Conventional wisdom holds that, musically, 2013 has been a rather upside-down year: Daft Punk didn’t make a “dance” record, Kanye West didn’t do a “rap” album, Justin Timberlake didn’t make the sequel to “SexyBack,” and Jay-Z is releasing albums on phones.
And yet, despite all that — or perhaps because of it — , the first half of 2013 has also been one of the most memorable in recent history, a six-month span that’s seen artists big and small defy conventional wisdom, take risks, and, more often than not, succeed in spades. Given the glut of truly great releases, it’s difficult to pick the very best, but I’m going to try. Here are my picks for the Best Albums of 2013 (So Far), albums that have stuck with me through a very busy six months. If there’s anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below … but let’s get right to it (before someone else releases something awesome).
El-P and Killer Mike, Run The Jewels: Loved both of their efforts last year (Cancer 4 Cure and Mike’s fantastic, El-P helmed R.A.P. Music) and, though it was just released — for free! — I’m already warming to Jewels, 33-minutes of aggressive wordplay and knotty, gnarly beats that will almost certainly crack my Top 10 by year’s end.
Savages, Silence Yourself: Blunt and bleak, the oddly-assured debut from English post-punk quartet Savages delights in not only creating eerie expanses, but dragging the listener down into the darkness. Its cold, claustrophobic tendencies recall the likes of Joy Division and Siouxise, but thanks to serrating guitars, pummeling bass and frontwoman Jehnny Beth’s impassioned yowls, it’s hardly a sterile thing … there’s blood and guts and heart here, too.
Phosphorescent, Muchacho: Whiskey-soaked, widescreen Redneck-tronica that shivers and shimmies (thanks to those Cantina horns) and occasionally shines with synths and strings, Muchacho is all over the place, musically, though spiritually, it’s still a country album … very much about long nights and fistfights and love gone awry. In other words, it’s basically everything you’d expect from a guy who kicked around Georgia, once recorded an album’s worth of Willie Nelson tunes, and currently resides in Brooklyn.
Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: The Quin sisters have never hid their affinity for pop, though aside from the New Wave flag they flew on 2004’s So Jealous, they’ve never embraced the genre with the aplomb they do on Heartthrob, an album so shiny you can practically see your reflection in it. Not surprisingly, they scored the biggest hit of their career (the excellent “Closer”) as a result, proving that perhaps they were born to play popstars all along.
The National, Trouble Will Find Me: Having perfected the art of white-collar angst on 2010’s High Violet, this time out, the National loosen the ties a bit, get a tad self-referential and even let the occasional ray of sunlight into their normally dour compositions. The end result? An album that’s both on-edge and at-ease, not to mention just as brilliant as anything they’ve done before.
10. Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork: Adrift for the better part of the past decade, both personally and professionally, the Queens rediscover their swagger on Clockwork, an album that thumbs its nose at the dark times that proceeded it, beginning with the jokingly pessimistic album title and running all the way through stompers like the glammy, hammy “If I Had A Tail” and the snarling “My God Is The Sun.” That’s due in part to the unyielding determination of mastermind Josh Homme, who never lost hope even when things were especially bleak, but also the bold reinvention of the band itself. The Queens welcome old friends like former bassist Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl back into the fold, invite new pals like Elton John and Jake Shears to the party, and serve notice that they’re still a force to be reckoned with. With … Like Clockwork, the Queens prove the old adage true: tough times don’t last, but tough people do. And this is exactly the kind of record tough people make.
09. Disclosure, Settle: Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence probably aren’t old enough to remember the first time House music swept through England, but they’re darn sure doing their part to help usher in its second wave . On Settle, they pay tribute to the original source material — spacious sonics, sumptuous electronic throbs — work in nods to gospel (check the testifying “When a Fire Starts To Burn”) and soul (“Stimulation”) and thankfully, ignore the torso-assaulting attack that has come to plague electronic music in recent years. It’s a sensual album, to be certain, and downright brainy in parts, too, though with tracks like “White Noise,” the duo show that they can also flex their muscles and strut with the best of them. From the dancefloor to the bedroom, the brothers gonna work it out.
08. J. Cole, Born Sinner: The title comes from Biggie’s classic cut “Juicy.” One of the best tracks (“LAnd of the Snakes”) borrows from Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1.” Another highlight finds him dueting with TLC (“Crooked Smile” ). And he defiantly released it the same day as Kanye dropped Yeezus. Clearly, Cole is going for greatness with Born Sinner, and there are certainly plenty of moments where he attains it: “Villuminati,” the excellent “Power Trip,” “N—-z Know” Though for all his gusto, his best moments are also his most human, like the self-effacing “Smile,” “Let Nas Down” (the title basically says it all) and the title track, where he cops to all his vices and basically begs for our forgiveness. Let’s not overlook the fact that the album is also incredibly fun, the perfect soundtrack to the summer and beyond, but like Kendrick Lamar’s bold Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, it also showcases an artist confident enough to occasionally let his guard down, and that’s where things get compelling.
07. Paramore, Paramore: It takes guts to release a (really) long-player in 2013, let alone a defiantly self-titled one that came on the heels of the acrimonious departure of two founding members (and the cataclysmic feud that followed). And yet, here’s Paramore, doing exactly that. Maybe they’re too young to know any better, or perhaps they just believe that strongly in the mission at hand — probably the latter — but whatever the case, they’ve given us this four-sided, wildly-adventurous, willfully mature effort , and I’d like to think we’re all better for it. Because there’s no denying that, in their current form, Paramore are capable of tremendous things — “Fast In My Car,” “Ain’t It Fun,” “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” “Last Hope,” etc. — so you’d be wise to forgive them for their growing pains. Though they’ve been through an awful lot, it’s scary to think that they’re still very young … who knows what they’re capable of next?
06. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: It came into the world having to meet impossibly high expectations, and, to a degree, it did (the year’s biggest debut is nothing to sneeze at). But now, nearly five months after its release, long after the hype has died off, what are we to make of The 20/20 Experience? Well, for starters, let’s marvel at the scope and ambition of the thing. Working with Timbaland, JT has crafted the album of his career — so far — a sonically adventurous, amorphous thing that’s indebted to the past, yet also forges bold new territories. And there’s something to be said about the defiant nature of the album, too: the fact that each song stretches to the breaking point and beyond, the stony, sexual atmospheres it creates, the unabashed nature of tracks like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” … this may not have been the album Timberlake fans craved, but it’s the one he wanted to make. He’s earned the right, now let’s all enjoy the artistry.
05. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City: Over the course of their (relatively improbable) career, VW have proven that they’re willing to borrow rather liberally from genres and eras, though on their third album, they’ve stopped thinking small — gone is the ’80s prep and ’70s Soukous — and just reimagined time and space itself . This is an album that takes its title from a Junior Reid song, and lyrical inspiration from Souls of Mischief, jams together Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” and the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and that shouts out everyone from Henry Hudson to Croesus. But rather than remain in the past, Vampires somehow also manages to become the perfect album for our times, when songs and styles and foregone times are all readily available with the click of a mouse. Not sure if they intended it to turn out that way, but, hey, sometimes brilliance comes when you least expect it.
04. Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends: From the outset, main man John Gourley made it clear that Evil Friends represented P.TM’s attempt at doing Dark Side of the Moon, a declaration tantamount to hubris in rock circles. But reined by producer Danger Mouse, those aspirations of grandeur have produced something else entirely: an incredibly inventive, wholly original rock epic, one that dabbles as much in psych and soul as it does pop. From the horns that punctuate “Creep in a T-Shirt” and the burbling electronics of “Modern Jesus” to the symphonic expanses of “Sea of Air” and the clubby wobble of “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” it’s an album of unhinged ambition and emotion, one that swings for the fences and clears them more often than not. There’s no shame in going for greatness, especially when you make good on your promises.
03. Kanye West, Yeezus: No prisoners, no apologies. That seems to have been Kanye West’s motto while making Yeezus, an endlessly confrontational, occasionally confounding thing that’s full of odes to vices and vitriol but short on actual singles. Yet despite its commercial shortcomings, Yeezus is the most important album of West’s career, the point where he stopped caring about his contemporaries and just makes art for art’s sake. Sure, it’s difficult, and occasionally nightmarish, but it’s also a defining work, the album he had to make. After all, it’s his duty as the pre-eminent artist of our generation, and its judgment is his burden to bear. It is the snapshot of a very specific time in his life, a point where he is an unwilling celebrity, a new father and a soul eternally in search of something. The thing is, West doesn’t find many answers on his new album, mostly because he’s not sure where to look. And that’s precisely the point.
02. Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God: Speaking of searching, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James is looking for answers to big questions on this, his silently searing solo debut. But rather than flail wildly like West, he turns his focus to faith … and discovers an entirely new set of questions as a result. Life, love, light, it’s all here, presented on hushed, intimate terms: the cracking saxophone that closes out “Know Til Now,” the sweet sentiments of “A New Life,” the expanses of darkness on “God’s Love To Deliver,” James is clearly on a deeply personal journey, one that he’s offering us the opportunity to join him on if we’re willing. Of course, that he does it all under such austere conditions hints at a larger point: he knows just how massive these questions really are, and he’s humbled merely to ask them.
01. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: At its core, dance music has always been about liberation; of course, these days, dance — or, shudder, “EDM” — seems to exist largely for kids to liberate themselves from their clothing. Daft Punk know this, and, at the very least, seem willing to admit they’re partially responsible for it, which is why, on Random Access Memories they try their darndest to drag the genre back to its roots. So we get disco and funk flourishes like “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself To Dance,” impromptu history lessons like “Giorgio By Moroder,” ’80s pop exercises “Instant Crush” and and even jazzy experiments like “Touch” and “Fragments of Time.” Sure, the kids might not like it, but this album isn’t for them, really … it’s for everyone who’s ever loved dance music in any form, a seamless, ambitious opus that’s also one of the most lovingly-indebted albums you’ll ever hear. It’s also the least Daft Punk album of their careers, which seems to be the point. To move us all forward, the robots go backwards, and we’re all the beneficiaries. Like I said, dance music has always been about liberation; Daft Punk are just liberating us from the present.