NPR Music's 100 Favorite Songs Of 2013
What do you have to do, as a song, to win our hearts? You have to sink in. You have to stop someone dead in her tracks. You need to cause that man to act a fool. Scrunch a nose, tense a shoulder, drop an ass.
We compile our 100 Favorite Songs much like we do the work on our 50 Favorite Albums list, but the job done by a three-minute slow jam — or, say, a bracing piece for solo flute — is not the same as two sides of an LP or even a tightly curated collection of stories. A song's function, when we hear it apart from its siblings (which is almost always, given shuffle, mixes, all the streaming services, DJs and commercials), is to snatch you, drag you around for a few moments and then get out. So when we considered what songs mattered to us this year, we asked which ones achieve the most in the brief space our technology has allotted them. Which ones take an idea and express it fully. Which notice a sore spot in our recent history and twist the knife just so. Which are stamped with memories or reliably turn the temperature up or put a smile on our face every single time.
These are the songs that stood out. Quick hits of bliss, frustration, triumph, regret, you name it. All in together now.
The 1975, "Chocolate"
A lushness approaching decadence, a nonsensical hook, a free pass to bust out your silliest bloke voice, all engineered to let you know that — at least in this moment — you are master of your domain.
2 Chainz, "Feds Watching"
A dry, tasteful romp twists Pharrell's croon and a guitar wail into hollow tones and itchy 808s, which makes 2 Chainz's preposterous-sounding claims just plausible enough.
A$AP Ferg feat. A$AP Rocky, "Shabba"
The song that (usually accompanied by its fraternal twin) lit up faces and dropped elbows everywhere with a nod to a legend, comic-book-scale bass and impolite suggestions for days.
Alice Smith, "Shot"
A retro-groovy retelling of Romeo and Juliet for the OKCupid generation.
Anna von Hausswolff, "Funeral For My Future Children"
The song's title is brutal. But the Swedish singer renders "Funeral for My Future Children" as mournfully majestic as can be, with the unlikely accompaniment of a gigantic pipe organ.
Aoife O'Donovan, "Red & White & Blue & Gold"
This seductive song by a bluegrass star turned country chanteuse sinks into the skin like 5 o'clock summer sunlight.
Arctic Monkeys, "Do I Wanna Know?"
The dark side of romantic obsession is expressed through the snarl in Alex Turner's croon and a guitar riff pulled from some corner of Roy Orbison's closet.
Ariana Grande, "Honeymoon Avenue"
When you're 20, romantic regret is an exquisite experiment in longing, and this song by 2013's most promising ingenue, co-produced by Babyface, gets to its bittersweet-chocolate heart.
Ashley Monroe, "Used"
Dolly Parton's heir apparent shows her knack for both wordplay and clearheaded realism in this mournful yet hopeful gem.
Ballake Sissoko, "Maimouna"
The Malian kora player takes up a simply stated, brief melody as the basic thread with which to weave delicate, spellbinding magic.
Beck's third and final single of the year was his most curious and arresting — a wobbly oddball of a song with heavily processed vocals and xylophone beats.
"Sparkle" creates a sweet, playful, even childlike mood with a combination of glockenspiel and piano — but then opens up into a more contemplative and even bittersweet meditation. Beguiling.
The Blow, "Make It Up"
Aided by an irrepressible synth bounce, the fascinating Khaela Maricich reminds us there's no right way to be in love — and that that is both the most exciting and terrifying thing about it.
Boards of Canada, "Cold Earth"
Forlorn synth pads set a chilly mood for this drifting number, and bruising drums shape it. Like so many of Boards of Canada's best songs, the vibe evaporates almost as soon as it's set, leaving listeners pining for more of that fleeting beauty.
Bells on bells on bells that unfold over a resonant sub-bass and kaleidoscopic percussion, "Cirrus" is a treasure box of jangles.
Bosnian Rainbows, "Torn Maps"
Who says guitar-based rock is dead? Well, a lot of people. But Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Teri Gender Bender are the loud, crunchy exception.
Bunji Garlin, "Differentology"
Yes, this Carnival breakdown celebrates going to "24 parties in a row," but its complex construction and electronic elements prove that Garlin is serious about taking soca forward.
Caitlin Rose, "Only a Clown"
With its gently psychedelic guitar lines and bubbly harmonies, this thrift-store dress of a song shows how music revives both people and parties, with a melancholy twist that's like the moment the needle hits the end of the grooves.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, "You Bring Out the Savage in Me"
America's racist past is rendered by a breakout voice so intuitively flexible, you think "exquisite" before "gallows humor" and "re-appropriation."
Chelsea Wolfe, "The Warden"
A pitch-black clubber for the kids who pretend they like don't like to dance (but totally do).
Christian Gerhaher, Mahler: "Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen" (from Rückert-Lieder)
Few composers have conveyed the extremes of power and intimacy as convincingly as Gustav Mahler. Baritone Christian Gerhaher sings this song about solitude lightly, like an angel whispering a necessary message of cosmic solace.
Chucho Valdés, "Tabú"
Lay back in the cut for the first two-thirds, with Branford Marsalis' serenade. Then, experience the grand unification theory of jazz and Afro-Cuban drums.
Chvrches had a huge 2013, crafting one of the year's best-loved debuts on the strength of ludicrously catchy synth-pop anthems like "Recover."
Ciara, "Body Party"
The long-awaited, woman-powered R&B response to John Mayer's unfortunate "Your Body Is a Wonderland."
Claire Chase, Edgar Varèse: Density 21.5
An elegant, hypnotic reading of a landmark modernist solo piece composed for a platinum flute, from a player — and MacArthur Fellow — best known for her sterling work as head of the International Contemporary Ensemble.
Courtney Barnett, "Avant Gardener"
Laconic, funny and charming, the Melbourne singer's breakthrough jam tells a tale of anaphylactic shock. Along the way, she takes us on a hypnotically engrossing journey.
Daft Punk, "Get Lucky"
Tough competition this year, but this was the best in-the-car singalong for the whole family. Also, Nile Rodgers. Plus, also, too — Pharrell.
Daniel Wohl, "Corpus"
Aided by Julia Holter's vaporous vocalise, "Corpus" floats in crepuscular world where electronic and acoustic instruments dwell in fearless equilibrium.
Danny Brown, "Dip"
Detroit's wild boy samples Freak Nasty's "Da Dip" and takes drugged-out partying to heights that would befuddle your wildest frat boy.
The words to "Youth" could pass for mere miserablism, but the London band injects them all with haunting grace — aided by a propulsive arrangement that hits like a punch to the solar plexus.
David Bowie, "Where Are We Now?"
Like a zen koan or a late-period William Butler Yeats poem, this slow walk on Berlin streets confronts death with the peaceful fatalism of one who fully grasps impermanence.
Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge, "White Noise"
Sparks fly in this pugnaciously catchy collaboration between two of British dance music's hookiest purveyors.
Drake, "Hold On We're Going Home"
The lend-your-own-meaning ambiguity (deliberate, surely) of its titular plea assures that you'll hear this at closing time for years — to say nothing of the down-tempo soft-focus haze.
Earl Sweatshirt, "Chum"
So personal you feel bad for eavesdropping, it's the song of somebody displaced and unmoored — leaning on a short loop, an underground rattle and a patient tone.
FKA Twigs, "Water Me"
Londoner FKA Twigs dropped this woozy-and-weird track in late summer, mixing robotic vocals with surreal ambient tones and glitchy beats for one of the year's most transfixing electro-pop songs.
Foxygen, "San Francisco"
Foxygen's sweetly funny debut generated a bunch of wryly wonderful '60s-style throwbacks. "San Francisco" proved most easy-going — and enduring — of all.
The Front Bottoms, "Twin Size Mattress"
The band specializes in knottily playful anthems, but this one explodes with poignancy that only adds to its shout-along power.
F-- Buttons, "The Red Wing"
Heavy electronica for the rockers at the rave.
Gary Allan, "It Ain't The Whiskey"
The most potent male voice in mainstream country shares an existential tale of how brokenheartedness leads to binge behavior.
Glenn Jones, "My Garden State"
The fingerstyle guitarist puts his main instrument aside for a simple 5-string banjo melody that turns around in your mind.
Grey Reverend, "My Hands"
As Grey Reverend, L.D. Brown magnifies tiny moments, drawing out their unspoken drama. It's one thing to tell someone you like them; it's another to say, "No one likes you quite the way I do."
Hilary Hahn, Somei Satoh: Bifu
The resourceful violinist solicited new encores from 26 composers. From Japan's Somei Satoh, "Bifu" empowers Hahn to luxuriate over long, wispy lines of melody.
Holly Williams, "Giving Up"
Most hard-living honky-tonk characters have been men, but this song captures the pain of addiction from a woman's perspective: the one caught in the snare, and another one who loves and grieves for her.
Irene Diaz, "I Love You Madly"
Torch singer, ballad belter, mariachi cantadora: Irene Diaz has one of those voices that touches the pathos we all carry in us.
J. Cole feat. Miguel, "Power Trip"
Miguel's bittersweet croon sands down the rough edges of J. Cole's tour through his bruised memories and stalker fantasies.
Jagwar Ma, "Uncertainty"
There's a new generation of 24-hour party people, and this Australian baggy-beats duo is leading the pack with dance-rock ravers like this one.
Jaheim, "Age Ain't a Factor"
The R&B loveman pulls out every hilarious metaphor possible (Benjamin Button! Berries on the vine! "No, cougar, you're still a kitten!") in this actually heartfelt tribute to grown women.
Jaimeo Brown, "Power of God"
A rising tide of sampled spiritual sound collage, with gentle percussive commentary; an ebb tide of peaceful piano.
James Blake, "Retrograde"
One of the year's sexiest, most beautifully rendered come-ons, "Retrograde" is all sleekness and mystery, propelled by an elastic vocal that soars to the stars.
Jay Z, "Picasso Baby"
It's not so much the lyrics — we get it, Jay Z is our living legend, the Michelangelo of hip-hop. It's the way Timbaland samples Adrian Younge's "Sirens" and gives this beat life so that it feels like an art exhibit risen.
John Grant, "GMF"
A funny, biting electropop slice of self-loathing from a masterful singer-songwriter. It's also a document of the waning days of same-sex love being "still a crime."
Josh Ritter, "Joy To You, Baby"
A breakup song without bitterness, "Joy To You, Baby" winds up rooting for everyone involved — a level of closure most songs don't bother to seek, let alone find.
In which the nomadic, wall-of-amps sludge-metal duo pounds the dancefloor for a hot minute and then leaves a bloody mess.
Justin Timberlake, "Pusher Love Girl"
Everything good about JT is in this song: sexiness, easy confidence, clever twists, suavity, respect for pop history, plain old chops.
Kyle Hall a.k.a. KMFH, "Crushed"
A deftly flipped R&B sample, sizzling hi-hats and heavy filtering hold this groove right where it needs to be.
Lemuria, "Brilliant Dancer"
"Brilliant Dancer" is all glorious contradiction: half walking shuffle, half pummeling pop assault, guided by a drummer with a sense of melody and a singer who sounds at once focused and casual.
Linda Thompson, "Love's for Babies and Fools"
Nearly 40 years after her breakthrough with then-husband Richard, the English folksinger casts a jaundiced eye on love in a song that's as delicately beautiful as it is bracingly bitter.
Lorde, "Tennis Court"
Self-portrait of the artist as a young striver and self-questioner, with a popcorn beat and a sliver of doubt piercing its electronic heart.
Machel Montano, "The Fog"
Listen to this Trinidadian jam every morning while brushing your teeth, and we guarantee your hips will be looser in 40 days.
Mala Rodriguez, "33"
La Mala is redefining the role of the Spanish-language female MC — alternatively fierce and coquettish, with a flow that captivates.
Meridian Brothers, "Coplas Para Cantar Al Atardecer"
Who would expect such fascinating experimental music in a country so full of tradition? Colombia stakes its claim.
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Sibelius: Symphony No. 4. IV. Allegro
The Minnesota Orchestra is on a long, messy hiatus while all parties figure out how to get back to work. Here's an example of why this group matters beyond the Twin Cities: exceptionally vivid ensemble and solo playing in music by one of the greatest Scandinavian composers.
My Bloody Valentine, "In Another Way"
If your band stopped making records 10, 15 or 20 years ago, 2013 was your year to return. After 22 years, My Bloody Valentine pulled off the most unlikely of all reunions — and perhaps the most satisfying return to recording.
The National, "Don't Swallow The Cap"
From another satisfying set of hooky mope-rock jams, The National's Matt Berninger explores his demons with uncommon depth and a set of sneaky hooks.
The Necks, "Open"
So what if we put a 68-minute track that reaches deep into the galaxy's soul on our 100 Favorite Songs list?
Neko Case, "Man"
This brash, gender-bending thriller benefits from its guests — including M. Ward, who shreds on guitar — but "Man" finds Case dominating in every sense of the word.
Night Beds, "Even If We Try"
Winston Yellen conjures the soaring grace of an unusually gifted choirboy in this angelic, breathtaking ballad.
North Mississippi All Stars, "Turn Up Satan"
Want to understand the power of a killer blues-guitar strut? Here's a prime example, cold as steel and steamy as August in the South.
Omar Souleyman, "Warni Warni"
All glory to keyboardist Rizan Sa'id, with his outrageously inventive keyboard lines. Whether or not you can get down in a Syrian dabke dance, you won't be able to sit still.
Parquet Courts, "Stoned and Starving"
Kudos to these kids for recognizing that the motorik rhythm is the quintessential soundtrack for the munchies.
Patty Griffin, "Ohio"
Griffin fills American Kid with rich tales of adulthood's challenges. But the slow-burning "Ohio" is particularly powerful, as it explores the stories of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Pelican, "Deny the Absolute"
The instrumental rocker's got riffs like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Phosphorescent, "Song for Zula"
A sprawling, ambitious stunner — a slow ramble that conjures hope, despair and many points in between.
Piñata Protest, "Volver Volver"
A cantina sing-along, "Volver, Volver" transforms a wildly familiar corrido into a punk lament of lost love.
Pinkish Black, "Razed to the Ground"
One of the heaviest and most ominous tracks of 2013 is all synth and drums. No guitar, just a dive-bombing ping.
Prodigy & Alchemist, "Breeze"
Legato exemplified, "Breeze" cocoons Prodigy's smooth bass in a Hungarian groove, disturbed only by the image of Timbs worn without socks.
Pusha T, "Numbers on the Boards"
Neck-snapper of the year — an insistent frequency that takes a break only when Pusha's two-tone gravelly instrument allows it and a couple of Jay lifts to anchor the dystopian atmosphere to our storied past.
Rapsody feat. Chance the Rapper and Big K.R.I.T., "Lonely Thoughts"
Sounds like a cozy night in front of the fireplace while Rapsody smoothly voices a fitful stream of consciousness, then invites Chance and K.R.I.T. to take a seat next to her.
The duo's gorgeous debut is full of formidable attempts at seduction: odes to intimacy that convey both longing and kindness. This track sums up Rhye's central plea in two words: "Stay open."
Rich Homie Quan, "Type of Way"
This charmingly insidious club banger lets you laugh into your hand while your haters get their knickers in a twist. Smooth operator, indeed.
Robin Thicke, "Blurred Lines"
"Blurred Lines" spent the summer soaking all of America in its Drakkar Noir-drenched musk. Most of us learned to resist it eventually, but it sure took a while.
Rokia Traore, "Mélancolie"
This gorgeous song (and video) from the honey-voiced Malian singer proves that the blues transcends national borders: "Melancholy, faithful companion of my solitude ... dance with me."
Royal Highness, "Fiesta Colombiana"
This duo creates musical wrinkles in time that would make physicists envious. In their hands, cumbias chase their tails in an endless dance.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, "Waiting Is Forbidden"
A Bollywood car chase from the funky '70s? A midnight knife fight in the sci-fi future? Or just sax and guitar shredding, done right?
RVIVR, "Paper Thin"
A rare ballad from a band bent on complicating the meaning of pop-punk, with an existential pitch: Let's make the most of the bodies we have, however flawed and delicate.
Sam Amidon, "My Old Friend"
A goodbye delivered with such wry grace and simplicity, you might not realize the original hit was by megaplatinum country singer Tim McGraw.
Sarah Cahill, "Be Kind to One Another" (Terry Riley)
It's easy to mistake this for an early 20th-century piano rag. Instead, it's a languid, easygoing new Terry Riley piece which pianist Cahill commissioned as part of a group of political works responding to the Iraq War.
Son Lux, "Easy"
Beat genius Ryan Lott sinks his hooks in with the startling, spare bass saxophone lines that drag just behind the melody. Brilliantly infectious and disorienting.
This song about distant fathers is huge in Europe, with more than 84 million YouTube views for its exquisitely designed and danced video — as well as driving electronics, highlife guitar and Stromae's fiercely musical delivery.
Suede, "For The Strangers"
Power. Ballad. Raise your cell phones in the air.
The-Dream, "Too Early"
Playing Gary Clark Jr.'s expressive guitar lines against The-Dream's electronically manipulated vocals, this tale of love squandered takes the blues into the future.
Thundercat, "Oh Sheit, It's X!"
This cut is so sweaty, even your Aunt Phyllis got down at the family picnic.
Timo Andres, Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno
A gentle gondola ride through five lovely Eno songs, Paraphrase is a clever, lovingly orchestrated homage in the time-honored spirit of Franz Liszt.
Todd Terje, "Strandbar (Samba Version)"
It opens with a nimble percussion section before dropping into piano stabs that can cut holes into dancing shoes. Just enough strange quirks in the mix to make nine minutes fly by.
Tom Harrell, "Nite Life"
Disco ostinato with wordless Esperanza Spalding, burning in 2/4, double double bass. The sort of set-closer which provokes encores.
Typhoon, "Young Fathers"
Kyle Morton uses Typhoon's joyful, clamoring, folk-orchestral sound as a Trojan horse for a powerful rumination on life, death and lost childhood.
White Mandingos, "My First White Girl"
One of the most insightful descriptions in pop of how racism works on an intimate level, and how bodies try to overcome it.
William Tyler, "Country of Illusion"
The Nashville guitarist has a way getting a melody stuck in your head for days, especially when it's a circular storm brewing.
Willis Earl Beal, "Coming Through"
Beal sheds his lo-fi past for a Technicolor foray into smart soul, aided by a cooing Cat Power. "Coming Through" sounds like a coming-out party — a well-earned victory lap for a man who's seen life's underbelly firsthand.
Yo La Tengo, "Ohm"
A band that's long since proven everything it needed to prove, Yo La Tengo gives "Ohm" seven minutes to unfurl its wise, world-weary charm.