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.
Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.
NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2013
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
DAVID LANG (BRYCE DESSNER, NICO MUHLY, OWEN PALLETT & SHARA WORDEN)
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 AND THE SWEDISH RADIO ORCHESTRA, CONDUCTED BY DANIEL HARDING
VIOLIN CONCERTOS NOS. 1 & 2 (BELA BARTOK)
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 Bartók 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 described himself as "the nucleus of all society" in a New York Times interview right before Yeezus, his sixth studio album, crashed into the public sphere in June. 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
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
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
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 K?ava, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY
2013 was a tough year for great American cities. All but the super-rich fled 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
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 debut 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
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
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
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
Good morning, here are our early stories:
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Snow Forecast Closes Federal Government In Washington, D.C. (NBC)
IRS Nominee Faces Senate Confirmation Hearing Today. (AP)
2 French Troops Die In Central African Republic Before Hollande Visit. (Wall Street Journal)
E.U. Chief Headed For Ukraine As Protests Persist. (Bloomberg)
Jury May Get Case Of Former New Orleans Officer In Katrina Shooting Today. (NOLA.com)
Stranded Pilot Whales Died In Florida Of Malnutrition. (CBS)
Lower-Level City Official Convicted In Bell, Calif. Corruption Case. (AP)
152-Year-Old Wooden Shipwreck Discovered In Lake Huron. (Reuters)
The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- More than 500 authors from around the world, including five Nobel Prize winners, have asked the United Nations for an international bill of digital rights. In a joint statement, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Tom Stoppard, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Günter Grass, Michael Ondaatje, Orhan Pamuk and hundreds of other authors condemned state surveillance, writing, "A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space." The statement continues, "WE DEMAND THE RIGHT for all people to determine, as democratic citizens, to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored." The petition comes after the heads of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo published an open letter asking Congress and President Obama "to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight."
- The traditional Nobel Lecture in Literature has been replaced by a video interview with the 2013 winner, Alice Munro. She says, "I want my stories to move people, I don't care if they are men or women or children. I want my stories to be something about life that causes people to say, not, oh, isn't that the truth, but to feel some kind of reward from the writing, and that doesn't mean that it has to be a happy ending or anything, but just that everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you are a different person when you finish."
- The New Yorker website has unlocked Joan Didion's 2000 portrait of Martha Stewart: "This is not a story about a woman who made the best of traditional skills. This is a story about a woman who did her own I.P.O. This is the 'woman's pluck' story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story, the I-will-never-go-hungry-again story, the Mildred Pierce story, the story about how the sheer nerve of even professionally unskilled women can prevail, show the men; the story that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men. The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of 'feminine' domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips."
- Charles McGrath describes the process of judging the National Book Awards: "It's not humanly possible for an individual, no matter how well intentioned, well disciplined and critically astute, to read 407 books with the care and consideration they deserve. ... So you do the best you can. You don't skim exactly, but you race, driving your eyes across the page, in the process forgoing much of the ordinary pleasure of reading. I sometimes thought of it as chain-sawing through books, tearing into them, grinding them up, leaving a wake of fluttering pages and bits of binding. Maybe that's why my retina ripped."
During a memorial service at South Africa's largest soccer stadium, President Obama delivered a 20-minute eulogy that compared Mandela to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and America's founding fathers.
Mandela, Obama said in Johannesburg, was the "last great liberator of the 20th century." But he was not only a man of politics, but a pragmatist and flawed human being who managed to discipline his anger to turn centuries of oppression into what Mandela liked to call a "Rainbow Nation."
We've embedded audio of Obama's eulogy below, where we've also pasted text of his speech as it was prepared for delivery. Obama strayed a bit from that. We'll put up a transcript once we get it:
To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests - it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other. To the people of South Africa - people of every race and walk of life - the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.
It is hard to eulogize any man - to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person - their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone's soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe - Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement - a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would - like Lincoln - hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America's founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations - a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.
Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. "I'm not a saint," he said, "unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood - a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what's possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.
Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, "a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness" from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, "a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments...a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."
But like other early giants of the ANC - the Sisulus and Tambos - Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination," he said at his 1964 trial. "I've cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don't. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.
Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that, "prisoners cannot enter into contracts." But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.
Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu - that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small - introducing his jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family's heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS - that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.
For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe - Madiba's passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?
It is a question I ask myself - as a man and as a President. We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people - known and unknown - to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done. The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.
We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
The questions we face today - how to promote equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war - do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world - you can make his life's work your own. Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.