The pop music experience of 2013 began with haphazard anticipation for a Justin Timberlake album that was ultimately a far cry from the futuresex/Justified hits of his past. The year came to a close as something of a battle between jostling pop divas like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears. And then the year really came to a close when Beyoncé allowed it to. Her surprise visual album punctuated the year so definitively, the "3" in "2013" should have a little Beyoncé accent mark over it.
So which ten songs were the best examples of what pop had to offer these last twelve months? Here's your list, definitive and iron-clad as all other year-end proclamations are.
10. Lana Del Rey - “Young & Beautiful”
Though the bizarre Cedric Gervais remix of “Summertime Sadness” was a bigger hit (as well as her first single to break the top ten), it was Lana Del Rey’s addition to The Great Gatsby soundtrack that better showed off her style to the public. “Young and Beautiful” is Lana Del Rey at her moaning, melodramatic best. It’s filled with all the yearbook-ready adjectives and otherworldly directness that fans of hers have been familiar with since 2011’s “Video Games”. “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” she wonders. I will long as you keep asking me questions like that, Lana.
9. The Killers - “Shot at the Night”
The Killers released a greatest hits album in 2013 and reminded us why their hits were as great as they were with “Shot at the Night,” a wonderfully anthemic throwback to, well, every other Killers song that people who love The Killers love. Its lyrics are simple and repetitive, but not exactly empty ... I don’t think. The Killers have always been good at making you believe their songs are about something, only you have to be singing loudly with thousands of other people at the same time to really figure out what, exactly, that something is. So until their next nearby arena show, I’ll have to settle for controlled headbanging.
8. Ariana Grande - “The Way”
It took months of hearing this song in delis and on the radio and at my friends’ apartments and in different cubes around my office to realize who it was. “Oh! This is that Ariana Grande I’ve been hearing so much about. She sounds like Mariah Carey. Kind of. Sort of. Not really, actually.” I disregarded both Ms. Grande and her hit single, but after months passed, I found myself unable to ignore the song’s simple charms. Using a stripped-down sample from either “Still Not A Player” or “A Little Bit Of Love,” she flew through multiple octaves and into my heart. I love “The Way,” and I’m rooting for Ariana.
7. P!nk and Nate Ruess - “Just Give Me A Reason”
P!nk, with her perpetually cool hair and chill ‘tude, is one of the easiest pop stars to love. And even though “Just Give Me A Reason” is a song is about a potentially crazy person having crazy dreams and the other potentially crazy person or liar who continues to put up with her, it’s one of her best singles ever. “You’ve been talkin’ in your sleep,” she whines. “Your head is running wild again ... it’s all in your mind,” Nate responds. Is P!nk crazy? Is Nate lying? I have no idea, but I do know this song is a blast at karaoke. For a duet, there’s not much harmonizing, but there is a lot of passion. By the end, you’re crying. And even though you don’t know why, exactly, this couple was so upset in the first place, you’re happy that they’re gonna pull through.
6. Miley Cyrus - “Wrecking Ball”
Miley released or was featured on a number of great singles in 2013, but there was only one that had me thinking, “I cannot wait to do this at karaoke.” I’m still waiting. [Editor's note: Chorus Karaoke on 32nd Street near Broadway in New York City. This is not a paid endorsement, rather a public service announcement.]
5. Katy Perry - “Roar”
Who says you need a great bridge to be a great single? “Roar” has nothing resembling a bridge—or even an original thought—but it’s a Grade-A lung-emptier, and a perfect reminder that Katy Perry is in the top tier of modern pop stars. It’s her third single in a row (after “Part of Me” and “Wide Awake”) that deals with overcoming a heartbreak and becoming stronger for it, but the narrative isn’t tired quite yet. While Kelly Clarkson regularly treads similar ground with her lyrics (“Since U Been Gone”/”Stronger”/”Catch My Breath”), Perry’s voice, though equally impressive, is more capable of emoting, well, pain. You listen to Kelly and think she’s gonna get over it in no time, but Katy is just really gonna need us to be there for her, you know? And I’m always happy to make time.
4. Justin Timberlake - “Mirrors (Radio Edit)”
The diamond in the rough of Justin’s two 2013 albums was “Mirrors (Radio Edit)”—and what’s between those parentheses is super important and representative of what went so, so wrong with parts I and II of the unmemorable, overlong, and allegedly contractually obligated The 20/20 Experience. The Justin we know and love was replaced with an imposter who was either trying to be someone else (“Blue Ocean Floor”), trying too hard (“Suit & Tie”), or not trying at all (“Strawberry Bubblegum”). It was only in “Mirrors” that I found the Justin I wanted. The Justin that belongs back on the radio.
3. Beyoncé - “XO”
After a year of snippets and rumors and people asking, “Where is the single?” Beyoncé surprised us all by releasing an iTunes-only “Visual Album” on 12/13/13. And, after a few days of listening, “XO” has remained the standout track and video. Both are buoyant, near-perfect pieces of pop art that capture what [we presume] it’s like to be in love when you’re Beyoncé Knowles; she’s asking the man who loves her “like XO” to kiss her before “they turn the lights out” —probably because she wants everyone to see. It’s more than a little creepy how captivated so many people (including myself) are with Bey and Jay’s romance, but if there’s one thing Beyoncé is good at, it’s making everyone pay attention. If there’s another thing she’s good at, it’s making us sing along. Both sonically and visually, “XO” is bliss.
2. Kacey Musgraves - “Follow Your Arrow”
I was going to give this spot to Taylor Swift’s “22” because 1.) it’s is an actual pop song, and 2.) it’s the ear-wormiest, most jubilant single Swift has ever released. But! Though “22” was released in 2013, the album on which it appears, “Red,” was released in 2012. So because this list doesn’t necessarily have “rules,” I’m going to give #2 to Kacey Musgraves’s charming and very progressive “Follow Your Arrow,” a track about ignoring the hypocrites who shame you for being yourself and just doing what makes you happy. It’s the song I would put on a mix CD for my teenaged brother or sister if I had a teenaged brother or sister. “Take my advice, kid,” I’d say. “And by that I mean take Kacey’s advice.”
1. Ciara - “Livin’ It Up”
After her fourth album flopped in 2010, Ciara’s career became a bit of a mess. Plagued with record label drama and production issues, it seemed like CiCi would never actually release a follow up. But sometime in 2012, she dropped what would end up being her best song ever on a strange web-only playlist for Cosmopolitan. Without press or radio play, “Livin’ It Up” was just some frustratingly perfect song that no one knew about. Then, finally, her self-titled fifth album was released this June, complete with a new version of that song I loved so dearly 12 months before - and this time it included a pep-talk of a verse from her pal Nicki Minaj. True, Ciara is an R&B album filled with wonderful R&B tracks like “Body Party” and “I’m Out” and “DUI,” but “Livin’ It Up” is its poppiest track. In it, Ciara sings that while she doesn’t “have many friends” or any idea when her “next meal’s comin’,” she’s going to power through anyway. Because she’s Ciara, and Ciara has the goodies. “Livin’ It Up” should have been the song of the summer, two summers in a row, but for now I guess I’ll have to settle for pop single of the year.