Best Albums of 2013

I slaved over this for the last couple of months. It wasn't the write-ups for each album that took time, but rather trying to rank these amazing pieces of work. I whittled down my long list of favorites to 30 records I enjoy start to finish. While my choices are instinctual and based on the replay factor, many are important beyond the music in terms of their cultural, social, and industry impact. This list is somewhat eclectic (and predictably female-heavy), but hopefully my descriptions pique your interest enough to connect with these albums via your favorite record store or streaming service. 

In countdown form:

30. Avril Lavigne - Avril Lavigne 

Avril Lavigne
By Avril Lavigne

While you all Roared with Katy Perry or Worked with Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne was in the corner releasing one of the best, straightforward pop albums this year. “Rock N Roll” is classic, punk-pop Avril while “Give You What You Like” is where I hope to see Lavigne head on future records. Never count her out.

29. Goldfrapp - Tales of Us

Tales Of Us
By Goldfrapp

No two Goldfrapp albums are alike, and Tales of Us is no exception. It’s the duo’s most lush offering to date, packed with strings that elevate Allison Goldfrapp’s ethereal, alien voice to new heights. This record sounds like walking around a quiet neighborhood at 2 am, post rainstorm, with foggy streetlights and vivid memories.

28. Little Boots - Nocturnes

By Little Boots

Little Boots finds the perfect balance between dark dancefloor anthems and the majestic on her perfectly titled sophomore record Nocturnes. Whereas her debut sounded like it was courting trends, her second offering is an artist incorporating the best elements of club music into sophisticated, moody pop songs.

27. Paula Cole - Raven 

By Paula Cole

Raven brings Paula Cole back to a more traditional singer-songwriter sound and shows why we fell in love with her in the first place; those pipes. The fact that her voice remains as strong as ever is astounding. I dare you to listen to “Manitoba” and not get chills.

26. The Naked & Famous - In Rolling Waves 

In Rolling Waves
By Naked & Famous

There is such a vastness to this album, like looking out over a tumultuous ocean, making the album title extremely appropriate. Featuring male and female vocals, the records plays out like a long night of drunken, intense conversation that captures every emotion that arises in such a context.

25. Cher - Closer To The Truth

Leave it to Cher to release her most cohesive album at age 67. But let’s forget the over-discussed topic of her age and instead focus on how no one does pop like Cher. Alongside the predictable gay club-ready songs like “Take It Like a Man” and “Red,” we see the return of Cher delivering classic ballads. The U2-esque “Sirens” is a career highlight.

24. London Grammar - If You Wait 

If you wait
By London Grammer

The reverb-drenched sound of London Grammar is not your standard girl-fronted indie affair. There’s a fragility to lead singer Hannah Reid’s voice that leaves me struggling to find a comparison, perhaps because there simply isn’t one. Perfect late night driving music.

23. MS MR - Secondhand Rapture

While quite a few pop records trended towards a darker sound, no one did it like MS MR. Album highlight “Dark Doo Wop” is the perfect description for this album, like listening to soulful ghosts tell dramatic stories about lost love and better days.

22. Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

The Electric Lady
By Janelle Monae

Janelle Monáe doesn’t create albums, she creates worlds. Easily one of the most creative and promising artists making music right now, Janelle ups the funk on her sophomore album. When you have Prince, Erykah Badu, and Solange on your record, how can it not be a forward-thinking, soulful journey?

21. Quadron - Avalanche

By Quadron

One of the biggest surprises of the year. The timeless sound of this album always makes me smile. On opening track “LFT,” vocalist Coco O sings ‘I notice red lipstick on my teeth in the restroom while we all pee.’ The vibrant retelling of a night out with your friend is infectious and nostalgic. A song that mentions pee being one of the best this year? Who woulda thunk.

20. Paramore - Paramore

By Paramore

Paramore makes the best album of their career after trimming some of the fat in their band. Never have they sounded more focused and alive. Hayley Williams takes the drama of band members leaving and turns it into ukulele interludes, spaced between guitar-heavy, familiar-sounding pop anthems like “Daydream” and “Still Into You." Album highlight “Ain’t it Fun” even features a gospel choir. This one will convert the non-believers.

19. Miley Cyrus - Bangerz

Bangerz [Explicit]
By Miley Cyrus

Miley was able to twist knots into everyone’s panties in 2013 because she knew she had the music to back it up. The fact is, Miley has an incredible voice. The songs on Bangerz are a snapshot (or maybe a Snapchat?) of a young woman who’s navigating the waters of being young, being a woman, and growing up with the cultural influences of pop, hip-hop, and her own country roots. In other words, it’s a fascinating album worth overlooking the media frenzy.

18. Ariana Grande - Yours, Truly

Yours Truly
By Ariana Grande

The perfection of Ariana Grande's voice is frightening. The amount of control she has over it at such a young age should scare the shit out of everyone, seriously. With an album that bounces from 50s girl group to hip-hop, Yours Truly is both classic and fresh sounding in the best ways. Yes, it’s been said to death that she’s the heir to Queen Mariah Carey, but I’m anxious to see how Ariana evolves.

17. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe

Worshiping at the altar of CHVRCHES means appreciating a song for its lyrics just as much as you love the synth choice. As if we couldn’t stop obsessing over the floating city sound of “The Mother We Share” or the car chase pace of “Gun,” the band also released an indiepop version of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” by legend Whitney Houston. Basically, they’re currently unmatched.

16. Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob

By Tegan and Sara

We all knew these twins had pop smashes in them, but nothing could prepare us for the bedroom dance party of Heartthrob. In a year where we all wore black to lament the lack of a new Robyn record, Tegan and Sara were the white lights in our pop tunnel. Please note, this record sounds best while played extra loud and wearing cute underwear.

15. Ciara - Ciara 

By Ciara

It might have taken a few tries, but Ciara gets it 100% right on her self-titled, fifth record. She creates a sound all her own and marries the perfect amount of pop and R&B. While I’ll adore any song that samples “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJs, no one uses it better than Ciara does in “Body Party.” Then of course there’s “Overdose,” a song that leaves me speechless with its perfection. In a perfect world, Ciara would be all over the radio and featured on every song. Rihanna who?

14. Natalie Maines - Mother

By Natalie Maines

Somehow we survived another year without a new Dixie Chicks album, but that’s mostly because Natalie Maines released a solo album. Simply put, Maines is one of our greatest living vocalists. Even if this record is 70% covers, this is Natalie Fucking Maines singing Jeff Buckley, Pink Floyd, Brian Wilson, and the immaculate Patty Griffin. However, the strongest track is album closer “Take It On Faith,” which happens to be apart of the 30% helmed by Maines. Coincidence? Nope. Natalie Maines is the Almighty.

13. Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Once I Was An Eagle
By Laura Marling

When you listen to Laura Marling, you get the sense that she skipped being a promising singer-songwriter and jumped ahead to folk legend. With a voice that slowly washes over you but has the ability to bite at any second, Marling ambitiously blends the first four tracks of her fourth album into a single movement. Although you think you might lose interest midway through, you instead find yourself stunned at how the melody curves and bends with every guitar stroke. Another classic under her belt.

12. Charli XCX - True Romance

True Romance
By Charli XCX

An ambitious pop record of the highest caliber. Another artist who had considerable blog hype prior to actually releasing her debut, Charli XCX refused to contain herself to one avenue of accessible music. Instead, she blends hard beats with heavenly synths, lovey lyrics with drug using, and injects sarcasm into songs about longing for someone. On “Grins,” she bounces from a slow hip-hop groove to frantic dance beats in a matter of seconds. Charli is another example of someone who refuses to let pop music be low brow, and we thank her.

 11. Lissie - Back to Forever

Back to Forever
By Lissie

No one thought she could top her debut, but Lissie did it with ease. Blending classic rock beats, soaring guitars, and appalachian gospel, Lissie is the future of folk rock, and that future looks very, very bright. This midwestern woman roars like no other. When you hear Lissie sing, it’s impossible not to feel the ferocious quality of her voice. However, just as you’re getting used to the power, she starts singing a ballad that rips your heart out. On “They All Want You,” a bar-closing, whiskey-soaked ballad, Lissie’s desperation and frustration is palpable.

10. Haim - Days Are Gone

As we watch various blogs and music publications post their Best of 2013 lists, we’ll see Haim among the usual suspects; men. This is important and gratifying, but let’s not focus on the trio’s gender as to why these women and this album deserves every bit of praise. The songs the Haim sisters chose to comprise their debut record have attitude, soul, and vulnerability. No longer must we wonder what Fleetwood Mac would sound like in 2013; when you listen to “If I Could Change Your Mind,” the shimmering harmonies will transport you back in time, but crave a future where Haim continues to make records like this.

09. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park

Same Trailer Different Park
By Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves reminds us that mainstream country doesn’t have to be about red solo cups and tractors. Instead, she takes us back to the days when country music told colorful stories about adultery, small town confinement, and drunken confessions of love. On her debut, Musgraves covers all of those areas and then some, with the then some ranging from weed to same-sex love on the much-discussed “Follow Your Arrow”...that’s right, same sex love, on a mainstream country album. However, don’t let that overshadow how well-crafted and heartfelt this album truly is.

08. Patty Griffin - American Kid

American Kid
By Patty Griffin

When listening to other artists take on Patty Griffin’s songs, such as the Dixie Chicks, Solomon Burke and Miranda Lambert, Griffin fans find validation in her imaginative storytelling and melodic sensibilities. Ultimately, though, they’re left missing that soaring voice; it lifts you to the mountain tops with its power then gracefully glides you back to the ground. Thankfully, after six years, Griffin returns with a masterclass in folk she’s dubbed American Kid, a record which explores life and death in a way that shows considerable candor and gut-wrenching honesty (from my Glide Magazine review). While comparing God to a “Wild Old Dog” might sound strange or clunky, cut to you weeping on your kitchen floor because of Griffin’s delivery.

07. Ashley Monroe - Like a Rose

Like A Rose
By Ashley Monroe

Out of nowhere, Ashley Monroe delivers a country record that’s an instant classic. What separates this album from every country release from 2013 is Monroe herself, a country superpower. Vocally, she employs delicacy on ballads like “Used,” but then adopts country diva sass for “Weed Instead of Roses.” The latter is truly one of the best songs released this year; a clever, soulfully sung tune about spicing up things in the bedroom with chains and a little green. Aside from the vocals, Monroe abandons the trappings of country cheese in favor of strong, classic country storytelling. By the campy closing number featuring Blake Shelton, you’ll rush to hit replay on the entire collection.

06. Vienna Teng - Aims

Soltruna Records

Vienna Teng has come a long way from being a girl on a piano; with Aims, she incorporates electronic elements that take her emotive songwriting to new places. Whether it’s an A Capella song using an Imogen Heap-style harmonizer about our relationship with modern technology (“Hymn of Acxiom”), or a guitar-lead ballad about our parents’ mortality {“Oh Mama No”), Teng captures human emotion and experiences in ways I’ve yet to hear elsewhere. I’m not sure how she can top this, but given that Teng and this record truly came in like a Miley-style Wrecking Ball, I’ve never been more excited about an artist’s potential.

05. Lady Gaga - ARTPOP

By Lady Gaga

If critics would take two seconds to stop telling us what they expect from Lady Gaga or why they wish she’d go away, maybe those listeners would enjoy the brilliant pop record that is ARTPOP. Forget her often bloated concepts and unconnected imagery; instead, listen to Lady Gaga’s incomparable sense of melody and hook-writing abilities. Push yourself to hear how although this is a “party record” as she’s dubbed it, it also tells a story about a young artist carving out her identity and struggling with the demons of fame. When listening to the trio of “Mary Jane Holland,” “Dope,” and “Gypsy,” listen for the story of addiction, sobriety, and the healing powers of romance. She’s the Queen of Excess, but she’s also one of the few pop stars who gives a damn about entertaining people. For that, she and this record truly deserve the “Applause.”

04. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

After releasing some of the most gorgeous, abstract poetry put to record, no one expected Neko Case to reveal herself the way she does on her fifth album. Don’t be mistaken, the songs are as poetic as ever, but sometimes the subject matter feels so personal that it’s difficult to digest. I consider Neko Case, much like a few other women on this list, one of our greatest living vocalists. The range of emotions she evokes with an obtuse lyric or melody is at times overwhelming. For example, the haunting submarine sound juxtaposed against a forlorn vocal on “Where Did I Leave That Fire?” is a brooding and intense, leaving the listener in awe of its beauty. The Worse Things Get... is about losing yourself completely and fighting with everything you have to repair a broken identity. Despite being abstractly autobiographical, this record plays as a series of reminders to the human race; sometimes they’re hard to grasp, and sometimes they’re exactly what we need hear.

03. Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time

Night Time, My Time
Capitol Records

The journey to Night Time, My Time is just as important as the record itself. After years of failed attempts at pop superstardom, changes in sound and direction, and a good ol’ drug bust with accompanying mug shot, Sky Ferreira finally released her debut album. Thankfully, the music makes it easy to lay the drama to the wayside. Ferreira abandons the more straightforward pop of her early tunes in favor of lipstick-covered grunge. It’s easy to hear the Blondie and Garbage influences on songs like “Boys” and “Love In Stereo,” but it’s the lyrics recounting Sky’s struggles with fame that make this record worth more than a few listens. While the somber buzz single “Everything Is Embarrassing” made the Internet pay closer attention to her, Ferreira saved the best for the album. The centerpiece of Night Time, My Time is the naked “I Blame Myself,” spotlighting a self-aware young woman obviously damaged by her time in the spotlight itself. Even though she dealt with copious amounts of bullshit to get here, the last laugh is Sky’s, and it’s a glorious, sugar rush of an album.

02. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ

By Beyonce

We’ll feel the radiation effects from the Beyoncé bomb for a long, long time. After a year of touring with seemingly no album in sight, Beyoncé releases a “visual album” with zero traditional promotion. While that’s enough to make people talk, Beyoncé wasn’t finished there; the music and videos on this record are the best of her career. The self-titled affair is completely appropriate given these songs provide insight into an artist many claimed was guarded and impersonal. We get glimpses into the singer’s struggle with trying to achieve perfection, music industry politics, and even marriage woes, despite the public perception that she and Jay Z are the perfect couple. To back the personal lyrics, Beyoncé abandons traditional notions of pop music in favor of grimey hip-hop, 70s soul, and egocentric rap. The music stands firmly on its own, but hearing these songs while watching their visual components is mindblowing. The effort is clear, but everything feels effortless in execution. This is a career-defining record: this is her Velvet Rope, her Erotica, her Blue. This is BEYONCÉ.

01. Lorde - Pure Heroine

Pure Heroine
By Lorde

2013 clearly belongs to 17 year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde. She released the biggest song of the year with a full-length album to back it up; “Royals” was even the star of accused racism rants. Hype aside, let’s look at what this record is: Pure Heroine is the response to over five years of songs already sounding like the remix - songs that rely on the same tropes and sounds to create instant gratification singles, rather than fully-realized albums. This is a post-EDM pop album. Not since Fiona Apple have we seen youth used the way Lorde uses it; youth is not a hindrance to her success as an artist, but instead a lens through which she contrasts her own experiences with societal expectations of her generation. The songs on Pure Heroine are confessional yet pontificating, a combination allowing Lorde to create a world where acne is celebrated, popularity is overrated, and mortality looms. ‘It feels so crazy getting old.’ - that line from “Ribs” could be the album’s tagline. Pure Heroine is innocence wearing wise glasses, and nothing in 2013 felt more authentic and pure.

What were your favorite releases this year? Sound off in the comments. 

If you'd rather sample all of the albums on this list, here's a playlist composed of one song from each album, sequenced for flow and not by rank order. Enjoy!