For the last 9 years, I’ve ranked my top 10 albums at the end of the year to both remember how I thought about music at the time and also to augment my memories of that year with the soundtrack behind them.
2013 was an awesome year for music — specifically, for music I like. It’s hard to remember a year when so many of my favorite artists released albums, and coupled with the new artists who came out, I loved the music of 2013. So much so that instead of just 10, I had to expand to 15. So without further ado, the countdown (and also, the playlist of choice tracks from each):
15. el-p & killer mike — run the jewels
choice track: banana clipper
You can tell it’s El-P’s production right when one of his track starts, with heavy bass and a sound that feels like it could be thes oundtrack for a future urban dystopia. Some of my favorite production of his is on this album, and made me nostalgic for Def Jux artists back in the day, coupled with El-P and Killer Mike trading characteristically intense verses back and forth.
The album feels like a shot of adrenaline — it’s just 10 tracks and at 33 minutes, demands your attention if you want to get the full experience. It’s not big on catchy hooks, but the verses and lyricism are consistently high quality and high energy throughout (my favorite verse is probably Killer Mike’s on 36 Chain). Would have been cool to hear a Cage or Aesop Rock feature, but Big Boi showing up on Banana Clipper was a pretty nice surprise.
14. chance the rapper — acid rap
choice track: favorite song ft childish gambino
While we’ve all been so busy focusing on the negative effect technology has had on album sales, not enough attention has been paid to how amazing it is that technology has enabled any kid with a laptop to record a song and put it out to the world immediately. In 1993 — the year Chance was born, so yes, he is 20 — someone like Chance may never get heard outside a handful of his friends, but today, he released one of the most creative hip-hop albums I’ve heard in a long time (despite it only being a mixtape).
Chance feels like he has that rare combination of a little crazy + crazy talented, with bizarre ad-libs, weird flows that dance all over the beat but somehow still work, and memorable lines throughout. He pulled some awesome features for the mixtape, and my favorite output of his this year wasn’t even on this mixtape — his remixes of James Blake’s Life Round Here and track with Nosaj Thing, Paranoia, show impressive versatility, and I’m really excited to see where he goes next.
13 j. cole — born sinner
choice track: land of the snakes
J. Cole’s second album has some of his best work to date —he did a really nice job on this album of bridging the gap between his first album, which some felt was too commercial, and the Friday Night Lights mixtapes.
Cole’s a great storyteller, and the tracks where he digs in to a personal story are really strong. While most rappers stash their weaker tracks at the end of the album, the trio of Crooked Smile with TLC (one of the best singles this year), Let Nas Down, and Born Sinner is a really strong note to go out on.
That said, there are times when it feels like he wrote a line to try to get attention: for starters, calling the first track Villuminati and littering it with Jay-Z references, along with other questionable lines on that track. Even so, the highs of the album are enough to make it one of my favorites of the year.
12. daft punk — random access memories
choice track: instant crush
It’d been a long time since Daft Punk had put out a proper release of new material (TRON soundtrack aside), and the hype around this album was unbelievable — people cutting up and looping pieces of the ‘Get Lucky’ commercial on SNL to create a full song, and then remixing that song before the real song had ever been released.
So you’d expect them to go with a formula that’s worked, but instead they went all live instruments and brought in Pharrell and Julian Casablancas, among others, to create disco-inspired pop songs. While it may not be anything like their previous work, it is a very impressive album with some exceptional songs. It is critically acclaimed as is, but my bet is that as time goes on, this album will grow in critical appreciation.
11. don trip & starlito — step brothers 2
choice track: paper rock scissors
I came across these guys at the end of the year and am really glad I did. Any hip-hop head I know needs to check these guy out — their dynamic back and forth and ability to vary flows throughout tracks kept me engaged throughout the entire album.
While their verses are packed so full of metaphors and references that it takes a couple listens to catch, I’d tell anyone to put on Paper, Rock, Scissors and give it three minutes of your attention (follow the lyrics on RapGenius if needed—the “Etta James…Edgerrin James” sequence caught me) and see what you think. These guys are massively talented and put together something special with this mixtape.
10. Jay-Z — Magna Carta Holy Grail
choice track: fuckwithmeyouknowigotit ft rick ross
My expectations are always huge for a Jay-Z album, and this one was no different — add in the fact that there was no advance single and the album was announced just a couple weeks before (plus calling it Magna Carta Holy Grail), I had huge expectations. First listen through, I was really struck by the production, and that still probably holds — one of Jay’s most underrated talents is beat selection, and this might be my favorite production on any of his albums since Black Album.
This album starts really strong: the first nine tracks are all high quality stuff. Lyrically, Jay was coming off Watch the Throne, which I feel like features some of his best lines and verses, and he’s got some of those here, but he does really let a lot of these beats and the hooks ride out a lot. Case in point: ‘Part II On the Run’ with Bey, is Jay even on this song? Of the five and a half minutes, I’d be surprised if he’s on more than 90 seconds of the track. I like Beyonce, but 5 and half minutes of what’s essentially her track in the middle of the album feels out of place and threw me for a loop. After that, it picks up with Jay-Z Blue and then Nickels and Dimes, which is Jay on a classic vibe that I really dig.
9. James Blake — Overgrown
choice track: life round here
Admittedly, I used to think James Blake was basically Bon Iver if Justin Vernon was in the cold, rural British countryside with a laptop and drum machine instead of upstate Wisconsin with a guitar. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not really a fair comparison.
This second album is really good, and his range and creativity is much greater than I gave him credit for — Take a Fall For Me, with its spoken word from RZA and building beat is really cool and unlike anything else I heard this year, and I appreciate that he pushes the music outside the safe realm of mellow, minimalist, ambient-pop to really create tracks that push toward their own genre. Great album to walk around listening to on a cold day.
8. Pusha T — My Name is My Name
choice track: nosetalgia ft kendrick lamar
I’d been really excited for this album for a couple years and given the hype surrounding it, it felt make or break for Push — if he could carry an entire album or would be at his best in guest verses and on EPs and mixtapes. Listening through to the first few tracks, it was clear Push could carry a full album and put together a high quality, complete product.
Authenticity is huge currency in hip hop, and Push has the feel of having lived through everything he’s talking about — his voice, flow, and lyricism combine to make him a really compelling storyteller. Coupled with the beats and features he has, this album is a really tight, 12 high-quality tracks — Nosetalgia, with him and Kendrick, is one of the best lyrical back-and-forths of the year as far as I’m concerned.
7. Lorde — Pure Heroine
choice track: buzzcut season
It’s exceedingly rare that a 16-year-old singer/songwriter from New Zealand releases one of the catchiest, most popular songs of the year (i.e., it’s probably never happened before). Not to mention that it doesn’t rely on most of the typical pop music tropes that you’d usually ascribe to a 16-year-old artist hitting #1. But what’s even more rare is that that artist actually releases an album with songs far better than that single to create one of the most well-rounded, cohesive albums of the year.
If you haven’t listened to Pure Heroine because you’re tired of Royals, you’re really doing yourself a disservice. Lorde has the great combination of being a very good writer — both lyrically and melodically — and also a teenager with the perspective and insight that comes with that era of one’s life. Listening to the album reminds me a lot of things I thought about in high school, but her ability to encapsulate that era means the album has the uncanny ability to elicit nostalgia in me for an era that predates the record by several years.
I don’t know if this album as a whole is getting the critical reception it deserves, but it truly is one of the great albums to be released this year.
6. Beyoncé — Beyoncé
choice track: drunk in love ft jay-z
I used to hate R&B. In a regrettably similar way to people who don’t like hip-hop dismiss the genre as violent, degrading tracks about consumption, I saw R&B as repetitive songs of love and love lost over slower string music that wasn’t particularly appealing to me. Even then, I did appreciate Beyonce and a handful of other artists, but I wouldn’t have put a Beyonce album on alone in my apartment.
That changed with this album. Maybe it was the surprise release or it being a complete artistic vision with the videos, but I put the album on and made it all the way through. The album feels like it’s more personal than most pop/R&B albums I’ve heard — case in point, Pretty Hurts, as a video and track, feels like one of the more powerful (and personal) messages Beyonce could put out into the world and made me a fan from the opening track.
Her and Jay’s dynamic on Drunk in Love is one of the best they’ve had since Crazy in Love (despite that awkward sequence where Jay inexplicably drops the Ike Turner reference), and I really like how she used the samples of her in competitions as a kid. Also, her putting the TED talk sample in ***Flawless is genius, and it leading into the “I woke up like this” refrain is probably my favorite moment of the album. A really well-done album, and one I could see continuing to put on five years from now.
5. Kanye West — Yeezus
choice track: blood on the leaves
From the opening moment of On Sight, it was pretty clear this was going to be nothing like any of Kanye’s other work — it’s actually really difficult to imagine it’s the same person who made College Dropout. And if there was any question at all that Kanye was doing anything other than exactly what he wanted to on this album, he answered that even more thoroughly when he leads with “how much do I not give a fuck?” and then completely drops the beat to sample the children’s chorus a minute in. Then the last 40 seconds are dissonant, distorted electro-laser sounds with ‘Ye ad-libs.
This album is difficult. It’s probably the most polarizing album of the year, and with that run-through above, it may sound like I’m on the thumbs down side. While some lines are indefensible (the sweet and sour sauce line comes to mind) and others that just feel lazy, the production is absolutely incredible — it’s unlike any rap album I can think of, and there’s something really special about seeing an artist at the top of his game taking an incredible artistic risk with the hope of blazing a new trail.
Some songs missed out on lyrics getting the Kanye-perfectionist treatment — he apparently was tweaking tracks up until 11pm on the final day before it was due to the label, and not having more time with it shows in some cases. In others, though, his verses are as poignant as ever — he asked on Twitter if the second verse of New Slaves was the best rap verse ever. While I don’t think it gets that title, the fact that one of the biggest rappers in the world puts that into his single does makes it a very important one.
One interesting discussion I had recently was which album people preferred: Watch the Throne or Yeezus, and near consensus was for WTT. Given most of us would say My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is better than both, does that mean that of Kanye’s last three albums (counting WTT as one), each has been worse than the last? It’s not a totally fair comparison, and I’d personally say all three are great albums, but I wonder how we’ll remember Yeezus in a few years.
4. Drake — Nothing Was The Same
choice track: pound cake ft jay-z
With this album, Drake entered a rare group of artists for me: artists whose first three albums were a top 5 album of the year for me. (For the record, other artists in this grouping that I can remember: Kanye, Eminem, Vampire Weekend, The Streets, Brand New, and Third Eye Blind — yes, it’s a weird group, but also pretty reflective of my music taste over time).
I was a huge fan of Take Care and expected a lot from this one, and it took a listen or two to click, but I really like this album — really cohesive, and he’s gotten much better at writing complete songs versus Thank Me Later. He goes for a lot more minimal beats but fills the space nicely, and looking at the credits for this versus his first two albums, he was way fewer features on this one, and does a really nice job of carrying the album on his own.
‘Hold On’ was a great single, though I do miss the lyrical Drake who made Headlines and Over, and he doesn’t really show up on this album as much. That said, it’d probably feel out of place here, where he drops some of the bravado lyricism in exchange for (even) more of the introspective, self-reflective stuff.
Jay and Drake’s collab on Pound Cake is really nice work from both of them (apparently it was originally destined for MCHG, where it would’ve fit pretty nicely but left a gaping hole on the tail end of this album), and when Jay comes back with his second verse — “cake, cake, cake” — it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
3. Eminem — The Marshall Mathers LP 2
choice track: legacy
Eminem’s first three albums are three of my top albums of all time, and can be credited as what made me start poring over lyrics versus listening to rap on the radio in the background. Lyrically, he’s still my favorite rapper of all-time, and his technical ability alone will probably be enough for me to listen through to any album he creates a couple dozen times.
Hearing an Eminem album feels like hearing another chapter in a story that I’ve been following since I was in 7th grade. There’s Eminem the artist, Marshall the shy kid who got bullied, Slim Shady the evil alter ego, and then Kim, Hailie, Stan, and various friends and rivals throughout — some characters real (and exaggerated), others invented. But it’s a story that’s always been incredibly compelling to me, and seeing this album was being called Marshall Mathers LP 2 made it one of my most anticipated albums.
I was really psyched to hear it start with Bad Guy (listen to it if you haven’t; I won’t spoil it) and then other tracks like Legacy and Headlights that really dive into the more personal, emotional stuff are the ones that most resonate with me — those are three of my favorite tracks all year. The zany Slim Shady songs don’t quite do it for me after repeated listens like they used to, but maybe that’s the difference between being 13 and 28.
Even with that divide, I really appreciate Em both continuing the story and also maintaining his 100% honest view of the world from his eyes, and even turning those eyes back on himself. Whereas most rappers who have sold tens of millions of records a decade ago would fill lines about having never left or always being as popular as they once were, Em anticipates his own worst critic, calling himself out for not being as popular as he used to be and questioning whether calling the album MMLP2 was a ploy just to rekindle some of that attention.
It’s easy to say that this album isn’t as good as classic Eminem and therefore fails as The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but I actually think it’s a great sequel — he’s still one of the greatest rappers of all time, and it serves as a nice followup 13 years later.
2. Tegan and Sara — Heartthrob
choice track: goodbye, goodbye
It’s something I’ve been thinking about, and I’m going to come right out and say it: Tegan and Sara are one of the greatest songwriting duos of our generation. Yes, it’s a big claim to make, but listen to this album before you disagree, and tell me there’s a song on it that doesn’t support that claim.
I put out a mix of songs every month that I like, and noticed that I had put most of their album onto mixes throughout this year — all ten songs have probably been my favorite song on the album at some point. The album came out at the beginning of the year and was the only album in the car for awhile, I was listening at work, and then again at home, and I still have yet to get tired of it.
I was a big fan of Sainthood and had a similar experience where I listened to it all the time and still somehow never got tired of it, and would have thought there was no way they could release a follow-up I liked more, but they did with Heartthrob. For how upbeat the melodies and energy of each song are, it is kind of surprising that the content is often about love gone awry in some manner. Even so, the energy is perfect driving-with-the-windows-down music or for putting on to get out of a bad mood.
And while it doesn’t matter for picking top albums of the year, their live show, besides being one of my favorites of the year, also made it seem like they’re both pretty awesome people. Both their back and forth banter and genuine appreciation for people being into their music and coming to their show put them pretty high on my list of “musicians who would probably be really cool to be friends with.”
1. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City
choice track: unbelievers
Vampire Weekend is one of those artists whose first three albums — this one being the third — were each contenders for my top album of the year. In this case, Modern Vampires of the City was my favorite album overall. As soon as the videos for Step and Diane Young came out, I listened to Step a ton — that melody of “the gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out” has been stuck in my head for the last eight months (much to the chagrin of people around me), and it feels like the album is chock-full of these little pieces that continue to stay with me.
I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about their sound that comes off as simple but incredibly memorable — a combination that I usually associate with commercial jingles or a kind of annoying catchiness, but they do it in such a way that it feels the opposite of annoying or stupid; it sounds like an expertly-crafted, intelligently simple output.
Another dichotomy they bridge especially well on this album is the variety of song energies and sounds while still creating an extremely tight album. I can’t imagine it not having one of the tracks and it also doesn’t feel like anything is missing, and each track also stands so well as a piece of the larger album as well as a single piece of the whole work.
This cohesion of a complete work is something that I think they’ve taken huge strides in over the course of their three albums, with this one being the pinnacle of that cohesion. What makes it exceptional, to me, is having such a tight album while not running into the other side of that: songs blending together and feeling like they’re getting lost amongst each other.
I imagine this is the kind of album that I could still play in ten years, recognize each song on it’s own, and it’d make me smile to hear all the way through— I haven’t stopped listening to it yet.
So there it is: my top 15 albums of the year. Because I like looking at trends and behavior, a couple stats on the list:
- 9 of the 15 are hip-hop albums, and if I look at what I listened to altogether in 2013, hip-hop was probably about 75%.
- Only four were really “new” artists for me (Don Trip & Starlito, Chance, Lorde, and Run the Jewels, which is actually a stretch given individually I’d listened to both artists). For someone who prides himself on listening and finding new music, I would’ve liked this number to be higher (there are a lot more new artists in my runners up, below)
- I first heard every single one of these albums digitally. I don’t think I’ve seen a CD version of any of them in person, and 3 of these albums (Run the Jewels, Chance, and Don Trip & Starlito) were released free online without any physical copy made (as far as I know).
- Of the 15 artists, only 3 artists/groups are female (Lorde, Beyonce, Tegan & Sara). Part of that is likely the heavy bias towards hip-hop, but this isn’t the best — I‘d like to be listening to a wider variety of music.
Anyway, you made it through all this —thanks! What’d I miss, what’d I praise that you hated, and what should I keep my ears open for in 2014? I would love to hear what your favorite albums of the year were —if you liked/hated the list, or have thoughts, let me know (or click recommend below).
Also, it was tough to narrow down this list, even to 15, but here are other albums I dug this year along with my favorite track off of each:
big sean — hall of fame (nothing is stopping you)
logic — young sinatra (welcome to forever)
st lucia—when the night (elevate)
lil dicky—so hard (the cypher)
justin timberlake—the 20/20 experience (don’t hold the wall)
the neighbourhood—I love you (afraid)
hoodie allen—crew cuts (long night ft chance the rapper)
blood orange—cupid deluxe (you’re not good enough)
nickelus—vices (number 15 ft drake)
the 1975—the 1975 (sex)
And beyond those, with all the music that came out in the last year, there were certainly some that I’ll still need more time with: