Though the world may consume music in singles, there are always a select few artists who defy demand and stay true to the art of the album. After the jump you will find our selections for 2013’s top twenty albums. It was quite a strong year, so let us know if your favorite didn’t make our lists in the comments below.
Birthmarks is an album that flew under the radar in 2013. You wont find it on this kind of list at Pitchfork or any of the other tastemakers, and, had I not been an ardent Ruffians-fan before, I might’ve missed its release altogether. Good thing I didn’t, because Birthmarks is filled with gems, from the opener “Needle,” in which frontman Luke LaLonde does his best Robin Pecknold impersonation, to the redlining “Rage Flows.” Nothing on Birthmarks is revolutionary, like some of the other albums on this list, but every track is eminently likable–with just enough character and catchiness to find its way onto our best of 2013.
It’s not often that music bearing the Fueled By Ramen brand gets love in the blogosphere. But even despite this lack of tastemaker endorsement, there’s no denying that the label has had an unfaltering ear for pop. One of its greatest success stories is Paramore. With humble beginnings as emo/pop-punk purveyors from Franklin, TN, the trio has honed their sound into a monstrous pop behemoth that, while still staying true to the band’s roots, now fills up arenas around the world. With huge singles this year like “Still Into You” and “Daydreaming,” it’s no surprise why. Paramore’s self-titled effort is proof that, even two records since their 2007 breakout Riot!, they’re showing no signs of letting up.
Every year there is one artist that demands a listen simply on the merit of their voice. In 2013, that was Autre Ne Veut. Earlier this year he set the internet on fire with “Counting,” a song that introduced the greater public to Arthur Ashin’s dream-weaving falsetto. But the NYC artist proved to be more than just vocal chords; Ashin’s songwriting chops displayed brilliantly on the aforementioned track along with follow-up single “Play By Play.” Although those two songs are Autre Ne Veut’s best, the other eight tracks comprising his debut LP Anxiety demand a listen.
2013 was the year of headline comebacks, the biggest of which was arguably Justin Timberlake. The 20/20 Experience marked the pop star’s first original material since the release of the chart-shattering FutureSexLoveSounds back in 2006. On this two-part record, Timberlake sells a polished, classic sound that combines classic soul, R&B and disco with his undeniable pop genius (and that of producers Timbaland, Jerome Harmon and Rob Knox). The result is a timeless record — most evident on singles “Suit & Tie,” “Take Back The Night” and “Mirrors” — that would find a nice home in your, your momma’s and your momma’s momma’s iTunes.
We’re still not quite used to hearing Arcade Fire this happy, but the indie giants’ dance-pop makeover on Reflektor works, strangely enough. The James Murphy-produced album combines the Montreal outfit’s rustic charm with groovy bass-lines and fuzzy keys to create a sound unlike anything else in their discography. Not a bad album to walk into an arena tour with.
James Blake’s self-titled debut LP was the toast of the blogosphere back in 2011, when the slow-burning, minimalist R&B genre was first gaining traction, and Blake himself was the poster child. Tastemakers deemed Blake’s “spooky dubstep” the next big thing, and he received countless honors, including a spot on the BBC Sound of 2011 and this year’s Mercury Prize. Imagine trying to follow up such a trailblazing, well-received debut without falling into the trap of the dreaded sophomore slump. With the odds against him, are we even a little bit surprised that Blake took on the challenge and passed with flying colors? On Overgrown, Blake hits the low registering synths and piano melodies with gusto, melting hearts with tracks like “Retrograde,” “Overgrown,” and “To The Last.” The standout track, however, is a collaboration with Wu-Tang mastermind RZA on “Take A Fall For Me,” which overcomes RZA’s awkward romantic rhymes with a brooding backbone of windy synths and Blake’s filtered vocals. Overgrown dominated my playlists for a good portion of the year, and Spring 2013 will forever be remembered as SPRANG BLAKE.
Once you go math rock, you can’t go…not math rock. Foals defied convention with this year’s Holy Fire, an album that forewent angular pop (although single “My Number” definitely gets the job done) for a sprawling, emotive indie rock sound that echoes Total Life Forever‘s most ambitious moments. If this effort is merely the first step in the band’s evolution, be prepared to be seriously impressed by these guys in the coming years.
If Random Access Memories was my most anticipated album in recent memory, My Name Is My Name was a close second. The album takes its name from arguably the most influential line in modern television history, delivered by The Wire’s ambitious, yet sociopathic, drug lord Marlo Stanfield. Clipse’s better half embodies Stanfield’s maddening desire to be at the top of everything, and King Push does so with tracks like “Nosetalgia,” “Suicide,” and “Numbers On The Board.” The album is littered with verses from established artists like Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, and Pharrell, but in true Marlo fashion, Pusha ensures that none of the visitors steal his crown, delivering calculated verse after calculated verse with a level of ease only accessible to rap music veterans. Virginia Beach is no Baltimore, but Pusha certainly makes a claim for the throne, and My Name Is My Name vaunts him to the top of the G.O.O.D. Music food-chain–not that Cudi and Big Sean were much competition.
Is there any greater 2013 success story than Lorde? The New Zealand pop star soared the charts this year at a faster-than-Pumped-Up-Kicks speed with “Royals,” and somehow managed to cap that off with a stellar debut album – Pure Heroine. It’s hard to find anybody not already enamored with everything this girl does, but if for some reason you haven’t run through each and every one of the LP’s fifteen tracks, we highly suggest you do so now.
How can you not root for Haim? These three girls spent the better part of 2013 sitting atop the throne of indie-pop sisterdom thanks to their knack for catchy indie-rock and irresistible charm. After a strong initial run of singles — including “Don’t Save Me,” “Falling” and “Forever” — the L.A. trio revealed their cache of indie-pop gold in September with Days Are Gone, an eleven-track collection of hit after hit. These girls are ones to watch for years to come.
It’s a bit strange to put this one on the list since “Goldie,” “PMW” and “F*ckin’ Problems” first hit our ears back in 2012, but Long Live A$AP actually came out in January of this year. But even with those singles aside, A$AP Rocky’s phenomenal sophomore LP deserves a listen. Not only does Rocky but a refreshing spin on hip-hop bravado through his verses, but the album displays a startling diversity in sound, making use of electronic instrumentals in ways that few in the genre have done before (and that’s before even hitting play on Skrillex collaboration “Wild For The Night”).
If Woman, the debut album from singer Mike Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal, were a Jeopardy answer, the question would be “What is pure, unadulterated sex?” and the picture clue would be the album artwork for the duo’s eponymous opening track. If your clothes aren’t off by “The Fall,” the second and strongest track, you’re doing it wrong. Milosh has a history of using his smooth, androgynous voice over minimalist piano lines and muted instrumentation in his solo work, but Hannibal’s production is the keyhole crafted for the sole purpose of unlocking the understated power of Rhye’s hipster R&B. Imagine two Bard students exploring their sexual boundaries with an artisan candle burning in the background and “Last Dance” oozing through their Sonos bluetooth soundsystem. This is Rhye, and I’m not mad at it.
Like any great album, Modern Vampires of The City is more than the sum of its parts. The Met would not be the Met if all its works were thrown haphazardly in a warehouse; you drink in the presentation, the journey through the very best of every time period buttressed by ornate (though occasionally misunderstood) architecture. Such is the case with Vampire Weekend’s third album, a diverse collection of nuanced tracks, each of which contains its own entire world of references and characters and hopes and anxieties. But the real magic is in the way they come together, like wings of a museum, to tell us a greater story about the way our humanity comes of age. Turns out it doesn’t matter much whether you’re a bookish Columbia grad, the questionably untrustworthy Hannah Hunt, or an ill-fated Henry Hudson.
What can be said about Yeezus that hasn’t already been said by Lou Reed, The Atlantic, Jimmy Kimmel, your mother who hates all the cursing and the sex talk, and our very own Nate Scott? The answer is somehow: “a shit-ton more.” While maybe not the best album of 2013, Yeezus–and Kanye’s accompanying tour filled with religious…ahem…imagery–is certainly the most debated work of music this year. Detractors lament Kanye’s half-lazy, fully-arrogant lyrics and sonically offensive opening track. They point to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and College Dropout and beg for another guest-verse laden musical masterpiece. Instead, Yeezus flipped two diamond-encrusted middle fingers at, well, everyone, shunning outside help on most of the album, with the exception of a cameo from God. The result is an aggressive, angry, violent, confused, sexual, poignant, egotistical, thick ten song hate-fuck of an album. So why can’t I stop listening?
Few albums command an entire listen like San Fermin’s self-titled LP. Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s orchestral-pop masterpiece takes the listener on a cinematic journey packed with intrigue and emotion…just without the pictures. And though San Fermin is in fact a concept album, the album will make its mark even if you don’t have a grasp on the story. It’s beautiful, touching and exhilarating for reasons you can’t really explain why (although Allen Tate and Rae Cassidy’s incredible vocal contributions definitely have something to do with it), but perhaps that’s what makes it so great.
If we had to bet money back in January on who would have the best album of the year, it probably would’ve been St. Lucia. The NYC-South Africa transplant has been batting 1000 for nearly two years now with singles like “The Old House Is Gone,” “All Eyes On You,” “September” and “We Got It Wrong.” Many of these tracks found a home on his debut LP, When The Night, a phenomenal collection of Jean-Philip Grobler’s tropical electro-pop, along with new gems like “The Way You Remember Me” and “Too Close.” Here’s to hoping he has an as-prolific 2014.
We’re as surprised as you are that house music made its way this high on this list. How can a genre that so often falls victim to monotony manage to sound fresh for fourteen straight tracks? If 2013 showed us anything, it’s that Disclosure is the exception to the rule. Their ability to build intricate pop structures over house foundations (and support that with incredible guest vocal spots) is unparalleled and has brought the genre to virgin ears across the globe — ours included.
The Bones of What You Believe is one of those albums that sucks you in, takes everything out of you, and leaves you with nothing but nostalgia. You feel regret because, as seemingly flawless as the whole album is, you realize that nothing CHVRCHES ever do will come close to creating the world you found yourself in when you first listened to their debut album all the way through. Lauren Mayberry and her Glaswegian colleagues aren’t at fault, obviously. All they’ve done is create a foot-tapping anthem for a generation of music listeners that unknowingly craved a combination of Passion Pit and The Cranberries. The Bones of What You Believe feels like Manners, alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, or Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation; albums that are both the call and response to their contemporary music scenes, and albums that function so well as standalone pieces. The drawback to these albums, of course, is that you can also be fairly certain the artists will spend the rest of their careers trying to re-capture that lightning in a bottle. Let’s, then, appreciate The Bones of What You Believe for what it is: a beautifully-crafted work that wears its heart on its sleeve and lets it all hang out in dazzling fashion.
There isn’t enough hyperbole in the world to capture my true feelings about Random Access Memories, the Parisian duo’s first album since 2005’s Human After All (not including the Tron soundtrack because come on). It’s safe to say that RAMwas the most highly anticipated album of the year, and it delivered on so many levels. Guy-Manuel and Thomas built a true album in every sense of the word, handcrafting each track (with the assistance of a motley crew, including Pharrell, Paul Williams, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, and more) to fit perfectly, like one massive sonic orgasm of a jigsaw puzzle. Want an electronic ballad? Try “Instant Crush” or “Beyond.” Want crescendo(lls)? Listen to “Giorgio by Moroder” or the fantastic final track “Contact.” Want to have disgusting, sweaty sex on a dancefloor? Pop on “Lose Yourself To Dance.” Every track offers something different; both from one another and from everything else released in 2013. Still, the album’s pièce de résistance is the inexplicably catchy “Get Lucky.” It’s rare for a song to be played this much and still be as refreshing and infectious as the first listen. Such is the same with all of Random Access Memories. You win, French robot dudes.
Dear lord, this album is fucking good. First it was “The City.” Then “Sex.” And of course, “Chocolate.” The 1975 spent late 2012 and early 2013 one-upping themselves with single after single. That all culminated in May of this year with the end of a four-EP campaign that produced over twenty tracks. At this point, most bands would run out of steam. Yet somehow, the Manchester four-piece was then able to pump out a sprawling 16-track debut LP that, while including some of the songs that put them on the map, included so much more. “Girls,” “M.O.N.E.Y.,” “Heart Out,” “Settle Down” — the number of surefire singles on this album is staggering. And interludes like “The 1975,” “An Encounter” and “12” reveal songwriting of a higher plane that’s destined for more than just pop hits. It’s hard to think of another debut LP that started this big of a love affair for us. Give The 1975 a listen and we’re sure you’ll feel the same.