2013: The Year in Music

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As we wrap up 2013 and look ahead to a new year in 2014, some of the U.S. Catholic music reviewers took a look back at some of the top songs of the year. Each writer picked two songs they found to be significant, engaging, or spiritual. The ten songs span the genres, from chart-topping pop hits to lesser known folk tunes. Have a listen and soak up the sounds of 2013.

“Reflektor” - Arcade Fire

If one thing characterized popular music in 2013, it was the newfound spirit of dance and revelry that a wide variety of sources injected into it, from rising stars like Robin Thicke to household names like Daft Punk. That spirit even managed to find its way alongside the eternal angst of Arcade Fire, whose fourth album, Reflektor, offered up a slew of syncopated, dance-worthy tunes set to lyrics about making sense of the Facebook age. The title track features Haitian-inspired beats (lead singer Win Butler has been mentioning the influence of a recent trip there), a flash of a cameo from David Bowie, and an interactive music video you can see here. --Stefan Scherer-Emunds

“I Like the Things About Me” - Mavis Staples

On Mavis Staples' last two records, producer Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) showed a knack for coaxing raw, gritty performances out of the reigning first lady of gospel music. Here on this makeover of an old Staples Singers song, Tweedy's throbbing guitar lends a delightfully funky sound to Staples' defiant celebration of beauty: "I like the things about me that I once despised."
--Nicholas Liao

“We Can’t Stop” - Miley Cyrus

I know, I know. This isn’t the right answer, except it is. Forget about the foam finger and wagging tongue. Listen to “We Can’t Stop” (especially the version with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots) for what it is – a devastatingly sad song about being completely out of control. “We run things / things don’t run we,” brags Miley, but the melody and the knowing vocals say otherwise. This is a heartbreak of a song, and one of the best of the year. And no joke, this girl can sing. If only she could keep her tongue in her mouth and her clothes on her body long enough for people to actually hear her. --Molly Jo Rose

“Suit and Tie” - Justin Timberlake

Maybe Justin Timberlake’s six and a half years of silence in the music industry following his first two solo albums were exactly what he needed. Maybe they were what we all needed to forget what he used to be – the golden-haired pretty boy from ‘N Sync – and give him a shot at making seven-minute art-pop ballads. His third album of--mostly--sexy but gentlemanly love songs successfully blended hip-hop beats with soulful horn licks, and Timberlake’s sweet falsetto laid over a swirling harp make “Suit & Tie,” the first single off The 20/20 Experience, as smooth as those old golden locks. --Stefan Scherer-Emunds

“Holy Ghost” - Low

The struggles of faith are brilliantly articulated in Low’s seemingly timeless song, “Holy Ghost.” So evocative is this song that Mavis Staples included a poignant gospel rendition of it as the opening track to her recent Grammy nominated album One True Vine. Whether in Low’s hands or Staples’, the song is not to be missed. --John Christman, S.S.S.

“Merry Go ‘Round” - Kacey Musgraves

That rarest of birds in 2013: a complex and intelligent top ten country hit, also about small town life. It combines critique of a culture in which “if you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably gonna die alone,” with deep empathy for the folks who live there. “Same hurt in every heart, same trailer different park… just like dust we settle in this town on this broken merry go ‘round…” --Danny Duncan Collum

“There Will Never Be Any Peace” - Blind Boys of Alabama

This soulful reworking of a 1974 Chi-Lites single, with its realistic view of human progress, sounds positively evergreen when considered in our political context. Little wonder that the Blind Boys of Alabama continue to win new fans from younger generations despite being pretty much the oldest guys around (the gospel singing group first performed together in the 1940s).
--Nicholas Liao

“Burnin’ It Down” - Steve Earle and The Dukes (and Duchesses)

2013 was the year the sleeping giant of the Walmart workforce began to stir with wildcat strikes and Black Friday picket lines. Steve Earle gave that movement a theme song with this ballad of a man who so despises what the retail giant has done to his hometown that he’s “thinking ‘bout burnin’ it down.” --Danny Duncan Collum

“Of the Mother Again” - Jim James

Sometimes theological insights are hidden in unexpected places. Jim James’ song “Of the Mother Again” evokes the unfathomable expansiveness of God by speaking of God in both male and female terms while never losing the sense of God’s love and compassion. It does all of this with a groovy bass-line and a sense of good things to come. --John Christman, S.S.S.

“These Days Are Numbered” - The Head and the Heart

The song aims to haunt and it hits the target with a slow, direct grace. From the first halting words out of Charity Rose Thielen’s mouth, you can’t help but sink right into the truth of this song. The lyrics, the harmonica, the voice, it’s all perfect because we’ve all had days like this: “I need this faith to keep me walkin’ / To keep me alive.” --Molly Jo Rose