2013 was a year with more exciting debuts and comebacks than anyone could have expected. The “business as usual” artists were no match for the ones who decided to push some boundaries, or at least some buttons, blurring the lines between “pop” and “alternative” in a way that the public is still easing into. Electo-soul was this year’s dark horse victor, showing up in a variety of ways, including this strange, but unstoppable craze of 70s and 80s throwbacks. Conversely, alternative rock was geared towards a 90s revival, on the whole. Nonetheless, this year’s 50 best albums stick out because of their daring mass appeal and ability to transcend the notion being tied to a strict genre. Some are just so well-executed that they couldn’t be ignored, but you’ll find that a vast majority of the LPs that made the list focused on experimenting and interbreeding. That’s why I’m dubbing 2013 “The Year of the Mad Scientist.”
ARTPOP was over-hyped, over-promoted, and pretty much over-thought on every level. It ended up being a fizzling sparkler instead of an exploding firework, but Lady Gaga still managed to give us a pretty light show. Honestly, the issues with the record are far more a matter of saturation than a matter of quality. ARTPOP‘s brightest moments are as brilliantly wacky and indulgent as the artist herself, and a good majority of the record falls into that category. A few more or less screws would have made the difference.
49. Secondhand Rapture
Indie pop newcomers, MS MR are an exemplary definition of what alternative music was in 2013. Their raw, but fluffy electro-rock debut album, Secondhand Rapture, is a standout in terms of pop sensibility, but the sound is strangely conventional on the whole. The songs are catchy and angst-ridden, and just the right amount of mindless. That’s the nature of the whole “D.I.Y.” and “indie” business these days, though, so the fact that they managed to standout at all is an accomplishment in itself.
MGMT’s self titled third studio album was intriguing, to say the least. By far one of the most nonsensical, trippiest musical adventures in quite some time, the duo divided critics and fans alike, but it’s hard to say that isn’t what they were going for. Getting through the whole album in one listen is a daunting task because many of the tracks go both nowhere and too many places at once, but getting lost in the chaos is actually pretty fun. Keeping in mind that they weren’t aiming to please, it’s a rather fulfilling experience.
47. Wise Up Ghost
Elvis Costello and The Roots
It’s a pairing no one thought would work, but the legendary Elvis Costello got together with hip hop-soul rockers, The Roots, and made a pretty awesome album. Wise Up Ghost draws inspiration from both acts and meets somewhere in the middle, but, if anything, that’s what holds it back. It may push Costello to a more funk-driven groove, and The Roots towards something more punk-like, but the intersection of sounds is hardly unchartered. Still, it manages to come out as a sweeping success.
M.I.A. is as rebellious and worldly as she’s ever been, but there’s something particularly conspicuous about her latest effort, Matangi, that doubles as both alluring and aloof. Each song is its own little exhuasting ball of experimental electro-hip hop clay that she’s molded into something avant-garde. By this point in her noteworthy career, it’s clear that nothing she’s doing is a fluke, and Matangi, once again, restores our faith that M.I.A. knows what she’s doing and constantly refuses to be pigeonholed.
45. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
Every time Franz Ferdinand makes a new record, they fall deeper into the rabbit hole of indie heroes. Whereas their astounding debut album had mainstream appeal, each album since has distanced their standings with the public, but upped their stock with music enthusiasts. Upon the release of Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, the group showcased their unrelenting, but newfound confidence to be just that kind of band. The music here is as good as it’s always been, but it’s presented on a much cooler platter.
Odd Future’s latest breakout star, Earl Sweatshirt, may have elected to go for a major label release for his debut album, Doris, but the OFWGKTA flavor is more than abundant. Realistically, though, that’s what you’d want. Once you’re able to sort through the mess, it’s easy to get swept away by Earl’s rhymes and roundabout content matter, and as exhausting as that may be, it’s definitely worth the effort. In a twisting paradox, Doris practically admits to its own naivety, and it makes for one hell of a fun ride.
43. My Name Is My Name
After having to leave his days with The Clipse behind, Pusha T managed to regroup, sign Kanye West up as executive producer, and crank out a long-awaited debut album. My Name Is My Name is a savvy hip hop record that doesn’t approach any lines of excess or under-deveopment. Pusha holds his own, opening his heart and mind as any good rapper should, but if anything holds the album back, it’s that there are more guest spots than there are tracks. It doesn’t exactly exude confidence, but his peers help heighten the experience, and that’s hard to complain about.
42. Cerulean Salt
Cerulean Salt, the second album by Katie Crutchfield’s tongue-twisting moniker, Waxahatchee, was one of the most entrancing moments in alternative rock this year. The record is a total 90s throwback in the vein of Hole or early PJ Harvey, dripping with a similar paradoxical emotion-ridden apathy and piercing guitar sounds. Lyrically, this is a brutally earnest record, but she strangely keeps us at arms length at all times. It’s nice to sit back and experience all of its surface pleasures without having to sacrifice any mystery.
41. Pushin’ Against A Stone
Valerie June’s debut, Pushin’ Against A Stone, is an exciting potpourri of music that is constantly drawing from several sounds at once. It’s blues, it’s folk, it’s soul, it’s bluegrass, it’s jazz, and so much more, but June’s calming voice always remains at the epicenter of it all. Her intent on creating a modern soul record on her terms comes piercing through every delicate nuance in her bittersweet melodies, and with The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach on board to help produce, this album was always set up to succeed.
40. Same Trailer Different Park
Whereas some artists, namely Taylor Swift, have almost completely given up on making actual country music to appeal to the masses, Kacey Musgraves just decided to make something damn good. Her major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, is so good that it surpasses all restrictions based on genre and actually has something to offer for pretty much everybody. The record is one of the most genuinely moving musical moments of the year, offering the tiniest glimpses of hope in her heartbreakingly bleak lyrics.
39. Kiss Land
The Weeknd is no longer the enigmatic being we were once drawn to, but ever since stepping out and presenting his music on a broader scale, we’ve come to learn that he is an incredible artist. His debut album, Kiss Land, is a lusty, but warm and inviting record that updates our R&B palates. While it doesn’t necessarily further the appeal that drew us into his Trilogy of mix tapes, the LP is far more focused and compact, and through it’s chaos, the listener is still going to feel a bit challenged.
38. Shaking The Habitual
The Knife’s formidable Shaking The Habitual isn’t for the faint of heart or the admittedly impatient. The unconventional, double disc electro record has the same entertainment value of a cinematic thriller. Nothing the Swedish duo crafted here particularly makes sense, with the track lengths ranging from about 30 seconds to about 20 minutes, but once you resign yourself to the world they’ve created, it’s no big deal. This album is possessed and taxing with the slightest glimmer of cognition, but it’s brilliant.
Tegan & Sara
Usually when an act takes a giant step towards commercialism, it backfires, but most acts aren’t Tegan & Sara. The Canadian duo have been making music for over a decade, but their seventh album, Heartthrob, feels like a renaissance. Their guitars have temporarily taken a backseat to a trendy sea of keyboards and synthesizers, but it doesn’t come across as “selling out.” When the music is this dazzling and flawlessly euphoric, it was no surprise that everyone just instantly bought into it.
36. Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze
Indie rocker Kurt Vile unleashed his fifth studio album, Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze in 2013 to much acclaim. Whereas this lick-and-riff-heavy LP could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle, there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” that endears us to Mr. Vile. The music is accessible and hardly challenging, but it’s undeniably good, and sometimes just going out and making an album that no one can throw stones at is the best move to make. Wakin’ On A Daze doesn’t push boundaries as much as it defines them, and that’s really okay.
35. Nothing Was The Same
Hip hop had very few bright moments in 2013, but Drake’s Nothing Was The Same was certainly one of them. The album is far more conventional in the context of modern R&B than it is in hip hop, but that reflects a legitimacy in both his artistry and ambitions. Most notably, the record features a minimum of guest spots, and only one from a fellow rapper on the standard edition. Drake’s newfound confidence is exciting and inspiring to say the least, and it helped him craft a fantastic album far ahead of what most of his peers did.
34. Hesitation Marks
Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails staged a highly anticipated comeback this year that predictably had a big payoff in the form of Hesitation Marks. The set of electronically driven industrial tunes embodies an audible rejuvenation for Trent Reznor and his crew that still remains as fun and unnerving as anything you could hope for. While the album isn’t particularly as iconic as some of their classic works, it’s a friendly reminder that N.I.N. is one of the most important, groundbreaking groups of the last 25 years.
33. We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic
There may not be a more appropriately titled album released in 2013 than Foxygen’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic. The duo revives the Summer of Love in a big way, compiling authentic, but strikingly modern hippie rock anthems that capture the essence of a place and time. Still, they make it very clear with every psychedelic subtlety that they’re not here to rehash or appropriate the “peace and love” mentality, but instead update it to appeal to todays’ equally as inspired crowds.
32. m b v
My Bloody Valentine
Nevermind the fact that My Bloody Valentine hasn’t released an album in almost 25 years, and nevermind the fact that they’ve been working on m b v for almost almost 20; the point is that it arrived in 2013. This outstanding and gobsmacking record isn’t any more relevant now than it would have been 15 or 20 years ago, or probably even 15 or 20 years from now, and there’s certainly nothing cosmic or well-timed about its release, but it’s existence is now a reality, and all we can say is “hallelujah!”
31. Light Up Gold
90s punk revivalists Parquet Courts, made their breakthrough this year with their undeniably awesome LP, Light Up Gold. The band surprisingly keep it together considering how off the wall the album is. It genuinely sounds like it could have been recorded in someone’s basement in a haze of pot smoke and half-empty (or half-full) beer bottles. The tracks themselves are compact little musical tapas that tend to end before they even get going, but the lyrics are so downright hysterical at times that it’s hardly even noticeable.
30. Evil Friends
Portugal. The Man
Alternative rockers Portugal. The Man really struck gold by landing the incomparable Danger Mouse to produce their seventh studio effort, Evil Friends. True to form for both parties, the record meets somewhere in middle of frenzied psychedelia and embellished grooviness, with most of the songs exploring several different ideas in the span of only a few minutes. Everything comes together so tactfully and poetically that it’s hard to even imagine these new friends concocting something “evil” at all.
29. Body Music
One of the many incredible new acts to make their breakout this year was electro-R&B duo AlunaGeorge, who released their captivating debut album, Body Music. The music is far less about height as it is depth, with everything laying on a bed of howling synthesizers and EDKs, but the melodies are just intuitive enough to double as stunning pop records. Aluna Francis’ voice really commands the most attention here, embodying all the sultriness of a modern soul legend without the need for constant vocal aerobics.
28. Pure Heroine
In a world where young pop stars are, on the whole, taking terrible cheap shots just to secure hits, newcomer Lorde has descended upon us to right their many wrongs. Her debut record, Pure Heroine, dazzles with an electropop sensibility that pairs masterfully with a laidback hip hop-lite swag, but the hooks are as epic and as memorable as anything Katy, Miley, and Britney attempted to sew together this year. Most impressively, she’s still a teenager, and yet her lyrics are leaps and bounds ahead of her peers.
27. Born Sinner
Some saw J. Cole’s fearless head-to-head chart battle with Kanye West’s Yeezus as ego-driven audacity, but considering his opponent, that was a bit of a “glass houses” claim. The appropriately entitled Power Trip LP, Cole’s second, is more of a resume builder than anything else, but that’s hardly a bad thing. With guest spots from Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, TLC, and others, he keeps the balance between playful and serious, and proudly showcases his growth and ambitions, but more importantly, his pure talent.
26. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Alternative country rocker Neko Case has long been commended for both her incredible voice and songwriting ability. Her not-so-conicsely titled sixth album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You really just reiterates and elevates everything we already knew. There’s an intentional explosiveness to the songs that swirls with an excitement and raw beauty, but her voice sits front and center the whole time so we never forget who’s actually in control here.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
With a four year gap in between records, it was only natural to get hyped about Mosquito. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the kind of band that always commands our attention with their every move, and their fourth album was no exception. Between the funky bass lines, stripped down slow grooves, and even gospel-infused climaxes, the group maintains a gripping control. This is yet another rebellious, punk-like record, sitting somewhere in the middle of making total sense and none at all, but that just makes it incredible.
Icelandic post-rock gods, Sigur Rós, are renowned for their intense and beautiful landscapes of sound the world over, but their Kveikur LP sees them ditch their passive sound for a more assertive, aggressive one. The now-trio made a record that engages us in a dark, stormy battle that’s equally as beguiling as it is charming, and, yet, they still manage to remain open to the possibility of hope. The juxtaposition of an uncharacteristically sinister coldness with uplifting elegance is masterfully executed.
Phoenix’s standing in the ever-evolving world of alternative music changed in 2013. Whereas they were once France’s best kept secret, they’ve now transitioned into full-fledged rock stars, which is almost laughable considering how great they’ve always been. The synth-driven group’s fifth album, Bankrupt!, holds up nicely to pretty much everything else in their catalog, but the context has now shifted for them. The record radiates palpable levels of excitement and confidence, and it’s impossible to deny how alluring that is.
The state of R&B in 2013 was exhilarating, and although they weren’t at the public forefront of it all, Rhye was an enormous asset to the movement. The Canadian/Danish duo’s sultry, funky, and electro-tinged debut album, Woman, was almost overly-compared to the likes of Sade, but it should be embraced as a complimentary matter of lineage rather than written-off reduction. This is a flawlessly executed record perfect for loving and perfect for lusting, and you’re gonna walk away feeling good.
21. Holy Fire
Holy Fire, the third studio effort for British indie rockers, Foals, is truly outstanding. The ideas and sounds change rapidly, but the songs themselves lack any sense of urgency, allowing the opportunity for the listener to make sense of the music at hand. Even its most upbeat moments embody an easing, peaceful sense of gratification that just feels good. Holy Fire is the culmination of everything Foals has been working towards thus far in their career, and the journey has clearly been worth it.
20. Push The Sky Away
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
For almost 30 years, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have been molding their own brand of compelling alternative rock, noted for often leaning towards the dark and melancholy. This year, they managed to stop us in our tracks once again with the release of Push The Sky Away, one of their simplest, most tender records to date. Cave and his crew rely on simplicity and fragility, even bringing a children’s choir on board to construct a layer of innocence and purity to contrast the aching and abstruse lyrical content.
British singer-songwriter-producer James Blake’s sophomore album, Overgown, has a title that doesn’t do the artist justice; he’s growing just right. The record takes the electronic, soul-tinged, minimalist landscapes he caught our attention with on his debut and escalated the quality far beyond comprehension. Blake brilliantly honed in on a sound he can truly trademark, but showcased just how colorful his palate is. Overgrown is certainly an emotionally trying experience, and a beautiful one at that.
18. The Electric Lady
Janelle Monáe’s nonconformist approach to crafting her ambitious music continues to make her one of the most noteworthy artists in the world today. Her second long play, The Electric Lady, is magical from start to finish, setting new challenges for herself and the listener along the way. This is so much more than just a funky R&B record, there’s a diverse richness running throughout. With guest spots from Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu, Miguel, and the incomparable Prince, this album was destined to shine.
17. …Like Clockwork
Queens Of The Stone Age
It had been almost 8 years since we had last heard from Queens Of The Stone Age, so we were all chomping at the bit when they announced the release of their sixth studio album, …Like Clockwork. There’s something enchanting about their thundering brand of alternative rock that keeps luring us back in, and this is probably their most seductive record to date. …Like Clockwork is a journey they convinced us was worth embarking on with them, and the payoff is sweeter than we could have ever anticipated.
The essence of indie rock is all about creating superheroes and antiheroes, and where Palma Violets sit following the release of their debut album, 180, is still unclear, but it is clear they’re some sort of force we can’t ignore. The record feels raw and demo-like in places, but there’s a polished laminate that smooths out the rough edges and provides for a solid listening experience. The songs are almost too shy to be full-fledged anthems, but that somehow makes them that much more endearing.
15. Cupid Deluxe
Dev Hynes spent most of 2013 working on tracks for other artists, including Sky Ferreira and, most notably, Solange. This year, under his moniker Blood Orange, the British singer-songwriter-performer-producer-etc. released an album of music for himself, tactfully entitled Cupid Deluxe. The record is an electro-soul opus designed to appeal to a more alternative crowd, with a velvety smoothness fluidly seeping through the cracks of various genres, including funk, jazz, and synthpop.
14. Silence Yourself
The world has been yearning for a band like Savages to arrive for quite some time now. The quartet of badass chicks don’t let any gender misconceptions stand between them and the music, but they certainly won’t let you forget that they still exist. Their debut album, Silence Yourself, revives all of the poetic intensity of post punk, but elevates it to a much noisier level. With the amps cranked up to 11, the group are unapologetically waiting behind every every twist and turn to sucker punch us, and it’s nothing but glorious.
13. The Bones Of What You Believe
Scottish synthpop newcomers, CHVRCHES, made an incredible impact on music fans the world over with their debut LP, The Bones Of What You Believe. For every moment of bouncy playfulness, there’s a moment of intensity and drama, and for every catchy hook, there’s a challenging melody. Pair all that with frontwoman Lauren Mayberry’s unique, often exasperated vocals, and we’re left with an incredibly intriguing, but surprisingly comfortable experience worth constantly reliving.
12. Night Time, My Time
For a good portion of the least two years, the odds of Sky Ferreira finally releasing her debut album were slim, but she actually pulled it off. Night Time, My Time is the climax of her audible evolution from quirky synthpop to electro-rock, and even at her iciest, there’s something undeniably endearing about the distance between her voice and her soul; she still manages to build a connection. The songs are trying at best, bleeding together in our heads, but the challenge is ultimately worth-while in end.
11. The Next Day
Once again, David Bowie stands out as the exception not the rule and proved that late-in-life rock stars can still make forward-thinking music that holds up against today’s progressives. The surprising The Next Day album embraces the many intricacies of this enigmatic legend without becoming repetitive or, despite the cover, self-referential. Bowie’s enduring balance of the beautiful and the fearless continues to serve him will, and unlike many of his aging peers, he still has a solid hold on the current generation.
You really just have to give it up for Arcade Fire at this point. It’s becoming more and more of a consensus that they’re actually the best band in the world today, and with an album like Reflektor, it’d be hard to argue otherwise. The two-disc LP embraces the many facets of their sound, from art rock to disco, but it comes across feeling so consistent and natural that both cohesion and consistency are non-issues altogether. It’s clear that the band is prioritizing perfecting their sound before evolving it, but that’s really okay in the grand scheme of things. Arcade Fire has consistently been cranking out triumphant albums since day one, and Reflektor, although difficult to compare with some of their previous works, is light years above their peers.
British newcomers, Disclosure, graciously breathed new life into electronic dance music this year. In a genre that is practically synonymous with “pop,” it isn’t easy to make your presence known, let alone win over both the public and the always-ready-to-pounce critics, but the duo of brothers fearlessly just went out there and, simply, made great music. Their debut album, Settle, is really incredible from a number of different vantages. With an undeniably cool lineup of guest stars, including AlunaGeorge, Sam Smith, and Jessie Ware, the songs are so well-put together that they rejuvenate the notion that EDM can be an art form when stripped of all the cheap and overdone tricks. Disclosure made an album so good that it realistically shouldn’t be defined by genre at all.
08. Trouble Will Find Me
The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is, from start to finish, a stunning album. The group’s sixth studio effort takes their now-perfected sound to a heightened level of delicate melancholy that spreads out over a minefield of emotion. Still, they manage to control and calculate the explosions, and counter-intuitively create far more depth than they do height. The group exemplifies their musical abilities quite well, but it’s more the fact they exemplify their unwavering grasp on restraint and poignancy that makes Trouble With Me such an appealing record. The songs, on an individual level, are quite impressive, but they all come together so intricately that it’s difficult not to marvel at what The National was able to construct.
07. Days Are Gone
The sisters Haim were truly the breakout stars of the music world in 2013. After peaking all of our interests with a well-received EP and a slew of mindblowing performances last year, the trio embraced the opportunities in front of them and built up a loyal following of fans and critics alike. Almost poetically, the release of their debut album, Days Are Gone, was far less their climax than the final culmination of everything they were working towards. The often percussive, genre-bending tracks that make up the record showcase their innate talents as both musicians and songwriters, but also their unrelenting reluctance to please anyone but themselves. Days Are Gone has more confidence and range than most artists get out in entire careers.
06. Modern Vampires Of The City
The line between alternative pop and indie rock is blurring more and more each year, but Vampire Weekend brilliantly disregarded it altogether when they created their greatest album to date, Modern Vampires Of The City. There’s such an array of experiences packed into the record that every listen feels a little bit different from the last, and although it borders on becoming a gluttonous musical buffet, it always remains delicate and fulfilling. From uplifting joyousness to dainty sweetness, the group selected only the most engaging colors in the musical rainbow to bring the album to life, but they never let it turn into something cartoonish or intoxicating. Modern Vampires Of The City is entirely impossible not to like and feel really happy about experiencing.
05. Once I Was An Eagle
British singer-songwriter Laura Marling proved just how powerful and soul-baring of a medium music can be. Her Once I Was An Eagle LP took folk music to its vast depths of emotion by painting an earnest, poignant, and ultimately hopeful portrait of love through its many downfalls and repercussions. The tracks feel intentionally welded together, creating an intense sense of exhaustion when it’s all over. The way she’s able to let us into her world and wrap us up in her many emotions is not only impressively executed, but it’s an audible honor, and the music is so well-crafted that even the coldest of individuals would have a hard time ignoring its captivating rawness. This is an album that has the ability to strip one down and build them back up.
It may be a lazily titled record, but Arctic Monkey’s AM is an intense and intricate piece of work. The British rockers were able to not only solidify an already impressive catalog with the album, but significantly up their stock as a mainstay of alt rock. Everything they’ve done right up to this point, AM does just a little bit better; the big moments are bigger, the raw moments are grittier, and the melodic moments are sweeter. The wall of guitars alone is enough to blow your brains out your ears, but the thundering, hip hop-lite beats and true-to-form bombastic vocal lines charismatically brought to life by the charismatic Alex Turner all come together so cosmically that AM has the ability to breathe new life into rock and roll in a time of chaos and uncertainty. This is their magnum opus.
With just over 2 weeks left in the entirety of 2013, Beyoncé showed us all how good of a poker face she has and shocked the pants off of everyone living on planet earth by unexpectedly dropping her eponymous 5th studio album without so much as a subtle hint it was coming. From a strictly musical perspective, though, Beyoncé is a tour de force alternative R&B record with a throbbing electro flair that audaciously lacks in “big single moments.” She doesn’t need to rely on overt commerciality anymore, though, and this album proves that Bey is so much more than just a pop mega-star; she’s a well-rounded artist who knows how to make incredible, compelling music and back it up with a daring juxtaposition of pure class and assertive attitude.
It’s become an established fact that Kanye West has nothing left to prove, and he’s clearly comfortable owning it. This year, he gave us his boldest and craziest album to date, Yeezus, which may go on to actually be considered his best. From both lyrical and production aspects, Kanye exemplifies his fearlessness and willingness to fluff his ever-growing ego, but also challenge his listeners. The music itself is abrasive, counter-intuitive, uncomfortable, but undeniably genius. At its most incomprehensible, Yeezus feels like something to be excited about, and at its most melodic, it feels like a friendly reminder as to why we started paying attention to Mr. West in the first place.
01. Random Access Memories
In a world where EDM has become an overly-popular, contrived movement, Daft Punk swooped in and used their legendary status to their advantage. While everyone else was out there making records resembling the music the French duo were creating over the last 20 years, the pair presented us with Random Access Memories, which was crafted almost entirely out of real instrumentation. The astonishing lineup of guest stars that included everyone from Pharrell to Panda Bear to Julian Casablancas to dance legends like Nile Rogers and Giorgio Moroder brought an impressive dynamic to the record that not only exemplified the pair’s consistency, but their undeniable range. This is an album that will go down in history as one of the greatest ever made.