The 25 Best Singles of 2013


Phosphorescent, “Song for Zula”

The idea to write a breakup song riffing on Bette Midler’s piano ballad “The Rose” could have resulted in a lame bit of ironic self-indulgence, yet Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula” updates the former song’s plaintive melody and metaphor-upon-metaphor structure to produce a far bleaker, even sinister rumination on how love sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Unfolding gradually inside an echo chamber of fiddle arpeggios and drum-n’-bass loops, the song asserts that love is not “a burning thing,” but rather a cage that entraps and displays the lover to be mocked by passersby. Matthew Houck’s tortured yet measured delivery remains tightly coiled for most of the song, imbuing lines like “I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free” with spine-tingling iciness. “Song for Zula” is many things at once: vulnerable and aggressive, individuated and universal—a song about heartbreak that transcends the details of any one relationship. Galvin


Kanye West, “Black Skinhead”

The career-long nervous breakdown for the strangest superstar on Earth continues with this paranoid glam-hop version of “Power,” slinking along like a toe-tapping, finger-snapping cocaine psychosis. Whether narcotics were actually a hands-on collaborator is a matter of conjecture better suited to finger-wagging potentates with better lawyers than ours, but based on the evidence here, Mr. West might want to check his iPod in for an extended stay at Promises. “Black Skinhead” exists in a seamy alternate universe where Bret Eason Ellis, Gary Glitter, and Nine Inch Nails are still the vanguard of cool. It’s big, bombastic, and more than a little ridiculous. It’s also the most defiant, willfully perverse and awe-inducing three minutes to gatecrash the Billboard charts this year. Blue Sullivan


Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”

Vampire Weekend has never delivered a shot of pure adrenaline like “Diane Young” before, nothing so precision-engineered to drag listeners out of their seats and onto the dance floor, nothing quite so likely to inspire spontaneous bouts of Lindy Hopping. Like Buddy Holly stretched in one of Willy Wonka’s machines, Ezra Koenig squeals and yelps and croons with thrilling elasticity, while Rostam Batmanglij funnels a rockabilly hoedown through Auto-Tune to exhilarating effect. Few songs in 2013 have made me want to go out and torch a Saab like a pile of leaves as much as this one. Collett


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Sacrilege”

In the first verse of “Sacrilege,” Karen O invites an angel into her bed, halo and all, and thus begins a torrid four minutes of a maenadic performance that oscillates between the sacred and profane. Guitarist Nick Zinner makes like a funkier version of the Edge, while the singer herself alternates between Shirley Manson-style sultriness and gutsy, overdriven yawps of despair that feel sampled from 2003’s Fever to Tell. From the slinky intro, sporadic guitar stabs indicate darkness on the horizon, and the song morphs from a ballad to an anthem of sex-as-death-and-resurrection, complete with the chilling vibrato of a choir arrangement on loan from Carl Orff. And we thought “Jesus Walks” was spooky. Scheinman


Lorde, “Royals”

Given its somewhat condescending stance toward the industry that Lorde is currently in the process of conquering, “Royals” manages to avoid holier-than-thou snootiness because of its playful lyrical twists and understated yet infectious two-step, bass-heavy, finger-snapping beat. Although the song asserts that Lorde’s posse remains immune to the seductions of “diamonds in the flesh” and the license to trash hotel rooms, the singer also confesses her desire to “rule” and “live that fantasy” in her own way. She channels the similarly disaffected Lana Del Rey in her straightforward, sanguine delivery, and the four-part harmonic layering over the clause “I’ll rule” suggests that Lorde is equally well-versed in both retro girl groups and self-deprecating satirists. “Royals” exudes a youthful sense of defiance as well as the wisdom of an old soul, hovering suggestively between the poles of innocence and experience that Lorde is just beginning to navigate. Galvin