The embarrassment of riches offered by the music world in 2013 made whittling down these lists an enjoyably difficult task. It also means that there is very little overlap of opinion among our six contributors, with only country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark and bleak rockers the National appearing on more than one list.
Great sounds came to us from a variety of genres including rock, folk, electronic, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, classical, world music, and the glorious spaces where those ideas blur together.
And whether they were topping the charts or cultivating their style in a quieter corner, we’re grateful they found a way to our ears.
1. Neko Case
“The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” It was the album I took with me everywhere — on the train, in the car, to the office — and I’m still not sure what half the songs are about. But I believed in what Case was trying to say in them. As a way to mourn the loss of her parents, Case made a singular statement with stories both tender and visceral while singing the hell out of them.
2. Valerie June
“Pushin’ Against a Stone” “Ain’t tryin’ to be nobody/ But my fine sweet self.” So sang this Tennessee-bred singer-songwriter on her debut record on which she distilled Appalachian folk, rural blues, murder ballads, and contemporary R&B. If you can imagine Dolly Parton and Erykah Badu collaborating, you can fathom just how intoxicating this album was.
3. The National
“Trouble Will Find Me” The National’s brand of indie-rock, which is to say morose and heavy, is not for everyone. But on “Trouble Will Find Me,” the disenchanted found their soundtrack in songs about lost love, self-doubt, and the demons that haunt all of us.
4. Alela Diane
“About Farewell” Musically speaking, not much happened on Diane’s fourth album beyond the nimble fingerpicking of her acoustic guitar and the way it wrapped around her saloon-singer voice. Turns out the stark arrangements were an ideal canvas for Diane’s devastating account of how her marriage unraveled — and liberated her.
“Pure Heroine” You probably heard “Royals,” the inescapable breakthrough hit for Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who records as Lorde, but the rest of her debut was as arresting. Befitting a singer who’s only 17, the album captured the essence of youth in its many shades, from loneliness to elation.
“Nothing Was the Same” Aubrey Drake Graham is his own greatest muse, or at least the subject he writes about most often. He’s hard on himself, particularly on “Nothing Was the Same,” his third studio album, which twisted hip-hop, R&B, and soul into a sprawling meditation on fame and its trappings.
7. Brandy Clark
“12 Stories” In a year where commercial country music was more about fun times than deep feelings, Clark’s debut was a nod to what made the genre so compelling in the first place: excellent songwriting. This is country at its most classic — feisty women, hound-dog men, and solace in the bottle (and blunts).
“Silence Yourself” A punishing blast of post-punk, the debut from this all-female British quartet signaled the arrival of a band with something to get off its chest. “Silence Yourself” had a feral energy that made it sound both out of time and firmly planted in the present. Sometimes redemption is just a yelp and squeal away.
“Muchacho” After a decade putting a spectral spin on American roots music, Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent finally made a record that synthesized everything great about his motley band. “Muchacho” was many things — ’70s country, stoner rock, pastoral folk — but it all hinged on his vision.
10. Mavis Staples
“One True Vine” At 74, she could be resting on her laurels, but instead Staples pushed forward on her second album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer. This time they turned down the volume and amped up the intensity of what Staples calls her form of gospel: “good-news music.” Amen.
“Modern Vampires of the City” Just when you thought you knew Vampire Weekend (see: precocious Ivy Leaguers with an Afropop fixation), they rounded a corner on their sophisticated and introspective third release.
1. Brandy Clark
“12 Stories” Sometimes it feels like your favorite records are speaking to you. It’s an even richer experience when it feels like they’re speaking for you. In a bountiful year for female country singer-songwriters, Clark was at the head of the class, mining deep veins and yielding lyrical insights from the smallest moments in life that bind us together.
2. Lori McKenna
“Massachusetts” Everything I just said about Brandy Clark: ditto. The pride of Stoughton, with the voice of flint and the keenest eye for detail, continues to cover herself in songwriting glory as she sends a complicated, beautiful, heartbreaker of a mash note to her home state, flying the flag for the lives of everyday people.
3. Nine Inch Nails
“Hesitation Marks” The sound of every nerve ending in a body coming to musical life, with a great beat that you can dance to, chilling whispers, and a cathartic howl. Trent Reznor roared back into action in top form with the emphasis on roar.
4. Kacey Musgraves
“Same Trailer Different Park” Like her sisters in song Clark and McKenna, young country singer-songwriter Musgraves is a storyteller in love with words and the way that clever and incisive turns of phrase can cut right to the heart of matters of the heart.
5. Booker T
“Sound the Alarm” Summer rang and the legendary Stax organist answered the call with one of 2013’s most buoyant and celebratory releases, brimming with good cheer, crackling grooves, and sweet soul music, helping the block party linger all year long.
6. The National
“Trouble Will Find Me” A seductive haze hangs over this set of shape-shifting tracks that range from dark to darker as the Brooklyn, N.Y.-by-way-of-Ohio rockers search for a sense of relief that always seems just out of reach.
7. Harry Connick Jr.
“Every Man Should Know” The gifted piano man and crooner offered up his most personal album to date, hopscotching from playful to rueful, on a set of substantive songs that showcased not only his elegant technical abilities but the heart that beats beneath.
8. Dave Hause
“Devour” On his second solo set, the Philadelphia singer-songwriter continues to wrestle with what it means to grow up and how informed by the past that challenge can be. Urgent yet considered, rocking but ruminative, Hause ably followed up 2011’s masterful “Resolutions.”
9. Kim Richey
“Thorn in My Heart” With an unerring ability to tap into the deepest part of heartache and the voice of an angel who’s seen her share, Richey pierces with this collection that finds her returning to her country roots but not abandoning her gifts for pop, folk, and gospel sounds.
10. The Mavericks
“In Time” Reunion records are rarely this dynamic and joyous. No mere cash grab, the quartet founded in Miami came back all in, offering up their still-beguiling mix of country and pop with Latin flourishes and topped by the magnificent vocal gifts of frontman Raul Malo.
“The Next Day” The surprise announcement of the mere existence of the rock legend’s first album in nearly a decade was surpassed by how great it was, as it skipped from kinetic, squalling jams to artsy ennui in weird and wonderful, thoroughly Bowie-esque fashion.
1. BRITTEN: The Complete Works
The Britten centenary brought forth a slew of recordings, books, and DVDs but this superb 65-CD box set is the grand prize, with contributions from 20 labels ranging from all the iconic recordings to many rarities.
2. BRITTEN: String Quartets
Takács Quartet Britten’s three quartets finally receive the full Takács treatment, and these performances of febrile imagination make the strongest case yet for this underplayed corner of the 20th-century chamber music literature.
3. BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations
András Schiff, piano This two-disc set offers the rare chance to hear side-by-side performances of the “Diabelli” Variations on two very different instruments built a century apart: a Bechstein from 1921 and a fortepiano from Beethoven’s day. Schiff marvelously tailors his urbane playing to the contours of each instrument, and tosses in the luminous Sonata No. 32 in C minor (Op. 111) for good measure.
4. EISLER: “Ernste Gesänge” and other works
Matthias Goerne, baritone, with Ensemble Resonanz This ravishing if brief set of backward-glancing late songs for baritone and strings encapsulates with unsentimental pathos the complex life and career of this still-neglected German composer, who experienced both wartime exile in the United States and a difficult postwar return to East Germany. Goerne’s grasp of Eisler’s idiom is unsurpassed.
5. DUTILLEUX: Correspondences and other works
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor The passing of the towering French modernist Henri Dutilleux was one among several big losses this year in the classical music world. Here Salonen, his former student, leads performances that bring a complex, prismatic language into radiant focus.
6. BACH: St. Matthew Passion
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin with Sunhae Im, Bernarda Fink and others; René Jacobs, conductor The two choirs are recorded here in a way that simulates the large distances that may have originally separated them in Bach’s Thomaskirche. But the main draw for most listeners will be, more simply, the impeccable singing and sheer freshness Jacobs and his forces bring to this familiar score.
7. STRAVINSKY AND PROKOFIEV: Violin Concertos
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor Anyone who heard this barefooted Moldovan violinist’s sensational local debut this fall with the Boston Philharmonic may have wondered what else she’s been up to. Here’s one answer: Prokofiev’s Second and the Stravinsky concerto, in readings of uncommon freedom.
8. VERDI: Otello
Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Aleksandrs Antonenko, tenor, Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Riccardo Muti, conductor This year’s Verdi bicentenary occasioned not only an array of shelf-bendingly large box sets but also a few excellent single-work releases, among them this “Otello” most notable for the forceful playing of the CSO, Antonenko’s fine Otello, and Muti’s masterful sense of Verdi’s style.
9. In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores
Hilary Hahn, violin; Cory Smythe, piano This diverse collection of miniatures represents the fruit of Hahn’s ambitious commissioning project, through which she engaged 26 composers to write brief works for violin and piano, and held a contest for encore number 27 that drew over 400 entries. Hahn was already a well-established virtuoso. This project marks her evolution as something far more interesting: a creative force.
10. GANDOLFI: From the Institutes of Groove
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor It was a big year for BMOP’s house label BMOP/sound and this was just one of several distinguished releases. Gandolfi has rock and jazz somewhere deep in his ear, and the three concertos collected here — for bass trombone, bassoon, and alto saxophone — display a sophisticated post-minimalist craft wedded to an abiding spirit of visceral communication.
JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Inuksuit
This poetic work scatters its percussionists (between 9 and 99 of them) across an outdoor landscape and invites its audience to wander beneath the canopy of sound. Of course no recording could really approximate a live performance, but last June percussionist Doug Perkins nevertheless led 32 colleagues deep into the Vermont woods. The big surprise is just how much they captured of the interplay between music and place.
1. Bill Frisell
“Big Sur” Frisell showed his uncanny knack for evocative Americana-jazz fusion in this set of pieces for his guitar plus violin, viola, cello, and drums, inspired by the vistas, weather, and wildlife of the title locale.
2. Jamie Baum
“In This Life” The virtuoso flutist confirmed her status as a masterful composer with these 11 pieces for her Septet +, synthesizing her love of the rhythms and melodies of South Asia (particularly those of singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) with orchestral jazz harmony.
3. Cécile McLorin Salvant
“WomanChild” The now 24-year-old Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition winner covered a wide variety of material from early in the last century (“Nobody,” 1905) to her own up-to-the-minute title tune with technique, interpretive imagination, and a plush voice that were to die for. She sang at the Regattabar in November.
4. Fred Hersch/Julian Lage
“Free Flying” The now 58-year-old pianist and 25-year-old guitarist finished each other’s musical sentences and otherwise seemed to be creating their own language as they went. Their Scullers show in November did not disappoint.
5. Gilad Edelman
“My Groove, Your Move” The title comes from a Hank Mobley tune, and this disc is hard bop all the way. But huge-toned alto saxophonist Edelman (23 at the time of this recording) makes every familiar move sound fresh.
6. Craig Taborn
“Chants” In the 2000s, Taborn made a name for himself as a Fender Rhodes specialist. His acoustic piano trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver (at the Regattabar in May) extended the vocabulary of that familiar format into another realm.
7. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
“Brooklyn Babylon” The young composer and his Secret Society orchestra first presented “Brooklyn Babylon” as a multimedia event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then knocked out the audience at the Regattabar in May with their broad palette of colors as well as cyclical rhythms that had as much to do with Steve Reich and Philip Glass as with Count Basie.
8. Patricia Barber
“Smash” In her first album since 2008, the singer-songwriter-pianist was as cool, witty, and compelling as ever. She debuted the new disc and her new band at the Regattabar in January.
9. Roswell Rudd
“Trombone for Lovers” Only avant-garde legend Rudd would include R&B standard “Green Onions” and a four-part suite based on the labor anthem “Joe Hill” under this album title. No matter. Working with a variety of players and singers, he made it all of a piece.
10. Gregory Porter
“Liquid Spirit” The singer and songwriter’s personal fusion of the jazz and gospel traditions and his charismatic, powerful delivery made his Blue Note debut a standout.
“A Different Time” Having plowed the almighty groove with Medeski Martin & Wood for more than two decades, the multi-keyboardist stepped out with a solo-acoustic-piano album that was meditative, nuanced, and sublime. He played the ICA Dec. 12.
“Matangi” No one in pop has more energy, urgency, political intuition, broad musical appetites, and genius at stirring up a commotion. She’s the global artist of our time, and her new record is a massive, sprawling delight.
2. Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran
“Hagar’s Song” The year’s most soulful recording, ancestral in its reach, tragic, elegiac, exquisite. Lloyd, 75, on sax and flutes, and Moran, 38, on piano, have honed an extraordinary collaboration.
3. Laura Mvula
“Sing to the Moon” A luminous debut, equal parts shimmer and muscle, refreshingly hard to classify. Unassuming but elegant, Mvula has a church voice, classical training, and a quirky cool that’s all Black British.
4. Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd
“Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project” The dream life of veterans of color is the theme of the stunning new project from pianist Iyer and spoken-poet Ladd. Joining their usual top-flight ensemble are an Iraq war veteran and a former drone pilot.
5. Emeline Michel
“Quintessence” Three years after the earthquake whose devastating toll touched virtually everyone in Haiti and its diaspora, the great singer Emeline Michel, in her finest album, sings healing, gratitude, and love.
6. Vieux Farka Touré
“Mon Pays” The recent crisis in Mali, which saw his hometown Niafunké and the rest of the country’s north occupied by jihadi separatists, spurred Vieux to record his deepest, most rootsy, and most accomplished record yet.
7. Rokia Traoré
“Beautiful Africa” Another stellar record from a key Malian artist, the diplomat’s daughter Traoré, an outlier on the Malian scene for her feet-in-two worlds sensibility, singer-songwriter approach, and anti-diva simplicity.
8. José James
“No Beginning No End” The completely artificial boundary between jazz and R&B has grown happily porous again, thanks to recent progressive projects like this nocturnal set from singer James, at once precise and swoony-seductive.
9. Ana Moura
“Desfado” With lyrics by Lisbon indie rockers and studio sessions with Los Angeles musicians, Moura, the star fadista of the moment, has made a fado album that breaks traditional rules but pays off in sheer style.
10. THE Pedrito Martinez Group
“The Pedrito Martinez Group” A word-of-mouth star with a fierce following among New York musicians, Cuban percussionist Martinez delivers one knockout punch after another on his first, eclectic, studio album.
A Tribe Called Red
“Nation II Nation” Who knew that some of the hottest electronic dance music today comes loaded with Native American liberation messages? In Canada, they knew. Now we do too. Pow Wow Step is deep.
1. Danny Brown
“Old” If Brown’s 2011 breakthrough, “XXX,” was his cathartic 30th birthday gift, “Old” is his extended afterparty, which articulately closes the door on his dark past (“Gremlins, “Torture”) before descending into a frat-house rager (“Smokin & Drinkin”) with equally glorious abandon.
2. Janelle Monáe
“The Electric Lady” Appeals toward gender, race, and social issues (and there are several) aside, Monáe’s sophomore album is simply a joyous slice of ambitiously conceived, flawlessly executed neo-R&B, with nods to Quincy Jones (“Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”) and Prince (who guests on “Givin’ ’Em What They Want”).
3. Kanye West
“Yeezus” At his passionate and uncompromising best, Ye delivers a definitive middle-finger salute to his last remaining artistic constraints — electro, punk rock, soul, and grime loaded into a meticulously orchestrated assassination of hip-hop’s status quo.
4. Arcade Fire
“Reflektor” Sprawling in its influences and scope, Arcade Fire’s fourth album is a virtual museum of sounds and emotions to be explored over many hours, offering instant gratification (“Here Comes the Night Time”) and textured compositions (“It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”).
5. Run the Jewels
“Run the Jewels”
El-P and Killer Mike are two of hip-hop’s more thoughtful, conceptual thinkers, which is maybe why their collaboration album is so much fun: It’s a loose, unrestrained barrage of slick quotables and bruising bass-heavy beats (“Run the Jewels”).
Under the guiding hand of Flying Lotus, bassist Stephen Bruner distills his considerable talents into a more palatable dosage on this 12-track LP, taking time for both somber reflection (mixing strings and snaps on “A Message for Austin”) and celebration (“O Sheit It’s X”).
7. Earl Sweatshirt
“Doris” Odd Future’s initial momentum may have slowed, but doesn’t affect Earl’s edgy, uncommercial debut. Over minimalist instrumentals, the fireworks emerge from Earl’s prodigious mastery of his craft, weaving dark humor into his acutely observed insecurities with technical brilliance.
8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies
“Blue Chips 2” The second collaboration between Queens lyricist Bronson and producer Party Supplies is a gleefully explicit and spontaneous ride through their warped vision of New York, marked by patchy radio edits, uncleared samples, and a brilliantly depraved sense of humor.
9. Chance the Rapper
“Acid Rap” Like the drug referenced in the title, Acid Rap allows its author to reveal profoundly honest and heartfelt emotions through a pleasantly hazy filter. The result is a hyperactively expressive, infinitely listenable, and hugely impressive statement of intent from the 19-year old Chicagoan.
10. A$AP Rocky
“Long.Live.A$AP” Rocky’s debut was his hastily arranged coronation as the preeminent Internet-rapper-come-good of recent times, but also a modern blueprint for pop-rap success, alternately esoteric (“Suddenly”), mainstream (“[Expletive] Problems”), or both (“Fashion Killa,” “I Come Apart”) as necessary.
“Adrift” A love letter to hip-hop’s sample-based heyday minus the flinching sentimentality, the New York producer’s indie album makes a convincing case for his modern approach, crafting diverse, flavorful cuts for the likes of Curren$y, French Montana, and Danny Brown.