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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 Warner

17

Danny Brown, ‘Old’

The year's most gripping hip-hop street-life narratives came from a crazy-coiffed Detroit native with a gift for vivid introspection and a taste for wild beats, from the Detroit techno of "Dubstep" to the avant-trap of "Side B (Dope Song)." It doesn't get much more disturbingly real than the raw-sex chronicle "Dope Fiend Rental."

Courtesy of ISO Records

16

David Bowie, ‘The Next Day’

Bowie's first trip in 10 years gets more fascinatingly weird the longer you listen (see the sly Leonard Cohen parody "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die"). But it's the naked emotion of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" that sums up The Next Day — loud, melodic, intense, with the man pushing his thin white voice into the stratosphere.

Courtesy of XL Recordings

15

Atoms for Peace, ‘Amok’

Thom Yorke's side band moves your body, even as it does Radiohead-ishly unnatural things to your mind. Joined by Flea and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke has rarely sounded so freewheeling vocally, and the music's marriage of live improvisation and studio mixology gives him a rich, shifty palette to play off.

Courtesy of Republic Records

14

Drake, ‘Nothing Was The Same’

With Kanye breathing fire in rarified air, Drake is the people's rapper, a smart kid conflicted about his fame, heart, family, everything except his mic potency. But what makes his lonely fantastic voyage matter is its emotional weight, which gets crucial amplification from Noah "40" Shebib's whirlpool beats.

Courtesy of Cherrytree Records

13

Disclosure, ‘Settle’

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.

Courtesy of Island Records

12

Jake Bugg, ‘Jake Bugg’

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.

Courtesy of What’s Your Rupture? Records

11

Parquet Courts, ‘Light Up Gold’

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.

Courtesy of Vanguard Records

10

John Fogerty, ‘Wrote A Song For Everyone’

The songs Fogerty wrote in Creedence Clearwater Revival are as embedded in the American grain as any in rock & roll. But this collection of recut CCR hits and solo tracks — recorded with fans like Bob Seger, My Morning Jacket, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Foo Fighters — shows how vital and relevant his songwriting remains more than 40 years after it owned the radio. Fogerty updates his Vietnam War missive "Fortunate Son" for the Iraq-Afghanistan era backed by the Foos, belts out "Born on the Bayou" alongside Kid Rock, unspools the ballad "Someday Never Comes" with roots rockers Dawes, and gets locked in a guitar duel with Brad Paisley on the underrated solo gem "Hot Rod Heart." The result is a wonderful conversation of an album — not to mention a damn good time.

Courtesy of Domino

9

Arctic Monkeys, ‘AM’

On its fifth album, this quintessentially British band moved to L.A., took inspiration from old Aaliyah hits and glam Bowie, and made a spiky, slinky beast of a record, perfect for that moment in the evening when you just realized that maybe that seventh drunk text you sent to your ex-girlfriend wasn't such a hot idea. The album was reportedly inspired by Alex Turner's breakup with model and TV host Alexa Chung, and songs like "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High" and the achingly slow "Do I Wanna Know" are full of slow-simmering heartache. The careening "chip-shop rock & roll" (as Turner called it) of previous records was replaced by a creeping desert-rock paranoia. And the frayed party's-over lullaby "Mad Sounds" might've been the sweetest Velvet Underground echo of Lou Reed's final year.

Courtesy of 4AD Records

8

The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

These Brooklyn guys have spent the past decade building their rep as the most resplendent sadsters in indie rock, a band whose ornate music matches the Cure-size heartache of singer Matt Berninger. But on the best record of their career, they pare back that richly ornamental sound to reveal its black-candy pop core. Berninger moans his afflicted romantic entreaties like a man drowning in too much merlot and just enough Leonard Cohen, over tensely coiled rhythms and hazy guitar shimmer. The National's fast songs have never had such immediate surge, and their slow ones have never had such elegiac power. "If you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind," Berninger sings on "Don't Swallow the Cap," nailing the album's ambition to make mood-swing rock with old-school gravitas.

Courtesy of Universal Music Group

7

Lorde, ‘Pure Heroine’

"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.

Courtesy of Matador Records

6

Queens of the Stone Age, ‘…Like Clockwork’

Josh Homme came back after a life-threatening illness, called up some rock-star pals (Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Elton John) and revived his mordantly arch-metal outfit to kick out creepily torrid, darkly suave Camaro rock like only he can. Homme combines menacing riffs and glammy refinement, sounding like Bowie reborn as a winking dark lord of the underworld. "Fairweather Friends," featuring Grohl and Sir Elton, is a grunge-grease bitchfest. On "I Sat by the Ocean," Homme crushes riffs and mellows out with "a potion to erase you." Yet for all the awesomely negative vibing and genuine twistedness (see "If I Had a Tail"), Clockwork hit with an everydude heaviness that's getting rarer and rarer these days. Plus, the king of Queens still has the best hard-rock falsetto of his generation.

Courtesy of Merge Records

5

Arcade Fire, ‘Reflektor’

Seventy minutes of wide-screen dance rock co-produced by LCD Soundsystem retiree James Murphy, the Grammy-grabbing, high-aiming, arena-filling, indie-earnest family band does what the Clash, Talking Heads and so many before it have done: reconnect rock to its dance-floor soul. There are flashes of glam, punk, disco, electro, dub reggae and Haitian rara. Being Arcade Fire, there's also emo dramatics and cultural critiques (staring at screens: don't do it!). Of course, the haters hated; the chin-scratchers debated the politics of the album's Caribbean undercurrents. But that ability to provoke actual feelings is what makes this great. And no release this year had a more entertaining rollout brouhaha. Stephen Colbert called them pretentious to their faces; they laughed too. And then the party started.

Courtesy of Hear Music

4

Paul McCartney, ‘New’

The sound of a 71-year-old Beatle getting back in the ring. McCartney plays to his strengths: Wings-like glam rock, Little Richard howls and, yep, some remarkably Beatlesque pop tunes and George Martin-ish arrangements (thanks partly to Martin's son, Giles, who produced several tracks). "Early Days" challenges lingering misconceptions about McCartney's role in the Beatles ("I don't see how they can remember/When they weren't where it was at"). Sir Paul also engages 21st-century pop with sharp ears, bringing in young-gun producers like Paul Epworth, Mark Ronson and Ethan Johns. He even rocks a quasi-rap flow and some giddy, Gaga-style stadium chants on "Queenie Eye." As Macca understands better than almost anyone, rock & roll is fueled by a hunger for good times and an ageless exuberance.

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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