Play Picks: Best Albums of 2013

Yeezus

Kanye West

Nothing Was The Same

Drake

Reflektor

Arcade Fire

Doris

Earl Sweatshirt

Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend
Following the success of their sophomore album, Contra, Vampire Weekend released their highly anticipated third full-length, entitled Modern Vampires of the City. The record had been kept tightly under wraps since writing began in late 2011, and the four-piece discreetly hit the studio with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (We Are Scientists, Plain White T's, Usher) in their native New York. Lead single "Diane Young" illustrates the group in full flow, interjecting a rasping bassline and trashy drums to their crisp indie rock sound.

Scott Kerr, Rovi

Pure Heroine

Lorde

Random Access Memories

Daft Punk
Random Access Memories is the fourth studio album from French electronic dance duo Daft Punk. The highly anticipated return of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Hoemm-Christo sees them collaborate with some legendary musical names. Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, Todd Edwards, and many more contribute to an intrinsic and retro-influenced record that heralds another fascinating chapter in the group's influential history.

Aneet Nijjar, Rovi

Matangi

M.I.A.

Same Trailer Different Park

Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves could easily be contemporary country's next big thing. She's a sharp, detailed songwriter with a little bit of an edge, and while it's tempting to think of her as another coming of Taylor Swift, say, she's got the kind of relaxed sureness about what she's doing as a songwriter and performer that puts her closer to a Miranda Lambert. On her first nationally distributed album, Same Trailer Different Park, she definitely sounds more on the Lambert side of things, with a sparse, airy sound that lets her lyrics shine, and she'd as soon use a banjo in her arrangements as a snarling Stratocaster. From her debut single, the marvelous "Merry Go 'Round" (which is included here as the third track), Musgraves showed an intelligent, careful writing style that is as pointed as it is poignant, and even though the song seems to skewer small-town country life, it does it without malice or agenda, and is really more just telling it true than anything else, a trait that ought to be treasured in Nashville but usually isn't. Nashville wants one to tell it true as long as that telling conforms to the template, which Musgraves isn't likely to do. "Merry Go 'Round" might be the best song here, but there are others that are nearly as good, like the lilting, wise opener, "Silver Lining," the implausible "Dandelion" (one wonders how she manages to make such a winning song out of such a metaphor, but she does), and the gutsy (and again, wise) "Follow Your Arrow," all of which feature clear-eyed observations, unintrusive but appropriate arrangements, and a certain flair for telling it like it is and making it sound like bedrock, obvious wisdom. Musgraves has a sense of humor, too, and all of these traits add up to make Same Trailer Different Park more than a collection of songs just aiming for the country charts.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

The Electric Lady

Janelle Monáe

Wed 21

Juana Molina

Amygdala

DJ Koze
Titled after a region within the brain that is connected to fear and pleasure, Stefan Kozalla's second proper DJ Koze album follows his first one by eight years. Each successive release that trailed Kosi Comes Around -- including singles for Kompakt, Philpot, and his own Pampa, as well as remixes anthologized on 2009's Reincarnations -- amplified Kozalla's reputation for consistency despite his lawless approach to techno. Amygdala should continue the streak. He involves a broad variety of collaborators, most of whom contribute vocals. While that signifies a shortage of ideas for most other producers, the album is more daring and creative than Kosi Comes Around, a straightforward offering in a comparative sense. On "Homesick," Ada channels Kirsty MacColl over a wistful hip-hop production that threatens to shift into rowdy go-go with its assortment of percussion. Milosh's feather-light voice complements the title track, one of Koze's most sensitive, least complicated productions (but watch out for those darting, swarming FX). And yet, despite containing one of Matthew Dear's most polarizing, verging on grotesque vocal performances, the gleefully clomping "Magical Boy" vies for the most touching song. Some of the voices are sampled, irreverently pushed, pulled, stretched, and squeezed into amusing but never extraneous sounds. For a graceful if scuffy, relatively steady transformation of "Ich Schreib' Dir ein Buch" (Rodgers & Hart's "I Could Write a Book"), Hildegard Knef unwittingly gets a duet partner in Marvin Gaye, who is extracted from Tammi Terrell, replicated several times over, and seemingly flicked off the mountain. Gaye also gets it on with Phantom/Ghost's Dirk von Lowtzow on the lullaby-like "Das Wort," but is left untreated. Koze would be considered a belligerent prankster if he didn't display the same irreverence toward his own creations. He adds frilly ornamentation -- sprightly mallets, daffy strings -- to stern rhythms and ominous textures, rubberizes everything, and makes it sound natural and elegant. Jolly guitar noodling prances above the album's deepest, darkest bass. Dear reappears on "My Plans," in which he lucidly intones, over a disorienting cluster of slow-motion rhythms and vocals, "When I notice the world is falling apart, I will run a bath." Yes, Louie, you are leaving your body.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Bones Of What You Believe

CHVRCHES

Settle

Disclosure

R Plus Seven

Oneohtrix Point Never

Shaking the Habitual

The Knife

...Like Clockwork

Queens Of The Stone Age
Featuring the sprawling, riff-strewn single "My God Is the Sun" and guest appearances from the likes of Elton John and Alex Turner, …Like Clockwork is the sixth studio album from Queens of the Stone Age, following 2007's Era Vulgaris. With Josh Homme's trademark cool vocals and high-octane guitar lines backed by the powerful drumming of Dave Grohl, …Like Clockwork is an album full of invention and attitude., Rovi

Beautiful Rewind

Four Tet

Old

Danny Brown

Hesitation Marks

Nine Inch Nails

Vapor City

Machinedrum

She

Alice Smith
In 2006, Alice Smith released For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, one of the most remarkable debut albums of the year. Epic consequently signed the soul-rooted, cross-genre singer/songwriter and re-circulated the album in 2007. The deal raised awareness -- Smith was nominated for a 2008 Grammy in the shamefully short-lived Best Urban/Alternative Performance category -- but was disastrous for her career. An album, along with other recordings, was shelved. Several years passed without a follow-up. Smith became a mother, moved from her native New York to Los Angeles, and continued to perform. Freed from Epic and on the label operated by husband Citizen Cope (himself a survivor of the major-label wringer), Smith is finally able to re-introduce her absorbing life-and-love lyrics, distinctive melodic sense, and four-octave voice. She does so with assistance from her husband, Rebecca Jordan, and Syience (Beyoncé, Marsha Ambrosius, Ne-Yo), together with a core group of musicians that features keyboardist James Poyser (Erykah Badu, the Roots). Two of her first album's many attractive attributes were the subtle and surprising twists in song structure and seamless genre fusions. They're in steady supply here, as on "Ocean," a blissfully flowing expression of romantic contentedness, and on the emotionally stinging "Another Love," an astoundingly fluid piece that, at once, is an attitudinal house stomper and a disarming chamber pop tearjerker. Smith can switch up the lyrical tone with as much finesse; she ends the first verse of the Carole King-worthy "The One" with "Tell me anything, just to get what you want," then begins the chorus with "But I'm not the one/Don't play me, son." She has enough skill and character to leave one hanging on her every note. The cherry on top is an incineration of Cee Lo Green's "Fool for You," one of her most commanding performances and the album's funkiest moment. Green's only rational response would be genuflection -- an appropriate action for anyone within earshot, really.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Yo

Roberto Fonseca
Roberto Fonseca is one heck of a pianist, firmly grounded in his native Cuba, but also a child of his time, strongly influenced by the 1980s, especially Rockit-era Herbie Hancock. That's quite apparent on the first cut here, "'80s," which builds on Hancock's work from that time, heavily rhythmic -- except the rhythms are Cuban -- and moving between some outstanding piano work and some low-key Hammond for a very joyful noise. From there he switches tack completely, bringing up an Afro-Cuban soft groove for "Bibisa," working with singer Fatoumata Diawara as well as kora and ngoni. It's beautifully successful, a fusion that works elsewhere on the disc, with "Chabani" connecting the dots between Cuba and Algeria, while "Gnawa" delves into the Moroccan gnawa tradition. There's plenty of Cuba throughout, but it's at its strongest on "7 Rayos," which is an homage to Santeria. Fonseca is a towering presence all over the disc, whether he's touching blues on "Asi Es la Vida" or trading lines with electric kora on "JMF." There's a glorious fluidity to his playing, but he's also an excellent listener, working well with the other musicians. This disc will greatly enhance his reputation, and definitely raises him up several notches.

Chris Nickson, Rovi

Overgrown

James Blake
With his 2011 debut full-length, dubstep-via-fractured R&B producer James Blake delivered on the promise of his earlier singles while at the same time overhauling his sound, moving away somewhat from the sample-heavy dubstep of those tracks to a sparser atmosphere. The album focused more on Blake's equally haunted piano and vocal lines, submerged elements of implied rhythms, dubstep's subsonic bass resonance, and ghostly samples to create a picture of restraint and contained emotional upheaval. The album felt not so much like the calm before the storm, but like silently watching a hurricane slowly and soundlessly move closer from the distance. Sophomore album Overgrown offers a similar feeling, but Blake approaches the songs here with even more restraint and a subtly deconstructed take on pop. Subtlety is perhaps Blake's greatest attribute on Overgrown, with what could even be the album's heaviest moments blurring into a pleasantly melancholy whole through deft production choices. Take for instance "Take a Fall for Me," a partially rhythm-less track featuring Wu-Tang's RZA in an extended set of rhymes over a looping sample of static and processed backing vocals, and samples that recall Tricky's earliest work. The jagged edges of a track like this could render it awkward with more obvious production, but Blake's touch pushes even RZA's toughest verses into a rainy, lamenting place. The skeletal piano of the debut returns on tracks like "DLM" or the gorgeous album-closer "Our Love Comes Back," which has the faintest hints of Chet Baker's springtime loneliness buried in Blake's mumbling blue-eyed R&B vocals. Brian Eno even shows up to collaborate on the sputtering rhythms of "Digital Lion," perhaps the most hyperactive track here, though only in relative terms. Somewhere between the vacant echoes of dub and trip-hop, dubstep's sample-slicing production, and the contained heartbreak of a singer/songwriter playing piano to himself in an empty room, Blake has crafted Overgrown. It's understated to the point of invisibility at times, with Blake subtracting even himself from the songs, allowing the lead vocals or hooks to be consumed by the song at large. Though the stormy textures and somber reflections are pretty specific to a particular mood, Overgrown finds and fits that mood perfectly. While it might take listeners a few spins to find the right head space for the album, once they get there, it's an easy place to get lost in.

Fred Thomas, Rovi

The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars

Sunbather

Deafheaven

Slow Focus

Fuck Buttons

Southeastern

Jason Isbell

The Night's Gambit

Ka

Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling

Beautiful Africa

Rokia Traore
On Beautiful Africa, Malian songwriter and guitar slinger Rokia Traoré unleashes the fiery rocker she's been nurturing since her teens. On four previous offerings she established herself as a wildly inventive and diverse songwriter, most notably on 2008's Tchamantché. She recorded this set with producer John Parish in the U.K. He keeps her guitar and the n'goni right up front in his mix, just underneath her distinctive, supple voice. Her employment of a female backing chorus acts as both a call-and-response vehicle and as rhythmic and harmonic counterpart. Drummer Sebastian Rochford add weight, punch, and dimension as well. These nine songs are sung in French, Bambara, and occasionally English -- sometimes in the same tune. The music walks the line between the celebratory, the tender, the angry, and the sorrowful. Despite its rock leanings, Malian folk traditions are ever present in its DNA -- check "Kouma," where the vocals and droning desert blues accompanied by sparse percussion create the theme. Halfway through, Traoré's guitar screams through, distorted, frantic, and in the red. "Sikey"'s layered rock guitars, bassline, and drums create a staggered, syncopated groove, while Traoré and her singers' voices provide an alternate rhythm and dialogue. The taut breaks by Rochford and the haunting n'goni add ballast to her forceful, stinging six-string. Halfway through, a bridge offers a different melody, almost a different tune; it shifts the tempo and harmonic focus before returning to the main theme. The title track is damn funky. Traoré uses a wah-wah pedal and plays straight at Rochford's snare and hi-hat. He lays out numerous breaks -- yet remains firmly in the pocket. When she sings "Intense as ever," there's a snarl in her words as she addresses the chaotic, troubling situation in her once peaceful homeland. "Ka Moun Kè," which follows, is a soulful African pop tune; it's grainy and infectious with killer guitar reverb and a hypnotic rhythm track. Parish keeps things raw and lively; the appearance of these tunes being played by a live band is ever present. For those who long for tradition, the ballads such as "N'Téri" and "Sarama" offer melodies whose roots are centuries old. "Samara" is among the most searing ballads in Traoré's songbook. While Beautiful Africa is her most "commercial" recording -- as in, friendly to Western audiences -- it nonetheless follows directly the explorations her music has articulated from the beginning. It feels like a natural step, consequently expanding the margins of Malian roots music and rock and pop simultaneously.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Kiss Land

The Weeknd

A Love Surreal

Bilal
After Airtight's Revenge was issued in 2010, Bilal picked up a Grammy nomination for that album's "Little One" and continued to be one of the most valuable guest vocalists. He enhanced the Roots' Grammy-nominated Undun and Robert Glasper Experiment's Grammy-winning Black Radio, the latter of which includes brilliant work on a version of David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione." For his third official release, Bilal entered the studio with the intent to record an EP, but exited with an album -- one that possibly tops his previous release and has a very different character. Where Airtight's Revenge was all frayed nerves, sonically chunky, and dense, A Love Surreal is kicked back -- lighter, slower, and steamier, more about flirting and lusting than personal and societal turmoil. Backed by much of the Airtight crew, Bilal produces all but four of the 14 cuts. That includes a deceptively wild 25-minute stretch flows from the knotted but playful "Back to Love," to the sneakily hooky "Winning Hand," to the spaced-out "Right at the Core," a deadly duet with King's Paris Strother in which resistance is futile ("You got me at the core"; "You tried to hate me, but your heart is still in it"). The album's latter half is just as remarkable. "Astray" is raw, bluesy soul, its longing tangible from the first lines: "Feelin' chills in the summertime, hot and cold/Something happens to the weather when you're gone." On "Butterfly," he reconnects with Glasper for a sparse ballad -- incorporating delicate, otherworldly Moog accents from Masayuki Hirano -- that should produce all-weather chills. It deserves to circulate as much Herbie Hancock's similarly lissome composition of the same title. As a producer and songwriter, Bilal has stepped up. As a vocalist, he remains supernaturally skilled and creative -- swooping, diving, wailing, and sighing, all with complete command.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

3.0

Marc Anthony

Paramore

Paramore
The moment the gospel choir kicks in on ‘Ain’t It Fun’, urging some poor unfortunate to not go crying to their mother, signals that this is a Paramore album like no other. Following on from the breakup of the original line-up in 2010, singer Hayley Williams returns with a record that’s more commercial than ever, but unafraid to rock out the fuzzy guitars on tracks like ‘Now’ and ‘Part II’. Produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who has worked with Garbage, Air and Nine Inch Nails, the album marries a bright, upbeat hyperactivity with Williams’ often downbeat lyrics to create a winning, No Doubt-style fusion of poppy highlights and sure-fire stadium hits such as ‘Still Into You, Grow Up’ and ‘(One of Those) Crazy Girls’.


Dave Pollock, Google Play

Silence Yourself

Savages
Silence Yourself is the highly anticipated debut record from London four-piece Savages. The all-female act caused a clamor for their signature from the major labels after a spout of raucous live shows and a sold-out 7" on their own Pop Noire label. They maintained their independence on Pop Noire and partnered with Matador Records for this release. They recorded the album at Fish Factory, London, with producers Johnny Hostile -- who produced their debut 7" single "Flying to Berlin" -- and Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Adele, the Horrors).

Scott Kerr, Rovi

Magna Carta... Holy Grail

JAY Z

Wakin On A Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile
Philadelphia songsmith Kurt Vile's 2011 album Smoke Ring for My Halo was a definitive shift for the artist away from home-recorded overexposed fuzz pop toward a more sprawling, textural, and most markedly introspective style. The follow-up, fifth album Wakin on a Pretty Daze, continues in this direction, but pushes the changes begun on Halo with even more articulate production, extended exploration in lengthy songs, and even deeper looks inward, if all approached through Vile's one-of-a-kind fog. Beginning with the nine-plus-minute "Wakin on a Pretty Day," the album immediately takes the mantle from its predecessor, offering up wistful interplay between acoustic and electric guitar tones, Vile's dour mumbled vocals, and an overall emotional sense caught somewhere between the hope and promise of youth and the exhaustion of everyday life. It's this deceptively complex perspective cloaked in seemingly lunkheaded guitar heroics that makes Vile so interesting and helps keep the compositions on Pretty Daze captivating even as many of them stretch past the six-minute mark. "KV Crimes" comes on with a lazy classic rock riff but beneath its stony shuffle and sneery vocals lies a heart of both melody and a palpable sense of diminished excitement being reborn. Longer tracks like "Girl Called Alex" and "Goldtone" capture the dark wistfulness of Where You Been-era Dinosaur Jr. or the dreamy driftiness of Neil Young at his most guitar-centric peaks. Much like his former/sometimes band the War on Drugs, there's an undercurrent of working-class rock à la Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen here (Vile even drops the lyric "Springsteen... pristine" in one song). However, with the spaced-out vaporous jams of Wakin on a Pretty Daze, it becomes clear that Kurt Vile isn't aiming to ape or even update the canon of classic guitar-based songwriters, but is very much his generation's chapter of the evolution of rock. Easily his most focused and accessible work, Pretty Daze is the strongest so far in a chain of releases that seem to suggest there are even greater heights to be reached.

Fred Thomas, Rovi

Woman

Rhye
In 2010, Mike Milosh flew to Denmark to work on a Quadron remix with that duo's Robin Hannibal. The collaboration grew into another duo, named Rhye, which released two singles on Innovative Leisure in 2012. Milosh and Hannibal weren't forthcoming about being behind the achingly romantic soul-pop elegance of "Open" and "The Fall." Once word got out, it seemed forehead-smacking obvious to anyone familiar with Milosh's solo albums and Hannibal's many involvements, Quadron included. Rhye's Woman, released on a major and front-loaded with the first two A-sides, is an ideal fusion of the two instrumentalists and producers, whose sound is enhanced -- never overstuffed -- with horns, woodwinds, and strings, including harp. Tempos rarely break a breezy pace. When they do, they arrive at just the right time, during the album's latter half. The lilting "3 Days" echoes the Blue Nile's "Tinseltown in the Rain," while "Hunger" is breathy boogie, like a sequel to Owusu & Hannibal's "Lonnie's Secret" with surprisingly well-placed horn skronks. In the main, the purpose is bedroom listening, though the tone is so bright that daytime play seems most suitable. The lyrics are packed with metaphors, yet they are expressed in a heartrending and inviting manner. They don't get more explicit than "I'm a fool for that shake in your thighs" -- the album's opening line. Milosh's voice, high and sigh-like, is frequently likened to that of the significantly deeper and richer Sade but is closer to that of Michael Franks. Beside Hannibal, he's made his most expressive and pleasurable material to date. Anyone new to Hannibal's work should start with Quadron's self-titled album and then check the group Boom Clap Bachelors, the album Living with Owusu & Hannibal, Szjerdene's "Lead the Way," and Leon Ware's "Orchids for the Sun." Milosh has three albums on Plug Research, home to Quadron, all of which are worth some time.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks

One Of Us Is The Killer

The Dillinger Escape Plan
In the earlier part of their career, the Dillinger Escape Plan's sound was a glorious frenzy of unfathomable aggression and musicianship, with the band mashing disparate parts together to create something akin to a puzzle made up of pieces from random boxes that, somehow, made a complete picture. Now over a decade out from the savagely genius Calculating Infinity, the band has been continually refining its sound into something that, while still musically interesting, feels sharper and more focused. The results of this refinement shine through on the band's fifth studio album, One of Us Is the Killer. While some hints of the kind of math-metal and prog the band previously trafficked in still linger, the album has a more visceral and in-the-moment feeling, so while there are still plenty of time signature and genre changes scattered around the album, they end up feeling more like spontaneous fits of aggression than intellectual exercises. This shift toward playing to the listener's gut rather than head gives the Dillinger Escape Plan a newfound level of accessibility without diminishing the impact of their punishing sound, and though it might seem like they're smoothing out the edges of their sound and turning their swords into plowshares, the reality is that they've just turned it into a different kind of weapon, proving themselves once again to not only be one of the most innovative metal bands of the last decade or so, but a band that seems truly capable of doing anything.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

IV Play (Explicit Version)

The-Dream

Liquid Spirit

Gregory Porter

Ciara

Ciara

13 (Deluxe Version)

Black Sabbath
13 is the 19th studio album from heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, arriving nearly 20 years after 1995's Forbidden. Produced by Rick Rubin (Slayer, Metallica) and featuring the vocals of Ozzy Osbourne for the first time on a Black Sabbath studio album since 1978's Never Say Die!, 13 is a blistering return that includes the single "God Is Dead?"

My Favorite Picture of You

Guy Clark

My Name Is My Name

Pusha T

Howlin

Jagwar Ma

Traces Of You

Anoushka Shankar

Comfort

Maya Jane Coles

Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam
Lightning Bolt is the tenth studio album by the American rock band Pearl Jam. Produced by long-time Pearl Jam collaborator Brendan O'Brien, the album was released in the United States on October 15, 2013 through the band's own Monkeywrench Records, with Republic Records handling the international release.
The band begun composing new songs in 2011, and had the album's first recording sessions in early 2012 before the musicians decided to take a break. As all the band members got into side projects afterwards, work on Lightning Bolt only resumed in March 2013. The music for Lightning Bolt has a harder rock sound with longer songs to contrast predecessor Backspacer, and the lyrics convey singer Eddie Vedder's feelings on aging and mortality.
Preceded by a promotional campaign focusing on Pearl Jam's website and social network profiles and two moderately successful singles, "Mind Your Manners" and "Sirens", Lightning Bolt was well received by critics, who considered the album an effective return to the band's old sound, and topped the charts in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

~ Provided by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning_Bolt_(Pearl_Jam_album)) under Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)

Born Sinner

J. Cole

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

Colin Stetson
Improviser and composer Colin Stetson's solo work is characterized by dense sheets of saxophone/woodwinds that present a similar approach as loop-based music while being recorded in single live takes with no overdubs. This unique and challenging discipline calls on elements of jazz, modern composition, and even aspects of repetition and textural drone found in certain branches of electronic music and noise. With New History Warfare, Vol. 3, Stetson explores scorched landscapes and heavenly scenes alike with his stylized playing. He spent time collaborating with Bon Iver, and singer Justin Vernon returns the favor and contributes his signature falsetto vocals to four songs here -- these vocals are the only overdubs on the album, though detailed production by Ben Frost would lead listeners to believe otherwise.

Fred Thomas, Rovi

Love In The Future (Deluxe Edition)

John Legend