By John Hill
If someone asks you about music in 2013 and you think of Miley Cyrus, chances are you weren’t paying close enough attention because a LOT of quality music came out over the past 12 months. Pop, rock, hip hop, dance, country…a lot of genres had great records to talk about and listen to. Here are ten of those albums in no particular order that are worthy of being considered the best of the best.
Drake/Nothing Was the Same
The impressive thing about Drake is that he is still considered legit by the hip-hop community while courting a large mainstream fan base that loves his more pop-leaning tracks. 2013 saw Drake maintain that dichotomy by first releasing the back to basics “Started from the Bottom” which debuted the night he won a Grammy for Best Rap Album for 2011’s Take Care. “Started” peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by the even bigger pop hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which made it up to number four. The way that Drake brags about his prowess in business, on the mic and in bed while still maintaining a level of accessibility and vulnerability that keeps him edgy and relatable is impressive, and that dynamic that will keep his fans coming back for more. Highlights: “Started From the Bottom,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “The Language”
Sara Bareilles/The Blessed Unrest
Pretty much everyone in the industry was caught off guard when Sara Bareilles garnered an Album of the Year Grammy nomination for The Blessed Unrest at the 2014 Awards. That surprise fell into two categories: those who hadn’t paid attention to the album, and those who had but figured it didn’t stand a chance. Count me amongst the latter…on her fourth full-length studio album, Bareilles expanded her musical palette outward from her piano-driven pop to a more eclectic collection, but the album seemed overshadowed by higher profile releases like Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake. Now that her name is up for consideration, she may actually have a chance if the Grammy voters are in an underdog kind of mood. No matter which direction that vote goes, check out The Blessed Unrest and its diverse body of work, including the instant gay marriage anthem “I Choose You.” Highlights: “Brave,” “Manhattan,” “I Choose You”
When hype overwhelms art, there is no way that art can be taken at face value. Such is the dilemma that Lady Gaga experienced upon releasing ARTPOP. Gaga created such an enigma around her latest disc that even a classic album like Thriller wouldn’t live up to that much hype. That’s a shame, because ARTPOP is a solid album filled with the Lady’s trademark anthemic hooks. “Applause” grabbed my attention on first listen and I instantly declared it the winner in the Gaga vs. Katy Perry showdown. However, the big surprise on this record was the inclusion of a duet with none other than R. Kelly on “Do What U Want.” Crazy thing is that it’s not a stunt: it works! Highlights: “Applause,” “Do What U Want,” “Gypsy”
Haim/Days Are Gone
What is it about sibling trios recording solid pop/rock music? Hanson, the Jonas Brothers (I heard your eyes roll), the Bee Gees…whatever your opinion, these groups had catchy songs combined with tight harmonies. In 2013, music lovers all over the globe added Haim to that list. In fact, their album debuted at number one in the UK, preventing the second edition of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience from hitting the top of the chart. Haim are part 80s dance pop, part 80s yacht rock, and 100% grounded in the present with tight harmonies and great studio production. Highlights: “The Wire,” “Falling,” “Forever”
Kacey Musgraves/Same Trailer Different Park
“Make lots of noise/kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” That was potentially the most talked about lyric in Nashville this year, thanks to singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. Upon first listen, radio programmers said “we love it, but we’ll never play it.” True to their word and despite a well-received performance by Musgraves on the Country Music Awards in November, the single stalled at Country radio. However, let that serve as a great reason to dig in to the rest of her album. Kacey mixes traditional country instrumentation with modern takes and circumstances to deliver an album both country lovers and non-believers can relate to. It might be seen as crude by some, but the picture Musgraves paints is vividly real. Highlights: “Follow Your Arrow,” “Merry Go Round,” “I Miss You”
Pet Shop Boys/Electric
How do you criticize a band that’s been blazing trails for over 25 years and is beloved within the gay community? It’s tough, but the Pet Shop Boys earned some of that criticism with their last album (Elysium) that was uneven at best. Fortunately, Neil and Chris decided to dedicate their newest album to the dance floor and brought in producer extraordinaire Stuart Price to helm the project. The resulting album is Electric, and it is easily their best album since Very back in the early 90s. From the anthemic “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” to the modern “Thursday” with rap interlude included, the Boys sound like they’re having fun, and it’s great to hear that. But it is album closer “Vocal” that really struck home. “I like the people/I like the song/This is my kind of music/They play it all night long” That’s the club I want to be at, and Electric is the soundtrack I want to hear. Highlights: “Vocal,” “Thursday,” “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”
Normally when a song spends nine weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, I get to a point where I can’t bear to hear the song for a good month. That didn’t happen with “Royals,” which I still can’t get enough of. There is something so unique and fresh about the song and Pure Heroine that keeps it from getting stale, and the singles that have followed (“Team,” “Tennis Court”) have kept Lorde’s momentum rolling. Pure Heroine ended up being one of the best debuts of 2013, even if the Grammys neglected to nominate Lorde for Best New Artist. Highlights: “Royals,” “Team,” “Tennis Court”
St Lucia/When the Night
I’ve spent the better part of 2013 raving about St. Lucia based on seeing them open for Ellie Goulding back in February. As the buzz around them built, the release of their first full-length album When the Night became something to get excited for. Fortunately, the record dropped and was even better than you could expect from a debut. St Lucia’s sound is very reminiscent of the 80s New Romantic/New Wave sound of groups like Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins and even Peter Gabriel and his most commercial point. Lead single “Elevate” is a joyous party, “Closer Than This” is synthtastic, and “All Eyes On You” has that awesome end of a John Hughes film vibe to it. Best played on repeat over and over. Highlights: “Elevate,” “All Eyes On You,” “The Way You Remember Me”
Somewhere between Country music and Folk music lays Alt-Country or Americana, and the sub-genre was responsible for some of the best music to come out in 2013. The Mavericks, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell…all of these folks released stellar albums, but none could surpass the emotional depth and passion that Jason Isbell captured on Southeastern. Frank, raw tracks like “Traveling Alone” and the heart-wrenching “Elephant” are musical stories of the finest kind. Highlights: “Traveling Alone,” “Elephant,” “Cover Me Up”
One of the most promising artists on the rise in 2012 was Jessie Ware, and she delivered in spades this year when she finally released her Devotion album here in the US. Songs that we had already heard last year like “Wildest Moments” and “Running” were paired with new gems like the disco-tastic “Imagine It Was Us” to make her US debut a memorable one. Here’s hoping that her record company hangs in there with promotion so more of America gets to hear her amazing voice. Highlights: “Wildest Moments,” “Running,” “Imagine It Was Us”
I hope you all have an amazing New Year filled with new experiences and amazing music. I will be kicking off the New Year by counting down my Top Songs of 2013 over at Pop Music Notes.
While his full-time job is in education, John Hill also writes a successful music blog titled Pop Music Notes. He is also active on Twitter @popmusicnotes and lives in Denver with his partners in crime James and Bruiser.