As hardly bears repeating, in the wee hours last Friday morning Beyonce cracked the Internet, the music industry and indeed our very skulls wide open when she dropped her self-titled fifth album completely unannounced. This savvy, rogue approach has paid off in spades, with Beyonce moving 617k copies of BEYONCE in the three days since its release, the second-biggest digital week of all time and the best sales week numbers of Beyonce's career (Frankly, I'm just trying to see how many times I can cram "Beyonce" into one paragraph).
The real reason this stunt worked so beautifully, though, is that even more brilliant than 'Yonce's keen marketing plan (or non-marketing plan, if you will) is the work itself. This album is pound-for-pound the musical highlight in what has already been a pretty illustrious run for the singer. It is a dazzlingly executed cohesive artistic statement, one without an ounce of filler. In a year full of conceptually disappointing and ham-fisted efforts from most of our beloved pop icons (See this for more), the music here achieves a delicately stunning balance, clearly forward-thinking but also accessible. It also gleamingly highlights the attributes we've come to cherish about Ms. Carter over the last 15 years.
If there's one downside to Beyonce's sneak attack, it's that she missed the cutoff for one of the Internet's most treasured traditions: The year-end "Best-of" lists. As I scanned through Pitchfork's excellent round-up of 2013's best tracks this morning, I realized there was only one remedy for the injustice of Queen B's (understandable) omission from these "Countdowns" (haha, see what I did there?) and that is a "Best-of" list of only BEYONCE songs, of course! And really, is there any other artist we care about after the glorious feat she pulled off last week? No, there is not.
I want to be clear: This record is so solid that the distance between #14 and #1 is very short indeed -- I can really fuxx with all the tracks on BEYONCE. But the universe demands order, and lists are mad funsies, so let's dive in, shall we? Here are the best songs of 2013: BEYONCE-Only Edition, in ascending order:
14. "Jealous": Look, we have to start somewhere and while the concept of Beyonce cooking dinner for Jay-Z in the nude is as titillating for me as it is any other warm-blooded creature, I also worry about her burning her pristinely sculpted abdominals with hot cooking grease. Also, does Beyonce really get jealous of anyone? How can this even be possible, for she is actual perfect perfection personified? I'm not really buying. Bottom line: This track is still pretty great, just not as god-like transcendent as, say, "Drunk In Love." Also, Beyonce does not cook. Please, girl, no one believes that hooey for a second.
13. "Pretty Hurts": I get that this is the inspirational jumping-off point for the album, but I find "Pretty Hurts" a little too lyrically straightforward and trite when I'm not already sad and drunk and feeling badly about myself and desperate for inspiration. I also think it's slightly disingenuous of the Queen to sing about how perfection is a disease while looking flawless in the song's beauty-pageant themed music video. (Note for Beyonce: "damp hair" does not make you look any less celestially superb.) That's the best I can do. "Pretty Hurts" is still pretty fabulous. (Full disclosure: Last night when I was sad and drunk and feeling bad about myself and desperate for inspiration, I sung this song at the top of my lungs and cried while rearranging my sweaters, so I'm really full of it.)
12. "Haunted": Both sections of this song -- the intro piece entitled "Ghost" on the video album and the song itself -- probably represent the most experimental six minutes of music Bey has ever laid on wax. It's a cool enterprise, especially the spoken word section in the beginning, but come on, B. "Working that 9 to 5 just to stay alive?" File that next to cooking dinner as two things Beyonce sings about on BEYONCE but has literally never even dreamed of doing IRL. And considering its lack of a clear hook, this almost comes off as an interlude that is somehow one of the longest tracks on the record.
11. "Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean)": Bey and Frank have great chemistry in the studio. This was abundantly clear from their last collaboration on Bey's 4, "Miss You," one of her most subtly effective moments. "Superpower" perhaps loses points for me if only because it lives in the shadow of "Miss You"'s monumental accomplishment. It's a lovely duet, but it also feels somewhat slight compared to the wallop delivered by the other songs on the record -- a little meandering, a little tuneless.
10. "Mine (feat. Drake)": The fact that I'm putting a song as fine as "Mine" this low on the list only speaks to the overall quality of the record where it lives. My biggest gripe here is that whereas almost every other song feels distinctly "Beyonce-y," this track smacks a little too heavily of its writer and guest performer. Everything from 40's skitteringly minimalist, triptych beat to the narcissistic-emo lyrical content and the whine-sing flow are all classic Drizzy. During Beyonce's verses, which she executes with aplomb, you can almost hear her stenciling her own voice over Drake's probably-actually-exists demo (seriously, can someone find this?). It's a great track. It just feels like a great Drake track sung by Beyonce.
9. "No Angel": Ugh, this keeps getting more difficult. "No Angel" is probably the most direct view into the auditory unicorn that is the sound of a real life Beyonce Orgasm™. I adore how stripped down and raw her falsetto sounds floating over those spacious 808s. I also feel like Jay definitely really refers to her as a "problem" when they're foreplaying. Also, does this song give anyone else shades of Ciara's finest work (see: "Promise," "Body Party")? I don't have anything distinctly critical to say about "No Angel" -- this is a simple, luscious sex jam on an otherworldly stupendous album.
8. "Blue": Beyonce singing about Blue is something we've all been painfully lacking in our lives up to now, and "Blue" fills that void masterfully. I cried real tears when I first heard Bey tenderly coo, "When you open your eyes, I feel alive." The best way I can describe the power of this track is to say that when I heard those words, I was ready to drop my turkey sandwich and have a baby right there on the spot.
7. "Heaven": This edges out "Blue" in the Beyonce-pregnancy inspired balladry that fills out the tail end of the album, if only because I find the concept so heart-wrenching. "Heaven" is the most distinctly honest look we've ever had into Beyonce's psyche, Life is But a Dream be damned. What these lyrics reveal is Beyonce's coping mechanism for dealing with her pre-Blue miscarriage: Believing her child was special enough to pass straight from her body to heaven, skipping the anguish of an earthly life altogether. "Heaven couldn't wait for you, so go on, go home," she sings cathartically during the chorus. Profoundly beautiful sentiment, elegantly realized.
6. "Rocket": If D'Angelo was a mega-empowered female pop star, this would be his signature song, and that is about as huge a compliment as anyone could pay to, well, anyone else about anything. I would travel up the side of Beyonce's mountain and dive into the depths of Beyonce's fountain any day, anytime, any place. And I don't even do women. Also, "Let me sit this ass on you" is bar-none the most indelible opening line of a song in recent memory.
5. "XO": This is the most radio-friendly cut on the album, but I love that it doesn't feel at all out of tune with the rest of the proceedings like, say, "Best Thing I Never Had" did on 4. This is the kind of effervescent power ballad that Beyonce nails ("Halo" and "I Care" being the finest previous examples). Ryan Tedder's shuffling dancehall beat adds a singular flourish that lifts an already sumptuous melody into a just-left-of-center delight.
4. "***Flawless": Alright, we're getting into the home stretch here. Where to even begin? First of all, is there anything better on this earth than Beyonce getting viciously aggressive on a monstrous hip-hop beat? I also have to note how brilliantly B flipped our understanding of the "Bow Down" section of the song which leaked to mixed reaction earlier this year, and turned the whole track into a rally cry by incorporating a section of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk on modern feminism.
Additional note: The song's repeated brassy refrain, "I woke up like this!" has probably redefined Instagram captions for an entire generation.
3. "Drunk In Love (feat Jay Z)": Remember the first time you watched Kanye's "Bound 2" video and were floored by the sheer deficiency in sexual tension between Yeezus and Kimmy? Yeah, "Drunk on Love" is the complete opposite of that. This song is a splendidly Baroque concept: Essentially, Jay Z and Beyonce are so perilously intoxicated by each other that they can't even make it from the kitchen to bedroom without fucking. Moreover, Jay Z and Beyonce's sex is so mind-blowingly exhilarating that they don't even realize they've slept in said kitchen til the next morning when they wake up and are all like, "What? We're Jay Z and Beyonce, and we just slept on the kitchen floor!"
Ad. Note 1: Beyonce pulls off the rarest of feats here by allowing Jay Z to rap in 2013 without the result of me wanting to burn my ears off.
Ad. Note 2: This is their best moment together since "Crazy In Love."
Ad. Note 3: "Surfboard."
2. "Blow": This does Beyonce-as-Donna Summer better than the Donna Summer-sampling "Naughty Girl." This production is somehow the apex of Pharrell's 16-month one-man disco revival, rivaled only by "Get Lucky." What makes "Blow" exceptional in a year filled Studio 54-fetishism is that this isn't just an homage. It takes the tropes of disco -- the four-to-the-floor beat, the propulsive, funky baseline, the palpable and undeniable joyousness -- and plants it firmly in 2013 and beyond. This is disco filtered through a post-Drake aural universe while remaining very decidedly "Beyonce" (with a dab of Kelis' early stuff). Also important: It is my dream to one day utter the lyrics, "I can't til I get home so you can turn this cherry out." This track may not be called "Heaven," but it most certainly is.
1. "Partition": "He Monica Lewinsky'ed all on my gown." Need I say more?
This is really two of the best songs on BEYONCE, all in one. The opening section, "Yonce," features an assailing Beyonce rap where she dons a Slick Rick accent and delivers the album's, and indeed the artist's, overall mission statement: "Radio said speed it up, I just go slower." "Yonce" then recedes, making way for the most thrilling three minutes on the album, "Partition," which finds our heroine casually and confidently unspooling a tale of backseat limousine sex that is so erotically charged and filthy raunchy that when I first heard it, I made this face, ":-o," on at least five occasions (see the aforementioned Lewinsky reference).
"Partition"'s beat bangs harder than anything else here. It lies sonically somewhere between Ginuwine, Ying Yang Twin's "Salt Shaker," 808s and Heartbreaks, and Iggy Azalea's "Murda Business." It sweeps and swells, and Beyonce sweeps and swells right along with it: "Oh Daddy, Oh Daddy didn't bring a towel / Oh Baby-baby, we slow it down / Took 45 minutes to get all dressed up / And we ain't even gonna make it to this club," Beyonce moans while Timbaland's synths cascade around her and Jay's writhing bodies.
My sister argued with me this weekend about how some of the more lurid moments on BEYONCE seem to be an attempt to "keep up with Rihanna." However, I find the explicitness on display in songs like "Partition" to be of a different breed than, say, "Birthday Cake." While Rihanna's salaciousness is all casual sex and S&M -- general and broad expressions of her overarching sexual being -- the sexual details in Bey's new music feel firmly rooted in the singular brand of tender freakiness that only results from monogamous intimacy. "Partition" drives that message home most clearly and directly. Not to mention that Rihanna hasn't even come close to delivering the united artistic statement that houses "Partition" and the rest of the songs on this compilation.
It is this specificity of purpose -- lyrically, sonically and artistically mining what it means to be Beyonce -- that makes BEYONCE such stirring success. With this record, Beyonce continues to place a premium on moving the needle of her own work as well as her position within the broader spectrum of pop. The disciplined commitment to following her own muse coupled with her mammoth natural talents mark her as the most important mainstream pop artist working today.
So this concludes my list of the Best Songs of 2013: BEYONCE-Only Edition. Agree with me? Think I'm crazy for putting "Pretty Hurts" so far down the list? Think I'm an idiot for liking this record cuz it actually "Blows"? (It doesn't, dumbies, but I'm just leaving that in here anyway.) Sound off in the comments.