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The 8 Ball 1.25.14: The Top 8 Albums of 2013
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 01.25.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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One other piece of business I wanted to mention. If you're a 411 reader, you may remember Adam Hill. Adam wrote the Music 5&1 for quite a while and eventually passed it off to me while he focused on personal ventures; he has since started writing at his own site, Alphabet Bands. Adam is a great friend to 411 who has come back to contribute to 411 from time to time and he'll always be welcome, and at the end of this month he'll be doing a great thing for charity by blogging for twenty-four hours straight for cancer research. It's a great cause and he's a great writer to follow and read, so it should certainly be entertaining and you should definitely consider pledging! You can find out more at his site here and donate here. I definitely recommend it if you can!

Top 8 Albums of 2013

Welcome to the 411 Music 8 Ball, folks! What, you say that you're not completely sick to death of "Best Of 2013" music lists yet? Well, have I got news for you! In all seriousness, we're concluding our 2013 year in review at Music 8 Ball headquarters with the final eight; the best of the best in yours truly's opinion. There was a ton of music released in 2013 (as with every year), but these are the albums that most resonated with me across genres and styles.

Caveat: All you had to do in order to qualify for this list was release an EP or LP of new music (not a compilation or live album) in the year 2013 within the United States, and do a poor job at it. Pretty straight-forward. Of note: I did not get a chance to listen to absolutely every album out there, and certainly there was probably some stuff worse than this which were released by minor independent labels, self-released or the like. If I had the time I would listen to everything, but there was a lot of music released, so that's the way it is. As it stands, my final tally came to 91 albums released that I listened to in full with a critical ear in mind.

Just Missing The Cut

• The National - Trouble Will Find Me
• Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part 2
• CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
• J. Cole - Born Sinner
• The Strokes - Comedown Machine

The First Eight

16. Beyonce - Beyonce
15. Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork
14. Orphaned Land - All Is One
13. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
12. Kanye West - Yeezus
11. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City
10. Black Sabbath - 13
9. Arctic Monkeys - AM

#8: Haim - Days Are Gone

Pop music is a genre at a crossroads. While the genre has been dominated over the last few years by dance-infused club-ready efforts, there has been a rise of a deeper, more substantive element of the genre through artists like Adele, Amanda Palmer and others. We saw the continued and thoroughly welcome push in that direction in 2013. Of course we still had the dance-pop as well, but that more hollow (if still enjoyable) side ceded more ground over the last twelve months and helping the pushback was Haim. The quartet, fronted by the three Haim sisters, gave us one of the most pleasant surprises of the year with Days are Gone, their debut LP that pushed them from "group to watch" territory into a force to be reckoned with.

Haim had already made a splash with their 2012 EP Forever, opening the doors for Days Are Gone. The album can be described as nothing less than pop ecstasy. The album contains some dance elements to it, but it doesn't sacrifice meaning for a beat. There is a lot in the album that could be described of reminiscent of other groups of course; you can hear Tori Amos and Sophie B. Hawkins in there just as much as En Vogue, Bananarama and even the group they're most often compared to, Fleetwood Mac. But those disparate inspirations are all brought together in such a way to present something entirely new. The opening tracks of the album are more traditional, radio-friendly cuts but they contain an emotional core to them that hits deep. By the time the LP has shifted to the more eclectic back half, you start to get a sense of exactly how diversely talented these ladies and their drummer are. Just when you think you have them figured out they deliver a track like the heavy, alt-rock "My Song 5" just to remind you there are many more layers to be discovered. The more pop music moves in this direction, the happier I am and Haim has potential to be a real game-changer in that respect.

#7: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

I have heard it argued that essentially Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is a one-hit album. Respectfully, I have to disagree. Yes, it is undoubtedly true that the album became the success it did in large part because of the chart-topping success of "Get Lucky." But the album was already considered one of the more highly-anticipated new albums of the year and when it delivered opening-week sales of an impressive 339,000 in the US alone, it was clear that the EDM duo had a hit on their hand. And that hit comes from more than just the one song. Sure, "Get Lucky" is an energetic and catchy dance number, but the rest of the album is great from start to finish.

The album kicks off in just the right fashion, with the 1980s-style anthemic quality of "Give Life Back to Music." From that point forward the two artists prove why they're pushing the bar in terms of EDM and its viability in terms of musical genres. In truth, this was one of the most diverse and intriguing albums of the year. Disco and soft rock compete with funk, electronica and progressive pop for an album that contains a lot of twists and turns but always stays eminently enjoyable. There are elements on this that shouldn't work but not only work, they soar. Look at "Giorgio by Moroder," which uses a monologue by the Italian producer named in the title as a lyrical track over an electro-funk click track. It could have come off as exceedingly pretentious, but the duo makes it work incredibly well. And if that's not quite your cup of tea, there is the flittering synth work of "Motherboard," the smooth groove of the Julian Casablancas-assisted "Instant Crush" or more. 2013 was the year when EDM threatened to break out as it own chart-climbing genre instead of an element of other genres that was otherwise left to the clubs. And for better or worse, that's thanks to Random Access Memories.

#6: Atoms For Peace - Amok

Thom Yorke's new side project released its debut LP in 2013 and provided just another example of how talented the Radiohead frontman truly is. And to be clear, I am not trying to take a single thing away from the other members of Atoms for Peace. Producer Nigel Godrich, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker and Forro in the Dark percussionist Mauro Refosco all bring their A-game on Amok. The supergroup delivers an incredibly dense, engrossing piece of music with this album, putting intelligent dance music and experimental rock together into a brilliant mix of mood music that takes electronica in a direction which flies miles above what you normally hear from the genre.

If I'm being honest (and I am), I actually prefer Amok to Radiohead's most recent efforts. Like much of that band's work it takes more than just a single listen-through to fully absorb, but where Radiohead can be rather obfuscating you can pick up a lot from Amok without being put off by any inaccessibility. Amok is astounding from a technical aspect, with a multi-layered sound that never is content to let itself stagnate; what makes it even more impressive that, while Kanye West's Yeezus accomplished the same musically, this one never once falters from a lyrical standpoint. It sounds electronic but plays like rock, fusing the two into an impressive combination. In fact, Amok can partially be blamed for me taking so long to get some of this past year's albums under my belt; I became so enamored of it that I often found myself just listening to it over and over rather than jump on something new. Being able to make something that catchy that is deeply intelligent and technically sound as well is, quite simply, the mark of greatness.

#5: Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I don't think any single album had more hype trailing it than The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Eminem's sequel to his high mark LP drew some serious excitement just based off of the album title and Em proved that he had no desire to coast by on album title only. On MMLP2 the rapper completes his return to the throne that he has been working his way back toward album-by-album for quite a while. There's no other way to put it; this is the rap album of the year.

There isn't a single element of this LP that was a let-down for me. Let's go over all the different arenas that it could have done so. Production? This contains some of the best beats he's had since the first Marshall Mathers, and the sampling is unbelievably inspired. His flow? Ladies and gentlemen, I present "Rap God" as exhibit A. The rest of the album delivers on that front as well, such as his full-on aggression in "Survival" and the malice dripping from his voice in "Evil Twin." Lyrics? Yes, he dips into some immature moments. That being said, his storytelling has never been better than the multi-layered complexity that is "Bad Guy." That song has launched itself into my personal favorite Em songs of all-time. And he hasn't lost his autobiographical touch either, as evidenced by tracks like "The Monster" and "Legacy." This album is Marshall Mathers revisiting the themes of his landmark album, but from a more mature standpoint and the results are simply spectacular. The man has set expectations at this point that are nearly impossible for him to meet, but for my money he pole vaulted over his own bar and gave one of the better LPs of his career.

#4: Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

Hesitation Marks was an album that, like much of Trent Reznor's works over the last decade or so, has divided Nine Inch Nails fans. Reznor has been accused by certain circles within his fanbase of losing his edge after he got past many of the emotional issues that drove his watershed albums such as The Downward Spiral. Certainly now that he is scoring David Fincher films you could say that he is lacking the angst and emotional turmoil that gave him such a voice and a following in the 1990s. For my money Hesitation Marks is the album in which Reznor took his sound back around to the beginning, but with an expanded theme. Reznor has always had an electronic edge to his music; that's the essence of industrial rock. After his work on Fincher's The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo he seems to have found his musical groove again, delivering an LP which pushes his musical maturation ever further ahead while taking on his favorite themes of paranoia and alienation.

To put it simply, Hesitation Marks is his most inspired album since the days of The Downward Spiral. I have a lot of love for Year Zero and even like With Teeth, but this one sees Reznor's edge return. "Came Back Haunted" is Reznor's trademark aggression set into a sound which is both old and new for him, while "Copy of A" is simply one of my favorite of his tracks in a long, long time. "All Time Low" hits a glorious bit of a funk in its groove and while it took a bit of time for me to warm to it, "Various Methods of Escape" is a technical marvel. For many people the crux of this album depends on your appreciation (or lack thereof) of "Everything." It is certainly experimental and I get why some have been turned off by it, but I consider it a brilliant change of pace for him. Reznor has long toyed with the idea of retiring the Nine Inch Nails name, but it will always be part of him and Hesitation Marks proves that he is still capable of amazing work under the moniker.

#3: Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

By the point when the new year rolled around, it had been a long time since Justin Timberlake had made new music. The pop star turned actor turned media mogul's last LP was 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds and a lot had changed within the music industry during that nearly seven-year period. This is why when Timberlake announced that he would be releasing The 20/20 Experience in March, I will admit to having a certain amount of concern. Did Timberlake fit within a landscape that was populated by hip-hop, rock and a very dance-pop than he was used to? Would he come back as the man who was trying to redefine pop music on FutureSex or would he play it safe, falling well within the established guidelines of the current pop music crowd?

The answer, it turned out, was something quite different than both of those possibilities, with the result being fantastic. In The 20/20 Experience we found a Justin Timberlake who doesn't feel the need to try and reinvent pop, but also doesn't bow to the pressure of throwing out banal dance-pop just to get on the charts. That gave the album an assured confidence that makes its callbacks to an era when R&B-flavored pop used to be fun. With his longtime collaborator Timbaland deftly steering the way on the production side, Timberlake delivered an album that was no more or less than what he wanted to make as opposed to what he thought people would want from him. (Side note: I vaguely considered counting both 20/20 albums as one singular set and the ranking would have been the same, but decided to split them up the way Timberlake intended.) "Mirrors" is one of the songs of the year without question and "Tunnel Vision" is a bad-ass number to boot. There is nary a misstep on this album; with songs that defy the radio-friendly snippet lengths without losing any of their listenability, Timberlake delivered what is easily one of the better pop music albums of the last several years.

#2: Lorde - Pure Heroine

In my Worst 8 Albums list a couple of weeks ago, I labeled will.i.am as everything that is wrong with pop music today. Lorde is his antithesis; she is everything that is right with the genre. She's the anti-Miley, a girl who knows exactly what she wants to do with her art and presents that vision without equivocation. Whereas Miley sounds and acts like she is just throwing anything at the wall to see if it will stick, Lorde rings through with an authentic voice for a sixteen year-old while managing to sound substantive and fresh. As I mentioned in our Top 25 Albums list, certain cynics about the music industry will argue that the sixteen year-old New Zealander is just another manufactured sound, but she carries a realness that I don't honestly think a middle-aged (or even thirty-something) record executive could pull off.

And here's the thing: you can argue about whether she's actually a real artist or not. That debate will be ongoing. But I find it difficult for anyone to deny just how fantastic the music is. Is "Royals" overplayed? Yes, but that's because it's such a resonant track which takes shots at the over-blinged music scene today. And it's not even one of the better tracks on the LP. "Glory and Gore" is a wonderfully heavy darkwave number which comments on pop culture's obsession with violence while "Team" speaks for all those people who, as the song says, "live in cities you'll never see up on the screen." I know she already has some backlash due to overexposure but I'm deaf to it. She is by far the best new act from 2013 and it literally took an unforeseen album from a rock and roll icon to keep Pure Heroine from being my favorite album of the year.

#1: David Bowie - The Next Day

Of all the big returns of 2013, none were more surprising than that of David Bowie. Sure, Beyonce set the world on fire with her out-of-nowhere album release at the end of the year, but we at least expected new music from her and had heard snippets of it throughout the year. No one even knew that Bowie was thinking of new music, much less recording it. And then on January 8th--Bowie's sixty-sixth birthday--it was announced that he was releasing The Next Day out of the blue. Many believed that Bowie was retired and would stay that way but thankfully he wasn't because he delivered an album that stands tall among his storied career.

On The Next Day, Bowie delivers a dark but deeply enjoyable piece of work that is unlike anything in current music. It has all the hallmarks of greatness: musical diversity, willingness to experiment, great lyrical content and undeniable energy. This is an album that challenges you as a listener, but even when it is really forcing you to give it your attention it is always incredibly listenable. The ups and downs of the music's mood and tones take you on a fascinating journey, full of remarkable twists and turns with Bowie beckoning you every step of the way. At almost sixty years of age, the former Ziggy Stardust shows more freshness than scores of artists half his age and younger. It is the kind of bold, confident work that only an artist of Bowie's genius could create and it stands on top of the mountain that is 2013 in music.


As my regular readers know, I'm a hardcore fanboy and I love a good geek franchise-focused parody. So this week for Video A-Go-Go, we're going with the ladies (and gentleman) from Not Literally, a parody music and comedy production group. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Game of Thrones-themed "Just a Character I Used To Know":

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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