50 Best Albums of 2013

The past 12 months had more great music going on than any year in recent memory. Some of the most innovative artists of the last decade — Kanye West, Daft Punk, Queens of the Stone Age, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire — all made watershed albums. Rock & roll greats like John Fogerty, Paul McCartney and David Bowie proved they could be as vital as ever. The EDM explosion kept blowing up thanks to artists like Disclosure and Avicii; old-school titans like Eminem and Pusha T pushed hip-hop forward alongside new-school innovators like Chance the Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole and Danny Brown; Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made country that was traditional and iconoclastic. But the most exciting news of the year might've been the astonishing number of breakout new artists, from retro-Eighties sister act Haim, to Brit-folk prodigy Jake Bugg, to indie-rockers Parquet Courts, to post-punkers Savages to chart-topping 17-year-old truth-bomber Lorde. Even Miley Cyrus' wrecking ball of an adult-oriented breakout album was kinda awesome. Oh 2013, you gave so much and asked so little; 2014, get crackin'. You've got a lot to live up to.  

Contributors: Jon Dolan, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Rob Sheffield, and Simon Vozick-Levinson

50. Beck, 'Song Reader'

Courtesy McSweeney's Publishing

There's old-school, and then there's "Man, it would rule if someone would invent electricity" old-school. Beck's "album" of sheet music turned out to be a sly collection of folky swing tunes, steeped in Beck's absurdist wit. One ukulele ballad, "Old Shanghai," even became a YouTube hit.

49. The Flaming Lips, 'The Terror'

Courtesy Warner Brothers Records

The Lips return to the apocalyptic acid punk of their Eighties albums, with monkish meditation, darkening-plains rumble and scouring electronics. It's what happens when psych heroes find the hard-won honesty in whoa-dude revelation.

48. Fuck Buttons, 'Slow Focus'

Courtesy of ATP Recordings

This duo's third set of psychedelic electronic rock gets pretty dark, but its wordless tension-and-release journeys are no less majestic. It's filled with tsunamis of corroded synthesizer noise and industrial beats — like the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi movie, or real life in 2013.

47. M.I.A., 'Matangi'

Courtesy Interscope

Once again, the avant-R&B rebel proved the raw power of her global-cauldron dance beats and hater-blasting lyrics. Matangi takes on her bird-flipping 2012 Super Bowl scandal and even has a tender lover's jam in "Come Walk With Me," finding revelation by living out contradiction.

46. Franz Ferdinand, 'Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action'

Courtesy Domino

After four years away, the mod Scottish boys jump back into the game swinging hard. Right Thoughts has many of their friskiest tracks ever, long on witty high-energy blasts of rhythm-guitar lechery.

45. Avicii, 'True'

Courtesy of Universal Island

Hey, you got Mumford & Sons in my EDM! Swedish producer Avicii slyly celebrated electronic music's stateside boom by combining vintage roots music and energetic house beats. It's an exuberant cross-cultural good time, and thanks to anthems like "Wake Me Up," it never lets up.

44. Valerie June, 'Pushin' Against a Stone'

Courtesy Concord

This New York-via-Tennessee singer mixed blues, soul, country, string-band folk and gospel while the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach added old-school ambience. It's the sound of a rookie doing her own thing like no retro-soul singer since Amy Winehouse.

43. Savages, 'Silence Yourself'

Courtesy of Matador Records

"I'm cold and I'm cold and I'm cold and I'm stubborn," Savages' Jehnny Beth informs us on the band's debut. With the repetitive insistence of a howitzer and the urgency of an air-raid siren, these four women made some of 2013's scariest, most thrilling noise, finding new worlds of terror and stress in Eighties U.K. post-punk.

42. Earl Sweatshirt, 'Doris'

Courtesy Columbia Records

Odd Future's brightest cult star lives up to his reputation as an unholy verbal wizard on his long-awaited debut album. He also upends it — pushing past the amoral bomb-lobbing that won him notoriety with a newly introspective style, perfectly suited to third-eye-opening beats courtesy of Pharrell, RZA and Earl himself.

41. J. Cole, 'Born Sinner'

Courtesy Columbia Records

Releasing your major-label rap record the same day as Kanye took balls. So did staying true to hip-hop's vaunted edutaining tradition with a set of hypersmart, excellently self-produced tracks that recall, well, vintage Kanye in their ability to dramatize the tension between Hov-size career ambition and post-Pac truth saying.

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