It was a year of thrilling comebacks from legends like My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie as well the launch of major new talents like Lorde and Kacey Musgraves. These artists had the biggest impact on the shape of music in 2013.
20. Run the Jewels
El-P and Killer Mike have long been known for their political raps; Killer Mike is constantly compared to Ice Cube and El-P is consistently paranoid the government is going to take his lunch money. In pursuit of those tropes they dominated hip-hop in 2012 for PopMatters, but Run the Jewels is a decidedly different affair. If this duo’s catalog was the best pair of Public Enemy albums last year, then this is their take on good old Def Squad-era braggadocio. Many rap artists have been struggling for the past two or three years to figure out the right mix of dubstep-induced dancefloor fury and prototypical hip-hop corner brags, and I’m here to tell you this unlikely pair has figured it out. It’s a shame that whatever politics are in place hid most of these cuts from the radio, because in a better world I could’ve gone to happy hour and done the Diddy Bop (I can’t dance!) to “Banana Clipper” or “Get It”. It’s an underrated aspect of this album perhaps because neither artist has sounded so openly ready to throw a party (in the past, even when Mike made happy songs he couldn’t help but snarl), but marrying the most imaginative battle raps we’ve heard outside of the YouTube circuit to some truly futuristic breakbeats is perhaps Run the Jewels‘s greatest triumph. As now and next as all this sounds, at the end of the day it’s an ode to hip-hop from the park, to Grandmaster Caz and pre-Dr. Octagon Kool Keith. It’s a celebration album at its core; if you haven’t already, you really ought to join the party. David Amidon
19. John Newman
“Do you like soul music, that sweet soul music,” Arthur Conley famously asked/sang back in 1967. Well, thanks to the success of Adele, Amy Winehouse, and such, it seems everybody does—especially back in England. The latest neo-soul artist to reach number one on the UK charts is the 23-year-old, North Yorkshire lad John Newman. In interviews, Newman credits his mother for introducing him to the musical style, but he leads off his debut solo disc with a list of inspirations that includes everyone from Elvis Presley and the Four Seasons to Britney Spears, Jay-Z and the Kings of Leon. Sure, he lists the staples of soul: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, and such, but what’s telling is how inclusive Newman’s list is. Newman’s no retro snob. Careful listeners might catch sounds that shouldn’t mesh according to purists, but he brings them together with the strength of his lungs. There was a time in America when the differences between Motown and Soul were fraught with meaning. One was the sound of young America and suggested a selling out and watering down of black music for white audiences while the other meant being black, proud, gritty and authentic. History and our ears have taught us that’s not the case. Like most of us, Newman couldn’t care less. He has a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach, and in addition borrows from other styles (Is that a Verve lick?) when it fits the material. Steve Horowitz
These ridiculously young brothers were 2013’s most offensive havers and eaters of cake. (Probably Victoria sponge cake.) They scored big pop hits in Britain, and their scribbly faced brand became recognizable to Americans who couldn’t tell UK funky from UK garage. Their songs have massive hooks that you will hum. And yet—their really reprehensible youth leading them to believe they can do anything—they’ve also achieved that rarefied house ideal, music whose micro changes wreak seismic havoc to body and mind. Stark polyrhythms suck you into their irresistible twitch, but nothing stays in place for long and hi-hat patterns shift under your feet and synth shimmers drag your gaze into the void. Subtler than Zedd; catchier and subtler than Rudimental; younger, catchier, and subtler than that Royal Baby. Bastards. Josh Langhoff
In December 2010 brothers Zac and Josh Farro quit Paramore, bitterly complaining that Paramore was more a major label vehicle for singer Hayley Williams than an actual band. Your point being, guys? While it’s quaint to think of Paramore as a hard-working young Nashville band that earned its stripes on a grassroots level, anyone who doesn’t think this is anything but Hayley Williams’s project is grossly mistaken. The longer the band went on, the more apparent it was how crucial and talented a songwriter hired guitarist Taylor York is, while the Farros were severely limited in ability and range. And free of that dead weight Williams, York, and bassist Jeremy Davis, bolstered by an able-bodied crew of versatile backing musicians, came through with a startlingly good album in Paramore. Led by the likeable, charismatic persona of Williams and the single “Still Into You”, the band’s biggest to date, the chart-topping album fused rock and pop like no other record in 2013, proof that professional supporting players can still yield far better music than mere rank amateurs. Adrien Begrand
The career of Eminem has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. After dominating the turn of the century, 2004’s Encore brought about a dark period for the Detroit rapper, including a five-year hiatus. His re-entrance into rap has been a bumpy one, so it’s comforting to see that 2013 was the year he finally got back in the groove. He dominated hip-hop both commercially and critically in somewhat of a down year for the genre. In dying his hair back, Eminem not only was able to recapture sparks of his old sound, but he also regained his passion for the music. Eminem sounds like he’s having fun rapping again, something that has been absent from his music lately. If people are still mad at Eminem after this album, it’s proof that he can’t win. This is quite possibly the best album you could get from the 41-year-old Eminem. Not only is his rapping on point, but the autobiographical tone allows this album to evoke an emotional response from the listener like few albums are able to accomplish. Oh yeah, he also became the first artist to have four singles simultaneously chart in the Billboard top 20 since the Beatles did it in 1964. Logan Smithson