I feel like a broken record when it comes to Sleigh Bells who make their third appearance in one of my top 10 albums of the year lists. Bitter Rivals is the record the duo have been edging towards since they debuted back in 2010. Treats was a raucous parade of experimental noise, while last year’s Reign Of Terror was a slightly more subdued and arguably watered down version of their debut. Bitter Rivals takes things back to the noise, while pushing the pop leanings of Reign Of Terror to the limit. I’d go as so far to say that this is a Pop album, rather than the awkward Alternative label given to the group previously. Opening track and lead single Bitter Rivals features one of the catchiest hooks of 2013 while remaining extremely loud from start to end. Sleigh Bells prove over the course of 29 minutes (The shortest album on the list) that they know how to write a pop hook, even if they still like to turn everything up to 11 when Alexis sings it. Even the guitar riffs which would be used as a counter to Alexis’ sweet vocal now play their own hooks making this by far the most accessible record they’ve made thus far. Standout track Young Legends is most obvious example of this, a song that revels in being an out an out Pop song, the sort of thing you’d get if you played Call Me Maybe through a set of broken speakers.
Yet another UK debut album. I hadn’t really paid much attention to The 1975 during the start of the year when they were being tipped as the new big thing. I didn’t even notice them when their hit Chocolate when it was all over the radio, but I’m glad I gave their album a shot in September. It’s a Pop album disguised as an Indie one, the sort of songs you might mistake for McFly for all the right kind of reasons. It’s pretty easy-going for the most part, Chocolate used as the blueprint for most of the strongest tracks here. The term ‘radio friendly’ is often seen as an insult for ‘real musicians’ but there’s something to be said about being able to write songs that are so instantly accessible and relatable. Tracks like Sex and The City capture another side of the genre to great effect, but the running theme of infectious, easy music makes for one of the strongest debut albums of the year. You can’t deny a great pop song, and The 1975 know how to write their fair share of them.
It took a lot to shock me when it came to Pop stars in 2013. Miley was all over the place and it was more surprising when GaGa stripped things back for one of her performances. Cut to December, I’m sat where I am now starting to think about my final lists for my Best Albums and Best Singles and I’m shocked like never before when someone tells me that Beyoncé has just released a new album. Appearing from thin air it seemed Beyoncé was not only one of the biggest moments of her career but it’s by far the best album that Bey has ever released. The words cohesive and consistent were just about the last words you’d have used to describe any of Beyoncé’s first 4 albums. Of course I’ve listened to all of them lots of times over the years, but Beyoncé is more of a singles/videos/tour kinda artists, she was yet to release an ‘album’. But lo and behold here we have Beyoncé, a dark, sex fuelled trip into the psyche of one of the industry’s most shielded stars. We’ve never heard (or seen) Beyoncé like this, talking frankly about her relationship with Jay-Z on album standout Mine, while showcasing a new improved passionate vocal on XO. She’s naughtier than ever too, you get the feeling that the artist performing outright dirty songs like Blow and Rocket isn’t a Sasha Fierce ‘character’ but a more accurate depiction of Beyoncé than the one we have known thus far. It’s so recent that it’s still hard to gauge whether Beyoncé will be a long-term success, but judging by the reaction since the shock release I reckon it will be. As it turns out the biggest shock of Beyoncé wasn’t the sudden release, but that it’s the album of her career.
Oh Ciara. This is the 3rd time I’ve had to write about how Ciara owned 2013 and this time I promise I’ll keep in short. I’ve been a Ciara fan ever since I heard Goodies back in 2004. For nearly 10 years I’ve watched her time and time again fail to connect with an audience or produce the music that I knew she had the potential to release. Ciara is exactly that, a hook driven, cohesive Pop RnB album that could only possibly be released by her. Ciara is a record that I’ve literally waited a decade for.
Following his incredible trio of Mixtapes back in 2010, I was expecting the first debut album from The Weeknd to be good. I didn’t expect Kiss Land to be this consistently brilliant though, a trip through sexual obsession, drug fueled nights and the darkest parts of the ‘high life’. It’s as focused as his impeccable first mixtape House of Balloons, but distinctively aimed at the mainstream. Live For takes the combination of Drake and The Weeknd to new heights, Drake’s verse here is by far the best he delivered in 2013. The opening of Professional and album standout The Town recalls songs like High For This and The Morning, they delve into their subject matter musically as well as lyrically, something that sets The Weeknd apart from his peers. His vocals on The Town are especially impressive, there’s no one who pulls off a falsetto like The Weeknd. Kiss Land in a dark, often challenging album, but one that’s consistently sung to perfection by one of music’s best talents. People said The Weeknd was the new MJ, with Kiss Land he proved he can be a whole lot more.
Yeezus walks again, but probably in a lower place on this list than you expected. It’s no secret that Kanye West is my favourite artist in music, so a full new studio album from him was the most exciting prospect of the year. To say Yeezus was a shock to the system is an understatement, it’s an album with the intent purpose to baffle the listener. I spent most of 2013 with conflicted emotions about Yeezus, which was exactly the point. I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could have the audacity to pull off the things that Kanye does on this album. Using a sample of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit for a drug fuelled paternity rant? Calling the album Yeezus? The ‘All I need is sweet & sour sauce’ line on I’m In It? The (Feat. God) on the already brilliantly titled I Am A God? The lack of any album artwork? It’s an album that is begging for you to criticise and complain, but only so you can revel in these emotions. If anyone can pull off an album this densely packed with arrogance, ego and beautiful soulful music it’s Kanye West. It’s not his best album, in fact it’s probably my least favourite of his 6 solo records, but it’s most definitely the one that I’ll remember the most.
It took until week 7 of X Factor 2011 for anyone to realise that Little Mix were more than just 4 girls thrown together into a girl band on a talent (Which they literally were), their performance of En Vogue’s Don’t Let Go (Love) making us all wonder if they could make an impression after the show. Cut to late 2013 and in just 2 years the girls have gone from reality TV hopefuls to the best girl group in the country a fact that may even be argued if Girls Aloud hadn’t called it a day earlier in the year. Lead single Move is commanding and immensely cool, something groups like The Saturdays could never quite manage, but it’s just the start of what makes Salute the best album to emerge from the X Factor. There’s not a weak track here, Little Mix have the vocal talent to pull of emotional and powerful ballads like Towers one second and demand you join their world domination in opener Salute. The album has often been compared to Destiny’s Child, but I’d say it’s more of an N Sync early 00’s sound, the opening a capella for Boy and stuttering production of A Different Beat taking me back about 10 years. The track that sealed it for me was current single Little Me, which manages to be an inspirational, uplifting song without feeling cringy at all. The Pavane sample, along with excellent vocals from all 4 girls makes for one of the best songs to ever emerge from a UK girl group. Salute is seriously brilliant, Little Mix are definitely here to stay.
Given that I already knew that Falling was my song of 2013, the pressure was on for HAIM’s full debut album to deliver. It’s amazing to think that the rest of the album is so good after the near perfect opening track, but songs like The Wire and Don’t Save Me are just as good. Every track manages to capture this unique energy that the sisters have, a raw edge that puts Days Are Gone in a league of its own. It’s amazing to hear a group sound so completely sure of their own sound on a debut record, there are groups on this list that don’t sound this assured on their 3rd or 4th albums. The magical simplicity of a song like If I Could Change Your Mind, which manages to be infectious and familiar after just one listen, proves that HAIM are a group like no other. immensely cool throughout, they make sounding this good look impossibly easy.
The first truly brilliant album of the year, along with most people here in the UK, I have Popjustice to thank for telling me to give this album a listen. The 7th studio album from the Canadian indie duo, Heartthrob accidentally turned out to be the best pop album of 2013. Songs like lead single Closer and I’m Not Your Hero are the sort of pop songs artists spend their entire career looking for and Tegan & Sara have managed to write 10 of them on Heartthrob. Greg Kurstin brings the best out in the duo, who bring an electric performance to every song. Perhaps it’s the genre that Tegan & Sara came from that allows these songs to meld the most obvious Pop ideas into something brilliantly original, with an honesty we hardly get to see in the genre. Lyrically these tracks are the closest thing we’ve had to a Robyn album since Body Talk, the same raw emotion and frank honesty that makes songs like Be Mine so thrilling makes tracks like I Was A Fool and I Couldn’t Be Your Friend the best pop music of 2013. Heartthrob will most likely be a one-off for Tegan & Sara, but 2013 would have been so boring without it.
The music that Laura Marling makes on Once I Was An Eagle is beautiful. It’s difficult to think of any other words to describe an album that transcends comparison to just about anything else released this year, it’s a triumph. The first 7 songs hit at such a relentless pace, the first 4 in particular revolving around the same simple guitar riff, that you’ll need to take a breather after the greatest moment of the record, the tribal chant of Devil’s Resting Place. Marling is so in tune to her own vision and the listening experience of her record that she suddenly strips everything back for a brief interlude and the swaying rhythms of Undine and Where Will I Go. Returning to that opening, the music is so enthralling that by the time you realise that there hasn’t been a break between tracks you’re already on song number 5. I lose myself whenever I listen to Once I Was An Eagle, something that no other album in 2013 can hold claim to. It’s a musical journey that retains its identity at all times, most importantly Laura Marling’s unmatched voice. You believe every word, every ounce of emotion that she manages to impart in such an effortless vocal is incredible to hear. The second half of the album is noticeably more reserved, Once and Love Be Brave recalling the sound of Marling’s earlier albums. The fact that Laura Marling is just 23, one year older than me, and she has created the fourth album in a discography that continues to be impeccable is astounding. On albums past she’s been compared to the greats of songwriting, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan the most obvious points of inspiration, but here she manages to become one herself. Once I Was An Eagle is the work of one of the UK’s best singer songwriter’s, in this generation or any before; an album that manages to define a career that’s really only just begun. For that reason it has to be my favourite album of 2013.