Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 10 Albums of 2013

I'll admit that I didn't hear as many new albums this year as I probably should have before making an authoritative list on it. But those that I did were mostly great. Music may not be this blog's bread-and-butter, but here were my 10 favorite albums from 2013.

10. Nothing Was the Same, Drake

Nothing Was the Same is something of a misnomer. In many ways, it's very similar to Drake's 2011 masterpiece, Take Care, both sonically and thematically. And that's certainly not a bad thing. Drake continues to pour out his heart and mind over Noah "40" Shebib's spacey, hypnotic beats, and songs like "The Language" and "Tuscan Leather" are intimate and grand. That's not to say that Drake isn't interested in some experimentation here: "Wu-Tang Forever" finds him rewriting a bona-fide hip-hop classic, while "Hold On, We're Going Home" is an unexpected blast of '80s pop that only features his singing voice. It may have mostly been more of the same, but when the same is the good, why bother changing?

9. Save Rock & Roll, Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy are survivors. They had a fantastic run on the charts in the mid-2000s, but when "emo" fell out of fashion (and fell it most certainly did), it seemed like Fall Out Boy were doomed to be casualties of its fate. Instead, the band took a long hiatus, branched out into (mostly failed) solo projects, then regrouped. The album may be titled Save Rock & Roll, but this is there poppiest effort yet. Yeah, there's plenty of guitar crunch on singles like "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)" and "The Phoenix," but they're underscored by drum loops and glitzy synths, and "The Mighty Fall" finds singer Patrick Stump showing off his hip-hop swagger. But it's on soulful cuts like "Just One Yesterday" and the title track that find the band at it's best, unleashing pop bombast with Stump's give-'em-hell vocals. They may not have "saved" rock and roll, but they've certainly saved themselves, and with incredible results.

8. Born Sinner, J. Cole

J. Cole's 2011 debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, was not perfect, and even he will admit that. So on his long-awaited follow-up, Born Sinner, he set out to prove his talents. Cole unleashes some of his strongest lyrics to date, such as on "LAnd of the Snakes" and "She Knows," as well as some of his most accessible production in hit singles "Power Trip" and "Crooked Smile." But where Cole - and Born Sinner - shine brightest are on the tracks where he is most vulnerable, and key track "Let Nas Down" is a perfect example. Over a jazzy groove, Cole raps about letting his mentor down, and the results are electrifying. The same can be said for the entirety of Cole's sophomore effort.

7. The 20/20 Experience - Part 1 of 2, Justin Timberlake

It was going to be the comeback to end all comebacks. After seven long years in the acting wilderness, Justin Timberlake was coming back to music with a follow-up to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Given that album's retroactive status as a new pop classic, the expectations were astronomical. And as it turned out, Timberlake gave us two new albums of music. While The 20/20 Experience - Part 2 of 2 felt more like what fans were expecting, Part 1 is the better album. The songs stretch well past their natural breaking points, shifting into new sounds, as Timberlake explores his various sonic frontiers, from get-low funk ("Pusher Love Girl") to glitzy club sounds ("Suit & Tie") to arena rock ("Mirrors"). The true gems, though, are cuts like the looping samba of "Let the Groove Get In," the Michael Jackson swing of "Don't Hold the Wall" and the Radiohead-like ambience of "Blue Ocean Floor." It was a more experimental album, sure. But it resulted in some of Timberlake's most unexpected - and best - work to date.

6. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk

2013 was the year that EDM finally planted its feet in mainstream pop. So it seems appropriate that this would be the time for Daft Punk, which had been the face of EDM for many during the late '90s and '00s, to come back with their first album of forward-thinking robot rock since 2005, right? Of course, except at a moment when their signature sound was never more popular, the duo unleashed Random Access Memories, an album of retro-future disco grooves. Smash single "Get Lucky" was an infectious earworm and an absolute blast, while the Paul Williams-featuring "Touch" is an epic of space-age disconnect. On the opposite end of the spectrum, "Doin' It Right" is a minimalist jam, a final grace note before explosive finale "Contact." The whole essence of the album, and Daft Punk's entire aesthetic, is perhaps captured by "Girogio by Morodor:" a glimpse into the past as channeled through the future.

5. Reflektor, Arcade Fire

Though nobody quite knew what to expect from Arcade Fire's follow-up to their Grammy-winning 2010 album The Suburbs, surely nobody was expecting them to lay down their grooviest work yet. The band regrouped to Haiti, and using that experience recorded an album that, though lacking arena-shaking catharsis a la "Wake Up," is a singularly unique work in their oeuvre. The title track rides a slinky groove and even features a few lines from David Bowie, while "Here Comes the Night Time" is a Carnival party in six-and-a-half minutes. "Afterlife," meanwhile, is the closest the Reflektor comes to typical Arcade Fire: propulsive drums, big emotions, and an insatiably danceable rocker. As the whole album proves, though, there may not be such as thing as "typical" Arcade Fire anymore.

4. Yeezus, Kanye West

In 2010, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a bona fide classic that's not only one of the most audacious, Olympian, and, yes, best albums in hip-hop history, but also one of the best, period. So how do you follow up an act like that? As West demonstrated on Yeezus, you don't even try. Instead, he unleashed this Molotov cocktail of an album upon an unsuspecting world. A dark voyage into West's untethered wrath, the album features a number of cuts that feature primal screaming ("I Am A God"), lacerating takedowns ("Blood on the Leaves"), and intense, freeform exercises in no-holds-barred ranting ("New Slaves"). The production is just as intense - I wouldn't recommend listening to "Hold My Liquor" on repeat - and even at just 40 minutes, it's a punishing listen. He saves the most jarring for last, though: "Bound 2," a shifting blast of old-school soul samples interrupted with blasts of Charlie Wilson's enormous voice, like a beacon of light cutting through the darkness. It's a difficult album, and it's a hard one to "love." But damn if it's not an admirable, and genuinely incredible, work from an artist who looked long and hard at the expectations set before him and simply blew them up.

3. Pure Heroine, Lorde

If you were looking for the pop breakout of 2013, you probably wouldn't have expected it to be a 17-year-old New Zealander whose mother is a poet laureate. And yet here stands Ella Yelich-O'Connor, aka Lorde, the owner of a nine-week #1 single ("Royals"). Her debut full-length, Pure Heroine, is a testament that she has more talent than her seeming one-hit wonder status would suggest. On the opener, "Tennis Court," she announces "don't you think that it's boring how people talk?" From there, it's teen isolation channelled through a low-key pop filter, as she enjoys quiet moments driving through the suburbs ("400 Lux") and pop ennui ("Team"). It's a remarkable debut from an artist who's clearly only just getting warmed up.

2. Days Are Gone, Haim

It's entirely possible to dig Days Are Gone out of a crate and mistake it for a lost gem of '80s pop. The three sisters of Haim imbued their debut with a genuine love for the decade, as evidenced on monster sing-along "The Wire" and shimmering "Falling." All three of them trade vocals throughout the album, and the harmonies are sweet even when the lyrics turn bitter. "If I Could Change Your Mind" is a delightful slow-burner, and an example of how much more this album opens up on multiple listens. In a year when a lot of artists looked back to the past for inspiration, none where as much fun as this album from a group with a bright future ahead of them.

1. The Bones of What You Believe, CHVRCHES

Electro-pop is the sound of the moment, both on the mainstream side of music and amongst indie artists. There's so much available that it can be hard for an artist to stand out. Enter CHVRCHES, the Scottish outfit that released the year's best album. The Bones of What You Believe is full of enormous synthesizer hooks and thudding beats, from the looping claps of "The Mother We Share" to the chilled-out groove of "Recover" to that massive climax of "Tether." But none of these incredible sounds would matter so much as they do without singer Lauren Mayberry's rapturous vocals, coming in like dispatches from a far-off world doused in hope and pain in equal measure. When she sings "I'll be the thorn in your side 'til you die," as she does on "We Sink," you feel every bit of that sentiment. There were plenty of great pop albums this year, particularly from new artists. But none stood as tall, or as magnificent, or as moving, as The Bones of What You Believe.

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