411's Top 25 Albums of 2013 (#20 - 16)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 01.21.2014
From Lady Gaga's ARTPOP and J. Cole's Born Sinner to Trouble Will Find Me by The Nationals and more, the 411 staff continues its journey to name the top 25 albums of 2013 with #20 through #16!
Welcome to 411's Top 25 Albums of 2013! Are you burned out on year-end lists yet? Well, hopefully not as we have one more for you! 2013 saw the release of many great albums from a variety of genres, from pop and rap to rock, alternative, even country and electronica. The field of popular music has continued its trend this decade of diversifying; when it's all said and done however, there were some albums that just rose to the top and deserved to be honored as the best of the year. We of the 411 music zone chose to honor those efforts.
To present this list, every 411 writer had the opportunity to share their top 25 albums that were released during 2013. After the staff provided their lists, the results were tabulated and compiled into one single top 25 list. Writers took several things into account, from chart performance and individual sounds to the personal tastes, the album's progression (for good or ill) of the artist's catalog and much more. Keep in mind when reading this list that it is one that spanned all genres, and every staff member of 411 has different tastes. Some value certain criteria more than others do. We don't all agree on what albums deserved the top spots, but we all respect each other's choices and hope you can do the same. We begin our list today with the five albums that just missed the cut, a recap of what's come before and and then #20 through #16.
Danny Brown - Old
Disclosure – Settle
Atoms for Peace - Amok
Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park
The Weeknd - Kiss land
The List So Far:
#25: Jake Bugg - Shangri La
#24: Drake - Nothing Was The Same
#23: Elton John - The Diving Board
#22: Motorhead - Aftershock
#21: Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience - 2 of 2
#20: The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Daniel Wilcox: It took me a good long while to get into The National as a band. It took me even longer to admit to being an out and out fan; see sometimes I have this tendency to go against the grain when it comes to a band as universally acclaimed as The National, it's like being an ultra-hipster for the sake of it. It was Boxer that really brought me around to them, and then it was 2010's High Violet that made me realise, "hang on a minute, these guys are really fucking good." Seeing them live was a strange experience, I wasn't entirely enamoured, but on record I feel that there aren't many bands out there as consistently brilliant as The National. It's them and Arcade Fire on that level, then everyone else. I said when High Violet was released that it was going to be an album that the band would never be able to top, they're career had peaked, their sound had matured to the point that it was entirely their own and they'd reached an apex of acclaim and popularity. Well Trouble Will Find Me proved me wrong. It could be argued whether the record hit the same musical sonisphere of its predecessor, but it certainly took the band to another plane in terms of their own exposure. Musically, the record took that sound that had seemingly been mastered on High Violet and somehow managed to make it even better. Their sound now comes naturally, the entire record sounds organic and effortless and its a platform that the band can now develop further or they can simply continue to echo the sheer brilliance of their songs. It's not a case of playing it safe so much as The National can do no longer; it's a nice place to be for sure and it makes for an incredible listening experience.
Jack Stevenson: I am a lonely and neurotic white man and because of this the National are obviously my favourite band. This year they released Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth album, and it did not let me down. It was gorgeous and haunting and swirling and maudlin, and slipped effortlessly from big, noisy, layered epics like "Demons" and "Graceless" to welcome moments of quieter power, the anguished "Fireproof" and the weary "Hard to Find." Lyrically things were typically excellent as well; the National have always been a class above other miserabilists for their ability to inject life and vitality into their songs with deep, sharp, and witty words, and there was plenty of evidence of that skill on display. I'm particularly fond of "I am secretly in love with/everyone that I grew up with," an openly silly line that still somehow packed a huge emotional punch. I lay awake at night with this album on and obsessed about my middle class issues a lot this year, which I think is what you're meant to do with National records. Concrete proof then that Trouble Will find Me was another splendid record in a remarkably consistent career.
#19: Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
Jack Stevenson: When we all have a vote on who the coolest person in history was and Janelle Monae wins in a landslide, people will point to the Electric Lady as a huge reason why. It was just a brilliant album, funny and lively and catchy and fucking cool. It's stuffed fool of blistering pop fun; "Q.U.E.E.N." is maybe my favourite song of the year, "Dance Apocalyptic" is infectious, the guest appearances are excellent and even the interludes are weird and clever and worthwhile. It's perhaps a touch too long which is why I only had it 7th on my personal list, but I'm very glad it is here. Monae just seems an ace person and she's an ace musician and I wish she was my best friend.
Sean Walker:The Electric Lady is without a doubt the R&B album of 2013. This wasn't a negative thought I could conjure up about this album. While The ArchAndroid was OK, this record knocks it out of the ball park. It's very rare that a major label artist has such creativity and lyrical imagery of Jannelle Monaé. There hasn't been a better concept album for R&B since Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Monaé is able to tackle the issue of black stereotypes, specifically black women, very successfully. Songs like "Ghetto Woman" and "Q.U.E.E.N." accomplish this goal in empowering black women. I can relate to this album very well seeing as it reminds me of my mother, who's had to face many problems being a black woman in today's society. There is no weak spot on this album. The interludes between the songs are often witty and entertaining to listen to. What strengthens The Electric Ladyeven more is the A-list stars included such as Prince, Miguel, and Erykah Badu who each step their game up to help Monaé create an even greater album. Janelle Monaé has proven that R&B females doesn't have to continuously sing about sex or wear skimpy clothing to sell records. This alone is a huge reason why The Electric Ladyis one of the top albums of 2013.
#18: J. Cole - Born Sinner
Jake St. Pierre: I don't know how to sum J. Cole up. He doesn't have a particularly groundbreaking approach to rap, nor does he have the personality of a Tyler, The Creator to draw people in. Can he spit? He sure can, as evidenced by the album's opening song, "Villuminati". However, are there better rappers out there with better albums? Yes. Guys like RA The Rugged Man, Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, etc. have all released better albums with more variety and pure quality.
However, I guess I could understand somebody attempting to make a case to call Born Sinner one of the top 25 albums of the year. My arrogant side would probably laugh in their face, but there IS a reason J. Cole has a following. I already mentioned "Villuminati", but I'll say something else about it; aside from the shameful and moronic "Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are" sequence of lines, this is the tightest, most aggressive J. Cole track I've ever heard…as a standalone track. You'll find throughout this album that the lyrics are (for lack of a better term) repetitive, but if you listen to "Villuminati" by itself, you wouldn't be as negative about it as I am. The beat he churns out on this track is bananas too, so much so that I thought this set the tone for an improved J. Cole The Producer. And while there were no outright offputting beats on Born Sinner like there were on Sideline Story, he decreases the tempo and never really picks it up throughout the album. That makes it a little bit of a chore to get through 16 tracks of Cole, especially without a guest verse from anybody. He doesn't have any crazy, venomous lyrical exhibitions to break up the monotony of boring storytelling either, which doesn't help an already boring set of tracks.
However, the brightest spots of the album are very bright. "Let Nas Down" is the best J. Cole track I've ever heard and by far the best piece of storytelling he's ever put out. "Trouble"—while a little outlandish with the tough guy image J. Cole tries to portray—has a fantastic choir sample behind one of J. Cole's best attempts at flowing on Born Sinner. "Forbidden Fruit" sorely, sorely misses a verse from Kendrick Lamar (who pulled out Verse of the Year for me on Pusha T's "Nosetalgia") but excels with the hook Kendrick supplies and the suprisingly great Award Tour sample on the instrumental. And lastly, both of the interludes ("Mo Money" & "Ain't That Some Shit") spice up some of the more monotonous parts of the album with short, yet motivated verses from the otherwise stagnant Cole. Despite these positives, I just feel like Cole's mixtapes and a lot of his first album ("God's Gift" and "Rise & Shine" in particular) absolutely trump most what he put into Born Sinner. He sounded hungrier, hadn't worn out his material (how many times can you tell us that you got Jay Z to listen to your stuff?) and was there to rap. Born Sinner doesn't give off the hungry vibe like you'll hear out of Domo Genesis (of Odd Future fame) or Shadows on the Sun era Brother Ali. It's still a decent album, but I don't go back and play it like I do plenty of other projects in my iTunes.
Bill Wannop: J. Cole returned in 2013 with his second studio album, Born Sinner, debuting at number 2 on the Billboard 200 charts, and currently it has sold over 600,000 copies. With this album, J. Cole had a lot of pressure to follow up his gold selling debut album, Cole World, and not fall victim to the sophomore curse that seems to be present in music. What J. Cole did, is get more personal on this album and really focussed on his lyrics, bringing his style back to his what original got him the praise of hip hop fans, with his initial Warm Up mixtape. What makes J.Cole such an impressive artist, and makes this album one of the best of the year is that J. Cole handles most of his own production. What this does is enables J.Cole to have full control over this music, and really allows him to create the mood, atmosphere and sound that encompasses each track.
While J. Cole did make some radio friendly tracks, he never sacrificed his lyrics or dumbed down his music. Tracks like "Crooked Smile" and "Power Trip", show that J. Cole can make a mainstream track that can be played on radio while still keeping his core fans happy. J. Cole managed to make an album that crossed genres, in that while it was a hip hop album, he made tracks that were personal and told a story which many people could relate to, which allowed the album to be accepted by a wide and diverse audience.
With Born Sinner, J. Cole opens the album with lines "sometimes I brag like Hov, sometimes I'm real like Pac", and throughout the album Cole lets known who his musical idols are. At the end of the album, he took a step toward being in the same league as those he idolized.
#17: Orphaned Land - All Is One
Robert Cooper: I find it kind of peculiar that in life, we as a people are unified and divided by things such as race, religion and even gender, yet unified in common interests such as film and music. The reason why I bring this up is that Orphaned Land are perhaps one of the odder unifying forces between people going right now. I call them odd because they play a style of music that is not widely accepted in the land they live in (which is Israel, though I think they've relocated to Turkey), but still their message of peace between people has really started touching the hearts of many.
That message is even clearer in this album, All is One, that features a melding off religious symbols into one great symbol. That is the content of a lot of this album, it preaches of peace between religions, nations, and peoples, which is important considering where they live. When not pleading and preaching peace, they tell stories of sadness and loss that really help fuel reasoning for there to be peace. While this isn't a change in themes for the band, as they have always have preached for peace, this album makes it the focus of the album. In the past, they have touched upon the idea of peace in the middle east, but for the past two albums they have focused more on concepts that tell stories that are away from reality in a way. This album brings them to the real world and feels like it was written by a band that knows these pains.
The change in scenery is also met with a change in sound. Though change perhaps is not the right word, evolution might be a more fitting gloves for the band, as the elements present in this album have always in been there, they are just greater emphasized here. Before this album, the folk metal was coupled with heavier guitar tones and death metal growls, but for this album, the growls are kept scare. As a fan of the band for a few years now, I was a bit disappointed by this, but the album works really well with a mostly folk inspired sound that fits the more real topic they cover here. This folk focus is coupled with a lessening of the progressive elements they had before, instead bringing in symphonic elements to really give everything a nice punch and overall make the album feel like there is a grandeur to it all, and if helps the emotion become better conveyed. While this album does lose things that made me fall in love with the band, they also ramp up other things maintain that love and give me reason to come back. They have released an album with a real message to it and I hope that it makes some difference in the world, because if any band can do it, it's them. It may be something small, but small things help win large battles. All in all, this album is a wonderful, emotional, and catchy affair that leaves one with an overall feeling of elation over the quality, but a hint of sadness over how deep and sad the album is when you get to the brass tax of it all. Let us hope that it wont take so long for the next one to come out, I guess it'll depend on whether or not the Orphaned Disciples (their fan club) succeed in getting them on the ballot for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jeremy Thomas: As I've mentioned elsehwere, Orphaned Land was one of the new bands I was happiest to hear for the first time in 2013. Robert sent All is One on to me around the middle point of the year, and I was instantly taken with the Israeli progressive metal band. While they aren't the most well-known metal group out there, they've been making music for upward of twenty years and are one of the bands keeping the metal alive in the Middle East. All is One, their fifth studio album, sees the group back off from the growly sounds of death metal and head deeper into the symphonic side of the music genre. But while the album doesn't have quite as heavy of a sound, the themes are powerful and have some serious weight behind them. The lyrics are pointed and cover topics of faith, politics, war and all the things you might expect from an intellectual metal band out of the Middle East. And it's not just about the message, either. There is something truly sublime about the way that the group seamlessly melds Arabic string influences into their progressive metal style; they are not two sounds that you would expect to bleed smoothly into each other but they do. It's an incredibly unique piece of musical art with pointed, well-written lyrics that fit the operatic style of prog metal quite well and stand on their own. I truly love All Is One and Orphaned Land have earned a high spot on the list of acts I'm looking forward to hearing future music from.
#16: Lady Gaga - ARTPOP
David Hayter: At the time of release ARTPOP felt like a disappointment. Lady Gaga had promised to up the conceptual ante by blending the extreme aesthetics of modern art with her already peerless pop prowess. The idea wasn't new, but it had so much promise and Gaga already seemed fully committed in her personal life to the artistic avante garde; so what happened?
Gaga released a relatively straightforward Gaga album that offered glimmers of potential insanity ("Aura", "Venus") but tended to lean on buzzwords, postures and Euro club beats. This hardly sounds like the write up for an album of the year candidate, but after that wave of disappointment washed a way, an album of full-bloodied pop remained. Gaga might have missed the boat when it came to pop's new naturalism, but if ARTPOP was artificial club pop's last hoorah, then wow – what a way to go out!
Whether Gaga can bridge the gap between aspiration and attainment remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the Lady's pure pop credentials remain unblemished. Vogue! Whoops I mean: Venus!
Sean Walker: Lady Gaga has turned into the fame monster that she sung about a couple of years ago. When she debuted with The Fame/The Fame Monster, she was someone who had aspirations to be a star. Born This Way dealt with the insecurities and depression that comes with the spotlight that she craved. On ARTPOP, Gaga is an artist struggling to keep the fame that she has amassed over the years. She sounds obsessed over staying relevant in pop culture. In the past, Gaga was able to walk on this fine line between commercial and experimental sounds. On the first track "Aura," she throws that formula out the window, as she invites the listener to discover what really goes on in her head. Follow up tracks Venus and G.U.Y. warns the listener that you will either really love what she's trying to do, or that you can throw the album in the trash. It's not easy to digest, but if you continue listening, you'll hit a sweet spot on the LP. "MANiCURE, Do What U Want" and "Gypsy" are fantastic electronic jams that should all be released as a singles. "Fashion!, Donatella", and "Mary Jane Holland" are all flat numbers that hinder more than help ARTPOP with it's message. The album closes on a strong note with the scorching ballad "Dope" and the Bowie-esque "Applause." The ARTPOP era isn't finished yet as she is set to release Act II later this year, which will probably be even more varied than part one.
And there you have it! Come back tomorrow as we reveal #15 - 11!