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Best Albums of 2013: Mid-Year Report

Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West and more

40 Best Albums of the Year

From Daft Punk ditching EDM to Kanye assaulting our ears to surprise comebacks from My Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake and David Bowie, 2013's been a great year for albums – and we're only halfway through it. Here's an unranked list of the year's best so far.

‪Vampire Weekend‬, Modern Vampires of the City

Courtesy of XL Records

‪Vampire Weekend‬, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

Vampire Weekend may have finally given up on grad school and settled into a real job. On their third album, the grooves are stronger and more self-assured, the lyrics less pretentious, the harmonies more hymnlike. It's not dumbed down, it's just edited for management. Give the kids a raise.

From the RS review: "For the first time, Vampire Weekend evoke the spirit of their old influence Paul Simon – making music with precise craft and soul that speaks to the heart of city life – without sounding anything like Graceland."

‪Kanye West‬, Yeezus

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

‪Kanye West‬, ‘Yeezus’

Full of the darkest, most extreme music Kanye has ever cooked up, Yeezus is an extravagantly abrasive album – all grinding electro, pummeling minimalist hip-hop, drone-y wooze and industrial gear-grind, not to mention lyrics that indicate he either likes girls a whole lot or less than any rapper ever.

From the RS review: "A brilliant, obsessive-compulsive career auto-correct, Yeezus isn't just a way to stay ahead of the competition; it's a way to stay ahead of himself."

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Courtesy of Columbia Records

Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’

The most important act in global dance music? Maybe. On this insanely anticipated 70-minute album, the French duo flips their script with guest appearances from Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, dance godfather Giorgio Moroder and shmaltz guru Paul Williams, creating a prog-tastic disco fantasia full of electro-jazz-funk, kitsch-pop and splashes of Eurodisco/house fusion.

From the RS review: "Completely ridiculous, remarkably beautiful and affecting, it sounds almost nothing like EDM."

‪John Fogerty‬, Wrote a Song For Everyone

Courtesy of Vanguard Records

‪John Fogerty‬, ‘Wrote a Song for Everyone’

Here the legendary John Fogerty has recut a dozen classics, most from the Creedence era, with luminaries such as Bob Seger ("Who’ll Stop the Rain"), My Morning Jacket ("Long As I Can See the Light"), Keith Urban ("Almost Saturday Night"), Foo Fighters ("Fortunate Son"), Kid Rock ("Born on the Bayou") and others. The result underscores the timelessness of Fogerty's tunes; more shocking, these versions stand up to the originals.

From the RS review: "It affirms the living history in his greatest hits – that of a great nation still being born."

‪David Bowie‬, The Next Day

Courtesy of ISO Records

‪David Bowie‬, ‘The Next Day’

Bowie's triumphant, unanticipated comeback doesn't disappoint, bridging the gap between the Berlin trilogy torch songs of the late Seventies and the reflective stuff of the late Nineties and early 2000s. Far from a swan song, the album shows a resolved, optimistic Bowie; nostalgic, but never regretful, and not quite ready to bow out.

From the RS review: "The sharp-edged guitars suit the tunes – wry, soulful, adult, resistant to maudlin hysterics or overwrought sentiment."

‪Jake Bugg‬, Jake Bugg

Courtesy of Mercury Records

Jake Bugg‬, ‘Jake Bugg’

Alongside Mumford & Sons, Frank Turner and other back-to-basics Brits, Jake Bugg, all of 19, is making artisanal folk rock with Whole Foods-scale ambition. Doing with folk what countrywomen Adele and Amy Winehouse did with soul, he yolks the spirit and styles of dated genres to the now and blends savvy storytelling with a palpable teenage restlessness.

From the RS review: "For a teenager's debut, Jake Bugg shows an artist who is crazy fully formed, stepping into a journey that should be worth following."

‪The National‬, Trouble Will Find Me

Courtesy of 4AD Records

‪The National‬, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

This is the sound of despair, according to the National's Matt Berninger: "If you want to make me cry," he claims, "play 'Let It Be' or Nevermind." On much of Trouble Will Find Me as well, the terse phrases and single-tone exclamations of guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner hang around Berninger's baritone gravity like clouded starlight.

From the RS review: "Good news: The National are letting light and air into their shadows."

Atoms for Peace Amok

Courtesy of XL Recordings

‪Atoms for Peace‬, ‘Amok’

Radiohead main man Thom Yorke teams up with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on keyboards, top session drummer Joey Waronker, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea on bass for striking songs flecked with shards of West African guitar, chattering polyrhythms and cloudy synths.  

From the RS review: "Yorke and Godrich spliced, processed and overdubbed the initial jam tapes into a high-gloss psychedelic experience – an ultrahip DJ set for a warehouse rave on the moon."

‪Phoenix‬, Bankrupt!

Courtesy of Glassnote Records

‪Phoenix‬, ‘Bankrupt!’

The French band's latest is less precisely crafted that its hit-making predecessor Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and more taken with posh, atmospheric grooves than hot power pop – not to mention colorful, astral-planing synths, guitar shimmer, pillow-pump drums and Thomas Mars' blue-eyed vocal swoon. The mood is more emotionally shadowy, bringing out a sense of ennui you might've missed the last time around.

From the RS review: "Phoenix recall the Strokes or Duran Duran or even Sixties Stones in the way they fuse high-end style with rock & roll."

‪Queens of the Stone Age‬, …Like Clockwork

Courtesy of Matador Records

‪Queens of the Stone Age‬, ‘. . . Like Clockwork’

For the Queens' sixth album, main man Josh Homme has the band at full power, with Dave Grohl drumming on five tracks, former members Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan pitching in and eye-catching guest spots from Trent Reznor, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Elton John – who volunteered as "an actual queen."

From the RS review: "Few can rain down metal decay with as much nuance and craft."

‪Deerhunter‬, Monomania

Courtesy of 4AD Records

‪Deerhunter‬, ‘Monomania’

Bradford Cox, the man behind Deerhunter, has moved from raw ambient-punk to a fluid-spattered, cross-dressing panoply of pretty much anything he likes, from glam rock-garage assaults to grumbling low-fi folk to slipping into soft psych-pop. We await his Kanye collaboration, his 70-piece orchestral album and his Broadway musical, but this will more than do for now.

From the RS review: "There is clearly no quietude in Cox's frantic mind, but his obsession yields beauty."

‪Bombino‬, Nomad

Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

‪Bombino‬, ‘Nomad’

Meet your new guitar hero: Omara "Bombino" Moctar, a firebrand from Niger with a soulful, fuzzy sound that expands on traditional roots music. Produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, the album is all about detail, with vibraphone, lapsteel and hand claps placed just right to pierce the psychedelic swirl.

From the RS review: "Bombino's style is raw, spacious, tuneful, deeply hypnotic and remarkably fluid – even when he's shooting rapid-fire notes, the effect is like ripples gently unfurling in a pond."

‪Parquet Courts‬, ‪Light Up Gold

Courtesy of What's Your Rupture?‬

‪Parquet Courts‬, ‪’Light Up Gold’

The Brooklyn-via-Texas band makes near-perfect post-college rock, merging twitchy post-punk (Wire, the Fall) and sweet early-Nineties indie rock (Pavement, Sebadoh), while nailing all the right themes – not knowing what to do with your life ("Borrowed Time"), not being as smart as you thought you were ("No Ideas"), realizing the world is much bigger and weirder than you'd previously imagined.

From the RS review: "The guitars make like they're fucking in a crusty sleeping bag while Savage describes a blissfully zombified bodega crawl through Queens: 'I was scratching off silver ink/I was deciding what to drink.'"

‪Palma Violets‬, 180

Courtesy of Rough Trade Records

‪Palma Violets‬, ‘180’

Listening to these vinegary London punks' debut, you'd think they stepped directly out of a sardine-packed club in 1977. That, or they've just spent a lot of time listening to the Clash and the Pistols. Either way, it's bracing, biting stuff.

Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

Courtesy of Mercury Nashville Records

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Same Trailer Different Park’

There are no vocal tricks on the 24-year-old country singer’' debut; all the cleverness is in catchy, biting lyrics about waitresses on smoke breaks, non-conformity and friends-with-benefits sex. Musgraves lays bare small-town life with the unflinching frankness of someone whose bags have been packed since she turned 17.

From the RS review: ". . . Man, can Musgraves write. The album showcases a songwriting voice you won't hear anywhere else in pop: young, female, downwardly mobile, fiercely witty."

‪So So Glos‬, Blowout

Courtesy of So So Glos

‪So So Glos‬, ‘Blowout’

These punk rock kids hail from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; imagine the Ramones as actual brothers. Their second album is their gloriously high-speed manifesto, as the Glos declare war on everything boring and dive into dirty big-city kicks with songs that have a classicist confidence, reaching all the way back to the Clash and the Kinks.

From the RS review: "It's the Glos' boyish exuberance that drives every second of the album home."

Eleanor Friedberger Personal Record

Courtesy of Merge Records

Eleanor Friedberger, ‘Personal Record’                

Listening to the classic rock puzzles Eleanor Friedberger and her brother Matthew create in the Fiery Furnaces can be difficult, but her second solo LP is full of crisp, jangly indie pop that can suggest Harry Nilsson or early Stones, packed with stories of young people too mopey to realize the person across the bar is hitting on them. 

From the RS review: "She's winking, but each wink squeezes out a tear."

‪Chance the Rapper‬, Acid Rap

Courtesy of Chance the Rapper

‪Chance the Rapper‬, ‘Acid Rap’

On his wildly anticipated second mixtape, Chicagoan Chance the Rapper at first sounds a bit like Lil Wayne or Eminem. But his vibe is more Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, his voice shifting between fleet rapping and rap-singing. His beats have a woozy, psychedelic feel. Don't be surprised if someday he's spoken of in the same class as his influences.

From the RS review: "The density of wit, ideas and verbal invention that makes this one of the year's defining hip-hop releases."

Boards of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest

Courtesy of Warp Records

Boards of Canada, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’

The year's other big comeback from a press-shy European electronic duo is as satisfyingly true-to-form as Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is unexpected. Eight years after their last album, Boards of Canada are still orchestrating brilliantly chilly instrumentals laced with a liberal dash of existential panic. Put on a pair of good headphones and get ready to shiver.

From the RS review: "There's plenty of intellect on Tomorrow's Harvest but not nearly as much soul; like an intricate artifact found preserved in a glacier, this album is impressive to behold, but cold to the touch."

‪My Bloody Valentine‬, m b v

Courtesy of Pickpocket Records

‪My Bloody Valentine‬, ‘MBV’

"Hotly anticipated" is one thing. Waiting 22 years – which is how long it took Kevin Shields and bandmates to follow up the legendary Loveless – for an album is something else entirely. MBV delivers cosmic guitar noise, full of late-night yearnings for excess and obliteration, feedback drone, Stereolab-style pop tunes and psychedelic punk.

From the RS review: "Despite the skull-crushing power, MBV is music that rewards close listening, music that takes its time to give up its secrets."

‪Justin Timberlake‬, The 20/20 Experience

Courtesy of RCA Records

‪Justin Timberlake‬, ‘The 20/20 Experience’

Until Random Access Memories dropped, The 20/20 Experience was the biggest pop event of 2013, but it's not quite a pop album. The 10 tracks average seven minutes; songs unfurl into vamps, abruptly change keys, pile on unexpected beats and harmonies. The music is catchy, but the emphasis is on rhythm and flow.

From the RS review: "You might call The 20/20 Experience Timberlake's neo-soul record. (It has more in common with D'Angelo and Maxwell than Usher or Bieber.)  But that guy in the suit and tie, that showbiz savant – in the end, he makes it sound like pop."

‪Yeah Yeah Yeahs‬, Mosquito

Courtesy of Interscope Records

‪Yeah Yeah Yeahs‬, ‘Mosquito’

Shaped partly in New Orleans with longtime crony Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio into raw, scrappily urban music, Mosquito feels nostalgic for when the YYYs were New York's most thrilling underdogs, and not just because one song begins, "I lost you on the subway car/Got caught without my Metro card," and builds a groove on what sounds like the grind of a missed L train.

From the RS review: "Ten years in since the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut LP, frontwoman Karen O is a primal institution – the hipster next door lurching from one emo spectacle to another on bigger stages than anyone expected; she's the Lena Dunham of art punk."

Tegan and Sara Heartthrob

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records

Tegan and Sara, ‘Heartthrob’

After years of folk rock, the 32-year-old Canadian twins have decided to get sweaty with a bouncy-castle of lush, up-to-the-minute indie synth-pop and blown-out radio choruses, less fussy and more fun than anything they've done. Producer Greg Kurstin (Ke$ha, Kelly Clarkson, etc.) deserves a little thanks for the dance-floor churn.

From the RS review: "Emotional processing should always be so liberating."