The Best Songs of 2013 (So Far)

Halfway through the year, we recount our favorite songs from Robin Thicke, Earl Sweatshirt, and many more.

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Complex Original

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Face it: It's been a lackluster year in music so far. This past month was great (thank you Yeezus!) But when you look back on it, there just weren't that many must-hear songs or albums these past six months. Though, that's really to be expected. Most years in music start off slow, heat up during the summer, and stay popping all the way into the Christmas season. Which is why even if there wasn't a lot of future classics on the airwaves, there was plenty of material worth hearing.

You had established starts like Drake and Kanye West keep pushing the envelope, guys like Wale and J. Cole keep banging out hits, and newcomers like Chance The Rapper impressing even the biggest skeptics of overnight blog-world fame. On the non-rap side, you had big pop hits from the likes of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke and indie jams from Vampire Weekend and Autre Ne Veut. Overall, it's a mixed bag of bangers. And remember this has just been the warm up. It's liable to be a hot Summer. 

These are The Best Songs of 2013 (So Far).

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50. Future f/ Lil Wayne "Karate Chop (Remix)"

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Album: Future Hendrix
Producer: Metro Boomin
Label: A1,Freebandz,Epic

Despite the unfortunate repercussions surrounding a certain offensive line that was added, then subtracted from "Karate Chop," the song survives as a testament to why Future stays changing music. Though his flow may have been reminiscent of Lil Reese's cutting lyric-darts, only the askronaut could dismantle the cosmic beat in a way that would have Carl Sagan chopping. Bricks. Like. Karate. He turned simple martial arts references into ad-lib gold, no Tae Bo hoe, though. —Alexander Gleckman

49. Chinx Drugz f/ Diddy, French Montana & Rick Ross "I'm a Coke Boy (Remix)"

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Album: Cocaine Riot 3
Producer: Harry Fraud
Label: N/A

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 "UOENO," 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 by the end of the song, the track needs a physician to repair what the Bad Boy squad did to it. —Alexander Gleckman

48. Rich Homie Quan "Type of Way"

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47. Problem f/ Bad Lucc "Like Whaaat"

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46. Young Jeezy f/ 2 Chainz "RIP"

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Album: It's Tha World
Producer: DJ Mustard
Label: CTE World,Def Jam

Young Jeezy's had a rough couple of years. In the wake of the massive success of "Lose Your Mind," he dealt with label drama that kept him off shelves for longer than he should have been, thanks in part to the tragic passing of his Def Jam supporter Shakir Stewart. When his record finally dropped, it made some noise, but was immediately overshadowed by the release of Rick Ross's Rich Forever the following month, which seemed to suck the oxygen out of every other major rapper that year. Although "I Do" with Andre 3000 gained some radio spins, it didn't seem like Jeezy really regained his footing until he jumped on DJ Mustard and YG's "R.I.P."

Released under Jeezy's name, the song gave Mustard's "Ratchet" scene a charismatic personality at its center, and put Jeezy back in the mix of a relevant movement. His gravelly vocals unexpectedly matched Mustard's bouncing production to a T. Thanks in part to the novelty of an Atlanta coke-rap hardhead gracing the latest West Coast dancefloor fad, the song flooded the streets. It also earned considerable club burn, becoming one of the year's most celebrated, catchy, and undeniable singles. —David Drake

45. Killer Mike & El-P "36" Chain"

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44. Doe B f/ T.I. & Juicy J "Let Me Find Out (Remix)"

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43. Prince "Screwdriver"

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Album: N/A
Producer: Prince
Label: Warner Bros,Paisley Park,NPG,EMI,Columbia,Arista

Prince is the best. I think we'd all agree. Like, really, seriously the best. Name a living musical artist with a catalogue that can match up. It's difficult. Bob Dylan? Aretha Franklin? Bruce Springsteen? We're talking upper echelon pantheon here. But when was the last time he released a song you wanted to listen to more than once? For me, you have to go back to 1995, and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Well, miracle upon miracle, it's happened again. His Purple Majesty put together an all-girl trio to back him this year, 3rd Eye Girl, and he's been playing slow, heavy, Hendrixian versions of his classics on tour. And this: a perfect little piece of punk pop. A little tossed-off sounding, maybe, sure. But enough to say, like Jay-Z does, "Just thought I'd remind y'all..." —Dave Bry

42. Phosphorescent "Song For Zula"

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Album: Muchacho
Producer: Matthew Houck
Label: Dead Oceans

For his album Muchacho, singer/songwriter Matthew Houck moved to a small town in Mexico to take a break from his life. One listen to "Song For Zula" and that story is very believable. It's the music of a man who's been doing a lot of thinking, and there's a calm wisdom that seeps through those damaged but not quite broken vocals. Avoiding the of-the-moment sounds that so often dominate popular indie music, Houck strikes a bittersweet chord with dramatic violin strings, rubbery bass, and a lush arrangement that makes "Song For Zula" one of the most powerful pieces of music of the year so far. —Jacob Moore

41. King L "Michael Jordan"

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Album: March Madness
Producer: Nez & Rio
Label: N/A

Given the only guest verse on Kanye West's Yeezus, King Louie's profile is likely to rise considerably. Unlike, say, Nicki's "Monster" verse from two years ago—which simultaneously explained her appeal while embodying an intensified version of it—Lou's verse on the record is brief and a bit subdued. "Michael Jordan" is similarly terse, and totally drugged out, but gives a better idea of the lyrical approach the rapper brings to the table.

Over an uneasy, almost nauseous beat built upon distorted crowd noises, Louie's nonchalant flow gives the appearance of being sluggish. But it actually packs deft lyrics about the brutality that underlines his otherwise humorous approach. It's this contradiction that gives his raps an unsettling feel: "Even though your bitch don't know me/She still gave me head, emoji." —David Drake

40. Joey Bada$$ f/ Chance the Rapper "Wendy-N-Becky"

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39. Rich Gang "Tap Out"

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Album: Rich Gang:Flashy Lifestyle
Producer: Southside, TM88,Detail
Label: Young Money,Cash Money,Republic

Young Money has so much money that they've nicknamed their posse cuts "Rich Gang." They have so much sex, and for so long, girls have to "tap out." (Sounds fun.) Whatever. Nicki Minaj raps about having a "million dollar pussy;" this isn't music that's meant to change the world. On the contrary. Between Weezy rapping about how "If you hatin' you just need some pussy" and Birdman claiming he's having sex everywhere under the sun (and not), the song is one big Young Money Cash Money supergroup posse cut about lavish sex. If anything, Nicki ending her verse with "Pussy jewelry make 'em say burr man/Rubs hands like Birdman" followed by the crucial Birdman outro of "Flossing while you're shining/Jumping out Bugattis" just shows how much fucking money Rich Gang has-and exactly what they're doing with it. —Lauren Nostro

38. A$AP Rocky f/ Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T. "1 Train"

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Album: Long.Live.A$AP
Producer: Hit-Boy
Label: ASAP Worldwide,Polo Grounds,RCA

Why should DJ Khaled get to have all the fun when it comes to posse cuts? When A$AP Rocky officially released his debut album, Long.Live.A$AP in January, listeners were treated to the dark sounds that A$AP specializes in creating, as well as a throwback to the days of the old group effort with "1 Train." A$AP assembled six of the most dynamic MCs in the game at the moment—Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, Yelawolf, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T.—and let each have their way with Hit-Boy's instrumental. "1 Train" is the antithesis to Khaled's star-studded, grandiose records, stripped down to just seven rappers attacking a plodding beat with the ferocity of artists on the come-up.

Due to the abundance of talent featured on the record, each rapper was forced to bring their A-game lyrically, and while they all delivered, it's the final verse—delivered by K.R.I.T.—that serves as an exclamation point. The biggest disappointment of "1 Train" is that after over six minutes, it has to come to an end. A large portion of A$AP Rocky's success can be credited to his ability to carve out his own sound, but he's still a Harlem dude, and "1 Train" captures the essence of a '90s-era New York cypher perfectly, despite the fact that fewer than half of the rappers featured on the song are from New York. —Julian Kimble

37. Rhye "The Fall"

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Album: Woman
Producer: Rhye
Label: Polydor

The arrival of Rhye was shrouded in secrecy, a trope that has become commonplace in the oversaturated Internet-meming music scene of the past few years. But this slouching R&B slow-pop act composed of Robin Hannibal and Mike Milosh insisted on the subterfuge, a move that led to one of the funniest mishaps of 2013: multiple critics mistook Hannibal's voice for that of a woman. Even in hindsight, his tender vulnerability and yearning croons reflect a side of love that isn't often associated with masculinity, but paired with the minimalistic piano, strings, and brassy trumpet yelps, Hannibal and Milosh make intimacy seem desirable and strong, regardless of gender.

Murky basslines and crisp high-hats build a strong backbone that contrasts with the sinuous vocal lines and dramatic string movements-this is a love song of majestic proportions. Yet, Rhye makes music personal enough to perform in a personal setting for a loved one, as Robin did with the duo's other loved-up single "Open" . Despite the simplicity and desire of that track, though, "The Fall" surpasses it in terms of finely-tuned technique-their second single manages to simultaneously beg and fulfill, chase and embrace-it's a fall for both sides of the love affair. —Caitlin White

36. Drake "The Motion"

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Album: Nothing Was The Same
Producer: Sampha & 40
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Republic

When Drake’s unleashed his flurry of new songs in the middle of the night over the weekend (because Drake hates letting bloggers get some sleep, obviously) most of the chatter was around the fact that he'd hopped on the remix of Migos’s “Versace.” Which makes sense since Drake hopping on a relatively unknown rap group’s remix was unexpected. But the strongest cut in the bunch was “The Motion.”

In many ways, it’s typical Drake: Woe is me because I’m famous and rappers only call me to make them hot and Rihanna doesn’t love me. We know, we know, it isn’t easy being Drake. Still, the song delivers on all fronts. “I just that’s just the motion” is another clever turn of phrase that can fit into any situation and Drake does more with less, dropping two 12 bar verses and calling it a day. Drake continues to mix rapping and singing more fluidly than ever before as his style continues to evolve into an interesting hybrid that isn’t quite rap or R&B, —but very effective all the same. —Insanul Ahmed

35. Kendrick Lamar f/ Jay-Z "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe (Remix)"

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Album: N/A
Producer: Sounwave
Label: Top Dawg,Aftermath,Interscope

Forget everything that comes after Kendrick Lamar's bare-boned declaration—"Y'all can keep the numbers/I'm more than another statistic, my nigga/This courtesy of Compton"—because the importance of this song (really, why it's on our list) lies not in the lyrical fortitude of either Lamar or Jay-Z, but in the song's deafening symbolism. The remix captures an important moment in rap history: when a student surpasses his teacher. Jay-Z and Lamar arise from similar hells—drug-ravaged 1980s Bed-Stuy and late-90s Compton, a metropolis defined by gang strife—so their pairing is a welcome listen. And by song's end you're wondering: Did Kendrick just outrap Jigga? (Yes, for those keeping score). Despite the original track, which appeared on Lamar's poetically haunting debut good kid, M.A.A.D. City, not needing a re-up, the song soars—Lamar hungry and biting, Jay-Z oozing steely cool. Every now and then a song is bigger than its parts. This is one of those songs. —Jason Parham

34. Big K.R.I.T. "Bigger Picture"

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Album: King Remembered in Time
Producer: Big K.R.I.T.
Label: Cinematic Music Group,Def Jam

Big K.R.I.T.'s ability to balance loud, southern fried trunk-rattlers about candy paint with introspective songs full of life lessons is why fans stand by him, even after the commercial disappointment of his major label debut, Live From the Underground. He's every bit as much "Crumblin' Erb" as he is "Pocket Full of Stones." After taking time off to diversify his sound, K.R.I.T. returned in April with King Remembered in Time, which included the masterpiece "Bigger Picture." The song, one of K.R.I.T.'s deepest and most intricate, compares a relationship to a work of art. While his companion complains about being neglected and only sees the value of their relationship on a small scale, K.R.I.T. looks at things on a macro level; he considers his relationship with his music just as important to their union as their connection to each other because it's the vehicle to a better life for the both of them.

"Bigger Picture" echoes the heart-breaking lesson that relationships often fail when people aren't on the same page, when one person lives their life in constant pursuit of a lofty goal, especially when that chase leaves their counterpart feeling alienated. Though K.R.I.T. acknowledges his missteps, he prays that the object of his affection understands and eventually accepts that she is what drives his quest for greatness. With laid-back production and references to several artists—Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, even Banksy—the song strikes a nerve with creative types who have lost love in pursuit of success, or anyone who's dated and struggled to maintain a relationship with someone chasing a dream. It also showcases K.R.I.T. experimenting musically, a sign of maturity that compliments the depth of his words. "Bigger Picture" is like a portrait, simultaneously beautiful and sad. —Julian Kimble


33. Lil Wayne f/ Drake & Future "Love Me"

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Album: I Am Not a Human Being II
Producer: Mike WiLL Made It,A+
Label: Young Money,Cash Money, Republic

Even before Lil Wayne skates through with his brash demeanor and unkempt dreads, "Love Me" is already a winning testimonial. Mike WiLL Made It's effortless backdrop sets the provocative scene, with a magnetic hook provided by Future and Drake creating a lasting moment that would rule the airwaves.

Then, with his signature drawl reverberating, it drops: "Pussy-ass niggas, stop hatin'." It's Wayne's world. He's seductively unapologetic, cursing his cynics while indulging in the sweet nectar of his flame for the evening. His words may border on crude and unusual ("All she eat is dick/She's on a strict diet"), but for four minutes we suspend our sensibilities when Weezy is at the pulpit, and the results don't disappoint. —Edwin Ortiz

32. TNGHT "Acrylics"

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Album: N/A
Producer: TNGHT
Label: Warp,LuckyMe

Hudson Mohawke and Lunice are each killing it solo, but together they're unstoppable. Before their Yeezus production credit, they released "Acrylics," which was somewhat of a departure from their more minimal, "rapper-ready" tracks from 2012. This track kicks off with a serious build-up, increasing the intensity with each rave-synth and eerie music box sample before the inevitable gut punch of bass. The kicks on this are otherworldly, and there aren't many tracks that hit you as hard as "Acrylics" does. Further proof that this duo is in a class by themselves. —Khris Davenport

31. French Montana "Ain't Worried About Nothin"

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Album: Excuse My French
Producer: E,Earl & Rico Love
Label: Coke Boys,Bad Boy Records,Maybach Music Group,Interscope

Looking for a legitimate summer anthem? Look no further. Some argued it was simply a sequel to Lil Wayne's awesome "No Worries," but French gets the nod when it comes to the best no-fucks-given jams. French's repetitive hook excels over superior production from Rico Love, Earl & E. Tough day at work? Ain't worried about nothing. Relationship problems? Ain't worried about nothing. The feel-good banger is not only a favorite of ours, but also was the victory song of choice for the Miami Heat when they won their second consecutive NBA title. Good choice, champs. —Joe La Puma

30. Miley Cyrus "We Can't Stop"

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Album: N/A
Producer: Mike WiLL Made It
Label: RCA Records

You've seen pictures of Miley Cyrus hanging out with your favorite rappers all year. And when news broke that she'd be releasing a new album, fans were anxious for her to shed that Hannah Montana Disney image once and for all. Umm... mission accomplished. With a beat from Mike WiLL Made It, "We Can't Stop" shows us wild, rebellious “New Miley” in all of her glory. The song is filled with enough stale cliches to make your skin crawl ("We all so turn’t up here/Getting turn’t up, yeah!") and the all the drug talk comes off as a little forced, but there’s no denying Mike WiLL and Miley made magic in the studio—these electro-pop vibes, with Miley's homage to Slick Rick's “La Di Da Di” will be stuck in your head all summer. —Lauren Nostro

29. Earl Sweatshirt f/ Tyler the Creator "Whoa"

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Album: Doris
Producer: Tyler, The Creator
Label: Tan Cressida,Columbia Records

For those who favor a certain style of rap—call it post-Eminem labyrinthine-internal-rhyme-gymnastics (I mean, just to simplify things)—there is no better lyricist on the planet than Odd Future's wonder-teen Earl Sweatshirt. Who else can write stuff like, "Spot him on a rocket swapping dollars in for pocket lint/Then lob a wad of chicken at a copper on some Flocka shit..." And rhyme it in a deadpan monotone over a big boom-bap beat while a rickety worm-synth wobbles over top? No one. "Whoa." —Dave Bry

28. Kelis "Jerk Ribs"

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27. Chance The Rapper "Juice"

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26. Lil Durk "Dis Ain't What U Want"

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Album: N/A
Producer: Paris Beuller
Label: OTF,Coke Boys Records,Def Jam

In a world increasingly devoted to commerce and the hard sell, it's refreshing to hear from someone who's not trying to get you to buy something. Jay-Z makes you get a certain phone to cop his album early? That's cool, but Lil Durk is here to tell you about some stuff you don't want: him, his city, his worldview, shit, pretty much everything. Which isn't to say the 20-year-old Chicagoan doesn't have anything to offer. His melodic flow sets him apart from the latest crop of Chi-Town MCs, and "Dis Ain't What U Want," his first foray since signing to Def Jam, finds him boasting with an ominous Autotune swagger that fits his city's zeitgeist. Here's hoping dude can stay clear of the law and offer more for us in the future. —Jack Erwin

25. The Weeknd "Kiss Land"

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24. Wale f/ Sam Dew "LoveHate Thing"

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23. Kid Cudi f/ Haim "Red Eye"

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Album: Indicud
Producer: Mescudi, Hit-Boy
Label: Wicked Awesome,GOOD,Republic

Kid Cudi is at his best when he's wearing his heart on his sleeve, and on his latest album, Indicud, "Red Eye," is the standout. Handling production and back-up vocals himself, the Cleveland wild child recruited indie-rock sisters act Haim to sing the sort of pained, introspective lyrics we've come to expect from him—a nice, perspective-changing twist. With no rap verse, the tension peaks around the 2:31 mark, when there's a breakdown in the beat, and twenty seconds later, Cudi bursts into song: "Things get crazy, and I feel l'm losing my mind baby." Not hip-hop, not rock, something right in between. Right where Cudi belongs. —Joe La Puma

22. Lana Del Rey "Young and Beautiful"

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Album: The Great Gatsby:Music from Baz Luhrmann's Film
Producer: Rick Nowels
Label: Walter Tower,Interscope

Without Lana Del Rey, The Great Gatsby soundtrack would have been missing the crucial track that embodied the entire theme that runs rampant throughout the movie. Lana's "Young and Beautiful" came right in time for summer—as did Born to Die and last year's "National Anthem." Most importantly, the Gatsby soundtrack needed a thematic, orchestral production backed by hauntingly beautiful vocals and songs about love, youth, and beauty. Thank god for Lana Del Rey. Unlike much of the anticipated tracks on the soundtrack, "Young and Beautiful" is not a cover, and yet it completely embodies the entire plot line of The Great Gatsby—the pursuit of the American Dream, beauty, and the recklessness of youth. —Lauren Nostro

21. Ciara "Body Party"

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Album: Ciara
Producer: Mike WiLL Made It
Label: Epic

Comeback songs are difficult. When Mariah Carey released "It's Like That" at the onset of 2005—a song so replete with up-tempo, radiant affirmations ("Cause it's my night, no stress, no fights, I'm leaving it all behind," Carey sings on the hook) that it's hard not to believe her—it signaled the return of a star who, by most accounts, had been counted out by the public. Carey, ever the diva-songbird, dubbed it her "emancipation." Listening to that song now, eight years later, she really does sound untroubled and unburdened—fearless, even.

In a number of ways, Ciara finds herself in a similar predicament. Atlanta's once reigning Princess of Crunk-n-B hasn't had a legitimate smash since 2006's "Promise." Which makes "Body Party" even more of a treat. Co-written with current boo-thang Future, the song is all oohs and ahhhs—flirtatious and sexy, woozy in all the right spots. At a tidy 3-minutes and 55-seconds, "Body Party" doesn't overstay its welcome; Ciara sounds light, airy, free. Mike Will Made It's flip of Ghost Town DJ's classic "My Boo" accentuates Ciara's forthright sexuality: "Your body's my party/Let's get it started." It's just that simple. She's emancipated. —Jason Parham

20. Charli XCX "Set Me Free (Feel My Pain)"

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Album: True Romance
Producer: Tikovoi,Rechtshaid
Label: IAMSOUND, Atlantic

Charli XCX manages to blend goth and pop in a way that isn't revolting—that in itself feels like a miracle. On "Set Me Free (Feel My Pain)" the British singer-songwriter marries traditional pop structures with wrenching, it's-the-end-of-the-world despondency. In this '80s pop-rock anthem Charli narrates a story almost everyone is familiar with: that one person who uses your blind attraction to them in a way that leads to heartbreak and tears. Love hurts. Pretty standard fare.

What distinguishes this song from the countless others before it is the gorgeous control Charli exerts over her vocal performance. She modulates the key words on the chorus, sliding up to the note in a subtly auto-tuned stretch that increases her power—it's the sound of the difficulty of ending a dysfunctional relationship. There's also a certain magic to songs that are inherently sad lyrically but still sound as though they could be party anthems, "Set Me Free" combines dissonant elements with an ease that makes the hair on your arms stand up. —Caitlin White

19. Robin Thicke f/ T.I. & Pharrell Williams "Blurred Lines"

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Album: Blurred Lines
Producer: Pharrell Williams
Label: Star Trak,Interscope

Despite the recent backlash "Blurred Lines" has received for being, "Kind of rapey." (Umm... It is. There's really no way of saying, "You know you want it" without coming off at least a little bit that.) But Robin Thicke's smash single is more playful than creepy. Channeling the free-spirited soul of Marvin Gaye's 1977 "Got to Give It Up" over Pharrell's bouncy production, Thicke is cheeky without being degenerate, masking his sophisticated white guy persona with a sumptuous approach to mate-mingling ("Okay, now he was close/Tried to domesticate you/But you're an animal/Baby, it's in your nature...")

Atlanta T.I. closes out the stylish romp with some vintage pimpin'—and it's no wonder why this record is topping the charts. We're not saying Robin Thicke stole Justin Timberlake's thunder with "Blurred Lines" (that's hard to do when The 20/20 Experience's opening-week sales of 968,000 is the benchmark for pop success in 2013), but we're thinking it's more than just coincidence that Thicke dropped this gem little more than a week after 20/20 came out. #TeamRobin or #TeamJustin-who you got? —Edwin Ortiz

18. Justin Timberlake "Mirrors"

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Album: The 20/20 Experience
Producer: Timbaland,Timberlake,Harmon
Label: RCA

Needless to say, Justin Timberlake's first album in seven years, The 20/20 Experience, was one of the most anticipated albums of the early part of the year. But despite the big band and the gazillion dollar video, and a guest spot by Jay-Z, its first single, "Suit & Tie," fell a little flat. (Jay's rap, just as GZA had predicted it would be twenty years ago, was "cleaner than a bar of soap.") So we waited for a while for the crucial comeback track. We got it in "Mirrors."

A full eight-minutes long, the shimmering ballad has remnants JT's early, teeny-bop years—multiple, exquisitely harmonized vocal tracks, a soaring chorus, and a love story for the ages: "I don't wanna lose you now," he sings, voice aching. "I'm looking right at the other half of me." There are remnants of N'Sync, and Timberlake's first album, Justified, with lush synth strings and producer Timberland's beatboxing, and a minute-long breakdown followed by a complete key change interlude that goes into a final three-minute vamp. "Mirrors" does everything a good comeback should: emphasize a veteran artist's growth while revisiting the musical strengths of his early career. —Lauren Nostro

17. Meek Mill "Levels"

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16. Kanye West f/ Charlie Wilson "Bound 2"

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Album: Yeezus
Producer: No I.D.
Label: Def Jam

Kanye West built anticipation for Yeezus by slowly allowing information about it to seep out, forcing fans to rely heavily on his website for facts. At the end of May, a slight alteration was made to the site—if you rolled your mouse over the album cover, you were treated to a snippet of a song driven by a triumphant soul sample. It proved very effective, leaving at least one fan very, very eager hear the full version. That song was "Bound 2."

Kanye took listeners on a bizarre, twisted ride with Yeezus, making them wait nine songs full of harsh, discordant music and ugly, painful lyrics before getting to back to a track that sounds more like his "classic" early material than anything else on the album. Anyone searching for the "old Kanye"—the cocky, happy-go-lucky wiseacre—could find traces of him in lines like "They ordered champagne but still look thirsty/Rock Forever 21 but just turned thirty."

Still, "Bound 2" has its share of misogyny and possessiveness, and there's plenty of malice in the humor. These are the jaded thoughts of a superstar, one who's overexposure to everything has left him unable to feel anything. Then, suddenly, Charlie Wilson appears out of nowhere, like he rode a lightning bolt from heaven down to earth, belting out notes with the powerful voice of Zeus himself. It's a brilliant way to end the album, and "Bound 2" stands as a love song—a dark, twisted fantasy of a love song, perhaps, but one that's beautiful in its own way. —Julian Kimble

15. James Blake "Retrograde"

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Album: Overgrown
Producer: Blake
Label: ATLAS,A&M,Polydor

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 album 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

14. Pusha T "Numbers on the Board"

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Album: My Name Is My Name
Producer: Don Cannon,Kanye West
Label: GOOD Music,Def Jam

Pusha T is at his best when he taps into the street aesthetic that made the Clipse one of hip-hop's all-time great duos. "Numbers On The Boards," fits the bill, Don Cannon's gutter-funk sounds like it might've come straight from 2006's Hell Hath No Fury, the bassline pulsating as metallic percussion clicks and clanks. Pusha's in a fighting mood these days, bragging about his coke-world cred and scolding fakers and pretenders to the throne. The song doesn't even have a proper hook, opting instead for flat refrain that hits like a blunt instrument: "Ballers/I put numbers on the boards." —Dharmic X

13. Action Bronson f/ LL Cool J & Lloyd Banks "Strictly 4 My Jeeps (Remix)"

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12. Rocko f/ Future & Rick Ross "U.O.E.N.O."

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Album: Gift Of Gab 2
Producer: Childish Major
Label: A1 Recordings,E1 Music

It's unfortunate "U.O.E.N.O." has become best-known for Rick Ross infamous date-rape lyrics. Because as nasty and offensive as those lyrics may be, the overall work is still a great, great song. The beat is slippery and subtle, doing more with less, always sounding on the verge of exploding, but it never does. Rocko's flow is cleaner than Tom Ford in tux and tails and Future's hook is another great one in his growing collection. "U.O.E.N.O." is already one of the most played-out phrases of the year, but don't let Rick Ross' stupid words ruin this song for you. —Insanul Ahmed

11. J. Cole f/ Nas "Let Nas Down (Remix)"

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Album: N/A
Producer: J. Cole, Nate Jones
Label: Roc Nation, Columbia

As hip-hop enters middle age (seriously, rap is in its 30s, it might as well pop an aspirin to make its blood thinner, hop in a warm bathtub, and run a razor blade along-not across-its veins and call it quits) one of the more delightful things we get to see is watching the torch get passed from a veteran to a younging. J. Cole really put it all on the line on "Let Nas Down" but Nasir was kind enough to return the favor by giving Cole the co-sign. When the original first came out, it was curious that Nas didn't comment right away.

But his thoughtful bars on the remix shed light on the mystery of why Nas kept Cole at a distance and his own shortcomings as a mentor, "It's hard for the great to tell somebody how to be great/Nigga I tried and niggas threw that shit right back in my face/They took my cosign, but they ain't let me EP their tapes." If Nas keeps rhyming like this, he'll remain an idol whose bars are unrivaled. —Insanul Ahmed

10. Drake "5AM In Toronto"

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9. Vampire Weekend "Diane Young"

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Album: Modern Vampires of the City
Producer: Ezra Koenig,Rostam Batmanglij
Label: XL Recordings

Most of Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the Cityalbum is made up of dulcet, mid-tempo indie-rock-something your best friends can two-step to in their boat shoes at a summer wedding. "Diane Young" isn't like that.

From the turbulent drums to the rockabilly squawk in Ezra Koenig's voice, basso sax, surfy guitar to technoey pitch-shifting effects, the band of preppy smarty-pantses gets wild and weird. Through the melodic haze, Koenig tells a classic cautionary tale full of clever wordplay. ("Irish and proud, baby, naturally/But you got the luck of a Kennedy...") This song is three minutes of musical excellence, and speaks to why Vampire Weekend is one of the best bands out right now. If "Diane Young" won't change your mind, baby, baby, baby... —Edwin Ortiz

8. ScHoolboy Q "Yay Yay"

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Album: Oxymoron
Producer: Boi-1da
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, Interscope Records

"Yay Yay" ought to be a bigger hit than it is. Lyricswise, it's in line with the material from last year's Habits & Contradictions album: ScHoolboy raps about moving Oxy and repping Figg Side. But he doubles down on another hallmark of his style: His twisted, off-kilter delivery. "Yay Yay" might be the best example yet of the South Central rapper using chaos to his advantage. It's like he pulls his voice back into himself, harnessing his energy, before unleashing it in erratic 12-bar bursts.

The best part isn't even the verses or the hook, but the bridge, when the treble percussion drops out and the song slows down into a swirling bass-heavy stew and things ought to get stagnant but the opposite happens, the tension builds as you anticipate ScHoolboy's trademark, "YAWK YAWK YAWK." Some of us who've been waving the ScHoolboy flag for a while now are surprised at the extent to which he'd been overshadowed by his Top Dawg Entertainment stablemate, Kendrick Lamar. But we're confident that the world will catch up and catch on. Like ScHoolboy says: "Ask a fiend, they will concur." —Insanul Ahmed

7. Lil Wayne f/ 2 Chainz "Rich as Fuck"

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Album: I Am Not a Human Being II
Producer: T-Minus,Nikhil
Label: Young Money,Cash Money, Republic

It's hard to escape the feeling that Lil Wayne has lost it. In his prime, five years ago, it seemed like could do absolutely anything he wanted in a studio, bring any idea that popped into his head to fruition the moment it came to him, spin a memorable couplet out any two words he pulled out of a hat, make magic out of thin air. Most of his recent work is a pale shadow of that glorious past. Yet, just when you were ready to count him out: "Rich As Fuck," a brilliant burst of light from a rapper seemingly out of fuel.

Here, we rediscover the Wayne we best loved: a controlled, patient Wayne, hopping in and out of flows, dropping witty prose, over T-Minus and Nikhil's killer funk loops. The beat alternates between a creeping, Pink Panther bass notes and the kind of noises what we assume space aliens make when they exert enough energy to perform telekinesis. 2 Chainz swoops in for the hook and seals the deal—another banger in the already impressive catalog of the once (and future?) king. —Insanul Ahmed

6. Autre Ne Veut "Counting"

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Album: Anxiety
Producer: Autre Ne Veut
Label: Software Records

Autre Ne Veut's "Counting" is loneliness in a nutshell. Spooky and sparse, the music moves slow as the atmosphere builds. Autre Ne Veut barely even sings-his whimpers make Weeknd's whispered croonings sound like opera by comparison. But the feeling is there: it sounds like an alcoholic staggering out of a bar, shielding himself from the sunlight after a night of binge drinking. "I'm counting on the idea that you'll stay alive." Jesus. (Shudders.)

Yet the most notable parts of the song are the misplaced sounds that first play at about the :40 and :50 second marks. The first is like a cross between the horns on "Jungle Boogie" and a door creaking open while the second is like a pig's snort mixed with someone hitting the wrong button on their keyboard by mistake. They return a few times throughout the song, sounding like production glitches left in there for the sake of weirdness. But the more you listen, the more their purpose becomes apparent: look past the imperfections and find the beauty buried in the hurt. —Insanul Ahmed

5. Ace Hood f/ Future & Rick Ross "Bugatti"

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Album: Trials & Tribulations
Producer: Mike WiLL Made It
Label: We the Best Music Group/Cash Money/Universal Republic

A few songs this year have milked similarly ominous, scything synthesizer atmosphere Mike Will cultivated on "Bugatti"—Travi$ Scott's "Upper Echelon" comes to mind. And Ace Hood's approach to rapping has an anonymous quality that fills a function without drawing much attention to itself ($50 to the first person who heard anyone quoting a line from this song's verses) or undercutting it (an undervalued skill). Rick Ross' guest verse is a solid showing for the rapper, who, despite a recent rough patch, still raps with unexpected intricacy.

But we all know at this point that the real star of the show is the hook. For a rapper who's gotten so much mileage tapping a vein of hip-hop melodicism, it's the single-tone urgency of his "Bugatti" hook that stands apart in his catalog. The hollered declarative manages to pack a bundle of emotions in seven words: confusion, terror, surprise, pride, desperation. One could write an entire story from those words: How did he get in a Bugatti? Why was he asleep What was the personal, moral, spiritual cost? Somehow, those seven words manage to transmit more emotion and narrative punch than entire verses from the rest of the song's cast. Thankfully, it's enough to make it one of the best songs of the year. —David Drake

4. J. Cole f/ Miguel "Power Trip"

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Album: Born Sinner
Producer: J.Cole
Label: Roc Nation, Columbia

While J. Cole fed his core supporters with the Truly Yours mixtape series, it was clear he needed a record with a broader appeal for the lead up to his second album, Born Sinner. He found it in "Power Trip."

A riveting sequel to The Warm Up's "Dreams," the song takes a blithesome flute loop from Hubert Laws' 1972 fusion nugget "No More" and converts it into a burning decree for his unbridled emotions. Cole, all fire-and-desire, hell bent on pursuing forbidden fruit, tells a captivating story of falling in too deep.

Sweetening the deal, Miguel (fresh off a Grammy win for "Adorn"), reignites the chemistry he and Cole found on 2010's "All I Want Is You." It's powerful stuff. —Edwin Ortiz

3. Daft Punk f/ Pharrell Williams "Get Lucky"

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Album: Random Access Memories
Producer: Daft Punk
Label: Daft Life,Columbia

Leave it Daft Punk to confound expectations. At a time when electronic dance music is at its peak in the American mainstream, one of the most popular dance acts in the world makes its first album in eight years and releases a lead single that has nothing to do with electronic dance music. Garage pioneer Todd Edwards once said the space-helmeted Frenchman brought "soul back to music." They certainly had some help in that regard this time around, as the legendary Nile Rodgers brought his Chic guitar work to this track, and Pharrell came correct in a young Michael Jackson impersonation. With so much of today's EDM thriving off of noise and lacking depth, it's important to have Daft Punk around to return things to margin, even if it's only for six minutes. —Khris Davenport

2. Kanye West "New Slaves"

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Album: Yeezus
Producer: Daft Punk,Travi$ Scott,Hudson Mohawke, Mike Dean, Kanye West
Label: Def Jam

Even when you strip it of everything-the projections, silhouetted Saturday Night Live stage set, the fact that it was the first new Kanye song of the new era, etc.- "New Slaves" is gorgeous. Kanye referred to his newfound aesthetic as "minimalist," but Yeezus did not turn out to be as quite as no frills as, say, its cover art might've led us to expect. You hear this song, though, and you understand what he was getting at. Just a few pulsing notes and a voice. That's all you need when Kanye cuts through the notes somewhere between vicious and conscious, allowing only silence as the response to his final rhetorical question. What could they even say now? Nothing that would be heard as loudly or clearly as this. —Alexander Gleckman

1. Drake "Started From The Bottom"

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Album: Nothing Was the Same
Producer: Mike Zombie,Noah "40" Shebib
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Republic

We always knew Drake was calculated. But we're beginning to suspect that he takes his plotting to levels we hadn't suspected. Like, that he writes his rhymes with social media in mind. Can't you picture him, typing the words "started from the bottom, now we're here" on his phone, a little light bulb appearing over his head as he thinks, "Hey, this would make a Facebook status next to some show-offy picture!" Quick, catchy, hashtag-ready phrases that can fit into a tweet or status: That's 21st-century-style writing. And Drake has mastered it. "Started from the bottom, now we're here." It works for so many situations. It's instantaneously personal and relatable whether you're an intern who finally got a job or you just won the NBA championship. In seven short words, Drake is able to sum up the common man's struggle without having to sacrifice his superstar appeal.

As far as the song, it's one of the most distinctive records of the year. Drake isn't quite rapping, but he isn't singing either. He's chanting, syllables choppy and terse. That's why Mike Zombie's drums are so crucial to the appeal of the song. Over the years, Drake and 40 have built a synthy soundscape based on Kanye's 808s, but most of their tunes were so gelatinous and subtle-Zombie's drums bring some much-needed bombast. Meanwhile, on the verses, in his lyrics, Drake takes control of his own narrative, retelling his story of struggle in a favorable light. As usual, he infuriates his haters, while feeding those of us who love him just what we want. Did Drake really start from the bottom? Who knows? Who cares? He's certainly on top right now. —Insanul Ahmed

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