The Top 20 Indie Rock Songs of 2013
Below are ten of the best rock songs to come out in 2013. This list has everything from gentle lullabies to angsty guitar licks. What it doesn’t have are the 10 best indie rock songs of 2013, which are still yet to come. But I bet you’ll find these are so good that you won’t mind a bit.
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20. Ball Park Music – Literally Baby (2:46)
“Literally Baby” isn’t even indie rock. This is good old-fashioned rock and roll that’s a little bit 1955 and a little bit 1995. For the latter I’m thinking of the vocalist, who shouts like one of the many nineties rockers influenced by ska or rockabilly. The piano tinkles like a golden oldie and the triumphant back-up chorus is one of many trills that give the song fullness.
The main reason this song didn’t find better footing on my list is that I’m perplexed by the refrain, which happens to remind me of my biggest grammatical pet peeve. It’s not that he’s using “literally” wrongly, it seems more like for no reason at all. Maybe it’s a reference to the girl having a similar pet peeve—akin to Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.” But unlike the latter, it’s unclear what the singer is getting at with the refrain. Your thoughts on the lyrical intent?
19. Thee Oh Sees – Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster (3:32)
The opening shrill cuts like a knife and the thick, lusty guitar makes me want to sway right from the first riff. Not a lounge-y sway, but a raucous, wide-legged sway, deep enough to be a yoga move, best accompanied by a pumping fist. Next the drums and guitar relent in favor of the singing, unexpectedly soft. This is all just a breather, a chance to prep yourself for some more indulgence to the God of strings. I’m not one for long guitar solos (which half “Thumb Buster” is…I’m wondering if the title is a reference not to the song’s content but what it does to John Dwyer’s fingers). It all fizzles out in skillfully-dosed feedback. Fans of shoegaze and classic rock should check out “Thumb Buster”.
18. Born Ruffians – Needle (3:32)
The reason “Needle” didn’t get a better spot on my best of 2013 list is because it starts out too pretty. I like the pretty, but it’s a little too plodding, too plaintive. When the crisp refrain begins it feels like a slow slap in the face. Thirty seconds later I remember why I love this song. When Born Ruffians begin singing “A way! A way!” they have gorgeous harmonies it’s rare to hear in a rock band. And “Needle” does rock when it gets to that refrain. The rockage sneaks up on you.
There’s something to the lyrics too. Most of the song is a plaintive complaint of how the singer doesn’t fit in. But it’s not a sad song, it’s a love song. He’s found that someone, and what are the odds that such an odd fellow would find his needle in the hay?
I belong to no one
A song without an album
Long forgotten maxim spoken to the sea:
I belong with no one/ I belong with no one/ I belong with no one…
you belong with me
The typical lovesong would focus on the object of his affection but “Needle” is mostly lyrical navel-gazing. It’s narcissistic moping is touching because the more of an oddball he is, the more amazing it is that he found her.
Born Ruffians are one of many bands that hasn’t yet gotten the recognition they deserve. In “Needle” they sound a bit like they’re impersonating Vampire Weekend, but many of their best songs are more straightforward rocking out.
17. The Royal Concept – World On Fire (3:48)
Leave it to a Swedish electro band to show us how a synth was meant to be used. “WorldOn Fire” is yet another rousing tribute to soundtrack the march towards our dystopic future. “The world has gone mad,” the royal concept sings, and this is the song we lemmings will be dancing to as we go over the edge. Originally one of my top-five favorite songs of 2013, but I overplayed it so it lost its rank. Unfair? Tell me if you think it deserves a better spot.
16. Mounties – Headphones (3:08)
“I got my headphones on from the minute I’m up to the minute I go to bed.” That’s a refrain I feel more kinship with than I do with 90% of love songs. I love the image of a pair of headphones as a sideways mohawk. These Canadian cops on horses are going to be buried in their headphones, proving they’ve done their homework. The guitar work pulls you in without drawing attention to itself while the chilled-out harmonies have a bit of edge in the refrain.
Mounties are a new band; they don’t even have their album on Amazon yet. Check out the Mounties website to feel all up and coming.
15. Them Swoops – Too Fast For Love (2:34)
So much strumming! This makes me want to do acoustic air guitar.I hope this singer dances around the stage while a couple lindy hops in front of him. Because that’s what I’m picturing. Happy, dancing strumming people. “Too Fast For Love” is your summer sunshine feel-good song.
14. Har Mar Superstar – Lady, You Shot Me (3:00)
“Lady, You Shot Me” sounds like a long-lost hit from a 70s classic rock station. The horns are great but what really makes this song one of the best of the year is Sean Matthew Tillmann’s soulful voice. “Lady, You Shot Me” may be in the spirit of classic R&B but it reminds me most of Paul McCartney’s “Oh Darlin’.”
13. Joywave – Tongues (3:49)
Who’s ready to get weird? If you’re listening to these songs in order, you’ll be struck right away that Joywave is going to deviate from the classic rock sound of Har Mar Superstar. They’re not going to give you anything that can be classified as standard rock, or even “indie rock,” whatever that is.
First strange thing: “Tongues” opens with what sounds like a drum kit but also has an electronic bass (thanks to guest contribution from DJ KOPPS). But it’s the melody that will alert you.When I say they’re singing “boop boop boop,” it’s not like a sixties back-up singer, more like the complex layering of dreamwave and electro dance music. The “boops” tie into the lyrics too, as Daniel Armbruster sings, “I Hear their mouths making foreign sounds / Sometimes i think they’re all just speaking tongues.”
That line (around 1:30) is where the song truly launches to greatness. After the intriguing line “I’ll be gone when the drugs wear off,” “Tongues” delivers a satisfying cacophony. I’m not even sure what it is. There’s piano, and some bells, but there’s something else, maybe a back up vocal or maybe just a number of effects on Armbruster’s voice (overloop plus heavy reverb?). I want to stop what I’m doing and really listen to figure out what ghostly magic Joywave is working.
12. The Naked and Famous – A Stillness (5:21)
The Naked and Famous have had another great year.They’re quite possibly the most promising band making electro right now. Mostly because they don’t sound like they’re imitating eighties new wave. I love bands like Cut Copy, M83 and The Presets precisely because they perfectly capture everything that was great about the songs of my childhood. Naked and Famous lean towards more of new wave’s rock influences, like Blondie or The Cars. Yet no one would confuse Naked and Famous for either of these bands. They have their own unique sound.
Things Naked and Famous do well: swelling crescendos, boy-girl harmonies, lush synths, and explosive refrains. This song hits the refrain lightly, almost all of a “Stillness” is a build-up to to the breakdown at 4:00. This song is a dominatrix holding a feather; they’ve figured out what they’re good at, and they’re going to tease you with it relentlessly for four tempting minutes. “Be still,” she dares you.
11. Cub Scouts – Scream (4:18)
There’s always a late entry to barrel down the best-of list, and this year the honor goes to Cub Scouts. While pre-screening the songs, I tend to listen to them in countdown order. That way every song should be better than the last, all the way to number one. Because Cub Scouts were a late entry, I put them at the top of the list, but the soft voice singing “you make me scream” and the sad piano kept this song inching down the list to land just on the cusp of the top ten. “Scream” sounds like a lullaby, contrasting the angry lyrics.
Please don’t smile,
it makes me sick
to watch you part those wicked lips
An animal in the night,
I’m ready for your bite.
The contrast makes it seem that the singer is broken, or at least resigned to his fate. It’s not a song about that moment when he is screaming, it’s a song about the aftermath, the moment he’s ready to give in or walk away. In “Scream” the music is conveying more than the lyrics.
Up Next: The Top Ten Indie Pop Songs
There you have it: the best songs of 2013 to make you wonder what the heck is happening on mainstream rock radio. I hope this batch is so good it has you wondering what could be better, i.e. the Top Ten Best Indie Rock Songs of 2013. But first I’ll be finishing up the Top Indie Pop songs of 2013. If you particularly liked the Mounties or The Royal Concept on this list, the best indie-pop list is sure to have plenty more light and upbeat indie tracks to round out your list of favorite new jams.