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50 Best Albums of 2013

Vampire Weekend cut the cute and raised the stakes, Kanye assaulted our ears, Bowie shocked the world and Miley tossed a dance-pop party grenade

Best Albums of 2013

The past 12 months had more great music going on than any year in recent memory. Some of the most innovative artists of the last decade — Kanye West, Daft Punk, Queens of the Stone Age, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire — all made watershed albums. Rock & roll greats like John Fogerty, Paul McCartney and David Bowie proved they could be as vital as ever. The EDM explosion kept blowing up thanks to artists like Disclosure and Avicii; old-school titans like Eminem and Pusha T pushed hip-hop forward alongside new-school innovators like Chance the Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole and Danny Brown; Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made country that was traditional and iconoclastic. But the most exciting news of the year might've been the astonishing number of breakout new artists, from retro-Eighties sister act Haim, to Brit-folk prodigy Jake Bugg, to indie-rockers Parquet Courts, to post-punkers Savages to chart-topping 17-year-old truth-bomber Lorde. Even Miley Cyrus' wrecking ball of an adult-oriented breakout album was kinda awesome. Oh 2013, you gave so much and asked so little; 2014, get crackin'. You've got a lot to live up to.  

Contributors: Jon Dolan, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Rob Sheffield, and Simon Vozick-Levinson

Courtesy McSweeney's Publishing

50

Beck, ‘Song Reader’

There's old-school, and then there's "Man, it would rule if someone would invent electricity" old-school. Beck's "album" of sheet music turned out to be a sly collection of folky swing tunes, steeped in Beck's absurdist wit. One ukulele ballad, "Old Shanghai," even became a YouTube hit.

Courtesy Warner Brothers Records

49

The Flaming Lips, ‘The Terror’

The Lips return to the apocalyptic acid punk of their Eighties albums, with monkish meditation, darkening-plains rumble and scouring electronics. It's what happens when psych heroes find the hard-won honesty in whoa-dude revelation.

Courtesy of ATP Recordings

48

Fuck Buttons, ‘Slow Focus’

This duo's third set of psychedelic electronic rock gets pretty dark, but its wordless tension-and-release journeys are no less majestic. It's filled with tsunamis of corroded synthesizer noise and industrial beats — like the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi movie, or real life in 2013.

Courtesy Interscope

47

M.I.A., ‘Matangi’

Once again, the avant-R&B rebel proved the raw power of her global-cauldron dance beats and hater-blasting lyrics. Matangi takes on her bird-flipping 2012 Super Bowl scandal and even has a tender lover's jam in "Come Walk With Me," finding revelation by living out contradiction.

Courtesy Domino

46

Franz Ferdinand, ‘Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action’

After four years away, the mod Scottish boys jump back into the game swinging hard. Right Thoughts has many of their friskiest tracks ever, long on witty high-energy blasts of rhythm-guitar lechery.

Courtesy of Universal Island

45

Avicii, ‘True’

Hey, you got Mumford & Sons in my EDM! Swedish producer Avicii slyly celebrated electronic music's stateside boom by combining vintage roots music and energetic house beats. It's an exuberant cross-cultural good time, and thanks to anthems like "Wake Me Up," it never lets up.

Courtesy Concord

44

Valerie June, ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’

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.

Courtesy of Matador Records

43

Savages, ‘Silence Yourself’

"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.

Courtesy Columbia Records

42

Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Doris’

Odd Future's brightest cult star lives up to his reputation as an unholy verbal wizard on his long-awaited debut album. He also upends it — pushing past the amoral bomb-lobbing that won him notoriety with a newly introspective style, perfectly suited to third-eye-opening beats courtesy of Pharrell, RZA and Earl himself.

Courtesy Columbia Records

41

J. Cole, ‘Born Sinner’

Releasing your major-label rap record the same day as Kanye took balls. So did staying true to hip-hop's vaunted edutaining tradition with a set of hypersmart, excellently self-produced tracks that recall, well, vintage Kanye in their ability to dramatize the tension between Hov-size career ambition and post-Pac truth saying.

Courtesy of Republic

40

Pearl Jam, ‘Lightning Bolt’

Pearl Jam's 10th album is a brooding, pissed-off set — great news for fans. Lots of Lightning Bolt's best moments are downtempo, including "Sirens," their own haunted take on the PJ-inspired power-ballad subgenre. But let's be clear: The killer punk-metal rant "Mind Your Manners" should be played extremely loud.

Courtesy of Capitol Nashville

39

Keith Urban, ‘Fuse’

The amiable country dude's latest is called Fuse for a reason — only Taylor Swift has done so well synergizing dance-pop drive and countrypolitan pump. Urban yokes Eighties guitar flash and Euro beats to tight-crafted Nashville songs about cars and girls and girls in cars — classic images given a fresh polish.

Courtesy Matador Records

38

Kurt Vile, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’

The fifth LP from the resplendently mellow Vile is a beautiful sinkhole of meditative guitar mysticism. The meandering tunes roll along on craggy, ambling licks and the wisdom gleaned from whiling away his days in a "shame chamber" — quite contentedly, it would seem, judging by how pretty these songs are.

Courtesy of Votiv Music

37

The So So Glos, ‘Blowout’

The So So Glos are Brooklyn kids — the kind who actually grew up there, a band of brothers brimming with boyish energy and burn-down-the-house exuberance. Even when the songs on their third album are full of darkness and doubt, they jump to the pogo-punk style of Rancid or Green Day, but with a Clash-style sense of mission.

Courtesy of Don Giovanni Records

36

Waxahatchee, ‘Cerulean Salt’

In a year of great Nineties-indebted, female-fronted indie-rock albums (see also: Swearin', Speedy Ortiz), Katie Crutchfield's stood out. It's full of rubbed-raw heart-to-hearts about hanging with other miserable young people, waiting for the fun part to begin, and starting to get the suspicion this might be the fun part.

Courtesy Jewel City

35

Best Coast, ‘Fade Away EP’

It's just seven songs but still felt like a breakthrough, mixing the noise-pop buzz of Best Coast's 2011 debut with the swarming melodies and emotional payoff of last year's The Only Place. It's where Bethany Cosentino's love of Patsy Cline meets her love of My Bloody Valentine, and it suggests she's growing as a songwriter by the month.

Courtesy of ANTI

34

Neko Case, ‘The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You’

The country-rock firecracker's sixth LP is full of bold arrangements and hot guitars (courtesy of My Morning Jacket, among others). It's also a tour de force of intense, big-chorused songwriting. In other words, plenty more than just a big voice. But, damn: That's one knee-bucklingly magnificent voice.

Courtesy Def Jam

33

Pusha T, ‘My Name Is My Name’

The cockier half of the Clipse didn't choose to go solo — he had to after his brother found God. Pusha, in turn, found Kanye West, whose stark and twisted production helped make My Name Is My Name feel like a more lyrically focused companion piece to his own Yeezus. It's the year's sharpest hit of street philosophy.

Courtesy of Glassnote Records

32

Chvrches, ‘The Bones of What You Believe’

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.

Courtesy of Polydor Records

31

Haim, ‘Days Are Gone’

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.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Records

30

Tegan & Sara, ‘Heartthrob’

After a decade-plus making smart folk pop, this duo of Canadian twins took a leap into radio-hungry dance beats. Their songwriting stayed sharp and revealing as ever, and on "Closer," they show up all the billion-dollar divas with a disco burner about "how to get you underneath me" that is one of the year's sweatiest singles.

Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

29

Bombino, ‘Nomad’

For this raw cross-cultural jam, Omara "Bombino" Moctar — a hot-shit guitarist from Niger — hooked up with Black Key Dan Auerbach, who produced the LP with a crate-digging R&B/psych vibe. It's full of hypnotic fuzz, and the cosmic country of "Tamiditine" conjures Workingman's Dead – if it'd been made in the Sahara desert.

Courtesy of Mercury Nashville

28

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Same Trailer Different Park’

This charmingly matter-of-fact 25-year-old Texan makes commercial country sound artistically fertile again. Singing about a friend with benefits ("It Is What It Is") or weed smokin' and same-sex kissing ("Follow Your Arrow"), she's ballsy, traditional and pop. Call her the millennials' Loretta Lynn.

Courtesy RCA Records

27

Miley Cyrus, ‘Bangerz’

Amid all the foam-finger hub-bub, Miley made an excellent pop record. Bangerz is full of country-flavored slow jams and dirty beats like "Do My Thang" and the ace Future duet "My Darlin'." She drops top-shelf electro hooks and navigates coming-of-age conundrums, bringing depth and vulnerability to one hell of a party.

Courtesy of Chance The Rapper

26

Chance The Rapper, ‘Acid Rap’

The second mixtape from this 20-year-old Chicago MC is the ultimate in psychedelic hip-hop. Chance spins Lil Wayne-meets-Hendrix language swirls punctuated by the real-life observations of a kid who grew up in a world where "it's dark a lot . . . easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot."

Courtesy of Capitol Records

25

Elton John, ‘The Diving Board’

Sir Elton reunites with rock & roll curator T Bone Burnett and old writing partner Bernie Taupin for a return to classic piano-man form. Mixing singer-songwriter balladry, music-hall storytelling, corner-church testifying and parlor-room nostalgia, it's the sound of a legend with his showbiz guard dropped.

Courtesy of Interscope Records

24

Eminem, ‘Marshall Mathers LP 2’

On the sequel to his 2000 masterpiece, Eminem taps the maniac genius who first scared America into submission — Stan's little brother even came back to murder Mr. Mathers. But on "Headlights" he made peace with his estranged mom in what's gotta be Slim Shady's huggiest moment ever.

Courtesy of MBV

23

My Bloody Valentine, ‘MBV’

It's the noise-rock Chinese Democracy — 22 years in the making and utterly throttling just the same. MBV's third LP echoed their landmark Loveless with new shapes and colors, but the same deceptive tunefulness. And "Nothing Is" is nothing less than the art-rock equivalent of crazy-strong hash.

Courtesy of Glassnote Records

22

Phoenix, ‘Bankrupt!’

The French indie-pop group didn't come through with hits on par with "1901" or "Lisztomania." Phoenix did something even cagier, rolling out sleek, savvy songs that took apart fame, fashion and coolness from the inside, without scrimping on their space-rock whoosh, surging melodies and wry New Wave pout.

Courtesy of Capitol Records

21

Sky Ferreira, ‘Night Time, My Time’

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.

Courtesy of Virgin Records

20

Laura Marling, ‘Once I Was An Eagle’

Marling is the most compelling singer-songwriter of the U.K. roots-revival scene, with a voice that conjures young Joni Mitchell. Kicking off with a heart-surgical seven-song opening suite, her fourth LP is the record Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis might have made after kicking Justin Timberlake to the curb.