Body Music, AlunaGeorge
It already starts with the best Aaliyah song of 2013: Outlines, a seductive and melancholic track that for me is the best song on Body Music. I was immediately hooked by Aluna Francis's voice and George Reid's delicate, 90s-influenced beats. The influence of 90's music is one of the things I like the most in this album: here are two young people who really love acts like Timbaland, Missy Elliott and Aaliyah. Yet they managed to create a sound that's modern without trying too hard, cool without excesses. Apart from already-released great tracks such as You Know You Like It and Attracting Flies, there are other excellent moments, like the lovely Diver and the infectious Just a Touch. It's exciting already to think of the wonderful things that may come out after the success of this debut.
Reflektor, Arcade Fire
Well, I certainly didn't expect Arcade Fire to become the biggest indie rock band of the new century. (Is it?) But when I remember the fan adoration they created since their debut, Funeral, I think: "I should've seen this coming". Here is a band that, pretensions aside, always seemed to truly love what they did (they remain my favorite live act ever). And what's the matter with being pretentious? As long as you have the talent for it. And Arcade Fire is a force of nature. The more I listen to Reflektor, the more I like it and its small wonderful touches: how Reflektor, the song, grows when the chorus comes; the sensational "Jeanne D'arc Ooh" moments from Joan of Arc; the hilarious'n'drunk introduction in Normal Person ("Do yoou like rock and roll musiiic? Cause I don't knooow if I dooooo..."). Like the next album on this list, Reflektor manages to be long but never boring. And it's hard to choose best tracks. There's the magnificent duo/dialogue between lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, there's kids with porno under a haunting electronic beat, there's the catharsis provoked by "an awful word" (Afterlife). Keep on maintaining my trust in rock'n'roll, Arcade Fire. Even if you don't know if you like it.
A couple of weeks have passed since Hurricane Beyoncé. Now I have no doubt: it was a stroke of genius to release this album the way it was released. First of all, she killed any expectations - the choice was only one: focus on the music. At the same time, the "visual album" thing made Beyoncé something truly unique: it feels like more than an album. There are the songs, there are the videos. They can live apart but they also have a connection. And when was the last time you sat and watched 17 videos of the same artist?
But this would be all fluff if the album wasn't good. And damn, this thing is good. Even though I'm a huge fan of B'Day, this feels like the first time Queen B has something original/interesting to offer. I'm still struggling with some of the slower tracks (I can't see the genius in Drunk in Love; maybe I should blame the awful video), but I feel compelled to listen to this album. It provokes me. And Beyoncé - along with Kanye West - has become the creator of the best lines in music: "I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker" is GENIUS; "Let me sit this ass on you" is hilarious. The best tracks are usually the ones where the rhythm matches Beyoncé's energy: the disco feeling of Blow is better than 95% of what's currently on radio. In the end, what Beyoncé did with this album was something remarkable: she made mainstream pop music the biggest it's been in a long time.
Much can be said about Settle, but it's easy to say why it is on everyone's list of best albums of the year: the White Noise (feat. AlunaGeorge) video. Seriously, can you listen to this album and not feel like the guy from the video? Can you NOT dance? At least not move your feet? Or your hands, if you're more of a hand person? I can't stand still. My body begs me to move!
I don't even think the entire album is brilliant (I could live without Stimulation and Grab Her!), but when it's good, it's magnificent. I could listen to Confess to Me (feat. Jessie Ware) 200 times and not get tired of it; January (feat. Jamie Woon) has the danciest sinister keyboards of the year; Help Me Lose My Mind (feat. London Grammar) is a hell of a closer. And to think the Disclosure brothers have barely reached their 20s. I hope they stay around for at least three decades!
Tookah, Emilíana Torrini
Of all the artists and albums listed here, probably the least listened is Emilíana Torrini and her Tookah. Even here in Germany, where she had a #1 hit with Jungle Drum, most people I talked to had no idea she had released a new album. It's really a shame: she remains of the most underrated current artists. It took her five years to release new music, and she keeps on being on her own rhythm, keeping a distance from trends. Even though the wonderful first single Speed of Dark seemed to show a more electronic direction, Tookah is mostly acoustic. There's a wonderful mixture of coldness (in the mood of several tracks) and warmth (in the acoustic guitars, in her voice). Some of the album's best secrets are slowly revealed: it takes several listens, for example, to realize how sad Caterpillar is. And even though I salivate at the thought of a full-danceable Emilíana album (that's how good Speed of Dark is), songs like the delirious When Fever Breaks make this album a compelling listen.
The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake
Even the mighty Beyoncé couldn't release an album as uniformly great as this one (I'm talking about the first Justin album of the year, obviously). The boldest pop album of 2013, without a doubt - only one song has less than five minutes, for Christ's sake! And also the best pop album of 2013. From the strings that introduce the magnificent Pusher Love Girl, this whole collection is a masterclass in great production. It's been a long time since Timbaland sounded so inspired. What about the changes midway through each song? I love them. The way Strawberry Bubblegum becomes even sweeter when it approaches bossa nova; how Mirrors (single of the year?) manages to be surprisingly affecting with the mantra "You are, you are, the love of my life". This was not my most listened album of the year, but it was definitely the one that left me the most ecstatic. It's the rare case of a pop album overblown with ambition, production, and corresponding to all expectations. And for a change, the biggest album of the year - sales-wise - deserved the title.
Yeezus, Kanye West
Was there ever a case of such a talented artist being such a despised figure? No, I don't hate him; but even the most ardent fan of Kanye would have a hard time defending some of his actions, and declarations. It's easier to focus on the music.
Or is it? Yeezus is by far the most difficult album he's ever released (and to think some people had a hard time with 808s & Heartbreak). There are basically no singles, no radio-friendly songs. It's not an album I feel like listening often. But its power is undeniable. Of course, it's impossible to take the whole thing seriously: "Hurry up with my damn croissants" is there to prove it. But the beats are abrasive, unfriendly; when he raps about sex, it's completely unsexy. Kanye may not be a god as he believes, but he's a true original. The lack of a cover/booklet makes perfect sense: here is an album hard to be translated into images. Some songs could be soundtrack for nightmares. Yeezus will probably not have the staying power for me that Late Registration or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have, but it's another tremendous statement of the importance of Kanye West for music these days. In a word, he's vital.
Trouble Will Find Me, The National
A website called The National's music "dad rock". I'm still struggling with the meaning of this. Does this mean "grown-up music"? If it is, once again the band is showing us that being a grown-up means nothing. At least nothing much different than being young. The confusion, the feeling of being lost, will always be there in the group's songs. But what a collection they have here. Those three guitar notes in Sea of Love, ascending, are a thing of beauty. This Is the Last Time (with a discreet appearance by St. Vincent) has one of the most beautiful lines of the year: "I wish everybody knew what's so great about you". It's not only the fact that The National is a band truly deserving of the adjective "solid": it's how, after saying "When I walk into a room I do not light it up...", Matt Berninger adds a "fuck" that can be heard as melancholic or hilarious. After Boxer, this is their best album.
This is my most listened album of the year. Of my 10 most listened songs in the past 12 months, 7 are in this album. And what's so special about it? Honestly, I have a hard time describing it. It's just an album that makes me happy. And also a bit nostalgic (maybe it's the video of The Fall - the best song of the year. Woman is a small, compact collection of beautiful music that has been compared ad nauseam to Sade. Of course, there's the voice of Milosh; but it's been a long time since Sade released music so beautiful. In the middle of lovely rhythms, lines of truth are sung: "Tell me lies and lullabies, but don't tell me to change", "Don't call me love, unless you mean it". And One of Those Summer Days manages to put into song all the feelings that its title can evoke. Woman, one of the least ambitious albums I've heard in 2013, left one of the biggest impressions.
Night Time, My Time, Sky Ferreira
I had paid basically no attention at all to Sky Ferreira before the release of Night Time, My Time. I knew she had a song called Everything is Embarrassing that everyone seemed to love; it never made an impression on me. But then a friend sent me some songs from her debut, and I was hooked. Then I listened to I Blame Myself, and I had to hold myself from crying (I was at the subway).
I Blame Myself sounds like a long lost song from the Sixteen Candles soundtrack; there's a huge feeling of melancholia on the production (I don't even have to mention the lyrics). Hey, why aren't the big pop divas making music as affecting as this? Well, Sky is far from being a big pop diva. She sounds more like Ladyhawke - especially on the wonderful 24 Hours, that deserved to be huge. Heavy Metal Heart, although not a heavy metal song, is noisy, 80s, loud like the feeling of love being found (and let's agree that "You put my faith back in boys", from Boys, is a sensational line). Of all the "indie-pop" albums of 2013 (which includes Charli XCX's excellent True Romance), Sky Ferreira created the best one, the most authentic and surprising.