[27 December 2013]
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.
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
“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
What Kacey Musgraves does better than any other country singer today is use restraint in her songwriting. Sure, on Same Trailer, Different Park, her debut for Mercury Nashville, there are big pop-ready moments like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go Round”, but neither explodes like a listener weaned on too much of today’s Nashville output would expect. Instead, the songs find their own path and stick to it. Her lyrics don’t stress joy and sadness so much as an oscillation between defiance and resignation, frequently muted by their own details and tired of striking outward at an unflagging world. The characters she chooses to sing about carry a weight inside. It’s not that they’re beaten, so much as they were bloodied a long time ago. Within a framework of traditionalist songwriting and simple melody, Musgrave refuses to give us the easy pleasures we want, but that doesn’t lessen our pleasure in listening. Robert Rubsam
Like Liturgy in 2011, no other band caused as much discussion about metal in 2013 as Deafheaven. The conversations being started are significantly different—copies of Sunbather don’t come with a Nietzscheian manifesto stapled to them—but just as Liturgy’s abstract take on black metal questioned what the limits of the genre are, so Deafheaven’s gorgeous, sunny take on “post-black metal” makes one wonder just how dreamy metal can get before it stops being metal. With 2011’s Roads to Judah, Deafheaven made its My Bloody Valentine proclivities obvious, but Sunbather amps them up to another level, offering up shimmering chords and intoxicating textures abound. The nostalgic, warm “Irresistible” brings to mind Explosions in the Sky, who certainly isn’t drawing on Emperor and Darkthrone for inspiration. The juxtaposition of harsh vocals and glimmering instrumentation is a jarring one, but if Sunbather’s remarkable ascent into the ranks of global metal is any indication, it’s one that’s connected with music fans of all different stripes across the planet. Some may not think these guys are metal, but whatever they are, they’ve undoubtedly framed discussions about metal in a way few if any other bands in 2013 did. Brice Ezell
The “song of the summer” debate for 2013 was an odd one, as Pharrell’s Marvin Gaye-quoting production on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” rubbed shoulders with Daft Punk‘s inescapable disco retread “Get Lucky”, and those nostalgia-ridden songs had much more lasting impact than Katy Perry‘s “Roar” or Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. Britney threw a lot of money on her single, Kelly and Mariah were already trying new breaks in the radio—but the world instead rallied behind a slow-bubbling song called “Royals” by a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand, and radio hasn’t turned away from it since. Lorde‘s lyrics are evocative, her songs built on melodies constructed out of atmospheric synths, and her personality is completely genuine, each new performances showing a new side of her as she now starts growing up in the public eye. Some called her song racist, but those people are missing the point. She is speaking about a beleaguered generation who knows full well the difference between hype and reality, and instead creates her own world, using one song to even describe how Broken Social Scene‘s “Lovers Spit” is playing in the background—detailed work that paints a very specific picture and atmosphere—and a whole generation of youngsters will latch onto a pop star with far loftier ambitions than those of her in-it-for-the-money peers. We thought her debut album was great, but what we’re most excited for is her future, as she is poised to do great things—on top of already challenging the pop star idiom with such casual finesse. Evan Sawdey
Chance the Rapper sells out venues, enjoys driving around with indie-star James Blake, and was poised to tour with Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Perhaps most impressively, he’s done all this—and hit #63 on the Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums—with a mixtape. How does happen? Apparently, it’s possible to do this with sheer talent alone… whodathunk? Over the course of Acid Rap, he touches on topics like drugs, love, drugs, death, drugs, how much the Lakers suck, and more drugs. Though it should be noted that he raps about drugs as the double-edged sword they are (“What’s better than tripping is falling love”), for the people who write off hip-hop as one-dimensional. He raps about these subject matters while matching Twista’s speed and Action Bronson’s absurdity, while still sounding like nothing before him. As cloud rap slowly becomes a distant memory, listeners will want a new genre to fiend off of. Honestly, I won’t be surprised if acid rap becomes that, and we’ll have his 2013 mixtape to thank for it. Yup, Mr. Bennett, you done did it, you did it, you did it, you did a good ass job. Marshall Gu
There are artists who need to accrue years of life experience in order to deliver that one perfect album within them, and then there is Patty Jean Griffin. From her mesmerizing debut Living With Ghosts, to this year’s emotionally resonate tribute to her late father, American Kid, Patty has consistently bestowed one stellar collection of songs after another on her ever-growing fan base. Her long “lost” album Silver Bell, discarded in the wake of a record label merger more than a decade ago, arrived out of thin air this fall, and proved once again that this accomplished musician is incapable of producing anything less than songwriting par excellence. The beauty of Griffin’s talents survived the injustice she received after delivering Silver Bell to the executive heads at A&M Records. Since then she’s released five successful studio albums, two remarkable live recordings and gained the respect of her musical peers and audiences alike. The critical accolade Griffin has garnered from the very beginning, seemingly culminated in 2011, when her soulful Downtown Church won the Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album. It only fueled the creative fires. Now with the release of two outstanding albums in 2013, her presence has only been further cemented in the public consciousness. That momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The music and the consummate artistry speak for themselves. Patty Griffin is one of the artists of this year or any year. Ryan Lathan
Janelle Monáe proved herself to be a classic entertainer in 2013, a rare figure that transcends genre and brings everything she has to the table, no matter the circumstance. When she is on, she is on. Her full-length debut, The ArchAndroid topped the PopMatters year-end list in 2010, with “Tightrope” being one of the year’s biggest singles. And yet, perhaps being a touch too eclectic in its sci-fi homage, owing equals debts to Parliament-Funkadelic as James Brown, to achieve total market domination, the album topped out at #17 on the Billboard chart. Sticking to her guns, The Electric Lady managed to go much further, cracking the top five while still representing black empowerment and gender politics through a kaleidoscope of sci-fi, big band, future funk R&B. She stood as an artist of integrity, unafraid to wear historical and contemporary social awareness on her sleeve. Lyrically, she penned tasteful odes to the likes of Stevie Wonder, Dorothy Dandridge (the first Oscar-nominated African-American), and Sally Ride (the first and still youngest American woman to travel to space), while continuing to use the android character Cindi Mayweather as a metaphor for homosexuality or skin color. Her live performances left none wanting. Rocking her trademark tuxedo and gravity defying coif, she can deliver all the vocals from her recordings with flair, with enough energy left over to add the kind of effortlessly smooth footwork that would make James Brown proud. All of this helped the video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu to become one of the most hyped of the year, earning over 8 million views in its first six months. PopMatters is not alone in recognizing her social and artistic contributions either, as Monáe won the Rising Star Award at the Billboard’s 2013 Women in Music event, and the city of Boston declared October 16, 2013 to be Janelle Monáe Day. Without a doubt, this was her best year yet, and there seems to be no end to this rainbow. Alan Ranta
Glasgow’s CHVRCHES did everything right. They teased with two EPs of their best songs: “Recover” and “The Mother We Share”. They demonstrated their live skills on the talk-show circuit. They created a groundswell of goodwill and anticipation helped along by their nimble, doe-eyed lead singer, Lauren Mayberry, and their creaky wall of synthetic dance rhythms. It was the rare occasion when the hype was merited and the end product was one of ample techniques and expert song craft. Mayberry sings, “I’ll be the thorn in your side / for always” on “We Sink,” and it’s a feeling of release and compassion—kind of like when she tells us later “I will be a gun / and its you I’ll come for” (“Gun”). We can only hope she and her band will be the ones haunting us when the lights go down. All of this adds up to the desire for CHVRCHES to dose us with more of their sweet, synth drugs. They make heartbreak sound appealing and enviable and their songs sound louder than true love. If this is what the band has managed for their debut, let’s all stay seated for the second and third acts. Scott Elinburg
Well, he gave a kid to a Kardashian, picked a fight with a late-night host, got engaged to be married, mouthed off about the President of the United States of America and pissed off the head of Zappos, claiming his company sells a “shit product”. … And we haven’t even touched on his music yet. Love him or hate him—and many people do both at the same time—Kanye West had a hell of a 2013, flourishing in the public eye, all the while releasing arguably one of the year’s most exciting hip-hop records, Yeezus. A step further away from the bounds of rap music, the album was widely acclaimed for its imagination and fearlessness, two things you can’t take away from the man anyway, even if you can’t stand the way he often handles himself. An artist first, a nuisance second, there’s no denying West’s sheer talent as a forward-thinker. Creatively, the last 12 months will stand as fruitful as any when the book is written on him. And that, as one may imagine, will be one loaning book. Colin McGuire
Regardless of how you might think either of his 20/20 Experiences turned out, there’s no denying how unavoidable Justin Timberlake was this year. From having the VMAs carve out a half-hour for a marathon medley/Nsync reunion, all the way to his pal Jimmy Fallon essentially giving him free reign over all of late night to promote his records, you couldn’t get away from the former Mouseketeer. And you know what? He deserved the attention. After spending years engaged in a heated affair with acting, Timberlake came back to devote a year of his life to his first love, music, and as a testament to his star power, it didn’t take all that much for him to sell out arenas and stadiums on tour with his new BFF, Jay-Z. Sure, the results were mixed, but in today’s hyper-critical world, “mixed” isn’t all that bad. What do ya say, JT? Grab an editor, head back to Hollywood and meet us back here in 2020? Sound like a plan to you? Can’t wait. Colin McGuire
Though they face some of the same inevitable backlash whipped toward whichever act has become popular enough to serve as indie rock’s exemplar to the world at large in any given calendar year—you know the line, these bands are too sensitive, too monochrome, too clever for their own good—it’s easy to forget the National came to this level of success the old-fashioned way. Rather than ride quick blog hype to the bank, the band’s been honing their skills in the studio and on the road for almost 15 years. And they’ve finally arrived, playing arenas and being courted as indie rock royalty by virtually every publication known to humankind. No band deserves the spotlight more than these guys. This year’s Trouble Will Find Me saw the group continuing to sharpen its late-period formula, winding tense guitar epics ever more tightly, making the record a masterclass in springloaded tension. Matt Berninger’s lyrics continue to be the finest in rock music today, his signature blend of diamond-sharp white-collar observations and droll, sexualized absurdisms putting other wordsmiths to shame in their wit and evocative precision. Complain all you want, the National have climbed all the way to the top. Corey Beasley
Imagine the alternate path Arcade Fire could have charted in 2013. It would have been remarkably easy—the Montreal group could have churned out a decent enough The Suburbs soundalike, glided along on the coattails of their critical reputation, sleptwalk through an arena tour, and still lapped up respectable sales and heaps of acclaim. Instead, treating 2013 as what has been endlessly likened to its Achtung Baby moment, the group upped the street art-inspired publicity factor, sneakily materialized in several cities performing secret shows as “The Reflektors”, and emerged with an ambitious and dancey technophobic panic attack of a double LP. That it’s all worked has resulted in the Arcade Fire’s most commanding year this side of Funeral Zach Schonfeld
After 2003’s Reality Dame David of Bowie all but vanished into thin air. Where was he? Did he ever really exist? Had he been a mass hallucination? Suddenly after ten barren, bitter and bleak years of ‘Bowie-free’ pop atrocities he appeared from the ether one January morning. A thin grey duke, dapper as we remembered but serenely sombre. A nation wept with joy and sadness. Twerking. American Idol. The deification of the Village idiot. Twitter feuds. Bieber. Our dead-eyed, insatiable desire for infamy. “Where Are We Now” indeed? We had properly fucked up. What followed in 2013 was a formal and ‘for-your-own-good’ spanking in the name of Proper Pop Genius. The Next Day album (sassy, swaggering, schmokin’), the BBC doc Five Years (in which the Dame invents and nukes pop several times over annually) and the V&A exhibition David Bowie Is (which reminded us Dave is, basically, everything). Sir Bowie forgive them, they know not what they do. Oh and for God’s sake take us with you when you go next time. Matt James
Vampire Weekend is better than whichever band you think is good, for two reasons: they made the most expensive sounding album of the year, and they can make it sound pretty much the same onstage. Considering the sheer amount of sonic crap they snuck onto Modern Vampires of the City, it’s amazing the Weekends can reproduce their songs live without any apparent trickery. YouTube videos reveal a stage heavy with gear, yes, but also players blessed with chops and adept at grooves. Credit for their sound world goes mostly to keyboardist and co-producer Rostam Batmanglij. When a crack live band is lucky enough to have a resident studio whiz like Batmanglij, there’s little they can’t get away with. He’s their Lindsey Buckingham, their Jimmy Page, and yes they’re in that company because wow, have you heard this thing? A couple boring songs, but they’re tucked away near the end and they’re both better than “Moby Dick”. Josh Langhoff
That My Bloody Valentine ended up on a list of the best artists of 2013 means that the pioneering band overcame the burden of history. If following up a modern classic like Loveless wasn’t a daunting enough task to begin with, My Bloody Valentine upped the degree of difficulty and the burdens of expectations by waiting almost 22 years to do it. What’s more, it was hardly a drama-free two decades-plus in-the-making for that mythical next album, with years of false starts and misinformation, with hopes reignited and dreams broken each time Kevin Shields sent out a cryptic missive that something new would materialize soon. Stoked by urban legends of monstrous budgets, malfunctioning equipment, and breakdowns, the stature of My Bloody Valentine only grew in the interim, surpassing any acclaim accruing to the group while it was actually in business.
So when word spread online on a Saturday evening in February that My Bloody Valentine had finally released its third album, it seemed all-too-appropriate that the servers couldn’t handle the traffic, making those last few hours feel like the longest ones yet. But after you could actually download and absorb it, you realized that My Bloody Valentine lived up to the hype: m b v was a feat in itself simply because its rewards outweighed the risks, considering the band started from the no-win situation of creating a work that couldn’t be better than what came before it and was much more likely to be a letdown. What’s impressive is that m b v is an accomplishment on its own terms that made you forget all the backstory once it enveloped you in its blanket of melodic fuzz, though that’s only the second most unlikely surprise from My Bloody Valentine in 2013. Arnold Pan
The duo behind Daft Punk, French musicians Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, are perhaps the most anonymous of all musicians presently at work. They only appear on their albums and in public hidden behind helmets and outfits that render them as human robots, and, in the past, have rarely given interviews or done television. That all changed in 2013 with the release of the group’s first non-soundtrack album in eight years, the excellent Random Access Memories. The duo was seemingly everywhere: from being on the cover of Rolling Stone and granting an interview to the magazine to touring Amsterdam with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) to being featured in fashion spreads for Vogue and CR Fashion Book (the latter saw the duo posing with actress Milla Jovovich) to getting into a well publicized spat with Stephen Colbert for being a no-show on The Colbert Report to getting their own Formula One race car.
The publicity machine for Random Access Memories was well-oiled and memorable, and elevated the public profile of this electronic music duo, making them one of the most talked about outfits of the year. That they turned in one of the year’s and perhaps decade’s (so far) best overall records makes Daft Punk worth gabbing about and, with a deluxe edition of Random Access Memories on the way with a whopping price tag of $275, it looks like we’re not finished with either the album or the band, either. Zachary Houle