Here’s a paradox of 2013: The year’s biggest-selling single was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which was roundly criticized for objectifying and degrading women, with a lascivious video that stoked the flames.
And yet female artists dominated most of the conversations about pop music this year, from Miley Cyrus’s twerking antics to Beyoncé’s incredible business savvy to Lorde’s unlikely rise as something of an anti-pop star who’s neither mainstream nor indie.
To borrow a line from one of Cyrus’s hits this year: The women came in like a wrecking ball. Still, there was a clear disconnect between commercial sales and artistic achievements. The first installment of Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” (he released a second volume later on) was by far the year’s top-selling album, moving more than 2 million copies at press time. Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” was a distant second, at 1.5 million.
Those albums sold more, but in my mind that’s the extent of the impact they made. With just a few weeks left on the calendar, Beyoncé became 2013’s juggernaut. With no advance warning, she put out “Beyoncé,” a full-length album with 17 accompanying videos, as an iTunes exclusive on Dec. 13. More so than the music, which was great, the way she marketed it was one of the year’s defining moments in pop culture and challenged the traditional way we think music has to be released.
Women were in charge of their own narratives this year. Whether or not you liked Cyrus’s lewd behavior — and plenty of people didn’t, including Sinéad O’Connor, who wrote an open letter to Cyrus to both scold her and offer advice — it seemed obvious that Cyrus had the reins. She also had good songs in the form of “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.”
Then there was Lorde, the stage name of a young singer from New Zealand. Ella Yelich-O’Connor was 16 when “Royals” presented an alternative, youthful outlook on stardom. The chorus was a slap in the face to the excesses of pop and hip-hop: “And we’ll never be royals/It don’t run in our blood/That kind of luxe just ain’t for us/We crave a different kind of buzz.”
This was not the easiest year for the tried-and-true pop star. The known quantities weren’t a sure thing, by any stretch. Even after months of buzz, Lady Gaga’s third studio album, “ARTPOP,” was widely seen as a critical and commercial flop. (Strangely enough, I thought it included some of her best songs yet.) It debuted at No. 1 but quickly tumbled down the charts, a reminder that in the Top 40 cosmos you’re nothing without a massive hit single. “ARTPOP” hasn’t given her one, although “Applause” came close.
Katy Perry’s “Prism” had a similar fate, with a splashy premiere before we stopped talking about it altogether after the sugar rush of “Roar,” its first single, had worn off. And Britney Spears missed the mark entirely with “Britney Jean,” her eighth studio album, which she swore up and down was her most personal record ever. Except it sounded just as robotic and overproduced as the rest of her catalog; it has the dubious distinction of debuting with the lowest sales of any of her records.
We simply didn’t look to the stars for guidance in 2013. We looked elsewhere. Not everyone took a conventional or even commercial path, either. Some of the year’s most transcendent and provocative music came from singers and songwriters maybe you didn’t know but should.
Valerie June made an album that sounded like no one else’s, an idiosyncratic extrapolation of the Appalachian roots music she grew up with in her native Tennessee combined with urban influences from contemporary R&B and soul. “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” her debut, was full of tang and twang and sophistication.
HAIM, the band of California sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim, won the award for most lovable pop act this year. Their singles, from “Forever” to “The Wire” to “Don’t Save Me,” were pure-pop confections, and anyone who saw the sisters in concert walked away with a mad crush — on all three of them.
Meanwhile, it was tough to get your mind around the panorama of Neko Case’s “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.” Like a rollercoaster ride through a funhouse, her latest album was challenging and eccentric, the musings of an artist who has no need for easy ideas about genre or even song structures. Her album haunted me from the moment I heard an advance copy over the summer till this very morning.
From the UK, English soul singer Laura Mvula’s “Sing to the Moon” cast a similar spell with its winsome orchestral spin on R&B and strong statements about identity. Laura Marling, the folk musician who has always been a preternaturally gifted songwriter, made a masterpiece for the ages with “Once I Was an Eagle.” And Savages, a female quartet from London, were among indie rock’s most acclaimed bands this year, a feral force of nature that took its post-punk rock seriously.
Perhaps in no other genre was the disparity between men and women more pronounced than in country music. Even as Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Blake Shelton racked up the major sales and picked up the big awards, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Ashley Monroe (who released a solo album and one with Pistol Annies) were heralded as country’s sage new voices.
Their albums were feisty and spirited, bucking the generic “let’s party” trend so prevalent in much of this year’s country hits. Clark, in particular, was highly esteemed, with her debut, “12 Stories,” landing on several critics’ year-end lists of best albums. Musgraves, meanwhile, recently picked up a Grammy nomination for best new artist at next year’s ceremony.
Unless you count M.I.A.’s “Matangi,” only in mainstream hip-hop were women’s voices sorely lacking. The field was ruled by big releases from Kanye West, Jay Z, Drake, A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, and Lil’ Wayne.
If you were searching for just one artist and one album that embodied the indomitable spirit of music made by women in 2013, look no further than Janelle Monáe and her latest release. “The Electric Lady” lived up to its title with a brash mix of styles and Monáe’s singular, often disorienting vision. The year found its mantra in her song “Q.U.E.E.N.”: “She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.”