The past 12 months exploded with exciting new artists, both on the charts and throughout underground – from A$AP Ferg's trippy trap music to Brandy Clark's bullshit-calling country to Lorde's world-weary teen-rap to Parquet Courts' neo-Nineties indie rock, from hip-hop to EDM to country. Here are the 20 best debut albums from a year teeming with them. BY JON DOLAN
Is their name a tribute to Pink Floyd? You could be excused for thinking so, given electronic music savant Nicolas Jarr and Dave Harrington's fondness for cosmic, proggy drift, falsetto vocals and opening an album with an 11-minute moon shot. It's the sound of luxury shuttles orbiting the Earth – full, rich, gorgeous and sleepily funky.
Recently, Britain has produced a lot of electronic soul duos in the tradition of Yaz and Erasure. This one adds some hip-hop to the mix; it's the sound of London after dark. Aluna Francis purs over producer George Reids' smooth-tronic beats and breaks. For maximum nostalgia factor, the group covers Montell Jordan's "The Is How We Do It" like they were taking a swing at an Otis Redding tune.
A conservatory-trained British soul singer who separates herself from Adele Nation (and, franky, raises the stylistic bar on Ms. Adkins) with sheer diversity; Sing to the Moon draws on and smoothly amalgamates jazzy melodies, pop ballads, orchestral doo-wop and smart gospel. There doesn't seem to be anything she can't sing, belt and make her own.
"No crossed arms," Palma Violets' merch guy and hype man said at a New York show. "Tonight is the night to fight against that." This band gave the London rock scene a shot of punk earnestness with a debut full of garageland guitars, Strokesy singing and psych-nuggets organ, all in the service of songs unafraid of a good yell-along chorus. Raise your glasses.
This 20-year-old Boca Raton native's debut starts with Mantovani-strings amd moves into Glee-via-doo-wop harmonies before resolving into semi-modern pop with guest spots from Mac Miller and Big Sean. The stylistic child of early Janet, Whitney and Mariah, she could be, as Homer Simpson, once put it, bigger than curly fries.
Dubstep, at least Stateside, isn't exactly known for contemplative mope. Enter Archy Marshall, would could grow into the genre's Morrissey. His pleasantly out of focus, ice-flow hip-hop beats are cut with double-Scotch pianos and watery guitars. Lazy-bloke admissions like "I will end up on the dole/It's my life" sound at once tired, sad, tough and drunk. This charming man!
Yeah, the awful name's a riff on oddball pysch-folkie Joanna Newsome, but this Welsh quintet strum and pound a fuzzy, grimey guitar pop, just like the UK used to make in spades back in the Eighties. Over amp buzz and busted jangle singer Alanna McArdle coos like she can't decide whether to toss you off the balcony or order you room service.
These California braincall-haters play beachy punk rock at its most happily regressive, packing this blazing album with songs like "Cheap Beer," "Wake Bake Skate" and "Max Can't Surf." Sometimes a little California guitar chiming pokes through the stoner-thrash haze. Mostly, though, it's all blitzkrieg slop all the time.
Canadian singer-songwriter Michael Milosh and Danish producer-songwriter Robin Hannibal make up the impossibly chill Jazz-n-B duo Rhye, blending Milosh's androgynous, exceptionally Sade-ish mumble-croon with strings, harps, flutes and free-floating mellowness The result is like a drag show on the S.S. Yacht Rock, but an exceptionally classy one; it's fluff-funk of the first order.
Clark's debut is all Nashville-ninja craftsmanship and smart riffing on drugs ("Get High," "Take a Little Pill"), gals with guns ("Stripes," "Crazy Women"), and the Lord ("Pray to Jesus," which features the classic line "We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto / 'Cause there aint but two ways/ we can change tomorrow"). She's the kind of talent that makes the term "alt-country" unnecessary.
This Harlem-bred MC and A$AP Mob member born Darold Ferguson, Jr. assembles a slow, silky, moody debut. He's the street MC bringing digital hi-hats and trickster flow to the drum circle on "Let It Go," or hanging out with guys from his crew talking about Jamaican dancehall (the genuinely odd "Shabba," featuring crew buddy A$AP Rocky).
This New York-via-Tennessee singer mixed blues, soul, country, string-band folk and gospel while the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach added old-school ambience. It's the sound of a rookie doing her own thing like no retro-soul singer since Amy Winehouse.
"I'm cold and I'm cold and I'm cold and I'm stubborn," Savages' Jehnny Beth informs us on the band's debut. With the repetitive insistence of a howitzer and the urgency of an air-raid siren, these four women made some of 2013's scariest, most thrilling noise, finding new worlds of terror and stress in Eighties U.K. post-punk.
On their debut, this Glasgow trio made indie-weaned synth-rock that hit with as much big-box thwump as Rihanna or "Roar." Singer Lauren Mayberry throws herself into stalker-pop come-ons, and nearly every song is bright and cutting and almost scarily impassioned.
On their debut, these three harmonizing Los Angeles sisters found an elusive art-pop sweet spot between TLC and Kate Bush – and won over indie kids and teenyboppers alike. "The Wire" plays like a great lost Eighties radio hit. But "My Song 5," with its broken beats and snaky flow, is the hook-mad high point.
Ferreira's Eighties-weaned diva pop recalls no-nonsense Nineties alt-rockers like PJ Harvey and Shirley Manson, setting love-wracked disclosures to grungy guitar static, electronic gauze and computer-groove churn. When she sings about her "heavy-metal heart," she's not kidding: The woman works well with machines.
This U.K. brother duo may still be too young to get into some of the clubs where their music is bumping. But they're steeped in disco history ("White Noise" could be an old-school techno classic). Settle sounds like an anthology of great club singles, using guest vocalists and stylistic jumps to flow like an expertly curated party tape.
Nineteen-year-old U.K. singer-songwriter Bugg is an acoustic revivalist with the guts to shake up the traditions he loves. On his debut, Bugg gave '62 Dylan, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers a cocky Oasis charge, while packing his songs with sharp observations about street-fighting strife and coming-of-age confusion.
The songs on Parquet Courts' breakthrough are fast, brief and laugh-out-loud funny. These Brooklyn dudes take inspiration from the Nineties vibe of Pavement or Archers of Loaf, hitting their slack-ass glory in the climactic guitar groove "Stoned and Starving," where picking out snacks in a bodega feels like an epic quest.
"We don't care/We aren't caught up in your love affair," declares 17-year-old New Zealand pop savant Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor on her hit "Royals," a bitch-slap to status-driven music culture on behalf of every cash-strapped kid (and grown-up) exhausted by it. Lorde's debut album ended up ruling the pop charts anyway, thanks to a sultry, swaggering, hip-hop-savvy, fully grown voice and stark synth jams as earworm-y as Miley's or Katy's splashiest hits. Set against the music's minimal throb, Lorde's languidly aphoristic lyrics balance rock-star swagger and torqued-up teenage angst, so lines like "We're hollow like the bottles that we drain" or "We're so happy, even when we're smiling out of fear" have a rattle-nerve pathos and power like nothing else going in 2013.