This year in music has been completely fantastic and exhausting. The hype cycles were aggressive, weird, mysterious and relentless, but the artists delivered nearly every single time.
As I'm a music department of one, there are things I have to admit to missing out on this year, namely Tim Hecker's highly praised Virgins. There are also some records I completely loved — like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito — but didn't make the cut. (I'd love to just make endless list of good shit, but I must control myself.) Then there are artists with singles that deserve honors for the year (Lorde, "Royals") but that's a different list.
Enough qualifiers, though. Here we go.
Yeezus, Kanye West
We're still arguing about this record for a lot of reasons — Kanye's God complex, some rough lyrics, the credit deserved for bringing this minimal production, born of a different genre, to hip hop. The fact that it's still the most talked about record of the year, months after its mid-June release, says enough. This sounded new, abrasive and interesting. Kanye shrieked "God" and called out everyone's racist crap, and we couldn't help but listen again and listen closer. It's pretty much a certainty that you whispered or yelled "oh, fuck yeah" the first time that distorted horn sound burst through the Nina Simone sample on "Blood On The Leaves." Yeezus has that immediate, visceral appeal, but the production is nowhere near as hot or busy as it was on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeezus makes you hear every single sound, from 8-bit flourishes to rumbling bass growls, blaring sirens, ear-scraping synthesizers and "hurry up with my damn croissants." Kanye lives up to his talk, again.
Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend
This album was a hell of a triumphant comeback for Vampire Weekend. After 2010's Contra was more or less dismissed, the Columbia University-born band looked fated to be remembered as indie-rock novelties. Nope. Modern Vampires of the City is a beautiful record dedicated to fading youth. Ezra Koenig's talent for lyrics hit a new high — even if you want to snark on the intellectual references, you have to recognize that it's clever and poetic. Meanwhile, Rostam Batmanglij is drawing on musical traditions from all over the world, without being quite so blunt about it. This time, it's been molded into something distinctly Vampire Weekend. "I wanna know, does it bother you? / The low click of the ticking clock / There's a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know." It's a devastating line and the sentiment permeates the record, but it sounds so wonderfully romantic.
Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper
The nasal yelp is having something of a moment in hip hop right now and Chance the Rapper takes that delivery to its limits. How it doesn't come off as grating is anyone's guess. Maybe it's because the Chicago rapper carries off every line with apparent glee, or at least enthusiasm. Every track on Acid Rap is jaunt through the life of a 19-year-old in one of the country's most troubled cities. Backing that youth with old soul and jazz samples doesn't even sound like a contradiction. It's just fun. Really good fun.
Brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence were barely old enough to legally enter a club in the UK when they made Settle, but it's like they were living in one. It's the best dance record of the year, and it doesn't sound like it's taking itself too seriously. Settle is playful. It bounces and skitters around underneath smooth vocals that hint at R&B without straight up going there. While they're patching together house, grime and 2-step, they're injecting enough pop to make the average person pay attention.
Maya Arulpragasam fits in well with other contenders for best album this year. Like Vampire Weekend, she made a strong return after a week record. Like Kanye, she's controversial and abrasive. Matangi calls out her haters — the ones who were shocked by her Super Bowl performance get a direct shoutout, and the ones who called her a crackpot when she espoused government surveillance theories get the figurative middle finger. The whole thing flips off normal Western ideas of what music should sound like. It's confounding, but features just enough melodies and hooks to keep a stranglehold on you.
Reflektor, Arcade Fire
Where do you begin, in talking about Arcade Fire? They make Important Music that indie kids die for and Grammy committee members can get on board with. Not everyone knew the name when they won the Grammy, but they do now, and the release of Reflektor was a exhaustively hyped. Win Butler and Co. didn't let down. The double-disc collection is as grandiose as we've come to expect from Arcade Fire, but with LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy lending a hand, the rhythms are more prominent than ever. You could dance to this stuff, and that's not something often said about art rock.
Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Kurt Vile
This is the most straightforward, plain 'n' simple record to earn a spot on most end-of-the-year lists, which speaks to just how well Kurt Vile does his thing. Wakin on Pretty Daze rolls along amiably, with Vile's Dylan-like drawl telling stories over a mix of crunchy guitar riffs and pretty acoustic strumming. Really, the guitar work is nowhere near as simple as the songs seem, and that's a great trick.
Doris, Earl Sweatshirt
Earl came back, and we were clamoring for a record from Odd Future's youngest and most talented rapper to give us a record. He sort of gave it to us with a shrug, but then, his rapping sounds like the verbal equivalent of a shrug. He makes a lackadaisical flow sound really good and he makes every single word count, in a form of IDGAF poetry.
Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
Yet another example of over-the-top hype in 2013. Daft Punk teased the hell out of this record in the flashiest and most mysterious ways. Not everyone was thrilled with what they heard, but the defiance of expectations is partly what makes RAM good. They dug up disco's corpse and reanimated it, creating their own monster. Though it dragged on a bit in places, it was still a dazzling trip of an album.