It's been a busy year in popular music. Robin Thicke owned the summer airwaves with "Blurred Lines" while Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" proved a highly successful underdog. Florida Georgia Line took us on a breezy "Cruise." Baauer started a viral frenzy with "Harlem Shake." Then Miley stormed the scene with a giant "Wrecking Ball" and brought straight-forward balladeering back to the radio. But Billboard's official year-end chart ranks Macklemore's economically-savvy "Thrift Shop" as the behemoth that overshadowed them all.
In a singles-oriented music landscape, it's easy to forget that these radio hits are part of a larger body of work. So who released the best albums of 2013? Here's a look at my top 10 picks for the year.
Yeezus - Kanye West
One could describe Yeezy as the best living rapper, but he'd be happy to do so himself. No artist in recent memory has gone to such great lengths to antagonize everyone within earshot. West's antagonism reaches a fever-point on Yeezus. Tracks such as "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" waste no time in holding West's not-so-funhouse mirror up to white America and screaming in their faces.
The album is also among the best production achievements in West's career. None of the grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to be found here. In its place is a sleek industrial rage that would feel incredibly comfortable alongside Trent Reznor's early work.
Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Relying on live studio instrumentation, Daft Punk issued a classy "fuck you" to the growing EDM wasteland with their fourth album. The French electronic duo has been beloved by fans since the early '90s. Fresh off the heels of coming to mainstream attention by scoring the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, Daft Punk struck gold with "Get Lucky." The track features Pharrell Williams and was written by Niles Rodgers of Chic fame.
The resulting album includes a number of eclectic collaborations, most notably with Giorgio Moroder, the father of electronic music. Focused and dynamic, Random Access Memories is a career-defining artistic statement and exhilarating journey through funk's digital dimensions.
BEYONCÉ - Beyoncé
At midnight on December 13, Ms. Knowles shocked the world by dropping a full-length studio album with absolutely no promotion whatsoever. Despite the complete lack of promotion, BEYONCÉ broke the record for fastest-selling album ever on iTunes, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and sold 828,773 copies in just three days.
This is also the best album of her career, embodying a compelling new maturity. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "We Should All be Feminists" features within the song "Flawless," a nod to the fact that Queen Bey perhaps has more to say than she's said so far. She's also never been more explicit, with lyrics like the ones on "Blow" frank enough to make Prince blush. While often understated in delivery, all of these tracks pulse with power and determination. Put simply: Beyoncé is having her The Velvet Rope moment.
Bangerz - Miley Cyrus
The former Disney star was 2013's biggest winner. From a carefully calculated roll-out of her new image to the phenomenally executed "Wrecking Ball," Cyrus has proven herself a bigger contender forsuperstardom than anyone would have given her credit last year. The key to Cyrus' reinvention is a complete lack of pretense.
As an album, Bangerz establishes a distinctly Cyrus sound. Some of it works incredibly well. Sprawling ballads like "Adore You," "Wrecking Ball," and "Drive" are easy winners. And the Damita Jo-aping of "#GETITRIGHT" is golden. Occasionally the package faulters, like on the cringe-wrothy "SMS (Bangerz)." But in the end, the whole package is a win that will still be churning out hits into next year.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City - Kendrick Lamar
The first mainstream success from one of the newest kids on the block is also among the most impressive rap offerings in recent memory. Atmospheric and emotionally haunting, Lamar gives an authentic voice to the disenfranchised. It's a refreshing respite from the bragging and plastic materialism that have come to define a genre once meant for creative art and social justice.
Lamar shows command of his subtle artistry by not relying on a singles-formula to sell the album. That doesn't mean stand-outs aren't abounding. "Poetic Justice" is among the most accessible with its winking lyrical tribute and graceful sampling of "Anytime, Anyplace." But don't cherry-pick from the bunch. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City demands a comprehensive listening.
Save Rock and Roll - Fall Out Boy
This is a curious bunch of guys. Usually not pop enough to profoundly impact top-40, never quite rock enough to please rock radio. All of that changed this year with the most unapologetically fun album of their entire career. While the title should've been 'Save Glam Rock and Roll,' the result is a tour-de-force of gratifying sonic decisions from start to finish.
Every song is a potential single. Nothing falls even slightly flat. Occasionally, the music soars to power-choruses rarely heard since the 1980s. "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" is the most aggressive. But "Save Rock and Roll" surpasses it in earnestness and "The Pheonix" charges past it with orchestral energy.
Hesitation Marks - Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor has had a career rennaisance of sorts. From a stunningly successful go at film scoring with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the modest success of his wife's collaborative project How to Destroy Angels, Reznor has become a more agreeable media figure than anyone could have predicted.
Hesitation Marks is perhaps the most interesting reinvention Nine Inch Nails could have undergone. Reznor has absolutely nothing to prove. If the horns on "While I'm Still Here" to the funk of "All Time Low" aren't enough to send industrial purists fleeing, the sunshine of "Everything" is. Reznor's never been braver than he is here. And while fans may miss a bit of the anger, Hesitation Marks is the best risk Reznor's taken since The Downward Spiral.
The Paradigm Shift - Korn
The nu-metal pioneers were in need of a shakeup. After a valiant effort with dubstep reinvention on The Path of Totality, the band couldn't find its stride. Then Brian "Head" Welch, the eccentric guitarist who'd left Korn for Jesus, inexplicably returned to save the day. The resulting album hits a perfect blend of the band's original driving rock sound with touches of electronic influence.
"Spike In My Veins" and "Love & Meth" are the obvious standouts although none of the tracks show signs of weakness.The Paradigm Shift's most noticable virtue comes in the abandonment of issues that plagued Korn from day one, including ill-advised raps and immature fixations on overtly assaulting lyrics.
The 20/20 Experience, Pt 1 - Justin Timberlake
The ex-king of teeny-boppers made his final step to icon status with this album. Sure, it's a snobby record. But it's an incredibly good one too. From the opening groove of "Pusher Lover Girl" to the closing ethereality of "Blue Ocean Floor," Timberlake delivers a number of tracks that only a superstar personality could navigate.
"Suit and Tie" is the most recognizable of the pack, but it's not the most interesting. "Don't Hold the Wall" may be due that honor, with its tribal percussion and strong use of Timbaland's production strengths. But perhaps the real winner here is "Mirrors," a shamelessly emotional mid-tempo jam that sealed its success with a single bridge phrase: "You are the love of my life."
Love Has Come for You - Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
America's msot recognizable comedian has never received the same sort of attention for his music. And it's a shame. Love Has Come for You is a thoughtful and beautiful collection of contemporary American folk songs. "When you get to Asheville, send me an email," Brickell implores at the albums opening over Martin's pleasant strumming.
Stories of simple life unfold in all their complexity. Using uncomplicated phrasing to mine deep emotion, the album whisks along leaving the listener yearning for more of these engaging short stories. "Yes She Did" stands out among the pack for its frank discussion of suicide.
Rounder Records also took the unusual step of releasing the album for free streaming on YouTube. Listen to Love Has Come for You in its entirety below.