Every year, towards the end of the year, we look back on all the albums we've listened to over the past twelve months. Only then do we start to form an opinion about the overall strength of the musical bounty: whether is been a "good year" or a "bad year." (And, of course, such assessment can change over time. Ask us again in twenty years, and things might look very different.) During the year, it never feels like things are going well. You hear some records and think, "Well, that was pretty cool." And then there's plenty of that you don't care much about, so many songs that don't grab you. There's always a ton of new music out. (Too much, it seems like, trying to keep up with it all.) But there's never a ton of great music out. But that's the thing about greatness, it builds over time.
So with 2013 coming to a close, we're starting to realize what a really great year for music it's been. There've been a been a lot of particularly strong albums this year. There were highly anticipated albums by artists like Drake, Kanye West, and J. Cole that lived up to the hype, there were the unexpected delights of Haim and Young Thug and A$AP Ferg, and worthy entries into established catalogs by acts like Eminem and Queens of the Stone Age. All that and oh so much more. Take a look back with us with The 50 Best Albums of 2013.
RELATED: The 50 Best Albums of 2016
New Yorkers Pick the Best (And Worst) Albums of 2013
Related: The Best Albums of 2017
50. Big Sean, Hall of Fame
Label: GOOD Music, Def Jam
After Big Sean's work on the G.O.O.D. Music album Cruel Summer, his second solo release, Hall of Fame, came as a total surprise. Sean's verses on "Mercy" and "Clique" were boastful, braggadocios, and full of cocksure swagger, like a high school athlete in the locker room talking shit with all the other jocks.
But Hall of Fame sounds like it could have been done by another rapper. Instead of cute ad-libs like "Oh God" and "Swerve," he tells us stories about his girlfriend's mother whose cancer spreads from her breast to her spine, and about finding a way to tell her everything is going to be all right. He rhymes about riding around Detroit in a Toyota with six other dudes, looking for trouble or fun or just a way out of town. He rhymes about his first chain, and brings Nas and Cudi along for the ride.
Yes, there are songs about threesomes and about being a rap star, but mostly there is honesty and even fleeting moments of vulnerability if not humility. It's fitting that he and Kendrick had that moment on "Control," because Hall of Fame clearly owes some sort of debt to good kid, m.A.A.d. city. K-Dot opened up a space for rap to do that, or at least reminded folks of the sorts of things Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth used to do with the art form. Before hearing Hall of Fame, the title sounded pretentious. After hearing it, it's clear that Sean is ready to earn his place. —Rob Kenner
49. Charli XCX, True Romance
Label: IAMSOUND, Asylum, Atlantic
True Romance would like you to think of it as messy and tangled, a bleary-eyed expression of emotional tumult. It would like you to think it's a piece of work not quite in control of itself. Its washed-out, frenetic production, its broad, Internet-y tangle of influences, its pointed lyrics with their aura of over sharing—all of these give the impression of a distracted, disoriented work. But they do it in the same way a magazine might design a fashion spread placed in a trashed hotel room.
True Romance may seem chaotic, but it's a laser-focused piece of grinding synthpop with a digital art coating and a deeply real emotional core. On "What I Like" she nails the feeling of being swept up by infatuation, on the playful "You (Ha Ha Ha)" she delivers the perfect kiss-off to a relationship. This is pop as it should be—smart, fun, intimate, acerbic, ultimately big-hearted. It's easy to dance to, but it suggests a dance party with just three or four people acting stupid in a living room or singing along in a car. It's supposed to look messy—that's what being human is like. —Kyle Kramer
48. Dom Kennedy, Get Home Safely
Label: The Other Peoples Money Company
Get Home Safely doesn't attempt to adjust the story of the Dom Kennedy, the laid-back Leimert Park-born rapper. He isn't attempting to wow anyone with rhyme schemes, instead opting to use his skills to tell the story of the L.A. neighborhood that he holds dear to his heart. Get Home Safely comes a year after his critically acclaimed free project, The Yellow Album, and it continues in the vein of that project: vintage-sounding production (courtesy of producers The Futuristiks) behind Dom's cool, conversational flow. Rhymes about people, places and products that mean something to him.
The Dom Kennedy experience is defined by the best song on the new album, the sublime "Erica Part 2." A woozy ode to the titular Erica (whom Dom met in America), catchy enough to stay in your head for for days, it teaches us all about a time where things were simple. Get Home Safely is free of the bell and whistles, it succeeds in just being itself. —Justin Davis
47. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
"Hannah Hunt," the best song on Modern Vampires of the City, starts the way that Vampire Weekend songs are supposed to, with a fussy, fragile breathiness and a few plucked strings. That is, it seems to be of the tony, high-society world of carefully made beds and expertly placed commas that the band explored so excellently on its first two albums, a reflection of the nattily dressed guys people picture when they think of this band. But the tension in its lyrics grows, and, in the last third, the drums burst in as the song disintegrates into a brief moment of distortion, suddenly ragged and raw while still totally controlled.
That's how a lot of the album works. It's precise and perfectly composed—probably more so than any Vampire Weekend album yet—but it's also real and immediate. Whether in the old-fashioned rock 'n' roll of "Diane Young," the sweeping Graceland-style jaunt of "Everlasting Arms" or the spry, small-stakes epic "Ya Hey," the album feels loose and confident, taking on life-and-death seriousness with a down-to-earth smile. It's lived-in and self-assured, a subtle piece of forward-thinking but familiar indie rock, the impressive product of a band that's growing older and rounding out its talent working at the top of its game. — Kyle Kramer
46. Birdman & Rick Ross, The H
45. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Label: Daft Life, Columbia
While Random Access Memories is one of the furthest things from what many would consider "EDM," it was without a doubt the most buzzed-upon album in the electronic music scene in 2013. On their fourth studio album, Daft Punk made it clear that they weren't trying to conform to a) whatever you consider EDM and b) whatever you were hoping for from a new Daft Punk album.
Not that they care; they had a vision to take it back to the long car rides through the sunny California hills, and crafted a project that's steeped in that pure 1970s vibe, right down to the session musicians that they recruited for the project. They breathed life into dance music, infusing the soul that's sorely lacking in much of today's EDM scene, and did so while paying homage to the pioneers and artists that inspired them. And while "Get Lucky" is the undeniable star from Random Access Memories, the androids crafted a number of gems, including the critic's choice "Doin It Right" and the impeccable epic "Contact."
Todd Edwards said it best, though: "It's kind of ironic: two androids are bringing soul back to music." —khal
44. Migos, YRN
Think about how boring the word "Versace" seven times would be if it was rapped, on beat, with no enthusiasm, by your favorite lyrical rapper. Now imagine your favorite lyrical rapper skunked out of his mind on something strong, repeating that same word seven times as if trying to give directions to a lost pizza delivery man. Sounds better, right? This year has felt like a competition among rap artists to see who coyld develop the most unique delivery—inanity be damned.
For Migos, for a while, it seemed as though their herky-jerky flow had been inspired by other competitors (e.g. Future). But they took it to a new level here. You can criticize a one-word chorus, but Migos definitely deserve credit. There is just no way to listen to YRN without absorbing some of the energy they're putting into it, and the best medium for them to channel that energy to you, the listener, is through repeating the name of some of their favorite things. Keep it simple (and maybe even a little stupid), stupid. —Alexander Gleckman
43. The Underachievers, Indigoism
The Underachievers emerged out of the Beast Coast collective in 2013 with their debut offering Indigoism, a rousing 17-song project that captures the ideals of two dudes straight out Flatbush, Brooklyn. Like close associates Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, AK and Issa Gold deliver their rhymes with a raw aesthetic that caters to their hometown. However, they don't hang their hat on throwback boom bap and golden era discourse as much as they lean into the future. For the better part of Indigoism, The Underachievers explore themes of spirituality told through a prism of psychedelic drugs.
Songs like "6th Sense" and "Gold Soul Theory" delve into the group's daily practice of opening up their "third eye," which in turn allows them to creep into creative spaces they wouldn't otherwise be able to access. Sounds a little hippie-dippy, sure, but they pull it off with aplomb. But just listen to "T.A.D.E.D." or "My Prism"—high-level seminars on self knowledge. Who knows? You might even discover your own pineal gland. —Edwin Ortiz
42. DJ Mustard, Ketchup
41. French Montana, Excuse My French
Label: Coke Boys, Bad Boy Records, Maybach Music Group, Interscope
French Montana is nobody's critical darling. His punch lines are predictable. His flows are derivative. One publication described his debut album Excuse My French as "the sound of time being killed bar by bar." But like Big Daddy Kane, French gets the job done. Twenty-plus mixtapes deep in the game, the Bronx rapper with Moroccan roots knows exactly what his customers want, and long before he signed with Diddy he understood how to keep them served. Diddy can't tell him nothing about hyping a project and pandering to his fan base; the Bad Boy cosign only gave him deeper pockets for A-list beats and co-stars.
Yes, the beats (from Lex Luger, Mike Will Made It, Harry Fraud, Young Chop among others) and guest spots (from Rick Ross, Lil Wanye, and Nicki Minaj among many others) are formulaic to the point of being cookie-cutter. But guess what? They work. Simple but effective is the rule of thumb throughout EMF. French will do whatever he has to do to get the place turnt up. Any rapper who would pose on the cover of a magazine wearing a bear hoodie brings a level of by-all-means-necessary entertainment value to the party. And really, who would you rather have rock your party? A critical darling or a blustery Bronx coke boy in a bear hoodie who gets every girl in the place poppin' that? Yeah, we thought so. —Rob Kenner
40. Perfect Pussy, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling
39. DJ Rashad, Double Cup
The footwork scene isn't one that was created in 2013, but 2013 was definitely the year that it rose to the level national consciousness, and DJ Rashad is a huge part of that. One of the figureheads of Chicago's TEKLIFE collective, and a world-renowned visionary in the scene, it was his strides within the worldwide electronic music scene that helped bring the house-music subgenre to light, and his 2013 opus, Double Cup, showed that footwork wasn't just relegated to complex rhythms and chopped vocals.
That's not to take anything away from the foundation that's been laid, but for Chicago's future house sound to grow, it has to evolve, and Double Cup is a great example of homegrown artistry being made palatable to the masses. Combining his background in hip-hop, his love of soul and jazz, jungle-influenced breakbeat work, and even some acid and trap, Rashad looked toward the future, and if this is what we have to expect from the next generation of footwork producers. The scene is set to prosper. —khal
38. King Krule, 6 Feet Beneath The Moon
Label: True Panther, XL Recordings
King Krule's 6 Feet Beneath The Moon is not a perfect album, and that might be the best thing about it. 19-year-old Archy Marshall, formerly known as Zoo Kid, doesn't seem in control of his own yowling voice. His songs are unpolished and raw, and the only cohesion on his debut album lies in the consistent erraticism.
Over jazzy guitar stabs and dusty drum loops his voice meanders, striking a brooding, frustrated tone. It makes you feel unsettled, like you're listening to someone struggling to work something out in their own head while remaining uninterested in getting any assistance. In all of this uneasy sloppiness, though, King Krule is completely fascinating. He's a crude talent unconcerned with perfect, and while he might not yet have it all figured out, hearing him work his way through it has led to one of this year's most unique and interesting listens. —Jacob Moore
37. Poliça, Shulamith
Label: Mom + Pop
If you slept on of Polica's first album, 2012's stellar Give You The Ghost, then Shulamith is your wake-up call. Though, don't be afraid to fall asleep to these songs, they exist in a spacey, dreamlike atmosphere as lead singer Channy Leaneagh's vocals are filtered through auto-tune throughout.
However, while their debut album was all focused on style and tone—to the point it was often hard to decipher the lyrics—this time around the songwriting comes across more clearly as the vocals are less processed. "One for tiger, one for bear," she sings on the Justin Vernon featuring single "Tiff." "No one wants me, no one cares." This is mood music for when you're just not in the mood. —Insanul Ahmed
36. Young Thug, 1017 Thug
35. Disclosure, Settle
Label: PMR, Island
Looking at where dance music went in 2013, EDM fans might point to producers like Avicii, Zedd, and Martin Garrix for the success they had throwing EDM into the mainstream. And they wouldn't be wrong. But if you want to get an idea of where proper dance music should be going, you need to truly study Disclosure's debut album, Settle. These two brothers shot up quickly in 2012 with huge singles like "Latch," and kicked off 2013 with a determination to infuse pop sensibilities and undeniably danceable grooves that look back toward the house and garage days that they didn't live through. And it worked.
"White Noise," their early 2013 single with AlunaGeorge, made a beeline to the top of the UK charts, and showed that you could have a massive dance hit go pop without going corny. Throughout Settle, the brothers maintain that same line; "When A Fire Starts to Burn" is catchy as fuck, showcasing the ear these two have for throwback sounds and unique sample sources. Vocalists like Eliza Doolittle, Sasha Keable, and Jessie Ware were perfect choices, allowing these decadent tracks to open up with perfectly-executed performances.
Disclosure had big expectations to fulfill in 2013. Damn if they didn't exceed them. —khal
34. Vic Mensa, Innanetape
33. James Blake, Overgrown
Label: ATLAS, A&M, Polydor
With his self-titled debut album, James Blake forced people to start using terms like post-dubstep to describe the progressive styles he was creating. It's only been two years since that debut, but electronic music has taken giant leaps in both popularity and style. With Overgrown, James Blake continues to stay ahead of the curve.
Instead of conforming to the sounds of the moment, Blake uses his production skills to craft something that manages to feel timeless, incorporating R&B, gospel, and pop sensibility into the mostly electronic soundscapes. Relying less on negative space and more on a full-bodied sound, Blake keeps pushing the limits of electronic music and his own ability. In a music environment where most people are just trying to keep up, James Blake seems effortless in setting the pace. —Jacob Moore
32. M.I.A., Matangi
Label: N.E.E.T., Interscope
It's a good thing M.I.A. named the opening track of Matangi, her fourth studio album, "Karmageddon" because, despite the fact that karma is technically relegated to reincarnation, the album is an apocalyptic bird-flip to everyone who doubted her. After the flop of /\/\/\Y/\, an industrial-dancehall experiment before its time, the London rapper needed to re-emerge with a controlled declaration of her over-the-top power and her not-totally-paranoid. Matangi is M.I.A.'s usual quilt of world music influences, but more "real hip-hop" than anything she's ever produced before.
There's the sample of Bonecrusher's "Never Scared" on the Julian Assange-co-written "aTENTtion." There's the two separate Drake disses bookending the album. She raps "Started at the bottom/but Drake gets all the credit" on the dizzying title track. Later, on "Y.A.L.A." (You Always Live Again) she asks, "If you only live once, why do we keep doing such stupid things?" There's the party-primed taunting of rave-thrasher "Bring The Noize," an electro-blitz that explodes into a twinkling coda where she interpolates Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." M.I.A.'s been known to find creative ways to flip other people's music—pulling apart The Clash's "Straight to Hell" for "Paper Planes," for example—but the crystalline use of Joplin's "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" is one of her most haunting examples of using pop music to express fear.
Other standouts include "Exodus" and its reprise "Sexodus," both better version of The Weeknd's "Lonely Star," and the equally languid "Know It Ain't Right." And then there's "Bad Girls," one of the best songs of 2012, which could take the throne from so many songs of this year. The collection is a muscular jolt for a political blowout the night before the world ends. —Claire Lobenfeld
31. Deafheaven, Sunbather
Forget what you think you know about metal. Forget what you think you know about the shimmery catharsis of Explosions in the Sky-esque post-rock. Leave your knee-jerk reactions to screamed vocals and long songs behind and let Sunbather, the second album from San Francisco-based Deafheaven, break over you. Submit to this album, a seven-song experience that's best taken in all at once.
The lyrics allegedly have something to do with privilege and broken homes, but you'll feel the release conjured by the quiet-loud dynamics without having to open the album's booklet. The shifts from lead singer George Clarke's screams over double-time drumming to bright guitar solos like sunlight glimpsed between clouds—you don't need to be any kind of music nerd, black metal or otherwise, to get those moments. Any kind of non-believer can be overwhelmed by the scale of a cathedral. And that's what Sunbather is, a cathedral. —Ross Scarano
30. Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork
Label: Matador, Rekords Rekords
Cock rock in the 21st century is Nickelback singing about preferring a woman (any woman, you get the feeling) with her knees in the dirt, pants around her ankles. Cock rock in the 21st century (which is to say at the time when cock rock needs to die a fantastically brutal death) is that song "Crazy Bitch" by Buckcherry, criminals against humanity if there ever were any. Queens of the Stone Age's ...Like Clockwork is not cock rock. It's something more classically American: songs for/about fucking.
There's something undeniably sexual about the dirty, dirty riffs on ...Like Clockwork, the band's sixth album. This is the kind of hard rock that made your parents conceive you. Josh Homme sings with the kind of sneer that invites you to imagine sex. It's more of a tongue in your ear, as opposed to Nickelback's teenage hard-on in your eye. Susan Shepard has written at length about this, and all I can contribute is the perspective of one straight, unsexy white guy. This album is nasty: the big lurching carnival of the very pretty "Kalopsia"; the way Homme sings "I wanna suck, I wanna lick" on "If I Had a Tail." This album does it for me. It's rock n' roll in the traditional sense. Just try and keep it from doing it to you. —Ross Scarano
29. 2 Chainz, BOATS II: Me Time
Label: Def Jam
2 Chainz had a rough 2013. His latest album suffered a steep dropoff in sales from his debut. And while he kept busy with the guest spots, his own single "Feds Watchin" was a slow burner that didn't make much of an impact. It's especially unfortunate because, relative to his debut, BOATS II: Me Time is a much more consistent release. Of course, 2 Chainz is still a one-dimensional presence on the mic, for the most part, better suited to craft memorable club jams than narratives of nuance or introspection. But a few songs—like the second half of "So We Can Live," for example—flesh out his story with a little more nuance and reflection than is typical.
Overall, the album is surprisingly creative, jumping from cabana bounce like "Feds Watchin" to the widescreen blockbuster "I Do It" to the New Orleans throwback "Used 2" to ratchet noir like "Livin'" with Iamsu. It's tough to imagine 2 Chainz making a particularly ambitious record. His entire style is, after all, firmly middlebrow: never pretentious, but nor is it especially interested in the populist vanguard. While the ideal 2 Chainz album would probably be a hits compilation, BOATS II: Me Time is probably the next best thing: a consistent, front-to-back listen that celebrates a very particular aspect of hip-hop as a craft. —David Drake
28. Kelela, Cut 4 Me
Label: Fade To Mind
There's short—a hair under a decade—history of esoteric electronic producers sampling singers like Aaliyah and Cassie and turning them into apparitions. The DC-born, L.A.-based R&B singer Kelela is the manifestation of that charm. Her mixtape Cut 4 Me, released by one of the most exciting labels, Fade To Mind, sounds like lost SWV vocal tracks paired with some of the most interesting production of the year.
There's the machine-gun synths of Nguzunguzu-produced "Enemy" and the haunting "Floor Show" with a beat from Girl Unit. The crowning jewel is "Bank Head," a collaboration with FTM head honcho Kingdom. She flies over its deep bass, singing about secret love, before wailing, "I need to let it out" like she's finally been set free. It's the right emotions for the song, sure, but it functions like a mission statement, too.
Electronic producers may use a ton of R&B samples, but Kelela's here to show you how it's done with a real-ass singer. While EDM snakes its way into R&B and electronic producers continue to use Ciara vocal tracks to bolster their music, Kelela is fleshing out all of these to make something insurgent and new. She needs to let it out. —Claire Lobenfeld
27. Juicy J, Stay Trippy
Label: Taylor Gang, Kemosabe, Columbia
In the opening seconds of his third solo album Stay Trippy, Juicy J says, "I'ma tell you broke niggas something, listen..." Everyone should listen along. What they'll hear is a nearly-40-year-old rapper who is as reckless a hedonist as he is a savvy veteran. Just look at the way he coaxes first rate performances from Justin Timberlake (must be a Memphis thing), Yelawolf, and even Wiz Khalifa on his long delayed solo album. Or how he'd rather wax poetic about smoking wax (the hot new way to inhale insane amounts of THC, just ask Action Bronson) on "Wax" instead of boring us with another played out molly song. Or how he's wise enough to stick to the script, making the album essentially a polished version (props to executive producer Dr. Luke) of mixtapes like Rubba Band Business 2, which renewed interest in his career.
That mixtape featured the now classic "Zip and A Double Cup" which set the template for his revival, a revival that became a reality when "Bandz A Make Her Dance" became a crossover hit—probably why both songs are mentioned numerous times throughout the album. Juicy has crawled back to relevancy, mostly by just hanging out newcomers who grew up idolizing him (Lex Luger, Wiz Khalifa), the equivalent of sipping a double cup from the fountain of youth. Along the way, he found a new formula that worked and stuck to it, sort of like the way he finds simple phrases and perfects them into hooks, "A gun plus a mask, that equals cash," he says on "Gun Plus a Mask."
Armed with an endless barrage of rattling beats, and a host of just-so-over-the-top-ridiculous-you-have-to-laugh punchlines ("She treat my dick like a pistol/I treat her face like a target"), and enough believable gangsta talk to separate himself from the good kids of today's rap scene, Stay Trippy is the perfect explanation for why Juicy has been rich since the '90s. —Insanul Ahmed
26. Kid Cudi, Indicud
Label: Wicked Awesome, GOOD, Republic
In the promotional run-up, Indicud, Kid Cudi was alling it his version of Dr. Dre's 2001. While that's perhaps a lofty comparison (come on, who can really compare themselves to Dre?) it made sense in terms of structure. The album's cinematic feel puts Cudi in the director's seat as he compiles a diverse ensemble cast of luminaries, ranging from rap legends like RZA to indie rockers like Haim to West Coast spitters like Kendrick Lamar. There's even a Michael Bolton cameo! (No, not that Michael Bolton.) The final product is proof Cudi can make a soundscape that others can easily adapt to, not the other way around. —Insanul Ahmed
25. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Night Time, My Time is a triumph. Not because Sky Ferreira was four years in the game with no debut full-length to show until last October, but because it's a product of refusing to hear her label say "no." She took her own money to make one of the best pop albums of the year in three weeks.
Her incendiary "Nobody Asked (If I Was Okay)" is a breakup song with undertones of hurt that stem from something deeper than just a failed relationship. The theme bleeds into its follow-up, "I Blame Myself," where she sings about how her very real childhood demons skew her public perception.
When she's not bearing raw emotions in her lyrics, she let's the noise do the work. There's "Kristine," with its churning riffs and the feedback-laden "Heavy Metal Heart" and, loudest of all, "Omanko," a tribute to the '70s no-wave icons Suicide and her, um, self. (The song's title is Japanese for "pussy.") The sonic fuzz may be a turn off to some, but Ferreira made the most cohesive pop record of the year and that's a victory for everyone. —Claire Lobenfeld
24. Kevin Gates, The Luca Brasi Story
To many, Kevin Gates seemed to come out of nowhere in 2013. In and around his native Baton Rouge, the rapper is a regional hero, a star whose music crosses demographic lines, particularly since he was released from prison in early 2012. On the heels of his popular single "Satellites" and a guest spot on Pusha T's Wrath of Caine, The Luca Brasi Story propelled the rapper to a slight form of national attention, as Internet "tastemakers" realized that the singing rapper from the boot-shaped state had something to say.
Gates happens to have a deft ear for hooks, which initially prompted comparisons with Future. But it's as likely that Gates (who has been singing hooks since before Future was a household name) simply shares similar musical influences. And Gates' rap style is considerably more lyrically-oriented: dense with knotty turns of phrase, his rhymes combine emotional heft with craft-conscious poeticism-without sacrificing musicality. His lyrics demand rewinds to fully process, while his smoke-scarred vocals push every bit of pain to the surface. A dark, harrowing listening, Luca Brasi is about as perfect a calling card as one could hope for. —David Drake
23. Jay Z, Magna Carta... Holy Grail
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Universal
Jay Z recently ranked the album he put out this year, Magna Carta Holy Grail, as the sixth best solo effort of his career. That seems close to right. (Though: Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter all the way down at no. 9?! No way! "Big Pimpin'" and "Come and Get Me" and "NYMP" alone put that one in the top 6!) But where does Magna Carta rank amongst all the albums that came out in 2013? Exactly 23st, it turns out.
This album had a very strange run this year. Starting with the surprise announcement of its arrival, with that three-minute commercial that aired at halftime during Game 5 of the NBA finals, and then the disclosure of the huge super mega deal with Samsung that grossed-out anti-capitalists and assured the album would sell a million copies before it was even available to the public.
But then, once everyone got out from under the hype, and settled down to actually listen to the thing, it was...pretty good. Very listenable. A survey of current high-gloss production, with strong-enough rhymes and one standout song, "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt," that would turn into one of the years biggest hits. Inescapable, that Jay Z; he's always got something that's gonna get ya. —Dave Bry
22. Toro Y Moi, Anything in Return
Listening to Toro Y Moi music, you get a real sense for the joy of making music—the thrill of limitless creation. Chaz Bundick (the South Carolinian producer who records under the Toro Y Moi name) is clearly having fun. But that's not all you get a sense for. Under that tangible layer of exuberance, there are traces of something different, something closer to concern, a nervous tension. It's there at the start of every song, and as the music grows, as on Anything in Returns "So Many Details," you can feel caution graduating to confidence.
It's this subtle friction that makes the music so alluring. He's not saying, "Hey, guys we shouldn't do this." It's more like he's the vigilant friend reminding you and your homies that a line exists right before you all cross it together. (Which often makes breaking the rules exponentially more fun.)
Even with this calmly rebellious attitude, coyly pushing the envelope,the new album stays in the lane that Toro y Moi carved out with his first two albums, a super-contagious dance "bop" often called "chillwave." Applying the thematic beat-build of house to the entire album's framework, he makes a perfectly sequenced 52-minute soundscape with just the right peaks and valleys. And with slightly greater devotion to lyrics than he's displayed before, Anything in Return is a nice, confident steps towards pop. —Brandon "Jinx" Jenkins
21. KA, The Night's Gambit
Label: Iron Works
A lot has been said about New York hip-hop this year. After Kendrick's "Control" verse, the Big Apple has been searching for its soul. Little does most of the world know, guys like Ka are carrying the torch. This music isn't for the casual fan. This is for rap vets yearning for that vintage sound. True school. The Night's Gambit, the Brooklyn rapper's second offering sounds like dope fiends howling in the wee hours of the night. It sounds like crack viles on basketball courts. It sounds like gunshots in the cold winter wind. It sounds like Biggie's Brooklyn.
Ka is cut from a different cloth than most of today's artists. His slow flow over dark, gripping production hypnotizes you. The Night's Gambit takes you on a journey through Brownsville, full of poetic street tales about flipping packs and survival in the concrete jungle. The intro track, "You Know What It's About," grabs you immediately and pulls you into a world. Songs like "Nothing Is," "Peace Ahki," and "30 Pieces of Silver" find Ka talking about the road he took to get to this point in his life, how to maneuver on the strip, and the pitfalls of the drug game. With the attention to detail of the best rap masters.
New York rap is in good hands. Pay attention. —Angel Diaz
20. Ariana Grande Yours Truly
Ariana Grande is an unexpected rookie-of-the-year candidate, a chaste-seeming Nickelodeon star whose duet with Mac Miller, "The Way," reintroduced Big Pun's "Still Not a Player" pianos as an anthem for '90s babies. Her vocal style is reminiscent of Mariah Carey (including an ability to cram many, many words into a single elongated melodic line), which is no small praise. In addition to Pun and the obvious Mariah connection, her music makes quite literal '90s references throughout: the remade Lil Kim beat on "Right There" (which suggests Big Sean might have a gift for R&B guest spots), or the "Real Love" remake "Lovin' It," possibly the album's best track.
But despite the clear love of '90s hip-hop source material, the actual production and songwriting (which includes assists from R&B legend Babyface) have an unashamed immediacy more reminiscent of late-'90s/early-'00s pop music. There's a tendency to layer hooks-on-hooks, and a smooth audio aesthetic that disguises all the moving parts in one efficient sunshine machine. There's an exuberant breeziness, a sugary generosity that prompted Gawker's Rich Juzwiak to describe the album—as a compliment, primarily—as the "Pizza Hut" of R&B records. —David Drake
19. A$AP Rocky, Long.Live.A$AP
Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA
A$AP Rocky made his mark by melding his Uptown roots with Houston's syrupy Screw tradition. But what we got from Long.Live.A$AP, his first studio album, was a hazier version of his hybrid vision. It's as if the album fell down the rabbit hole. A very dark rabbit hole. (Like one from Watership Down.) Even its title-track opener indicates a sort of immersive apocalypse The stretch of "PMW (All I Really Need)" through "Pain" is dark ethereality. Even the Hit-Boy-produced "Goldie" is has a grey cloud looming over it. Then there's "Suddenly," the crackling conclusion with its watery sample of the Cytations and muted bass.
It rounds a moody body of work appropriate for getting high by candlelight, a thing that prepares you for the incredible "jiggy goth" album Rocky's compatriot A$AP Ferg released later in the year. Oddly, inside the swirl of ambient psychedelia is a hit-filled center. Rocky gets a bro-thumper collaborating with Skrillex on "Wild For the Night" and makes the case to keep the posse alive with "1 Train." And the OVO must be kicking themselves for giving away "Fuckin' Problems"—even if Drake outshines his host before Kendrick eats everyone's lunch with that Bernie Mac reference. —Claire Lobenfeld
18. Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety
Label: Software Recording Co.
Yes, Autre Ne Veut a.k.a. Arthur Ashin is a white guy. And yes, he lives in Brooklyn. And as "indie" music continues to trend more and more towards R&B, fulfilling the prophetic critique that it spent too long being too white for its own good, so grows the number of funk-faking motherfuckers attempting to cut their product with something more... feeling. This, though? This is different.
Album opener "Play By Play" is as good a song about the desperation in breaking past the "friend zone" as has ever been recorded. It delivers with a chorus that's somehow equal parts hopeful, defeatist, and triumphant. You can't fake that, you can't Dr. Luke/Max Martin that, you can't just decide to record in a vocal register that could possibly displace listeners' spines.
Then comes "Counting," a different kind of desperation anthem, with a chorus absolutely slamming around what sounds like a sense of urgency about having sex inside of a collapsing building (but no, it's actually about his grandmother). Against a pulsing, knockaround beat, "Promises" is a for-the-absolute-last-time breakup note that's also an open-and-shut case for Ashin's strong producing instincts: vocal track magic aside, the two-minute song length is a sharp, perfect cut. And then there's the multi-layered gothic boom-bap of "Warning."
But maybe Anxiety is best summed up by the proposition that is "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," with its apologies-to-the-late-great-Whitney title alone suggesting a certain kind of gall, one that's either that of a brilliant prankster or someone who is completely and utterly serious about making important and meaningful R&B in 2013. —Foster Kamer
17. Action Bronson, Blue Chips 2
16. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Label: Merge, Sonovox
Arcade Fire's fourth album, Reflektor, couldn't have been made without a couple of important outside elements: James Murphy and the country of Haiti. These influences work with Arcade Fire's theatrical rock in strange ways, and this album will probably prove to be the band's most polarizing. But those who are disappointed should have seen it coming—songs like "Haiti" and "Sprawl II" dropped hints years ago. Throughout the album—but especially on standout "Here Comes The Night Time"—the energy is somewhere between Haitian Carnival and hopeless disco, some difficult-to-pinpoint mood that balances celebration and desperation. It's like the perfect theme music for an end-of-the-world party on the beach.
Reflektor's weakness is that, unlike Arcade Fire's debut and their Grammy-winning third album, The Suburbs, it's hard to play from start to finish. There is an album's worth of excellent music here, but there is also extra noise and drawn out moments that can come across pretentious or self-indulgent. Defending "Here Comes The Night Time II" or the last five minutes of "Supersymmetry" is difficult, but maybe a little disruption was necessary. Stretching this album out and giving it time to breathe makes it feel more like an event and not so much like the follow-up to a Grammy-winning stadium rock album. Whatever the case, it doesn't strip this album of its greatness, and at its finest moments, Reflektor finds Arcade Fire at their sharpest, most creative, and best yet. —Jacob Moore
15. Killer Mike & El-P, Run the Jewels
14. Rhye, Woman
Label: Innovative Leisure
Like its tasteful album cover, Rhye's Woman is intimate, elegant, and contextually anonymous. Although it was later revealed that duo consisted of Mike Milosh and Quadron's Robin Hannibal, when they originally began promoting Rhye's song they were released without any information.
Early tracks like "The Fall" and "Open" drew comparisons to Sade. But the fery feminine voice turned out to be that a man, Milosh, who sings the entire album—hitting some very impressive high notes. "I think people identify singers that sing with that type of emotion and clarity with a woman," explained Hannibal to MTV.
The songs are arranged so the vocals and the instrumentation become so intertwined that they're like a single entity, even when one element drops out and the other plays on its own. Like when you're so close to your lover's body you can hardly tell what part you're kissing. —Insanul Ahmed
13. J. Cole, Born Sinner
Label: Dreamville, Roc Nation, Columbia
J. Cole received a lot of praise for his mixtape run leading up to his 2011 major label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story. But his actual debut did little to convince those who were on the fence about him. There were as many misfires as there were standouts, a sign that the Fayetteville, North Carolina rapper was reaching beyond his means. In the process, he let more than Nas down.
This year's Born Sinner was a shot at redemption for the 28-year-old rapper, and he came through in the clutch with a convincing balance of beats, rhymes, and life. He impressively shifts between impassioned storytelling ("Runaway"), and sex-fiend fantasy ("Power Trip" ), and a spiritual wisdom ("Born Sinner"), all the while laying down a solid foundation for his mainstream exploits. With an assist from Miguel, "Power Trip" climbed to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling a million copies as a single, before "Crooked Smile" followed it up the charts. Even with the success of Born Sinner, there's probably still a few detractors out there. Cole's response is right here. —Edwin Ortiz
12. Mac Miller, Watching Movies with the Sound Off
Label: Rostrum Records
Well, well, well. Whaddya know? The corny looking white kid from Pittsburgh everyone said only had good business sense and nothing else finally proved he has some straight up talent. After getting buried by critics for his debut album, 2011's Blue Slide Park, Mac had much to prove on his sophomore set. Although much of it went unnoticed, Mac's progression as an artist actually happened in two parts last year. First on his mixtape Macadelic where he honed his mic skills, but it was on the totally under-the-radar lounge-jazz EP You (which was released under Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival) were Mac really fleshed out his skills as a songwriter and producer. On Watching Movies, those two ideals crystallize.
There's real rhyming here, real "check-me-out-I-can-do-this stuff, like on "S.D.S." "Let bygones be bygones, my mind strong as pythons/The day that I die on will turn me to an icon/Search the world for Zion, or a shoulder I can cry on/The best of all time, I'm Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan." And he's brave enough to stand next to some of some of rap's very best lyricists—Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Jay Electronica. (How in the world did he secure that feature?) He doesn't best them, but he holds his own, and their presence alone says something about the acceptance and respect Mac so obviously craves.
But Mac's greatest asset isn't his bars, it's his songwriting. When he actually moves away from the dusty, MF Doomy, Stones-Throwish beats that dominate the album, he not only diversifies his sound, he hits his full stride. The R&B-influenced "Youforia" and the rock tinged "Remember" stand as album highlights. Credit his secret weapon: Larry Fisherman, the producer who provided most of the album's backdrop. Who is this guy? He's way better than anyone would have guessed. Where did Mac find him? In the mirror, it turns out. "Larry Fisherman" is an alter-ego for Mac himself.
Who cares if the album's first week sales were lower than his previous album? With Watching Movies, Mac provides himself with a solid foundation to build on. Maybe he won't be the next big pop star, but he's likely to have his own spot in the underground for years to come. —Insanul Ahmed
11. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
Label: Tan Cressida, Columbia Records
In making his official debut album, Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt turned his back on the shock-raps of his younger years. In their place, on Doris, he substitutes more substantial and personal verses that showcase his self-awareness and honest (at times, harsh) perspective on life.
Dude is cerebral. His delivery is complicated and coded, with layered, shifting cadences on songs like "Guild." His content floats effortlessly in the chasm between earthiness and the metaphysical. Tracks like "Uncle Al" and "Sunday" display a narrative that is confident, but on guard. Despite the meticulous constructions, his verses are haloed by a faint air of carelessness. Sonically the album is a mostly shadowy selection of drum-driven beats with almost absent melodies. The entire album leaves you feeling like you're steaming roach blunts in you're homie's basement 'cause it's raining outside.
He does all of this to the point where it almost seems selfish. This album sounds like it was made as much for Earl as it was for the his fans—maybe more. But as a result, we get the unfiltered artist, clear of any impurities that might water down his product. These bars aren't stepped on, as he describes his adjustment (and resistance) to fame, personal relationships, and dedication to his craft—all while flexing his evolved technical ability. Doris gave us a second impression that felt like a first meeting, familiarizing us with one of today's most enigmatic rappers. —Brandon "Jinx" Jenkins
10. Childish Gambino, Because The Internet
9. Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe
If you download Blood Orange's Cupid Deluxe from iTunes, you won't have the credits for the other artists you'll hear when you listen. There are no features listed in the track names. Blood Orange is the sole artist listed.
Blood Orange is the lo-fi, Prince-adoring project of aesthetic émigré Dev Hynes. Listening to "Chamakay," the album opener and lead single, it's unclear whose voice you hear first. Over deep percussion and marimba, a high-pitched line of "mhms" skate through. The pretty androgyny of the song's opening is Cupid Deluxe in miniature.
Hynes, a UK native turned New Yorker, the artist who wrote Solange Knowles' "Losing You" and Sky Ferreira's "Everything Is Embarrassing," steps in and out of gender and sexuality like those things were comfortable clothes. "I see you waiting for a girl like me to come along," he sings on "Chamakay," joined by Caroline Polachek of the synthpop duo Chairlift.
Dave Longstreth, of Brooklyn vocal show-offs Dirty Projectors, sings on this album, as does Samantha Urbani, Hyne's partner. Queens rapper, and friend of Das Racist, Despot contributes a long verse. UK grime fans will recognize Skepta, who also chips in. He recalls watching Michael Jackson on the telly.
Liminal is a word to describe being in between places, stations, social situations, identities. (Hynes was the victim of homophobia as a teen. Writing for The Fader, Alex Frank describes how Hynes "tried having sex with men in a spirit of queer camaraderie, but found he didn't like it. 'I wanted to try,' he says.") Cupid Deluxe isn't a liminal experience, isn't about confusion or being caught in between. It's something more radical, something I'm not sure there's a word for. It's a word that would mean the ability to be one thing completely and then another. With Blood Orange, sometimes that looks and sounds like androgyny. Sometimes it's being a black man. A white woman. A grime MC. A rapper from Queens.
Liminality can be cause of anxiety and uncertainty; you aren't this or that, you're in the midst of process. You're maybe becoming one thing or another. This album is comfortable, confident, beautiful, itself—whatever that may be in a given moment. —Ross Scarano
8. A$AP Ferg, Trap Lord
Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA
When A$AP Ferg's "Work" slowly morphed into a hit, it seemed like a fluke. A$AP Rocky was hot which meant the A$AP brand was peaking and people were looking into the crew, fishing for another star. But this year, when "Shabba" followed in suit, becoming an even bigger hit—a summer anthem, of sorts—you couldn't deny it: Ferg was succeeding on his own. Even then, haters weren't convinced.
But now, with Trap Lord. Ferg has established himself. Line-for-line, bar-for-bar, he isn't the best rapper in the world, but he understands his appeal and plays to the strengths of his sing-song flow. Sometimes he's surprisingly insightful, offering lines like, "I feel the pain for my bro cause his dad died/My daddy gone too my nigga, that's life," on "Fergivicious."
But for the most part, reading a line like, "Body full of bullets when he found him on the road/Lay a fucker down, spray it at him then reload," does little to explain his talent. It's not the lyrics that make Ferg worth listening to. It's his delivery that keeps you enthralled. That and his beats. A dark morass of sticky, nasty smoke-out funk. That's the good stuff. —Insanul Ahmed
7. Haim, Days Are Gone
Back in mid-2012, right when we were first getting warmed up to this trio of sisters known as Haim, they covered Fleetwood Mac's "Hold Me,"and it set the tone for what to expect. It's pop music, but these girls know their way around a guitar riff, and they quickly gained a reputation for putting on an excellent live show-something many new pop artists struggle with these days, when production sometimes outshines instrumentation.
Throughout the rest of 2012 and into early 2013, Haim proved themselves to be more than just a retro pop group with one or two flashes of brilliance. Single after single, they delivered with powerful choruses and great songwriting-and they never flopped. They took their time with the debut, waiting over a year from when they first started buzzing to put out an album, and the best thing of all? The standout songs on their albums are the ones we didn't see coming. "My Song 5" sounds ilke nothing Haim has ever done-it combines their live instrumentation with a minimal backdrop and a stomping beat. And it's the best song on their album. —Jacob Moore
6. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Label: Aftermath, Shady, Interscope
This is the album Eminem fans have been waiting on for nearly a decade. Ever since 2004's Encore, Eminem hasn't been himself. First he was on drugs, then he was flushing them out. Though all of his albums featured distinct charms and highlights, it never felt like the same old Marshall. But the sequel to his magnum opus is as close to a return to form that any fan could reasonably hope for.
Em has his mojo back, and it feels good to hear him on a rampage again. In some ways he hasn't matured at all (as evidenced by a strange preponderance of silly homophobia.) Yet in other ways, he has. He finally forgives his mother, something that seemed inconceivable years ago. The rest of the time, he's spewing rhymes that are so damn complicated that even when we read the lyrics we can't keep up. Some of the credit for the album's creative success must go to Rick Rubin, who's been helping to revitalize acts for several years now. It's not clear what, exactly, Rubin told Em that got him back in his zone, but whatever it was, it worked. —Insanul Ahmed
5. Danny Brown, Old
Label: Tooth & Nail Records
Danny Brown's Old is perhaps the full realization of everything Brown has worked towards. A concept album built around his struggles with the weight of history-Detroit's history, his personal history, his discography-it's is a confident explication of his unique perspective and eccentric tastes.
His rapping throughout is precise and deliberate. The entire record has a purposefulness, from his word choice to his use of unexpected guests, that give its otherwise manic, frazzled energy a focus. Bristling with a live-wire energy, Old is a 3-D, technicolor display of the Danny Brown persona, but there's a frantic vulnerability that keeps it from feeling like an affect or put-on.
In the past, some might have looked at his interest in weird UK psych beats and unusual hairstyles as a marketing angle, a way to find an audience that otherwise overlooks rappers coming out of places like Detroit. Perhaps it even started out that way. But at this point, Danny Brown's work is so completely his own, all those angles seem subsumed within his own world, that such accusations feel empty. Old is decidedly Danny Brown's world, its past and present; everyone else is only visiting it. —David Drake
4. Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
3. Pusha T, My Name is My Name
Label: GOOD Music, Def Jam
Pusha T knows how to manipulate the stark. It is easy to point to My Name Is My Name as an exercise in minimalism, but the minimal only ever exists in a contrast. The black-and-white barcode cover looks just the way the album sounds. If you look at the structure of it, it's almost binary. It alternates, track to track, between luxuriating in the Auto-Tune and then reeling it back in for clean, crisp raps on sparse beats (the Pusha that everyone knows and loves).
From the beginning, "King Push" is lush, the sonic space is overflowing with sample squeals, ubiquitous drums, and flowing synths, only to be followed by the tightened, neck twitch-inducing click-pace of "Numbers On The Boards." And it only continues like that. It cathartically exhales into "Hold On," then cuts back to the marrow with "Suicide." The wailing "Who I Am" sits next to the cold, slinking "Nosetalgia." You get the point.
And that's what makes it such a feat. Everything clicks because of the way it was calculated. The songs benefit from their respective placement beside each other, each track a background for the next. In that way, it brings the Pusha T fan up to speed with what he's evolved into, without leaving them in unfamiliar territory. If you were the reluctant "we want that old Pusha T" fan, then it fed you the teaspoon of updated classic with the medicine of his reinvention—and by the end, you appreciated both sides.
What becomes readily apparent is the hand that Kanye West had in the album. At a New York City listening session, West preached "All these niggas trying to extend their muthafucking t-shirts, trying to throw numbers on the back of their shit....this muthafucking Pusha T." It was as if Kanye was re-packaging the real "real"—the drug dealer rapper as an emblem, a stamp of authenticity in a world dominated by lifestyle (the drug dealer lifestyle, in particular) appropriation. Here stood Pusha T, the last of a dying breed, the drug dealer lyricist, on a podium for you vultures to appreciate. He was an answer to the selfie taking ass generation, and My Name Is My Name was the soft rapper's Judgment Day. —Alexander Gleckman
2. Drake, Nothing Was the Same
Label: OVO Sound, Young Money, Cash Money, Republic
At about 1:57 into "Tuscan Leather," Drake finally turns the corner. The second beat change in the longer-tha-six-minute opener to his third album Nothing Was The Same sees the rapper eschewing the image of the emotionally ravaged lothario, becoming a tougher, more experienced artist. An artist more direct in his rhymes and balanced in his approach. Drake's newfound maturity is a fitting way to continue the story of the kid who has it all but is still trying to keep it together.
Keeping it together is the major theme of NWTS, every song flows from his anger at being misunderstood and unheard, and ends up finding resolution in the balance between his singing and rapping. Songs like "Started From The Bottom" and "Worst Behavior" find Drake testing out new flows, a delivery more akin to chanting than singing or rapping. There's less straigh singing on the album than on any of his previous efforts.
Other than "Hold On, We're Going Home," (a song you'll most likely hear at your wedding) Drake mostly sets out to prove that he is the premiere rapper that most people never thought he could be. He shows blinding confidence next to Jay-Z on "Pound Cake," lifting a little of Hov's aura to match him bar-for-bar. On "the Language," Drake borrows the most popular flow of the year (Thanks, Migos) and hits his rivals over the head with it.
It was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and one that actually lived up to the hype. Nothing Was The Same might not have had a legendary producer on hand to "minimalize" its sound, but it has minimized the discussion of who is the most popular rap star in the world right now. That would be Drake, this is his triumph. Everything past 1:57 on the first track is the edict to that fact. Like Kanye said himself, "It's Drake season." —Justin Davis
1. Kanye West, Yeezus
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
What are you gonna do? It's the best.
Sure you want to be different, you don't want to be a sheep, blindly following the herd wherever it goes. You don't wanna be a "stan," unable to see any fault with the new work of an artist whose work you've loved before. But what are you gonna do? Lie? Just so you can be different, just to buck a trend? Just to prove a point? That'd be stupid.
Much like three years ago, when Kanye West topped every year-end list in the universe with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, and its centerpiece song "Runaway," we seem to finding a similar state of unanimity in feeling about this year's Yeezus and "New Slaves." You gotta give in. If you're gonna be honest at least. Kanye's operating at a higher level of artistry than any other artist on the planet right now.
It's apparent from jump. Right from the opening synth squalls of "On Sight." From the electro tick-tick-tick. From the bass turned way past distortion. This is something new. Sounds you haven't hear before. Like a spaceship crashing in your backyard. You can't help but look, you can't help but approach. Out of curiosity if nothing else at first. You're being pulled forward by your ears. Kanye's making a statement. "I'm from the future. I'm here to show you how it's going to be."
It's not all going to be pretty. It's not all going to fun. The sounds are discordant, abrasive. The lyrics harsh, abusive. It's nasty. But it's thrilling. Through the whole album. There's no let up. Song after song. Start to finish. (Only ten songs. That's all it takes.) Especially now, six months after its release, Yeezus has revealed itself to be one coherent set piece. With its sound, and its themes. On message, on point.
"My momma was raised in an era when/Clean water was only served to the fairer skin."
That's the world I'm coming from, he's saying. That's the world you made. I didn't make it, and I don't like it. So I'm tearing the whole thing down and starting a new one.
That's what art is, right? Making something new. Even if it's just a little different (and Yeezus is a lot different), making something new that can show people a different perspective, a different viewpoint.
Musically, Kanye is glowing right now. Like a piece of Kryptonite. Yeezus is something we've never seen before. It's a huge accomplishment. A triumph.
What are you gonna do? It's the best. —Dave Bry