*there is no Katy Perry on this list.
When it comes to describing the year 2013 in music, I can’t really come up with anything to use as a clear summation. I mean, if 1983 was defined by Thriller and the rise of MTV and 1993 was defined by the commercial acceptance of gangsta rap, and 2003 was defined by teen stars Justin and Christina becoming credible adult artists, then 2013 is the year of…Miley Cyrus? Blurred Lines? Should I be snarky (if somewhat truthful) and call 2013 the year pop music decided it didn’t like black folks anymore?
I kid, but only slightly. Even though Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Drake and Kanye all released albums that sold Gold or better, it can be argued that the biggest hip-hop artist of the year was Macklemore. The biggest R&B artists of the year are the aforementioned Timberlake and Robin Thicke. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might throw in Rihanna, although she’ll probably tell you herself that her music isn’t particularly R&B. You know like I know that popular black rock acts are as frequent as orange snowflakes. As a result, pop music is now extremely black-sounding without actually having any black artists at the helm-something I find quite odd and a bit disturbing. It’s like Elvis and Pat Boone all over again.
R&B is not the only musical genre that has seen better days. Regular ol’ guitar rock has been on its deathbed for years, though. And that didn’t stop this year. Pearl Jam crashed onto the charts this year with a first week number comparable to pop divas Katy Perry & Miley Cyrus, but received maybe 5% of the press coverage and damn near none of the airplay. At least when I was a kid, the danceable pop that Paula Abdul and the New Kids made was mitigated by the likes of Bobby Brown and Janet Jackson, not to mention Guns ‘n Roses and Def Leppard. These days, it seems like the popular music scene is scantily-clad dance divas, future one-hit wonder “alternative” bands and dudes named Justin. And that’s it. Pretty sad state of affairs if you’re under 25.
Thankfully, there are folks out there who know better, like me. Yes, I just patted myself on the back. That’s part of the reason I have a blog.
The first part of this post might seem a little bit “woe be music,” but if you took the time to dig past the top 40, 2013 was actually a pretty good year for music. There may not have been a single standout knock-my-socks-off record, but there were lots of albums that I solidly enjoyed. Nothing wrong with a bunch of triples as opposed to a handful of home runs, right? Coming up with 20 seemed a little easier than it had in years past, actually, and there are an additional 10-20 albums that I either haven’t listened to enough or came in just under the level of quality of the albums listed below. There’s a little bit of everything here-from rootsy rock with country influences to space age R&B to whatever the fuck Javelin is (seriously–what the fuck do you categorize Javelin as?) Hopefully you discover something new here, or revisit a piece of music that you didn’t give a fair shake to earlier this year.
David Bowie: The Next Day
How many of y’all were gob-smacked that the Thin White Duke returned to music making in 2013 after a ten year absence? Hell, not only did Bowie come out of retirement, but he returned with an album that was arguably his best in thirty years! Even I, as a relative newcomer to much of Bowie’s catalog, was impressed by how much the legend recalled his old self on songs like “Where Are We Now” and “I’d Rather Be High.” With strong songwriting, and a reunion with legendary producer Tony Visconti, Bowie eschewed the electronic elements that were the basis for much of his work of the Nineties and beyond, making The Next Day the “classic rock” record of 2013.
Dawes: Stories Don’t End
Speaking of classic rock, you might feel as though you’re in a bit of a time warp when you listen to California quartet Dawes. The band recreates the earnest songwriting of…er, The Band (and Jackson Browne, The Eagles and those of a similar ilk) without coming off as carbon copies. Their third album, Stories Don’t End, didn’t offer many surprises to those who were fans of their earlier work, but the lyricism and musicianship remained as strong as ever. Lead singer and principal tunesmith Taylor Goldsmith is a singular talent, capable of tugging heartstrings on songs like standout “Most People” and “Someone Will.”
Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost
Two entities with pretty impeccable histories team up for an album. Would you expect anything less than genius? Questlove and co. give Costello a little bit of knock and a little bit of swing, stretching his sound out a bit while thankfully avoiding putting him in any awkward musical situations. No disrespect to Dice Raw and Malik B., but they’d have probably been out of place on an Elvis Costello album, although I must admit to being a little sad that they couldn’t find a place for Black Thought. Wise Up Ghost is as much a testament to Questlove’s exacting band leadership as it is to Costello’s lyrical game, which is on point as ever, and the result is an album that’s as solid as it is difficult to categorize. Man, if you were a rock legend (or sounded like one,) I guess you had a pretty good 2013, judging from the first three albums on this list. Can you tell I’m over 30?
The Foreign Exchange: Love In Flying Colors
He’s been around for over a decade now, but if you haven’t yet begun to appreciate Phonte Coleman, please do. Phonte can rap. Phonte can sing. Matter of fact, when you line up the best rapper/singer combos, Phonte is right up there with L-Boogie, Cee Lo, Andre 3000 and Black Thought (who should probably sing more often.) Joined by producer partner Nicolay, Love In Flying Colors is an excellent album that combines classic soul with an almost “prog” musical element. New wrinkles on Flying Colors include the presence of a series of female vocalists and a more pronounced dance element. I’m not talking dance music like those spin class songs that always fuck up the flow of Ne-Yo’s otherwise excellent albums. I’m talking subtle Chicago and New York house flavors that perk your ears up while not interrupting the cohesive flow of the album. Add in a fresh remix album (The Reworks) released at the top of 2013, and guest appearances on albums by compatriots RJD2 (who you’ll find elsewhere on this list) and Zo! (whose ManMade is a solid slice of mellow R&B as well,) and Team FE+ had a damn good year.
The Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2
The first Black Radio album, released at the top of 2012, found piano/keyboard whiz Glasper collaborating with a who’s who of modern soul and creating a Grammy-winning classic. On the surprisingly quickly released sequel, he and his unit reconvene with an almost completely different group of collaborators and produce an album that’s arguably just as good as the first one. Seemingly left-field artists like Patrick Stump and Norah Jones (who could collaborate perfectly with a tree if she wanted to) fit right in, the songs with Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton are just as good as you would expect them to be, and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children” (featuring the somewhat unlikely duo of Lalah Hathaway and bassist/spoken word artist/Theo from “The Cosby Show” Malcolm-Jamal Warner) is an emotional high point.
Cee-Lo Green has been so many things over the course of the past two decades (!!), it’s easy to forget that he initially made his name as part of Goodie Mob. While they didn’t receive the same amount of commercial and critical acclaim that their ATL brethren OutKast did, they were just as influential. After a decade apart, the group (also including Big Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo) reunited for Age Against The Machine, a primer on what hip-hop in 2013 should sound like. Meaningful, soulful, and lyrically dazzling, it certainly didn’t deserve the yawn it received from the music-buying public upon release. For those golden-age heads who feel like hip-hop has lost its shine: you would be wise to find a copy of this joint. It’ll take you back and move you forward at the same time.
Haim: Days Are Gone
These three California sisters are a little Fleetwood Mac, a little Wilson Phillips, and a little funky to boot! A performance on “Saturday Night Live” was the catalyst I needed to listen to their debut, Days Are Gone, in full. Man, what a great little pop album. As with a lot of great music made this year, Days Are Gone looks backward and forward simultaneously, with songs like “Falling” & “Don’t Save Me,” which have indie-pop cred while not sounding too far removed from the heyday of Sheena Easton. It’s a tricky little balancing act, but this trio performs it well.
Mayer Hawthorne: Where Does This Door Go?
I’ve always dug Mayer Hawthorne. I feel like with Where Does This Door Go?, he officially came into his own as an artist. While his first two albums almost seemed like a goof on old-school soul, Door does a great job of mixing current flavors with a classic sensibility. Collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams (who made up for a couple of years out of the spotlight by appearing on EVERYTHING in 2013) hit hard, most notably “Reach Out Richard,” which is a heartfelt letter from son to father as well as a dead ringer for a classic Steely Dan track. “Corsican Rose” is another fantastic dance jam, and Mayer also seems a lot more comfortable singing in his normal range as opposed to the falsetto that he used liberally on his first two albums. Neck and neck with JT’s 20/20 Experience as the blue-eyed soul release of the year.
Jim James: Regions Of Light & Sound Of God
For his first full-length solo project, the My Morning Jacket frontman recorded a space-pop/rock/soul masterpiece inspired by a spiritual awakening (which I’m sure of) and…lots of drugs (not so sure, but I have a hunch?) There’s a psychedelic/spacy vibe to Regions that isn’t nearly as unfocused as those words may indicate. It’s actually a concise little set, with the danceable “Know Till Now” the only real moment of excessive sprawl. Jim’s earnest voice gives gravitas to songs like “Actress” and “A New Life,” and while MMJ’s live shows are legendary, Jim’s solo jaunt earlier this year was truly something special. There’s a clip of him performing “A New Life” on the Jimmy Fallon show with occasional collaborator Questlove, and it’s one of the most stunning televised musical performances I’ve seen in recent years. Of course, it isn’t on YouTube. Damn it.
Javelin: Hi Beams
No new Chromeo album this year? No problem! Check out Javelin’s second release, Hi Beams. Well, I guess that’s not exactly fair. I don’t know if Chromeo would create anything as awesomely silly “Judgment Night,” which sounds like a combination superhero theme/triumphant Jay Z track/WWE entrance music. Or something as indie-pop sweet as “Light Out,” which recalls new wave/new romantic pop more than the post-disco boogie sound that defines most of Chromeo’s music. Shit, maybe that was a bad comparison after all. At any rate, Javelin throws a variety of musical styles into the kitchen sink, then they jump into the kitchen sink and dance!
The second half of my list is on the way soon enough, as well as a look at some of the non-musical items that made 2013 a pretty great pop culture year.