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26 Things That Defined Music In 2013

From Yeezus to “Yoncé,” this is what made this year a very odd and exciting time for pop music.

26. Jay Z sells a million copies of Magna Carta…Holy Grail to Samsung.

Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Jay Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail may be the work of a creatively stagnant genius, but its initial release as exclusive download on certain models of Samsung phones showed us that Hov was still invested in finding new ways to sell his music. The stunt vastly inflated the sales figures for the album — Samsung legitimately purchased a million downloads at $5 each so each free download counted as a sale and qualified the album for immediate platinum certification — and made the record seem more like an event than it might have otherwise. It’s too bad that was all tarnished by the revelation that the Magna Carta app was being used for extensive and seemingly unnecessary data mining. Whoops. —Matthew Perpetua

25. The “Harlem Shake” comes…and then goes.

The “Harlem Shake” phenomenon was as faddish as viral memes get: It came out of nowhere, was omnipresent for about two months, and then disappeared so fully that less than a year later it seems like something that happened a decade ago. But hey, it’s not like we didn’t get anything out of it. The meme lifted the electronic producer Baauer out of obscurity, made history as the first viral meme to hit the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 thanks to a new rule that factors in YouTube views, and many of us have vague yet pleasant memories of wilding out on camera for a minute in our own “Harlem Shake” videos. —M.P.

24. Ariana Grande emerges as pop’s most promising new singer.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

I’ll admit I was initially skeptical of Ariana Grande. She emerged onto the musical scene in her video for “The Way” half-ponytail tied up in a ribbon and a flouncy dress that had me guessing she had to be about 14. Then the next minute she’s making out with Mac Miller. Turns out she’s (now) 20, and actually more than just a Nickelodeon star trying to make it: She legitimately has one of the best voices pop music has seen in a while. Her ‘90s Mariah influences go without saying, but she has the voice to back it up and pop music could certainly use more like it. Beyond being a baby Mimi, though, the girl has taste: Her debut album had doo-wop, old-school ballads, and lyrics that tug at your heartstrings in genuine ways (see: “Honeymoon Avenue”). It’s fun to have a new, classical kind of pop diva, and it’ll certainly be exciting to see how Grande decides to shape and carve out her own space in 2014. —Aylin Zafar

23. Chance the Rapper mixtape Acid Rap is one of the best albums of the year.

Chance The Rapper emerged in 2013 as an artist to watch, and solidified his position in hip-hop as one of the most exciting, creative rappers out. The Chicago native’s mixtape Acid Rap was a stunning display of his capabilities: great taste in picking soulful, warm melodies, vivid storytelling skills, and an exciting, deft, hilarious way with words. And he somehow manages to be a romantic without being too syrupy-sweet. We can’t wait to hear more. —A.Z.

22. Lily Allen’s comeback video sparks an accidental controversy.

Lily Allen’s always been known as someone who speaks her mind, so when she dropped her new video, “Hard Out Here,” aimed to tackle the ridiculous expectations of women in today’s music industry, people were excited. But the video swiftly became a lesson in how quickly an attempt at irony can go wrong. In making a comment about the sexism and materialism in hip-hop videos and pop music today — the clip takes shots at Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop — Allen’s video was interpreted by many as perpetuating the racism that is still around us every day. In one scene, she appears — fully clothed — dancing next to a fancy car while scantily clad black women twerk all around her. And while it may have been a shot at Miley’s alleged cultural appropriation, it didn’t come off as all that different. The video sparked a huge debate online about what makes a proper satire, and whether Allen was really racist, or, at least, racially ignorant. What we learned is that satire isn’t merely re-creating the offensive scenario, and without any value added, imitation ends up being just as bad as the thing you’re trying to “poke fun” at. In trying to make a statement about sexism, she neglected to think of the racial implications — something that proves we still have a way to go. —A.Z.

21. Disclosure deliver their flawless debut album Settle.

The hype around the return of Daft Punk in the first half of 2013 was so intense that no one really expected the year’s best dance album to come from a completely different duo. While the French robots strayed from the giddy EDM of their classics Homework and Discovery in favor of an organic retro-’70s sound, Guy and Howard Lawrence gave the world the most consistently brilliant and joyful set of dance tracks since…well, Discovery, and instantly became the new standard-bearers for their genre. —M.P.

20. Lady Gaga goes full-on performance art.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

For all the pop-art hoopla surrounding Lady Gaga’s third album, ARTPOP turned out to be a surprisingly accessible, dance-friendly record that proved the eccentric singer has the chops and the sensibilities to back up all the theatrics. Gaga’s always had an interest in art and mythology, and for her latest album, she worked her way into the fine-art world by linking up with Jeff Koons and performance artist Marina Abramović. She released her album amid a flurry of insane press events, from debuting a “flying dress” designed by her Haus of Gaga, to throwing an epic (and fantastic) “artRave” release party. But all the pomp and flash wasn’t enough to guarantee the star a huge hit. The record was immediately deemed a “flop” by some media outlets and sold just over 250,000 copies in its first week, despite debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. There were even rumors of Interscope losing $25 million from promoting the project. But the album itself is fantastic, from the cathartic, anthemic “Applause” to the irresistible ‘90s-tinged “Do What U Want,” to the beautiful ballad “Gypsy,” and Gaga proved that she doesn’t need to play the radio game to still be the world’s biggest star. —A.Z.

19. Arcade Fire reinvent themselves with Reflektor.

Gene Blevins / Reuters

Arcade Fire presented their fourth album Reflektor as a new stage of their evolution — more grooves, more wit, more glitter — but despite the superficial changes, the Canadian band couldn’t stop being the deep, dour, and bombastic act they’ve always been. This is no bad thing, since there was never a reason for them to fix a thing that wasn’t broken. Reflektor expands the band’s palette and refines their sensibility, and shows them to be the only major rock band of the ’00s with an ambition to push themselves artistically while still reaching out to a broad mainstream audience. —M.P.

18. One Direction get even bigger.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

“What other boy band has 100+ awards, three No. 1 albums, nine music videos with millions of combined views, a 134-show tour, an international movie, five very tight pairs of pants, a very precarious balcony picture of one member with his pubes out, 12 combined nipples, nine combined kidneys, five perfect faces, and THIRTY COMBINED ABS? No other boy band I care about.” —BuzzFeed’s resident 1D superfan Matt Bellassai

17. Lou Reed dies at 71.

Denis Balibouse / Reuters / Reuters

Lou Reed’s death wasn’t a shock — it had been known for a while that he’d been in poor health — but it was still a gutting loss. Like a lot of aging icons, Reed was taken for granted in his later years, but his passing forced rock fans to reckon with his large and vastly influential body of work. It’s impossible to imagine dozens of rock subgenres existing without Reed’s work in The Velvet Underground, so even if you weren’t a fan of his music, his death was rattling because surely at least one thing you love deeply is part of his legacy. —M.P.

16. Haim hit the big time.

Olivia Harris / Reuters

Haim spent the better part of two years priming audiences for their debut album Days Are Gone with a gradual rollout of singles and tour dates. The slow and steady approach paid off big time — not only did they break into the mainstream with their song “The Wire,” but the album proved that they have enough first-rate material to score at least three more hits. —M.P.

15. My Bloody Valentine finallllllllllly come back.

Before this February, the idea of a new My Bloody Valentine album was very hard to imagine: Kevin Shields had been promising one for at least a decade, but after 22 years, it just seemed like talk. When m b v finally arrived on a Saturday night in the dead of winter, the very existence of new MBV music seemed like a miracle. But as fans got to know the new record, it was doubly miraculous, as it turned out to be a worthy successor to the Irish shoegazers’ classic, genre-defining album Loveless. —M.P.

14. Twerking goes mainstream.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Is there a word from 2013 you wish you could retire more than “twerking”? The dance — long popular in the New Orleans bounce scene — became ubiquitous in pop culture this year, in no small part thanks to Miley Cyrus’ infamous VMA performance (wherein she twerked all over Robin Thicke) and her eyebrow-raising “We Can’t Stop” video. From Jimmy Kimmel’s (also infamous) viral video hoax featuring the “Worst Twerk Fail EVER,” to international twerking competitions, the dance was everywhere. Hell, kids were even getting suspended from school for it. It’s safe to say twerking reached its saturation point this year. —A.Z.

13. Daft Punk return with Random Access Memories.

Andrew H. Walker / WireImage

A lot of big stars came back after long hiatuses in 2013, but no return was more hyped than Daft Punk. Random Access Memories wasn’t quite the nonstop dance party anyone expected, but its blend of classic disco and ’70s prog aesthetics broke new ground for the band and the single “Get Lucky” became their first bona fide worldwide smash hit. —M.P.

12. Kendrick Lamar drops his “Control” verse.

David Becker / WireImage

It was the verse heard ‘round the world: This summer, Kendrick Lamar stole the show on Big Sean’s song “Control,” which also features Jay Electronica. It wasn’t just because he rapped with a ferociousness and intensity that far surpassed the other two rappers, though. With machine-gun rapid delivery, K. Dot called out his class of peers and told them to step the fuck up — “I’m usually homeboys with the same n****s I’m rhymin’ with / But this is hip-hop and them n****s should know what time it is” — and then went on to name-check everyone from both Big Sean and Jay Electronica to J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Drake, Tyler, the Creator and Mac Miller. “I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you n****s,” he rapped. And then he called himself the “king of New York,” which got a bunch of people all worked up. Was it one of the greatest verses of all time? No. But it got people excited, and it was fun to see all the responses — good and (mostly) bad — roll in. Thank you, Kendrick, for making this into something of a sport again. —A.Z.

11. Billboard changes chart rules, and the charts completely change.

When Billboard and Nielsen announced in February that YouTube views will now be factored into their formula determining the ranking of the Hot 100 singles chart, the impact was immediate — Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” featured in thousands of viral videos at the time, rocketed to the top of the chart. Since then, the impact of the new rules has been more subtle, or perhaps even insidious. Some chart observers have noted that the emphasis on YouTube and digital sales has had a whitewashing effect, with the upper reaches of the charts notably lacking black artists after years of rap and R&B stars dominating the top spots. —M.P.

10. Miley Cyrus made the MTV Video Music Awards exciting again.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

This year’s MTV Video Music Awards was expected to be all about the return of major stars like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kanye West. But a few months later, it’s hard to remember anything other than Miley Cyrus’ now-infamous performance in which she upstaged Robin Thicke by singing his hit “Blurred Lines” better than he could before twerking all over his crotch. Miley has been a star for years, but this was the moment she became something bigger, and heralded a changing of the guard for pop’s elite class of superstars. —M.P.

9. Vampire Weekend reach full maturity with Modern Vampires of the City.

C Flanigan / WireImage

Vampire Weekend’s third album is the most quietly ambitious hit record of 2013 — elegant, refined, imaginative, and willing to grapple with the anxiety of getting older in a culture that treasures youth above all other things. Modern Vampires of the City could easily be the musical version of a cringe-inducing Thought Catalog post, but Ezra Koenig’s thoughtful, clever lyrics keep everything in perspective without ever trivializing the emotions and neuroses of his characters. —M.P.

8. Justin Timberlake remakes himself as a luxury brand.

Isaac Brekken / Getty Images for Clear Channel

Justin Timberlake positioned himself as the top-shelf, luxury brand version of a pop star with The 20/20 Experience, and it paid off in a huge way: The first of the two 20/20 albums is far and away the best-selling album of 2013, and he basically spent the rest of the year coasting on seemingly endless goodwill. JT had his share of missteps — everyone was just really confused when his summer hit “Take Back the Night” shared its name with the anti-rape activist group and the second overlong 20/20 volume didn’t sell nearly as well as the first — but he handled everything with grace, and consistently proved that he has what it takes to age gracefully as a pop superstar. —M.P.

7. Drake becomes one of the top rappers in the game — and gives us an endless supply of memes.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

2013 was the year Drake became a bona fide rap heavyweight. The Toronto rapper stretched out the road to his third album over nine months, kicking things off with the infectious, ubiquitous “Started from the Bottom,” and appearing on a ton of killer features. Kanye even declared that Drake was his favorite artist, later calling him a “rap god” at a stop on his Yeezus tour. Drake was the gift that kept on giving, from his excellent Nothing Was the Same — which lived up to all the hype, thanks to another great collaboration with Noah “40” Shebib — to all the hilarious, creative, relentless memes that kept us laughing all year. (Also: #starbucksdrakehands.) It’s all in good fun, though: Drake’s proven that he can be a sensitive guy in touch with his emotions and still slay harder than the rest of ‘em. —A.Z.

6. The rise of “bro country.”

Harrison Mcclary / Reuters

“Bro country,” the subgenre of country coined by New York Magazine’s Jody Rosen, has been around for a while, but 2013 is the year it truly become the dominant strain in mainstream country music. You know “bro country” when you hear it, partly because it all sorta sounds the same — hunky dudes singing about parties, trucks, girls, and booze in songs that owe as much to classic rock and modern hip-hop as anything by Garth Brooks or George Jones. The success of bro-ish acts like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line has been a bit polarizing: For every country fan who enjoys their fun, flirty music, there’s another who thinks it’s all a desecration of the genre they love. —M.P.

5. “Blurred Lines” becomes the year’s most controversial smash hit.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” came out in March and became a No. 1 hit shortly after, but it didn’t truly become a cultural phenomenon until the summer, when its instantly memorable video featuring big, red hashtags and naked models dancing around a fully clothed Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell hit meme status by inspiring dozens of parody videos. “Blurred Lines” then became the year’s most controversial hit, inspiring a huge feminist backlash that critiqued both its overtly sleazy video and lyrics that many believe cross the line from flirtatious to “rapey.” Don’t expect the conversation around this song to die down any time soon — it’s so popular, funky, and crowd-pleasing that it’s bound to be played at parties and wedding receptions for years to come. —M.P.

4. Lorde breaks out as the year’s best new artist.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Lorde came out of nowhere. The 17-year-old New Zealander’s debut single, “Royals,” was released this spring, and went on to become a surprise monster of a hit, sounding unlike anything else out. It’s pop music with an edge and a hint of hip-hop/R&B, all while calling out the superficiality and materialism in pop culture that’s been spoon-fed to her age group. She doesn’t feel like your average pop star, either. Lorde’s songwriting is mature and sophisticated, and she seems decidedly comfortable and confident in who she is, and bluntly honest about the things she believes. Having nabbed four Grammy nominations for her debut album Pure Heroine, there’s no doubt that this was Lorde’s year. —A.Z.

3. Kanye West takes on the world with Yeezus.

AP Photo / NBC, Lloyd Bishop

Kanye West is brilliant in large part because he’s so willing to embrace his contradictions in art that shows us that we’re all just as messed up and confused as he is. Yeezus, his most abrasive and provocative record yet, is the beginning of a new phase for West: He’s stepped away from mainstream pop while working hard to bring uncompromising, politicized, and emotionally fraught art to the masses in his music, live shows, videos, and fashion projects. Even his interviews have ascended to the realm of art: His conversations with The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, The BBC’s Zane Lowe, MTV’s Sway, Jimmy Kimmel, and novelist Bret Easton Ellis are as much as part of West’s overall artistic statement in 2013 as songs like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.” —M.P.

2. Miley Cyrus attains superstar status.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

When we look back on music in 2013, the first thing that comes to mind will be Miley. No question. We’ll remember the VMAs, we’ll remember twerking, we’ll remember the videos for “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” and all the parodies too. Miley has been around for a long time now — Bangerz is her fifth No. 1 album and she’s only 21 — but this was the year where she stepped up to the big leagues of pop stardom and effortlessly outdid nearly all her rivals. She didn’t just level up in her visual presentation, either: Bangerz was a huge creative leap on a musical level, and easily the most forward-thinking mainstream pop album of the year. It’s also one of the most surprisingly emotional; Miley gets a lot of credit for being provocative, but her greatest gift is investing her hits with a potent melancholy. She reels you in with memes, but slays you with the feels. —M.P.

1. Beyoncé does pretty much everything, and changes the game forever.

Buda Mendes / Getty Images

No other artist has ever had a year quite like Beyoncé’s 2013. She sang at the second inauguration of Barack Obama; she headlined the Super Bowl halftime show; she was the face of both Pepsi and H&M; she went out on a sold-out world tour. If she only did that, it’d be a major year. But Beyoncé went and outdid herself, and pretty much everyone else in music, by releasing the most ambitious, personal, and political record of her career — complete with brilliant videos for each song — with zero advance notice, and single-handedly created a bold new way for superstar artists to drop an album. Beyoncé has reached a level of boundless artistic ambition and major mainstream success that hasn’t been seen since the glory days of Michael Jackson, and simply put, she owned 2013. —M.P.

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