Eminem, Janelle Monae, Haim Join Music Times' Top 10 Albums of 2013
by Ryan Book, Caitlin Carter, Carolyn Menyes, Nicole Oran Dec 24, 2013 11:30 AM EST
As with any other group conversation between the writers of Music Times, the debate between what albums to include on the site's Top 10 of the year was less than professional. There was crying (Ryan Book), yelling (Nicole Oran), and even threats of violence (Caitlin Carter). Ultimately, after countless votes and demands for recounts, ten finalists were chosen. Check out the albums that we kept in the steroe throughout 2013, along with defenses from the staff writers that loved the most.
10. The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem
Arguing that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is one of the best albums of the year is hard to do when you are viewing it strictly from an execution standpoint. Were there better rap albums this year? Sure. But the emotional connection fans were able to make with this album after having witnessed Em’s last two albums more or less flop made it one of the most exciting albums of the year, despite it not being perfect at every turn. Although some have argued that MMLP2 was a step back in Em’s maturity, the fact that he could bring turn-of-the-century Shady into 2013 without it feeling rehashed was a feat. This album took us back to a raunchy, emotional Eminem with quick-witted verses full of crass humor and pointed jabs. The nostalgic sampling (thanks to Rick Rubin) and nods to his Detroit upbringing are just plain fun. Maybe it’s just a good throwback album, but what’s wrong with that? -CC
09. Run The Jewels by Run The Jewels
Perhaps you heard about new albums from Eminem, Drake, Kanye West; it was hard to avoid during 2013. The hype poured on those records inevitably made them a tad disappointing, regardless of how good they actually were. Killer Mike and El-P, two longtime critical favorites, faced no such pressures, which allowed them to create the year's most fun hip-hop album under the alias Run The Jewels. As their cohorts struggled with the difficulties of fame and wealth, indie hip-hop's new star couple made its cynicism comical versus melodramatic, with beats even more off-the-wall than the album's wordplay. The inevitable defense of more corporate rappers to make against Run The Jewels is how little money Mike and El will make off the project. Of course, they also gave it away for free online. Another middle finger to rap law. -RB
08. Essential Tremors by J. Roddy Walston and The Business
J. Roddy Walston and the Business has always had a straightforward, gritty, no-frills rock 'n' roll sound, but with Essential Tremors, it has produced a big-league album despite not being that well known of a band. It has developed a pop sensibility that resonates on a larger scale, and it has integrated an eclectic use of genres this time around. The writing on this album is raw and poignant and has Walston opening up emotionally. The band is playing fun music that isn't reinventing the wheel necessarily, but it is full of soul and doesn't for a second feel tired. The pacing mixes in slow-jams with heart-pumping rock and roll. Many of their songs incorporate the 12-bar blues structure and blend it with rockabilly doo-wop rhythms, groovy R&B falsetto and down-to-earth folk vibes. Plus, their use of steel guitar is pretty sick. We’re hoping this album gains the band the exposure it deserves. -CC
07. Shulamith by Polica
Polica very delicately walks the line between making music that is haunting and sometimes slightly disturbing, to a sound that is uplifting and mesmerizing, and even makes you want to dance. With this record it’s more of the latter, especially with upbeat tracks like “Spilling Lines” and the soothing sound of “Tiff,” with the help of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). Channy Leaneagh's vocals, enhanced by reverb and Auto-Tune, create her distinct sound that at first could be considered gimmicky or inauthentic, but whether it be taking a closer listen or actually seeing Polica live, the authenticity of her voice and lyrics is undeniable. The album is named in honor of feminist Shulamith Firestone, whom Leaneagh has referred to as her “mentor and muse from the grave.” The feminist tones in this album are clear, but not overtly pressing. Though Shulamith doesn’t depart too much from the band’s previous release Give You the Ghost, it shows growth and a better utilization of the band's strengths. -NO
06. 12 Stories by Brandy Clark
Country music experienced a rash of spunky, talented female songwriters during 2013, who put their more popular competition (from both genders) to shame. Kacey Musgraves was the headliner of the trend, but newcomer Brandy Clark made the most impressive impact with her album 12 Stories. As with Musgraves and company, Clark isn't worried about taking backwoods bad behavior past the genre's typical stopping point of alcohol and heading into the land of pot-smoking, pill-popping, adultery committing and adulterer murdering. Some tracks consider these problems from a mournful standpoint ("Take A Little Pill") and some are considered with the blackest sense of humor ("Stripes" relates a scorned wife's decision not to kill her cheating husband…because prison uniforms are a terrible fashion statement). -RB
05. The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae
If you’re looking for the best pure concept album of 2013, look no further than Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady, which gives the incredibly detailed background information to the singer’s alter ego/droid Cyndi Mayweather. Beginning with a full, creeping orchestral suite, Monae then moves into a song featuring none other than Prince. And Monae can match his legendary prowess and musical presence toe for toe. The Electric Lady also gives some of the most underplayed, sparkling R&B-tinged pop music of the year. Each individual song manages to have its own place on the album and stand out while molding the entire record into one cohesive piece. Look no further than “Dance Apocalyptic” for the most grooving, high energy dance song of the year, the pure energy and snarky attitude of “Q.U.E.E.N.” is unmatched in 2013, and the Solange-featuring title track has some serious balls behind it. Basically, it’s only a small amount of time until Janelle Monae takes over the world. -CM
04. Days Are Gone by Haim
Although Days Are Gone has really been the standout record for the Los Angeles sisters, they have been playing music and writing together since they were very young, and because of that, this album stand for its tight precision and tailored sound that is reminiscent of some of the best female fronted bands from the ‘80s. With the help of Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons) and Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher), who both receive co-writing and production credits on the record, the results are a streamlined pop record with infectious hooks, especially in “The Wire.” But the record isn’t one-note as just a pop album. "If I Could Change Your Mind" offers a slight R&B vibe and "Don't Save Me" features a more fluid sound with the conviction of strong soaring vocals. The Haim sisters might still be quite young, but they have developed a seemingly effortless hook-driven sound that resonates with music culture today and could easily have been a success decades ago. -NO
13. Modern Vampires of The City by Vampire Weekend
It’s quite clear that Ezra Koenig is an intellectual who has a particularly developed sense of self at age 28. With a background at Columbia University and a consistent display of philosophical curiosity in Vampire Weekend’s previous work, it wasn’t surprising that Modern Vampires of the City would have the same depth. But the lyrics in combination with the catchy, unthreatening sound allows listeners to fall into the messages rather than be pushed away. From exploring the ideas of death and faith to betterment and a more thorough understanding of human nature, this record offers a lot of complexity, but they certainly don’t take themselves too seriously, hence the fact that they featured Steve Buscemi in some of the album’s promo videos. After debuting at number one on the charts and now a named a Grammy nominee for Best Alternative Music Album, Modern Vampires of the City is getting the recognition it deserves.
02. AM by The Arctic Monkeys
AM takes you along on a midnight ride of self-reflection, sexual-frustration and strong falsetto. Throughout the album, the riffs are slick and the lyricism is on point in word choice and timing. The effort skillfully blends blues, soul, R&B, punk and classic rock, keeping each song feeling fresh but true to the band’s signature sound, regardless of whether we are getting a high-energy track or a soulful ballad. With this album, we see the Arctic Monkeys evolve from being the little brothers of The Libertines and The Strokes to having a sound that is different from pretty much any band right now. They are masters of blending genres while sticking to a sound that is distinctly theirs. The writing on these tracks might not have the devious feel of past records, but it shows a maturity that puts the band at the top of the game this year.
01. Reflektor by Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire really expanded into new territory with its fourth studio album Reflektor, which dropped in October following a brilliant viral marketing campaign. The Canadian rockers dropped some of its bigger arena sounds and traded them in for influences from the disco era and Haitian music. The result created one of the most original sounding albums of the year and, thus, the best offering from rock music. From the samba influenced, driving beat of album opener “Reflektor,” to the hard pointed raw energy of “Normal Person,” to the simple beauty of “Afterlife,” each of the 13 songs on Reflektor is perfectly crafted, blending together personal lyrics, danceable beats and a truly unique blend of instruments. Plus, Arcade Fire was the only mainstream band to write about the epic tale of Eurydice and Orpheus this year, so major props on that.