More than 70,000 albums likely hit the market this year — along with just as many year-end “Best Of” lists. While word “best” is subjective at best, here are the discs that got the most plays and yielded the most enjoyment on my stereo in the past 12 months. Discover an album or two for yourself and if you’re so inclined, share your Top 13 in the comments section.
Prices — where mentioned — were sale prices current the moment I first published this — not guaranteed to last — get em now!
#1: Charli XCX • True Romance
Stunning. Majestic. Dark. Sexy. Romantic. And that’s just the cover art. True Romance is a spectacular journey through the young heart. Charlotte Aitchison wears her heart on her sleeve and her feet in 8-inch platform boots. Her sensuous voice echoes Siouxsie Sioux, Nina Hagen and Grace Jones. Her slithering synth beds nod to Lena Lovich, Book of Love, Moby and the Pet Shop Boys. How she came this far from the dozen or so dicey singles she self-released through MySpace is beyond me, but now she’s already besting Gaga, Katy, Britney and Miley as a songwriter, singer and remixer.
If the first X in XCX stands for sexy, the second must mean Xtra prolific. She has already released ‘Super Love’, the debut single from her second LP, due in the Spring of 2014. If you just can’t wait that long, you can easily build an ala carte album from her dozen or so guest tracks across multiple genres, from the global chart-topper, ‘I Love It’ with Icona Pop to winning songs by Marina and the Diamonds, Starkey, Danny Brown, Crystal Fighters, Jesus Million and Little Daylight.
#2 The Ocean Blue • Ultramarine
We’ve been raving about this album all year long at POPDOSE. Since their Sire-records heyday, the Hershey, PA four-piece has relocated to the far corners of our country, and yet, their first album since 1999’s Davy Jones Locker sounds incredibly tight-knit. Dreamy guitars, meandering bass lines, effortless vocals and songs that are instantly warm and comfortable like a favorite sweater.
Be sure to hunt down the dreamy b-side, “Bleary Eyed’ and the new track, ‘No Money in That’ from the new Korda Records Kompilation.
#3 Minor Alps • Get There
Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws teams with 90’s alt rock dream date, Juliana Hatfield, for an album that is crisp, melodic, modern and wide ranging. Beautiful ballads (‘If I Wanted Trouble’), punchy indie pop (‘I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands’) and full throttle rockers (“Mixed Feelings’) all peacefully coexist in this scenic mountaintop hamlet.
#4. Arctic Monkeys • AM
After treading water with 2011’s Suck it and See, 2006’s next big thing returned with a bee in their butt and some funk in their junk. NME’s best album of 2013 is so successful because its as relaxed as it is ambitious. The vocals, bass, drums, percussion and shimmering, sleazy guitars sizzle in a truly invigorating audio mix, courtesy of producer James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco. In addition to the smash hits, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ and ‘Why’d You Only Call me When You’re High?’, album highlight ‘Arabella’ is a desert rock masterpiece. Speak of the devil, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme appears later on with a guest vocal on ‘Knee Socks’. AM is on sale for 7.99.
AM also features Bill Ryder-Jones, former lead guitarist of the Coral, which brings us to…
#5 James Skelly • Love Undercover
Skelly, lead singer of the Coral, takes a break from the band to deliver an album that sounds just like… the Coral. Probably because most of his bandmates are along for the ride. The Coral’s catalog is bookended by one of the most exciting debuts in modern rock (the Nuggets kaleidoscope fever dream self-titled debut produced by Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds) and 2010’s more straightforward Butterfly House. Love Undercover, billed to a backup band called the Intenders, channels classic soul, R&B and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers albums into a refreshing long player. Paul Weller co-wrote ‘You’ve Got It All’ and Coral drummer, Ian Skelly, co-wrote the sunny 60’s anthem, ‘What a Day’, 15 years prior to the brothers getting it on this record.
#6. Polly Scattergood • Arrows
With singer/songwriter albums, there’s a fine line between “ambitious & artsy” and “pretentious & unlistenable”. Polly Scattergood’s sophomore release, Arrows, is an otherworldly tour de force that cuts deep emotional nerves. It would be a train wreck if the songs didn’t feature soaring hooks and epic bridges. It’s haunting one second (‘Miss You’) and bombastic the next (‘Cocoon’ and the buzzworthy ‘Wanderlust’). The production sizzles and snaps. Waves of synths, percussion, whispers and guitars wash Scattergood’s heavenly voice down the rabbit hole into a series of rhythmic adventures. She’s a gifted lyricist and fearless composer. Her album red shoes‘ its way right to the edge of being “a bit much” without falling over. Here’s hoping she doesn’t follow Tori Amos into the forest of irrelevance; just like Amos batted 1000 with her first three solo albums, Scattergood is two for two. To make the deal sweeter, track down the Charli XCX remix of ‘Wanderlust”. Get Arrows here for $7.99.
#7. The Vaccines • Come of Age
Into every generation, comes a Slayer… along with a shameless and decadent British rock band that careens its way into global consciousness. Tasting like the Libertines and Arctic Monkeys filtered through Pulp, Pixies and Art Brut teabags, the Vaccines simultaneously sound like drunken pub crawlers and dapper Notting Hillers. ‘I Always Knew’ and ‘Teenage Icon’ nod to 1950’s jukebox rock classics,’Aftershave Ocean’ would fit in nicely on an early Blur album, ‘No Hope’ would have played nicely on mid-90’s KROQ and ‘Change of Heart Part 2’ could have led the turn of the century British invasion. The lyrics throughout are as sharp and sinister, buoyed by giant hooks and foot tapping melodies. Hopefully you picked up this album when POPDOSE tipped you it was on sale for $3.99. If not, it’s still well worth full price.
Already have it? They’ve already dropped a follow-up EP, Melody Calling.
#8 Caro Emerald • The Shocking Miss Emerald
Emerald is the sole artist on this list to score back-to-back Top 10’s, following her glorious 2012 debut Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor (see my 2o12 list). The only thing shocking about Miss Emerald is the fact it took nearly a year from it’s UK #1 chart debut to come out digitally in the states. Not that it wasn’t worth the wait. Emerald effortlessly swings, scats and salsas her way through modern pop circa a 1920’s speakeasy. Whereas Amy Winehouse took her retro throwback to dark, dark places, Emerald keeps her jazzy affair light, festive, sexy and playful. The songs still have their bite, especially lead singles ‘Liquid Lunch’ and “Pack Up The Louie’. ‘I Belong To You’ should be a front-runner for the next James Bond theme. ‘Coming Back as a Man’ is a brilliant (if unintentional) response to the Vaccines’ album highlight ‘I Wish I Was a Girl’. Get it here for $8.99.
#9. Moby • Innocents
Moby albums typically land at the extreme ends of my music collection: heartbreaking works of staggering genius (Everything is Wrong, Play, 18) and nut clenching works of smoldering crap (Animal Rights) — just my opinion, share yours below, it’s been so long since I traded in my Ambient and I Like To Score albums, I don’t remember why I hated them. Anyhoo, Innocents soars right back to the top of the mountain — it’s a sweeping symphony of synths, strings, gospel and underground, elevated by left-field support singers including Damien Jurado, Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) and Skylar Grey. The true scene stealer is Inyang Bassey — no relation to Shirley — but a sonic descendent; their ‘Don’t Love Me‘ is a James Bond theme directed by Tarantino. Innocents is best listened to as a cohesive work; suites instead of songs. It’s the meatiest music you will ever hear from a militant vegan. Get the Deluxe for less than $12.
#10. Gabriella Cilmi • The Sting
Cilmi’s timeless contralto vocal style is often compared to Amy Winehouse, but instead of sticking to standards and retro soundscapes, she pushes forward with a sophisticated, modern, elegant, compelling and utterly charming third album. Adele fans will appreciate Cilmi’s trailblazing as will followers of Goldfrapp, Nina Simone and Caro Emerald. Trip hop beats, crisp piano, vibrant guitar lines and tides of synth wash in and out of the mix as Cilmi tells visceral tales of love, loss and empowerment. The singles ‘Symmetry’ and ‘Sweeter in History’ give a good taste of what’s here, but like Moby, this is an album where the deep cuts cut the deepest.
11. Chvrches • The Bones of What You Believe
With Royksopp between albums and Goldfrapp releasing the heavenly slow-burner Tales of Us, the sophisticated dancefloor belonged to Disclosure and Chvrches in 2013. The latter is a Glasgow trio. Their music out OMD’s OMD (whose English Electric missed this year’s top 13 by a gelled hair). Bones rolls the best elements of New Wave, EDM, Electroclash and Dark Wave into an intoxicating mix of modern booty shakers. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry is way more adorable than Miley, Britney, Swifty and Demi combined — and boy has she got the pipes. Martin Doherty and Ian Cook back her with earworm hooks, delicious melodies and waves of synths you can surf across the ocean. Their vocal interplay recall Book of Love and Sweden’s Mary Onettes. The fact this album is connecting with a mass audience gives hope for humanity’s survival in this post-Bangerz pop-pocalypse.
12. The Sounds • Weekend
Speaking of surfing, if the Arctic Monkeys surfed Katrina & The Waves, you would get the sound of the Sounds. ‘Shake Shake Shake’ — the leadoff track just about sums up the entire Weekend experience — lots of reasons to look good on the dancefloor. With deep, New Order’y basslines, muscle’y synths and crackling guitar, these Swedes once again aim for world domination. Every song nails its target. Check out album highlight, ‘Outlaw’, here.
#13 (TIE) Yulianna • Californ-i-a
and Marina V • Inner Superhero
While most of my favorite pop music comes Sweden (Robyn, Amanda Mair and the Sounds), I gotta hand it to these two Los Angeles beauties of Russian heritage who have large followings here and abroad.
Yulianna’s love letter to her adopted home state ventures into pure disco (‘Don’t Take Your Love Away’), Robyn-esque Euro Pop (‘Hard Drive’), Gaga anthems (‘Never Not Beautiful’, ‘Back at You’) and even Rancid territory with the surprisingly successful Ska track, ‘Revolution’. There’s nary a dud to be heard on this LP, produced by RAS (Big Time Rush, Diplo, Steve Aoki). Early 2014 will see the release of her new EP, which runs in a more outrageous, operatic, EDM direction, as evidenced by the debut track, ‘Torture‘.
During my years in LA, Marina V was a must-see performer on the singer/songwriter circuit (Hotel Cafe, the Mint — I think I even saw her play a church in Long Beach). Imagine a Russian-influenced Little Earthquakes-era Tori Amos singing beautiful, radio-friendly love songs, pop songs and ballads that would fit seamlessly in a playlist of Sara Bareilles, Selena Gomez and Evanesence. Inner Superhero is her most ambitious and polished album to date. As with Yulianna, the lack of major label funds has not hindered the production quality a bit. The musicianship and arrangements are every bit as beautiful as the artists themselves.
Piñata Protest • El Valiente
2013 saw returns to form from many of the world’s great punk/ethnic fusion bands including Boston’s proud Irish sons Dropkick Murphy’s (Signed and Sealed in Blood) and New York’s reigning Ukrainian gypsy punks, Gogol Bordello (Pure Vida Conspiracy). But the United Nations medal for 2013 goes to San Antonio’s Piñata Protest who fuse Tex Mex to So Cal punk to whip the mosh pit into accordion-fueled madness. 8.99 is a bit much for a 19-minute album, but then again, who has long attention spans these days? Listen to the whole damn thing below.
The Next Lucky 7:
If Spin, NME and Rolling Stone can cull their Top 50, I might was well at least go for 21. Considering I purchased ore than100 albums this year and listened to more than 300 more for POPDOSE reviews, making my (or anyone’s) top 50 is quite the feat. Here are more artists who had a great 2013:
14. ORIANTHI – Heaven in this Hell — Rock’s fiercest guitarist takes a break from the Alice Cooper tour to partner with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart for the best pop metal record of the year.
15. OMD – English Electric — Of all the great New Wave Comebacks of recent years, OMD is the most prolific, delivering three albums worth of new tracks that rival their best early work.
16. LADY GAGA – Artpop — for the love of Gaga, on Amazon it’s only $3.99 (probably today only — go get it!). Don’t believe the hate, this is actually a very good album. While Born This Way was a nod to Mother Madonna, this album owes more to the Killers, Queen and Hedwig & The Angry Inch.
17. ARCADE FIRE – Reflektor — The hype for this album was relentless, and by the time Win Butler pulled a scripted Kanye at the MTV VMA’s, I thought they had jumped the shark — and then came the album, a stunning 2-disc set on par with Neon Bible. Holy shit, it’s only $3.99 as well, get it today, are you freakin’ crazy!
18. TOM KEIFER – The Way Love Goes. Cinderella’s front man makes a solo run and delivers a solid album that will hold up as well as his early catalog. There’s enough hair metal, classic rock and country to make just about everyone happy, from the Sunset Strip to the NASCAR bleachers.
19. SARA MELSON – A Million White Stars — In an era of too much hype and over-production, sometimes all it takes is a simple, effortless, beautiful album like this to reset your frazzled soul.
20. JOAN JETT & THE BLACKHEARTS — Unvarnished. Jett is back with a pack of her best songs in two decades, Dave Grohl and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace cameo.
21. LORDE – Pure Heroine — $5.99 here — ‘Royals’ was an instant global hit, but the album is a slow-build. Quiet and moody, textured and captivating. I bet it will build steam throughout 2014 and rarely leave the Billboard Top 10.
22. DISCLOSURE – Settle — London’s answer to Royksopp brings Aluna George, Jessie Ware, Eliza Doolittle and London Grammar along for a party in the W Hotel lobby. $3.99 too? Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap!
And one of my favorite videos of the year:
Song of the Year
While most of my favorite songs of the year were found on the above albums, a few hot singles also shined brightly all year long. ‘Mad’ by De Verre was my most-listened to, most played and most loved song and video of the year:
Get the track for free here:
“Thea” from Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us is a close runner-up. While the bootleg video below does not do the sonic beauty of the studio version justice, it does feature a few minutes of Alison Goldfrapp in all her ethereal beauty. The album is a whisper quiet tour through Goldfrapp’s intimate universe — it makes Seventh Tree seem like Appetite for Destruction in comparison. By the time I fully appreciate it, it will make my “Best of” list in 2015.