Alternative music made a strong showing for the first time since the turn of the century, with slow burning hits like Bastille's "Pompeii," The Neighborhood's "Sweater Weather," and Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" and "Demons." A few EDM stars went unexpectedly highbrow, leading to the surreal experience of hearing Avicii played on KROQ-FM. Meanwhile, male hip-hop artists moved album downloads in staggering quantities, but made little impact on mainstream radio. The year's biggest smash releases, like Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and Beyonce, were more product of marketing ingenuity than of embodying or defining the musical zeitgeist, their success existing largely outside the musical moment and largely deflecting imitation, so far at least.
What all of this leads to is that as of the beginning of 2014, there is still no clear indication which direction pop music is headed - which means - excitingly - it's really anybody's game. It's almost certain that the music released in 2014 will determine how pop music sounds for years to come; rarely has there been as blank a stylistic canvas and as open a general consumer taste as 2013's eclectic array of mainstream hits indicates.
As we head into this exciting new year of possibility, here's a look at some of the highlights of the year in pop music gone by. (Note: for this list, date of release and the term "single" are broadly defined.)
The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2013
Frozen: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Sure, it's not so much pop as a Disney princess movie show tune, but the big diva number from Frozen takes on a new life as a sound recording that's right at home in the just-be-yourself and-you're-gonna-hear-me-roar empowerment world of pop. Detached from its cinematic context, "Let It Go" is just a big belty coming-out anthem - and who wouldn't want to come out with Idina Menzel's pipes backing you up? I kind of want to come out all over again.
CHOICE LYRIC: "A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I'm the queen."
Thin Rope - Single
The Bulgarian badass behind "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools" ponders the age-old challenges of growing up in this hip-pop followup. The single once again benefits from the singer's trademark blend of self-aware naivete and endearing DGAF-ness, and the video game metaphor is just dated enough to fit right in with postmodernist millennial angst.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Instead of crumbs, it's beats that I'm droppin'."
The Movement EP
Blogger darling Betty Who's debut single sounds like it came through a time warp from the mid-80s and Cyndi Lauper probably wants it back. The song teeters precariously on the edge of mawkish (see the gay Home Depot wedding proposal, if you've the stomach), but even the bitterest emotional snob might find himself singing along eventually.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Ooh, somebody loves you!"
The Electric Lady
Yes, a Janelle Monáe funk-soul number with Erykah Badu, trumpets, and the lyric "the booty don't lie" is all a little on-the-nose. What's your point?
CHOICE LYRIC: "Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?"
Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 2
The Korean rapper faced an unenviable challenge any artist would still kill for in following up a record-smashing global phenomenon, and no one in the US would have blinked if he'd vanished into the pop history books as a one-hit wonder novelty act. While equaling "Gangnam Style" would have been impossible, "Gentleman" is about as successful a followup as it could have been. PSY knows not to try outdoing himself, nor just to do the same thing over again, nor take some radical stylistic departure leaving fans in the lurch; instead, he sticks to the formula, while making it different enough to be passably original.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Damn girl, I'm a party mafia!"
Allison - Single
Anjulie's recent work has hovered more in the dance corner lately, she throws a stylistic curveball with this low-fi tale of fascination gone awry. Anjulie's songwriting is all about storytelling, and she's wonderfully adept at setting a scene and creating characters within the confines of standard pop lyric structure. "Allison" is as indelible - and monumentally catchy - as any underground pop sleeper this year.
CHOICE LYRIC: "And so you tell yourself there's nothing for you to die."
Random Access Memories
Part of me thinks I put this on here just because I feel like I'm supposed to, but each time I go back and listen again, just to make sure, I'm mollified at least enough to let it remain. That's a big part of its genius, of course - it's so simple and the sound so balanced that it goes down smoothly, a four-to-six minute musical getaway for your brain without you even realizing you were gone. It's the apotheosis of the dance and pop ethos, a creative achievement to be sure, but I fear perfection can be a Pyrrhic victory whose legacy long outlives its emotional impact.
CHOICE LYRIC: "We've come too far to give up who we are."
Electra Heart - Bonus Tracks
Electra Heart delivers her farewell speech as though splayed drunkenly in the bathtub, bereft of any of the naive optimism or narcissistic delusions that made Marina and the Diamonds' sophomore concept album/character study so charmingly unstable. You knew she was doomed to end up this way, but it's the most revealing moment of the whole Electra Heart performance because it's the first time you really identify and see yourself in her.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Pink lipstick stains, cigarette butts, I lie in bed, I hate my guts."
Here's the truth: griping about the mainstream from the outskirts inevitably ends up sounding bitter, jealous, or out of touch, and it can easily backfire. Besides, many of the usual anti-pop refrains are as hackneyed as the tropes about which they complain. Yet M.I.A. manages to get a related point across by making it personal, inviting the mainstream to cast an eye (and an ear) in her direction in this wild track built on opposite extremes. Just as the lyrics are at once humble and cocky, the music boomerangs between an inviting pop song and petulant, screwball Bhangra head-fuck. It's like with the same hand she's beckoning to you and raising her famous middle finger.
CHOICE LYRIC: "It's cool, it takes two, so I'm gonna still fux with you."
Save Rock and Roll
Fall Out Boy's triumphant comeback single hearkens back to the days when garage bands roamed the pop airwaves alongside rappers and dance pop divas, embracing radio hit machinations instead of flailing and fighting against electronic music from out on the margins as the rock genre slowly dies. Sure, it checks a lot of boxes - lighters! sexy-violent lyrics! Whoa-ohhs! Odd, overlong and memorable title! "FI-YAAAAHH" - but frankly it's been a long time since some of them have been checked at all.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I'm just dreaming of tearing you apart."
Invention and experimentation are great and all, but sometimes you just want the comfort of perfectly executed formula pop. Ciara's got you covered; for three and a half minutes, it's like the mid-aughts never ended.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Don't let, don't let, don't let, don't let go."
I'm not sure why this works for me; whether I'm grading Katy Perry's new music on a curve, or I'm charmed by its Alanis-like manhandling of lyrical meter, or Perry and Dr. Luke once again hit that sweet spot where my love of pop overlaps just enough to outweigh my distaste for ballads, or I'm still reacting to some lingering voodoo from the Teenage Dream campaign. My guess is it's probably a little bit of each.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Uncon-di-SHUUUNNNNNN-ULLL"
Is There Anybody Out There?
I like noisy, overproduced electronic pop as much as the next culturally jejune, earbud-wearing 90s child, but I also appreciate a bit of subtlety here and there to balance things out. The song itself isn't particularly subtle, but the record is, and that's all the more remarkable considering the big-name, big-voiced featured artist whose attachment to the work launched it onto the airwaves and up the charts. Aguilera's understated performance is breathtaking, not least for how unexpected it is for her exhibit such restraint. She allows Ian Axel's clandestine lead vocal to belay the emotional heft of the lyrics, and even when their voices ramp up to level nine, the song never overdoes it.
CHOICE LYRIC: "And I...am feeling so small."
How easy it is to forget that before Miley Cyrus bent over and twerked in Robin Thicke's crotch, "Blurred Lines" was pop culture's punching bag of choice/sign-of-the-apocalypse du jour, and for many of the same reasons: ubiquity, boobies, and the staying power that comes with actually being *gasp* pretty good. Like Miley, "Blurred Lines" just kept going along, well aware that most of the controversy around it was not actually of its own creation but rather that of a culture in need of globally visible screens on which to project (often important) societal battles. Am I glad it's no longer on the radio every 45 minutes? You bet. But as songs of the summer go, we've done far worse.
CHOICE LYRIC: "You the hottest bitch in this place."
"DNA" revels in pop cliches like a kid in a candy store. Every last metaphor is squeezed from the title subject, in lyrics like "Our energy connects/It's simple genetics/I'm the X to his Y/It's the color of his eyes" as well as in sonic elements like the blip of an EKG. The production owes a lot to Max Martin's work for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys: the sound is massive and dense, and there's a deliciously overwrought bridge complete with music box chimes, choral "ahhhhhs," and thunder. (The dark mood and song structure also bring to mind the turn of the century girl group Dream and its hit "He Loves U Not.") It doesn't soar to quite the giddy heights of "Wings," but it'll do.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Now I don't have any first degree, but I know what he does to me."