Album: Pure Heroine
Label: Lava, Republic Records
Released: March 8, 2013
It’s ironic that the inspiration for Lorde’s breakout hit, “Royals”, is also its immediate byproduct. The song’s criticism of the gaps between the lifestyle Lorde would dance and party to and the one she actually maintained was dressed up with a simple snap rhythm, a grocery list for a bridge, and one loudly definitive chorus.
“Royals” works because it represents a consciousness that Generation Y and the Millenials are rarely acknowledged for having, but it is also just a fresh tune that people can sing along to out loud (or, if intoxicated, completely ruin). By outwardly admitting during her 2013 hit that she may never actually claim the throne, she became relatable, and even more relevant to audiences. Judging by “Royals” and its quick assent up the charts during this past year, it seems that listeners around the world have no issue with someone just like them being their ruler. It’s the kind of fantasy that they want to live, too.
Song: White Noise
Artist: Disclosure (ft. AlunaGeorge)
Label: Island Records
Released: February 1, 2013
Disclosure marked their territory early in 2013, a year which was overflowing with electronic/house-inspired production within and outside of the genre. In their efforts, which included the release of their debut album Settle, “White Noise” particularly stood out because it maximized the unique offerings of each partner in this collaboration. By layering Aluna Francis’ (of duo AlunaGeorge) sweet, 90s-esque pop vocals over Disclosure’s fine balance of club-banger beats and minimalist synths, these UK-natives created an infectious and incredibly addictive dance track without being too experimental.
In a time filled with all sorts of odd genre mashing and complicated dub beats; it’s easy for artists to sink into the background. By keeping it simple and playing to their strengths, Disclosure and AlunaGeorge’s noise rose above.
Song: Black Skinhead
Artist: Kanye West
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Released: June 19, 2013
If 2013 was the year that Kanye West decided to run for Pop Culture President, “Black Skinhead” would be his declaration of intention.
In retrospect, it makes sense that “Black Skinhead” was chosen as the lead single from his sixth studio album Yeezus. In just over three minutes, he lays out a series of self-reflective references to the culture he is so embedded in, criticizes existing racial tensions within the entertainment industry, and reaffirms his belief that there is no need for an election – he has already won the crown as king. All of these ideas are recurring, particularly in his interviews with Zane Lowe and Jimmy Kimmel, and his infamous soliloquys at his shows.
But his outright acknowledgment of and confrontation with these existing barriers is only part of the reason why “Black Skinhead” is such a strong output. This clash of his personal beliefs against the systems is communicated on the creative side of things, too. The Daft Punk produced, rock-n-roll inspired beat is bold, swinging and in some ways, couture.
Layered on top are these harsh breaths, reverberating jungle calls and aggressively delivered rhymes, which end up making more of an impression than the percussions found at the chorus. Really, we should have known from the moment this song dropped that Kanye West was really not going to hold back this year. Luckily, this opening speech is just as memorable as the ones that followed.
Artist: Pusha T (ft. Kendrick Lamar)
Album: My Name Is My Name
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
Released: September 17, 2013
In rap collaborations, it’s often easy to determine which is a weaker verse or see how two artists just do not mesh well together. “Nosetalgia”, a song from Pusha T’s debut solo album, My Name Is My Name that features Kendrick Lamar, is not one of those cases. In fact, it is curious as to why these two MCs, who are arguably two of the best MCs in hip-hop right now, have not worked together before. Their skills in wordplay, metaphors, and storytelling are parallel to one another, a union that makes even more sense over a minimalist beat that features a trio of recurring twangs accenting their narratives.
“Nosetalgia” focuses on the cocaine-laden environments that Pusha T and Kendrick grew up in during the 1980s. Pusha’s narrative tells the tale of his days as a cocaine cook and seller, while Kendrick paints an idea of growing up with cocaine addicts all around him. The impact of this song purely falls on the talent of these rappers, who manipulate cocaine-related slang terms on multiple levels and demonstrate immense skill in the timing of their lyrical flow as they share their contrasting but equally engaging narratives. Both draw inspiration from the 1991 film Boyz N’ The Hood, which can be seen in Kendrick’s particularly striking opening where he eerily asks, “You wanna see a dead body?”, and while Pusha cites the films characters as he describes the business side of the cocaine operation. Although the success of this song was limited to the Internet, it demonstrated the sort of potential that East and West Coast collaborations have, and the type of storytelling that is still sorely missed in hip hop.
Album: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Released: September 6, 2013
“Atlas”, Coldplay’s contribution to the soundtrack of the widely popular The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is the first release the UK-native band has made in nearly two years.
For their loyalists, it marks a welcomed return to the ballads that made them so successful to begin with, especially after the electronic-influenced Mylo Xyloto, while also making the band accessible to newer audiences. While “Atlas” received little radio play and is drenched with references to Catching Fire and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it is stylistically successful. It features a grandiose chorus sung by Chris Martin, a humming percussion rhythm, and a swift, dreamy piano melody that acts as the major lifeline to the song. It’s appropriate for a blockbuster film, but it also conjures up several ideal images of Coldplay filling arenas with the reverberating celestial splashes present throughout the song. Hopefully this is an indication of what is to come from the band’s next major release, mainly because it is not overly ambitious, but lovely nonetheless.