That said, five songs this year stood out from their respective albums (four of which will also be on my albums list) and merit a mention in this, my first post of the dreaded year-end season, MMXIII.
Touché Amoré, "Harbor"
from Is Survived By (Deathwish, Inc.)
They've gotten close a bunch of times ("Honest Sleep," "Gravity, Metaphorically," "Face Ghost"), but it feels like these dudes have finally written their definitive song, the one you show someone when they say "So who are these Touché Amoré guys anyway?" Gorgeous guitars, martial drums, and a typically heart-on-sleeve vocal performance by Jeremy Bolm. It's there and gone in three minutes, but like all TA's best songs, it's an epic in miniature. All that talk about an "emo revival" seems pretty dumb when you hear this and realize how long this band has been building toward it.
The National, "Pink Rabbits"
from Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
The National rarely sound eager to please, but I'm not sure I've ever heard a song that seems to just come to them quite as effortlessly as this one. The piano is fittingly dreary, and Matt Berninger's lyric gives us a few exceptional images ("a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park," for one), but "Pink Rabbits" is primarily about his vocal. It sounds like he's almost too down to muster up the effort to sing, but he stumbles into the most elegant lines his inimitable baritone has ever come up with just the same.
Phosphorescent, "Song for Zula"
from Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
This might be the year's most memorable indie song, or at least the one that got the most moms to pay attention to a cool band. From the first time that percussive bass line cuts through the strings to Matthew Houck's last glorious verse of Johnny Cash steez-bitin', "Song for Zula" is the kind of song that transcends its wistful, specific lyric and winds up on playlists for college parties, weddings and funerals alike. It's a testament to how lived-in and classic the song feels that it should feel appropriate at each.
Man's Gin, "Inspiration"
from Rebellion Hymns (Profound Lore)
Man's Gin's sophomore LP is kind of a mess, which is not a value judgment. I just mean that it's all over the place, that its energy ebbs and flows so much that it's exhausting to listen to, and that it's hard to imagine Erik Wunder playing it without finding his way to the bottom of a bottle, let alone writing it. "Inspiration" is that whole experience in seven brilliant, dynamic minutes. Wunder shredding his vocal cords just after the four-minute mark is the best moment in any song this year, and it lasts almost an entire minute. This is the best possible result of a metal dude going acoustic.
The Men, "I Saw Her Face"
from New Moon (Sacred Bones)
It took seeing The Men play this live multiple times to catapult it onto my list, and then to the very top of it, but this is without question my favorite song of 2013. The studio version is plenty loose – it was recorded live in a single take – but hearing it onstage is a whole 'nother experience, and it serves as a damn good thesis statement of where The Men are as a band right now. There's no grandiloquent metaphors or ironic distance, just earnest feelings —the three words that appear on the lyrics sheet most are "special," "great" and "love." The instrumentation is ragged and jammy, often sounding right on the edge of falling apart into cacophony without ever doing it. Then comes the ending, with its bpm jacked to three times the speed of the rest of the song, the drums hitting harder, the guitars spazzing out, every neck in the crowd whiplashed from an unexpected fit of headbanging. Then, a few measures before it seems like it should, the coda comes in, returning everything to the peaceful, hazy dream the song started with. The Men have been playing an incredible setlist lately, full of great songs from all of their records, but each time I've seen them this year, "I Saw Her Face" has been the number that sells the newcomers and puts a big dopey grin on the faces of the longtime fans. I couldn't be prouder to work with these dudes.