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Kanye West performs on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Top 10 in music: The year of Kanye, country singles

By David Burger

Special to The Tribune

First Published Dec 26 2013 11:47 am • Last Updated Dec 30 2013 12:55 pm

Kanye West’s "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" was The Salt Lake Tribune’s Album of the Year in 2010. West’s latest, "Yeezus," also sits atop the Tribune’s list of the best albums of the year. Even though he canceled a scheduled concert at EnergySolutions Arena, we can’t fault him for being an innovative artist who is blazing a path in a new and different direction, in a way that none of his peers are doing.

When it comes to singles, country music on the radio has rarely had it so good as is it did in 2013. This year’s list of top 10 singles of the year has no fewer than four country songs on it. Florida Georgia Line and Taylor Swift didn’t make the list, but their crossover success this year means that as far as Utah is concerned, popular music is country music.

And no, "Blurred Lines" is not on here. I only like the unedited video.

Top 10 Singles of the Year

1. "We Were Us," Keith Urban featuring Miranda Lambert » Whatever you think about "contemporary" country, this was an undeniably catchy song that dared you to not turn up the volume when you were in your car. This wasn’t pop country — this was pop bluegrass, and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics crescendoed into an infectious chorus that made you forget it was laden with gloom: "Back when that song was a song / I could sing along without thinkin’ bout you every time it came on / Every beat, every line, every word, every time."

2. "Same Love," Macklemore & Ryan Lewis » Actually, the rap single was released in July 2012, but didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100 until February 2013, and peaked at No. 11 in August. Macklemore bucks rap’s history of gay-bashing by pushing for gay marriage. Best of all, Mary Lambert’s chorus line of "She keeps me warm" is the hook of the year.

3. Justin Timberlake’s "Mirrors" » The best pure pop song of the year. Although it didn’t need to be 8 minutes long, "Mirrors" was JT’s musical triumph in a year full of triumphs for him. The concept of blending a guitar-fueled dance-floor power ballad with an insightful and adoring paean to his new wife and old grandparents was unassailable: "It’s like you’re my mirror / My mirror staring back at me / I couldn’t get any bigger / With anyone else beside of me."

4. "Wagon Wheel," Darius Rucker » A song originally "sketched" by Bob Dylan back in the early 1970s and completed by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor in the new millennium, this is the perfect match of singers and song, with Darius Rucker’s interpretive skills amplified by Lady Antebellum on backing vocals. This is a song that has no hidden, deeper meaning — and sometimes that’s tonic.

5. "Merry Go ’Round," Kacey Musgraves » In a year full of debut albums from talented female country singer-songwriters, Kacey Musgraves’ chorus of "Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down" was the most clever of them all.

6. "Closer," Tegan & Sara » Before, the Canadian indie-folk sisters always, well, bored me. But their 2013 reinvention into a keyboard-boasting pop duo was a welcome surprise, like getting a big, not-fun-size candy bar in your Halloween basket. Did Tegan & Sara sell out? Who cares?

7. "Springsteen," Eric Church » The best single of 2012 became the best live single of 2013, with today’s most compelling male country artist turning his anthem "Springsteen" into a captivating, epic encore on his 2013 live album "Caught in the Act." Church’s midsong testimony about how melodies are attached to memories, along with a rousing rendition of the first verse of "Born to Run," would make the Boss proud.

8. "The Mother We Share," CHVRCHES » Synth pop is irresistible — how else can we explain the inexplicable success of Owl City? This new Scottish group revels in the ethereal yet relatable vocals of Lauren Mayberry, especially on this complex chestnut. The song was initially released in 2012, but only gained traction when it was re-released in 2013. Part of the attraction is the pairing of upbeat melodies with lyrical melancholy, along with questions about the characters’ relationship. Is it about siblings? Lovers? Mother Earth? Incest?

9. "Sacrilege," Yeah Yeah Yeahs » In a year when rock unfortunately seemed to be out of ideas, here come Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to leave the synths behind and return to slow-building gut punches with drums, guitars and bass. While I despise gospel choirs arbitrarily being thrown into songs, this is the rare case in which it is appropriate, and the choir elevates the song to make sacrilege sound religious — like a prayer.

10. "Sirens," Pearl Jam » Those who say "Sirens" is PJ’s best ballad since "Black" haven’t been listening to the Seattle band since its debut album. But "Sirens" is still a highlight in the rockers’ catalog, with chilling musings on approaching mortality tempered by fleeting but in-the-moment expressions of true love: "I study your face /And the fear goes away."

Honorable mentions » OMD’s "Metroland"; Fall Out Boy’s "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ’Em Up)"; "Wrecking Ball," Miley Cyrus; "Highway Don’t Care," Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban; "Shot at the Night," The Killers; "Downtown," Lady Antebellum.

Top 10 Albums of the Year

1. Kanye West, "Yeezus" » For all of West’s supposed faults as a human being, his virtues as a musician still make him today’s most important artist in rap, if not the entire industry. This raw, often-minimalist, polarizing, but above all, brutally honest album showed that he is so far advanced beyond his peers, pushing the boundaries of what hip hop and music have the capacity to be. No one has been this brave … and viscerally hot-blooded.

2. The Civil Wars, "The Civil Wars" » The folk duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams acrimoniously broke up in late 2012, but before they disbanded they recorded enough material for a second album. You would expect their sophomore record to be a disorganized hodgepodge, but in one of the most remarkable surprises of 2013, the self-titled album is one of the most cohesive and captivating of the year.

3. Paramore, "Paramore" » In late 2010, the co-founding two Farro brothers of Tennessee pop-rock band Paramore bitterly and angrily quit the band. With firecracker-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams, the expansive, 17-song album shows maturity, ambition and sophistication — while keeping the band’s inherent sense of fun, youthful brashness and adventure intact. "There’s a time and a place to die but this ain’t it," Williams sings in the lead single "Now."

4. Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City" » To Vampire Weekend, the music of the entire world is fodder for inspiration. The Columbia University-educated quartet is based in New York City, where the rich music of hundreds of ethnicities is played on radios sitting alongside the open windows of hundreds of thousands of homes, flavoring the streets below. On its third album, "Modern Vampires of the City," Vampire Weekend has soaked in all of those influences to create a breathtakingly ambitious amalgam of world music (whatever that is) and modern pop music.

5. Ashley Monroe, "Like a Rose" » Monroe is a member of Miranda Lambert’s country vocal trio Pistol Annies, but on this album she makes a bold claim as a single-minded writer and singer of unusual clarity and conviction, as well as having an appetite for playfulness. Forged with a traditional, acoustic-driven style and dealing with modern issues such as unplanned pregnancies, addiction, loss and a weed-infused S&M party, she is a sharp-shooting pistol, and in this case, who needs gun control?

6. Atoms for Peace, "AMOK" » This supergroup with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M., and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco features two dominant stars: Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke (with his signature falsetto simmering and soaring to evocative effect) and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The electronic tracks sound much like outtakes from recent Radiohead sessions except for one crucial and pleasing element: These songs are songs, rather than Radiohead’s electronic experiments that even Miles Davis would find self-indulgent.

7. The Mavericks, "In Time" » Hallelujah! The Mavericks reunited and this collection resurrects the best ingredients of the "country" band that began in Miami and embraced a style that not only honored Buck Owens and Patsy Cline but incorporated Tex-Mex as well as dynamic Cuban rhythms. Front and center is one of the best singers in any genre of music — the powerful Raul Malo.

8. Jason Isbell, "Southeastern" » The former Drive-By Trucker has kept getting better and better over the years, and his latest shows him at the peak of his songwriting powers. These songs, many inspired by his road to sobriety, are the most revealing of his career, and though he can rock with the best of them, he dials down the volume to help you to stare into the abyss of his soul. Raised in Muscle Shoals, Isbell shows that the river waters of Nashville and Memphis power his bloodstream and his ensuing catharsis.

9. Josh Ritter, "The Beast In Its Tracks" » Idaho-born singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s last full-length, 2010’s "So Runs the World Away," was full of robust, musically grand narratives about love-obsessed mummies and heartbreaking shipwrecks. That is why Ritter’s 2013 album, "The Beast In Its Tracks," is such a detour, with a stripped-down, stark production featuring mostly Ritter’s unadorned singing and his acoustic guitar, cloaked in reverb. This is his "divorce album" and this time he explores the merciless mysteries of heartbreak.

10. Charles Bradley, "Victim of Love" » Charles Bradley’s life would make a good Hallmark Hall of Fame film ­— he lived in the projects, worked as a cook in a mental institution and performed a longtime gig as a James Brown impersonator. After being "discovered" by the Daptone family — home of traditional soul-revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — the singer recorded his first album in 2011 at age 62. Earlier this year, he released "Victim of Love," a soulful treatise on heartache and the promise of love.

Honorable special editions » "The Warner Bros. Years," Steve Earle; "In Utero [20th Anniversary Edition]," Nirvana; "Another Self Portrait 1969-1971: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10," Bob Dylan; "Sound System," The Clash; "American Radical," Woody Guthrie; "Rumours [35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition]," Fleetwood Mac.

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