As someone with too much time on his hands, I’ve always made seasonal mixtapes and talked with friends about our favorite “summer jams”—a term that really only realized means, “songs you listen to and enjoy during summer.” Even Billboard has been tracking its Hot 100 from Memorial Day to Labor Day, naming it the annual “Songs of the Summer” Chart and further rendering the concept of summer songs pretty much meaningless. Music is rarely seasonal. You can make obvious exceptions like dubbing Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago a “winter album” and most of The Beach Boys’ discography as perfect “summer albums” but even then, it pigeonholes music into a limited function. For this list, there’s no scientific method for picking these songs other than the fact that these tracks were released in 2013, are humble recommendations, and might remind you of summer.
There’s no Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or Robin Thicke’s sexy “Blurred Lines” on this list, but we’re not going to pretend like those aren’t great pop songs. Though most on this mix won’t even crack the Billboard Hot 100, each of these artists have broadened the 2013 pop landscape. From Vampire Weekend’s playful but mature indie rock, to Disclosure’s forward-thinking dance music or Laura Mvula’s idiosyncratic jazz-pop, 2013 is more than what’s been dominating the airwaves and Spotify streams.
1. Pacific Air – “Float”
This song led off the 2012 Summer Mix I made for my friends and family. At that time, Pacific Air played music under the moniker of KO KO. Since releasing the track on Bandcamp, the indie pop duo signed with Republic Records, promptly changed their name to Pacific Air and released an EP last fall. Though this playlist mostly has tracks released in 2013, I am making an exception because of how bubbly and catchy this song is—it’s absolutely perfect for summer.
2. Foals – “My Number”
While summer is a time of carefree fun, sometimes a good summer playlist needs a kiss-off. Fortunately, Foals released one of the most danceable “fuck yous” of the year with “My Number.” When lead singer Yannis Philippakis belts out, “Cause I feel alive,” it’s impossible not to feel the promise of summer nights.
3. Alpine – “Hands”
Hailing from Australia, Alpine is a electro-pop band with memorable hooks and a damn good debut in A is For Alpine. They first appeared on the U.S. radar when they played and impressed SXSW in 2012. With “Hands” the breathy vocal interplay between Phoebe Baker and Lou James blends with the pulsating, almost ominous beat. Note: While originally released in 2011, and exception was made because it is on their debut full length that hits stores this year.
4. Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
This song is sort of expected. Vampire Weekend proved once and for all that they’re not just another NYC buzz-band with their completely mature and challenging third album Modern Vampires Of The City. Critics and audiences agreed, sending the acclaimed LP to No. 1 on the Billboard Charts and to Pitchfork’s Best New Music. On “Diane Young,” the slick production, vocal distortions, and driving beat make for the catchiest number on the new record.
5. Classixx – “Holding On”
L.A. based production duo Michael David and Tyler Blake impressed last month with Hanging Gardens—a glistening and fun dance album that rivaled the infectiousness of Random Access Memories. The energy and catchiness found throughout the LP is best encapsulated in “Holding On,” the record’s lead single. “Holding On” bounces and grooves—sort of like a 2013 take on Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “September.”
6. Betty Who – “You’re In Love”
If it’s not Alpine, there’s another great pop act coming from Australia. Meet Betty Who, a very tall (6’2”) synth-pop superstar in the making, who moved to America and received her education at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She caught the eyes of the pop world with her other single “Somebody Loves You,” but with “You’re In Love,” she reaches Katy Perry levels of massive hooks but without the cheese and insufferableness.
7. Cayucas – “High School Lover”
Like Pacific Air, Cayucas recently changed their name from “Oregon Bike Trails” before releasing their debut album. Also like Pacific Air, “High School Lover” was one of my favorite songs last summer and I’m also rationalizing its inclusion into the list by noting that this song was on Cayucas’s 2013 debut album. “High School Lover” takes teenage nostalgia and makes it palatable—it’s a fun summer song that will you have you humming along at the beach.
8. Telekinesis! – “Lean On Me”
Seattle’s Michael Lerner blends the best of power-pop and pop-punk to make consistently solid releases that always seem to get stuck in your head. “Lean On Me” picks up where Lerner left off on 12 Desperate Straight Lines and his latest album Domarion is stronger because of it.
9. Tegan and Sara – “Drove Me Wild”
Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin released their seventh studio album, Hearthrob this winter that marked a departure from their previous sound for a more conventional, poppy oeuvre. This isn’t something to complain about as Heartthrob arguably ranks among the duo’s best. Proof of this is the fifth track, “Drove Me Wild.” Along with “Closer,” this is one of the best songs on the new record and a perfect supplement to a fun summer night.
10. Disclosure – “Latch”
Impossibly young U.K. band of brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence released the best dance record of the year with Settle. On an album full of summer dance jams, one of the most stand out tracks is the stunner “Latch,” which features guest vocals from British singer Sam Smith. Sure to be an anthem in clubs everywhere, Disclosure shows off their ear for complex beats and pop hooks despite their respective ages of 21 and 18.
11. Kurt Vile – “Wakin On A Pretty Day”
The best descriptor of Kurt Vile’s music would be “laid back.” After breaking off from The War On Drugs, the rock guitar virtuoso has put out album after album of intricate but seemingly effortless jams. His latest, Wakin On A Pretty Daze is one of those great summer albums despite the fact that six of its eleven songs go past the six-minute mark. Clocking in at over nine minutes, “Wakin On A Pretty Day” doesn’t seem that long as Vile’s subdued vocals and reverb-heavy guitar make for an engaging listen.
12. The Spinto Band – “Shake It Off”
The Spinto Band’s latest full length Cool Cocoon furthered the group’s infatuation with great power-pop tunes. The 17-year veterans kickstart the album with “Shake It Off” a upbeat gem of poppy rock. There’s some dissonance between the light and breezy vibe of the music and the melancholy found in the lyrics, “It hurts to be young and it hurts to be someone who’s scared.”
13. Ex Cops – “James”
Ex Cops are a dream pop duo from New York who have managed to sound fresh in a relatively crowded genre. After signing with Other Music, the band released True Hallucinations. The third track on the debut, “James” has the male/female back and forth vocals of early Belle & Sebastian and the shimmering pop guitars of Teenage Fanclub and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
14. Jagwar Ma – “Come Save Me”
Psychedelic poppers Jagwar Ma also hail from Australia and probably took a few notes when their compatriots Tame Impala released one of 2012’s strongest albums in Lonerism. “Oohs” and “Ahs” from the backup vocals permeate “Come Save Me” and lead to almost a chant towards the end that’s both mesmerizing and trippy.
15. Vondelpark – “California Analog Dream”
Incorporating R&B rhythms and attitude to indie rock has been one of more welcome trends lately with Rhye, Autre Ne Veut, and inc. impressively leading the charge. Vondelpark uses R&B elements to create a downbeat, almost surreal number in “California Analog Dream.” Lewis Rainsbury’s baritone croon sets the chill mood to the lovely smooth number.
16. Camera Obscura – “Do It Again”
Glaswegian ensemble Camera Obscura have been at it since 1996, but they haven’t run out of material left. 2013’s Desire Lines continued to refine the group’s indie pop sound without being too twee. Though Desire Lines has quite of number of pop gems, none reach the same heights with the upbeat “Do It Again.”
17. Charli XCX – “What I Like”
We’re all familiar and somehow not sick of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” it was the song of the summer last year, was featured in a great episode of Girls, and still gets constant radio play. Well, Charli XCX co-wrote that jam and this year dropped True Romance, her first official full-length (after a series of mixtapes and a disowned album she refers to as “shitty Myspace music”). Though at 21, Charli XCX has used her millennial inclination towards social media to develop a devoted Twitter and Tumblr fan base, True Romance can’t be described as “shitty Myspace music.” Instead, it’s a well-thought out and incredibly catchy collection of potential pop hits, especially the youth nostalgia-laden love song “What I Like.” It’s easy to see Charli XCX becoming the “next big thing” soon.
18. Laura Mvula – “Green Garden”
Lauren Mvula’s rise to success is one of those awesome feel-good stories that inevitably come with many up and coming artists. She’s a 26-year-old from Birmingham who couldn’t get over her stage fright despite being classically trained. Now, she has a hit album that can’t really be pigeonholed into just R&B or pop. Somehow, her idiosyncratic blend of these genres finds her music somewhere by itself—complex, weird, but ultimately familiar and accessible. She sings, “I’ll fly on the wings of a butterfly, high as a treetop and down again” on “Green Garden,” a standout from Sing To The Moon that incorporates vocoders ala Imogen Heap.
19. Palma Violets – “We Found Love”
Palma Violets received a lot of buzz last year in their native England for the catchy “I want to be in the friendzone” anthem “Best of Friends” which received Song of The Year accolades from NME. After releasing their debut album, 180 this winter, their rambunctiously rowdy brand of garage rock marks the band as not just another Strokes imitation. “We Found Love” is a hopeful anthem complete “La La La’s” and a resolution for the future “I’m gonna find myself a lady friend / stick by her until the end.” It even has a guitar solo and pays homage to The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” For those who want to rock, listen to this.
20. Pickwick – “Window Sill”
Seattle soul indie outfit Pickwick’s debut album Can’t Talk Medicine was one of releases I was most excited for this year and it didn’t disappoint. Those familiar with the band know their biggest strength lies with lead singer Galen Disston, a sort of goofy looking guy who can really fucking belt it out. On “Window Sill,” the closest thing the band has to a fists-in-the-air anthem, Disston’s voice soars while the rest of the band brings down the house in just an absolute banger of a track. A stellar live act, Pickwick will be supporting artists like Okkervil River and Black Joe Lewis on tour later this year.
Because not everything is on Spotify, here are some songs we missed
Chance The Rapper – “Juice”
Chicago wunderkind emcee Chance The Rapper dazzled with his sophomore mixtap Acid Rap, an experimental release taking the best of free jazz, an ear for hooks, and Chance’s weird flow into the best rap release of 2013. It’s remarkably mature for someone who is only 20 years old.
MØ – “Waste Of Time”
Danish pop-star-in-the-making MØ hasn’t yet released an album but her previous singles “Glass” and “Pilgrim” have generated considerable buzz. “Waste Of Time” proves this hype isn’t unwarranted. The glitchy beat matched with the jangly guitars and her R&B mentality carves out a spot in the growing list of new pop stars. Think of her as a toned down Grimes and iamamiwhoami, yet more fun than Lana Del Ray.
Josh Terry is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago who still hasn’t left the city and probably never will. His work has appeared in the The A.V. Club though, in conversation, most people think he’s talking about his high school Audio/Visual Club. Still one to hero worship, he denies the existence of the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration (Lou Reed is one of his heroes, though he did go through a Thrash phase in high school). You can follow him on Twitter and read his old A.V. Club articles.