Even by music industry standards, 2013 was a weird year.
When it comes to headlines, nothing compares to Sinead O'Connor's attention-seeking "open letter" to Miley Cyrus, in which the '80s pop star publicly characterized the post-teen idol as a rehab-bound prostitute. Whatever O'Connor may have expected, the move resulted in what was surely the year's most pointless musician mud-slinging contest.
And then there was Michelle Shocked's less-publicized but even more bizarre meltdown. At a San Francisco show, the born-again '80s protest singer made onstage remarks condemning homosexuality, resulting in a tour's worth of canceled shows. Shocked protested by making guerilla visits to venues — costumed, at one point, in what appeared to be an oversized condom — and ranting on Twitter.
For those who prefer less unhinged comebacks, David Bowie ended his decade-long absence from music with the online release of his song "Where Are We Now?," a move which reportedly caught even his record company unaware. A full album followed, but failed to live up to the exceptionally high standard set by that first single. A few month later, Fleetwood Mac ended a 10-year hibernation with its own stealth release, Extended Play, but no one seemed to notice.
2013 was also a year for oversized publicity stunts, the most notable of which involved very tall buildings. Kanye West debuted his "New Slaves" single by projecting its video onto skyscrapers around the world, with at least two showings shut down by the police. The following week, relatively unknown electronica group Boards of Canada took the same tack, although it's unclear whether that was a case of copying or coincidence.
Oh yeah, and then there was music, thousands of CDs' worth of music, the vast majority of it heard by next to no one.
For most of us, the following "Top 10" releases fall well outside the mainstream, although Kacey Musgrave's "Merry Go 'Round" did get significant airplay on country radio. Likewise, London Grammar's debut album and Pharrell Williams' single both topped the charts in the U.K., yet did nothing here in the States.
One other caveat: In compiling this list, I've taken the liberty of borrowing the Grammys' "came to prominence" loophole by including a couple tracks that received limited release in 2012 but didn't appear on albums until 2013.
Needless to say, the following list is as subjective as any other Top 10 that's based on qualities which are less quantifiable than sales or airplay. Probably more so, in fact, since this one deliberately omits high-profile and commercially successful releases, most of which can be found among the year-end rankings of more mainstream publications.
10. Parquet Courts, "Stoned and Starving"
A throwback to pre-cliché punk-rock, this standout track from Parquet Courts' full-length debut suggests what Television or the Modern Lovers might have sounded like if they'd forgotten all but two chords. Which, it turns out, is not bad at all.
9. Kacey Musgraves, "Merry Go 'Round"
Musgraves' unblinking ode to small-town life is a welcome respite from the redneck romanticism that remains Nashville's biggest cash cow. "Mama's hooked on Mary Kay, brother's hooked on Mary Jane, and daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down" is about as far away from "She Cranks My Tractor" as you can get.
8. Chance the Rapper, "Everybody's Something"
Winner of this year's "best new emcee with a faux-Jamaican accent" award, Chance the Rapper scores with this dub-heavy, world-wise track from his sophomore mixtape, Acid Rap. The Chicago upstart's idiosyncratic approach weds Ghostpoet's lyrical flow with Wyclef Jean's commercial instincts, a combination that may or may not send him to the head of hip-hop's current freshman class.
7. World/Inferno Friendship Society, "Go Faster, Think Better"
"I've seen the future ... it looks ... expensive," sneers World Inferno's Jack Terricloth as he and his Brooklyn anarcho-cabaret revivalists venture into straight-ahead rock terrain with wry wit and musical intelligence both intact. While not exactly futuristic, "Go Faster, Think Better" still manages to beat latter-day Pixies, Bowie and Art Brut at their own game.
6. Charli XCX, "You're the One"
Charli XCX's debut album is a mess of teen pop clichés largely devoid of artistic inspiration — with the sole exception of this track. "You're the One," with its dubstep underpinnings and dancefloor sheen, makes the U.K. diva sound like a much younger and artier version of Madonna. Whether she can repeat that trick remains to be seen.
5. Emily Wells, "Passenger (Acoustic Recording)"
I climbed aboard the Emily Wells bandwagon late in the game, after hearing her perform this song with Questlove at his Brooklyn Academy of Music concert last fall. The virtuoso performer's one-woman live shows find her looping violin, synthesizer, toy piano and drum parts, most of which appear in the version of this song that originally appeared on her Mama album. This remake from 2013's Mama (Acoustic Recordings) strips the song down to acoustic guitar and multi-tracked voices, an austere setting that echoes Patti Smith and Nico in their poetic primes.
4. Janelle Monáe, "Dance Apocalyptic"
Janelle Monáe's eccentric breakthrough 2010 album, The ArchAndroid, was an impossibly hard act to follow, as demonstrated by last year's erratic The Electric Lady. But Monáe's "Dance Apocalyptic" single has all the right ingredients — flawless vocals, irresistible dance-driven arrangement, killer chorus — to place it alongside her best work.
3. Daniel Romano, "He Lets Her Memory Go (Wild)"
Don't let the conspicuous cowboy hat, mustache, and embroidered Nudie suit throw you: There's not a trace of irony in this 28-year-old reformed indie-rocker's homage to old-school country. "He Lets Her Memory Go (Wild)" is everything you'd want in a heart-wrenching country ballad, including ethereal instrumentation, Jordanaires–style backing vocals, and an aching melody that won't let go.
2. Pharrell Williams, "Happy"
I'd thought Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" put me off happiness for life, but Pharrell Williams turns out to be the cure. There's really not much to it: A straight-outta-Motown verse and simple clap-along chorus, with Williams' smooth alto vocals soaring above it all. It's eminently listenable, so much so that someone in the musician's camp decided to accompany it with a 24-hour-long video. By this point, I've probably listened to all 24 hours of it at least once.
1. London Grammar, "Wasting My Young Years"
London Grammar's 2013 debut album introduced us to the remarkable talent of 23-year-old Hanna Reid, whose vocals are achingly beautiful enough to join the ranks of Sandy Denny, Judy Tzuke and Alison Moyet. "Wasting My Young Years" is an immaculately conceived exercise in late-night melancholia, its sparse piano, electric guitar, and electronic elements carrying Reid through 3½ minutes of stunningly gorgeous alt-pop brilliance.