The 30 Best Albums of 2013

As the year rapidly winds to a close, it’s time to look back at the best music that 2013 had to offer. This was not an easy list to compile; there were dozens of other albums under serious consideration. These lists are obviously subjective exercises, and readers are encouraged to post their favorite albums, including those that aren’t included here, in the comments section below. 

2013 has been a great year for music, and here are 30 of the best:

30. “Dynamics” – Holy Ghost!

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The second album by Holy Ghost!, the NYC-based duo of Alex Frankel and Nicholas Millhiser, is a tight and potent collection of danceable synth-pop. First single, the 8-minute “Dumb Disco Ideas,” was one of the hottest dance tracks of the summer. Opener “Okay” takes its cue from the early pioneers of the genre — dig out that old Kraftwerk, Human League or Soft Cell album and you’ll hear their strong influence here 30 years later. There are also touches of disco on “Dance a Little Closer,” which merges new wave rock and a chorus straight out of Studio 54. Another standout is “Don’t Look Down,” which has a bit of a darker electronic vibe. “I Want To Be Your Hand,” with its bassilne straight out of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” takes ’70s-style FM pop and adds electronic flourishes in just the right spots. There’s even a bit of a New Order sound on the closing track “Cheap Shots.” “Dynamics” is a strong collection that finds Holy Ghost! expanding their basic synth-pop sound and incorporating elements of multiple styles to create a cohesive whole. From a production standpoint the album shines — it leaps out of the speakers fresh, danceable, and brimming with energy. 

29. “Bloodsports” – Suede

bloodsports.jpgSuede’s first album since the generally lackluster “A New Morning” twelve years ago is a welcome return. “Bloodsports” is primarily a straightforward rock album, eschewing the electronic elements that featured heavily on albums like “Coming Up” and, especially, “Head Music.” Brett Anderson is in fine voice, and the songs have that epic, dramatic flair you’d expect from Suede. They don’t stray too far from the formula of their early albums — Bowie-influenced glam rock with a darker edge, and heavy on the drama. Standouts include the album’s most obvious single, “It Starts and Ends With You,” with an epic chorus that fits nicely alongside any of their ’90s classics, and the hard-charging opener “Barriers.” Unlike some reunion albums, “Bloodsports” isn’t a pointless nostalgia exercise. Suede clearly worked hard to create something that would stand up alongside their impressive back catalog, and while it might not reach the epic heights of “Dog Man Star” or their extraordinary self-titled debut, “Bloodsports” is a return worthy of their stature as one of the most important bands of the ’90s. 

28. “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” – Franz Ferdinand

rightthoughts.jpgScottish post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand returned this year with their fourth album, their first since 2009′s stellar “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand,” and it’s another keeper. “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” runs a compact 35 minutes, but it doesn’t seem too short. The tracks are as tight and precise as one would expect from Alex Kapranos and company. It’s not a huge departure from their usual spiky rock sound, but then it doesn’t need to be. “Right Action” is a strong opener, and it just gets better from there. “Evil Eye” is a wicked rock strut, and “Love Illumination” is driven by a fuzz-toned guitar riff and has perhaps the strongest melody on the album. The edgy “Bullet,” with its repeated hook “I’ll never get your bullet out of my head, now!” is another standout. “Goodbye Lovers & Friends” is a brilliant climax, dark and moody with the dramatic final lyric: “but this really is the end.” Kapranos sounds like he really really really means it, but hopefully that’s not the case — Franz Ferdinand is one of the best bands to emerge in the last decade, and “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” is as good as anything they’ve done.

27. “True” – Avicii

true.jpgSwedish DJ and producer Tim Bergling has struck gold recording as Avicii, scoring major international hits with “Levels,” “I Could Be The One,” and others. In the US his success has mostly been limited to the dance clubs, but that all changed in 2013 with his album “True” and its smash single “Wake Me Up.” Yeah, it was overplayed and unavoidable, but it’s undeniably a first-rate pop song. Bergling shrewdly takes advantage of the recent popularity of earnest folk-rock exemplified by Mumford and Sons and marries that with his usual EDM sound. He pulls off the same trick on the excellent “Hey Brother,” which has the potential to be another smash. It seems like an odd pairing of styles, but Bergling pulls it off with real verve, and his success speaks for itself. “True” is loaded with strong commercial tracks like “You Make Me” and “Addicted to You,” and is overall an entertaining listen whether you’re on the dance floor or not. The 8-minute “Dear Boy” is tailor-made for the clubs, though. It’s hard to listen to it and not envision the pulsing lasers and swirling lights. “True” does have a hint of melancholy at times which gives it a bit of added depth, but mostly it’s just a great collection of supremely catchy dance/pop. Hopefully the ambition and vision shown on “True” is just a taste of things to come from Avicii.

26. “English Electric” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

electricenglish.jpg O.M.D. returned in 2010 with their first album in 14 years, “History of Modern,” and it proved to be an outstanding comeback. They continue their momentum this year with an even better album, “English Electric.” Led by the single “Metroland,” “English Electric” doesn’t sound like an album by a band whose biggest hit was from a John Hughes teen movie from 27 years ago. O.M.D. were pioneers in synth-pop, and although they had more success in the UK they had a string of ’80s hits in the US as well, including “If You Leave,” “So in Love” and “Dreaming.” “English Electric” takes their classic sound and hurls it into the future. Many bands known primarily for their ’80s material continue to try and (sometimes desperately) remain relevant, but most of them are relegated to performing their old hits over and over again on the nostalgia circuit with not much to offer in the way of vital new material. Not so for O.M.D. The production is pristine, and there are multiple tracks that with any justice should be hit singles: in addition to the epic “Metroland,” the atmospheric “Night Cafe” is a standout. “Helen of Troy” might have been a Top 10 hit in 1985. “Dresden,” built around a memorable high-energy synth riff, is another highlight. “English Electric” is what one might have imagined the future of music to sound like 30 years ago.

25. “Seasons of Your Day” – Mazzy Star

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In a year of some amazing comebacks, many of them unexpected, Mazzy Star’s return after a 17-year absence is particularly welcome. “Seasons of Your Day” sounds like they never left; it has the same hazy, mellow vibe that you’d expect from Hope Sandoval and David Roback. It has a timeless quality — it could easily have been recorded on the heels of classic albums like “She Hangs Brightly” and “So Tonight That I Might See” from 20 years earlier. “Seasons of Your Day” is wistful, ethereal, and as beautiful as one might hope from a new Mazzy Star album — Sandoval’s lovely, understated vocals over acoustic guitar, solemn and subtle organ, and Roback’s tasteful and restrained guitar leads. The songs meander and wander through the night, appearing and fading to black without much fanfare. Like Mazzy Star’s prior work, “Seasons of Your Day” requires the right frame of mind for maximum enjoyment. It’s music for 2:00 a.m., when you’ve had some wine or a smoke, and are in that languid state of relaxation where you can allow the magic of the music to gently envelope you. It’s familiar to those who know Mazzy Star, and for those who don’t “Seasons of Your Day” is an excellent chance to discover something magical.  

24. “Days Are Gone” – Haim

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The California-based trio of sisters Haim scored big this year with their debut album, “Days Are Gone.” It’s irresistibly catchy, quirky and smart pop that is a blast to listen to. Haim seems impossible to dislike. There are echoes of ’70s classic rock and ’80s bands like The Bangles and The Go-Go’s, and a little R&B thrown in for good measure, but despite the obvious influences “Days Are Gone” sounds fresh and new. It’s the type of album you play when you’re feeling down and need an immediate uplift. “Days Are Gone” is breezy, melodic, well-produced and is graced with impeccable harmonies. High points include the singles “Forever,” “Don’t Save Me,” “Falling” and especially “The Wire,” a stomping pop-rocker and a merciless ear-worm that refuses to die once it has you in its grasp. “Days are Gone” is a promising debut and a example of how great pop music doesn’t have to come from a stable of record company writers and producers brought in to write hits aimed specifically for the Top 40. The album was written and co-produced by the band themselves. 

23. “Deathfix” – Deathfix

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DC-based Deathfix is an interesting combination of talent: Brendan Canty of hardcore legends Fugazi, DJ and dance producer Rich Morel (known for his ultra-successful remixes, his recurring DJ nights Hot Sauce, and for his collaborations with Bob Mould on the mega-successful Blowoff dance parties), drummer Devin Ocampo (now replaced by another Fugazi alum, Jerry Busher) and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Mark Cisneros. The result is a suberb garage-rock album that’s a bit of a mix between the power-pop of Big Star and the experimentation of bands like Television (especially album-closer and brilliant guitar freakout “Transmission”). Opener “Better Than Bad” sounds like a blast straight from 1976 FM radio. The mellow, piano-based “Low Lying Dreams,” with its low growling vocals and profound sense of drama, is a definite standout. The finest moment is a doozy — the long, surreal, and brilliantly conceived “Dali’s House.” It’s 8-minutes of psychedelic garage-rock bliss. Deathfix’s self-titled debut is a terrific album from start to finish. Let’s hope we here more from these guys soon.

22. “The Terror” – The Flaming Lips

theterror.jpg The Flaming Lips’ best album since their 2002 masterpiece “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is a more downbeat collection than much of what they’ve presented in recent years. “The Terror” is a serious turn for the band. The vocals are often buried deep in the mix, and the album is more about creating a mood than a collection of songs. It’s psychedelic and a bit unhinged; the darkness that sometimes rears its head in the Lips’ music takes complete control here. “The Terror” emanates unease — it’s an aural nightmare built around densely layered soundscapes of keyboards, guitars, and Wayne Coyne’s haunted vocals. It’s brevity is also welcome — their last proper studio album, 2009′s double-album “Embryonic,” had moments of brilliance but was ultimately too much to absorb. The Flaming Lips are often brash and can be over-the-top in a lot of what they do, but “The Terror” presents another side of their music. It’s the Lips’ version of a modern psychedelic journey; “A Saucerful of Secrets” for a new generation.

21. “AM” – Arctic Monkeys

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UK rockers Arctic Monkeys keep getting better and better. “AM” is a blistering rock album loaded with strong melodic hooks, wonderfully unhinged drum-work (listen to those epic fills on “R U Mine?”), fluid bass-lines that are way up in the mix, and stellar guitar work by Jamie Cook (check out that sizzling but all-too-brief run near the end of the incredible “Arabella”). “Fireside” is one of the best tracks; built around a frantic acoustic guitar riff and an insistent rhythm, it’s one of those songs for which the repeat button was invented. “Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, a slinky mid-tempo rocker, is another key track and an interesting look into a dysfunctional relationship. Arctic Monkeys are still a garage band at heart but they’re impeccably tight. They have that bluesy/Stonesy swagger, but their sound has matured far beyond what one might have expected from their brash early work. Alex Turner has developed into a top-notch songwriter, and thematically the album seems to mostly deal with relationships in various states of flux. “AM” is a bold and confident album and proves without question that Arctic Monkeys are one of the most vital rock bands in the world today.

20. “Settle” – Disclosure

settle.jpgBritish brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence released their debut album this year under the name Disclosure, and it made an immediate impact, reaching #1 on the UK album charts. “Settle” is a brilliantly-conceived electronic dance album that twists in unexpected directions, features several outstanding vocalists, and exhibits unlimited creativity — it’s an exciting listen because you never know what’s gonna happen next. “Settle” is on the minimalist side compared to much of what passes for popular dance music these days — there is plenty of space for the intensity to build and the melodic hooks to shine rather than overwhelming the listener with screeching blasts of synths and annoying high-pitched bleeps and bloops. “When A Fire Starts To Burn” is guaranteed to turn a room full of complete strangers into an immediate house party. The hypnotic house track “F For You” is a gem. Eliza Doolittle’s vocal turns “You & Me” into an absolute marvel, and Sasha Keable delivers an equally powerful take on “Voices.” First single “Latch,” featuring vocals by British singer/songwriter Sam Smith, will rattle around in your brain for hours if you let it. “Stimulation” has that old-school disco vibe, similar to something that might have been on the last couple Scissor Sisters albums. “Settle” is fresh, funky, relentlessly energetic, adventurous, and ultimately an exciting listen — especially if you’re on the dance floor, the lights are shimmering and the speakers are blasting.

19. “The Minutes” – Alison Moyet

theminutes.jpgThe return of Alison Moyet with “The Minutes,” her first album in six years, is a real pleasure. The veteran vocalist, who first burst onto the pop music scene in the early 80s with Vince Clarke in the new wave band Yazoo, has never sounded better. Her eighth solo album overall, “The Minutes” has a contemporary sound, and a generally dark and theatrical vibe. She collaborates with producer and former Frou Frou member Guy Sigsworth, which proves to be a shrewd choice. The combination of Moyet’s emotive vocals and Sigsworth’s fresh electronic sounds and textures works brilliantly. The tracks are dramatic, tense, cinematic — they spotlight Moyet’s amazing voice but never at the expense of the song itself. While they don’t shy away from theatrical flourishes, Moyet never goes too far over-the-top. “The Minutes” is remarkably diverse stylistically. First single “When I Was Your Girl” sounds like an old-fashioned power-ballad, complete with power-chords during the chorus. Diane Warren would be proud. Some of the tracks, like the spritely electronic pop of “Love Reigns Supreme,” are reminiscent of Sigsworth’s work with Imogen Heap. “All Signs of Life” is another standout, veering from the moody, atmospheric verses to exuberant bursts of synths during the wildly intense chorus. “The Minutes” challenges, and doesn’t follow an easy path. Give Moyet credit — she could have come back with a collection of safe pop songs to try and garner some radio hits, but by avoiding that route she and Sigsworth have created something much more powerful and lasting. Their willingness to take left turns and Moyet’s glorious voice make for a memorable return.

18. “The Bones of What You Believe” – Chvrches

bonesofwhat.jpg Chvrches have been subject to a lot of hype, but there is a reason for it: they’re damn good. The trio of Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty are at heart a synth-pop band, and a good one at that. “The Bones of What You Believe” is relentlessly catchy from start to finish. Chvrches are a Scottish band that is generating major attention solely through their own efforts — they wrote, produced and performed almost everything on the album. “We Sink” is one of the many high points. “I’ll be a thorn in your side until you die. I’ll be a thorn in your side, for always.” Yikes… She sounds like she means it. Yeah, there are tons of ’80s revivalist bands doing synthpop, but Chvrches’ sound is unique and somewhat raw. They avoid the made-for-radio glisten for which most bands strive. Their music sounds genuine, and many of the elements on the album are strongly redolent of some of the best new wave albums of the early ’80s. Most importantly, the songwriting is superb. “Recover” is a top-notch track that received well-deserved attention as a single. There are any number of songs on “The Bones of What You Believe” that could be singles. It’s a bold debut, an album with passion, intensity and creativity. Based on “The Bones of What You Believe,” Chvrches are a band to watch in the years to come.

17. “{Awayland}” – Villagers

villagers.jpg“{Awayland}” is the second album for Irish band Villagers, and it’s essential listening. The songwriting, musicianship and arrangements are stellar throughout. Conor O’Brien is a brilliant composer. He knows how to write beautiful melodies and build tension, and “{Awayland}” is filled with both. The largely acoustic-based songs are generally restrained, but then there are moments of sudden release, like the electric guitar bursts on “The Bell.” The arrangements are phenomenal. Listen to the guitar interplay and the flare of horns during the introduction to “The Bell,” and then the explosion of organ — brilliantly conceived. The ominous “Passing a Message” is another standout with a fantastic piano freak-out in the middle. The very best is “Nothing Arrived” — very few songs as sublime were released this year. Each track on “{Awayland}” is a beauty. The production is crisp, clean and warm. Villagers have created a outstanding piece of work that will only gain in reputation over the years, because each new listen reveals new discoveries and rewards. 

16. “Modern Vampires of the City” – Vampire Weekend

vampireweekend.jpg“Modern Vampires of the City” is the sound of a talented group of young writers and musicians maturing rapidly. Whereas their breakthrough “Contra” was largely focused on unique sounds and textures, “Modern Vampires of the City” is more about superb songcraft. It’s an album of moody ruminations on life, love, growing older, and disillusionment. Vocalist Ezra Koenig sounds better than ever, and his writing shows increasing maturity. “Unbelievers” is an early highlight, a richly melodic track built over a rumbling rhythm and a frantic piano vamp. “Unbelievers,” despite its outwardly cheery demeanor, exemplifies the doubt and unease that permeates the album. “I’m not excited, but should I be? Is this the fate that the world has planned for me? I know I love you, and you love the sea… but what holy water contains a little drop for me?”  “Step” is one of the albums loveliest tracks — with a harpsichord discretely tinkling away in the background, Koenig sings a series of stream-of-consciousness memories as he tries to convince himself that “I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house.”  The arrangements are clever and avoid cheap gimmicks that would detract from overall vibe of the songs. The strongest moment might be “Hannah Hunt,” a lovely ballad with sadly beautiful imagery and a gorgeous vocal by Koenig. “Modern Vampires of the City,” like many great albums, slowly reveals more detail and nuance upon repeated listens. There are no real pop singles here, nothing that is going to set the radio on fire, but they didn’t need it — the album was a huge commercial success, sailing to #1 on the Billboard Album Charts upon its release. In the past it was easy to perhaps write off Vampire Weekend as a group of smart and talented kids a little too clever and twee for their own good. That is clearly no longer the case — “Modern Vampires of the City” is a deeply moving, serious album that marks a ginormous leap forward in the band’s artistic progression.

15. “Silence Yourself” – Savages

savages.jpgThere have been some great post-punk revivalist bands over the last decade or so:  Editors, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs spring to mind as a few of the best. We can now add Savages to that list. Their album “Silence Yourself” was preceded by the outstanding single “Husbands,” which helped build fevered anticipation for their full-length debut. They don’t disappoint. Vocalist Jehnny Beth often channels Siouxsie Sioux, and her bandmates — guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton — provider her a smoking hot backdrop for her intense and impassioned vocals. Savages influences are obvious: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Patti Smith, The Cure (the early years), and other post-punk bands. But while it’s undeniably derivative, “Silence Yourself” is so good that it hardly matters. Thundering drums, blasting guitar, and — especially — Jehnny Beth’s unhinged vocals are the real deal. “Silence Yourself” sounds very much as if it could have been recorded in 1983 — it is more in tune with its influences than many other bands that are mining the same stylistic territory. “Silence Yourself” is wild, intense, cathartic, and made for blasting at maximum volume. A superb debut that is bold, daring and confident. 

14. “Yeezus” – Kanye West

yeezus.jpgGreat artists rarely have anything to gain by trying to top an achievement that is untouchable. There was no chance for Kanye West to out-do the extraordinary ambition and undeniable brilliance of his last solo album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and on “Yeezus” he doesn’t even try. “Yeezus” exists in another universe entirely. The first word that comes to mind when listening to “Yeezus” is “harsh.” There are no obvious singles here. No funky radio-friendly tracks like “Power,” “Stronger,” “Love Lockdown” or “Gold Digga.”  This is Kanye West at his most abrasive, defensive, narcissistic (he even toys with his audience and his healthy self-esteem with “I Am a God,” which is dripping with both venom and a sorta bitter sarcasm in equal doses). It’s also West at his most in-your-face sexual. It’s clear that he wanted “Yeezus” to shock, to have a hard-edged, menacing sound, and it does. Many of the tracks have a rapid-fire, almost desperate and angry tone. It’s rock hard and tough, 40 minutes of Kanye at his most challenging. It’s also a sonic wonder. There may not be a better studio wizard operating today than Kanye West. The sounds that West coaxes out of a recording studio beggar belief. As always with West, there are some remarkably clever lyrics, and a certain defiance: “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” he sneers on “New Slaves” before railing aboust the power of corporations and the grip consumerism has over the population (himself included): “Fuck you and your corporation, ya’ll niggas can’t control me. I know that we the new slaves.” West is as brazenly mysogynistic as ever, especially on “I’m In it” — it’s not for the faint of heart. Some of the tracks stand up alongside his best work: the electrifying “Black Skinhead,” for example, and “Hold my Liquor.” “Blood on the Leaves,” with its sample of Nina Simone’s recording of “Strange Fruit, is chilling and perhaps the album’s greatest moment. “Yeezus” is not easy listening, but clearly it’s not meant to be. Only with the luxury of time will we be able to fully grasp where “Yeezus” fits into the puzzle that is Kanye West’s remarkable career. It doesn’t have the sweeping, epic scope of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” nor does it possess much of the infectious humor of some of his earlier work, but it’s an audacious and daring work that blasts out of the speakers with a clarity and power that only Kanye West can deliver.

13. “Hesitation Marks” – Nine Inch Nails

hesitationmarks.jpg“Hesitation Marks” is the first Nine Inch Nails album since “The Slip” five years ago. It was widely regarded as a comeback of sorts, although in reality the five-year gap is about on par for most of Nine Inch Nail’s previous releases (it took five years between “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile,” and then it took six years for “With Teeth” to arrive). Whether it’s a “comeback” or not, it’s a solid return. It’s always interesting to see how an artist can maintain a certain level of angst as they become older and Trent Reznor, now pushing 50, isn’t the same man who screamed out his aggression and rage on songs like “Head Like a Hole” over 20 years ago. “Hesitation Marks,” as one would expect from a studio wizard like Reznor, is a carefully crafted gem of an album with a wide range of innovative sounds and textures. Although there are times when he still shows he can rock it out (“In Two,” for instance), “Hesitation Marks” is mostly minimalist and atmospheric, but the songs are engaging and memorable. It certainly doesn’t have the wall of industrial power heard on “The Downward Spiral,” and none of the songs have the visceral, freak-out intensity of classic ’90s tracks like “Wish” or “March of the Pigs.”  That doesn’t mean “Hesitation Marks” is any less powerful. Standout tracks include the first single “Came Back Haunted,” “Copy of A”, and the edgy rocker “Everything” which actually features some nice harmonies and some guitar segments that seem influenced by The Cure. Reznor even brings in two of rock’s greatest guitarists to guest on a few songs: Lindsey Buckingham and Adrian Belew. No, this is not the Nine Inch Nails of the early ’90s, but it would be ridiculous for Reznor to try and be that same person now. “Hesitation Marks” is a strong return and might be the template for future Nine Inch Nails albums.  

12. “Pure Heroine” – Lorde

lorde.jpgNot many 16-year olds possess the gift for lyric and melody that Lorde exhibits on her remarkable debut “Pure Heroine.” Somehow her single “Royals” broke through the mass noise of the record industry machine and became a surprise #1 hit in America. It’s not a fluke; the album is superb. “Pure Heroine” is a collection of well-written and tightly produced pop songs that reflect an artist already showing astonishing maturity. It’s just good, not “good for her age.” Not surprisingly, many of the songs deal with the challenges of adolescence and hopes and fears for the future. Musically “Pure Heroine” is electronic and minimalist — its sparse nature allows Lorde’s vocals and strong sense of melody to take center stage. “Royals” is an instant classic — one of the songs that will define the year 2013 in music. Other standouts include “Tennis Court,” which should follow “Royals” up the charts, with its memorable repeated hook “Baby, be the class clown, I’ll be the beauty queen.”  “Team” is another high point, with its youthfully idealistic insistence that “you know we’re on each other’s team.” One of the darker moments is “Glory and Gore,” a cinematic track that sounds like it belongs on a movie soundtrack. “Pure Heroine” is a pleasure, and Lorde’s success is well-deserved. It will be fascinating to see how her career develops as she matures as an artist. 

11. “The 20/20 Experience (Part I)” – Justin Timberlake

jt.jpgWho would have thought that the cutesy boy-band vocalist with the curly blonde hair would eventually be capable of releasing an album the stature of “The 20/20 Experience”? Justin Timberlake has the vocal skills, a dynamic presence, and he chooses his collaborators wisely. Working largely with Timbaland, “The 20/20 Experience” is polished until it gleams, and the grooves are sexy and sophisticated. Timberlake allows the songs to wander and stretch — similar to Prince’s technique on the “1999″ album, on which extended tracks that might normally be reserved for the 12″ remixes are instead used on the album. It works for JT as well as it did for Prince. The songs have room to breathe, to fully develop ideas that never get boring. It’s sexy and fun and funky — everything great pop music should be. There are no shortage of highlights — “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Tunnel Vision,” and the wildly funky “Let the Groove In” are all terrific. Then there is the epic “Mirrors,” the album’s most successful single and its emotional centerpiece. The final track is the long, languid and sensual “Blue Ocean Floor,” featuring a beautiful vocal performance by JT and a lovely string arrangement that slowly fades out to silence. A fitting way to end an outstanding record. Unfortunately, the much-anticipated Part II of “The 20/20 Experience,” released later in the year, couldn’t hold a candle to Part I. With a couple exceptions, it sounds like a collection of outtakes that weren’t good enough to make the first release. But the shortcomings of Part II don’t detract from the greatness of Part I, which is a slick, expertly produced and executed pop/R&B album that is arguably the best thing Justin Timberlake has ever released. 

10. “Take Me To The Land of Hell” – Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band

takemetothelandofhell.jpgIt’s been a banner year for Yoko Ono. Not many 80-year-old women are releasing experimental rock albums while simultaneously hitting the top of the dance charts these days, but then Yoko Ono has never been what one might describe as ordinary. She continued her successful string of dance singles this year with a 30th anniversary edition of her iconic single “Walking on Thin Ice,” which gave her yet another #1 on the dance charts. More importantly, she released a new studio album, the follow-up to 2009′s excellent “Between My Head and the Sky.”  Once again working with her son Sean Ono Lennon and Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, “Take Me To the Land of Hell” is something of a summation of Ono’s long and extraordinary musical career. It’s a mixture of heavily rhythmic experimental rock, Ono’s unique “vocalizations,” and songs that fit a more traditional structure. Her music is, let’s face it, not for everybody. It’s generally an off-kilter pop/rock/dance hybrid that strongly reflects her avant-garde background. Ono’s voice is an instrument like no other — she can wail and howl and scream as if her soul is on fire. She sometimes uses her unique vocal techniques as a rhythmic device, or she layers it to create amazingly surreal effects that are mind-blowing on a good set of headphones. When she sings more standard pop songs, her voice can be sweet and gentle. She uses every inch of it, pushing the boundaries of what music can be. “Moonbeams,” the opening tack from “Take Me To the Land of Hell,” sums it up. Ono intones at the beginning: “Moonbeams melting into my blood stream in winter… the snow protected us, covering our pain.  Now I hear the ice cracking slowly in my brain.  My heart is ruminating your sweet words while my hand’s strangling the birds. People are planets, their souls are suns orbiting the dance floor of our cosmic club…”  Then the rhythm builds and explodes with Yoko’s trademark howls, layered amongst a propulsive, swirling mix of keyboards, heavy drums, bass and guitar.  You can completely lose yourself in the primal abandon of the music and her vocals. Oh sure, she is still divisive, but that’s okay — she’s never cared before, and she doesn’t now. Yoko Ono is uncompromising and fearless, and “Take Me To the Land of Hell” continues in that tradition, adding to a musical legacy that is due for an objective re-evaluation. 

9. “Reflektor” – Arcade Fire

reflektor.jpgWell, they are ambitious, give them that. Arcade Fire seems to have as many detractors as admirers these days. Oh yeah, there is no denying they’re pretentious, but when you can back it up, so what? Those complaining about Arcade Fire’s pretentions have a short (or selective) memory when it comes to rock & roll. “Reflektor” is a natural step forward for the band. “The Suburbs” was actually fairly straightforward in its approach, although of course with the intensity and drama one would expect from Win Butler and his art-rock collective. This time they enlisted LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy as a collaborator, and his influence is obvious from the very first moments. The title track is a long rock/electronic/dance hybrid that doesn’t really follow any discernible rules — and that’s reflective of the entire album. It’s largely impressive overall. Clocking in at over 85 minutes, “Reflektor” is an album that one must delve into and deeply explore to get a true sense of it. It’s an ambitious piece of work — and if ambition equals pretention and that’s so troublesome, why not just go out and buy the latest piece of mass-produced pop candy fluff being peddled to Top 40 radio?  The title track is a remarkable song that is sonically adventurous as well as funky, surprising and wonderfully melodic. It’s like a mantra at times, and builds with increasing layers of sound and effects (and a guest spot by David Bowie) and it expands to a full 7 & 1/2 minutes. “We Exist” is perhaps the finest moment of the album; a stripped down track built around a heavy bass-line, it reaches moments of stunning emotional peak and release. The bridge that begins with the layered vocals on “Let ‘em stare, let ‘em stare, if that’s all they can do!” is one of the most carefully constructed and powerful sequences on the album. “Afterlife” is another high point — a mid-tempo shuffle that begins with the arresting couplet, “Afterlife – oh my God, what an awful word.” Arcade Fire is a band that is supremely talented and willing to go wherever it is they feel they need to go creatively; and those are the type of bands that generally create the most interesting albums that ultimately have the most lasting impact. 

8. “New” – Paul McCartney

paulmccartney.jpgYes, it’s really this good. At 71, Paul McCartney proves that he is still who he always was — and when the right moments hit, and he strikes up with the right collaborators, he can show once again the genius that led to the most important catalog of pop music in history. “Yesterday,” anyone? “Hey Jude.” “Let it Be.” Countless others, both pre and post-Beatles. This is still that same man, that same artist. “New” is a reminder that yeah, while he’s never really gone away, and he’s put out some albums that are mediocre at best, he is still the man who churned out some of pop music’s most enduring classics. Paul McCartney still has that power. “New” is upbeat, uplifting, and filled with the great melodies that McCartney has always been able to deliver. It’s nostalgic, warm, endearing, and in the end just a great collection of songs. Unlike some of his contemporaries who are still recording, McCartney’s voice is still in fine form. He works with producers of the moment Mark Ronson and Paul Epworth, but he also maintains strong ties to his past, collaborating with Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, and Ethan Johns, son of frequent Beatles engineer Glyn Johns. The past and present and future are all accounted for on McCartney’s finest album since at least 1997′s “Flaming Pie” or “Flowers in the Dirt” from 1989 or maybe even since 1982′s “Tug of War.” It seems McCartney’s truly great solo albums are few and far between (although even the lesser ones are frequently underrated and have worthy moments), but when they strike, it’s an important moment in music history. “New” might just be the best Paul McCartney album in three decades. One of The Beatles, in 2013, just released a fantastic new album — hard to fathom. “New” is a gift for fans to enjoy 51 years after “Love Me Do.” We should not take it for granted. Buy it and give it a listen, you won’t regret it. 

7. “Random Access Memories” – Daft Punk

randomaccessmemories.jpgIf any album on this list is a labor of love, it’s Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” The acclaimed French duo, known primarily for their EDM soundscapes and godlike-genius studio mastery, turn back the clock and bring the past into the future. They don’t just imitate — they bring in the real deal. Nile Rodgers himself is on several tracks, and they even roll out perhaps the greatest dance music legend of them all, Giorgio Moroder. The album is certainly an homage to the past, but it’s not stuck there. The recordings are live music rather than artificial layers created on a computer, which gives it a fresh and genuine sound. The R&B/dance-pop confection “Get Lucky,” featuring Pharrell Williams, became one of the biggest hits of the year, and for good reason — it’s a smokin’ track; clever, catchy and sexy. The album also contains two of the most exquisitely beautiful songs you’ll hear this year, or any year: “Within” and “The Game of Love.” Listen to the bewildered lonely yearning in the haunted computerized vocals of “Within”: “There are so many things that I don’t understand. There’s a world within me that I cannot explain.” There is zero doubt that many of Daft Punk’s fans can relate very well to those sentiments. “Random Access Memories” was a huge commercial success, and one of the most widely-discussed albums of the year. It appealed to a wide range of fans. The message of “I know you don’t get a chance to take a break this often, I know your life is speeding and it isn’t stopping,” followed by an invitation to “Lose Yourself to Dance” certainly resonates with many in our ever-so-slightly crazy society. Daft Punk created a pure musical pleasure with this album, and it will stand the test of time. People will be listening to and discovering “Random Access Memories” for many years to come. 

6. “Pale Green Ghosts” – John Grant

johngrant.jpgJohn Grant is one of the best songwriters that most people have never heard of. He writes with a graceful self-deprecating honesty about lost relationships, his own struggles with addiction, and his life as a gay man living with HIV. Check out this stanza from the amazing single “GMF”, presumably directed at a parent: “I should’ve practiced my scales. I should not be attracted to males. But you said that I should learn to love myself. Make up your mind, Dr. Frankenstein.” Or the brutal honesty with which he confronts his acquisition of the HIV virus on the track “Ernest Borgnine”: “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me, says I got the disease. Now what did you expect? You spent your life on your knees.” Grant’s humanity is ultimately what makes “Pale Green Ghosts” great — it’s the presentation of an individual, flaws and all, just trying to make his way through a difficult world. He relates his personal journey with extraordinary wit and beauty, and his particular insight into the human psyche is usually spot-on. On “I Hate This Town” he sings these highly relatable lyrics: “It’s so confusing ’cause I really want to hate you, but my intellect reminds me that that doesn’t make no sense. And I wanted to be your friend, but I couldn’t pull it off in the end. And I’m disappointed with myself because I thought I could.”  The music is generally mellowish electronic, and his voice can sound deadpan but his ability to inject his vocals with just the right amount of subtle feeling at just the right moments adds to the power of the songs. “Pale Green Ghosts” is a riveting listen, an album that will stay with you long after the last track ends. 

5. “Overgrown” – James Blake

overgrown.jpgJames Blake’s “Overgrown” is one of those magical albums that was created to be played in the pitch black, late at night, to transport the listener to another universe of sound. Blake’s haunting, beautiful voice, at times reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, floats above a dense fog of carefully layered electro beats and synths. The melodies are soft and subtle, and the overall sound is an aural dream. “Overgrown” is simply exquisite start to finish. The album opens with the gorgeous title track, Blake’s voice clear over a simple electronic beat, the song carried by the heartbreaking melody. Slowly more textures and layers of sound are added, and the song builds. First single “Retrograde” is without question one of the finest recordings of the year. Listen to the lonely yearning as he sings, “Suddenly i’m hit in the starkness of the dawn… and your friends are gone. And your friends won’t come. So show me where you fit.  So show me where you fit.” Another major piece is “Take A Fall For Me,” which features a guest rap by RZA over pulsing synths and snatches of Blake’s vocals in the background — although different than the rest of the album, it works beautifully. James Blake is a gifted artist, and “Overgrown” is an album that will be looked back upon as one of the finest of the decade. 

4. “Electric” – Pet Shop Boys

electric.jpgVeteran pop duo Pet Shop Boys delivered their best album since “Very” 20 years ago with “Electric,” their 12th studio album overall. Produced by Stuart Price, “Electric” is a departure from the more downbeat “Elysium” released last year. The duo had promised their next album would focus on dance, and they deliver. “Electric” is a bold, high-energy thrill ride. It’s similar in structure to the duo’s 1988 album “Introspective” in that there are only 9 tracks, they are all upbeat and most of them are quite lengthy. It opens with the kinetic “Axis,” a near-instrumental which delivers an opening rush of excitement and sets the tone for the rest of the album. The focus here isn’t only pop song-craft, but on sounds and textures and pulsing energy. Neil Tennant’s voice is often down in the mix — another instrument rather than the focus. The hooks are there, but “Electric” is clearly not an album aimed at the pop charts. There are no weak tracks. “Bolshy” is an absolute highlight. It builds to an almost unbearable climax and release — it’s impossible to hear it and not visualize the pulsing lights and the sweat-drenched crowd on the dance floor going completely nuts. Only the Pet Shop Boys could get away with naming a track “Love is a Bourgeois Construct,” and it’s great. Opening with a fade-in keyboard riff that recalls Madonna’s “Confessions on the Dance Floor” album, it’s probably the most-radio friendly track on “Electric” (and an edited version was ultimately released as a single). The album concludes with the second single “Vocal” and the repeated mantra “it’s in the music” over frenetic bursts of synths. “And everything about tonight feels right and so young. And anything I’d want to say out loud will be sung. This is my kind of music. They play it all night long.” Well-said. By the time you finish “Electric,” it’s almost exhausting — it’s a bit of sensory overload, like you’ve just been dancing your ass off all night — but it’s also exhilarating. A fun ride.

3. “The Electric Lady” – Janelle Monáe

electriclady.jpgIn a year in which most pop music was a huge vacuum of waste, Janelle Monae stood out loud and proud. “The Electric Lady” is smart, fun and funky. Monae deftly weaves an electric mix of pop, funk, R&B and dance into a superbly addictive suite of songs. She builds on retro sounds and influences to create an eclectic showcase that is modern and timeless. Prince is the most obvious influence (listen to those “1999″-era synth lines on “Q.U.E.E.N.”), and the man himself appears as a guest on the thrilling funk-rock track “Given Em What They Love.” There are other guests, including Esperanza Spalding, Solange, Erykah Badu and Miguel — but there is no question Monae herself is the star of the show. “The Electric Lady” is a far better-crafted album than the vast majority of anything on the pop charts these days, and it’s a true shame it hasn’t done better commercially. Highlights include the title song, a particularly funky mix of 80s and 90s pop and R&B influences. The frenetic “Dance Apocalyptic” is an irresistibly catchy pastiche of old-school R&B reminiscent of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Monae shines as a vocalist on tracks like “Primetime,” a slow-burning duet with Miguel that features beautifully layered vocals over a sensual groove. The album ends with “What an Experience,” an aptly-titled track if there ever was one. “The Electric Lady” is an example of the best that popular music has to offer. It’s a deeply engaging, entertaining and ambitious album — a triumph. 

2. “m b v” – My Bloody Valentine

mbv.jpgIt’s the year of the comeback. Twenty-two years after releasing the genre-defining “Loveless,” which sent shockwaves through the music industry and spawned countless imitators in its wake, My Bloody Valentine finally re-emerged this year with a new studio album, “m b v.” Imagine the pressure of not only following up an album that is generally regarded as an all-time classic, but releasing your first new music in over two decades. “m b v” is up to the task. Warmer and richer than “Loveless,” it rocks just as hard and creates that sonic universe made for headphones, dark rooms, and losing yourself in the swirling guitars, layered vocals and hypnotic rhythms. The melodic lines (both vocal and instrumental) are buried down in the mix, but they are revealed upon repeated listens like a furtive mystical spirit slowly coaxed to the surface from the murk below. Everything on “m.b.v.” is off-kilter and a slightly touched by madness. The songs sway in and out of key and tempo, elements of sound are introduced briefly only to disappear and reappear at some later point, and the perfectly melded vocals of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher connect with the fuzzy and disorienting music like they are another instrument. Opening track, the gentle “She Found Now,” is the soundtrack to a dream that transcends dimensions. “Only Tomorrow” is extraordinary, with its churning, distorted guitars, and beautiful lilting vocal. Sonic marvels abound on “m b v.” “Who Sees You” is one of the very best moments — more layers of churning guitars, wavering on and off different keys and with an ever-so-subtle changing tempo that sounds like a cassette tape dragging slightly at times. It’s a surreal and beautiful effect. The album grows louder and wilder as it nears the end — it must be listened to in the proper sequence. There’s the frantic, driving rhythms of “In Another Way’” with an extraordinary repeated guitar sequence with keyboard lines that sound almost like bagpipes, but not quite. The album’s finale, “Wonder 2,” is phenomenal — a cacophony of sound and melody buried under a giant swooping effect that makes it sound like the band is playing on the wing of an airplane in a moderate gale. If that sounds hard to imagine, it’s because it’s hard to describe —  “m b v” must be heard to be believed; preferably late at night, with all the lights out, with a few glasses of wine and a smoke, and a great pair of headphones. Prepare to have your mind blown, your senses overloaded, and your head taken to another plan of consciousness. It’s that good. 

1. “The Next Day” – David Bowie

thenextday.jpgNobody expected this birthday to be any different. After all, it had been ten years since David Bowie’s last studio album, “Reality,” and he had been almost completely out of the public eye for years. Fans speculated ill-health, and most had taken for granted that there would never be another David Bowie album. Then January 8, 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday, came ’round and his fans and the music industry were collectively stunned when he suddenly dropped a new single and video via his website (the elegiac but defiant “Where Are We Now?”) and announced a forthcoming album. One of the most astonishing aspects of “The Next Day” is that, in this day and age of 24-hour instant information and constant rumors, no hint of the project leaked out to the public until it was announced. And that was just the start of the perfection that followed. “The Next Day” is one of the finest albums of Bowie’s legendary career.  It stands proudly alongside albums of monumental cultural significance like “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Station to Station,” “Low,” or “Aladdin Sane.” It’s also one of his bleakest albums. “The Next Day” is drenched with blood, violence and dread. Produced by longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, and featuring a group of musicians who have worked with Bowie many times before (including bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and guitarist Earl Slick), “The Next Day” is a major work by one of rock’s most influential artists. It’s essentially a rock album, although it covers diverse stylistic territory. The album opens with the grim, hard-rocking title track about living a fearful existence under the boot of tyranny, where every day brings the threat of blood… and of course he couldn’t resist a jab at those who assumed his protracted absence was proof that he was dying: “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree, it’s branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me, and the next day, and the next day, and ANOTHER day!” “The Stars (are out tonight)” is a sardonic look at the strange co-dependence of the stars and the mere earthlings who support them. “I’d Rather Be High” deals with a soldier home from one of the desert wars self-medicating to stay perpetually numb so that he can avoid the trauma of his memories. Then there are the even darker songs. “Valentine’s Day” relates the chilling fantasies of a would-be school shooter, and Bowie leaves it ambiguous in the end. Listen to the power and intensity in his voice as the song concludes and the listener doesn’t know if Valentine is simply fantasizing or if he’s on the cusp of an act of unspeakable violence: “It’s in his scrawny hand! It’s in his icy heart! It’s happening today!!” Does it?  We’ll never know. Nearly every song gazes deeply into some aspect of humanity’s capacity for pain or violence.  There’s the ghost-trodden blood-soaked fields of war in the spellbinding “How Does the Grass Grow,” the bitter recriminations of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” The album ends with the mournful ballad, “Heat.” Even the cover indicates a certain bleakness. Bowie takes his iconic cover photo for the “Heroes” album and slaps on a simple white square, as if to say that the delusional fantasies of the idealist couple in the song “Heroes” are squashed on the rocks of the harsh reality of life on The Next Day. “The Next Day” harkens back frequently to various points in Bowie’s past.  There are hints and cues from just about every era of his career (like the drum pattern from “Ashes to Ashes” appearing in “How Does the Grass Grow,” the intro to “Five Years” forming the fade-out of “You’re So Lonely You Could Die,” and the guitar squalls in the title song that sound like they were transported directly from “Heroes” or “Lodger.”) There is a wealth of material for fans to dissect in the often enigmatic lyrics and incredible sonic achievements. “The Next Day” is a major chapter in Bowie’s career, and with each listen it unfolds more deeply.  Even fans who held out hope that someday David Bowie would deliver another album could not possibly have hoped for a more potent return.  “The Next Day” is an epic achievement by a legend who knows how to stage a comeback — by releasing the finest album of 2013.

Music writer for Metro Weekly. Contact at cgerard@metroweekly.com.

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