1. King Krule, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
Archy Marshall, the 19-year-old musician known as King Krule, writes, plays, and sings like a weary, seasoned professional at least twice his age. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, his debut full-length album, is a staggeringly brilliant and emotionally gutting collection of moody songs that defy easy classification, blurring the lines between rock, jazz, hip-hop, blues, and downbeat electronic music. It’s not surprising to find a teenage musician singing about misery and angst, but Marshall’s lyrics are just as mature as his voice, grappling with clinical depression with great nuance and sensitivity. –Matthew Perpetua
2. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
Laura Marling is a folk singer, but her music is not self-consciously rootsy and cozy, and it’s not made to be wholesome, inoffensive background music for a coffeehouse. Her fourth record is hugely ambitious — the first quarter of it is an extended suite, and instrumental and lyrical motifs carry on through its final track. When heard as a whole, Once I Was An Eagle sounds sort of like a ritual in which Marling confronts messy, agonizing questions about life and love; dissects her illusions; and ultimately moves on. –M.P.
3. Vic Mensa, Innanetape
Chance the Rapper got more attention, but he’s not the only great young rapper coming out of Chicago this year. Vic Mensa’s first mixtape is a remarkable blend of soul and hip-hop, like the perfect cross between Kanye West’s early records and Frank Ocean’s brilliant Channel Orange. –M.P.
4. GEMS, Medusa
GEMS, a duo from Washington, D.C., are amazingly fully-formed for a band that only has one EP and a handful of other internet singles to their name. The band writes sophisticated, sexy pop songs in the vein of Massive Attack and Goldfrapp, but the core of their appeal lies in the special chemistry between lead singer Lindsay Pitts and guitarist and vocalist Clifford John Usher. When they sing together, there’s a powerful but mysterious tension between them. –M.P.
5. Teen Girl Scientist Monthly, Modern Dances
Teen Girl Scientist Monthly’s debut is one of the year’s giddiest rock records, full of songs that overflow with enthusiasm, energy, and choruses that demand to be sung by packed clubs full of sweaty, dancing fans. They get a little twee and goofy, sure, but that never gets in the way of the deeper, darker feelings just under the surface of these exceptionally bouncy tunes. –M.P.
6. Baths, Obsidian
Will Wiesenfeld, the musician known as Baths, made a huge creative leap this year with Obsidian, his second record. Whereas he previously kept his vocals buried beneath chill beats and blurry samples, he now sings with great confidence over delicate, gorgeously constructed tracks that split the difference between Satie and Prince. “Ironworks” stands out as one of the year’s most devastating ballads, with Wiesenfeld singing from the perspective of a guy having an affair with a man who is married to a woman. –M.P.
7. Brown Eyed Girls, Black Box
While the airwaves were obsessing over JT’s 20/20 or Miley’s Bangerz, we blinked right past K-Pop’s Brown Eyed Girls’ Black Box. The fifth studio effort from the South Korean girl group received roaring global attention for its genre-bending sound. Black Box pulls unlikely references from Quentin Tarantino (found on its obvious lead single, “Kill Bill”), tight punch line rap, and familiar Top 40 riffs, making it one creative collapse of pop culture. —Tanya Chen
8. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon
British singer and composer Laura Mvula’s debut is a wonderful, beautiful mutant of a record, taking in elements of R&B, orchestral pop, folk, and jazz without ever feeling like it really belongs in any particular category. Mvula’s voice is as confident as her hugely ambitious productions, and her most powerful songs embrace her individualistic spirit in ways that are very inspiring. –M.P.
9. Wet, Wet
Wet’s first EP is a lovely, incredibly confident collection of colorful, richly detailed electronic R&B ballads. “Dreams” is especially wonderful, with waves of warm, soothing harmonies and kind, reassuring lyrics. –M.P.
10. MellowHigh, MellowHigh
MellowHigh is yet another sub-group to come out of the Odd Future collective, this time an extension of MellowHype: Hodgy Beats and producer Left Brain add resident stoner-rapper Domo Genesis to the mix. But Domo is not just all spaced-out verses about weed anymore, and both he and Hodgy trade pretty aggressive lines over Left Brain’s gritty production that make it feel like a proper ’90s buddy rap album. It’s exciting to watch these guys continually evolve over the years, their lyrical dexterity becoming sharper, their flow more agile. MellowHigh was one of the more impressive surprises from 2013, and worthy of recognition. –Aylin Zafar
11. The Preatures, Is This How You Feel?
If you’ve fallen in love with Haim this year, you really need to get to know The Preatures, a five-piece from Sydney, Australia who aren’t far off from that band’s modern spin on ’70s pop-rock. “Is This How You Feel?” is an instant classic, and basically sounds like a lost Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac tune as sung by Leslie Feist. –M.P.
12. La Big Vic, Cold War
La Big Vic’s second record is difficult to pin down, but very easy to appreciate. The melodies are gorgeous, the atmosphere is rich, and the whole record has a wonderful air of cosmopolitan cool and sophistication, like late ’90s R&B and pop remade for some kind of futuristic lounge. –M.P.
13. ZMoney, Rich B4 Rap
2013 has seen a welcome uptick in weirdo rap warblers, and ZMoney’s Rich B4 Rap mixtape might be the rawest, most irresistible full-length realization of the form. It has the stuttering rhythms and clattering bass of an early Gucci Mane tape but the half-mumbled, half-crooned vocal delivery and borderline basement-level production quality gives it a crackling life. –Alex Naidus
14. Cassie, Rocka Bye Baby
It’s been seven years since Cassie first hypnotized us all with “Me & U,” and finally, finally she’s back. Earlier this year, she released a New Jack City-inspired mixtape called RockaByeBaby, and it’s really good. It has all of Cassie’s trademark deadpan — detached, but sweet — and nightmarish, hazy production. There are plenty of features from heavyweight rappers, but she really doesn’t need them. On the title track, she even alternates rapping (surprisingly well) with singing. Cassie’s been criticized in the past for not having a huge range, but this mixtape is a perfect example that sometimes it’s more a matter of making interesting, deliberate choices, than showing off every vocal riff you can. This one’s filled with a lot of them, and it’s a gem. –A.Z.
15. Tove Lo, Habits
Swedish singer Tove Lo is like the pop equivalent of Lena Dunham — she writes tunes full of unglamorous details and emotions that are so painful that they border on embarrassing. Take her breakout song “Habits,” for example: How many pop songs do you know that include lines about eating way too much baked goods after getting dumped? –M.P.
16. Giant Drag, Waking Up is Hard to Do
Annie Hardy, the singer and guitarist of the Los Angeles alt-rock band Giant Drag, basically disappeared for half a decade after the release of her band’s excellent debut, Hearts and Unicorns, back in 2005. Though she’s put out a slow trickle of old songs and new demos via BandCamp over the past few years, Waking Up Is Hard to Do is her first major artistic statement in close to a decade — and a big creative leap forward. Her oddball sense of humor is intact, but she’s mostly ditched her ultra-’90s guitar style in favor of a cleaner, groovier sound, and has generally abandoned smirky irony in favor of straightforward vulnerability on tracks like “Garbage Heart,” and empathy on the heartbreaking and gorgeous opener “90210.” —M.P.
17. The Wonder Years, The Greatest Generation
Pop punk is a pretty toxic genre nowadays. One of the few rays of light in the genre, however, is The Wonder Years. The Philly-based sextet figured out a way to take token Warped-Tour-mosh-pit-ready songs about growing up and getting your heart broken and found some depth and meaning in that. The Greatest Generation bridges a strange middle ground between the snotty juvenile fun of New Found Glory and a thoughtful, socially aware Against Me! album. There’s a relevance in their lyrics and guitar work that’s been missing for a long time and it’s a really nice breathe of fresh air. –Ryan Broderick
18. Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Loud City Song is Los Angeles songwriter Julia Holter’s most ambitious record yet, a lushly produced art pop record that thoughtfully engages with ideas about sexuality, identity, and social anxiety in an urban setting. The record’s most impressive songs are “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II,” twin compositions inspired by a scene in the 1958 musical Gigi in which the title character enters a popular restaurant with a famous man, and patrons immediately begin to gossip about her. You don’t really need to know the film to appreciate the songs, but it helps — Holter flips the scene inside-out by emphasizing the woman’s internal monologue and turning the jovial, bombastic arrangement into a blaring, disorienting haze of horns and clatter. She makes you feel as overwhelmed and excited as Gigi. –M.P.
19. Laura Stevenson, Wheel
At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Laura Stevenson’s third album, Wheel, takes on the inevitability of a gradually dying Earth and reacts to it with an almost detached acceptance. It would appear that earnestness isn’t completely out of style in 2013 with this wrenching call to reality. On a personal level this album has left me touched in a way I haven’t been in a long time. –Justine Bienkowski
20. Rizzle Kicks, Roaring 20s
If you like any of the following: infectious hip-hop-pop with vintage-y horns that are insanely danceable, rap albums that have great attitudes towards women, super rad moms, Dominic West doing an amazing impression of drunk John Cleese, and/or a song that will actually legit make you feel better in the morning, then do yourself a favor and listen to Rizzle Kicks’ Roaring 20s. This little-known (in America, at least) British hip-hop duo will light up everything from your morning commute to your drunken Saturday night Cards Against Humanity tournament. –Krutika Mallikarjuna
21. Into It. Over It., Intersections
Into It. Over It. has been at it for a long time, but on Intersections, Evan Weiss has finally figured out exactly where he should take things. Intersections was produced by Brian Deck (Iron And Wine, Modest Mouse) and it’s a release that nails all of the most interesting facets of Weiss’ sound: It’s sad, it’s mopey, it’s ultra-melodic, it’s dark, it’s extremely dancey. It operates beautifully in an area that Death Cab For Cutie perfected and left behind almost a decade ago. It’s a mature and grounded mix of indie rock and emo that hits teenagers just as hard as it does the twentysomethings who tried to forget about their Garden State soundtrack phase in high school. –R.B.
22. Kelela, Cut 4 Me
Kelela flew pretty under the radar this year, but her mixtape Cut 4 Me garnered her critical acclaim. She’s got a voice that’s more like something you’d expect to hear on a ’90s R&B song, rather than the minimal, moody bass sounds that she chooses, but the juxtaposition works. If you want to reflect on love and self but without all the cornball cheese, try Kelela. — A.Z.
23. Mountains, Centralia
Centralia is a subtly thrilling ambient record that combines sparkling acoustic instrumentation with undulating electronic manipulations. Mountains, the duo Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg, have meticulously composed and layered their enveloping, buzzing sound into a coherent, almost story-like whole. Their careful and finely-detailed approach make Centralia a deliriously rewarding listen. –A.N.
24. Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, We the Common
San Franciso songwriter Thao Nguyen’s fourth record with her band The Get Down Stay Down is her best yet, with her finding inspiration in her city, and discovering a feeling of roots after many years on the road. Nguyen’s songs may be about her journey, but the strength in this music comes with her obvious empathy and love for the people around her. –M.P.
25. Factory Floor, Factory Floor
The London electronic trio Factory Floor’s first full-length album is full of intricately composed tracks that build to incredible crescendos. They take their time getting you to moments of catharsis, but when it comes, it always feels like heaven. –M.P.
26. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Given that Kacey Musgraves’ debut is a Grammy-nominated best-seller, it might seem out of place on a list of underdog artists. But despite her success, Musgraves hasn’t yet crossed over to non-country fans, and that’s a shame. Same Trailer Different Park is like a bridge connecting the melancholy story-telling songwriting of old school country with a modern point of view. –M.P.
27. Warm Soda, Warm Soda
Warm Soda is a perfectly rough-hewn power pop gem straight from the warped mind of former Bare Wires frontman Matthew Melton. The title track is a perfect distillation of Warm Soda’s charms — a taut and effortlessly catchy bit of guitar-pop with crisp homemade-sounding production and a whispered, unexpectedly sweet vocal melody. –A.N.
28. Rudimental, Home
The British duo known as Rudimental crafted one of the year’s most exciting dance records, a collection of excellent English R&B cuts spiked with elements of drum and bass, house, and electronic funk. –M.P.
29. Fear of Men, Early Fragments
This British indie band writes songs that are both incredibly melodic and unapologetically arty. Not for nothing, but their best song on this collection of early singles is apparently based on the relationship between Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and has chorus in which front woman Jessica Weiss sweetly sings the line, “Hell is other people, though.” –M.P.
30. Los Campesinos!, No Blues
Los Campesinos! didn’t give people a lot of reason to expect No Blues to be particularly good. Their previous album Hello Sadness was a bloated, boring mess that struggled under the burden of a mid-2000s twee indie band realizing that you can’t jangle away all your problems. Yet, with No Blues, Los Camp figured exactly what a modern version of their band could and should sound like: dark and fun with a tremendous amount of synth. No Blues is unimaginably manic and an impressive mixture of fun and depressing. Los Campesinos! still sound out of date — they have an exclamation point in their names for god’s sake — but No Blues is the best they’ve sounded in a very, very long time. —R.B.
31. Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others
Cass McCombs is one of America’s best and most versatile singer-songwriters, and he pushes himself to his limits on Big Wheel and Others, the first double-album of his long career. Appropriately enough, the sprawling nature of the record finds its inspiration in the open road, with several finely nuanced songs about odd characters making their way through the expanse of the American West. –M.P.
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