Alrighty, here we are. We’ve given you a run-down of our worst albums and our Sound of 2014, so here comes part one of the main event – our top 40 albums of 2013. Note that any artist featured here isn’t eligible for our Best Tracks list (because, let’s face it, otherwise it’d be the same list twice), and we’re trying to give as much traction as possible to the lesser-known gems that outshone AAA releases but never got the credit. Long story short: if you haven’t heard any of these then you should do right now – or hop on over to our handy Soundcloud playlist.
Honourable mentions: Quadron made some seriously slinky electronic soul to Jessie Ware standard, and Ashley Monroe became our new country queen. Daughn Gibson showed his teeth with a sterling second album, and no one was surprised when Vampire Weekend emerged with a career best. From newbies we were mighty impressed with EPs from Janine & the Mixtape and Stacey; oh, and we’ll always, always have a place in our hearts for Tegan & Sara. Take a bow.
40. High Highs – Open Season (Review)
Kicking off with a distinctly under-sung gem, we strongly believe this debut album from Sydney’s High Highs deserved a lot more press. Their brand of dream-pop is quite stripped back and layered with effortless harmonies that dare you not to melt. Songs like Open Season and Flowers Bloom are immediately likeable, but it’s Milan’s reserved charm that will have you hooked.
Key track: Milan
39. Oh Land – Wish Bone (Review)
Imagine a Scandi-pop Shakira and you’re about there when it comes to the madness of Oh Land. Eccentric certainly covers it, but Wish Bone is as playful and suggestive as its cover – as an artist, Nanna Øland Fabricius has definitely created her own space. Which, essentially, is defined by big, silly, melodramatic choruses. What’s not to love?
Key track: Bird in an Aeroplane
38. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (Review)
By now, Janelle Monae needs no introduction. While this is no ArchAndroid – the keen lack of singles has affected its position here - her Electric Lady stands tall with the likes of Solange, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott as tremendous beacons of what female-led R&B/soul should sound like. It’s sprawling, challenging, not without fault, but unfailingly engaging… a bit like the eponymous robot herself.
Key track: Dance Apocalyptic
37. Jagwar Ma – Howlin (Review)
Another victory for the other side of the hemisphere – they’re all over the place these days – but Aussie rockers Jagwar Ma continued hammering the sweet spot that Tame Impala nailed last year. It’s kooky, fun psychedelia, recalling at times the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala themselves; there’s a throwback vibe for sure, but delivered with infinite freshness.
Key track: Uncertainty
36. Kelly Rowland – Talk A Good Game (Review)
No one really expected this to be that good, did they? But Kelendria went beyond her album title and (to quote the woman herself) put it down. It’s a fierce homage to Rowland’s ATL roots, but also deeply confessional: there isn’t a song in any of our lists as raw as Dirty Laundry, a song that’s honest to the point of discomfort. Rowland makes you admire her strength and want to hug her at the same time which, for a Destiny’s Child, is absolutely par for the course. Brava.
Key track: Dirty Laundry
35. Small Black – Limits of Desire (Review)
A ten-track smile, essentially. Small Black’s chillwave/indietronica had us hooked from Free at Dawn, but the album really made a mark. Songs like Outskirts are bathed in sunshine, while Only A Shadow’s road-worthy vibe produces a hook that just can’t help but slap a grin across your face. Thoroughly excellent fare, through and through.
Key track: Only A Shadow
34. Tinashe – Black Water (Review)
We’ve popped Tinashe on our ones to watch for 2014, because we really bloody want her to do well. On the strength of this mixtape and her collaboration with Jacques Greene, we’re witnessing quite the career being born from a very talented vocalist. Black Water may just have been a mixtape, but it was sultry, atmospheric, and 100% on point for 2013 R&B.
Key track: Midnight Sun
33. Washed Out – Paracosm (Review)
We’re gigantic fans of Ernest Greene here at PressPLAY (Amor Fati and Eyes Be Closed are two of our favourite songs of all time), so we keenly anticipated Paracosm. There was only a slight problem in that Greene blazed a trail so luminous with his first album that even he himself is still catching up with it, but Paracosm is nonetheless a very worthy lesson on how things should be done in the world of dream-pop.
Key track: All I Know
32. Active Child – Rapor EP (Review)
PressPLAY favourite Active Child does it again, this time with a stop-gap collection between debut album and next year’s second. Gone are the harps and the cloistered, choral chamber-pop; instead we have more electronica, more commercial aim, and even some guest appearances from Mikky Ekko and Ellie Goulding. Despite all this, Grossi’s falsetto still remains the star (both on record and live), and Rapor shines all the brighter for it.
31. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe (Review)
Blood Orange is the new purple, if Dev Hynes is to be believed. While the super-producer has packed in a hell of a lot into one year – contributions to Sky Ferreira, MKS, even a spat with former BFF Solange – it was Cupid Deluxe that really stood out in his repertoire. Full of quirky, atmospheric R&B, the influence of Prince isn’t easy to ignore; however, it’s also a record that demands attention, and we haven’t had enough time with it to place it higher. Stellar work nonetheless.
Key track: Chamakay
30. Night Beds – Country Sleep (Review)
Winston Yellen’s utterly charming debut got lost in the January haze, but it’s also the perfect record to cosy up to at the end of the year. Like Bon Iver’s debut, there’s so much intimate warmth here, it’s hard to dislike; Yellen’s voice carries so much weight over plaintive country-folk, making Country Sleep the first record of 2013 that really demanded our full attention.
29. Emma Louise – Vs Head Vs Heart (Review)
Australia strikes yet again, this time with the mellifluous tones of singer-songwriter Emma Louise. Vs Head Vs Heart is a slow-burner, but patience is rewarded – there’s unreserved beauty in songs like Stainache and Cages, and we’d love to see this album travel much further than its home continent. Resplendent, and full of Bat for Lashes-esque beauty.
28. Autre ne Veut – Anxiety (Review)
When Autre ne Veut’s understated, experimental R&B debut emerged, it was unfairly linked to the year’s other standout newcomer, How to Dress Well. With Anxiety, those needless are comparisons are well shot; Arthur Ashin borrows a little from Prince, a little from the 80s, but creates something that’s very much his own. This isn’t your parents’ R&B, but it sure works a treat.
While Autre ne Veut reinvents R&B, a hapless-looking white girl called Kitty (formerly suffixed Pryde) baited oh-so-many with her lackadaisical take on rap. Look past the prejudice and this mixtape is still such a treat, with Kitty’s slacker delivery being the perfect summation of a generation’s ennui (delivered with striking intelligence, no less). An upstart to watch out for.
26. Lorde – Pure Heroine (Review)
We still call her Lana XCX, but Lorde has really achieved wonders off her own back (at, yes yes, 17). It’s a shame she’s appearing to be a precocious brat, tearing up her peers everywhere for the sake of her message and undoing all the great work Pure Heroine has done. But then Lorde is as her title says, a self-aggrandised feminist ‘saviour’ who, like most of us at 17, seem to think we’ve got it all figured out. On this evidence, she’s got the music part sorted, but she really needs to catch up on the rest.
Key track: Ribs
25. MS MR – Secondhand Rapture (Review)
Our initial summation of Secondhand Rapture wasn’t favourable, purely because we’d heard half of the album in EP form already. Retrospectively, MS MR’s debut is still a great collection as a whole and deserving of high placement here; whether it’s the dark doo-wop styling of, er, Dark Doo Wop, or the macabre gloom-pop of Think of You, they’ve really done alright for themselves in the space of a year.
24. Little Boots – Nocturnes (Review)
This is more like it, Victoria Hesketh. While her debut crumbled under expectation and major-label mediocrity, flying solo has proved more beneficial. Nocturnes is strong, northern dance-pop, the likes you’d expect to hear on a motorway to Bradford. In fact, the Saint Etienne-level Motorway was written about one such road, so there you go. Cracking stuff for the dead of night.
23. No Ceremony – No Ceremony (Review)
This one took us by surprise in late November. and managed to lodge itself quite highly in our list. Manchester electro trio No Ceremony are continuing the city’s grand tradition in music, as this album offers up Crystal Castles x Money level of dream-shoegaze. A fantastic and challenging opening statement.
Key track: FEELSOLOW
22. Jai Paul – Jai Paul (Review)
Technically not a proper album release, or a proper album for that matter, but even a bootleg of Jai Paul’s is stronger than most AAA releases from this year. The circumstances around what happened are still murky, but what we got was a collection of glorious bedroom tinkering, laden with inventive production. Even if there isn’t another album in this boy’s future, this rough-edged collection is enough to solidify his reputation.
Key track: Str8 Outta Mumbai
21. Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day (Review)
Jai Paul was probably still in his pants the last time Mazzy Star were knocking albums around. 17 years after their last release – when we were the ripe age of 10 – Mazzy Star returned in typically smouldering form with Seasons of Your Day. Slow-burning, elegiac, and as arresting as ever, it’s like they’ve never been away (and they’re still schooling everyone else).
20. Annie – A&R EP (Review)
When is an EP not an EP? We’d argue that, in five faultless tracks, Annie and Richard X have managed to achieve more than most albums did this year. There is not a single misstep in this collection of blistering dance-pop, taking a very established mould and gleaming it to perfection. It’s pacifying enough for us not to ask for a new album for a while, but we’re sure that when it does eventually come it’ll be as exceptional as this.
19. AlunaGeorge – Body Music (Review)
A year ago they were barely-there, this year they were everywhere. The album didn’t exactly do as well as it should have (fools, the lot of you), but AlunaGeorge were hard to miss or resist. Body Music lived up to its promise, full of swaying tunes that blended 90s R&B with house and dance. The duo shouldn’t be disheartened – they’ll be here for a long time to come.
18. Volcano Choir – Repave (Review)
Apparently this one is Justin Vernon’s ‘fun’ side-project, along with the gazillion other things he does. We weren’t too taken by Volcano Choir’s first and quite impenetrable album, but Repave is an immediate wallop – Vernon and co are clearly aspiring for stadium-level alt-rock, and they achieve it. There are choruses here that Coldplay wouldn’t turn their noses up at, but there’s still that trademark Vernon charm all over it. Mainstream success could be just one more album away.
17. Charli XCX – True Romance (Review)
Bratty, teenage pop that isn’t exactly for teenagers. That’s how Charli XCX comes across, if that makes a lick of sense. After many false starts, Ms Aitchison finally dropped her cyber-punky, robo-pop debut, full of youth and fire. It’s a flighty take on the highs and lows of love, but never once indulgent and saccharine and instead full of personality. Also helps that she’s a killer songwriter – just ask Icona Pop.
16. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Review)
Another debut we thought would never see the light of day, and if we did it’d never live up to cuts like Everything is Embarrassing. Sky Ferreira has been pushed around a hell of a lot; just looking at the cover you know it’s going to be intensely personal and bare, and Ferreira wastes no time in addressing the vagaries and vulgarities of the music industry. In particular, I Blame Myself is a triumph of a song: searing, knowing, and heralding Ferreira as a new kind of pop-rock star.
Key track: I Blame Myself
15. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Review)
Is there a band more consistent than Arcade Fire these days? Like a new-age Radiohead, they stubbornly deliver with every successive album, and Reflektor is no different. Calling on the likes of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and even throwing in a bit of Bowie, it melds genres to create a sprawling, impressive piece of work. Sure, a lot of the second disc could be done away with it, but Arcade Fire do so much good in the world it’s hard to complain.
Key track: Reflektor
14. Kanye West – Yeezus (Review)
PRAISE YEEZUS. Sigh. You’ve gotta give it to him – for all his grandstanding, Kanye can still shut everyone up with his music. Yeezus is a bold and antagonistic album, full of tall claims and ignorant of irony. Discounting his recent penchant for turning everything into a hagiography for his missus, Yeezus owned the game in 2013. The production crackles, the writing sizzles, and there are more references than you know what to do with. Basically, its proportions are biblical (as Yeezus intended).
13. Haim – Days Are Gone (Review)
Sisters are doing it for themselves, and Haim joined the list of 2013 debuts that didn’t fail to deliver on their high promise. Days Are Gone is drenched in Californian sunshine, loaded with Fleetwood charm, and forever catchy. Add to that festival appearances, radio play, and an album that beat Timberlake in the charts – what more could you want from a debut?
Key track: Days Are Gone
That’s right, the Scandinavian dream-pop outfit deserve to chart this highly. Postiljonen’s unsung debut is still one of the most impressive dream-pop albums we’ve heard in a very long time – as bright and velvety as their album name suggests, it’s full of richly layered production and gorgeous vocals not a million miles away from the Drive soundtrack. Even though their live show disappointed us a bit, Skyer is one of the best albums we heard in 2013, and certainly the one with the most inventive Whitney Houston cover on it.
11. M.I.A. – Matangi (Review)
Mama’s back, and how. While we’d written M.I.A. off as a little batshit with her conspiracy-theorist last album, Matangi puts all of that aside and brings out that typically acerbic lady we know and love. Of course, it’s her winning drawl and eccentric production that make this stand out, but she’s still got that spiky sense of humour that adds extra zing. Welcome back, M.I.A, with open arms.
10. Disclosure – Settle (Review)
In one way, Disclosure’s success makes us laugh – here are two lads recreating the euphoric music of an era that, given their age, they barely remember. But that obviously matters very little; if anything, it brings a freshness to the brothers’ approach to house-pop. After trailing it with several excellent cuts, their debut turned out to be one of the most foot-tapping collections of any genre; whether it’s the relentless bopping of White Noise or the chilled-out ambience of Help Me Lose My Mind, Disclosure nailed every beat they tackled and made the best of every guest act they employed. They show no signs of slowing down either – if everything they produce is as inventive as Settle, we’re signed up for life.
9. Little Mix – Salute (Review)
A late entry, but straight into our top 10. Little Mix have turned into quite the force of nature, shedding their X Factor stigma and becoming an act worth getting genuinely excited for. Salute is punchy, girl-power pop with so much goodness in it – individually the girls each add their own stamp to a line, and together there are no tighter harmonies in the business. They’ve also avoided the pop stylings of Girls Aloud or the Saturdays, pursuing instead a much more fruitful path of 90s R&B while showing massive cajones with an experimental lead cut like Move. Some might consider this sacrilege, but we still stand by it: the torch of Destiny’s Child has officially been passed on.
8. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe (Review)
Was there ever any doubt that CHVRCHES were going to be a success? Well, we’ll admit, we were doubtful. We sidestepped the whole hype and hoopla about the Scottish trio before the album landed, but every inch of The Bones of What You Believe convinced us of our foolishness. Channelling the best of 80s synth-pop with modern electro, CHVRCHES’ debut is full of powerful singles; even when Lauren Mayberry sidesteps vocal duties to give way to her bandmates, the result is like giving a Robyn track to a male voice. Every accolade deserved, every superlative justified, we kneel at their altar.
Key track: The Mother We Share
7. V V Brown – Samson & Delilah (Review)
Talk about a rebirth. For an album that no one was hyped about, for an album no one expected greatness from, Samson & Delilah went in hard. It’s a mission statement of pure ferocity from Brown, who has clearly been tossed around the music industry in the classic ‘square-peg-round-hole’ guise. It almost worked for a time, but with this latest avatar it seems the real V V Brown has finally stood up - Samson & Delilah isn’t a perfect album, but it sure is a memorable one. Discordant basslines, melodramatic arrangements, and Brown channelling her best Grace Jones see the album reach our top 10 – you’d be hard-pressed to find anything with as much fervour or individuality as this.
Key track: The Apple. Repeated ad infinitum.
Aka the point at which people stop taking us seriously and our credibility goes out of the window. This, the soundtrack to a fluffy TV drama, sung mostly by that cheerleader off of Heroes, higher than CHVRCHES? Piffle. But stick with us – super-producer T Bone Burnett judged every single track perfectly, creating an album that’s more cohesive and listenable than proper mainstream releases. From the acute harmonies of (Kacey Musgraves’s) Undermine, to the anti-Wynette Wrong Song, it’s a crash-course in country music that glitzes as much as the town it’s named after. In the context of the show these songs are pretty devastating, but it’s a testament to their creators that even off screen they remain sublime.
5. Yuna – Nocturnal (Review)
On paper, Yuna’s pop star status comes as a surprise, almost as much the Malay sensation’s album being in our Top 5. After working with Pharrell, Yuna hooked up with Chad Hugo and Rhye’s Robin Hannibal to produce a near-immaculate collection of radio-friendly pop, with just enough bite to be different. While Gaga-Perry-Miley tried to outdo one another with extremes, it’s this hijab-clad sweetheart that captured our attention through her mature and introspective approach. As we said in our review, Nocturnal is the sound of quiet heartbreak, the sound of autumnal retreat, and the unmistakable sound of subtlety making a comeback.
4. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts (Review)
This one came as much less of a surprise, given how smitten we became with John Grant’s last album. Right from the ominous beats of the title track, Pale Green Ghosts is nothing short of mesmerising and doesn’t once compromise on the alt-heartthrob’s acerbic wit (even in the face of his HIV+ diagnosis). We still maintain that Sensitive New Age Guy posits Grant as one of the more charismatic males of 2013, while the rest of the album sparkles with caustic lines and self-deprecating charm.
Key track: Pale Green Ghosts
3. Miley Cyrus – Bangerz (Review)
She came, she saw, she drove so fast she pissed on herself. That’s pretty much the take-home from Miley’s Bangerz (a double entendre we’re sure isn’t lost on her). Not only did Ms Cyrus emerge as our twerking heroine this year, she did it with shameless aplomb; stirring up a frenzy at the VMAs or fellating a sledgehammer would have mattered little if it weren’t backed up with some serious pop panache, and Bangerz bested Katy Perry and Lady Gaga by a country (achem) mile. Whether it was the ubiquitous singles or the Salt-N-Pepa second coming that was SMS (Bangerz), whether it was the hoedown of 4×4 or the fury of FU, Miley Cyrus took risks with sounds and producers (“Where Mike Will at?”) and it paid off big-time. Moreover, much as with Miley in real life, there are genuine moments of heartbroken vulnerability should you care to find them, making Bangerz not only a noteworthy pop record but one of the best ‘fuck-you’ break-up albums of the decade.
2. London Grammar – If You Wait (Review)
In one sense, London Grammar are the blogger’s dream. Plucked out of obscurity just over a year ago, they became internet darlings overnight; with every successive drip-fed release, their following grew. When we saw their small Electrowerkz gig in March, we knew that Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman were destined for stardom. A couple of choice singles later (one of which we like to think we had a hand in) and they’ve pretty much become household names, scoring a #2 album and international acclaim. But of course, this would all matter little if the tunes were shit; London Grammar have an M.O. that delivers in droves, Hannah’s devastating vocal the perfect vehicle to air their twenties angst over sparse, xx-like arrangements. Every successive track compounds the emotional desolation, tinged as it is with a fraction of hope; simply put, there’s nothing else like this out there.
Key track: If You Wait
1. Money – The Shadow of Heaven (Review)
If there’s one album, debut or otherwise, that stood head and shoulders above the rest, it’s The Shadow of Heaven by Money. Where do we even start? By turns challenging and awe-inspiring, it achieved that rare feat of making us sing along while giving us something to think about. Money eschew the banal topics plaguing the industry and turn philosophical – if that sounds heavy-handed, it really isn’t. Jamie Lee raises questions like a modern day Dante, his tender falsetto completing the immersive experience of tracks like So Long (God is Dead) and The Cruelty of Godliness, the latter in particular a fragile masterpiece. Adding to their accolade of being the best live act we’ve ever seen, you can see why we have no choice but to award them album of the year. Still unconvinced? Listen to Bluebell Fields, close your eyes, and become enamoured with a group of Mancunians you’ll be hearing a lot more about in future.
Key track: Bluebell Fields