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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 of Columbia Records

3

Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’

Now that the pop world has caught up with what Daft Punk were doing 15 years ago, naturally the French electro pioneers decide to rip it up and start again. So they spend most of Random Access Memories doing lush Seventies-style studio funk fusion, not at all unreminiscent of Steely Dan or Average White Band. Is it a strange move at the height of the EDM era? Yes. (Any album that can fit in appearances by the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, German disco godfather Giorgio Moroder and Seventies shlock-pop king Paul Williams is working on its own terms.) Is it awesome? Mais oui. And for all the lovingly detailed live-band touches, Daft Punk prove they're still pop fans at heart with "Get Lucky" — an instant disco classic where Pharrell and the great Nile Rodgers raise their cups to the stars.

Courtesy of Def Jam Records

2

Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’

Kanye's electro masterpiece is his most extreme album ever, which is saying something. No wonder the late, great Lou Reed embraced Yeezus, since it's basically the Metal Machine Music concept translated into futuristic hip-hop, all industrial overload and hypertense egomania and hostile vibes. The music is part Eighties synthblitz dark wave, part Jamaican dancehall. But it's all Kanye, taking you on a guided tour of the dark shit inside his brain. He rages about racial politics ("New Slaves"), he demands his damn croissants ("I Am a God"), he comes on like a robot sex machine ("I'm in It"). He kibitzes with the Lord, who agrees Kanye is the shit. And he ends with the Seventies-soul send-up "Bound 2," maybe the most audacious song he's ever written, not to mention the most beautiful.

Courtesy of XL

1

Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

The first two Vampire Weekend albums showed off a sound unlike any other in rock: a precocious mix of indie pop, African guitar grooves and wry, boat-shoe-preppy lyrics that were sometimes too cute for their own good. But with Modern Vampires of the City, they went deeper, adding scope and ambition to all the sophistication. In 2013, no other record mixed emotional weight with studio-rat craft and sheer stuck-in-your-head hummability like this one. It's one of rock's great albums about staring down adulthood and trying not to blink — that moment where, as singer Ezra Koenig puts it, you realize "wisdom's a gift/But you'd trade it for youth." The music is sculpted and subtly bonkers, with orchestral sweeps balancing hymnlike beauty and dub-inflected grooves. Koenig earns those Paul Simon comparisons thanks to vivid lyrics about youngish things in crisis — the unemployed friend who can't find a reason to shave in "Obvious Bicycle," the weary couple soldiering through the road-trip epic "Hannah Hunt." Then there's Koenig himself, filling songs like "Worship You" with religious allusions, evoking the search for meaning and faith with wit and skepticism. The album's fog-over-New York cover reminds us just how hard that search has become. The music makes it feel worth the heartache just the same.

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