Best Music Of 2013
7:52 am
Tue December 10, 2013

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2013

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 8:19 am

These are the albums we loved the most this year. In what we've written about each one below, you can see what we felt should be rewarded, what shook us up and what sucked us in over the 12 months of 2013.

Not every one of the 22 different people with bylines here agree on which albums did any of that to them — we don't listen the same way, or for the same reasons — but you'll read the word "warm" more than once (as applied to an indie songwriter, a country singer and two electronic producers). We were seduced by darkness at least five times (electronic, rock, classical, metal) and loved sounds that we call "delicate" (three out of four made by men). "Wry" hit the spot twice (country singer again, and a pair of rappers). Those shared words could be the limitations of language, but they might illuminate what this cross-section of music lovers most needed to hear this year.

These 50 albums are strange bedfellows, but that's how we listen. We want music that soothes us and makes us stronger. We like some risk, stories that withstand a few hundred replays, skills that command respect. And we keep dancing. Get in there. (This list is also available on Spotify and Rdio.)

Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.


NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2013


BILL CALLAHAN
DREAM RIVER

As Smog and under his own name, Bill Callahan has crafted an incredible 15-album body of work. Study it as a whole, and it forms a fully realized vision of a complex, thoughtful, surprisingly warm, plainspoken man who seeks comfort amid chaos. Study it up close, and you get wise, tender moments like those in the new "Small Plane" ("I never think of danger / I really am a lucky man"). Callahan says he conceived of the languidly lovely Dream River as an album for late-night listening — his stated goal was "the perfect end to a person's day" — and as such it conjures and conveys the peace he seeks. --Stephen Thompson


BLOOD ORANGE
CUPID DELUXE

Texan-British Brooklyn transplant Devonté Hynes hasn't made the richest sounding R&B album of the year working under his new moniker Blood Orange — that accolade might go to the multi-million dollar, sonically-intimidating Random Access Memories by Daft Punk. But where the French duo's retro-disco gets soggy and their are-we-human-are-we-robots shtick inspires a yawn, Blood Orange is conceptual R&B for the 21st century that feels both emotionally pungent and post-euphoria sexy. It's denouement nightlife music, the chill that comes after the cocaine rush at the club. Cupid Deluxe is a decidedly experimental affair, drawing on everything from Norman Whitfield's chucking guitar funk, Maxwell's Caribbean ambient soul, Prince's psychosexual Minneapolis dream-pop, East Coast Audio-Two style hip-hop and the washed-out '80s hipster cool of the Drive soundtrack. With its broken and disconnected lyrics about heartbreak and tortured relationships, the album is very much reflective of our post-privacy, Instagram times. You are invited to gawk at Cupid Deluxe's songs as photos of stylized vulnerability and self-aware emotional bleeding. Each one knows it's beautiful, knows it's sad, even if it doesn't know why. --Jason King


BOMBINO
NOMAD

Back when rock 'n' roll was a rebellious art form, the guitar was its chief weapon. Those days are over in most of the world, but not long ago the government in Niger banned guitars for the Tuareg people, seeing them as just such a tool of rebellion. Bombino, born in Niger, plays a fierce, hypnotic, often electrified guitar. He sings song of the Tuareg, nomads spread across the Saharan Desert and surrounding countries. But his music is universal, a droning bluesy rock that has been captivating youthful audiences in American and European clubs and festivals. His second record, Nomad, was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, a proponent of gut-based rock not too dissimilar from what Bombino plays. This turned out to be a fabulous team. What you hear on Nomad is Bombino's already vigorous sound with a bit more bite. --Bob Boilen


BRANDY CLARK
12 STORIES

The startling honesty in Brandy Clark's songwriting distinguishes her from much of what we've come to expect out of Music Row. From typical country-song struggles like love and infidelity to more untouchable topics like smoking weed and popping pills, she's not afraid to go there. But that's not what makes her such a remarkable artist. She's a warm, wry and personal performer. Her voice is as clear and colorful as a glass prism. And she has a knack for enlivening country music with what has been lacking for nearly a generation: a reverence for real life, not just the parties and pickups. --Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley


BRYAN FERRY ORCHESTRA
THE JAZZ AGE

The biggest surprise of any record this year. This is the music of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music re-imagined as if it came from a 1920s hot jazz band, and it works so well. It's entirely instrumental, so you don't hear Ferry's amazing croon, but, truth be told, this band of seasoned British old-timey players are so good, I don't miss his voice. The recording, in mono, feels cozy and evokes old recordings but with clarity and spark. Wait till you hear the classic Roxy Music song "Love Is the Drug" (unless you already saw this year's film version of The Great Gatsby, where it also appeared.) --Bob Boilen


BUIKA
LA NOCHE MAS LARGA

Concha Buika has always collected fans like a pied piper, leading listeners from her studio album to her live shows. Her sixth album, La Noche Mas Larga, gathered up more widespread critical acclaim than previous releases, which led to even more fans, which made her short U.S. tour this year a hot ticket. Her emotional, husky voice reflects the flamenco of her youth as well as her stint as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas during her earliest days in show business. It's a seamless mash up of cultures that continues to gather enthusiastic followers. --Felix Contreras


CALEB BURHANS
EVENSONG

Caleb Burhans is a musical sponge. He's soaked up Episcopal church music as a long time chorister, he's played in disco and rock outfits and, as a multi-instrumentalist, he's a member of a half-dozen new music ensembles. It all contributes to his agility as a composer, startlingly apparent on his strong, beautiful debut album, Evensong. Old vocal forms — from plainchant to polyphony — get filtered through the 33-year-old composer's eclectic past, emerging fresh with touches of minimalism and mysticism. There's a trompe l'oeil for the ear with The Things Left Unsaid. It poses as a single cello fed through a loop pedal, but in acoustic reality it's a gorgeously blended cello octet. Discoveries are around every corner in Evensong, a thoroughly engaging introduction to a formidable young composer. --Tom Huizenga


CHANCE THE RAPPER
ACID RAP

Chance the Rapper, a virtual unknown from Chicago, created a major buzz this year with his critically acclaimed mixtape Acid Rap. On first listen, the psychedelic beats fused with elements of soul and Chance's unpredictable flow can be overwhelming, but what emerges is a thoughtful poet who laments violence, instability and the hopelessness his generation feels ("Paranoia" and "Acid Rain"). Chance's sound and content provide a different perspective than some of his better known, less wordy hometown contemporaries, like Chief Keef and Lil Durk. But he isn't always buttoned up; this project is as energetic and fun as it is restless. --Cedric Shine


DANIEL AVERY
DRONE LOGIC

The debut LP from England's Daniel Avery is a knobby bundle of analog electronics wound tightly around a dance beat. As resident DJ for London's famous nightclub Fabric, Avery developed a keen sense for what moves a room, and on Drone Logic, he's turned his ear for dancefloor kindling into pure fire. At times his angular melodies pop like hot coals against a blaze of noise, at others, the flares extinguish beneath calm waters. Whatever the temperature, it always feels just right. --Sami Yenigun


DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY
BROOKLYN BABYLON

Although it was composed as a multimedia work with stop-motion animation by visual artist Danijel Zezelj, composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue's Brooklyn Babylon stands as an impressive album on its own. Working with his stellar 18-piece ensemble, he sprints through a startlingly wide range of musical references, dashing from Charles Ives to Steve Reich to Balkan brass to, yes, Ellington and Basie's bands. As you well might imagine, Argue is exceedingly clever, but he doesn't outpace himself for cleverness' sake: instead, he manages to harness all those impulses into an elegant and organically coherent whole. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


BRYCE DESSNER, NICO MUHLY, OWEN PALLETT & SHARA WORDEN
DAVID LANG: DEATH SPEAKS

Composer David Lang put together the extended meditation on mortality called Death Speaks with some very distinctive musicians in mind: vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), violinist Owen Pallett, pianist (and fellow composer) Nico Muhly and The National guitarist Bryce Dessner. The result is a haunting and momentous title work — by turns exquisitely delicate and ruthlessly unforgiving, both in texture and in emotional punch, and enlivened by the unusual textures Lang creates with this quartet of performers. The album pairing is the brilliant and luminous Depart, multi-tracked by cellist Maya Beiser, which offers welcome relief. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


DAWN OF MIDI
DYSNOMIA

A free jazz trio chains itself to a pulse to see how deep it can get into rhythm, and ends up showing how wide a steady beat can swing. On Dysnomia, Dawn of Midi uses traditional instrumentation (piano, upright bass, drums) pared down until it resembles a mechanical process. Over nine carefully plotted songs that overlap and bleed into one another, the trio builds upon precise, austere figures — say, a single repeated note struck on a muted piano, or a three-note bass groove — until they achieve depth. Sometimes the results echo a film noir soundtrack, sometimes electronic dance music, sometimes a call to prayer. Like counting rosary beads or playing hopscotch or staring into fractals, Dysnomia is simplicity made hypnotic. --Jacob Ganz


DAWN UPSHAW & MARIA SCHNEIDER
MARIA SCHNEIDER: WINTER MORNING WALKS

Maria Schneider is a big band jazz composer with predilections for the sweeping maneuver and the vivid palette. Winter Morning Walks is something grand, even for her: a collection of lieder specifically for renowned operatic soprano Dawn Upshaw, chamber orchestra and jazz improvisers. Part of this recording sets poems by Brazilian icon Carlos Drummond de Andrade to a rich, choro-tinged, characteristically Schneiderian lilt. But the first half of this record, compositions based on poems by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, is the revelation here. They're expertly-delivered high art songs, yes. Magically, they also bear the evocative immediacy and slice-of-life panorama of folk art, too. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


DEAFHEAVEN
SUNBATHER

You don't often see black metal albums with pink covers, but you don't often hear the genre swirled together with this much billowy, majestic shoegaze rock, either. Vocalist George Clarke still shrieks like a hawk stuck in a bear trap, but Sunbather surrounds his inscrutable words with lengthy instrumental interludes that recall Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai (whose "Punk Rock" and "Cody" the band covered last year). Sunbather lets flecks of pretty pop — U2-style guitars, hooks that qualify as dreamy — provide brightness to Deafheaven's lurching, intense sound. The result sounds like a gateway to darkness and light, depending on which way you were facing when you started out. --Stephen Thompson


DJ KOZE
AMYGDALA

It sounds like an underground nightclub in Candyland. DJ Koze's Amygdala is a minimal techno longplayer sprinkled with pop confection. For years this German producer has used psychedelic flourishes to remix others' content, with signature quirks that pull warmth from beneath cold hi-hats. Here, Koze's original productions stay cozy throughout, built both so that DJ's can mix, and shut-ins can press play and chill. --Sami Yenigun


THE FLAMING LIPS
THE TERROR

The Terror is like a dark, deeply distorted fever dream. Disjointed polyrhythms are at the root of the songs, rumbling and ricocheting in the gnarled drums, pulsing synths and clanging guitars. But the album is also richly layered with strange sonic textures and eerie melodies, as frontman Wayne Coyne reflects on lust, resentment, death, violence and despair. The Flaming Lips have been making remarkably inspired music for more than 30 years now, with a number of notable albums to the group's credit. Among them, The Terror is one of the band's most challenging listens, but it's also one of the most rewarding. Few other bands have remained so relevant, and continued to evolve with work this meaningful after doing it for so long. While younger bands continue to run out of steam after a couple of records, The Flaming Lips still have a sense of wonder and adventure. --Robin Hilton


GREGORY PORTER
LIQUID SPIRIT

The primary sell here is Gregory Porter's voice. It's in some ways an archetypal jazz singer bellow, with gospel and Sam-Cooke-era R&B in there too. It's not just strength either: it feels generous, enveloping, full of both power and souplesse. It's one thing to cultivate that, though, and another to use it in the way where mannerism loses its smarminess, where the familiar is comforting and not cliché. Liquid Spirit tidily wraps a disarming feel-goodness in imagistic songs. Take the title track, where Porter asks you to "clap your hands now." Even if you're sitting alone at home, you may feel compelled to oblige. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


HAIM
DAYS ARE GONE

Even the title of Haim's debut album, Days Are Gone, teases pangs of nostalgia. But despite all of the 1987 pop comparisons launched at them this year, the three Haim sisters who share the vocals in this breakthrough group are offering up much more than a rose-hued romp down memory lane. Their hooks are sharp and instantly memorable, their beats buoyant and their waterslide vocals mesmerizing, as they slip in and out of harmonies and counterpoints. This is brave, unapologetic pop music that feels like a guilty pleasure, if only because it's so easy to adore. But it takes an expert to craft songs that are this airtight. --Andrea Swensson, The Current


IN SOLITUDE
SISTER

After two strong albums that took cues from heavy metal band Mercyful Fate and its dark ringleader King Diamond, In Solitude's Pelle and Gottfried Åhman sought their own solitude in the Swedish wilderness and came back renewed with Sister. Every song grows with desperation, digging more into the Gothic atmospheres of Sisters of Mercy with hooks like Thin Lizzy. Half of the time, you don't even realize you're singing along to love songs written for Satan. --Lars Gotrich


ISABELLE FAUST & SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/DANIEL HARDING, CONDUCTOR
BARTOK: VIOLIN CONCERTOS NOS. 1 & 2

After a long break, violinist Isabelle Faust has returned to Bartók with a spectacular recording of the composer's two violin concertos. Along with meticulous research and technically impeccable execution, what makes this recording one of her finest, and one of the finest of 2013, is Faust's ability to inhabit and project each work's particular cultural and personal context. In the Second, she brings across the composer's fusion of folk music source material and advanced 20th-century concert language through a sound that's at times dark and rich, and at others a steel wire. But in the First, which Bartok wrote before fully incorporating those folk influences, and in a time of intense personal turmoil, Faust's sound is plush, reminiscent of an older, pre-Great War universe of unchecked passion. --Brian McCreath, Classical New England


JAMES BLAKE
OVERGROWN

The music of James Blake is like a sonic Rosetta Stone, assembling and translating the language of multiple genres into a singular sound. It's a confluence of R&B, soul, pop, electronica and even folk (not to mention dubstep, dance and gospel), that shows how tightly braided these legacy sounds have become in the 21st century. Overgrown is a gorgeous, spare and sometimes rapturous wash of sonic wonders, with icy beats, deep bass lines and swelling synths driving Blake's spell-binding tenor, while he sings about lost love, loneliness and cosmic wonder. Blake isn't the first artist to navigate so many disparate sounds so effortlessly and gracefully. But he was the best to do it this year. --Robin Hilton


JASON ISBELL
SOUTHEASTERN

First as the wunderkind of the three-songwriter band The Drive-By Truckers and then leading his own barn-burning outfit, The 400 Unit, Jason Isbell has always been a rocker with grand ambitions. This solo effort fulfills his promise by scaling everything to life-size. It's a songwriter's album first, giving voice to vivid characters: a cancer-stricken barfly, a criminal trying to go straight, a boy intent on saving a classmate from her abusive father. Around these vivid, clearly told tales, Isbell and producer Dave Cobb grow an organic blend of country, rock and soulfulness that typifies the current Nashville renaissance. Isbell's own hard-won sobriety is the heart of Southeastern, but his vision extends much farther than his own skin. This is one of 2013's finest literary efforts. --Ann Powers


JOHN LEGEND
LOVE IN THE FUTURE

Love in the Future felt like it came out of nowhere. Though it had been long-promised, we were distracted by John Legend's philanthropic work, TV hosting and hook-singing. So while he's kept his name relevant for more than 10 years, this album was a pleasant surprise, revealing as it does a still passionate musician at its core. Legend delivers his bread and butter ballads, but he also utilizes an overloaded list of producers to pursue new sounds. It's ambitious, carrying a tracklist of 16 songs (and four bonus tracks), but the album sustains. With R&B music in a tumltuous state, it's refreshing to hear a pro record great love songs. --Bobby Carter


JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: INUKSUIT

An extended exploration of the intersection of sound and the earth around us. Maybe that sounds a little New Age-y to you. Well, prepare to be shocked — and enthralled — by composer John Luther Adams' Inuksuit, a piece written to be performed outdoors by anywhere from nine to 99 percussionists. Performed by a group of 30-odd musicians helmed by percussionist Doug Perkins in the woods of Vermont, this version of Inuksuit opens with several minutes of birdsong, whose world is very, very, oh so slowly — nearly imperceptibly at first — set sideways by what morphs into a dense, towering, crashing monster of sound that, in its own time, gives way again to an exuberant, twittering mass of brightly piping piccolos, triangles and glockenspiels. I'd understand if you were inclined to think that Inuksuit would be more enjoyable in concept than in actual execution, but the results are both riveting and exhilarating. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


JUANA MOLINA
WED 21

John Coltrane once told Miles Davis he didn't know how to stop the torrent of notes that came from his horn when he was in the moment. Miles told him, "Just take the horn out of your mouth!" When we interviewed Juana Molina on Alt.Latino earlier this year, she confessed a familiar problem: she often fell into a trance while creating her richly layered soundscapes in the studio. So she said she has to remind herself to just stop playing. Thank goodness she looked up from her keyboard long enough to release Wed 21, her seamless collection of folkloric fueled electronica that hypnotized us. --Felix Contreras


KA
THE NIGHT'S GAMBIT

Ka's introspective album, the third he's released as a solo artist, smolders. He did it his way, and all by himself — producing every track, shooting videos, taking orders and going to the post office himself (not every day though). On The Night's Gambit, Ka rhymes under his breath, repenting, raging, mourning, but mostly believing. "My heart is never the question / I write hard: phonetic aggression," he says on "Peace Akhi." And then he says he'll keep going until he's "rigid with lividity." It would be gloomy if it weren't so sharp. Ka's voice is stooped under the responsibilities he shoulders here, for his old neighborhood, for his friends who've died, for his own artistry. The loops he sets in motion have a hair-raising, noir groove, except for a break in the middle of the album. "Soap Box" turns funky and asks Roc Marciano, Ka's only real competition in their brand of heady, concrete jungle, grown ass man rap, to jump on. "I soap box for dope blocks," Ka says. This is no joke. --Frannie Kelley


KACEY MUSGRAVES
SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK

The biggest quiet story in popular music this year involved women singer-songwriters who kept their tongues in their mouths and told the truth of ordinary lives. Texas-born, Nashville-based Kacey Musgraves set the standard with a major label debut that sounded like current country while avoiding all the clichés about Chevys and flags and spring break debauchery. Instead, Musgraves sang in her been-there-done-that drawl about restaurant workers waiting for a break, small-town kids slowly morphing into the parents they resent and strong women who know that a hook-up might be just a hook-up and Prince Charming is sometimes best kept as a memory. Then there's the anthem "Follow Your Arrow," the "Same Love" of country, which turned YOLO into a means of real liberation. By year's end, Same Trailer Different Park was winning awards, Musgraves was writing songs with Katy Perry, and she had fully proven that country belongs as much to women with smarts as to men with trucks. --Ann Powers


KANYE WEST
YEEZUS

Right before Yeezus, his sixth studio album, crashed into the public sphere in June, Kanye West told the New York Times, "I understand culture. I am the nucleus." The album almost justifies such supreme egotism. Soundwise, it builds something new, juxtaposing avant-garde industrial and electronic innovations with the High Romantic hip-hop West had already perfected. And then there's what West says in its forty rampaging minutes. Sex fantasies and a dirty lover's despairing mea culpas emerge from West's confused id, while his exacting superego places his urges within the context of American racism, international celebrity and the infinite void of consumerist decadence. (There are jokes, too, Richard Pryor style.) The most audacious effort yet by the man who embodies the idea that quality in 21st century popular culture defies pleasure, yet every painful listen reveals a new insight worth swallowing. --Ann Powers


LA SANTA CECILIA
TREINTA DIAS

2013 was a big year for the LA-based La Santa Cecilia after years of touring, recording and hustling a place for themselves in Latin music. The group was signed by a major label. Its stellar vocalist La Marisol was invited to sing on the Elvis Costello/Roots collaboration released this year. The band was featured in the pages of major U.S. newspapers and of course we at Alt.Latino continued to appreciate its unique musical vision, and especially Treinte Dias, a forward-looking mix of folklore, jazz, cumbia and rock 'n' roll spirit. --Felix Contreras


LA VIDA BOHEME
SERA

My early record buying days were back in the mid-'70s, when concept albums began to become a thing. There were a handful that certainly deserved two sides of an album to unfold while there were others that should have stopped after one song. La Vida Boheme borrowed from that history for the sprawling, emotional Sera and it certainly belongs in the pantheon of great concept albums. My Alt.Latino co-host Jasmine Garsd pointed out that Sera is a cohesive collection of songs that could be about love, Latin America or the band's native Venezuela. Such is the strength of the band's songwriting skills. --Felix Contreras


LATVIAN RADIO CHOIR/SIGVARDS KLAVA
RACHMANINOFF: ALL-NIGHT VIGIL

This album rejoices in the awesome power and beauty of the unadorned human voice. From Latvia, a small country big on singing (and the host of next year's World Choir Games), comes the Latvian Radio Choir and a transcendent performance of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil. The group of 27, led by Sigvards Kļava, sings with a unique, luminous bloom, as voices toll like church bells, soar in rapturous praise and intertwine in myriad colors and textures. Notoriously treacherous to sing, Rachmaninov's jewel of Russian Orthodox music taxes a choir's control of breath and pitch. But the Latvians manage the technique and the emotions in the music with natural, transparent and resplendent mastery. --Tom Huizenga


LAURA MARLING
ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE

It's fitting that Laura Marling, heir to England's cosmic folk tradition, released this sweeping, highly personal work the year Doris Lessing died. Like Lessing's great novel The Golden Notebook, Marling's fourth album denotes a vast interior space where one young woman builds a palace (and, maybe, a cage) of ideas and emotions. Songs merge and collide as Marling, singing and playing guitar past her 23 years, guides the listener through the bombed-out landscape of a failed romance. Producer Ethan Johns keeps the music around her spare and intuitive; the rhythms of her ruminations wane and wax. Walking among mythical creatures and ghosts pulled from old fairy tales, Marling cries for love lost and works to recover her senses. "I was an eagle, and you were a dove," she sings to her absent man. But she never stopped soaring. --Ann Powers


LAURA MVULA
SING TO THE MOON

Laura Mvula's debut is a record the whole world can love. Its strength is its reach, and Sing To The Moon reaches uncharted destinations because it doesn't try to be any one sound, other than just plain beautiful. This unclassifiable album is powerfully soulful, delicate and enchanting. There are moments that would fit well in a '50s Audrey Hepburn film and other moments in a club that's a haven for global music or an ethereal jazz venue or, perhaps, a church. And that voice, so filled with subtlety — it's remarkable to know this British singer is only 27. The album is a family affair of sorts, with her brother James Douglas on cello and sister Dionne Douglas on violin, both singing as well. Mvula has a bright future and a shining present. --Bob Boilen


LIVITY SOUND
LIVITY SOUND

Detroit techno rose to prominence in the mid-'80s in large part by celebrating the circuitry that lined the heart of popular (and sometimes pompous) dance music. Livity Sound, a trio of producers from Bristol in the U.K., focused with similar intent on a contemporary dance analogue: dubstep. The wub-wub-wub sound that paved the way for EDM's parallel mainstream has changed dramatically since its origins in Bristol's underground a decade ago — and not in a good way. On Livity Sound, producers Pev (Tom Ford), Kowton (Joe Cowton) and Asusu (Craig Stennett) slice open the bloated beast, extract dubstep's essentials and piece them back together in new ways that honor the past and hint at the future. --Otis Hart


LUCIUS
WILDEWOMAN

Dear Lucius: Thank you for making the best pop music of my year. I'm a song geek. I love songs that I can sing in my car, sing in my head when nothing else is playing, songs that are less about being ear worms and more about being bundles of joy. You've done all of that. These songs on your debut album are rich in sound, fabulous unison singing and harmonies, with buoyant drums and bass. I hear a lot of "girl group" music these days that harkens back to Phil Spector — I like that just fine, but this album doesn't look back. It's forward-thinking pop that invents as much as it plays with the form. Thanks, Bob --Bob Boilen


MALA RODRIGUEZ
BRUJA

The Spanish rapper is often described as fusing hip-hop with flamenco, but on Bruja she returns to her early roots as a "jarcor" rapper — when La Mala started out she was fusing heavy metal growling with rapping, and it got people's attention. Over the years, she's garnered a cult following by tying pop, flamenco and R&B into hip-hop, but this album finds her doing what she does best: getting angry on the mic. The song "33" is brilliant — she brags about getting older, wiser and having less time for silliness. "The job of a man cannot be done by a boy" she asserts. Indeed, in the Latin recording industry, which keeps churning out young pop stars and surprisingly few female superstars, Rodriguez is completely unmatched, yet continues to outdo herself. --Jasmine Garsd


PEDRITO MARTINEZ GROUP
PEDRITO MARTINEZ GROUP

Pedrito Martinez leads one of the finest bands in New York, and seeing them at the Cuban restaurant Guantanamera reinforces a few reasons for music to exist. People dance in tiny spaces. Empty pineapple and rum drinks line tables. Servers hoist plates of roasted pork through the crowd. Any vaguely folkloric band could do this gig with half the intensity, but the Pedrito Martinez Group used the opportunity to develop repertoire and identity around a first-call hand drummer. This recording veers off the center lane of what you might expect from a "Latin band" — into songs by Led Zeppelin and The Jackson 5, even stranger references — but the group's combination of street wisdom and conservatory training can handle the curves. Even when guests John Scofield, Wynton Marsalis and Steve Gadd join them, the Pedrito Martinez Group is all about the trinity — instrumental prowess, irresistible dance and singing the song. --Josh Jackson, WBGO


PUSHA T
MY NAME IS MY NAME

At the top of the year there was no release date in sight for the long awaited solo debut album from Pusha T, one half of Virginia Beach duo The Clipse. He'd been signed to Def Jam since 2011, produced two mixtapes, an EP and a handful of scene-stealing guest verses, but a busy release schedule shoved his album to October. And it was well worth the wait. My Name Is My Name is versatile and precise. Pusha paints unforgiving yet beautiful portraits, and the production (helmed by Kanye West, featuring star turns by Pharrell Williams and Nottz) combines just enough sweet and sour to showcase his forthright emotionality, his refined story-telling and his commitment to craft and character. --Cedric Shine


RHYE
WOMAN

For the past seven years, Robin Hannibal has been the man behind the boards on various projects including Boom Clap Bachelors, Owusu & Hannibal and Quadron. This year, he teamed up with Canadian singer-songwriter Milosh to create Rhye. Much of the acclaim of their debut album has been hyperfocused on the duo's anonymity and Milosh's delicate tone. While the aforementioned is key to their allure, it's Hannibal's melodic and warm production that captures you. With each song on Woman, Hannibal and Milosh (also a man) walk closer toward the line of feminine sensuality and worship, practicing restraint as they approach but never cross. Woman is a piece that will continue to be discovered for years to come. --Bobby Carter


RUN THE JEWELS
RUN THE JEWELS

Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and New York producer and rapper El-P, veterans both, each released albums last year that sounded like potential realized. El-P produced all of Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike appeared on El-P's Cancer 4 Cure and they were reinvigorated, hitting the road together and putting on shows that were ebullient, very sweaty and seethingly critical of the bad guys. And then, as a thank-you to their fans, they say, they made a collaborative album called Run The Jewels. They gave it away for free this summer, and it reminded me of a word I thought I forgot: brolic. Killer Mike calls his words "surgical, painful, purposeful," but the songs are stomping all over the place. They're comedic, pressured, wry. It's like "I Ain't Havin' That" and "Time 4 Sum Aksion," had ten '90s babies. Now we owe them. --Frannie Kelley


SAN FERMIN
SAN FERMIN

Too often, singers in bands are presumed to be auteurs. But giving voice to a vision isn't synonymous with authorhood, as San Fermin demonstrates: The group is the brainchild of classically trained Brooklyn pianist and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who recruited three terrific singers (Lucius' Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, plus deep-voiced Allen Tate) to sing his ornate, frequently orchestral chamber-pop songs. At 55 minutes, San Fermin's debut soars and surprises throughout, as it unleashes moments that can sound delicate, deadpan, exquisite and muscular — sometimes all at once. --Stephen Thompson


SKY FERREIRA
NIGHT TIME, MY TIME

Let's put aside whatever label and personal drama might be behind Night Time, My Time -- Sky Ferreira and producer Ariel Rechtshaid have made the kind of textured and complicated pop-rock album we haven't heard in years. It exists somewhere between Cyndi Lauper's gleefully strange bubblegum ("I Blame Myself"), Shirley Manson's glammed-out grunge ("Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)") and the power-pop anthems the '00s didn't bother to write (the perfectly flirtatious and damning "Boys"). --Lars Gotrich


STARLITO & DON TRIP
STEP BROTHERS 2

"They want to talk wordplay?" asks Don Trip, a musician in the influential and slept-on lineage of Memphis rap. He and his partner, Nashville's Starlito, unfurl metaphor after metaphor, standing with one foot in the fundamentals of classic hip-hop and the other in the unassuming weirdness of now. Step Brothers 2 is the considered follow-up to a playful mixtape they released two years ago, which, to their surprise, rekindled critical and popular interest in both their work. Starlito's warble floats and stings, Don Trip's insistence feels something like hard punches to the gut. Step Brothers 2 is a carton of easter eggs, consistently funny, wise and skilled. --Frannie Kelley


TIM HECKER
VIRGINS

How do you compose the perfect drone? For the last dozen years, Tim Hecker's albums have asked that question via layers of sound — often acoustic instruments recorded and then digitally stretched into unrecognizable hums and waves — that built to overwhelming, enveloping crescendos. As such, it was almost never clear exactly what ingredients you were hearing at any given time, but the effect was clear: Hecker was in control, shadowy and godlike. His latest album, Virgins, is thrilling because at times it sounds like he's given up the controls. The sounds on the album were recorded live by an ensemble, and later manipulated, but Hecker lets the instruments themselves — and, by implication, the other musicians who play them — peek through the fog on a regular basis, and sometimes stand alone, as if momentarily sunlit, before the darkness swells again. --Jacob Ganz


VALERIE JUNE
PUSHIN' AGAINST A STONE

It speaks to Valerie June's appeal that her music puzzles out half a dozen genres — blues, gospel, folk, country, pop, roots-rock — without stopping to sound much like anyone or anything else. Pushin' Against a Stone is the product of the Tennessee-bred 31-year-old's singular vision, which she's constructed around her high, twangy, idiosyncratic voice. Informed by many traditional sounds of the American South, June's national debut traffics in murder ballads and toughly rendered statements of purpose, teased out with the help of collaborators such as co-producer Dan Auerbach and the R&B legend Booker T. Jones. But it's also a raggedly beautiful showcase for an artist whose bold, shaggy eclecticism makes room for coos, swoons and screams. --Stephen Thompson


VAMPIRE WEEKEND
MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

2013 was a tough year for great American cities. The income gap between the super-rich and the poverty-stricken widened in New York and San Francisco, while at the spectrum's other end, Detroit headed toward bankruptcy. In the face of such problems, this album by the best band to ever come out of the Upper West Side is a salve. Vampire Weekend's music has always been a loving testament to the uptown-downtown spirit that links American kids to their doubles in Dakar and Hong Kong and Sao Paulo. On its third album, the group fully integrates its cosmopolitan influences in music that ranges from the raucous to the sublime. Frontman Ezra Koenig, in turn, tightens up his lyrical view of mobile young adulthood, tackling big issues — religion, death, global capitalism — in vignettes that still revel in the insight of tiny, telling details. "The map is such a drag," he sings. We're lucky Vampire Weekend keeps filling it in. --Ann Powers


VAN-ANH VANESSA VO
THREE-MOUNTAIN PASS

Don't know your dan tranh from your dan bau? You will after hearing Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, the Emmy Award-winning Vietnamese musician and composer who plays a broad assortment of traditional instruments on Three-Mountain Pass, her album of traditional, original and contemporary pieces. From a family of musicians, Vo began studying the dan tranh, the traditional Vietnamese zither, when she was four and later graduated from the Vietnamese Academy of Music. She's devoted her life to the instrument, and the myriad colors and emotions she evokes in her playing are nothing less than extraordinary. The same can be said for the exquisite expression she conjures from the single-stringed dan bau, heard to a haunting effect on her cross-cultural transformation of Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 3. --Tom Huizenga


WAXAHATCHEE
CERULEAN SALT

The mess of hair, water and flesh on the cover of Cerulean Salt takes a moment to resolve into a person, and, once it does, you still squint at its swirling form, trying to square its reality with your own. That the image so implicates the viewer reflects an attitude Katie Crutchfield has expressed about her own music: This is personal, yes, but it isn't just about me. Crutchfield's second album as Waxahatchee is not the exposed wound that its predecessor, the bare-bones American Weekend, was, nor the sound of a solo artist getting a band together. The arrangements here are minimal, there to set the tone for fractured stories that take place not just in a bedroom opposite a recording device, but at family weddings, in tour vans tearing across the heartland, in clouded-over dreams and childhood memories alive with detail. Glance over it all and it seems abstract; stare long enough and you'll start to see yourself. --Daoud Tyler-Ameen


WAYNE SHORTER
WITHOUT A NET

The standard line on saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who turned 80 in 2013, has been that he's one of jazz's greatest composers. Lately, he's also been a re-composer and de-composer, taking his old tunes, drastically reconfiguring them and, powered by his ace quartet, adventuring way beyond their frameworks. There's some of that bushwhacking through the backyard in this series of live recordings, and there are also collective improvisations and previously unrecorded works too. The most notable is probably the 23-minute "Pegasus," for quartet and chamber winds. About a third of the way through, Shorter — an increasingly spare soloist — goes on a shrieking tear. "Oh my God," yelps a musician on stage. Exactly. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


WILLIAM ONYEABOR
WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR?

Much of this Nigerian funk master's biography is still cast in shadows (he became an evangelical Christian and stopped talking about himself or his music in the mid-'80s), but the eight albums that William Onyeabor made of futuristic synth-pop back in the '70s and early '80s is still weird, wild and wow-inducing 30 years later. Kudos to Luaka Bop for culling some killer tracks — like the sinuously groove-laden "Atomic Bomb," the disco-ready "Body and Soul" and the giddy "Let's Fall in Love" — in a compilation that spreads the gospel of an African son of P-Funk far beyond a small circle of crate diggers. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


All album photos Abbey Oldham/NPR



Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.