Esquire Theme by Matthew Buchanan
Social icons by Tim van Damme



1. Vampire Weekend - “Step”

With their attention to detail, classical musicianship, and quirky sense of humor, the once Columbia classmates have always embodied a certain auteur-like identity among their peers. Their most cinematic work off Modern Vampires of the City, the year’s best album (sorry, Yeezus), unspools before the listener with both the twee surrealism of Wes Anderson and the New York intellect of Woody Allen. With mortality at the heart of the indie darlings’ latest LP, the record is as much a thesis on existentialism as it is a covetous love letter to music herself (in other words, the “girl” in the song). It’s a weighty, inspired, at times ethereal piece, with an unexpectedly positive outlook on death: all humans pass on, but music lives forever.

"Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor - it’s still not the truth"



2. Arcade Fire - “Here Comes The Night Time”

The Canadian indie rockers spent three albums creating gorgeous, orchestral arrangements that explored somber, brooding, riotous, ghostly, paranoid, apocalyptic, gravely serious tones. Perhaps that’s why, when Reflektor was in the works, it was high time for a party. The band’s tribute to Haiti, a stop on their last tour and motherland to vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne’s parents, is a frenetic, tempo-shifting groove devoid of their typical Anglo-anxiety, and a more calming acceptance of life’s bigger mysteries. Opening with a thunderous Carnival scene, then deflating to a downbeat Afro-Caribbean rhythmic march, and then back out again into the streets, it evokes the best art-punk works of Talking Heads, and instantly cements itself as a live staple for years to come. This dance-worthy direction proved divisive to Arcade Fire fans, and it’s this six and a half minute track that we have to thank (or blame). In the end, it’s a celebratory choice and a wonderful display of six of the most dynamic musicians working today at the top of their craft. We all now live in a post-Reflektor world.

"And when they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door / But if there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for? / When I hear the beat, the spirit’s on me like a live-wire / A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire"



3. Chance The Rapper - “Chain Smoker”

On the surface, the penultimate track off Acid Rap, a mixtape more fully formed than the majority of studio releases this year, is a mission statement type of theme song for the 20-year-old Chicago native. With an unapologetic, take-me-as-I-am approach, Chancelor Bennett spits in his instantly signature Woody Woodpecker vocals about listening to Michael Jackson on acid, his fear of death (vs. his peers’ glamorization of goin’ out “with a bang”), citing God as his dealer, and being so into his own music sometimes that he forgets “to park [his] whip.” It’s deceivingly insightful, full of double entendres, and fun as all hell. But beyond the song’s speedy, spaced-out three and a half minutes, it signifies the emergence of a bright young talent, one raised on old-school Kanye and middle-class hallucinogens, chompin’ at the bit to show the world what the new school has to offer.

"Oh oh oh, I seen the light, I lost my lighter / Bic flick, kick the habit and the bucket, f**k your supplier / Lies, Levi’s on fire / Flyer on the wall, I’m brighter / In the darkness of the night / In the sky, I get higher, higher"



4. Autre Ne Veut - “Play By Play”

An off-the-wall, impossible-to-categorize cry for desperation that zig-zags, starts and stops, builds and builds before erupting into the biggest, catchiest, most rousing payoff any song had to offer this year. It’s damn near illogical how Arthur Ashin gets us from Point A to Point Z, but no less brilliant and exhilarating. This is the work of someone whose mind rejects traditional song structure for raw emotion (the artist has a master’s degree in psychology, fittingly), an almost impulsive, frantic, roller-coaster ride through soulful self-torment.

"I just called you up to get that play by play / Don’t ever leave me alone"



5. Phosphorescent - “Song For Zula”

Matthew Houck may make allusions to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” in this bourbon-soaked ballad, but it’s another first-hand account from a prisoner of love, Jeff Buckley’s take on “Hallelujah,” that feels like the real predecessor here. Haunting and transcendent, rather than jump through hoops ablaze, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter wisely raises the white flag when it comes to destructive love, surrendering to a power he recognizes to be beyond his earthly means. The chorus-less Muchacho cut was an unlikely, albeit deserving, favorite among music blogs in 2013, even managing to slip into younger pop culture fare from time to time, including an episode of MTV’s Catfish and the closing credits of The Spectacular Now.

"Ah, and all you folks, you come to see / You just stand there in the glass looking at me / But my heart is wild and my bones are steel / And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free"



6. Arcade Fire - “Reflektor”

The Montreal sextet last left us with the disco-influenced “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountain),” the uptempo, synth-heavy proper closer for their Grammy-winning The Suburbs, serving as a teaser into what type of sound Butler and Co. just might have on deck for next time around. Listeners were not led astray, as Reflektor's eponymous first track took a sonic leap into a new, syncopated direction, a genre of dance-rock filled with the same dystopian paranoia that first earned the avant garde rockers their unique brand of fame, fittingly produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy (not to mention, featuring David Bowie on backing vocals). The seven-minute-plus epic is a reverie on what's real and what's artificial in today's age of endless information, perhaps shedding a bit more light on why the band was enlisted to score Spike Jonze's Her, an Oscar contender in which a man falls in love with his operating system.

"Now, the signals we send, are deflected again / We’re so connected, but are we even friends?"

7. Arctic Monkeys - “Do I Wanna Know?”

Alex Turner has been drunk-dialing girls since his Sheffield crew’s breakout debut, some seven years ago. The first track off AM, the band’s excellent fifth studio album, is a confession that young men may not always grow any wiser as they grow older, but that they can certainly become more eloquent in their persistence. In the case of Turner, a lyricist who has always shown flashes of shifty brilliance, he’s found himself in the early hours of morning (a recurring theme across the album, hence one reading of the LP’s double-meaning title; the other is that it’s the band’s initials), attempting to claw his way back into an ex-flame’s arms with his intoxicated yet persuasive rhetoric. A love story for the stoner crowd, its thumping percussion and monster guitar riffs show off a bit of psychedelic flair from the crown princes of English indie rock.

“‘Cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow / And I play it on repeat / Until I fall asleep / Spilling drinks on my settee”



8. Vampire Weekend - “Hannah Hunt”

Frontman Ezra Koenig has always had a clever ear for detail and dialogue, but his latest and greatest character study is some of the band’s most mature material, reading like a brilliant work of short fiction. The instrumentation here is both restrained and nothing short of gorgeous, and the harmonies glide through time like an autumn stroll through the park, until two-thirds of the way through the song, when pianos pound like hammers, and our poet-singer’s pain reaches the fuzzy ends of amplifier walls, to genuinely heartbreaking effect.

"If I can’t trust you, then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer / Though we live on the US dollar / You and me, we got our own sense of time"

9. Lorde - “Royals”

Partially inspired by pop music’s penchant for expensive things, plus a photograph the then-16-year-old singer saw of Kansas City slugger George Brett (hence the song’s title), 2013’s surprise import was snappy, slow tempo-ed, written in a half-hour’s time, and ambitiously designed to realign the zeitgeist. The young lady formerly known as Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor became the first New Zealand solo artist to have a number one hit in the US, thanks to her take on the universal tale of middle-of-nowhere teens thinking they’ve got it all figured out, this time around, slyly packaged as an anti-excess statement, and a fittingly punk message for the holiday season.

"My friends and I, we’ve cracked the code / We count our dollars on the train to the party / And everyone who knows us know / That we’re fine with this, we didn’t come from money"



10. Kanye West - “Bound 2”

Forget that topless, photo-shopped Kim Kardashian video for a moment. Because it’s this Yeezus closer, after nine punishing, angry, violent, exhausting tracks, that feels like a triumphant cleanse for both Ye and the listener. It’s as if West had to exorcise a few demons to get here, at a higher, evolved altar (after all, he does fancy himself a God these days), resulting in a resurrected, playful, new form, a potential post-Yeezus peak into what’s next, disguised as a soulful throwback. Summoning the make-you-smile “Uncle Charlie” Wilson here ain’t hurt, either.

"Uh, this that prom shit / This that what-we-do-don’t-tell-your-mom shit / This that red-cup-all-on-the-lawn shit / Got a fresh cut, straight out the salon, bitch"