Though the album came out in January and had leaked before the year began, Harlem's newest favorite son Rocky nevertheless provided the masterpiece to beat in 2013. His impeccable ear and experimentation with extreme bass ranges and extraordinary beats led to an album of incalculable riches--spacey, immediately memorable club jams ("Goldie," "Fuckin' Problems"), great collaborations ("PMW"), dalliances with genres outside of hip-hop (the improbably wonderful Skrillex production "Wild for the Night") and the greatest posse record in many many moons ("1 Train"), all providing one amazing rush after another, 12 times in a row.
2. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Speaking of many moons, Ms. Monáe had been mostly off the grid since the release of The ArchAndroid in 2010. Turns out she was fine-tuning a record that was maybe even better, more cohesive and sonically varied, in addition to demonstrating an unprecedented level of craftmanship and sheer exultant pleasure that reached rapturous levels at times. Monáe's prodigious voice, joyous production, and empowering, socially relevant lyrics were among a few of the album's virtues, which were otherwise brimming.
3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
The opening thesis is "give life back to music": two robots survey the current EDM landscape and find it lacking in the type of warmth and humanity out of which great dance music originally came. Hence the collaborators--Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams--who help the robots provide the album with the depth, feeling, and occasional melancholy of a great lost 70s disco LP.
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away
The album title is a perfect four-word metaphor for an elder man's futile fight against mortality. After rocking hard with Grinderman and executing a brilliant string of late-career gems, Cave scales back the aggression and punkish energy a bit here. This is his On the Beach, an album that does not rock so much, but slowly builds through a molasses of top-shelf songwriting, wonderful orchestration, and literary, confessional lyrics.
5. My Bloody Valentine, mbv
Their last album may have come out when I was 6, but MBV's latest sounded the furthest thing from a reunion record. It was as if the last 22 years had suddenly vanished in an ether of aggressive flange, tremolo, and pitch-bending along with the familiar distortion, metronomic backbeat, and barely audible vocals we know so well. Ambitious and mind-bending, only the album's song titles were generic.
6. In Solitude, Sister
Yeah, it's one of those token metal albums that non-metal heads take to. So what? I will take my bluesy, riff-oriented hard rock however I can, and Sweden's In Solitude provided the year's most refreshing slab of British 70s metal-indebted jams. Each song has rhythm and panache, as well as hooks that buzzsaw their way into the listener's memory banks.
7. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
The greatest guitarist in America really pushed against her limitations on this, her fourth LP and first without longtime drummer Zach Hill. Her offbeat approach to fret tapping is still there, but is more effectively integrated into the songs than ever. And Stern's voice has a really lovely and longing quality now, something I never expected. Kid Millions admirably takes over for Hill on drums and together the two musicians provide moments of appealing still and calm in between sets of Stern's normally frenetic guitar/drum alchemy.
8. Richard Thompson, Electric
The elder folkie and guitar hero goes the stripped-down power trio route, which emphasizes Thompson's great axe skills. The result is a late-career success that is muscular and hard-rocking, while still immersed in Thompson's Celtic and folk-based songwriting. Thompson has always been a great player, but his guitar solos throughout this album are, I cannot emphasize this enough, particularly kick-ass.
9. Thundercat, Apocalypse
An unfairly gifted bassist who collaborates with everyone from New Zealand pop star Kimbra to Suicidal Tendencies, Thundercat produced a next-level jazz funk LP that sounded like nothing else in 2013. His complex and layered bass skills were a perfect match with Flying Lotus' shimmering and psychedelic production. The result was a brilliant concoction of sweet jazzy smooth jams plus the occasional roaring funk classic ("Oh Sheit! It's X").
10. Flatbush Zombies, Better Off Dead
2013 was an extraordinary year for hip-hop, no question. This list could have consisted entirely of Danny Brown, Juicy J, Pusha T, Run the Jewels, the Underachievers, Action Bronson, Spaceghostpurrp, just to begin with. But one mixtape that I kept coming back to was this one, by a young group out of Brooklyn's "Beast Coast" scene. The Zombies are a loopy three-piece that inventively plays with golden age boom-bap with a bit of horror movie edge (think Gravediggaz crossed with ODB to start). With the work of two hyper-quick emcees (Meech and Juice) as well as one of NYC's great new producing talents (Erick Arc Elliott), the result is a product that would have stood tall with the best of early 90s rap.