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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.

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."

DJ Koze Amygdala

Courtesy of Pampa Records

DJ Koze, ‘Amygdala’

A tour de force by Teutonic EDM don Stefan Kozalla: ADHD hip-hop jump-cuts, sneaky melodies, oddball instrumentation, warped vocals. The shadow of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" floats through "Das Wort," while "Marilyn Whirlwind" (and who expected a shout out to Northern Exposure?) loops a virtual guitar jam. 

From the RS review: "Full of elegant techno minimalism, augmented with wildly eccentric detailing."

Natalie Maines Mother

Courtesy of Columbia Records

Natalie Maines, ‘Mother’

No twang, no problem: The Bush-bashing Dixie Chick leaves Nashville behind with a rock-oriented solo set. The straightforward material – including songs by Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Buckley and the Jayhawks – leave plenty of room for Maines' powerhouse voice to maneuver. 

From the RS review: "The title track is the famous Pink Floyd ballad, which in Maines' stately reading comes off as a lament, not as a rant. The album hits its stride with the more spunky material, like Patty Griffin's 'Silver Bell.'"

Rhye Woman        

Courtesy of Republic Records

Rhye, ‘Woman’

Rhye are Danish producer-songwriter Robin Hannibal and Canadian singer-songwriter Michael Milosh, whose androgynous voice bears a startling resemblance to Sade's. Milosh uses it deliciously, unspooling sultry whispers and coos over chill soul-jazz and R&B grooves draped in strings, harps, flutes and flugelhorns.

From the RS review: "The result is like a drag show on the S.S. Yacht Rock; it's fluffer funk of the first order."

‪Ashley Monroe‬ Like a Rose

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records

‪Ashley Monroe‬, ‘Like a Rose’

You might remember this gal from her turn on Hell on Heels by Pistol Annies. This one's is even better. Traditionalist, countrypolitan and honky-tonk all at once, beneath the period garb is a modern woman who advocates "weed instead of roses" to revive a moribund sex life and drops references to Fifty Shades of Grey.

From the RS review: "Nine songs, 32 minutes, no false moves."

Savages Silence Yourself

Courtesy of Matador Records

Savages, ‘Silence Yourself’

The full-length debut by this London band of women is a constant, compact fury: emotional confrontation and sexual vengeance executed with martial discipline, at mostly blinding speed. Savages do not write songs as such. "I Am Here," "No Face" and "Husbands" are stark whirls of one-sided argument, a modern spin on Eighties post-punk.

From the RS review: "Jehnny Beth shoots across the turbulence – Ayse Hassan's grunting bass, Gemma Thompson's scorched-treble guitar – in a pagan-priestess wail."

J. Cole Born Sinner

Courtesy of ‪Roc Nation‬

J. Cole, ‘Born Sinner’

"Sometimes I brag like Hov/Sometimes I'm real like Pac," J. Cole raps on his second LP. Sometimes he's both – a verbal powerhouse and a self-emptying truth-sayer. The flagship signee to Jay-Z's record label spins dervish rhymes over dazzling self-produced tracks, full of riffs on racism, homophobia and misogyny that have more lyrical cunning than insight.

From the RS review: "When it comes to twisting himself into Kanye-size pretzels of career-oriented real talk, he's a champ."

Fall Out Boy Save Rock and Roll

Courtesy of Island Records

Fall Out Boy, ‘Save Rock and Roll’

Four years after their de facto breakup, just when we'd finally forgotten all the embarrassing LiveJournal entries they inspired the first time around, Fall Out Boy return with a big, bombastic album, complete with sleazy disco grooves, a fat dubstep breakdown, a semicoherent rant by Courtney Love, a random Big Sean rap verse and a song that manages to bite both Willie Nelson and Adele.

From the RS review: "Does rock's future depend on this overheated nonsense? Of course not. But life is more fun with Fall Out Boy than without them."

Disclosure Settle

Courtesy of Island Records

Disclosure, ‘Settle’

The debut by Guy Lawrence, 21, and his brother Howard, 18, is a modest masterpiece of production finesse, rooted in house but borrowing from hip-hop, dubstep and other club mutations. They’re heirs to the tradition of the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk: marquee EDM duos as devoted to vocal-driven songcraft as they are to beatmaking.

From the RS review: "These bros know how even subtle tweaks can turn the pedestrian ecstatic."

Laura Marling Once I Was An Eagle

Courtesy of Virgin Records

Laura Marling, ‘Once I Was An Eagle’

"It ain't me, babe," sings Laura Marling in "Master Hunter," echoing Dylan for her own back-the-fuck-off-my-love song. Her fourth LP begins with seven songs linked by drones, lyric shards and a suicide-haunted relationship, full of percussion, strings and organ-coloring acoustic guitar, her voice miked so close you can smell the cigarettes on her breath.

From the RS review: "It's sultry, wise, rueful and unapologetic, connecting a 1960s singer-songwriter tradition to the ache of the now."

Waxahatchee Cerulean Salt

Courtesy of Don Giovanni Records

Waxahatchee, ‘Cerulean Salt’

On her second album, Alabama guitarist Katie Crutchfield sings bruising punk ballads about hanging out with other miserable young people and waiting for the fun part to begin, while starting to get the horrible suspicion this might be the fun part. The band helps to bring out all the frayed desperation in her voice.

From the RS review: "Sometimes she gets what she wants, most times she doesn't, but she always gets a great song out of it."

Snoop Lion Reincarnated

Courtesy of RCA Records

Snoop Lion, ‘Reincarnated’

Like Willie Nelson before him, Snoop Dogg finally got so high he made a reggae album. For all the easy jokes, Reincarnated is Snoop's most consistently enjoyable record in years, complete with a creative partnership with executive producer Diplo, who serves up a tasty swirl of sticky-sweet bass lines and electro crunch. 

From the RS review: "It's hard not to give it up for such a big, goofy bear hug to the universe."

‪Kevin Gates‬, The Luca Brasi Story

Courtesy of Atlantic Records

‪Kevin Gates‬, ‘The Luca Brasi Story’

You can hear shades of Southern greats like T.I., Lil Wayne and Ludacris in this Baton Rouge rapper's stylish flow. But spend enough time with his breakthrough mixtape and you'll realize Gates is a serious talent in his own right, bounding over these top-shelf beats like he's already a superstar.

‪The Knife‬, Shaking the Habitual

Courtesy of Rabid Records

‪The Knife‬, ‘Shaking the Habitual’

For when you absolutely, positively need a movie-length double CD from a Swedish brother and sister electronic duo that scraps their well-meaning EDM for increasingly lunatic styles of mordantly nutso android bleat. Sighing beats bloom and skitter or throb and pulse: This isn’t ghost-in-the-machine electronica, this is full-on poltergeist-in-the-hard-drive oddness.

From the RS review: "A midwinter nosedive into a black fjord of the soul."

‪Charles Bradley‬, Victim of Love

Courtesy of Daptone Records

‪Charles Bradley‬, ‘Victim of Love’

Bradley, born in 1948 and just on his second LP, evokes the old-school soul of Otis Redding, James Brown and Stax and Motown soul in general. The songcraft and the production will have you reaching for the album to check that it isn't a reissue.

From the RS review: "When he saunters through the groove of 'You Put the Flame on It,' stomps and shrieks the J.B.'s-like funk of 'Confusion' and, especially, digs into tearstreaked ballads ('Crying in the Chapel'), he sounds like an heir, not an impersonator."

kurt vile wakin on a pretty daze

Courtesy of Matador Records

Kurt Vile, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’

Kurt Vile's sweetly slack fifth LP kicks in with a nine-and-a-half-minute song about taking a walk, hits peak stoner wonder on "Air Bud" and fills in the spaces with tranq-darted Dinosaur Jr. licks. But he's more about fear of abandonment than self-isolation – even a meditation on snowflakes has a stormy feel.

From the RS review: "A guitar-obsessed longhair who got his start self-distributing his music, Vile has let the outside in."

Lonely Island The Wack Album

Courtesy of Universal Music Group

Lonely Island, ‘The Wack Album’

The third Lonely Island LP isn't as sublimely silly, or as consistent, as their last one, but it rocks the same mix of guest stars (T-Pain, Robyn, Hugh Jackman and many more), sophisticated concepts ("Semicolon") and totally unsophisticated sex jokes ("I F****D My Aunt"). The secret weapon is musical skill: Solid MCing, actual hooks and A-list producers turn the jokes into songs that bear repeat listenings. 

From the RS review: "The best cut, 'YOLO,' which flips that carpe diem slogan into an argument for living like Howard Hughes at his urine-hoarding worst."

‪Pistol Annies‬, Annie Up

Courtesy of RCA Records Nashville

‪Pistol Annies‬, ‘Annie Up’

The second LP by the all-female supergroup – Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley – is, like their 2011 debut, full of attitude and guffaws, delivered in three-part harmony over down-home country, rockabilly romps and anthemic mutant bluegrass. But there's pathos beneath the jokes: plenty of domestic decay and poignant love songs.

From the RS review: "There may be better bands than Pistol Annies, but what band is more of a hoot?"

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