2013, you crazy son of a bitch. It’s been one weird year in music. Not just for the music itself—which is an orgy of genres, sounds, and styles—but for the business behind the music and the hyperbolic, illogical criticism it incites. Album-leaking is the norm, labels are scrambling to make money like they used to, and as we publish this list, a teenager from New Zealand is on the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Oh, and people are calling her racist.
While all this madness happens, the Internet continues to speed things up like a wobbly ride on a skateboard down a steep hill. It’s made everything a little more unpredictable and a lot more volatile, but it hasn’t been at the cost of the music. Among all of this mess, creativity has been thriving and the year has been an excellent one for music.
Here are our picks for the best albums of 2013.
30. King Krule – 6 Feet Beneath The Moon
Release date: August 24, 2013
Label: True Pather Sounds
Yes, Archy Marshall is only 19, and no, that guttural, disdainful growl does not sound as if it should come from his wiry frame, but that only adds to the charm of King Krule’s brand of off-kilter, jazzy rock. 6 Feet Beneath The Moon can be interpreted as the audible representation of Marshall himself—a series of songs that reflects the psyche of a 19-year-old with its lethargic and uncertain, but also urgent, delivery. There are moments on the record when his angsty side emerges, unrestrained and raw, which pairs perfectly with the frantic strumming of his electric guitar. As a whole, there’s not much in terms of continuity—there aren’t many smooth transitions, few moments that flow from one song to another. But these jumps, like from the light-hearted “Border Line” with a hip-hop-leaning beat to the industrial, fuzzy “Has This Hit?,” maintains your undivided attention because it’s that much more interesting. 6 Feet Beneath The Moon is a manic-depressive sonic adventure, and Archy Marshall, however young he may be, is leading the way.—Joyce
29. Boldy James – My 1st Chemistry Set
Release date: October 15, 2013
Teaming up with prolific and legendary producer Alchemist, Detroit’s Boldy James served up a cohesive, cinematic vision with full-length My 1st Chemistry Set. In spite of enlisting a few notable names as collaborators (Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, Domo Genesis, and, of course, Alchemist), James manages to remain the centerpiece, his impossibly steady baritone delivering some of the savviest street raps in recent memory. Working with a lone producer of singular vision proves ideal for James, with Alchemist serving up a consistently entertaining, pliable array of grimy funk samples, soulful vocals, and dust-caked orchestral arrangements. Songs like “Moochie” and “400 Thousand” show how much room is left for play with tried and true concepts in the hands of a clever rapper, as James makes the slang-breakdown song and a tale of a paranoid drug dealer into subtly hypnotic affairs, the sorts of songs you find yourself coming back to without fully noticing you’ve been hooked yet. It won’t please every rap listener, but if you’re a fan of quality storytelling, classically-groomed wordplay, and rich, sample-based production, My 1st Chemistry Set delivers.—Jon Tanners
28. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Release date: September 27, 2013
For any artist who starts with a single, wildly successful song, putting out the right debut album is tricky. The end result usually goes one of two ways: an authentic breakthrough success, or an artificial, label-made mess. For Lorde, Pure Heroine emerged as a revelation, proving her sharp tongue and strong vocals were more than just a “Royals” fluke. What makes Pure Heroine special as a pop debut is the purity to which the title alludes. On songs like “Ribs,” there’s an old soul peeking out from behind youthful lyrics like, “You’re the only friend I need / Sharing beds like little kids/We’ll laugh until our ribs get tough,” as her carefree attitude melts away in the face of the anxiety that stems from growing old before her time.
Lorde’s rise to fame narrative aside, Pure Heroine also features some of the best vocal harmonies on any album this year (see: “White Teeth Teens”), complemented by Joel Little’s polished production work, another key ingredient to Pure Heroine’s sonic enchantment. And in taking the short and tightly focused 10-song approach, Lorde’s debut is a defined vision and a change of pace from the over-produced, manufactured pop that typically dominates radio. The combination of the album’s indie nature and massive pop appeal have some people hating, but as Lorde notes on the album’s closing line, “The people are talking, the people are talking/Let ‘em talk.”—Dee
27. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Release date: July 26, 2013
Label: Vagrant / Island
The past few years have done a wonderful job at naturally blending sounds to create entirely new genres. With the emergence and success of artists like Grimes and her electro-pop creations, Haim’s indie-classic-rock concoctions, and CHVRCHES’ synth-pop sing-a-longs, there came not only greater tolerance for pop experimentation, but also greater appreciation for it. AlunaGeorge’s Body Music came along at just the right time. The duo, comprised of vocalist Aluna Francis and producer George Reid, have incorporated just the right amount of R&B and electronic influences into their core pop sound to create an innovative compilation without losing any accessibility. While many pop albums fall victim to just becoming a collection of catchy singles, there’s an explicit sense of cohesiveness in Body Music. It flows seamlessly from one track to the next, even maintaining a central thought-process throughout the lyrics of the different songs. For a debut album to have this kind of confidence and originality isn’t just impressive, it’s refreshing.—Katie K
26. M.I.A. – Matangi
Release date: Novermber 1, 2013
When it comes to a new M.I.A. album, we’ve learned over the years to approach it with zero presumptions. If we came expecting the same Eastern-influenced sound present on “Bad Girls,” a song released more than two years ago, to carry on throughout Matangi, we’d be incorrectly pigeonholing. In actuality, Matangi is a multi-layered, international, schizophrenic kaleidoscope of sounds that leaves you dizzy.
Matangi also marks a thematic departure for the English-Sri Lankan singer, whose earlier work embodies her political, civil disobedience. With this album, M.I.A. explores relgious ideology and iconography such as reincarnation, karma, and the album’s namesake, the Hindu goddess Matangi. With that said, Matangi’s not exactly lacking in colorful social commentary, most notably on the Julian Assange-assisted track “aTENTion,” where she raps in an auto-tuned voice, “My exisTENTS is miliTENT ’cause my conTENT bangs like it’s poTENT.” But one of Matangi’s best and most underappreciated qualities is its ability to push producers like Hit-Boy to move off-kilter with his beat-making and deliver something that syncs with M.I.A.’s frenetic, jittery style, which he achieves on “Boom Skit.” Matangi makes up for all the polarizing elements of /\/\ /\ Y /\ that left fans disillusioned and calls to mind her Arular days.—Dee
25. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.ASAP
Release date: January 15, 2013
Label: RCA/Polo Grounds
With the burden of expectation set upon A$AP Rocky from nearly the time the two-headed monster of “Peso” and “Purple Swag” launched his career, it is unsurprising that major label debut LONG.LIVE.A$AP felt like a bit of a disappointment (particularly in comparison to the first album from the man once considered very much Rocky’s equal, Kendrick Lamar). Inconsistent in tone, occasionally marred by filler, and never significantly advancing Rocky’s perspective, LONG.LIVE.A$AP provides enough high points to make up for lesser components. Songs like “Fuckin’ Problems” and “Wild For the Night” solidified Rocky’s commercial viability without straying too wildly from the aesthetic that made him popular, while “LVL,” “Long.Live.A$AP,” “Ghetto Symphony,” and “Goldie” provided updated, high-definition takes on the hazy, blown-out extremes of Live.Love.A$AP. In an age of constant scrutiny and truncated album life-cycles, LONG.LIVE.A$AP might feel slight, but nearly twelve months on, it still provides enjoyment while leaving the door open for greater works to come. —Jon Tanners
24. Rhye – Woman
Release date: March 1, 2013
Label: Republic/Innovative Leisure
There were a lot of bands making hushed, delicate R&B in 2013, but none did it better than Rhye. We now know that it is the duo of vocalist Mike Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal (of Quadron) who are behind the music, but when “Open” and then “Fall” first appeared in a flourish of strings, keys, and beautifully romantic lyrics all the way back in 2012, we had nothing but the music to fall in love with.
Could Rhye’s album live up to that glorious one-two punch (more, a gentle caress) of an introduction? Well, not quite, but that is more a testament to just how good those first two songs were, and still are, over a year on. So, the best two songs on Woman are the first two, but, with the exception of the cheesy, meandering “One Of Those Summer Days,” the rest of the album is uniformly very impressive, full of lush but never overblown production and masterful songwriting, all tied together by Milosh’s endlessly listenable androgynous vocals. No album in 2013 dealt with the topics of love and sex and intimacy and relationships in such an open and unpretentious manner, and the way those subjects are tied up and presented in a slinky, timeless R&B package makes Woman one of the year’s best albums.—Constant Gardner
23. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Release date: May 17, 2013
Your love for Random Access Memories might depend on how often you take car trips. Or long walks. Or doing shit other than sitting at a computer, because it’s hard to fully dig into Daft Punk‘s fourth studio album. It’s not because many feel it’s such a departure from their previous work (although, if you look at them in order, they’ve been reverting to using more instruments on every new project), while others just wanted an album full of “Get Lucky.” Daft Punk delivered an album that harkened back to the 1970s in a number of different ways, from the throwback Columbia sticker on the vinyl release to the fact that this project works so much better listening from front to back, preferably on an 8-track. Just as important, though, is that it’s an album built for road trips, with highs and lows strewn throughout. Sure, an album full of “Get Lucky” would’ve been great, but when thrown against epic audio films like “Touch,” or the seductive bounce of “Doin’ It Right,” or the massively intense album-closer “Contact,” you truly get to experience all of those random access memories coming together and doing what Daft does best: paying homage to sounds that move them.—khal
22. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Release date: August 20, 2013
Given all the hype surrounding Earl Sweatshirt‘s debut album, it’s a wonder the teenager didn’t at least flinch under the pressure. After being sent off to boarding school in Samoa following Odd Future’s initial assault on pop culture, Earl returned a year and a half later to immediate scrutiny from all sides. And while he’s kept the OF lines intact, Doris is a testament to Earl’s decision to become a master of his craft. Determined to bring poetry back to rap, Earl’s wordsmithery cuts through the album like a knife, pulling out references and syllogisms that would make MF DOOM proud. But what lands Doris on this list is Earl’s unabashed honesty. He’s a rapper facing huge expectations rapping about a rapper facing huge expectations, overwhelmed by the relentless fame-beast, but determined to face it down. Off The Neptunes-produced “Burgundy”: “Grandma’s passing/But I’m too busy tryna get this fuckin’ album cracking to see her/So I apologize in advance if anything should happen/And my priorities fucked up, I know it/Afraid I’m going to blow it/And when them expectations raising/Because daddy was a poet, right?/Talk all you want, I’m taking no advice.” —Crax
21. Willis Earl Beal – Nobody knows.
Release date: September 10, 2013
Label: XL Recordings
Back when Willis Earl Beal was just starting to build buzz as the guy who put out flyers in Chicago with his telephone number and a note saying that if you call him, he’ll sing for you, I called him. He sang to me—some old soul song that sounded even older through the telephone connection—and then we talked. He hadn’t yet put out an album, but he explained that people were already trying to turn him into a neo-soul artist. “Fuck that,” he said with a snarl.
Willis Earl Beal is not a neo-soul artist. He’s far from it. With Nobody knows. he hasn’t adopted any of the new-school experimentation. Instead, he blends traditional soul and blues vibes with a unique perspective: the perspective of an outsider. It’s something he’s embraced and turned into part of his persona, but it never feels forced. Instead, it feels like something he can’t escape, something that tortures him. The album is dramatic and bleak, save for the one duet with Cat Power, one of the few moments on the album when Willis doesn’t sound painfully alone (despite the fact that he’s now got a full band playing with him). Willis’ status as an outsider is what made him stand out in the first place, but with this album he’s showing signs of opening up a little, and it’s a beautiful thing.—Confusion
20. Disclosure – Settle
Release date: May 31, 2013
Human beings are obsessed with the idea of prodigy. Any young talent is coddled and hailed as a fresh breath, a departure from any and all things that came before. From Picasso to Lorde, pop culture loves a young star. Disclosure is Exhibit A. Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence (aged 22 and 19, respectively) are credited with bringing dance music back to the people with the immaculate Settle. After a couple of EPs, the two scored a major hit with AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis in “White Noise.” But Settle propelled House Lawrence to even higher levels of success. They made a cover-to-cover album from dance music, each song showing another card in the brothers’ hand and demanding the critical attention usually reserved for acoustic balladry and orchestral composition. The radio successes—”White Noise,” “Latch” with Sam Smith,” “When a Fire Starts to Burn”—only tell half of the story. By going back to basics and rediscovering dance music at the source, the young guns brought a whole new sound to the table.—Crax
19. A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord
Release date: August 20, 2013
Label: RCA/Polo Grounds
Whereas A$AP Rocky’s debut provided an occasionally inconsistent vision of the star-in-training, A$AP Mob crewmate Ferg’s Trap Lord arrived with almost laser focus. Continuing the darker midwest and southern influences of Rocky’s breakthrough Live.Love.A$AP mixtape, Trap Lord is an unwaveringly grim and raucous affair, oscillating between extremes of degree rather than kind. Whether starting riots on “Murder Something” and surprise hit single “Work” or bemoaning the fate of those around him on “Hood Pope” and “Cocaine Castle,” the shadow of world-weary gangsta rappers like Scarface and Bone Thugs N Harmony (whose longterm, long-range A$AP inspiration is finally consummated with the excellent “Lord”) looms large over Ferg’s style and vision. Most surprising, perhaps, is the sneaky pop-sense in songs like “Shabba” and “Dump Dump,” insidiously catchy and uproariously fun. Not a blockbuster, but a promising, succinct debut in an era when so many swing for the fences and miss.—Jon Tanners
18. Gesaffalstein – Aleph
Release date: October 28, 2013
How does one follow-up having a hand in two of Yeezus’ bigger tracks (“Black Skinhead” and “Send It Up”)? By forging ahead and cultivating a massive debut album, chock full of the harder-edged techno that is becoming a major force. Gesaffalstein, who’s down with France’s Bromance crew, had already released a tough single (“Pursuit”) that set the tone for the project he was creating, but isn’t something to just Aleph from. Of course, he has mind-bending jams like “Hellifornia” that help satiate his love for hip-hop (preferably the West Coast G-funk sound), but we are also given hypnotic piano-driven creepers like “Wall of Memories” or the melancholy manifesto that is “Piece of Future.” The future of electronic music is here, and alive and well as long as Gesaffalstein is here blowing the minds of everyone putting ears to his music.—khal
17. Woodkid – The Golden Age
Release date: March 18, 2013
Label: Green United Music
Yet another gorgeous debut album finds its way onto the list, this time out of the French mind of Yoann Lemoine. Lemoine moonlights (daylights?) as a music video director, working with the likes of such grandiose names as Katy Perry, Drake, and Taylor Swift. He’s bringing that same elaborate production to his own music as Woodkid. The Golden Age is filled with strings, horns, and a percussion section that keeps the whole thing moving at a breakneck pace. It’s the kind of music that would be equally at home in a movie soundtrack and on the battlefield. Or, for this generation, in video games. Standouts include “Run Boy Run” and “I Love You.”—Crax
16. Flume – Flume
Release date: February 19, 2013
Label: Future Classic
Flume’s self-titled debut album was a gift so nice he gave it twice. The original was released stateside in February, and a double-disc deluxe edition dropped in early November. Featuring appearances from Twin Shadow, Ghostface Killah, How To Dress Well, Killer Mike, and many more, both versions were exceptionally well-received by everyone from opinionated music bloggers to legit critics. At only 22, Australian electro instrumentalist Harley Edward Streten has proven himself a young force to be reckoned with, and he’s just getting warmed up. Between US and international tour dates, Flume carved out some time to work on a new EP with fellow Aussie, Chet Faker. Lockjaw once again proves that his production talents stretch far beyond just a simple ability to create complex, mind-altering beats. Flume is a transitional album, fluid and adaptable. Spin it at a party, during work/study hours, or while you’re baking a cake. Regardless the setting, the gelatinous tracks and harmonic vocals can correctly soundtrack almost any occasion.—Monster
15. Young Thug – 1017 Thug
Release date: February 22, 2013
Label: Brick Squad Monopoly
In our interview with Young Thug earlier this year, he told us, “You have to be different, you know. People won’t recognize you if you have the same style. If you’re not diverse you probably won’t get very far.” It’s a mentality that has quickly come to define the rapper and his breakthrough mixtape. With his distinct cadence, high-pitched vocal, and bizarre lyrical sequencing, Thug’s 1017 Thug is definitely one of the most “different” rap productions of this past year. And the compilation’s confident uniqueness hasn’t just resonated with hip-hop lovers. Instead, it’s crossed genre boundaries, attracting a demographic that probably has sites like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and HotNewHipHop bookmarked. It’s this rapid and unprecedented reach—non-discriminatory in its attraction—that makes a collection like 1017 Thug so musically important to a year like 2013. Because when a record that doesn’t have the emotive lyrics of a Nothing Was The Same, the mainstream grasp like a Magna Carta Holy Grail, or the complicated glitz of a Yeezus, but still manages to draw those same listeners, that’s seriously worth paying attention to. —Katie K
14. Poliça – Shulamith
Release date: October 18, 2013
Label: Mom + Pop Music
The front cover of Poliça’s debut album Give You The Ghost was a hazy view out of a window, partially obscured by a hanging curtain, while the front cover of their 2013 sophomore effort Shulamith is a stark, high resolution image of a blood covered woman, turning away, framed by a sharp blue background. This mirrors one of the clearest differences between the two albums, as the haze and fuzz that was layered over frontwoman Channy Leaneagh’s vocals on the first album is drastically reduced, bringing her often acerbic, always world-weary ruminations on life and relationships to the fore. The mountainous synths and shape-shifting percussion are still intact, and more tightly focussed this time, while the boldest, most straightforward song—”Tiff” the big-name collaboration with Bon Iver—helped give Poliça the wider exposure they deserve. To those who enjoyed “Tiff” but are yet to delve in to the whole album—don’t stop there, because this is a powerful, emotional, and ultimately life-affirming album.—Constant Gardner
13. Danny Brown – Old
Release date: October 8, 2013
Label: Fool’s Gold
Is Danny Brown the future? Maybe. Maybe not. But if it’s the latter, then he’s definitely the “now” when you consider how well he bridges the gap between the world of hip-hop and the dance music scene. This is embodied by him signing with Fool’s Gold—an ideal move—and Old shows how perfectly Danny maneuvers between those two worlds. The album was even split into different “sides,” giving us a look at the duality of his sound, channeling different moods, with “Side A” giving us a more introspective, turned down Danny, and “Side B” going balls-to-the-wall, spitting in the face of those who slept and turning up with those who have been down. It really speaks to the duality of man, and further builds on the legend that is Old Danny Brown.—khal
12. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Release date: March 19, 2013
Label: Dead Oceans
Some of this year’s best albums are brilliant in their minimalism, in their use of the fewest elements with maximum impact. Muchacho, Matthew Houck’s sixth studio album as Phosphorescent, sits at the other end of the spectrum, glorying in its many layers and rich, inviting textures. This is a warm, inviting album, a warm, comforting blanket pouring forth from your speakers, wanting nothing more than to envelop the listener in its well-worn folds, and offer some kind words of wisdom.
Growing from roots of classic rock, country, and gospel, Muchacho combines styles with ease, as Houck’s careworn voice, made all the more personal by its imperfections, is the album’s highlight, whether raw with emotion, murmuring “Yeah I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool” or more hopefully bellowing “I am not some broken thing.” In just the first three tracks of Muchacho, you find an angelic hymn, a philosophical country ballad, and a bar-room stormer, and the album only continues to impress from that point right up to the final seconds of “Sun Arising,” the shimmering climax of the final, pastoral folk ballad.
Houck took five albums and a period of solitude in Mexico to create his best album, but it was unequivocally and undeniably worth the wait.—Constant Gardner
11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
Release date: October 13, 2013
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
“Man, I’ve been saying for a minute now, it’s the album of the year.” That statement—often amended to “hip-hop album of the year”—is one that Pusha T began proclaiming early on in 2013, repeated over the summer, and suggested once more in the fall when he finally unleashed his debut solo album. Bold and hyperbolic as that claim may be, nothing Pusha ever says comes without a grain of truth attached to it. The album opens with the raucous, tone-setting “King Push”—the one not produced by Joaquin Phoenix, like we all originally thought—and that pounding energy does not let up for even a second throughout the whole project. What makes My Name Is My Name a triumphant beast of a record for Push is that it pairs some of the best lyrics he’s ever written (“Push, my name is my name/In the kitchen with a cape on, apron/Tre-eight on, coulda been Trayvon/But instead I chose Avon”) with rock-solid beats thanks in part to the creative mind of Kanye West and production from Pharrell, Hudson Mohawke, The Dream, No I.D., and Swizz Beatz.
In stark contrast to the hollow drug-themed street raps we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from Pusha, My Name Is My Name features some of his most personal, instropective work with songs like “40 Acres” that sees the Virgina rapper question the validity of his parent’s marriage after their divorce and how that uncertainty translates to his own interactions with women. That doesn’t mean he’s left behind the coke rap, though.
My Name is My Name is Pusha T in top form, reinvigorated after more than two decades in the game.—Dee
10. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Release date: November 12, 2013
In recent years Dev Hynes has evolved into one of the most eclectic and interesting producers/artists in the alternative indie space. His chameleon-like flair for funky, new wave sounds has led him to collaborate with a wide array of artists ranging from Theolphilus London to Florence and the Machine. Just as his music takes many forms, so does Hynes himself. But it’s as his latest incarnation, Blood Orange, that Dev’s artistic transformation comes full circle. Cupid Deluxe is the second full-length Blood Orange album, an 11-track collection of songs largely inspired by Hynes’ move from Brooklyn to Manhattan around 2011. Sonically it cycles from breathy, emotionally charged songs like the lead single “Chamakay,” with it’s subtle tropical undertones and smooth jazz finish, to the urban infused throwback style of “Clipped On.” Expectedly, the album morphs from one vibe and attitude to the next, much like the man who created it. Cupid Deluxe offers up a little something for everyone without ever feeling cluttered at any one moment. This allows every song to sound more complex and enjoyable with each listen, a key trademark sign of any great album.—Monster
9. El-P & Killer Mike – Run The Jewels
Release date: June 26, 2013
Label: Fool’s Gold
When underground hip-hop titans El-P and Killer Mike joined forces for the first time in 2012, the result was Mike’s stellar sixth solo album, R.A.P. Music. In their partnership, Mike found a producer capable of crafting a modernized take on Public Enemy-style paranoia, while El found a rapper fittingly furious for his dense beats and a perfect foil for his conspiratorial raps. Hardly a year after their initial union on wax, the duo delivered Run The Jewels, a 30-minute, 10-song face-punch packed with skeletal, trunk-rattling retro-futuristic beats and blistering battle raps (laced with the both rappers’ trademark politically and socially-minded rage). Both Mike and El sound as invigorated and engaged as ever, taking a clear victory lap by refusing to rest on their laurels, having fun while absolutely snatching the lunch money of artists many years their juniors. Run The Jewels is a clinic in less-is-more, paying homage to the past without getting trapped in nostalgia; it is a reminder that we can’t always demand a creative apex early in an artist’s career–you can age gracefully and furiously in rap.—Jon Tanners
8. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Release date: February 26, 2013
Label: Mexican Summer/Software
Of all the acts from this past year that have tried to breathe new life into the genre of R&B (think: Miguel, Rhye), Autre Ne Veut‘s attempt was arguably the least accessible. But this isn’t a bad thing. There are moments on Anxiety that are obtrusive and jarring; Arthur Ashin incorporates instruments into his songs that sound like they don’t belong. But thanks to a delicate hand, these sounds are manipulated in a way that pushes the boundaries of listeners just enough for them to experience something new, something different. Vocally, Ashin’s falsetto sounds frantic and unstable as it flows to and from those unfathomably high notes he’s so capable of hitting. Ultimately, it dawns on you that Ashin is actually in complete control, much like that mish-mash of instruments that, at first, is difficult to grasp, but gets better with every listen. Anxiety sounds like a free fall: unrestrained, liberating, and hopeful. After all, there’s nothing quite like completely letting go.—Joyce
7. Drake – Nothing Was The Same
Release date: September 24, 2013
Label: Republic Records/Cash Money Records
Can it really be that only four years ago Drake was intoning, “Baby you’re my everything, you’re all I ever wanted” and attempting to launch a career as a legitimate rapper in the shadow of teenage years spent playing Wheelchair Jimmy on Degrassi? Though mocking Drake is as popular a sport as ever (so much so that the now undeniable superstar seems often to be in on his own joke, no matter how self-serious the music), the 27-year-old Toronto-native has matured into a focused auteur, not only a consistent presence in the marketplace, but an adherent to his own vision of what commercial rap should sound like. Third album Nothing Was The Same may be his most focused effort yet, continuing the blueprint followed with great success on Take Care (a mixture of moody reflections on relationships, brazen anthems, and triumphant songs that still manage to explore the line between insane hubris and deep self-doubt). It may not hit some of the dizzying, career-defining highs of its predecessor, but NWTS proves impressive in its consistency and coherence, feeling like a finely honed statement in an era when most albums feel like cobbled-together afterthoughts aimed purely at expanding profit margins.—Jon Tanners
6. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Release date: May 14, 2013
Label: XL Recordings
At this point in their career, Vampire Weekend is no longer obligated to experiment and explore. They had acquired a loyal fanbase that still admires the band’s debut album, and maybe even believes that Contra is an experimental masterpiece and that Vampire Weekend could do no wrong. And perhaps it’s with this understanding that the band went ahead to craft an album that doesn’t necessarily incorporate anything new, per se. Modern Vampires of the City contains parts of Vampire Weekend and Contra, but what sets this apart as a reflection of the band’s maurity is their approach. They cleverly capitalize on what earned them that fanbase—catchy hooks, accessible melodies with a bit of pep, and tongue-in-cheek witticisms. Taking these things that made them so recognizable, they churn out a record that reflects the absolute best version of themselves, polished and executed with an expertise that comes only with being Vampire Weekend for seven years. Highlights like “Hannah Hunt,” “Step,” “Ya Hey,” and “Diane Young” will have you nodding vehemently in agreement.—Joyce
5. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Release date: April 30, 2013
While the book on 20-year-old phenom Chance the Rapper remains largely unwritten, his sophomore mixtape Acid Rap proved that the hype preceding (and exploded from) its arrival was well-deserved. To call Acid Rap a mixtape seems an injustice; it is a largely cohesive body of work, displaying Chance’s ample technical ability (a mixture of elastic rapping and a gruff gift for melody), personality, and unusual perceptiveness. Deeply personal songs like “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Acid Rain,” and “Pusherman/Paranoia” give great emotional weight to the Chance’s melancholic observations about youth and young years lost to his war-torn hometown, Chicago. An infectious sense of fun and irreverence is ever a stone’s throw away on Acid Rap, fully displayed on “Favorite Song” and “Na Na,” tempered by Chance’s skill for reminding listeners of the darkness just behind the light, evidenced by energetic, bittersweet lead-single “Juice.” Ultimately, it is the combination of Chance’s prodigious talent (and the palpable joy he derives from rapping his ass off) and the fact that he has a perspective and the will to express it that could ultimately make him a lasting superstar, more important than a hitmaker alone.—Jon Tanners
4. Haim – Days Are Gone
Release date: September 30, 2013
Label: Polydor Records, Columbia Records
A satisfying pop treat from start to finish, Haim’s debut album, Days Are Gone, paired indie credibility with classic rock sensibiliy—not an easy task to pull off in 2013. It isn’t often that you see three sisters collaborating with such poise, but throughout the course of this year Alana, Danielle, and Este presented a united front as they delivered on every ounce of hype that was heaped their way. From festivals to their performance on SNL, these three women not only embodied the modern rockstar spirit, they supplied the edgy, attitude-froward music to back it all up. Songs like “The Wire,” “Don’t Save Me,” and “My Song 5” are choice, but in truth one would be hard-pressed to find a disappointing record on the album. At a time when consistency and authenticity are sadly lacking in popular music, Haim are rich with both, and these qualities (along with an excellent live show) make their 2013 come-up one of the most exciting of the year.—Monster
3. James Blake – Overgrown
Release date: April 5, 2013
Label: ATLAS, A&M, Polydor,
James Blake is a label owner, masterful dance music producer, champion remixer, Chance The Rapper collaborator, Kanye’s current favorite artist, and Mercury Music Prize Album of the Year 2013 award winner. More importantly, on Overgrown, James Blake is in love.
“I had a muse this record—a beautiful person to write about, to be excited about, and to be sad to be missing,” Blake told us in an interview earlier this year. He continued, “It’s funny when you write a love song; you suddenly realize why 99% of songs are love songs, because the reaction is so uniquely forceful.” It’s representing and reacting to this forceful, physical emotional reaction that Blake is most concerned with on this album, and this manifests itself in songs with clearer lyrics and more accessible R&B structures, most notably on “Overgrown,” “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde,” and “To The Last.” That’s not to say that Blake has lost any of the experimental urges that come to the fore most clearly on his EPs, not at all. Even “Retrograde,” with its catchy vocal loop, possesses a difficult to listen to, but ultimately incredibly satisfying build and release of tension, while songs like “Digital Lion” and “Voyeur” hit hard while taking the listener on an unexpected journey through bass-heavy caverns, unlikely drum patterns, and vocal manipulations.James Blake’s self-titled debut proved that the young Englishman was a singular talent, and Overgrown not only confirms it, but suggests that he has the capacity to continuing to innovate and excite with his mesmerising, soulful electronic sound for many years to come. —Constant Gardner
2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Release date: October 28, 2013
With the rollout we saw for Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor, there weren’t many clues as to what to expect, but the fact that production was handled by James Murphy was reason enough for high anticipation. Then the title track dropped and made it clear: Arcade Fire isn’t making The Suburbs Pt. II. Unlike anything they’ve done before, Reflektor combines Haitian influence with LCD Soundsystem-style disco, and they do it without sacrificing the grandiose nature that we’ve come to love them for. The album is full of big ideas—many of the songs are well over five minutes in length—but so full of energy and crisp execution that it rarely feels drawn out.
This album was an important one for Arcade Fire. Their last album, Grammy-winning The Suburbs, was their most accessible yet and could have easily put Arcade Fire, like so many successful indie bands before them, on the path of stadium-rocking, watered down versions of themselves. That was a definite option, and an appealing one, surely. The other option was to get creative, push things further, challenge their fans, and pursue their artistic vision instead of the path of least resistance. This album makes it clear which option they’ve chosen.—Confusion
1. Kanye West – Yeezus
Release date: June 18, 2013
Label: Def Jam
Raw, defiant, and dark, Kanye West’s Yeezus has proven to be by far the most divisive creative decision in the superstar artist’s recent past. Though daring output like 808s and Heartbreak and mini-epic film Runaway caused occasional head-scratching and fervent debate, nothing West has produced in the course of his storied career has produced as violent, confused, and often negative a reaction as Yeezus, an album undoubtedly with its adherents, celebrated by critics, though returning unimpressive commercial receipts. With its brazen lack of refinement, its brutal, industrial production, and its startlingly bald-faced treatment of race, sexuality, and class, Yeezus is perhaps a more fitting representation of a chaotic world than any of its musical contemporaries, reflecting an uncertain age even when it does not directly comment on it.
It may take years for Yeezus to make sense musically and it may never be “pleasing,” even if its influence is born out on future projects that prove commercially viable (as was the case with 808s). Its success in galvanizing opinion, however, is impossible to argue.—Jon Tanners