20. Studio Killers - Studio Killers
"I believe in Simone de Beauvoir, I believe that life's a film noir."
Studio Killers came out with a fantastic pop album Unfortunately, it loses a little steam towards the end, but the high energy disco nostalgia of the first half of the album propels it to constant rotation in my iTunes. The arrangements are glittery and intricate, and the overall vibe is one of pop music that is saucy and in control without ever feeling degrading or petulant. Besides, what other pop record name drops a French philosopher in the chorus of its big single?
Download: "All Men Are Pigs", "Friday Night Gurus", "Ode to the Bouncer"
19. Lady Gaga - ARTPOP
"I know Mom and Dad think I'm a mess, but it's alright because I am rich as piss."
Despite Lady Gaga's descent into becoming one of the most difficult to like public figures there is, ARTPOP is a surprisingly strong pop record, filled with dense, lush production and ear worm melodies, plus that sense of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that was so sorely lacking on Gaga's last album. The album returns to what Gaga does best - big smutty dancefloor hits about doing lines and kinky sex over fat beats and glossy synthesizers. And damn does she do it well.
Download: "Swine", "G.U.Y.", "Manicure"
18. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
"I can sell you lies, you can't get enough. Make you a true believer of anyone, anyone."
Like an upbeat Purity Ring, CVHRCHES crashes onto the pop scene with a delightful dancey mixture of girlish vocals and sparkling electronics. The album is jubilant and exciting and modern, and almost any of the twelve tracks could be a radio smash and has a melody that will stay with you for days. Furthermore, CVHRCHES sounds like no other band out at the moment, and has lyrics a solid step up above the common pop fare.
Download: "The Mother We Share", "Night Sky", "Science / Visions"
17. HAIM - Days Are Gone
"With my eyes closed, I'm leaving it all behind."
Days Are Gone is a delightful summery album that happily straddles several decades of music, from stuttering 90's rhythm and blues to 80's pop. The choruses have big singsongs and memorable melodies, and the sound, while reminiscent of Janet Jackson and Cindy Lauper, manages to avoid sounding like a pale imitation of either. A perfect record for dancing, biking and lounging in the sun.
Download: "Running When You Call My Name", "Don't Save Me", "My Song 5"
16. Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt - Night
"What will I learn tomorrow that I don't know today?"
Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and country singer Tift Merritt combine forces for this strange, beautiful record which shows two masters at the peak of their craft. Dinnerstein's piano has the gentle, vibrant touch of someone who speaks through the keys, and Merritt's vocals are tender and emotional without ever losing their tone or key. The collection covers everything from Leonard Cohen and Patty Griffin to Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now", all with artful grace.
Download: "The Cohen Variations", "Night", "Colors"
15. Maya Jane Coles - Comfort
"It's so warm on your forehead the sweat makes my lipstick melt."
Maya Jane Coles comes to the helm of this record as a master producer, creating a trip-hop environment that's both foreboding and warm. The record is danceable without ever skirting being mainstream, and recalls the best works of Massive Attack and Sneaker Pimps. With guest vocals from Tricky and Miss Kittin to accompany her own sultry whispers, Coles has created a deeply atmospheric and passionate electronic love record.
Download: "Everything", "Wait for You", "Fall From Grace"
14. Holly Williams - The Highway
"Charlie Boy died in my arms. He saw Jesus, I saw blood."
Holly Williams reminds me why country music can be so enduring with her expert portraits of the downtrodden and bereft and patient, empathetic visions of lovers and parents. The music is simple, almost plain, letting all the focus go on Williams' gentle voice and touching lyrics. She chooses the precise details to describe situations both universal and painfully specific: sleeping in until sundown after a breakup, bottles of liquor hidden in the baby's crib, books stuffed inside a purse on the plane, houses built next to train tracks that rumble in the night. The end result is a series of thoughtful and often heartbreaking depictions of Americana.
Download: "Gone Away from Me", "Waiting on June", "Railroads"
13. Mindless Self Indulgence - How I Learned to Stop Giving a Shit and Love Mindless Self Indulgence
"Can't anybody understand the burden of my stardom?"
Mindless Self Indulgence is back with their most irreverent album yet, an absolutely ludicrous saga of in vitro fertilization, hip hop nostalgia and ice cream. While not as emotionally dense as Frankenstein Girls or as danceable as You'll Rebel to Anything, this album is a worthy entry into their catalogue, keeping their boisterous, devil-may-care attitude alive over a bed of hyperactive electronics and booming choruses. If you've heard any MSI record, you probably have a good idea if you like them or not, but if you're still open to being persuaded this is a delightful nugget of ridiculousness.
Download: "It Gets Worse", "Ass Backwards", "Fuck Machine"
12. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
"My brains make drugs to keep me slow, a hilarious joke to some dead pharaoh, but now not even the masons know what pills will keep night from coming."
Neko Case's foray into depression is an interesting one, but one of ache and elegance. Case has the same mastery of her lyrical craft as always, and chooses to use this album as a chance to explore the more personal with adventurous arrangements. "Wild Creatures" sees flute-like synths flutter in the background, and "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" is a cappella and stronger for it. As per usual for Case, it's a bit hard to take as an album because each song is so wed to its own identity, meaning that as a whole, the record lacks coherence - but individually, the songs blossom like flowers.
Download: "Night Still Comes", "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu", "Where Did I Leave That Fire?"
11. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP II
"In my head there's a voice in the back and it hollers after the track is demolished, 'I am your lack of a conscience, I'm the ringing in your ears, I'm the polyps in on the back of your tonsils eating your vocal cords after your concerts'."
Eminem is a rap god, and he isn't afraid to tell you so on one of the most mature records he's bothered to do so far. The album starts off with a harrowing psychodrama of Eminem being kidnapped and murdered by one of the fans his imagination and lyrics built, and then careens between sublimely irreverent ("So Far", "Love Game"), self-flagellatingly personal ("Headlights", "Legacy") and the occasional throw down of sheer braggadocio ("Rap God"). As always, Eminem is an acquired taste, and you probably already know by now if you like him or not - but on the off chance that you're on the fence, the album is well-worth a listen.
Download: "Bad Guy", "Rap God", "Headlights"
10. Vienna Teng - Aims
"Raise your life a new dawn, tyrant of your cells now overthrown, never have you felt so close to home."
Vienna Teng's newest record is adventurous and gutsy, and furthermore, proves that music doesn't have to be dour to be emotional. With her soft voice settling over electronic beats and piano riffs like a layer of snow, the album is listenable for whatever mood you're in, and covers a huge range of themes from body dysphoria ("Close to Home"), capitalism and technology ("Landsailor") and no-strings-attached romance ("Flyweight Love"). "The Hymn of Acxiom" elevates pop to art, using the medium to create a concept that couldn't conveyed by anything but music. Teng asserts that music needn't be ugly to be powerful, and that pigeonholing women with pianos as heartbreak chanteuses is a dire mistake.
Download: "The Hymn of Acxiom", "In the 99", "Never Look Away"
9. Kelela - Cut 4 Me
"I love you, I know we'll speak, it's only a matter of time. Couldn't hate you forever, you know it."
Kelela's mix tape would be an interesting affair even without her vocals, but when the off-kilter electronic beats meet her sultry R&B voice, magic happens. Kelela's voice is magnetic, and her lyrics manage to cover common themes of love and betrayal without ever stepping the line into cliche. The songs themselves are fascinating, full of strange turns and sounds: "Enemy" is a club hit collapsed in on itself, and "Cherry Coffee" is moody without being overbearing.
Download: "Enemy", "Floor Show", "A Lie"
8. Angel Haze - Dirty Gold
"I found the flowers being drowned in dirty water, they somehow escaped the farmers and are headed out to slaughter."
The reason this list is so late is because I was waiting for this album to be released, and I'm glad I did. Angel Haze's hooks are huge, and her rapping seems to defy a normal person's vocal capacity. While Angel's emphasis on empowerment anthems can become somewhat overdone over the course of the record, each song is individually strong and fueled by Angel's gripping honesty and knowledge of the subject. Angel Haze can tell you to get off your knees, because she has the same scrapes and bruises as any of you. The strongest songs, however, are the love ballads ("Vinyl" and "Deep Sea Diver") and the ode to a stripper ("White Lilies / White Lies"), due to the complexity and ambivalence Angel Haze brings to the subjects. With a little editing and removing some of the repetitive feel-good material for the excellent bonus tracks, this could have been album of the year; as it stands, it's not only a well-made and well-performed album, but a powerful statement from one of the foremost feminist rappers in music.
Download: "White Lilies / White Lies", "Deep Sea Diver", "Vinyl"
io echo - Ministry of Love
"Standing up for something is harder than just being against."
7. io echo's debut album is, literally, warm fuzzies. It's a blur of shoegaze-style guitar over lilting melodies and soaring but distant vocals, sounding like a party from a realm just parallel to ours. At times the band takes a step back and covers more morose sounds, but they bring the same fantastical feeling to songs like "Berlin It's All a Mess" and "Stalemate", creating an album that is definitely feel-good without being vapid.
Download: "Ministry of Love", "Stalemate", "Ecstasy Ghost"
Banks - London EP
"What if we never see each other because we're both on the stage? Don't tell me listen to your song, because it isn't the same."
6. The fact that I caved and put such a short EP on this list stands to how strong I found Banks' body of work in 2013 ("Fall Over", "Warm Water" and "Before I Ever Met You" were released as separate singles). Banks brings a unique sound to electronic music now, crafting soft, intimate pieces that still throb with ominous passion. Her voice is capable of both crooning and wailing, but rather than playing all her cards at once on London, Banks chooses the moments to accentuate her ghostly words for maximum impact by buffering them with either stark silence or layered background vocals. The soft glitches and hums of the London EP pair nicely with the more histrionic and energetic sounds of her singles, which flash and whirr and buzz with surprising intensity.
Download: "Waiting Game", "Change", "Fall Over"
5. Moonface - Julia with Blue Jeans On
"We were under the impression that freedom was more than just the freedom to wipe shit off your shoe."
If you aren't a fan of melodrama (or of Wolf Parade), you'll likely find Moonface's album a self-indulgent, overwrought affair. If you're willing to suspend your disbelief about the intensity of love and existential angst, however, you'll find a stark, detailed portrait constructed of a sole vocal track and some classically-influenced piano playing. The songs take strange twists and turns, minor keys morphing into triumphant major chord revelations and back, and the vocals run the gamut between anguished belting and gentle whispers, all of which sound almost painfully sincere. While not the best album of the year, this was probably the album I found most fascinating this year, as I wavered between wholeheartedly embracing its bombastic airs and being repelled by its earnestness. Eventually, I was won over by the whole package: esoteric lyrics, beautiful piano arrangements, and the clear conviction of Spencer Krug's performance.
Download: "November 2011", "Julia with Blue Jeans On", "Black is Back in Style"
Charli XCX - True Romance
"I feel the skin dripping from my bones."
4. Charli XCX's debut album is a promising entry for the European pop scene, stuffed with huge hooks that are kept from being annoying obvious by the dreamy, futuristic production. Charli's voice has a Lana Del Rey-esque quality that speaks of wearied youth, and despite the trite nature of the song subjects, the lyrics and arrangements elevate them beyond mere breakup anthems and love ballads. True Romance is a highly enjoyable album with only a single guest rap verse as its weak point. Charli XCX has accomplished the difficult feat of creating a pop album with a single cohesive sound that never outwears it welcome or sounds repetitive.
Download: "Set Me Free", "You (Ha Ha Ha)", "Nuclear Seasons"
Zola Jesus - Versions
"In the end of the night, we will rest our bones. In the end of the night, when I can be with you."
3. I've never been much a fan of Zola Jesus, having given both The Spoils and Stridulum extensive listens. Her music's always been a little too dour in a way that seemed artificially dissonant, as if ugliness existed for the sake of ugliness in her art rather than some greater message. Then, I was pleasantly bowled-over by Versions, where her trusty electronics have been replaced by the soundscape of a string quartet. The change is remarkable; shrouded in beauty, Zola's belting cuts so much more incisively, and when she tones her vocals back to croons, the music floats somewhere above and beyond what humans should be capable of feeling. The manic march of "Night" lends an urgency to the song that drum machines couldn't replicate, and "In Your Nature" and "Seekir" transcend from mere electronic sketches to ballads that defy genre.
Download: "Seekir", "Avalanche (Slow)", "Night"
Tei Shi - Saudade
"I had a dream that you left me. I deserved it, I deserved it."
2. Though Saudade is clearly a musical sketchbook of sorts, filled with fetal songs, it also reflects the work of an artist who already has a very clear idea of what sort of image she wants to project. Tei Shi chooses to present herself as a sort of spirit of girlhood; she bares wounds only to cloak herself in the safety of layered voices and electronic beats. The songs travel through excitement and depression and self-confidence, all with a sort of eerie prescience magnified by Tei Shi's ghostly vocals. Finally, she ends the record not with a wail but with a contented sigh, mewing away at a lover's lullaby to close on the naive, devoted lyric, stripped of artifice: "I want to meet you at the bottom of the ocean/I want to spend my life beside you in slow motion."
Download: "M&M's", "Heart-Shaped Birthmark"
1. Torres - Torres
"While you were ashing in your coffee, I was thinking of telling you what you've done to me."
Torres' debut album is a confident, raw, unapologetic affair, choking on its own emotions that seem too grand for the skeletal song structures that hold them. Torres' voice, simultaneously fragile and gutsy, lends credibility to her poignant lyrics about anger and loss, all of which seem simultaneously authentically girlish and yet written with the precision of someone far beyond her years. On "To Moon & Back" Torres sketches out the biological mother of an adopted child with gut wrenching empathy; on "Waterfall", she asks the plunging water if it ever gets halfway down and thinks "God, I never meant to jump at all". The sparseness of the tracks, mostly accompanied only by fuzzy electric guitar, drums and occasional flashes of cello, create an atmosphere that serves as a bed for intimate confessions and seething rage. The end result is a short collection of some of the most powerful songs of the year and one of the most unique new voices in alternative rock, following but never mimicking the works of Hole, Mazzy Star and PJ Harvey.
Download: "Honey", "November Baby", "Come to Terms"