For the third year in a row, I felt like this was a better year for individual songs and singles than it was for albums. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense in a digital era that the industry has returned its focus to singles, rather than albums. But it continues to make for a very frustrating listening experience.
This is not to diminish the great work that I’m about to highlight. It is incredibly difficult to make a great song. Can’t forget that just because most artists today are unconcerned with making complete album experiences.
So without further ado, hit that jump for the 15 songs that I consider the very best songs that I heard in 2013
15. Dawn Richard, “Gleaux”
I admire Dawn Richard tremendously. She’s a conceptual artist who has a clear vision for every aspect of her projects. I haven’t always loved the end result, but she’s still the most exciting sister to come along since Teedra Moses. Gleaux is the one song that works perfectly. It’s the moment when Goldenheart‘s conceit is in fullest bloom. Druski’s synth heavy production creates the perfect atmosphere for Dawn to explore a longing that feels at once vulnerable and incredibly powerful.
14. Ledisi, “I Blame You”
Ledisi is one of our greatest vocals. And there’s nothing more thrilling to see than this magnificent talent singing a song this tightly constructed and yet sounding as free and boundless as she ever has. It’s a straightforward love song that Ledisi makes soar with endless little grace notes that only a truly gifted vocalist can make. “I blame you” becomes this exhalation of pure joy the way Ledisi sings it. You can really hear what she does with the song in her standout performance at this year’s Black Girls Rock.
13. Rashad, “Burgundy Whips (Freestyle)”
For me, Rashad is the most exciting singer/rapper/producer to emerge in a long time. He’s steeped in black music and his music reflects a refreshing desire to keep that tradition alive. In this post-black moment, this is incredibly vital. This is basically Rashad rapping and singing about the struggles of black life over madlib’s Burgundy Whips beat for MED and Blu, but it’s more exciting than most hip hop that I heard this year. Including the original song itself.
12. Beyoncé, “No Angel”
Blow and Partition are more immediate pleasures, as they were designed to be. But this song sandwiched between them is the real revelatory moment on the album. It’s her finest vocal performance on the album, both stunningly powerful and remarkably expressive. At this point, I feel like Beyoncé is at the peak of her powers when her music reflects whatever is going on with her and Jay-Z. That of course makes Beyoncé her strongest – if maddeningly uneven – album since Dangerously In Love.
11. Kevin Michael, “Sometimes”
Kevin Michael’s music always takes turns that you never expect. But there’s also an element of melancholy that makes his work a little more complicated than it might at first seem. Sometimes is more direct though. The crippling isolation and longing here is striking in its intensity, despite a production design that tries to mute the vocals. It’s my favorite song from brainwa$h and yet another reason to keep paying attention to what this brother is doing.
10. Kelly Rowland, “Red Wine”
Talk A Good Game was surprisingly strong overall, but Red Wine stands out because it is the finest showcase for how remarkably expressive and versatile a singer Kelly Rowland is capable of being when she has the right material. The song’s lyrics, about discovering the power in a new love, give way to about a minute and a half of Kelly’s beautiful voice just singing a series of “doo doo” harmonies. It’s a magnificent performance of a really lovely song.
9. Luke James ft. Hit-Boy, “Oh God”
Oh God was always my favorite song on Luke’s free album, Whispers in the Dark, which is filled with a lot of wonderful singing and a lot of dramatic vocal and rhythm arrangements, so I was really happy that it was released as a single. Oh God, though, stood out because it has some knock to it. It’s a head nodder even though it’s really a song about longing. That tension is what makes the song worm inside your head. And importantly, it shows that with the right production Luke can work as more than a straight balladeer.
8. Zo! ft. Sy Smith, “Body Rock”
Zo! and Sy always make dope songs together, but they outdid themselves on Body Rock, which is some quiet storm for your late night freak session. Sy sings with her characteristic delicacy and precision and Zo gives her a beautifully orcherstrated jazz bed over which to do her thing. The song is more than 8 minutes long, but notably, the song really takes off in the last 2 minutes.
7. Latoiya Williams, “Let Go“ (click link to play in Spotify)
The fact that LaToiya Williams is so below the radar remains a damn tragedy. Her voice is remarkable and she has about the best phrasing of anyone I’ve ever heard. This year she released a three-song EP called Kup Cak’n and Let Go is the finest of the three. It puts her voice front and center and she just cuts right to the quick. Before you even realize, the song knocks you right on your ass.
6. Pete Rock & Camp Lo ft. Ab-Soul, “Don’t Ya Just Love It”
It’s really all about Soulo comin’ in at the end and shutting it down. But you can never go wrong with a bunch of dope emcees boasting over a great Pete Rock track. Yes. I just love it.
5. Pusha T, “Numbers on the Boards”
I didn’t always love everything on Pusha T’s debut album as a solo artist, but Numbers on the Boards works both as an immediate pleasure and also upon subsequent listens. And part of that is that the song is less than three minutes long. The more emcees realize that they don’t always have to have three verses, the tighter the songs are. This one is actually reminiscent of Clipse’s breakthrough song, Grindin, in the way he owns the relatively sparse production, this time by Kanye West.
4. LastO, “Barcelon”
On each of LastO’s albums, he has that one song that serves as its mission statement. On Run A Lap, it’s Hard Time Hatin. On Not For Non-Profit, it’s Not Whining. For Where’s Vivian, his major label debut that serves as his “fuck the bullshit. I’ma do me. Y’all better get on board” coming out party, it’s Barcelon. Here we get a peak into what was going through his head as he stumbled through four years of false starts, half-baked songs, and ill-advised (but definitely sexy) makeovers before finally releasing his brilliant new album. And because LastO is nothing if not remarkably adept at making you relate to him, you root for him as you listen to Barcelon. I dare you to listen to this song and not catch yourself saying: “I can do this shit wit simply bars alone.”
3. Fantasia ft. Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott, “Without Me”
Without question, this is the finest mainstream black music single of the year. It obliterates every other black pop song that came out this year by reminding us that Fantasia can really do anything, using Kelly Rowland magnificently, and letting Missy Elliott do her thing in a way she hasn’t in nearly a decade. This is one of those songs that takes all the elements of what is hot at the moment and – with a terrific melody – remakes them into something greater than the sum of the parts. This doesn’t pander to the moment; rather, it elevates that moment to great pop art.
2. Meelah, “Pisces (More Than Meets They Eye)”
If you are my friend on Facebook, you might have been subjected to me posting this song a lot. I had to. Because everyone needs to hear how remarkable a vocalist Meelah, formerly of 702, really is. And there is no better showcase for that than this remarkable song. Pisces is designed to reintroduce you to Meelah and to tell you a little about her. But what you really notice is how much stronger her voice is than it was a decade ago. How smartly she can arrange vocals, even when the processed vocals take over at the end. And, if you’re smart, you also realize that you’ve missed this woman’s voice. I certainly have. It is long past time she put out an album, mixtape, EP, something.
1. Ahsan, “Under”
I wasn’t prepared for Under when I came across it on VH1Soul. It completely floored me. This 15-year old black boy is basically singing for his little, beautiful life and it’s stunning. I’ve never heard anything like this and I won’t even front and act like it didn’t bring me to tears. This is soul music. And by that I mean the real definition of a song that is, at its core, about black humanity making itself known. Ahsan’s phrasing is remarkable and he nails the desperation, the resilience and the hope that lies at the center of black life in America. This song was just released in November and it easily jumped over every other song I heard this year to demand the top slot on this list and status as my absolute favorite song of 2013. If he does nothing else in his career, he’s released a classic song that deserves to become a standard.