31 December, 2013 in Features
Putting talk of ‘selfies’ and ‘twerking’ aside, we celebrate the greatest of 2013’s songwriting masters, musical masterpieces and significant moments
ow that the dust has settled on 2013, thoughts turn naturally to the musical delights that lie in wait in the 12 months to come. But before we do that, let’s take just a few minutes to consider the songwriters, the artists, the songs and the hooks that made 2013 their own. After much heated (and mostly pub-based) debate, then, below you’ll find the official Songwriting selection of the very best that the past year had to offer. You probably won’t agree with all our choices, but then it would be a boring old world if we all felt the same about everything; what we can hopefully all agree on is that 2013 was a year which offered up plenty of great new music to get excited about…
Although Turner’s reputation as an exceptional and prolific songwriter has been reinforced over the past seven years, the frontman of Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys has had yet another brilliant 12 months with the release of their fifth studio album, AM. The acclaimed LP itself was only released in September, hitting the top of the charts in the UK and more than 11 other territories, but the outstanding hit singles Do I Wanna Know? and Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? had already our whet appetites in the months prior. Turner’s trademark gritty, poetic lyrics, detailing England’s dark social underbelly, was at the forefront of AM, and proved once again that he is one of this country’s greatest songwriters.
Being the ‘featured’ artist normally means a brief cameo performance and minimal creative input, but Pharrell’s undisputed skills as a songwriter were put to good use by Daft Punk, in co-writing singles Get Lucky and Lose Yourself To Dance, and Robin Thicke, as a co-writer of Blurred Lines. And now Williams has the last No 1 single of 2013 with his own song, Happy.
Karl Martin Sandberg AKA Max Martin made our list of runner-ups in 2012 for his work behind the scenes with Taylor Swift, and has again worked his magic with Katy Perry this year, having a hand in almost every song on her album Prism, including co-writing her No 1 smash Roar and Unconditionally.
Since winning Best Female Solo Artist at the 2011 Brit Awards, this prolific English folk singer-songwriter has quietly and diligently crafted three Mercury-nominated albums, with this year’s Once I Was An Eagle arguably being her crowning glory… and she’s still only 23 years old.
These three musically-gifted sisters from LA arrived in 2012 on a tidal wave of hype and a huge amount of pressure on the success of their debut album. Thankfully, Haim kept their cool and delivered with exceptional songwriting that spawned hit after hit.
We and many others, including the BBC, tipped Tom for great things in 2013, and we weren’t wrong. Delivering the ubiquitous single Another Love and an assured debut LP – the UK No 1 Long Way Down – this year saw him more than live up to expectations.
LAURA MARLING – ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE
Laura Marling’s fourth album saw her begin to put some clear blue water between her and all the other quaint folk singer-songwriters out there, and define herself as one of the pioneers of the new folk era. Lyrically, the album shows her journey from despair into finding optimism again – and yes, that’s something that has been done countless times before. However, mixing traditionally English folk with a newly Americanised influence, tied in with her move to LA, made Once I Was An Eagle both captivating and truly individual, as Marling channelled the time-honoured ‘wounded singer-songwriter’ tradition and gave it a beautiful modern heartache all of its own.
ARCTIC MONKEYS – AM
This was the fifth studio album by the Sheffield legends, and the fact was they’d released another absolute belter. With the single R U Mine? making its debut at Glastonbury Festival in June, it’s very hard to fault their music, even if it’s very easy to fault their hair. Songwriting at its best.
DAFT PUNK – RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES
Until this year, the French duo were perhaps more associated with beat-based studio wizardry than with songwriting prowess, but recruiting legends like Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams and Pharrell took Random Access Memories in a new creative direction that produced an album of lyrical depth, epic arrangement and ambitious musical composition.
NINE INCH NAILS – HESITATION MARK
Five years since the last album, and four years after the Wave Goodbye tour, Hesitation Marks was a wonderful shock announcement by Trent Reznor. Driving bass, haunting melodies and an advanced sound which is so beautifully familiar, yet so excitingly different. Another spectacular piece of work to make you dance, make you think and give you goose bumps.
WAXAHATCHEE – CERULEAN SALT
Second albums are meant to be difficult and Waxahatchee’s is no exception. Not for any scarcity of quality but because of the difficult topics tackled: Crutchfield delves inside her despair and, like the legendary Elliott Smith, uses it to inform the beautiful indie-folk songs she writes.
LAURA STEVENSON – WHEEL
With a delicate, country, infected vocal, it’s easy to fall in love with this New York alt-country-indie-folker. When that voice is backed up by the sort of aching melodies and warm riffs that decorate second LP Wheel then the result is one of 2013’s finest records. Not unlike a female Conor Oberst.
LORDE – ROYALS
What a year 2013 was for young Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor. With the superbly crafted slo-mo electro ballad that was Royals, she topped the charts in five countries – including the Billboard Hot 100, making the 17-year-old New Zealander the first Kiwi solo artist ever to hit the top spot in the US. The album Pure Heroine subsequently graced the Top 20 in nine countries, and Lorde found herself in the running for no fewer than four Grammy awards. If she carries on like this, she’ll be able to see as many diamonds in the flesh as she wants to!
HAIM – FALLING
Heavily tipped in 2012, in 2013 the sisterly outfit from California proved they had the musical chops to live up to all the hype. Despite only just scraping into the UK Top 30, the third single from Days Are Gone was, we think, their finest moment: a polished slice of grown-up dance-pop with just a hint of that classic lazy west coast groove.
PASSENGER – LET HER GO
Taken from the album All The Little Lights, this tender lament from 29-year-old folk-rocker Mike Rosenberg went to No 1 in eight countries and proved that Ed Sheeran is far from the only young British male who’s got a way with an acoustic guitar and a heartfelt lyric.
LONDON GRAMMAR – STRONG
Hannah Reid’s haunting voice has frequently been compared to Judie Tzuke and Florence Welch. That certainly didn’t do this curious fusion of Portishead-esque trip-hop melancholia and 80s power balladry any harm, with Strong reaching No 16 in the UK charts.
TOM ODELL – ANOTHER LOVE
The blonde-haired, elf-like 23-year-old singer-songwriter from West Sussex may have divided opinion like few other artists in 2013, but there’s no denying the impact that this paean to a lost love had on the charts this year, going platinum in Belgium, gold in Germany and silver in the UK.
ONEREPUBLIC – COUNTING STARS
As well as fronting this successful American rock band, Ryan Tedder is no stranger to the charts, having penned hits for the likes of Leonna Lewis (Bleeding Love), Ellie Goulding (Burn) and Adele (Rumour Has It). Counting Stars is yet another finely crafted pop gem from one of the most talented songwriters around.
Best pop song
DAFT PUNK – GET LUCKY
A classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts, Get Lucky showed what happens when you bring together some of the biggest names in electronic dance music (Daft Punk themselves), funk/disco (Nile Rodgers) and hiphop/R&B (Pharrell Williams). The result, as it turns out, is simply one of the most irresistibly catchy pop songs of recent times – a fact that helped drive the song to No 1 in 18 countries worldwide, and into the Top 10 (usually the No 2 slot!) in a further 14. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s dual status as both pop royalty and dance music chart ambassadors looks assured for the foreseeable future.
TEGAN & SARA – CLOSER
2013 was a good year for bands comprised of siblings, with Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin vying for your attention along with California’s Haim sisters. With seven albums under their belt, the girls from Calgary were no newcomers, but this feel-good fusion of EDM and indie flavours marked their UK chart debut.
M.I.A – BRING THE NOIZE
Described on Wikipedia as a “singer, rapper, songwriter, record producer, visual artist, activist, photographer, fashion designer and model,” 38-year-old Mathangi Arulpragasam has been bothering the charts for nearly a decade, but this strident slice of magpie pop proved she’s lost none of her streetwise attitude.
KATY PERRY – ROAR
Katy Perry’s talent lies in creating pop music that appeals to eight-year-old girls, yet that has an artistry about it that belies a much more sophisticated outlook, and as such appeals to their mothers too. Her work’s also shot through with a sense of humour that’s most apparent in her high-budget videos.
MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS – THRIFT SHOP
Speaking of a sense of humour, this tongue-in-cheek ode to the delights of buying your garms in charity shops was the surprise hit of the year, racking up over seven million sales worldwide. Messrs Haggerty and Lewis can probably afford to shop at Gap now…
BRUNO MARS – WHEN I WAS YOUR MAN
Like Passenger’s Let Her Go and Tom Odell’s Another Love, this worldwide Top 10 saw the Hawaiian 28-year-old paying homage to a now-departed paramour – and cementing his status as one of the finest contemporary soul crooners into the bargain.
Best rock song
JOANNA GRUESOME – ANTI-PARENT COWBOY KILLERS
Sometimes fortune bestows a record that’s near epochal in its excellence. Starting with post-hardcore guitars and breathy, Shop Assistants-style vocals that rip into a Kathleen Hanna roar, JGru use the pop melodies and basslines of C86 and Murmur-era R.E.M to knit together the naive, longing, charm of Tiger Trap and fiery intellect of Bratmobile; replacing bridges with walls of kinesis that they crash their glorious hooks against. With their influences traced and outlined in their own pen and a name that’s provocative enough to both draw in the rotten and turn away the proper, this is music to be truly excited by.
SPEEDY ORTIZ – TIGER TANK
Opening with a riff ripped straight from Seattle 1992, this excellent track brilliantly walks the tightrope of loud/quiet, harsh/soft dynamics of its Pixies, Nirvana and Pavement forefathers while still sounding effortlessly current.
THE WYTCHES – ROBE OF JUDA
Surf-pop was never meant to be this way – so deliciously doomy that the Beach Boys might have re-named themselves the Cliff Drop Kids. Underpinned by an infectious rolling bass, filthy guitars and cathartic vocals; think Bleach-era Nirvana played by psychotic surfers.
ARCTIC MONKEYS – WHY DO YOU ONLY CALL ME WHEN YOU’RE HIGH?
A powdered, funk-driven riff forms the basis for one of the finest numbers to have been drawn from the return to form that was the Arctic Monkeys’ AM.
THE WHYBIRDS – THE CURE
The single’s cover image pays homage to Big Star’s neon-covered #1 Record and though it’s a little funkier, more rawk, even swampier, The Cure also has the same power-pop appeal that was shot through the songwriting of Big Star too.
FOALS – INHALER
Taken from Holy Fire, which saw the much beloved Oxford five-piece return with a harder edge. Like the bluesy stoner-rock of Kyuss, Inhaler barely lets you pause for breath, as it wraps its big, distorted, arms around you and refuses to let go.
The fact that this California girl-powered rock band already feel like an established part of the musical landscape in 2013, is a testament to the speed and significance of their meteoric impact. Last year Haim were just one of many possible ‘ones to watch’, with the Forever EP being the only hint of the band’s potential. However the last 12 months saw the sisters break through a media storm of expectation, critical dissection of their debut LP, and a Glastonbury Pyramid stage performance, and come out the other side of 2013 with reputations cemented and their cool personas in tact. The world is theirs for the taking in 2014 and beyond.
Born and raised in Auckland, and shockingly only 17 years old, Lorde shot to fame with her single Royals earlier in March , and has been nominated for a total of three Grammys for Best Pop Solo Performance, Song of the Year and Record of the Year in January. This girl has a fantastic career ahead of her.
This Manchester-based four-piece released their debut self-titled album in September, which went straight to No 1 in the UK Album Chart. Known for their black and white music videos because they’re “not pop”, they’ve had four singles this year.
Classically trained British singer songwriter Tom Odell had a difficult start to his career, but thankfully for us he knew it was all worth it. He released his first EP Songs From Another Love back in October 2012, and his debut album Long Way Down went to No 1 in the UK Album Chart in the summer.
This British trip-hop trio released their debut EP Metal And Dust earlier this year, and their debut album If You Wait in September. Already prolific performers on numerous compilation albums such as Ministry of Sound, Help Me Lose My Mind made with house duo Disclosure has been a massive hit both in the mainstream and the underground scene.
English rock band Bastille started as just singer-songwriter Dan Smith before three others joined him. Their fourth single Pompeii went to No 2 in the UK and No 1 in the US Billboard Alternative Songs Chart, with their debut album Bad Blood getting a No 1 in the UK Album Chart. They’ve already played numerous festivals including Reading and Leeds, and supported Muse in their summer stadium shows.
Most Overlooked Artist
As a member of beloved indie-rock acts The Ackleys and PS Eliot, Katie Crutchfield has a history of songwriting that’s literate, acerbic and bravely sincere. These qualities have been enhanced further still in her current incarnation as Waxhatchee. Here Crutchfield displays the near impossible songwriting gift of conveying the uncertainty and strife that you experience internally, only more elegantly and eloquently than you ever could. Though her second album Cerulean Salt went to No 1 on the Official Record Store Chart, hers is a songwriting talent that should be receiving universal acclaim; a nomination for this year’s Mercury Award would have been fitting.
TEGAN & SARA
Calgary electro-folk-rock twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have been writing music together since their mid-teens. This year seemed set for them to move from cult favourites to mainstream stars, with their slick and infectious Heartthrob LP. Though it didn’t take them stratospheric their fanbase grows ever larger and more devoted.
HALF MOON RUN
Despite their song Full Circle receiving over a million views on YouTube, it’s only in their native Canada, where Full Circle and Call Me In The Afternoon both made the Top 30, that these Canadian indie-rockers have really received the attention that their critical acclaim deserves.
We’re so impressed by these guys that we’ve plugged them already, with their excellent song The Cure featuring in our list for 2013’s best rock song. So we can’t see why, then, their records aren’t flying off digital shelves.
Though he has a long recording history, with his contribution to film and the records of others dating back to the mid-90s, it was only three years ago that Harper Simon released his first solo album. He followed that up this year with the superb Division Street and cemented his position as an artist deserving of your attention.
It feels near perverse to suggest that Speedy Ortiz have been overlooked this year, having made the step from bedroom project to indie-rock darlings. Yet, with the similarly excellent Chvrches going from nowhere to having their name imprinted on everyone’s lips, it feels as though Speedy Ortiz should have the same fame.
KATY PERRY – ROAR
Best hook? Maybe this song should be the winner of the Best hooks award, because this is a multi-layered pop beast, full of glorious earworms, from its skippy singable verses, to a huge confident chorus, before unleashing the rising last line of “Roa-a-a-a-a-ar-oh”. As Perry’s previous go-to collaborators, it’s unsurprising that the current undisputed kings of pop songwriting, Max Martin and Dr Luke (along with Katy herself, Bonnie McKee and Henry Walter) are responsible for crafting this effortless pop masterpiece. As the empowering chorus lyric says, with this hook-laden No 1 smash hit, these songwriters have demonstrated they have the “eye of the tiger”.
THE 1975 – CHOCOLATE
A musical hook doesn’t have to be a vocal, and The 1975’s guitarist proves this beautifully with the riff at the root of this brilliantly simple song. Like the confection of the title, it’s a delightfully morish melody. Chocolate didn’t really make an impact on the charts, but its popularity meant it won BBC Radio 1’s A-List poll.
TAYLOR SWIFT – EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED
Ed Sheeran had a quiet year by his standards, but he still found time to contribute to this superb duet with Taylor Swift. As yet another hit single from Swift’s multi-platinum selling album Red, Everything Has Changed is as catchy as any chorus you’ll find either side of the Atlantic.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE – MIRRORS
As with previous Timbaland/Timberlake collaborations (Cry Me A River, for example) Mirrors is an epic, multi-layered pop song that revolves around JT’s vocal hooks and an addictive beat. It’ll have you ‘Uh-oh’-ing along for the rest of the day.
ARCTIC MONKEYS – DO I WANNA KNOW?
Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner has a knack for writing a hooky vocal melody, and making hooks out of deceptively simple guitar lines, but with Do I Wanna Know? he achieved both. The spiky riff is memorable enough on its own, but double-tracking the melody with his lead vocal was a masterstroke that made the hook even stronger.
ELLIE GOULDING – BURN
Co-written by prolific hit-generator Ryan Tedder, this is arguably the least ‘songwriterly’ composition in this shortlist, with more dancefloor sensibilities. But the “Burn” refrain is so relentlessly catchy, it deserves credit here as a cast-iron hook.
Moment Of 2013
THE SPOTIFY DEBATE
Thom Yorke memorably called it “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” (good to see that £15,000-a-year public school education didn’t go to waste, Thom). David Byrne said it would “suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left”. More recently, Johnny Marr dubbed it “the opposite of punk rock”. It’s fair to say the music streaming service had its share of critics in 2013 – though other musicians, such as former Gang Of Four member turned digital evangelist Dave Allen, were quick to leap to its defence. As the music industry continued to adapt to a world changed beyond recognition by the internet, Spotify found itself in the frontline of the debate just as Napster and Gnutella once were in the past. The crucial difference, of course, is that Spotify is an entirely legal service – meaning that this time its fate will be decided by the market, not the courts.
ROLLING STONES HEADLINE GLASTONBURY
On 29 June, The Rolling Stones finally made their debut appearance at the world’s most iconic music festival. Messrs Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood strutted and pouted for over two hours, showing that – as millions of TV and internet viewers worldwide will attest – their status as one of the all-time great rock ’n’ roll bands remains undiminished despite the fact they’re all of pension-qualifying age.
LOU REED DIES
On October 27, the former Velvet Underground frontman passed away from liver disease at the age of 71. Tributes were paid by everyone from former bandmates John Cale and Mo Tucker to comedian Ricky Gervais, but the most moving by far was an open letter from his widow Laurie Anderson, published in Rolling Stone. RIP a true giant of 20th Century music.
DAFT PUNK ALBUM HYPE
With a series of tantalising teaser ads, the French dance duo ensured their fourth studio album was easily the most anticipated of the year before its release, and one of the most talked-about afterwards – though Beyonce’s surprise eponymous video album didn’t exactly go unnoticed, either.
THE BLURRED LINES CONTROVERSY
Banned by student unions across the UK due to lyrics that some suggested were tantamount to an endorsement of date rape, the chart-topping collaboration between Pharrell Williams, rapper T.I and previously obscure R&B crooner Thicke also came in for harsh criticism due to its similarity to a certain Marvin Gaye song. Still, you know what Oscar Wilde said about being talked about…
The former Smiths frontman’s tell-all, imaginatively titled Autobiography saw almost as much hype before its release – by the prestigious Penguin Classics imprint, no less – as the Daft Punk album. When it arrived, media attention focused first on the apparent ‘confessions’ regarding a homosexual relationship – and then on said passages being excised from the US edition.
Words: Russell Deeks, Tilly Dowman, Damien Girling, Aaron Slater, Chloe Staines