Last year’s biggest hits heralded the return of good times unto perpetuity, eternal youth and the enduring pleasure of receiving your first phone call from the set of washboard abs next door. Perhaps taking a cue from Britney Spears’s prescriptive “Till the World Ends,” maybe just drunk on borrowed time, 2013’s biggest singles took the pleasure principle to reckless new, solipsistic heights. It was the sort of year when the real-life counterpart to Mike Seaver could slick his thick hair up and let the devil horns sprout, betting the farm that nothing unlocks a good girl faster than “agreeing” with her with a wink in your eye that lets you both know you’re lying. It was the sort of year when Justin Timberlake could spend minutes on end publicly looking at himself in a mirror and MTV would respond by inviting him to self-coronate for…well, we’ll let you know when he finishes. It was the sort of year where the freshly legal daughter of a well-worn mullet could feed herself to the lions and nary a soul would be willing to rescue her (we all know at whom she’s really sticking that tongue out), leaving her no choice but to straddle a cultural wrecking ball herself.
Not every artist was fiddling away like Nero or crashing their cars into a bridge and loving it in 2013, but only in the context of a severely degraded business model could a secondhand flow as janky as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s proudly threadbare “Thrift Shop” not just reach an audience, but legitimately speak to them. Dance apocalyptic, indeed. Still, the year’s best tracks invariably stared down the lies of the moment and opted instead for sincerity and honesty. And the truth often hurts. Rhye’s “The Fall” sonically embraced the listener even as its lyrics suggested a romance about to fall apart. Kendrick Lamar ruthlessly prioritized his vibe. And the Pet Shop Boys absolved themselves of the fantasy altogether in “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct.” This embittered sincerity gave listeners a whole new set of hashtags to test out in the hope that, next year, everybody will be dancing and be doin’ it right. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: Listen to the full playlist at The House Next Door.
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Much of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and its sequel failed to materially push the singer-actor’s sound forward, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge current pop trends or admit that any time at all had passed since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. Thus, the project’s second single, “Mirrors,” comes on like an old friend, with the familiar mix of beatboxing, synthesized handclaps, string stabs, and durable melodies we’ve come to expect from JT and partner-in-crime Timbaland. If you’re going to stick to formula, you’d better own it, and the eight-minute “Mirrors,” which will likely emerge as the sole enduring hit from the project, succeeds wildly as a reminder of the magic these two maestros can make with just a little smoke and mirrors. Sal Cinquemani
FKA twigs, “Water Me”
By far the strongest offering on the solid but relatively unheralded EP2, “Water Me” is a throbbing trip-hop ballad that borrows subtlety from FKA twigs’s British peers. The track’s bird-like melodies and queasy synths are themselves hat-tips to neo-soul minimalists like the xx and Mount Kimbie, while the fitful percussion that bubbles up below them is just foreboding enough to have been crafted by Aphex Twin. But it’s the singer’s balance of the seductive and the combative that lingers above all else. “I promise I can grow tall, when making love is free,” is her answer to a would-be lover’s rebuke, imbuing the track with a playful sense of tragedy. Kevin Liedel
The National, “Demons”
The National’s Matt Berninger curates conspiracy like a stalker on “Demons,” the second single from the band’s Trouble Will Find Me: “I am secretly in love with/Everyone that I grew up with” Amid such oblique angst, and drowning friends, sewer alligators, and patient buzzards, Berninger’s confession that “I stayed down with my demons” is almost comforting, a self-aware nod to the band’s reputation as sad-sack rockers. Driven by Bryan Devendorf’s drums rolling in 7/8 time, the midtempo track refuses any cathartic climax, but Aaron and Bryce Dessner play their shimmering guitars with such spare grace that Berninger’s deep baritone sounds, finally, lifted. Caleb Caldwell
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Mermaids”
Nick Cave has mellowed with age, the strident menace of his younger days settling into a relaxed, weird-uncle sedateness, but there’s always the threat of it flaring up again, exhibiting the sort of snarl put forth on his recent Grinderman project. That tension informs all of the songs on Push the Sky Away, giving ostensibly solemn music ominous bite. A dreamy, glittering track with a wistful mythological bent, “Mermaids” is the kind of material that Kate Bush might have once recorded, aside from the inclusion of a few choice, nasty lines. Cave uses it as an occasion to craft a melancholic tale of loss that’s made even deeper by the weariness of his voice, ocean-tide imagery invoking the exhausting, incessant changes of life. Jesse Cataldo
Neko Case, “Man”
Neko Case stomps all over “dipshits drunk on pink perfume” on “Man,” a loud, squalling alt-country rocker. Over rattling snare, delightful honky-tonk harpsichord, and periodic bursts of distorted power chords, Case brings her ferocious pipes to bear on reductive gender norms, sardonically donning the pants only to kick some serious butt, whether it be that of a misogynist boyfriend or a pandering pop star. M. Ward matches her attitude with three gnarled guitar solos, resulting in a kind of call-and-response to Case’s provocatively delivered verses. It’s all a lot of fun, but she’s also dead-serious: “You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you” That’s gonna leave a mark. Caldwell