It’s the most wonderful time of the year again: A time to bicker, moan and fight about the year’s most high profile releases and underrated gems. That’s right — it’s list season!
Looking back, 2013 may very well go down as the Year of the Underdog in pop music. There’s no doubt that, across the board, the mainstream divas dropped the torch with their big budget Q4 releases: From Katy Perry‘s lightweight PRISM to Britney‘s will.i.am-assisted Most Personal Album Ever to Lady Gaga‘s nucking futs Reverse Warholian Expedition ARTPOP to Miley‘s hype-inflated Bangerz (plus complete no-shows from Beyoncé and Rihanna, boo hiss!), ’twas a year full of both underwhelming fluff and overcooked offerings from our usually reliable crew.
But when one pop window closes, another opens: Promising newcomers like Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Ariana Grande, AlunaGeorge, HAIM and Lorde filled the void and brought a breath of fresh, alternative air to the pop scene, shaking up the stale frat house EDM beats with strange electronic vibrations, pearl-clutching diva vocals and unapologetic ’90’s grunge.
And so, these are my Top 20 albums of 2013. I grew to love some albums more in time, and others less. That’s life.
I don’t care to debate the exact ranking of each album (I hate ranking albums to begin with so, so much), so don’t bother. However, I do care if you found something new here that you love, so feel free to share that. That makes me happy.
Along with the list, there’s a link at the very end to hear all Top 20 albums on Spotify. Enjoy!
19.) Natalia Kills, Trouble (Original Review)
18.) Goldfrapp, Tales Of Us
17.) Pet Shop Boys, Electric (Original Review)
16.) HAIM, Days Are Gone
15.) Avril Lavigne, Avril Lavigne (Original Review)
14.) CHVRCHES, The Bones Of What You Believe
13.) Selena Gomez, Stars Dance (Original Review)
12.) Diana Vickers, Music To Make Boys Cry (Original Review)
11.) AlunaGeorge, Body Music
10.) Britney Spears, Britney Jean (Original Review)
This album really shouldn’t be here, but when it comes to Britney, it’s personal. Let me explain.
One day, in the far off future, I’m going to have a child. And one day — probably a holiday or a birthday or something — that kid’s going to come home from kindergarten with a noodle necklace and a card. The necklace will still be sticky with glue and glitter, unfinished and sort of dangly and sad looking. I’ll silently notice that the teacher clearly must have helped them hold a marker correctly to write down that shaky “I love you” on the card. And even though it was a class assignment, I’ll know it came purely from the heart and smile, give them a great big hug and tell them how proud of them I am because I love them so, so very much, and I’ll remind them that they’re my brightest morning star.
Britney Jean is that noodle necklace.
9.) Ariana Grande, Yours Truly
Who knew that voice was hiding inside that tiny little thing? Nickelodeon starlet Ariana Grande might maintain a constant state of terror in her cutesy quinceanera dresses onstage, but that voice belongs to a seriously confident mini-diva in training, earning her early comparisons to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Yours Truly is a refreshingly smooth blend of early ’90’s throwback R&B and Motown-lite styling, dressed up with the right kind of 21st century production to hold radio’s attention. While the whole album’s an instant win from the first listen, standouts like “Tattooed Heart,” “Piano” and “Honeymoon Avenue” prove that Grande’s got plenty of talent up her dainty sleeves. Oh, and her hysterical interviews about leaving the church (“First the gays, then Spongebob and now Harry Potter? Get out my house!”) and demons sort of already make her a superstar in my eyes. She’s going to be just fine — assuming she’s got some holy water handy at all times.
8.) Miley Cyrus, Bangerz (Original Review)
Save your rants and hold your tongues, because there’s no denying this one: Miley won 2013, plain and simple. From the salacious, twerk-filled house party of “We Can’t Stop,” to that VMA performance, to the now iconic nude construction site romp in “Wrecking Ball” (hide yo sledgehammers!), the Hannah Montana tween dream-turned-bonafide pop princess successfully pulled off an unstoppable onslaught of stunt queen shit on the general public, resulting in endless cultural appropriate thinkpieces, too many celebrity open letters, countless memes, foam finger sales boosts and plenty of pleased record executives. Miley doesn’t have as many interesting things to say, nor as many barriers to break as Madonna did during her imperial reign (then again, Miley’s really young), but at times, her presence in pop culture this year felt as massive as Queen of Pop. And while Bangerz is an overly messy affair (and should have really been titled Balladz), it’s also one of the year’s most daring, personality-packed pop releases of 2013. For “Drive” alone, this one is Top 10 worthy.
7.) Tegan & Sara, Heartthrob
Tegan & Sara have always had a knack for supplying supremely singalong-able hooks, even if their sound veered more toward indie-folk territory. But not this time around: Teaming up with pop production superstar Greg Kurstin, the Canadian twin sister act suddenly became an unstoppable pop force, beginning with their ubiquitous, synth-laden lead single, “Closer.” In true Tegan & Sara style, the album’s packed full of devastating break-up anthems (“I Was A Fool”) and breathless odes (“Love They Say”), all wrapped up neatly in Kurstin’s signature buoyant production style, giving them more mainstream exposure than ever. (Finally!) The result is a stone-cold solid serving of emotional, radio-friendly ditties — and proof that pop music can still be smart.
6.) Ciara, Ciara (Original Review)
She was gone for too long, but she finally brought it back: Ciara‘s oft-delayed self-titled Epic Records debut was stuck in label hell for months, but it all finally came together with the runaway success of her “My Boo”-sampling Mike WiLL Made It smash, “Body Party.” (Jury’s still out on whether that acoustic bathroom performance helped or not.) The airtight 10 track collection runs a little short, but there’s not a dud to be found: From the twerk-happy ladies anthem “I’m Out” with Nicki Minaj, to the effervescent Wynter Gordon-penned YOLO anthem “Livin’ It Up,” to the front seat booty jam “DUI,” the ever-underrated CiCi served up an inarguably supreme collection of pop-R&B. Ciara’s pretty checked out of the game at this point now that she’s fully booed up with Future (a quick survey of her Instagram would let you know as much), which is a real shame, given that she dropped the ball on promoting one of the year’s best singles, “Overdose.” But for a time over the summer, CiCi reigned supreme.
5.) Lady Gaga, ARTPOP (Original Review)
Internet, we hear you loud and clear: From the try-hard Marina Abramovic-assisted theatrics to the Twitter rants (#StopTheDramaStartTheMusic!), everyone was a lil’ bit over Lady Gaga in 2013. But that doesn’t mean her latest studio album isn’t good: In fact, it’s great! As pop’s most shamelessly “inspired” act, Gaga darts and dashes through dozens of influences — from the Vanity 6-like smut romp of “Sexxx Dreams,” to electro-trap (“Jewels & Drugs”), to unhinged EDM alongside Zedd and Madeon to “Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly),” a smooth earworm that proves Gaga’s got the chops for some luscious R&B. When she’s not sampling genres, she’s on a Reverse Warholian Expedition through her catalog, pulling from the brooding, synth-heavy pulse of Born This Way (“Mary Jane Holland”) and the materialistic glee of The Fame (“Donatella”). She attempts to do far too much, squeezing in unsubtle art world references (Koons!), self-empowerment, sexy talk, astrology and frivolousness into one insane compilation. If we’re to make the Madonna comparison (it’s only appropriate for Gaga, after all), this is her Erotica moment — the end of her imperial reign, the beginning of a nasty public backlash, and the first real fall in her career. With some sound and style evolution (and, more importantly, a few people in the studio willing to say “OK WAIT STOP”), ARTPOP is a pretty mess that will be appreciated in time — and yes, it still deserves your applause.
4.) Lorde, Pure Heroine
It took me a minute or two to get past the “Royals” hype (I still don’t like it and I never will, sorry!), but as it turns out, I’m on Lorde’s team, too. Pure Heroine is only something that only a pop prodigy raised on the Internet could deliver in 2013: It’s nearly impossible to believe that a 16-year-old teen could craft something as gorgeously moody and meaningful as this triumphant debut, an anthemic bid for solidarity amongst those seeking solace from material aspirations and mindless club culture. And forget the kitchen full of cooks on every other pop record: She wrote the entire album with just one collaborator, her producer Joel Little. The song “Buzzcut Season” alone is better than most anything released this year, if only for one chilling line: “Nothing’s wrong when nothing’s true, I live in a hologram with you.” Time will tell if Lorde can truly take the throne as the Queen of Alternative for the Tumblr generation, but as it stands, her debut is already lightyears ahead of other pop starlets in term of style, substance and sophistication.
3.) Disclosure, Settle
The year’s best dance record also happens to be one of the year’s best records, period: Fusing early ’90’s House pulsations with a distinctly future-leaning wobble, UK brother act Disclosure provided us with some of the year’s most succulent dance floor offerings — from their cracking AlunaGeorge collaboration “White Noise” — which will go down as one of 2013’s finest tunes — to the undeniably snappy, infectious Sam Smith strut, “Latch.” The entire record is a sleek, seamless listen from start to finish that pushed the envelope of disco in 2013 without bowing to any trends. And it’s not just a stellar set of music, either: Boasting an array of features from acts like London Grammar, Jamie Woon and Jessie Ware, Settle effectively doubles as a “Who’s Who” of pop’s most promising new talent.
2.) Charli XCX, True Romance (Original Review)
I wrote a thing for Idolator’s 2013 wrap up about Charli’s record, which sums up my thoughts on True Romance:
Welcome to the new school of pop. Charli XCX proved herself to be one of the most thrilling faces of the new generation of indie-pop stars born of the Internet. Her kaleidoscopic debut, True Romance, is a fuzzy collection of bloodstained odes (“Black Roses”), ’80′s-tinged pop (“Take My Hand”), experimental hip-hop fusions (“Cloud Aura” with Internet sensation Brooke Candy) and bone-chilling ballads (“Stay Away”). Her influences are as colorful and varied as a well-curated Tumblr, spanning from everything from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Gwen Stefani to Britney Spears. But its her own penchant for crafting stadium-sized hooks (you might have heard a little ditty she wrote for Icona Pop called “I Love It”) that she’s got more than enough talent to fill those platform Buffalo boots.
Beyond the ambitious album itself, True Romance presents us with a brilliant new singer-songwriter blazing her own trail and challenging expectations of what a young a female pop star should be. (Plus, her live show is absolutely killer and the hairflips are endless.) Charli’s the truth, end of.
1.) Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (Original Review)
As it turns out, Sky is the one.
Night Time, My Time was years and years in the making, made up of record label drama, delays, setbacks, legal troubles and everything in between. In that time, Sky’s sound shifted sharply, away from the blippy electro-pop of her MySpace demos into hazy lo-fi fuzz, then deeper still into gritty ’90’s grunge rock. By the time her debut finally dropped, Sky had solidified a product she firmly believed in — and it shows. The album, composed entirely alongside Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen, stings with fiery guitar licks and snarling, industrial beats for punchy anthems like “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)” and “You’re Not The One.” The fact that she chose to release a rock album in the age of dance? Revolutionary, really. And yet, it’s still a pop record at heart: Sky’s propensity toward pop songcraft remains tucked away within the barbed wire and broken glass, resulting in undeniably catchy cuts like “24 Hours,” “I Blame Myself” and “Heavy Metal Heart.” But the impressive thing of all about Night Time is that it actually feels like an album — something that most albums just couldn’t pull off in 2013. It’s a concentrated, cohesive effort with feeling and complicated emotions and pain and hurt.
For me, this album felt real.
I’ll round this off with my thoughts about the album from the original review, because sure:
In a year when pop music’s biggest superstars dared to do nothing very different at all — when big budget records began to feel more like mediocre single collections than cohesive statements and pop stars concentrated more on marketing than making music worth talking about — Night Time, My Time is the defiant middle finger in the air from an underdog that breaks all the rules in all the right ways.
And there you have it.
Still want more (moah)? Check out the Top 20 Albums of 2012.