Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best Albums of 2013

I haven't written much on my music blog this year. In fact, I haven't written anything, instead focusing on my food blog, Cook In / Dine Out. Nonetheless, I remain a committed fan of popular music, so I still wanted to share this list of my favorite albums this year.

1. Beyoncé. All year long I waited to see if Beyoncé would release a new album. I'd basically forgotten it was a possibility by the time she released it the other week without any advance warning, promotion or single. In a year of twerking, nudie music videos and folk-pop, it was 2013's most stunning pop music move. Once you got past the immediate firestorm of hype, it was clear that the album wasn't just a way to get press, but rather a fully formed, majestic pop album that finds Beyoncé at the top of her game, singing about societal expectations, loss, motherhood and sex...lots of sex. The flawless production is current, but doesn't just copy what's on the radio. The songs don't immediately sound like hits, but after a few listens they get under your skin and stay there. To top it off, each one already has a video on the "visual album," and many of them are stunning works of art in their own right too. This is, quite frankly, a pop music masterpiece. Best tracks: Pretty Hurts, XO, Haunted, Blow, Heaven.

2. London Grammar - If You Wait. Imagine if The XX teamed up with Florence and the Machine and went for something a little more commercial and you might get close to the winning formula on this lovely debut. Best tracks: Strong, Wasting My Years.

3. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Part 1). After a 7-year hiatus from music, JT returned with this brilliant pop album. Along with buddy-collaborator Timbaland, the team proved they still have what it takes (such a shame that part 2, released later in the year was such a letdown). Best tracks: Pusher Love Girl, Mirrors.

4. Bastille - Bad Blood. "Pompeii" was a staple on the UK singles chart this year, but Bastille's debut offers many other gems from the British indie rockers. I like this album because the songs are quite tuneful. Best tracks: Things We Lost in the Fire, Pompeii.

5. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires in the City. Vampire Weekend emerged on the scene with a lot of hype when their 2008 debut dropped. It wasn't until this third album though that I thought the group really found their sound. No longer just sounding like Paul Simon, the band really came into their own this with work. Best tracks: Hannah Hunt, Diane Young.

6. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories. They may be EDM pioneers, but on Random Access Memories, the French duo immersed themselves in old-school sounds of '70s funk and disco. Best tracks: Get Lucky, Giorgio by Moroder.

7. Lorde - Pure Heroine. Big names like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga were all vying to top the Hot 100 chart this fall. But it was this album's single "Royals" that proved Americans were really more interested in the haunting charms of this 16- (now 17) year-old New Zealand newcomer. Best tracks: Royals, Team.

8. Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull. I was surprised not to see this on more year-end lists, for I thought the songs were particularly memorable on this album, one of my favorite rock albums of the fall. Best tracks: Comeback Story, Supersoaker.

9. Lady Gaga - Artpop. Sure, this album got overhyped and then music critics slammed it for not quite living up to its promise of "high art meets pop music." But lower your expectations to something reasonable and you'll hear it for what it really is: just a great dance pop album. Best tracks: Do What U Want, Artpop.

10. My Bloody Valentine - MBV. I love the textures of sound on this album, which at first sounds like a lot of feedback but which is clearly carefully constructed to create a dreamy, otherworldly rock sound. Best tracks: Only Tomorrow, New You.

11. Goldfrapp - Tales of Us. Tales of Us was the strongest Goldfrapp album since Supernature, focusing on the group's flair for dark, dramatic tracks. Best: Annabel.

12. Phoenix - Bankrupt! After breaking out big with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the French new wave band returned with this great album along similar '80s-loving lines. Best: S.O.S. in Bel Air.

13. Haim - Days Are Gone. Propelled by undeniably catchy single "The Wire," California trio Haim's debut manages a timeless pop-rock sound that stretches from the '70s to today. Best: The Wire.

14. Arctic Monkeys - AM. Taking a darker and more beat-driven direction for this fifth album paid off for the British rockers, whose "Do You Wanna Know" became a trans-Atlantic alternative rock hit. Best: Do You Wanna Know.

15. The National - Trouble Will Find Me. Similar to their last album, High Violet, which I absolutely loved, Trouble Will Find Me finds the band continuing in the same vein of beauty and grandeur. Best: Demons.

16. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork. Sporting an impressive lineup of guests that range from Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Dave Grohl to Scissors Sisters' Jake Shears and even Elton John, this album could sound like too-many-cooks, but it comes off as a surprisingly unified old-school rocker. Best: Kalopsia.

17. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe. This Scottish band's debut is a top pick this year for synth-pop lovers with crisp beats and '80s-inspired melodies. Best: The Mother We Share.

18. Disclosure - Settle. With this winning debut, English Duo Disclosures proves that a dance music album isn't an oxymoron. I love the House tracks, but my favorite song is the lovely closing track featuring aforementioned London Grammar. Best: Help Me Lose My Mind.

19. Kanye West - Yeezus. His sixth album is Kanye West's hardest-hitting yet, a barage of sound and fury. After the sprawling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and album I loved), Yeezus feels much more compact and focused. Best: Black Skinhead.

20. Arcade Fire - Reflektor. Canadian rockers that have been the "it" indie darlings for almost a decade now teamed up with former LCD frontman James Murphy on this fourth disc and the electronic influence is evident. Reflektor starts out strong and although it loses some steam in the second half, is still a worthwhile entry in the group's rich catalog. Best: Reflektor.

21. Pet Shop Boys - Electric. After working magic with Madonna, The Killers, Scissor Sisters, Kylie and Take That, producer Stuart Price turns the knobs with the Pet Shop Boys on this propulsive dance pop album, PSB's highest-energy output in over a decade. Best: Love Is a Bourgeois Construct.

22. Avicii - True. Following a string of dance club hits, Avicii finally released an album this year, blending his EDM/dance sound with an unlikely but effective partner: folk-pop. The combination turned "Wake Me Up" into one of the year's biggest hits and also produced the great follow-up hit, "Hey Brother." Best: Hey Brother.

23. Katy Perry - Prism. After her massively successful Teenage Dream, which lobbed #1 hit after #1 hit, Katy Perry offers a similarly slick pop follow-up, albeit with a slightly more mature focus. Best: Birthday.

24. Matthew E. White - Big Inner. This EP, released early in the year, was the first many had heard of Matthew E. White. At its best, the album is a like a '70s throwback: alternative rock tinged with jazz, country and soul. Best: Big Love.

25. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts. Grant's second album sometimes sounds likes his folkish debut, but then takes off in new electronic directions, mining some pretty dark territory but retaining humor too. Best: GMF.

Honorable mentions: Solange, Tegan and Sara, Rhye, Sara Bareilles, James Blake, Dido