2013 saw some much-anticipated albums from a number of big artists, as well as some lesser-known work that’s also worth a listen. In no particular order, here they are!
Justin Timberlake / The 20/20 Experience
Absent from music since 2007’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake is back this year with a double album, a spectacle of pop magnanimity that seems to exist in Timberlake’s own universe, levitating above the trendiness beneath it.
It’s a performance, and a collection of songs, that is fitting for his new “Suit & Tie” persona: slick and ornate, upscale and confident. Most of the songs weigh in at seven or eight minutes long, morphing from one version to another.
The album’s bread and butter is little, instrumental noises squiggling behind Timberlake’s falsetto. “Don’t Hold the Wall,” “Tunnel Vision” and “That Girl” are exemplary. “Mirrors,” perhaps the biggest single, is actually an anomaly sonically.
The first release has more highlights and had a better showing on the charts and the radio. But this year has shown that the pop music world is JT’s when he wants it.
Haim / Days Are Gone
Since the release of their debut EP, Forever, in 2012, audiences were left to anticipate a full-length album from the family outfit, Haim (rhymes with “time”). Composed of three sisters, the band is frequently compared to Fleetwood Mac with a twist of R&B.
Their debut album, Days Are Gone, was released at the end of September and features a variety of songs, from the experimental “My Song 5” to the heartfelt ballad “Running If You Call My Name.” British songstress Jessie Ware even helped the sisters pen the album’s title track.
Although the album only reached No. 6 on the Billboard chart, the sisters received praise from audiences around the world, including Harry Styles and 2 Chainz.
Kanye West / Yeezus
Kanye West’s albums are usually a sneak peek into the future of pop music, and Yeezus is no exception. By his own admission, the record isn’t as “perfect” as 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but West seems to be in the mood this year for something more unconventional and defiant.
It’s his most raw album yet, featuring the grating opener “On Sight,” confrontational “New Slaves” and ultra-explicit “I’m In It.” Nothing for the radio here: None of the singles reached any higher than number 56 on the Billboard charts.
Daft Punk produced a few tracks, including “Black Skinhead,” the indescribable song he debuted on Saturday Night Live in May. The large cast of additional producers and collaborators includes Mike Dean, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Chvrches / The Bones of What You Believe
The Scottish synthpop trio Chvrches did everything right in 2013. Releasing one EP, one single and then finally a full-length debut album, the group steadily built up a strong fan base in one year.
The band’s debut, The Bones of What You Believe, includes the previously released single “The Mother We Share” along with well-received “Gun” and “We Sink.” It’s hard to believe that the band’s petite vocalist, Lauren Mayberry, can produce such a laser-sharp sound.
Scottish electronic bands are few and far between, but Chvrches combines hooking lyrics along with power-charged keyboard riffs and harmonies. The album reached No.1 on the Independent Album Chart and brought the band “universal acclaim” from entertainment website Metacritic and praise from Pitchfork.
Vampire Weekend / Modern Vampires of the City
In May these cool cats released the follow- up to 2010’s Contra. Perhaps the third album in a trilogy (an accidental one, by the band’s own admission), Modern Vampires of the City finds the band stretching out and growing old.
Rostam Batmnaglij’s palette is as varied as ever, with forays into rockabilly, dub and freak folk. Ezra Koenig’s lyrics remain razor-sharp and dizzyingly referential. Really, just writing a song like “Step” without falling on their faces is an accomplishment in itself.
More dynamic than Contra and more subtle than their self-titled debut, Modern Vampires toes the line between exuberance and polish and offers an incisive take on the peculiarities of life in 2013 and their relation to more timeless themes, such religion, mortality and status.
Daft Punk / Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories, the fourth studio album from French electronic duo Daft Punk, was the first time audiences heard from the pair in nearly a decade. With the release of the album’s single, “Get Lucky,” audiences were once again refreshed by the outfit’s iconic sound. The song debuted at No. 1 in 24 different countries.
The full-length album is replete with collaborations involving musicians across the genre spectrum. Pharrell is featured on “Get Lucky,” The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas performed vocals on “Instant Crush,” and Animal Collective’s Panda Bear recorded vocals on “Doin’ It Right.”
Random Access Memories is certainly more organic than Daft Punk’s previous albums. A large range of custom instruments were created and used specifically for the album, enabling new sounds for a versatile compilation.
It’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery with the album. English indie group Daughter, Will.i.am and Wilco have all covered “Get Lucky,” and nearly 1 million other renditions can be found on YouTube.
The National / Trouble Will Find Me
The National ascended to the top of the indie rock heap with a killer streak of LPs over the past several years: Alligator, Boxer, High Violet and now 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. The new album isn’t as ambitious as the last few, and it seems that the band has settled into something more comfortable than their previous work.
The stakes aren’t as high, but the new album might be their most adventurous yet — from the off-kilter opening of “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” to the streamlined groove of “Graceless” and “Humiliation.” And the song titles are still super dreary, by the way.
Vocalist Matt Berninger used to trade clarity for sentiment, but on Trouble, the songwriting is more opaque. In “Slipped,” for example, his lyrics and delivery are arrow-straight. The instrumental arrangements tend to be more spacious, as well.
Bastille / Bad Blood
British rock band Bastille took the year by storm with rumors of a full-length album after releasing a number of EPs and singles. In September, Bad Blood was released in the U.S., and songs from the album began playing on the radio and appearing in commercials and television programs.
Due to the album’s release in the U.K. six months before it came stateside, audiences had already received leaks of the 15-track composition. But instead of listeners losing interest, the leaks served as a successful publicity stunt. One of the album’s singles, “Pompeii,” reached No. 1 on the Alternative Songs Billboard Chart, and the album reached No. 1 and No. 11 on U.K. and U.S. charts, respectively.
The album is thoroughly “alternative rock,” but the creatively mastered synth beats separate Bad Blood from other seemingly similar works. Lyrically, the band has a way of maintaining intensity without being intimidating and professing sincerity without sounding cheesy.
Drake / Nothing Was the Same
Nothing Was the Same doesn’t quite deliver on the most ambitious interpretation of its title, but Drake’s new album is another top-notch product from maybe the biggest name in hip-hop right now.
Present on the new record is a mix of chart- topping bluster and sincere confession. From track to track, it’s usually one or the other. The same dichotomy is distinctive of his last LP, 2011’s Take Care.
Guest vocalists Jhene Aiko, Majid Jordan and Sampha give the album an added sense of intimacy. Veteran OVO producer Noah Shebib, a.k.a. “40,” has top-notch credits on most of the tracks as well.
Like rain on Drake’s parade, Kendrick Lamar “put this sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes” with a couple of killer verses late this year. The two had shared the spotlight on “Poetic Justice” and “F**kin’ Problems” in 2012, but perhaps 2013 will be the start of something more adversarial between the two.
Sigur Ros / Kveikur
Icelandic outfit Sigur Rós (meaning “victory rose” in Icelandic) released their seventh full-length album, Kveikur, this summer. The members are veterans of post-rock, incorporating bowed guitars, heavy drums and falsetto vocals for an ethereal sound.
Kveikur, which translates into “candlewick,” is more experimental and aggressive than the group’s previous efforts. “Brennisteinn” was the first single released and serves as the album’s opener. The song features deep, foghorn-like percussion paired with cymbals and delayed guitar effects.
But then the album continues into familiar territory. “Hrafntinna” and “Ísjaki” both feature lead signer Jónsi’s cascading falsetto melodies and instrumental ambience that is better-known to listeners.
Arcade Fire / Reflektor
Arcade Fire, known to many as the decade’s flagship indie rock band, was due for an upgrade this year. To do so, they took a big step toward the dance floor for R eflektor, their fourth LP.
James Murphy, of now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, takes the lead on production on this one, and the result is a record that’s more rhythmic and loose than the band’s previous work, but just as committed.
The title track and opener is a theatrical existential disco dance party, and the rest of the album generally takes the cue: You’ll be tapping your toe (at the very least) and also thinking deep.
Savages / Silence Yourself
Savages are a band with demands: to cut out the static of modern life and reconstruct everything, free from petty distractions — in short, to silence yourself.
Thankfully, in their debut, the London band has the chops to actually make you shut up and listen. The uncluttered, propulsive post-punk rhythms and big vocals make for an explosive mix of Joy Division, DIIV and Sleater-Kinney — and with a relentlessness that is never melodramatic.
It paces itself well, with breathers and more accessible tracks scattered throughout. It’s a tornado that should spit you out a little bruised but nonetheless revived and restored.
Bonus: Choice Music Videos
Bruno Mars: “Treasure”
Pop stud Bruno Mars inches ever closer to MJ in this lo-fi video for Unorthodox Jukebox single “Treasure.”
Kendrick Lamar: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City dropped late last year, but Kendrick waited until the spring to release the video for “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” one of the best cuts from the album.
Tyler, the Creator: “IFHY”
Directed by Wolf Haley himself, the video features Sam and Salem in a dollhouse, followed by a snippet of Wolf opener “Jamba.”
(caution, very explicit!)
James Blake: “Retrograde”
English singer-songwriter James Blake’s musical palette has no boundaries, just like motorcyclists.
Janelle Monáe: “Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu)”
Janelle Monáe, a.k.a. The Electric Lady, aspires to importance that is nothing short of historic. Fittingly, the video for her thesis statement, “Q.U.E.E.N.”, takes place in museum in the future.