20. John Grant – “Pale Green Ghosts” [Bella Union]
John Grant’s expression is absolutely grave. On the cover of Pale Green Ghosts, he sits in a restaurant booth, spoon poised over a coffee in one hand, a book held open in the other. Gestures of a gentleman patiently biding his time—or so it would seem, except for the fucking serious glare on his face. This is a portrait of controlled rage. The title track that unwraps the album is an entrée into this treatise on pain and suffering, the songs of Pale Green Ghosts a reaction to a break-up-turned-cataclysm. He’s driving on a Colorado highway, the “pale green ghosts” being the evergreens that line his periphery. This forest is dark, and so is he.
At first, it’s close and minimalist, low pulses against castanet chatter. Staticky zaps intensify the electronic feel, juxtaposing with the warmth of Grant’s patrician baritone. Even just this would make a great song. But then a horn line startles the composition, slicing in from behind the trees. The song swells as a cluster of strings cycle in, baptizing this drama with both refinement and nausea. As the strings descend in intensifying smears, they orchestrate the sound of sickening realizations. The chilly grandiosity of “Pale Green Ghosts” illustrates that delicate moment when suspicion and regret become hallucinatory. – Stacey Pavlick
19. Disclosure – “White Noise” [Island Records]
Released as a single in February, “White Noise” was energizing indie-crossover dance floors for four months before it was subsequently released on Disclosure’s debut Grammy-nominated LP, Settle. During an era when club tracks have shorter shelf lives than the reformatted Twinkie, “White Noise” only continued to build momentum through the steamy summer months. Borrowing from deep house, post R&B and pop sing-along melodies, the track served as the spark for the 2013 success of both the Lawrence brothers of Disclosure and fellow UK post-pop perpetrators AlunaGeorge.
Although the shuffling bass rhythms, ethereal vocals and effervescent synth blips might have been familiar to underground tech-house communities, the sounds were wholly new to an audience recently conditioned from Top 40 to accept electronic tones into their drive time radio. The single also introduced a danceable groove back to a club culture saturated with aggressive dubstep and the saw-jaw electro-house hedonism. And while her voice may be tinted with a veil of innocence, AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis is exclaiming a message of recovery, growth and personal satisfaction across the track’s beats: “Only you can look at me the way you do/ You always tint me, tint me black and blue/ Such a shame, you frame me with such disdain/ You got me washed out, washed out color drained/ Lately I’ve been thinking if you wanna get tough, then let’s play rough/ Just noise, white noise.”
While a highlight of the summer of 2013, it’s easy to expect that this was just the career beginnings of four exceptionally talented individuals—a group of twenty-somethings that is concurrently reshaping the amorphous boundaries of both pop and club music. – Derek Staples
18. Washed Out – “It All Feels Right” [Sub Pop]
It appears as if Ernest Greene has permanently escaped the confines of chillwave. One of the perhaps-genre’s principal forefathers, when he assembled an actual band it became clear that his Washed Out namesake wasn’t going to stick around in one place. That evolution started with 2011’s Within and Without, and really became cemented with this year’s Paracosm. It’s not as if Washed Out has become something different altogether, but it’s clear that Greene’s once bedroom project is now a full-on pop ensemble capable of more than just sleepy sound clouds. And no song better represented the completion of that shift more than “It All Feels Right.” With layers upon layers of sound flourishes ranging from reggae-strummed acoustic guitar to tribal percussion to keyboard swirls and chirps, “It All Feels Right” is a summer jam that’s about summer and sounds like summer. “It’s getting warmer outside/ It feels alright/ Call your friends, I’ll call mine,” Green sings, channeling shiny-happy Flaming Lips with the march of “Bittersweet Symphony.” There are arguments as to whether chillwave is or was an actual style of music. No matter the verdict, Washed Out has certainly outgrown both the genre and its own origins. – Mike Randall
17. Portugal. The Man – “Modern Jesus” [Atlantic]
First it was a major label deal with Atlantic; now, they’ve partnered with pop production genius Danger Mouse on their latest release. Many of their longtime fans have wondered if they’re seeing signs of a sellout, but Portugal. The Man has moved confidently into the newest phase of their career, dissolving the doubts with strong songs that reflect the band’s growth. Their post-rock psychedelia has always had a pop side, but on 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud and now with Evil Friends, this has blossomed without overwhelming the band’s character. Instead, richer production, bouncier beats and synth treatments have become new tools in their arsenal.
“Modern Jesus” serves as the perfect example of the marriage between Danger Mouse and Portugal. The Man. The tune opens with a click and keyboard riff that sets up the wordless pop harmony intro. But the lazy jam vibe of the piece is coded in the band’s DNA. John Gourley‘s vocals roll from affected diffidence to acerbic challenge as he lays out the album’s core message of secularism, “Don’t pray for us/ We don’t need no modern Jesus/ To roll with us.” While the lyrics themselves are a defiant response to American religiosity, the pop-anthem feel of the chorus undercuts the provocation. The resulting ambivalence is classic Portugal. The Man, but the technique is clearly Danger Mouse’s contribution. – Jester Jay Goldman
16. Vampire Weekend – “Hannah Hunt” [XL]
Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” tells quite a story. It is at once fraught with specific poetic details (“Me and Hannah Hunt saw crawling vines and weeping willows/ As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix”) and full of enough empty spaces to have a universally relatable quality. It’s a song about traveling, time, uncertainty, true love and heartbreak, among other things. Over the course of only four minutes, the band makes us feel like we’ve walked a lifetime in the shoes of our two protagonists.
Even after repeated listens, the line, “If I can’t trust you, then, damn it, Hannah/ There’s no future, there’s no answer” is still startling. Perhaps its power lies in the use of the colloquial phrase “damn it” or the way Ezra Koenig’s voice screeches up into an uncomfortably high falsetto the second time he sings it. Or maybe it’s the way the line follows the image of Hannah tearing “The New York Times up into pieces.” More than likely, though, this line—and “Hannah Hunt” as a whole—reflects the frustration and anxiety many are feeling as 2013 fades away. The only way to confront the uncertain future, the song suggests, is to find someone with whom you have your own sense of time. – Jacob Adams