, I got my Grammys and gold/Polda dots on my Brit, I'm not supposed to be stunting." And yet here he is, putting these words together about beating Brown for Best Urban Contemporary Album earlier this year, and alluding to the altercation between Brown and Ocean outside an L.A. recording studio. Ocean won, on every count. Now let's all stand up and applaud. —Ross Scarano
47. ZMoney "Regular"
Album: Rich B4 Rap
If ZMoney's "Regular" continued on the course it starts on, it would be a great song. The first 50 seconds are catchy and oddly compelling thanks to ZMoney's jumbled rapping under his breath and those two bass notes that hold the entire song together. But 50 seconds in, things get really irregular. ZMoney unhinges his voice completely, employing a drunken flow that flirts with the point of ridiculousness. It's reminiscent of Gucci Mane at his weirdest, and at 20 years old the Chicago rapper seems to understand that the right amount of humor and quirkiness paired with an aloof demeanor can be way more appealing than falling in the line with the regulars. —Jacob Moore
46. Justin Bieber "Hold Tight"
45. Travis Scott f/ 2 Chainz & T.I. "Upper Echelon"
44. Tyler, The Creator f/ Domo Genesis & Earl Sweatshirt "Rusty"
Label: Odd Future, RED, Sony
Producer: Tyler, the Creator
Your love for Tyler (and Odd Future in general) can waiver depending on how deep into the OFWGKTA chamber you've descended. But for those who might question Tyler's mic prowess, "Rusty" is the song for you. Sergeant Domo sets the song up perfectly before Tyler comes in rhyming about how he's "harder than DJ Khaled playing the fucking quiet game" and the frustration he felt when Earl's mother was giving him shit for corrupting her son, when he'd done so much to help his career.
For all the flack Tyler catches, this is a verse where he truly expresses himself about how people view him. Less, umm, offensively than usual. Instead of going down the "die, faggot, die" route, he honestly reflects, trying to make sense of his life. "Rusty" is an amazing track on an interesting album from one of the more captivating artists making music today. —khal
43. Chinx Drugz f/ Diddy, French Montana & Rick Ross "I'm a Coke Boy (Remix)"
Album: Cocaine Riot 3
Producer: Harry Fraud
Harry Fraud made this song. Without his light, scratchy instrumental, the words "we talking bout helicopters landing on cribs" would not have ever so playfully plucked at the jealous heartstrings of haters everywhere—at least not as effectively. The structure of the song is reminiscent of "U.O.E.N.O.," in that it plays a lyrical game with a list anchored to a certain concept: "I could have been" such and such. You may find it hard to believe that French Montana "could have been a doctor," but we prefer him being a rapper who wears "that same shit Jesus used to wear." —Alexander Gleckman
42. Run The Jewels f/ Big Boi "Banana Clipper"
Album: Run the Jewels
Label: Fool's Gold
When Killer Mike and El-P decided to release music under the banner Run The Jewels, the rap community wasn't exactly sure what it was going to get. While R.A.P. Music was a collaborative effort, the album was ultimately Mike's blend of militant and introspective content over El-P's frenetic production. This would be the first time the two would be rapping together on an entire project. Would Mike's direct approach mesh well with El-P's indirect stylings?
The project turned out to be a full dose of riotous wordplay over thunderous bass, and "Banana Clipper" epitomizes what the group is about. Mike and El trade verses back and forth about topics ranging from suicide ("You want to hang bring your throat/I got stools and a rope...") to Star Wars ("It's time for Skywalker talk /'Cause meet the true Darth Vader...") While guest star Big Boi joins in with a blistering attack on the state of rap in 2013. And the beat? Mike sums it up best, "Producer gave me a beat said it's the beat of the year/I said El-P didn't do it so get the fuck outta here!" —Dharmic X
41. Eminem "So Far"
Album: The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Label: Aftermath, Shady, Interscope
Producer: Rick Rubin
Eminem has spent the last decade working with a select few producers—namely, Dr. Dre, Jeff Bass, Luis Resto, and himself. Going into The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the big news was that he was working with the living legend, Rick Rubin. Rubin was already having a big year thanks to his contributions to Kanye West's Yeezus (and for sleeping on Jay Z's couch in that Samsung ad). Although Kanye consistently praised Rubin's guiding hand in the process for his album, it was hard to pinpoint how he influenced the album sonically. But with songs like "So Far," you don't need to read the credits to know Rubin is there.
The album highlight samples Joe Walsh's '70s rock anthem "Life's Been Good" and Schoolly D's '80s hip-hop classic "P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)"—two songs that were surely an influence in Eminem's Detroit upbringing, but also the kinds of songs that shaped Rubin's early career. Much like Walsh did with his hit—which meditated on the spoils of being a rock star—Em uses the song to take a look at his life of living in the glass house of fame. He even takes time to wonder what it means to be a hardcore luddite and still have so many friends on Facebook. Celebrity ain't what it used to be. —Insanul Ahmed
40. Vic Mensa "Lovely Day"
Producer: Peter Cottontale & Vic Mensa
Vic Mensa raps his way through "Lovely Day" like he's had too much orange soda to drink and he's now racing for the nearest bathroom stall. Yet his spastic flow has a certain charm to it. A charm that becomes more evident as he splits time making humorous references to Drake and Tom Cruise while charismatically rapping his ass off.
It's something similar to what we heard earlier this year when the young Chicago MC teamed up with fellow Save Money crew member Chance the Rapper on "Cocoa Butter Kisses." Like Chance, Mensa veers off into funky lyrical spaces and does so with unfettered confidence and a smile on his face. And the production from Peter Cottontale and Mensa on "Lovely Day" is just as entertaining as the rhymes.
The song glides with smooth drum kicks and a light piano vamp before the chorus hits with a bravado that knocks the listener off their feet. His breakout mixtape INNANETAPE is a musical testament to this distinct style, and "Lovely Day" is the celebratory cherry on top. —Edwin Ortiz
39. Kanye West "I'm In It"
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Producer: Arca, Dom Solo, Evian Christ, Kanye West, Mike Dean & Noah Goldstein
Yeezus, the most challenging album of Kanye West's career, is also the one most suffused with weaponized dancehall sonics. It's not like Yeezy hasn't shown his love for reggae in the past. After all, he's the producer who sampled Max Romeo on Jay-Z's "Lucifer" and wove a demented Fuzzy Jones intro throughout the G.O.O.D. Music radio killa "Mercy." But on Yeezus Kanye's raggamuffin quotient gets turnt all the way up.
Four of the album's 10 tracks include dancehall vocals, but while the others are samples (of Beenie Man, Capleton, and Popcaan), "I'm In It" boasts a fresh verse by the gruff-voiced dancehall veteran Assassin aka Agent Sasco. Never mind the fact that Assassin's bad-man lyrics (which he recorded without hearing Kanye's part) have nothing to do with the rest of the song's over-the-top sexual themes. What Sasco's saying really doesn't matter for most of Kanye's fanbase. The dancehall verse just sounds right juxtaposed with Ye's borderline psychotic dirty talk and the seething stripped-down instrumental.
Producer Evian Christ professes to love Assassin’s part: "he absolutely killed it," Christ told Pitchfork. Meanwhile featured vocalist Justin Vernon admitted "I have no idea what the Jamaican dude [Assassin] is saying. At all. But it's fucking awesome as hell." And while Assassin has been politely appreciative of this next-level look, he clearly wouldn't mind joining Mr. West on stage. Maybe the creative mastermind who signed D'Banj to G.O.O.D. Music should take Assassin up on the offer. It would be cool to see them both up in it. —Rob Kenner
38. Miley Cyrus "We Can't Stop"
37. Action Bronson f/ LL Cool J & Lloyd Banks "Strictly 4 My Jeeps (Remix)"
Album: Saaab Stories
Label: Vice, Atlantic
Producer: Harry Fraud
Religious people will tell you that the Lord works in mysterious ways. And LL Cool's J's 2013 stands as a good example of what they're talking about. After making a very famous song with Brad Paisley that you will not find on this list—and after, frankly, stinking it up, rapwise, for the past, oh, 18 years—LL surprised everybody this summer.
Jumping on a special "Queens Day" remix of Action Bronson's "Strictly 4 My Jeeps" (a remake of EPMD's boom-bap classic "Rampage," which he murdered back in 1990), sounded hungry and energized in a way we hadn't heard this century. "The ripper/The master/The charismatic bastard..." he announced himself in the very first line. Reminding us, if only for a moment, of how monumentally great he used to be. —Dave Bry
36. A$AP Rocky f/ Gunplay & ASAP Ferg "Ghetto Symphony"
Album: Long.Live.A$AP (2013)
Label: A$AP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA
Producer: Jonathan "MP" Williams, LORD FLACKO & V Don
A$AP Rocky's "Ghetto Symphony" is just as much about guest rappers A$AP Ferg and Gunplay as it is about their host, if not more. On this bonus cut from LONG.LIVE.A$AP, Gunplay delivers a selective version of the irreverent brilliance he's becoming so well known for. "Show me what you owe me," he barks. "And a porterhouse with that..." Stealing the show, his verse is part Trick Daddy, part Kenny Powers, blended to produce a brand of eccentric awesomeness that you get the feeling has yet to see it's full fruition. (Gunplay, please finish you album!)
Fergenstien, on the other hand weaves his animated flow around the beat, poeticizing about death as only he can, informing anyone in ear-shot that he's up next. "If Rocky spit like Andre," he says. "Then I'm gonna kill 'em like Big Boi." Rocky 3000 steps aside here, probably happily. —Brandon Jenkins
35. Lana Del Rey "Young and Beautiful"
34. Drake "5AM In Toronto"
Label: OVO Sound, Young Money, Cash Money, Republic
Producer: Boi-1da & Vinylz
If there's an expectancy for a certain amount of music per artist per year, 2013 ends in a surplus of Drake. It felt like every few weeks, a new verse or a new song or a new video would come along, which is to say nothing of an album or a massive stadium tour. Over the summer, four new Drake tracks surfaced over one weekend. All of them were solid.
But of all the Drake to be released in 2013, no song did more for his credentials as a technician, as a craftsman, and simply as a straight-up rapper as "5AM in Toronto." This isn't Drake in hitmaker mode, though it's definitely a hit of a certain stripe. It's not Drake in R&B soothsayer mode, either, but there's some of that towards the end, too. This is Drake, quite simply, rapping his ass off.
This is an aggressive, confrontational, self-aware track. A victory lap is one thing. This is Drake getting his Sun Tzu on, burning the stadium down on his way out of the building. You can't deny a certain amount of projecting when Drake goes in on the ginned-up violent claims of every other rapper in 2013, rapping that he could "Load every gun with bullets that fire backwards/You wouldn't lose a single rapper." In other words, you might've called Drake out for rhyming about "catching bodies" in 2011, but it's not like any of these other rappers did, either.
There's signature Drake wordplay delivering some of his most memorably absurd boasts ("Sinatra lifestyle/And I'm just being Frank with you"), but a few of them actually transcend typical levels of pro-forma rapper hyperbole into the kind of fuck-off-own-this-game lines that Kendrick got more credit for this year. Kendrick's verse was great. But it was as much as PR play as it was a verse. As opposed to the moment when you heard "that's why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake."
When you heard that, you didn't think: Wow, what a stunningly astute critique on the state of rap music this year (even though that'd be totally fair). You thought: "Shots. At everyone." And they were. And yes, we all saw Drake and The Weeknd hug it out at OVO Fest. And we all saw Kanye get on stage with Drake at OVO, and look, hey, everyone's friends, right?
Jokes are funnier when they're true. But they sting more then, too. So how do you think every other rapper reacted when they heard Drake rap that "a lot of niggas PR stuntin' like that's the movement/And I'm the only nigga still known for the music," huh?
Probably like they needed a hug, or a really important cosign. And it's just the most perfect indicator of how much Drake's winning—how far into the truth all of the lines on "5AM in Toronto" reach—that be it Kendrick, or Kanye, or Migos, or Weeknd, or Cole, or whoever, the simple truth of the matter is that in 2013, Drake was so often the one who gave it to them. —Foster Kamer
33. August Alsina f/ Trinidad James "I Luv This Shit"
32. G Dragon f/ Missy Elliott "Niliria"
Album: Coup d'etat
Label: YG Entertainment
Producer: G-Dragon, Missy Elliott & Teddy Park
Korean pop superstar G-Dragon (the subject of a Complex digital cover story back in August) has the power to do whatever he wants, so it was nice to see him bring Missy Elliott out of unofficial retirement this past summer when they debuted this culture-clashing collaboration to thousands of screaming fans at an L.A. sports arena.
Produced by longtime collaborator (and former member of 1TYM) Teddy Park, the beat is pure Timbaland-in-his-prime surrealism, flipping a traditional Korean folk song into a piece of booming club music. "I know on the other side of the world, they're always dying to hear something ethnic," Teddy told Complex. "Like M.I.A., or even what Timbaland did with Egyptian music and Indian music. I got those for days."
With a few electro and 808 flourishes thrown in the mix, "Niliria" manages to sound more like an updated version of Timbaland than anything on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Maybe Missy should consider signing with YG Entertainment for that comeback album. —Brendan Frederick
31. James Blake "Retrograde"
Label: ATLAS, A&M, Polydor
Producer: James Blake
Sitting as the perfect centerpiece to James Blake's Overgrown, "Retrograde" anchors the whole album. The four songs before it meander and float, touching on some brilliant ideas along the way, but within the first few seconds of "Retrograde" it's clear that this project is having its moment. Fans will remember the first time they heard that haunting hum, the mournful piano, the first time Blake reaches deep and pulls out that remarkable "You're on your own..."
For all of Blake's undeniable talent and cutting edge sensibility, his best work sometimes flickers with a few great elements of melody and vocals dressed in masterfully scanty production. This minimalism is part of what makes even the smallest moments on a James Blake song feel important. "Retrograde" is an outlier in that regard: it holds its weight not in its pieces, but in its wholeness. It may be the most complete song Blake's ever released. It may also be the best. —Jacob Moore
30. YG f/ Young Jeezy & Rich Homie Quan "My Nigga"
29. Disclosure f/ AlunaGeorge "White Noise"
Label: PMR, Island
Crafted by brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, the guys from Disclosure, this second single off AlunaGeorge's debut album, Settle, offers a best-of-both-worlds taste of current British electroduos. Incredibly infectious, with pop sensibilities that match it's smooth flowing synths, it two-steps it's way into your ears and refuses to leave. Not that you want it too. AlunaGeorge's vocalist, Aluna Francis, sings in a cool, '90s-R&B inspired tone as the beat build. It's hypnotic, and when Aluna makes her accusation: "You just wanna keep me on repeat and hear me crying," you can't disagree. You find yourself pressing "previous" like seven times in a row. —Brandon Jenkins
28. ScHoolboy Q f/ Kendrick Lamar "Collard Greens"
27. Chance The Rapper "Acid Rain"
Album: Acid Rap
Producer: Jake One
Chance The Rapper had an incredible year in 2013. Like a few other artists—Drake, Pusha T—he could easily have placed a few songs on this list as a result. Never mind "Juice," the first song that drew significant major label attention. There was his tape-stealing moment on Lil Wayne's "You Song." His high profile collaboration with James Blake. His slept-on appearance on Rapsody's "Lonely Thoughts (Remix)." His standout guest spot on Joey Bada$$'s "Wendy and Becky." And countless appearances with Chi-town compatriots from Vic Mensa to ProbCause.
But it all paled next to "Acid Rain," the second single to drop in the lead-in to his Acid Rap tape. Produced by contemporary underground boom bap king Jake One—who Chance would later admit he didn't even know by name at the time this song was recorded—"Acid Rain" is melancholic nostalgia, somber memorial, and mind-expanding experiment. It isn't his most technically complex rap exercise. But this enables him to take a more creative approach to his delivery ("As of late, all my verses seem not so verse-y"), and underlines his straightforwardness.
There are clever poetic images ("the richest man rocks the snatchless neckless/Spineless bitches in backless dresses"), but it's the moments of bare honesty that feel the most compelling. There's a profundity to simple observations ("Sometimes the truth don't rhyme/Sometimes the lies get millions of views") that might not be immediately apparent but feel particularly wise both in and out of context. ("Acid Rain" was recorded when Chicago's drill scene was at its peak of media attention.)
Perhaps the toughest moment, though, is the passage which talks about the death of Chance's friend, Rodney Kyles, who was stabbed and killed in front of Chance the previous year. It built upon the hook of another song (unreleased) recorded by Chance and other members of Save Money earlier in the year ("My big homie died young, just turned older than him") and has a rawness and vulnerability that carry a world's worth of pain and intensity.
As much attention as has been paid, deservedly so, to Chance's poetic turns of phrase and technical command as a rapper, "Acid Rain" more than any song captured someone who was utilizing all these tools in order to communicate something greater. —David Drake
26. Childish Gambino "Pound Cake Freestyle"
Producer: Boi-1da, Detail, Jordan Evans & Matthew Burnett
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. "What are you doing picking a radio freestyle?" Well, let me tell you a story. This is the story of how I came to appreciate Childish Gambino.
I knew who he was before, of course. I'd watched one of his comedy specials, and had seen his name on the Internet, heard he was starting a rap career. I saw that painfully awkward interview he did with Chief Keef. Nothing was telling me to go listen to Childish Gambino right now, though... Until he hit Sway in the Morning and I watched him rhyme over Drake's "Pound Cake," with Drake's pop's "gravely" voice in the intro.
See, I'd heard about the real life that cat born Donald Glover had been dealing with. I'd seen what he was posting to Instagram, and given his position of being a multi-talented brother with few avenues to truly express himself in today's world, I could understand his frustration. This freestyle? This summed up a lot about Childish Gambino, answered some questions that I had.
Could he spit? Yes! In fact, he puts words together in a way that many rappers on his level don't often bother to do, with a balance of humor and #reallifeshit that only a few of them ever achieve. No-holds-barred honesty like "silver-spoon coon," and that multi-level line about "niggas quit being hot, man/Cold turkey." That's really catching my ear. And when he digs into his peers who have made millions, from Haim to Kendrick Lamar, and how he could've done this if he wasn't "in his feelings." And then he does something that truly dropped my jaw: he stops flowing to really just talk. Like the hook to this freestyle (if freestyles can even have hooks) is a conversation he's having with Sway about the importance of money. And then, just as Sway starts saying that his words are "on point," what does he do? He jumps right back into spitting. And, again, very, very well!
Sold. Won over. Childish Gambino is for real. —khal
25. Danny Brown "Dope Song"
Label: Fool's Gold
If Danny Brown's sophomore album Old was a Shakespearean play, then "Dope Song" would be the Greek chorus before the second act. After a jarring first half of about his days selling the crack that kept groceries in the fridge and designer duds in his closet, Brown is ready to leave it behind for his success with Fool's Gold Records and a whole new set of concerns.
Here, he matter-of-factly lays out exactly what and why he was selling over a party-ready beat that a superficial listen could easily take for just another a turn-up cut. Right before the song ends, though, he turns the mini-memoir into an indictment of rich rappers so far removed from selling drugs that they shouldn't be writing about it anymore: "I'm sick of all these niggas/With their ten-year-old story/You ain't doing that no more.../So take this as a diss song/'Cause this is my last song/Not my last dope song/But my last dope song." —Claire Lobenfeld
24. Lil Durk "Dis Ain't What U Want"
23. Mike Will Made-It f/ Miley Cyrus, Juicy J, & Wiz Khalifa "23"
Album: Est. in 1989 Pt. 3.
Label: EarDrummers Entertainment, Interscope Records
Producer: Mike Will Made-It
Miley Cyrus wasn't supposed to be on "23." When Mike Will Made It originally made the track, he had put a verse of his own on it, but he really wanted a girl to do it. And with his collaboration with Miley, "We Can't Stop" popping on the pop charts, he knew she'd make it even better. And she does. If there was one thing this year to give evidence that her status might actually be hood—aside from naming OJ Da Juiceman as her favorite rapper back in 2010—it's this.
While the beat is perfectly primed for Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J (it sounds like it could have been the lead single from Juicy's album Stay Trippy) she outshines them both, White-Girl-Mobbing atop the hip-hop wooziness. A pop starlet still making infectious songs for the radio while crossing over to urban? Best of both worlds. —Claire Lobenfeld
22. Pusha T f/ Kendrick Lamar "Nosetalgia"
Album: My Name Is My Name
Label: GOOD Music, Def Jam
Producer: Kanye West & Nottz
Whooo! You can just hear Pusha T's reaction the first time he heard to the crying-guitar sample that producer Nottz layed over those bongo drums. Whooo! he must have said. That's a mean, mean sound. And Pusha does some mean, mean rapping on this standout from his excellent My Name Is My Name album. And you can imagine what he said the first time he heard the mean, mean guest verse Kendrick Lamar gave him to put on the song, too, the one that starts with a devilish invitation to join a trip down memory lane to Boyz N the Hood-era Compton. "Wannna see a dead body?" Kendrick asks. Whooo! You know Pusha said. —Dave Bry
21. French Montana "Ain't Worried About Nothin"
20. Jay Z f/ Rick Ross "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt"
Album: Magna Carta... Holy Grail
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Universal
Producer: Boi-1da, Timbaland & Vinylz
Sure, it's more of a Rick Ross song than a Jay Z song, but pretty appropriate that for Jay's big cell phone marketing ploy, he also managed to swindle Ross's only meaningful hit of the year (give or take a controversial "U.O.E.N.O." guest appearance). Kicking off with the audio of Pimp C defending the younger generation's fascination with all that glitters, the song seethes with restrained potential energy, which Ross and Jay mirror in their respective start-stop verses.
With a cascading synth line behind them and a roiling bassline offering an ominous surface to stand upon, the two sound like the last rappers on earth, or the first to the moon. Either way, Ross's biggest moments in 2013 (this, "U.O.E.N.O.") sounded massive in the absence of bombast, in their collected reserve. It's something Jay has mastered—that coiled, conservative presentation. It should tell Ross something that his biggest songs were also his smallest, musically, and might suggest a change of direction for MMG. —David Drake
19. Ariana Grande "Baby I"
18. Lil Wayne f/ 2 Chainz "Rich as Fuck"
17. Arcade Fire "Reflektor"
Label: Merge, Sonovox
Producer: James Murphy, Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire
"You know what would be cool?" someone said once. "If LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy produced a song for Arcade Fire." They were right, it turns out, that person. In fact, it's pretty cool, now that it's happened, that James Murphy produced a whole album for the orchestral Canadian art-rockers. The title track, "Reflektor" (that's "reflector" spelled like David Bowie's famous Berlin era) proves that a disco-ey '70s-NYC groove suits the orchestral Canadian art-rockers very nicely. In fact, it leaves them sounding a bit like a nugget from Berlin-era David Bowie, which is an excellent thing to sound like. It seems even David Bowie thinks this, as he sang back-up vocals on the song. —Dave Bry
16. Blood Orange "Chamakay"
Album: Cupid Deluxe
Producer: Devonté Hynes
The artist is Blood Orange, and Blood Orange is the lo-fi, Prince-adoring project of aesthetic émigré Dev Hynes. But when you play "Chamakay," it's hard to say just whose voice you're hearing at first. Over deep percussion and marimba, a high-pitched line of mhms skate through. The pretty androgyny of the opening is "Chamakay" (and the album Cupid Deluxe) in miniature.
Hynes, a UK native turned New Yorker, the artist who wrote Solange Knowles' "Losing You" and Sky Ferreira's "Everything Is Embarrassing," steps in and out of gender and sexuality like those things were comfortable clothes. "I see you waiting for a girl like me to come along," he sings here, joined by Caroline Polachek of the synthpop duo Chairlift.
Polachek's voice runs up and down the scale like a saxophone while Hynes sings the verses in a breathy falsetto. (It could be Polachek vocalizing at the song's beginning. It could be Hynes. I don't want to know the right answer.) The bass does big, jarring things underneath the back-and-forth drama of the two voices. This is sexy, if you didn't already know.
In the video for "Chamakay," recorded in Georgetown, Guyana, where his mother is from, Hynes vogues in a black NYC cap and a soft looking gray shirt. Whatever "Chamakay" inspires you to do, just know that it's alright. —Ross Scarano
15. Ace Hood f/ Future & Rick Ross "Bugatti"
14. Eminem "Rap God"
13. Drake f/ Majid Jordan "Hold On, We're Going Home"
12. Rocko f/ Future & Rick Ross "U.O.E.N.O."
Album: Gift of Gab 2
Label: A1 Recordings/E1 Music
Producer: Childish Major
The controversy surrounding Rick Ross and the diminishing connection between rapey lyrics and tennis shoe sales could not eclipse how amazing this song is. The lazy, airy, extraterrestrial beat was perfect for rap's favorite spaceman, Future, to provide the hook, while Ross and Rocko play a lyrical game with the idea of your obliviousness—a perfect anchor to keep braggy lines interesting.
It was like 2013's answer to, the less-hype older brother of, "Same Damn Time." Except less about simultaneity and more about your awareness to such obvious matters of stunt. It's shocking to become so bluntly aware of certain facts that you were previously so blind to. Future dissolves into a ballad-like piano riff at the end, as if he's lamenting the fact that you hadn't the slightest inkling of the degree to which the song's trio were spending money on material objects and spending time with ladies who don't speak English. Shame on you. —Alexander Gleckman
11. Robin Thicke f/ T.I. & Pharrell Williams "Blurred Lines"
10. Big Sean f/ Kendrick Lamar & Jay Electronica "Control"
Producer: No I.D.
Originally known simply as the “No ID Freestyle,” the record that later became known as “Control” revitalized hip-hop’s competitive spirit in 2013 like no other record in recent memory. Although it never made Big Sean’s album (for obvious reasons) the song inspired more discussion, debate, and response records than any other record this year. (Check our archives if you missed anything.) If you need any additional proof that no good deed in rap goes unpunished, look no further than this track.
Where else to start but second, with Kendrick Lamar’s scene-stealing second verse, a.k.a. the “shot heard round the world.” More than a consummate vocal performance—showcasing Lamar’s utter mastery of rhymes and flows—it was a master chess move, solidifying K Dot’s spot at the top of hip-hop’s most-wanted list as he called out his putative competition with no hesitation or remorse, informing them all—including the very artist who was kind enough to invite him to spit this very verse—“I’m tryna murder you.” Gee, thanks!
In any other context Big Sean’s opening stanzas would be hailed as some of his best efforts, replete with intricate wordplay, vivid imagery, reflections on his tortured hometown, and just a touch of post–good kid m.A.A.d. city nostalgia. Sean’s lines read like they may have been revised after hearing what Kendrick turned in for his guest spot—because after all, who wouldn’t go back and punch up their rhymes in an attempt to avoid getting murdered on one’s own shit? The telltale section is the part where Sean says: "I'm one of the hottest because I flame drop/Drop fire, and not because I'm name dropping, Hall of Fame dropping/And I ain't takin' shit from nobody unless they're OG’s.”
Jay Elec’s closing verse has tended to fade into the background, although discerning ears like Rick Rubin’s have highlighted its lyrical richness. “I’m spittin’ this shit for closure,” the elusive MC reveals early out, adding poetic lines like “The eyelashes like umbrellas when it rains from the heart/And the tissue is like an angel kissing you in the dark.” Seeming utterly uninterested in stoking the flames of battle, Jay Electricity continues with his PBS mysteries, “tangling with Satan over history,” and dropping an “Alhamdulillah” to all fellow MCs. As one Complex commenter remarked, Jay Elec’s “an aesthetic in itself with lines of cognitive value.”
No matter which verse you prefer it’s hard to deny that “Control” will go down in history as a milestone in hip-hop, and easily ranks as one of 2013’s most important records. —Rob Kenner
9. Autre Ne Veut "Counting"
Label: Olde English Spelling Bee, Software Recording Co.
Producer: Autre Ne Veut
2013 was an incredibly exciting year for pop music. Yes, I realize someone somewhere probably says this every year, but 2013 presented a marked change in which we saw people over the age of 15 actually care about pop music and people below the dolphins-in-my-champagne-hot-tub tax bracket actually care about making it. As the Lordes and Lana Del Reys of the pop world continue to circle the Urban Outfitters clearance rack, more and more independent artists are traversing genre boundaries and realizing, hey, there's nothing wrong with music that just straight-up hits in you all the right spots.
Enter Brooklyn's Arthur Ashin, a.k.a. Autre Ne Veut, whose second album, Anxiety is a goliath of fervent, fiery pop hoisted to sustained climax by R&B, soul, and electronic reinforcements. "Counting," the first single, is a slick, slow-burn ballad that perches on dichotomy: a caressing synth track tempered with jarring, amelodic horn blasts—Ashin's guttingly vulnerable vocals juxtaposed against an almost playfully coy instrumental. This is pop music for smart people. Weird, I know. —Sasha Hecht
8. J. Cole f/ Miguel "Power Trip"
7. Daft Punk f/ Pharrell Williams "Get Lucky"
6. Rich Homie Quan "Type of Way"
5. Haim "The Wire"
4. Migos f/ Drake, Meek Mill, & Tyga "Versace"
Album: Young Rich Niggas
Label: CTE World, Def Jam
In a post-Memorial Day period devoid of any real rap anthems, Atlanta trio Migos formed an unlikely partnership with Drake for a remix of their quirky ode to high fashion, "Versace." The addition of the Toronto rapper took the song from the underground to the world stage, ingraining every facet of the culture with its infectious hook, from Facebook statuses to Twitter memes.
Drake stepped in and stole the show, appropriating the song's flow for a verse that breaks the fourth wall of stunting—predicting (inaccurately, as it turns out) that his then-upcoming Nothing Was the Same album would break a million in first-week sales and boasting that his backyard looks like Metropolis.
This isn't to sell short the contributions of the Migos guys themselves. They invented the flow, after all—as well as all those ad-libs that had partygoers reciting along all summer. ("Damn, I look good!") —Justin Davis
3. A$AP Ferg f/ A$AP Rocky "Shabba"
2. Drake "Started From The Bottom"
1. Kanye West "New Slaves"
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Producer: Ben Bronfman, Che Pope, Kanye West, Mike Dean, Noah Goldstein, Sham Joseph & Travis Scott
What was the most stunning musical moment of the year?
I will tell you: it was in May, when Kanye West performed two news songs on Saturday Night Live.
As soon as you saw the stage set—dark figures silluetted against a spotlight backdrop with political pop art slogans flashing—you knew this was something very different, very new. "Black Skinheads" was great, but it was the second song he played that leapt out as the instant classic. Those staccato stabs of sound, as much rhythm as melody, without any drums. Gothic, synth rock, but with Kanye’s rapping—all panting Panther anger and pain with a thick gold rope around his neck—translating it into something earthier and raw, something we recognize as hip-hop.
Remember the first time you heard Dre and Snoop’s “Deep Cover?” Those four bass notes? That’s what I thought of first. Paranoid defiance. But this was higher-minded, more ambitious, and aimed at a different audience. (I remembered Kanye's last SNL performance, the ballet.) Kanye is making something much less insular than Dre and Snoop were, trying to shock and impress everybody at the same time. I was impressed. (Needless to say.) And I felt like I got a glimpse of the future, and our place in it. Something about a naked body inside a machine, pushing at the walls.
Plenty of artists sold more records than Kanye West in 2013. No one did anything near to as artistically powerful. "New Slaves" is the best song of the year. And it's not even close. —Dave Bry