"Karate Chop" [ft. Casino]
There’s no widespread consensus as to whether Future’s strangely mournful Auto-Tuned croak qualifies him as a singer, a rapper, or some wholly new species of vocalist, but whatever it is, fans could probably listen to him do it while reading from a software manual and still be happy. He put this theory to a test with “Karate Chop”, where his staccato-fied rhymes, supremely druggy performance, and computer-assisted warble reduce his verses to a jumble of phonemes that you have to squint at to recognize as actual words. Combined with a beat by wunderkind producer Metro Boomin’ that pairs a Hendrix-y synthesized guitar lick with blaring Inception-style horns, the song announced his new push into updating 60s psychedelia for the digital age—which would become clearer when he and his Freeband Gang released the Black Woodstock mixtape a few months later. “Karate Chop” was one of two Future/Lil Wayne collaborations to chart this year (“Love Me” was the other), as well as one of two Future-featuring songs (along with Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.”) to have its success derailed by a rapper’s stupidly offensive lyrics. But the facepalm-worthiness of Lil Wayne’s line about Emmett Till in the official remix does little to take away from the purity of the track’s Future-ness. —Miles Raymer
Future: "Karate Chop" [ft. Casino]
- Ribbon Music
- Omar Souleyman
"Wenu Wenu" makes a pretty convincing case that a forty-something wedding singer could, in fact, be the world's coolest dude. The leadoff track to the Four Tet-produced album of the same name—Souleyman's 500th, give or take—does what just about every dabke song before it does, trading off between cooly ecstatic vocals and writhing synth lines (courtesy of Souleyman's longtime keyboardist Rizan Sa'id) over an insistent thump. But the synth's gone neon, and the beat's transformed into a club-conquering monster, leaving everything about "Wenu Wenu" a little brighter, a little livelier, a little more joyful. In the middle of it all is Omar, calling for his "precious beloved" between bursts of rapturous keys. Souleyman's mastery of the dabke form was never in question; "Wenu Wenu", with an assist from Four Tet's crackling, crystalline production, just dials up the brilliance.—Paul Thompson
- Island/Def Jam
- Mariah Carey
"#Beautiful" [ft. Miguel]
Amidst the continuing onslaught of reflexively anthemic club-R&B stompers, the carefree laziness of #Beautiful could almost be considered polemical, except that its makers are too fully immersed in the execution to ever come across as calculating. Still, you have to wonder at the combination of the arrangement’s casually lurching summer-funk raunch with Miguel’s opening offer to let you “hop on the back of my bike…”, something like the musical equivalent of a Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” gif. You have to wonder, too, at the patience with which Mariah waits to make her proper entrance on a song billed to her, but of course she knows exactly what she is doing. Her eruption of harmonies in the second verse shifts the song from the realm of the deeply satisfying to that of the unexpectedly thrilling. If there is a strategy behind all of this, it’s simply to explore the pleasures afforded by the meeting of minds of two pros, artists so intimately attuned to their craft that they can knock off what already feels like a songbook standard without ever seeming to try. —Tim Finney
Mariah Carey: "#Beautiful" [ft. Miguel]
- Julia Holter
Barbara Lewis’ original version of “Hello Stranger”, her 1963 hit that describes a chance encounter with an old friend or former love, is imbued with a spirit of easy-going tranquility. For her version of “Hello Stranger”, Julia Holter magnifies this odd sense of peace into a near total stillness, as if the outside world has ceased all noise and movement around the two characters within the song. Musically, she reduces it almost entirely down to her voice and a patient swell of droning strings, allowing herself the space to deliver one of her most expressive vocal performances to date. Especially in its context at the center of Holter's kinetic Loud City Song album, “Hello Stranger” comes across as a dream-like interlude. With wisps of Lewis’ familiar melody moving through like an apparition, the listener is left to wonder whether the song’s chance encounter is real or simply a wishful fantasy of its narrator. Either way, Holter delivers the song with a warmth and easy grace that suggests a calm acceptance in the face of possible romantic loss, finding enough pleasure in the interlude to reward the risk. —Matt Murphy
- Fuck Buttons
The 2012 London Olympics overlooked the 10-minute songs and four-letter words to include Fuck Buttons in their opening ceremonies, though judging from “Brainfreeze”, the Bristol duo shouldn’t expect a call from Rio officials. The leadoff track from their juggernaut third LP Slow Focus still abides to the “faster, higher, stronger” ideal of “Olympians”, but there’s no way it would ever pledge allegiance to some flag. That sort of sappy sentimentality is completely foreign to the merciless mercenary Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power have created here, which never lets emotion get in the way of following commands and completing a mission. Whereas Street Horrrsing sought to burrow to the earth’s core and Tarot Sport broke the ozone layer, “Brainfreeze” plows forward without remorse, taking eight minutes of marching orders from brutalized war drums and flattening everything in its path, the shrieking synths and grinding gears making an example of anything that refused to get out of the way. It’s a ballad for the universal soldier, one that doesn’t understand god or country, only progress and industry. —Ian Cohen
- Fat Possum
There’s an ambition to “Mute” that made it clear Trevor Powers had increased the scope for his Youth Lagoon project in the couple of years since it debuted. The song covers so much ground, taking so many turns along the way, that it’s a surprise it only lasts for six minutes. When it reaches the full-of-stars guitar line that closes out the song, it feels like a beginning, not an end. There’s something distinctly childlike about Powers’ vocal, which is pitched close to the innocence and wonder of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. Like much of that band’s Deserter's Songs, “Mute” feels like a song that’s been around forever, waiting for someone to discover it. —Nick Neyland
"Come Walk With Me"
M.I.A. “Bad Girls” was a standout in its year because it was so undeniable, even for skeptics. “Come Walk With Me” is the opposite, noting every bit of hating the haters have got and driving a drone straight through them. The first half, a languid, sunsick take on a girl-group ballad, is everything said haters found grating about M.I.A. deliberately stretched to the limits: a singsong-to-the-point-of-apathy melody that rewrites government surveillance into mash notes and love songs into YOLO parlance.“It’s cool, it takes two, so I’m gonna still fux with you,” Maya sings.
Then she pulls out the Switch switch-up: right after saying she's kinda over throwing her hands in the air, there's a hands-high dance break made of self-samples (“Bamboo Banga”, the baby from Switch’s “Bad Girls” mix); right after clowning the gadgetry/social-media panopticon, the sounds from two different Apple products (Macbook’s volume crank-up, Photobook’s selfie timer) arrange into galloping trance, like chiptunes without the retromania. It’s exhilarating and undeniable after all: quotable as a tweet (most Favstar-worthy: “can you give me some of what you went and gave them,” like dialogue from The Circle if it were a romance novel), yet weirdly poignant. In a year in which the zeitgeist was endlessly fascinated with the imagined courtship habits of millennials, it turns out M.I.A. might have written the year’s best digital love song. —Katherine St. Asaph
M.I.A.: "Come Walk With Me"
- G.O.O.D. Music
"Control (HOF)" [ft. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica]
Con · trolled – verb
Definition: The act of decimating rivals to inflict public humiliation. Characterized by exhibition of no mercy or sympathy for perceived weaknesses in an opponent.
Etymology: The verb first came to usage on August 12, 2013, when G.O.O.D. Music stocking stuffer Big Sean dropped “Control” on Twitter. The seven-and-a-half minute song featured the ghost of Jay Electronica and Kendrick Lamar, with the latter name-checking his peers with the scorched earth purism of Edward Snowden.
Within three hours of it leaking, edits had been made to expunge any trace of Sean or Electronica. Within several days, Tumblr had been converted into an infinite “Control” meme. Kendrick’s “King of New York” line prompted responses from New York rappers as futile as attacking Gozer with blades of grass. It sparked a beef between Kendrick and Drake, “the soft rapper he tucked into his pajama clothes.” LeBron James tweeted: "This is real hip hop at his best! We going crazy over here people!!” Phil Jackson even took a break from meditating atop a totem pole to gently lecture about the value of mentorship.
This wasn’t the best Kendrick Lamar-featured song of 2013. That would be “Jealous” with Fredo Santana or “Nosetalgia” with Pusha T. But it had the most impact—effectively ending the rap “Super Friends” era and ensuring that being “Controlled” replaced “Renegaded” and “Ethered” in the lexicon of verbs of mass destruction. You can’t inherit the rap throne; it’s something you have to usurp. And this was the sound of King Kendrick annexing new lands, sticking his flag into the hearts of men. —Jeff Weiss
- Matador / Other People
"The Only Shrine I've Seen"
Darkside (Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington) break real rules—”The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” isn’t elongated or exaggerated pop or the build and burn of traditional dance. It is warped, weird, living in fits and starts, loose rattling paving the way for a full-scale global disco breakdown that dissipates soon after its entrance, leaving the track to live on an uneven use of space. The lyrics are cryptic, the vocals messy, with overdubs all over the place. But all eight minutes of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” is executed with such grace that you forget just how strange it really is. On “Shrine,” Jaar and Harrington commit musical blasphemy and make that freedom sound sacred. —Jonah Bromwich
- Arctic Monkeys
"Do I Wanna Know?"
Despite the guitars, the greaser comb-backs, and the breathless U.K. indie-hype hope a decade ago, Alex Turner isn't just being contrary when he shrugs off the current rock scene. His Arctic Monkeys are huge festival headliners in an era where, Nine Inch Nails and AM collaborator Josh Homme's Queens of the Stone Age aside, huge festival headliners don't swagger—Mumford & Sons, anyone? Applying the cocksure lessons of last year's glam-disco-R&B watershed "R U Mine?", "Do I Wanna Know?" adroitly establishes a fresh set of peers. See it in soulful singer Sam Smith's simmering rendition, or in how Turner downplays comparisons to Drake but then faithfully covers "Hold On, We're Going Home". Picture Turner spilling drinks on his settee listening to "Marvins Room": "There's this tune I've found that makes me think of you somehow,” Turner sings. Is this it? Some questions are best left rhetorical. —Marc Hogan
Arctic Monkeys: "Do I Wanna Know?"