The Best Albums of 2013 (So Far)

Check out the best releases of the year from Justin Timberlake, J. Cole, and many more.

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Complex Original

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The music business ebbs and flows, and the first half of the year tends to be slow. But just because you find yourself anticipating projects that (you hope) will drop later in the year more than whatever is out currently, that doesn't mean there's not some music worth celebrating. In fact, the first part of this year saw the return of Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, major acts who had been on hiatus for years. And along the way, we heard great material from the likes of Charli XCX, Kid CudiQueens of the Stone Age, and many more. As summer approached, of course, the entire rap world was hyped up for the impending June 18 showdown between Kanye West, J. Cole, and Mac Miller. But who had the best album of the year? Find out in our list of The Best Albums of 2013 (So Far).

RELATED: The 50 Best Albums of 2016

40. Problem & Iamsu! Million Dollar Afro

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39. The National Trouble Will Find Me

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Label: 4AD

The term "Dad Rock" is one of the most cloying and stupid ways to describe a band-think of all the music you listen to that will soon become "Dad Rock" one day, for example. Of course you can argue that The National, a band oft-targeted with this phrase, have been a grown-up band for a while. But anyone who's seen the way they perform some of their most previously sedate tracks from their last two albums ("Squalor Victoria," "England" to name a few) knows that these tracks are blueprints for very loud, very angry, very piss-and-vinegar "mature" rock that's too smart for your average RockBro and too tethered to reality for your average IndieBro-the Foo Fighters or Animal Collective, they are not. But we have to face the facts: Our favorite bands are gonna get old.

So after the slow-burn classic that was Boxer, or the Springsteen-inflected High Violet-the album that's truly propelled this band to international fame-what did The National do? Release an album of singles? Scheme for radio dominance? They got old. They matured. They wrote an album that mostly stands out for its sonic sophistications, and the result isn't necessarily spectacular. It's not an album that will grow on you, nor is it filled with singles, nor is it filled with songs built for the stadium gigs they now get. In many ways, it feels like their smallest album to date. They shied away from the epic. That's a good thing. Not-spectacular is underrated. Plain-spoken is underrated. Growing old gracefully—or at least being honest about the weirdness and difficulty of that process (see here)—is underrated and moreover, undervalued. It's not crass. It's not a sign of a band that will become those geriatric rockers, shaking their asses around stadiums for baby-boomers like they aren't being mainlined ED drugs and botox. It's not Springsteen's blue-collar rock schtick as a man with a net worth of $200M. It's real. It's why LCD Soundsystem disbanded. And sooner or later, these guys will, too. And that, too, is a good thing.

That's not to say they're completely grown-ass men, or that they're short on ambition: There are moments of playfulness and piss and vinegar on the album for those of us not worried about mortgage payments. "Don't Swallow the Cap" is irresistible, toe-tapping brilliance in a drumbeat. The end of "Graceless" has the kind of screaming, desperate climax that the band hasn't put on a record in way too long. And then there's "Sea Of Love," the standout single of the album that climbs towards a banger of a finish from the first moments, and it only relents for-of course-the chorus (of sorts). In the video for the song, a child goes nuts playing air guitar, as the band kicks out the song, thrashing in the rapture of rock, fitting right in with everything else, an image screaming for an answer: Is being in a rock band as a 40-year-old an inherently immature thing? Probably, yeah. But in their embrace of this, they've managed to stay relevant, and great, too. Every other band who's been around for over a decade would be wise to take notes. —Foster Kamer

38. R.A. The Rugged Man Legends Never Die

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Label: Nature Sounds

R.A. The Rugged Man is known for a rapid-fire flow, ridiculous breath control, and a brutally uncompromising style. The last bit is the reason why R.A. has not become a household name despite once going toe to toe on wax with the late Notorious B.I.G. It's also the reason why his latest album, Legends Never Die, is so engaging. Who else would name a song "Shoot Me in the Head," with a refrain that begins "I'm a piece of shit, I'm a fucking fat fuck?" Who else would say "I get Louis Farrakhan dating a platinum blonde/I get skinheads bowing to Mecca and praying to Islam"? Who else would sample the groovy "Reach Out Of The Darkness" by Friend & Lover and rap over it at breakneck speed? It's not all shock and awe rap though; amidst the moments of zany insanity are straightforward bangers like the Apathy-produced anthem "People's Champ." Ultimately, R.A. gets away it because he's equipped with the precision and skills to get away with it. Here's to a still living legend. —Dharmic X

37. Tyler, The Creator Wolf

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Label: Odd Future/RED/Sony

There's a point in every young artist's career where it becomes time to mature and grow, to address serious issues with clarity while still making music that captivates a juvenile audience (think Eminem on The Eminem Show). For Tyler, The Creator that moment's come with the release of Wolf. That dichotomy between adult themes and childishness is on full display on "Cowboy," where Tyler raps, "Life ain't got no light in it/Darker than the closet that nigga Frankie was hiding in," a reference to Frank Ocean coming out as bisexual in 2012. Tyler's able to address his deadbeat father with sophistication on "Answer," expressing both the anger and yearning of being abandoned.

On the production end, Tyler mans the whole project almost entirely by himself, and the result is some of his best material yet, creating a sound that's lively and rich, ebbing and flowing with the mood of the lyrics. Tyler is ultimately a savant with the arrangement and instrumentation, and that's what takes Wolf to the next level. —Dharmic X

36. Phosphorescent Muchacho

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Label: Dead Oceans

Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck has brought the warming tones of Georgia sunlight and baked them into Muchacho, a wry, wrenching album that is easily his best release to date. It revs and rumbles with the motorcycle fever of "Ride On / Right On," it sways into a bluegrass groove on "The Quotidian Beasts," and the gut-wrenching "Song For Zula" vies with any release in 2013 for song of the year.

The haunting choral opener "Sun, Arise!" and the loopy, modulated closer "Sun's Arising" bookend an album that has a little New York grit worked into the pores of traditional Southern blues. Muchachois an amaglam of world-weary poetry that would feel just as at home in a secluded bar as it would under a wiry, Brooklyn spotlight-the current whereabouts of the record's creator.

Houck's raw, country sound—revealed on saloon-ready cuts like "Down to Go"—never feels affected and never gets bogged down in its own swampy Athens roots. Instead, the moniker Phosphorescent has allowed Houck to operate at his most luminescent as a musician, and his most transparent as a lyricist. On his fourth album for Dead Oceans, Houck threatens to upset the hierarchies that relegate folksy releases to dusty, forgotten corners. —Caitlin White

35. Italians Do It Better (VA) After Dark 2

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34. Disclosure Settle

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Label: PMR/Island

What does any genre need to have their songs make an impact on a mainstream level? Great vocals, big hooks, and infectious grooves, right? Looking at Disclosure's Settle, they have everything it takes to impact the pop charts at some point—right? On their debut album, brothers Guy (22) and Howard (19) Lawrence crafted a pop-leaning mixture of classic UK garage and house sounds, bringing in the likes of Jessie Ware, Eliza Doolittle, and AlunaGeorge to help breathe life into their undeniable rhythms. Songs like "Latch" and "White Noise" made their marks critically and on the charts well before we even knew what the title of their album would be, but once the LP dropped, we realized what the fuss was all about—Disclosure is just that damn good. —khal

33. The White Mandingos The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me

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Label: Ingrooves

Full disclosure: Sacha Jenkins, the guitarist for the White Mandingos, is an F.O.C., in a couple of ways: he's a Friend of Complex, he's also a Father of Complex (he taught half of us how to do this, son, the other half got taught by the people he taught). Which explains why Tryna Kill Me is so low on this list: We'd rather undersell our pal's effort than be accused of cronyism (hey, we were taught well).

The White Mandingos (do not try to abbreviate that name by dropping the adjective) are the brainchild of Jenkins, Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jenifer, and West-coast hip-hop vet Murs. It's a rap-rock project, and, unlike 99% of the music in that genre, it doesn't suck uncontrollably. Sonically, this is accomplished primarily in two ways:

1. Murs is actually a rapper, not a punk rock/heavy metal lead singer reject looking to craft a career despite not possessing the Rob Halford range. His rhymes have a Def Jux-level complexity to them (as befitting an MC once signed to Def Jux), and—and this is an important lesson for would be rock rappers—he doesn't feel the need to yell over every track.

2. While the WM's punk rock bona fides are as solid as they come courtesy of Jenifer, it's not strictly a punk rock-rap record. The opening title track is far more "rap" than rock, with a light, dancehall inflected beat that only goes rawk on the hook and the outro. The beats get even more complex as the record goes on, from chiming U2 guitars on "Black-N-White" to the cinematic metal instrumental "My Weapon," to yes, traditional rap-rock sounding pop punk on "Warn a Brotha."

But the heart of the album is the neo-soul torch ballad "Black Girl Toof," a lament for an unavailable woman scarred by the previous men in her life. It's sad, and soulful, and completely different from what the rest of the album has led you to expect. It signals that the entire project is very serious, and something much more than a side hustle for three already accomplished artists. As the title would suggest, The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me isn't a happy record; it is a really, really good one. —Jack Erwin

32. Migos YRN

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31. Pusha T Wrath of Caine

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30. Deerhunter Monomania

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Label: 4AD

Deerhunter has been (in the opinion of this reviewer at least) the best rock band of the past five or so years. Largely because they weren't very "rock." They used samples and looped found noise, they made their guitars sound like keyboards, and they buried a lot of their hooks—all while crafting perfectly poised, polished, and precise rock songs. This made the first few listens to Monomania jarring. Monomania is most definitely a rock album, and it's far from polished or precise. From the opening croak (almost reminiscent of O.D.B. in its gutteralness) on "Neon Junkyard" through the jumpy shuffle of "Pensacola" to the alternately shambolic and militaristic title track, the sound is loose and mostly loud, with plenty of reverb and feedback. Even the more traditionally Deerhuntery-sounding songs ("The Middle," "T.H.M.," "Back to the Middle") lack the sheen of the group's previous work. The album is even classic-rock conventional at times, which squawling guitar solos and dashed off lyrical cliches.

That's not to say Monomania isn't great though. Deerhunter at its most conventional is still wonderfully strange; remember, the group debuted music from the album at PS1 last January by playing the coda from the title song—over and over again for 40 minutes until much of the audience left (lead singer Bradford Cox also trolled the group's fans by appearing on Jimmy Fallon with a bandaged, bloodied hand that appeared to be missing a couple fingers (it wasn't)). So one of the weirdest groups around made a beautifully ravaged, yet un-weird record. It still rocks. —Jack Erwin

29. Kid Cudi Indicud

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Label: Wicked Awesome/GOOD/Republic

Kid Cudi promoted Indicud calling it his version of Dr. Dre's 2001. While it was clearly 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 also 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

28. French Montana Excuse My French

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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 native 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

27. Ghostface Killah Twelve Reasons to Die

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Label: Soul Temple Records/RED Distribution

When it was announced that Ghostface would be teaming with Adrian Younge, the man behind the Black Dynamite soundtrack, to release an album, hip-hop fans fell into two camps. Those familiar with Younge's instrumental résumé were intrigued by the prospect of his pairing with Wu-Tang's most consistent and creative member; those who weren't familiar with his resume said, "Who dat?"

The end result, Twelve Reasons To Die, exceeded the expectations of pretty much everybody. Playing a tormented gangster to perfection, Ghostface's quirky narration sounds right at home over cinematic production from Younge, who adds a Western twist to the beats while retaining the same gritty feel that has always marked the Wu-Tang Clan sound. This may not be a revolutionary project, but Younge manages to take Ghostface out of his comfort zone without compromising quality. It's one of the best projects in the Wu-Tang catalog of the last decade. —Dharmic X

26. Deafheaven Sunbather

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Label: Deathwish

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 piercing cries 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

25. J.Cole Truly Yours 2

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24. Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience

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Label: RCA

Justin Timberlake's return to music after a six-year hiatus was one of the most anticipated events of the year. The first single, "Suit & Tie," featured Jay-Z, and didn't disappoint. But, a look at the rest of track list was a little shocking. Would "Suit & Tie" be the only song serviced to radio? The entire 10-song album consisted of songs no shorter than 4-and-a-half-minutes long, with the longest, "Mirrors," coming in at nearly eight minutes. Far from traditional singles fare. Still, the production, courtesy of Timbaland, is so well calculated that key changes, unexpected breakdowns and harmonies make even the longest tracks full-on musical experiences—hence, "Mirrors" 10-week run on the pop charts. Sophisticated and sexy, complex but catchy, The 20/20 Experience proves that JT is more than just a song & dance man. He's a well-rounded artist. —Lauren Nostro

23. Toro y Moi Anything in Return

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Label: Carpark

"Carefully ambitious" might be a good way to describe Chaz Bundick, the face and sound of Toro Y Moi. He's a minimalist at heart, but underneath there is a hint that Bundick wants to push the boundaries of the chillwave genre he's been pigeonholed into. With its sparkling keys, ambient vibes, and fluid song construction, Anything In Return, is less an experimental exegesis on life and more of the dreamy psychedelia we've learned to love from the South Carolina synth wizard. In the opening breaths of "Rose Quartz"—a mish mash of bleeps, blops, and woozy instrumentation—Bundick creates a language entirely his own. It's mesmerizing, really. The song slowly ascends and breaks loose around the two-minute mark, shattering into a cloudy haze of his signature downtempo cool. It's ambitious songmaking, sure, but careful all the same. —Jason Parham

22. Quadron Avalanche

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Label: Vested in Culture/Epic

Quadron are an R&B duo—Robin Hannibal is one-half of Rhye, and vocalist Coco appeared on Tyler, The Creator's Wolf album—who make tasteful, well-written R&B with an upscale ambiance. Avalanche, the group's latest album, is a definite reach for popular recognition, relative to earlier releases. Kendrick Lamar has a guest verse, and the single "Hey Love" is the closest to a radio-ready the group has ever sounded. But they manage the trick without sacrificing all of the things that make them worth your time. Coco's voice is poised and clear; on songs like "Crush," she gives her performance a whispy, graceful quality. Their approach to R&B, despite reaching for a more conservative audience, is not retro; instead, they focus on strong songwriting and elegant performance. There is a timelessness to their sound that avoids easy pigeonholing. Overall, it's a very "grown-up" record, subtle, romantic, and jazzy. Which makes the title really funny. The only avalanche it might make you think you think of is ice cubes falling into a cocktail glass. This is a good thing. —David Drake

21. Major Lazer Free the Universe

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Label: Secretly Canadian

The evolving lineup of Diplo's Major Lazer crew expanded to new heights on their sophomore album Free the Universe, with 2 Chainz, Bruno Mars, Wyclef Jean, Shaggy, and others linking up for the hybrid dancehall/EDM sound. The massive single "Get Free" showed us that Diplo's former running mate Switch (who left sometime in 2011 due to creative differences) isn't necessary for the success of the crew. Tracks like "Jah No Partial" showed how massive the dubstep sound could be when put beneath throwback reggae vocals, while "Bubble Butt" found the guys leaning more on their rap rolodex—turning out a trap-style anthem for females with the big booties. All in all, a solid return for Diplo's motley crew; an enjoyable trek through the worlds of reggae and dancehall, filtered through dance-music colored lenses. —khal

20. Young Thug 1017 Thug

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19. Birdman & Rick Ross The H

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18. Action Bronson SAAAB Stories

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Label: Vice/Atlantic

The chemistry between Queens rapper Action Bronson and Brooklyn producer Harry Fraud was displayed in short flashes in 2012. The two came together on songs such as "Jar of Drugs" and "Bird On a Wire," while simultaneously creating buzz as individual entities. Several weeks ago, the two released their first extended work together, a seven-song EP called Saab Stories. It's everything fans would have hoped for: thumping drum patterns behind Fraud's lush samples, bolstering the verbal gymnastics and outlandish punchlines they've come to expect from Bronson. What's most impressive about the music is how well-structured it is. This isn't just a rappity-rap side project to be relegated to the underground. Powerful hooks lift songs like "No Time," "The Rockers," and "Strictly 4 My Jeeps" into something closer to radio fare than Bronson has ever made before. Saab Stories marks a turning point in his career—he sounds like a polished artist capable of rapping himself right into the mainstream. —Dharmic X

17. Lil Wayne I Am Not a Human Being II

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Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Republic

On his 10th studio album I Am Not A Human Being II, Lil Wayne makes no apologies for his formula. Basically, he's giving his core fans 17-tracks of everything they (okay, we) want from a Wayne album: rhymes upon rhymes about pussy, money, and weed, and fun-filled guest verses from the biggest stars in the biz: in this case, 2 Chainz, Soulja Boy, Future, Nicki Minaj and Drake. This sequel to Wayne's 2010 offering kicks off with an ominous, orchestral title-track, and weaves through auto-tuned ballads like "Curtains," and surprisingly, a circusy-sounding TNGHT beat on "Lay It Down." The album is intensely vulgar, and the dozens of references to his syrup addiction ring especially disturbing in light of the string of seizures that landed him in the ICU for a week shortly after the album's release.

There's not one horrendously bad track on IANAHBII, but there's nothing phenomenal either, no display of artistic growth. It's what we'd expect, Wayne relying everything that's built his career up to where it is now. And yet, we still smile at lines like, "Grab the owl out the tree/Ask that bitch, 'Who but me?'" Wayne can still be clever as ever. Boosted by hit singles like "Rich As Fuck" and "Love Me," the album amounts to a solid, well-sequenced showcase of everything we like about Wayne—even if it's getting a little redundant at this point. —Lauren Nostro

16. The Underachievers Indigoism

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15. Charli XCX True Romance

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Label: Asylum/Atlantic

Gothy British singer/songwriter Charli XCX takes you on a luxurious romantic journey on her debut album. By the end of True Romance's 13 songs, you'll know Charli, understand her vulnerabilities, and, likely, fall in love (again) with the decadent pleasures '80s synth-pop. A bit surprisingly, for someone coming out of the UK grime and rave scenes, Charli finds herself nuzzled in between the quirky sounds of late '90s girl groups, hints of R&B, and hypnotizing synth beats. This is pop music; it's fun even when it's dark.

The production is so catchy, you'll find yourself listening over and over to tracks like "You're the One" and "You (Ha Ha Ha)." Charli's rise to stardom was jumpstarted after writing, and singing on, Icona Pop's smash hit, "I Love It," which has just recently topped charts nearly a year after it's release. The song, with lyrics like "You want me down on Earth, but I am up in space/You're so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch/You're from the '70s, but I'm a 90s bitch" embodies Charli's entire creative vision—an awareness of generations of music that she effortlessly combines into the perfect pop music. If you dig it, we strongly encourage you: check out her album. —Lauren Nostro

14. A$AP Rocky Long.Live.A$AP

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Label: ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA

On the one hand, it's hard not to appreciate Long.Live.A$AP for what it is: An all-around solid debut album from a budding star. A$AP essentially doubles down on the aesthetic he established on his 2011 mixtape, Live. Love. ASAP, but adds the sheen of pop polish. He upgrades his sound, adds some high profile guests (including Skrillex, Danger Mouse, and Santigold), and spends an entire album rhyming proficiently in the pocket.

On the other hand, that's the whole problem with the album: It plays like a company holiday party to Live. Love. ASAP's rachet house party. If the album was the first time you took a serious listen to A$AP—which is true for more people than you'd think—then you'd have every reason to be impressed with A$AP's persona and delivery. But for early adopters who love to nitpick, it's all mastery without magic. An unfair standard, maybe. But no one said it was easy being a young rap king. Still, this just the beginning, so even if it isn't mind blowing, it will certainly do for now. —Insanul Ahmed

13. Killer Mike & El-P Run The Jewels

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12. Kevin Gates The Luca Brasi Story

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11. Thundercat Apocalypse

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10. Queens of the Stone Age ...Like Clockwork

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Label: Matador/Rekords Rekords

Man, is it satisfying when one of your favorite bands recaptures something about themselves that you'd loved but they'd lost. That's happened this year with one of my favorite bands, Josh Homme's desert-born, drug-fueled hard rock outfit, Queens of the Stone Age. I was a fan of Homme's first band, Kyuss, a heavier, jammier more-tripped-out version of what would become. But with the first two Queens albums, 1998's self-titled debut, and their masterpiece, 2002's Rated R, Homme really came into his own as a songwriter. The power was still there, but the music was tighter, sharper, unforgettable. 2004's Songs for the Deaf continued in the vein, and (with Nirvana and Foo Fighters vet Dave Grohl sitting in on drums, became the bands biggest hit.)

But then bassist Nick Olivieri left the band—was kicked out, actually, for substance abuse problems. The next two albums, Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris, were still hard and sharp, of faster average tempo, maybe? Tight and trebly? But something less definable was missing. Olivieri, it can be surmised, brings an important counterpoint to Homme's leadership. A looseness? A wildness? A grungy depth? Whatever it is, it's back. Olivieri has rejoined the band, thank goodness, and Like Clockwork stands among the Queens' finest works. Slow-and-low, down-and-dirty, but with greater touches of flowery beauty than Homme has let himself indulge in before, the album is stoner hard rock at its very best. Something that no other band on the national stage is even trying to do anymore. It sounds like the desert again. Big sky, wide open spaces. Something sinful. Pure awesomeness. —Dave Bry

9. Daft Punk Random Access Memories

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Label: Daft Life/Columbia

We're going to assume that when you heard Daft Punk was releasing their fourth album, you weren't expecting that everyone's favorite space-helmeted androids had evolved into a pair of California Dreamin', '70s-era disco-rockers. However, a look at the progression of their career, from 1997's Homework to 2001's Discovery, 2005's Human After All through Random Access Memories, you'd notice that each new project (not counting the Tron: Legacy soundtrack they produced) has found them moving gradually away from their purely-electronic beginnings. They've relied less on computers, used more and more instrumentation each time. So Random Access Memories, which uses beat machines and samplers sparringly, makes perfect sense in the arc of their career.

They spent over $1 million assembling musicians (and equipment) to help recreate the vintage sound they were looking for, turning in an authentic homage to the disco and rock music that thrived when they were young kids. Shedding their "electronic" exoskeleton, they called upon their heroes (Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams), previous associates (Todd Edwards, Chilly Gonzales, DJ Falcon), and other assorted artists (Julian Casablancas, Pharrell Williams, Panda Bear) to help give voice to their project, which is explained in the title of the first track: "Give Life Back to Music."

The smash hit "Get Lucky" gives a good understanding of the headspace that Daft Punk is in right now, but so are beautiful, sprawling numbers like the "Doin It Right" or "Lose Yourself to Dance." Both highlight the repetition in phrases, and how great lyrics can be transformed into vital pieces of music in their own right. "Giorgio By Moroder" features the electronic music innovator in his own voice, speaking autobiographically, before Daft Punk kick out the jam-as-homage. The theatrical "Touch" builds on the android-discovers-human-emotion theme familiar to fans of dystopian sci-fi movies, whereas "Contact" transports you directly to Cape Canaveral during liftoff. And that's the point: Random Access Memories isn't today's EDM. It's not just a collection of songs. It's an album that's supposed to be taken in as a whole, as if it's on an 8-track and you only have it to last you during a road trip. And it makes perfect sense in the story that is Daft Punk's career so far. One reflected (with just a little stretch) in their album titles: Two French robots do their Homework and make the Discovery that they are truly Human After All-as if these Random Access Memories were tiny fragments of experience that they'd had before but forgotten; a lifetime flashing before their, and so now our, eyes. It's truly an album to sit and grow with. —Khris Davenport

8. James Blake Overgrown

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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, and 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

7. J. Cole Born Sinner

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Label: Roc Nation/Columbia

J. Cole is the least-likely rapper to ever be considered "divisive," yet somehow he's managed to become so beloved by his fans and so derided by his detractors that he's now an unlikely flashpoint in a series of arguments in hip-hop's growing class war. In an era where sales stats and popularity have never seemed less in sync, and rappers can dominate the day's discussion, fill club dancefloors, and sell out shows without moving many units (hey, French Montana), Cole is a genuinely popular artist who is also able to sell albums.

First things first: No, he's not a lyrical monster on par with his idols. He is an adroit rapper, but stylistically, isn't really expanding hip-hop's pallette. But it's also difficult to see why his music would inspire such ire. He's established himself as a strong singles artist, even if it's the kind of thing he seems to have fallen into backwards. "Crooked Smile" and "Power Trip," the two singles from Born Sinner, are two of the strongest of his career. His primary talent is being relateable, writing stories that wrestle with problems that are more common, more real, for the kid who aspires to go to college and might find street rap's glorification of criminality difficult to identify with. It's a lane that Kanye opened, and Cole is running with it.

Consider "Land of the Snakes," where Cole's narrative begins with stunting about his own success before taking a sly, unexpected turn in the final verse, undercutting the Rapper Fantasy, when Cole recognizes the pain that he's caused other people. In other words: he's empathic. Even more so on "Crooked Smile," which could easily have fallen into soppy sentimentalism, but manages to pull off a subtly affirming message.

Sonically, the album has a distinct, comfort-food soul sampling feel that is subtle and layered. There are a few lyrical clunkers (his opening bars about "faggots" on "Villuminati" are especially wearying) and his most strident fans' attempts to put him in the pantheon seem, to be generous, premature. But Born Sinner is a success for a reason, and J. Cole will definitely benefit from Kanye's spurning of his more traditionalist fanbase. —David Drake

6. Rhye Woman

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Label: Polydor

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.

However, early tracks like “The Fall” and “Open” drew comparisons to Sade, even if Sade’s voice is certainly much stronger. (Actually, “The Fall” reminds us more of Andrea True’s “More More More”). It's easy to mistake the voice for that of a woman but it is in fact 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. You can play it all night, but the tunes are so inviting and warm, it sounds more like afternoon sex. —Insanul Ahmed

5. Mac Miller Watching Movies with the Sound Off

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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 crystalize.

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

4. Autre Ne Veut Anxiety

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Label: Mexican Summer/Software

The fact is simple: There is no better R&B album to come out this year than Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety. There probably won't be.

Of course, 2013's so far been a year when The-Dream's output sounded less like that of R&B's Midas and more like a cheesy porn addict calling in old favors from Jay-Z (who responded half-heartedly.) Or a year when one of the genre's most important new stars makes his biggest noise by drop-kicking an audience member on television. But that's not why Anxiety stands out. Even if R&B were having a stellar year, it'd be hard-pressed to compete with Autre Ne Veut, or the man otherwise known as Arthur Ashin. Yes, he's a white guy, and yes, he lives in Brooklyn. And as "indie" music continues to trends 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 plain and obvious a love song about the desperation in breaking past the "friend zone" as has ever been recorded. But it's also a song that—after the dense tin-notes and airy, zooming synth lines that promise some sort of epic sonic climax, an ecstasy-high, rolling-balls stadium-status finishing move that will knock you on your ass—actually delivers. And it delivers with a chorus that's somehow equal parts hopeful, defeatist, and triumphant. And then delivers on it again. And again. And again, each time, better than the last.

You can not fake that. You can not Dr. Luke that. You can not Max Martin that. You can not just decide to record in a vocal register that, on full blast, could possibly displace listeners' spines. That effect can not be conjured. And this is the first track of the album. 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." Or the breathy "Ego Free Sex Free," which closes with a sink-or-swim R&B tactic long abandoned because it's too hard to get right: an actual guitar solo. You know who gets R&B guitar solos right? Prince. Yes: Prince. You don't merit that comparison for short-order work, and we're not the first to make it, either.

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. And if the ticking, post-True Blue-era Madonna pulse of that song doesn't convince just how serious Ashin is on living up to that ideal—let alone that song title—please see your nearest audiologist, and hope they take your insurance. —Foster Kamer

3. Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City

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Label: XL

With Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend returns to New York after the California sunshine of Contra, the band's second album, for a crack-up, a crisis of faith. Ezra Koenig, lead singer and lyricist, questions ways of getting through this life with lyrics both erudite and chucklesome. Do you trust that love will save you? America? God? Vampire Weekend's best album wrestles the big questions with gorgeous melodies that'll take up residence between your ears (the burbling chorus of "Diane Young") and arrangements so lush (everything about "Ya Hey"), you'll likely end up trusting in music more than anything else. When that music sounds as good as "Hannah Hunt," the rousing midpoint of the album where the images feel yanked from a great short story and Koenig's voice cracks in all the right ways, who could blame you? —Ross Scarano

2. Chance The Rapper Acid Rap

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1. Kanye West Yeezus

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Label: Def Jam

1. A lot of rappers talk about changing the rap game. Kanye West talks about being Steve Jobs.

2. Kanye West isn't going to invent the next iPod. But when you consider what he's done with Yeezus, and then The Bigger Picture and Where He Fits In, you would never want to stop him from trying.

3. Ever since "All Falls Down," we've known Kanye West to be one of the most contradictory and complicated characters in music, with conflicting impulses—materialism, spiritualism, chauvinism, feminism, humanism, elitism—that he's always trying to negotiate. On Yeezus, this conflict manifests itself: All id everything. It's an album that stands against itself on every end, but seamlessly so. It's obviously his most political album, and we knew that after Saturday Night Live. It's Kanye West's most sexually charged album: From the various things he will do your spouse, to his cravings for sweet and sour sauce, made all the more real by the fact that his daughter was born the same week his album arrived: That is some very real, very dark male ego shit. It's also handily Kanye West's funniest album. If you don't think Yeezus Christ himself wouldn't find the humor in the couplet about talking to Jesus on "I Am a God," or that the line about the croissants isn't high camp, you haven't been paying attention. The line about scratching—no, smashing—your Corolla? Comparing a supremely lewd sex act to raising the civil rights sign? Or celebrating a woman taking off her shirt with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" kicker? "Swaghili"? Hell, it's funny if only for how blatantly he's trying, and succeeding, to offend people. And if "late night organ donor" doesn't make you laugh, you probably lead a really miserable life, or you just don't get it.

4. The joy of Yeezus as West's most political, emotional, sexual, and funny album is how he set about making it. "Strange Fruit," one of the most politically charged songs of all time, isn't sampled on a song about contemporary black oppression, but on a theoretical of lost love that takes cues from a C-Murder track. A reference to apartheid on that same song is about sitting two women on different sides of a basketball court. A love song invokes threesomes, fucking on the sink, and Jerome from Martin. Nothing is where we'd expect it to be.

5. The truly stunning thing about Yeezus when thinking about it in the context of a year in music is how far ahead of everything else it is. It's not the difference between one and two, it's the difference between standard-definition and hi-defiinition. Which is to say nothing of the difference between Yeezus and the rest of the rap field this year so far, which is the difference between streaming a movie at home on a laptop, and watching it on IMAX 3D. But even that comparison isn't fair. This isn't the fault of other rappers, but let's just say they haven't exactly helped their own cause.

6. The Rap Establishment—not just critics, or label heads, but fans, too—doesn't like Yeezus. It's an album that moves Kanye West further away from the status quo of rap, and because of that, further away from rap. But that's not why they don't like it. It's an album the Rap Establishment stands in opposition to because Yeezus doesn't serve its needs-it doesn't play by the same rules for singles, or guest spots, samples, album length, sound, lyrics, anything. Yeezus doesn't just not give a fuck about Summer Jam, it occupies a universe where Summer Jam is a glorified high school talent show. Want to mix Yeezus for the club without making it worse? Good luck. And after Yeezus, to compare Kanye West to Drake, Kendrick, Wayne, J. Cole or (yes) Jay-Z isn't just unfair to all of those rappers, it's simply wrong. Kanye West took risks. Big risks. In doing so, he's legitimately talking to not just the Rap Establishment, but the society that tells rappers to stay rappers. And he's telling it to fuck off and die. And the power to make that album is only superseded by the regard we have to hold West in once he did it. There hasn't been a turning point in the ambition of someone the world once thought of as a "rap act" that bends this sharp since Aquemeni.

7. People don't like change. History's filled with people who have resisted the agents of changes to the course of modern civilization. And they usually get trampled by that change.

8. Everyone—and especially those people—would be wise to keep in mind that America's most consistent great export of the last hundred years is culture. This is especially important in 2013, as the American penchant for innovation has slowed to a crawl. We're being beaten all over the world in science and medicine. Our technological ambitions amount to a bunch of venture capitalists flinging money at progressively derivative, facile, stupidass ideas. The best thing America has to show the world these days is a new iOS update, or a new Facebook update, or some bullshit financial product meant to self-destruct and leave ten people with decent retirement plans while wildly fucking the rest of the economy. Say what you will about Kanye's blithe, absurd-sounding interview quotes, Steve Jobs is in fact dead, and that's not a good thing.

9. A few months ago, the editor-in-chief of Complex came back from Paris, watching Kanye West record a week's worth of Yeezus sessions. He was asked on the fly what the new shit sounded like. And someone who's never been short the ability to vividly describe the sound of music, he responded, a little flustered: "I..have no idea how to describe it. It sounds like it's from the future. Or of the future." He didn't mean it in a laudatory or critical way. Imagine trying to explain Yeezus to a world that hadn't heard a note of that album, whose last exposure to Kanye West in album-form was Cruel Summer, before it became the album that launched a thousand think-pieces, and set a bunch of angry interest groups off, and sent a bunch of other people Googling Corbusier chairs and the CCA, and sent a bunch of other music critics on tirades about Death Grips and The Prodigy. It remains the most apt and honest description of Yeezus I've heard, still. The future's coming, and it's a little more weird, uncomfortable, and messy than the present. And not every Kanye album to come will sound like Yeezus, nor will the steps be so giant. The Kanye West who makes club bangers will come back for you, Rap Establishment. Like someone who visits a dying relative in a nursing home, he'll come by, drop off a care package of club hits, and leave. But for those who want music to be greater, to aspire to more, to mean more, to change things up from the Same Old Shit and move culture—not black culture or rap culture or music culture, but the contemporary state of great American pop art and the ambition therein—forward? We're going to hope that impulse is short-lived. —Foster Kamer

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