5. Neko Case – “Man” [Anti-]
“Man” is the strident and brazen outburst that dominates the beginning of Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It succeeds at being both a cocksure blast of jaunty power-pop and an opportunity for Case to be completely direct about the album’s core sentiments, the ones that revolve around Case writing from a rawer, more wrathful and rebellious place. Powerful, commanding performances are nothing new for Case, but this one is particularly striking because she’s so righteously angry, subversive and candid, confronting impossible gender norms with a necessary level of bite and frustration. Pair her brash delivery with the unexpected volume of M. Ward’s fuzzed-out guitar track (itself rather boisterous compared to some of Ward’s own material) and “Man” slays as masterfully as Case usually enchants. She defies expectations singing, “I’m a man/ That’s what you raised me to be/ I’m not an identity crisis/ This was planned,” and then she gets to the fun part—”If I’m dipshit drunk on the pink perfume/ I am the man in the fucking moon/ ‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was/ Until I showed you.” The way she languidly slaloms through “showed” and articulates that pointed F-bomb makes each punch connect anew, Ward changing up his short solos to match the flow of Case’s scathing lyrical assault. Case may not belt out wailing tunes as often as she did circa Blacklisted, but songs like “Man” are an equally impressive alternative. – Michael Merline
4. The National – “I Should Live in Salt” [4AD]
The National’s sixth album opens in an atypically quiet fashion, with a solitary acoustic guitar strumming a simple rhythm. Unlike the slowly rising piano melody of “Fake Empire” or the shuddering, treated electric guitar of “Terrible Love,” “I Should Live in Salt” sounds resigned from the beginning, with singer Matt Berninger repeating the line “you should know me better than that” over and over. It’s one of the National’s most understated songs, even when the chorus kicks in and Berninger shifts to an unexpectedly high register to admit, “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”
The simplicity of the song only serves to make “I Should Live in Salt” one of the band’s most heartfelt songs, particularly once Berninger revealed the song to be about his younger brother Tom and the disconnect felt by their nine year age gap. Lyrics like “Don’t make me read your mind, you should know me better than that” and “Can you turn the TV down? You should know me better than that” take on a greater meaning when turned into a sibling dynamic. Ethereal backing vocals grow louder and louder and threaten to drown the singer’s voice as the song ends, but it’s the simplicity and directness of the lyrics that stick with you after the last note of the guitar. – Nathan Kamal
3. The Arcade Fire – “Reflektor” [Merge]
There’s a reason why the Arcade Fire start their latest triumph with the album’s title track. The seven-minute-plus song not only sets the danceably noirish mood for the whole record but also serves as a microcosm of its central themes and images. “Reflektor” features that quintessential Arcade Fire combination of poetically dark imagery (“Trapped in a prism/ In a prism of light/ Alone in the darkness/ Darkness of white”), sincere pronouncements of postmodern anxiety (“We’re still connected, but are we even friends?”) and exotic-sounding French phrases. It all adds up to a tune that is precise in its descriptions yet joyfully vague in its philosophizing. What is the “reflektor” that Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sing about? Is it organized religion (“If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for/ If I can’t find you there, I don’t care”), music itself (“Our song escapes, on little silver discs/ Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits”), the media (“We fell in love when I was 19/ And I was staring at a screen”) or something altogether different?
There’s no doubt that many listeners have connected to “Reflektor”’s melody, sound and grooves, no matter what its message might be. The tune sounds both futuristic and retro, as the disco grooves and horn sections comingle with hi-tech synths. David Bowie even makes a cameo, as if to give his endorsement. He’s not the only one who loves this track. – Jacob Adams
2. Phosphorescent – “Song for Zula” [Dead Oceans]
“Three chords and the truth.” This is the formula legendary songwriter Harlan Howard prescribed for writing a standout country music song. Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck goes about it a little differently, but then again, “Song for Zula” isn’t your traditional country song. There is a sophistication to Houck’s work that elevates this track far above a honky-tonk torcher, an unusual swirling of sublime instrumentation with hard luck poetry. Houck’s walked some lonely miles in his weather-beaten boots, the delayed bass picks and cascading clatter pattern suggesting a remembered disintegration. And yet we get the sense that he is not only walking away from damage, but toward something truer.
“I will not open myself up this way again/ Nor lay my face to the soil, nor my teeth to the sand/ I will not lay like this for days now upon end…,” he proclaims. Houck’s voice wobbles, some words clipped with a yip, others breaking like they’re teetering from a single rusty nail. This is a song he is determined to sing. The slides of a pedal steel cushion the composition, suitable for both the mournful and resilient sentiments. If love is “a caging thing,” “Song for Zula” is a reverie of captivity. – Stacey Pavlick
1. Daft Punk – “Get Lucky” [Columbia]
When it comes to the song of the summer, there were no blurred lines. Daft Punk grabbed the summer of 2013 by the shoulders and shook, definitively putting their robotic stamp on the warmer months with “Get Lucky” and thereby staking their claim for song of the year. Pioneers and elder statesmen of electronic music—crafting essentials of the French house scene in their earlier years—their 2013 album, Random Access Memories, blew the doors off their usual aesthetic and instead paid glistening homage to dance music of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. This retro futurism is most pronounced on smash hit “Get Lucky,” as that infectiously funky guitar jangle combines with a shifty electro beat to provide the optimal background for guest vocalist Pharrell Williams’ smooth intonations. “She’s up all night ‘til the sun/ I’m up all night to get some/ She’s up all night for good fun/ I’m up all night to get lucky” and its minor variations are lyrics that still haven’t stopped looping through our collective psyche. Like some kind of playful mantra, “Get Lucky” warms the soul with positive energy, its call for ecstasy and jubilation in the present moment, and exuberant optimism for the potential of good things to come, is one that will not fade even as the weather outside gets frightful. – Josh Goller