For most of 2013, the default setting for the pop mainstream seemed to be stealth — one big act after another sprang an album on the public with hardly any heads-up (Beyonce did so just last week). While such a tactic spared us endless bombardment of pre-release publicity, it also allowed the music to stand on its own merits. But stealth was evident in other ways, as well: veterans and newcomers alike smuggling fresh, exciting variations on the tried-and-true into the marketplace. Sometimes, the best place to hide is in plain sight.
Here are my top 10 albums of 2013.
1. Janelle Monae, ‘The Electric Lady’
Following a breakthrough album is daunting enough, but making a record which surpasses its predecessors without sacrificing artistic integrity has to be an impossible dream, right? Not for Janelle Monae — drawing on a riot of influences and synthesizing everything into a sound and style all her own, The Electric Lady is a vivid testimony to forging your own path, and the value of having something original to say in a world full of lazy copycats.
2. The Mavericks, ‘In Time’
Eight years after taking a break, the Mavericks released an album that felt like no time at all had passed. The alt-country (for lack of a more accurate and succinct descriptor) ensemble, led by Raul Malo’s bourbon-smooth voice and an infectious, genre-blind approach, delivered one of the most enjoyable front-to-back LPs with In Time. Here’s hoping it’s not another decade before the next one.
3. Ashley Monroe, ‘Like a Rose’
Women in country music had a banner year — upstarts like Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe (who’s logged time in Miranda Lambert’s side project, the Pistol Annies) brought Nashville into the 21st century by mixing smart, tough songwriting and no-bull sex appeal. Monroe’s sterling sophomore effort features some impressive collaborators (Vince Gill, who produced, along with Guy Clark and Shane McAnally), but the singer-songwriter makes it clear whose show it is.
4. Tegan and Sara, ‘Heartthrob’
Few would’ve pegged Canadian sister act Tegan and Sara as synth-pop aficionados, but the indie-pop darlings embraced their inner ‘80s children with this exuberant blast of an album. Heartthrob arrives at a point in their career when things would ordinarily be calcified, but given the fizzy fun they’re having — even the ballads, like I Was a Fool, hum with an almost palpable energy — Tegan and Sara may just be getting started.
5. Flaming Lips, ‘The Terror’
Speaking of veteran bands making hard left turns into unexpected territory, Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips have spent over three decades melting minds, but often in the most upbeat way possible. Not so here — reeling from personal turmoil and turning its perky-LSD aesthetic on its head, The Terror is the harrowing sound of a rock band staring into the abyss and admitting the view has a certain allure.
6. Atoms for Peace, ‘Amok’
Thom Yorke made plenty of headlines griping about Spotify earlier this year, but his grumpy views on artist royalties couldn’t obscure the subtle wonders of this electronic-rock supergroup. Teaming with Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, Yorke anchors Amok’s skittering, paranoid and richly textured tunes with his peerless voice.
7. Arcade Fire, ‘Reflektor’
One of the year’s most anticipated releases, the double-disc epic didn’t quite scale the heights of its predecessor, the Grammy-winning The Suburbs. But then, Win Butler and his bandmates weren’t necessarily interested in rehashing past glory. Instead, they dove headlong into Haitian rhythms, the grungy excess of early ‘80s New York and their persistent distrust of modern technology to create something exquisitely moving, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
8. Robin Thicke, ‘Blurred Lines’
Sure, all anyone could talk about what the title track, which was indeed lightning in a bottle (although Marvin Gaye’s family might disagree), but the real fun could be had elsewhere on this, Thicke’s decade-in-the-making overnight success. Jettisoning deadly serious boudoir jams for an effervescent celebration skating along the edge of sleaze made Thicke a superstar, and rewarded those who have hung with him to this point with his finest record to date.
9. Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’
Brutal, brittle and mesmerizing, Kanye West’s sonic salvo arrived with scant warning. Paring down his approach to a fury startling in its intensity, Yeezus kicked off a long stretch of West doing battle with the media and himself, often launching into rants which only exacerbated his image problems. Fortunately for West, the album packs a punch no matter how much he holds forth.
10. Chvrches, ‘The Bones of What You Believe’
One of the year’s genuine surprises, this Scottish synth-pop trio delighted at South by Southwest, released its debut in the fall and managed to squeeze in two trips to North Texas. Instead of wearing out their welcome, Lauren Mayberry and her collaborators disarm with sharp soundscapes and lyrics unafraid of ambiguity. The rare buzz band that lived up to the hype.
ALSO: Check out our round-up of Preston Jones’ picks for best local concerts and local albums, critic Cary Darling’s top movies of 2013 and Robert Philpot’s picks for the top entertainment stories of the year.