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Year's Best Albums for 2013

The biggest-selling albums of 2013 were by Justin Timberlake, country star Luke Bryan, and rappers Jay-Z, Drake, and Eminem. Timberlake topped the list with more than 2.3 million copies sold of the first part of his two-part The 20/20 Experience, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"Yeezus," by Kanye West.
"Yeezus," by Kanye West.Read more

The biggest-selling albums of 2013 were by Justin Timberlake, country star Luke Bryan, and rappers Jay-Z, Drake, and Eminem. Timberlake topped the list with more than 2.3 million copies sold of the first part of his two-part The 20/20 Experience, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

But when looking back on the year in music in 2013, will you immediately think of any of those dudes? Not likely. More likely, the mind will fix on Miley Cyrus' icky encounter with Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards, or the former Disney girl swinging naked on her "Wrecking Ball" video.

Unluckier still, maybe what sticks in your head will be Kanye West pretending to ride a motorcycle through Monument Valley while a topless Kim Kardashian unsexily straddles him in the "Bound 2" video.

It was ever thus: Pop-culture figures aim to make us pay attention, and you can't say Cyrus or West didn't supply social-media click-bait. They also let their celebrity overwhelm their music. Not a terrible loss with Cyrus' Bangerz (which was actually not half bad), but it was truly unfortunate with West's Yeezus, a CD with abundant artistic attributes (and flaws) overshadowed by his compulsive need to proclaim himself a "creative genius." As comedian Louis C.K. tweeted the other day: "Dear Kanye West, Just shut up. Sincerely, Everyone."

Attention-grabs galore in 2013 included L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar causing a stir by calling himself the "King of New York" on a Big Sean song that was never officially released. New Zealand teenager Lorde won fans with "Royals," which showed its distaste for "gold teeth, Grey Goose" consumerism and was called racist because the product placements she disapproved of have been staples of hip-hop videos.

How's the music business doing? As of earlier this month, overall album sales were down 7 percent from last year, according to Variety. That's not entirely surprising considering the popularity of streaming songs. In 2008, about 1 billion tunes were streamed online; this year, it will be closer to 100 billion. Growing streaming services like Spotify, however, have been increasingly criticized by high-profile artists like David Byrne and Thom Yorke for making minuscule payments to artists.

A critical roundup follows of the best music of the year, by Inquirer critics. To listen to streaming Spotify playlists - and watch YouTube videos of much of it - go to my blog at

Nomad, by Bombino (Nonesuch). It was a great year for Northern Africa desert blues, the trance-inducing music that sounds strangely familiar to raised-on-rock Western ears. Among my favorite shows was a South by Southwest gig by the Tuareg band Terakraft, and I played this intoxicating album by Omara "Bombino" Moctar, from Niger, as much as any this year. Produced in Nashville by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, it stretches the dazzling guitarist without compromising his identity. Download: "Amidinine."

Southeastern, by Jason Isbell (Southeastern). A getting-sober, falling-in-love, and finding-your-grown-up-voice album that the 34-year-old Alabaman recorded post-rehab. It's a finely wrought, stripped-down collection that doesn't settle for confessionalism and makes good on the promise of Isbell's years with the Drive-By Truckers. Also rocks out like the Rolling Stones on "Super 8." Download: "Live Oak."

Once I Was an Eagle, by Laura Marling (Ribbon Music). Without question the folk album of the year. The 23-year-old songwriter's fourth LP is authoritative, particularly as the first five songs flow effortlessly into one another as they build into a violent, stunningly composed rage. "It ain't me, babe," Marling sings, daring to quote Bob Dylan and not suffering from the comparison. Download: "Master Hunter."

The Electric Lady, by Janelle Monáe (Bad Boy). Janelle Monáe has so many moves - and complicated ideas - it can make your head spin. On her second full-length CD, the funkadelic Afro-futurist, who uses her android alter ego to explore how button-down society fears and is fascinated by outsiders, finds a multifaceted comfort zone in which she moves about the history of black pop like a whirling dervish. Download: "Q.U.E.E.N," featuring Erykah Badu.

Like a Rose, by Ashley Monroe (Warner Bros.). My favorite superbly written country album by a female songwriter in a year full of them, from Brandy Clark to Kacey Musgraves to Caitlin Rose. Working with producer Vince Gill, Monroe's country tunes have titles like "She's Driving Me Out of Your Mind" that feel so timeless you can't believe they haven't been written before. Download: "Two Weeks Late."

Who is William Onyeabor?, by William Onyeabor (Luaka Bop). Good question. Onyeabor was a Nigerian electro-funk synthesist who specialized in interweaving the sounds of Fela Kuti and Parliament Funkadelic. The terrifically kinetic music collected here was recorded between 1978 and 1985 before he became a born-again Christian, or maybe a Soviet cinematographer. (His biography is mysterious, thus the title.) Electrifying stuff that sounds of-the-moment in 2013. Download: "Good Name."

Light Up Gold, by Parquet Courts (What's Your Rupture?). Andrew Savage and Austin Brown take turns singing lead on Light Up Gold, the debut album by Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas punk band Parquet Courts. The driving, taut, always economical music builds on first-wave punk forebears like Wire, but the dry wit and generational fear that lurks beneath slacker adventures such as "Stoned and Starving" belong to the now. Download: "Borrowed Time."

Modern Vampires of the City, by Vampire Weekend (XL). "Nobody knows what the future holds, and it's bad enough just getting old," Ezra Koenig sings on "Diane Young," which, yes, is a pun on dyin' young. That's right, the Ivy League grads who started a blog buzz with the African-highlife-meets-New-Wave mix of their 2008 debut are nearing 30 and sensing their mortality. They've responded by toughening up their sound while keeping the pop perkiness, delivering as much start-to-finish quality as any album on this list. Download: "Step."

Wakin on a Pretty Daze, by Kurt Vile (Matador). "Making music is easy," Kurt Vile insists. "Watch me." The long-haired Philadelphian, who has his own mural/ album cover hard by I-95, specializes in becalmed, supremely patient sounds, so chill it can make you antsy - until you get mellow along with him. Like high-profile releases by Arcade Fire and Justin Timberlake, Wakin is full of very long songs. In Vile's case, though, rather than feel padded, they simply suit his vibe. Download: "Goldtone."

Yeezus , by Kanye West (Def Jam). Like everybody else, I'm so sick of hearing Kanye West complain - what's next, a rant about Time magazine's picking the Pope, rather than Yeezus, as Man of the Year? - that I convinced myself there was no need to include this aggravatingly enthralling album here. Then I listened again. When you do that, even as West makes your eyes roll, you can't help being in thrall to Yeezus' sonically innovative marriage of hip-hop and boldly aggressive electronic noise. He's smart, he's stupid; he's insightful, he's insulting. He succeeds - and fails - more spectacularly than anybody else in pop music. Download: "I Am a God."

Honorable mention: Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas; Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You; Brandy Clark, 12 Stories; Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost; Deafheaven, Sunbather; Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park; My Bloody Valentine, mbv; Earl Sweatshirt, Doris; Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt.


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