NPR Music's 25 Favorite Albums Of The Year (So Far)
Give or take a few weeks, 2013's midpoint is upon us. After almost six months of new music, it's that time of year when we pause to catch our breath, get our bearings and share our love for the albums that defined the first half of 2013.
For the rest of the year, if we find ourselves loving a new rock album, we'll ask, "But is it as good as Savages' Silence Yourself"? When a dance record arrives that has us feeling particularly euphoric, we'll inevitably compare it to Disclosure's Settle. Every incoming slice of soulful pop is going to find itself stacked up against Laura Mvula's Sing to the Moon.
Of course, not every artist fits so easily into a genre, and unsurprisingly, it's often those unclassifiable recordings that have stuck with us thus far. David Lang's Death Speaks is inspired by Schubert and performed by members of The National and My Brightest Diamond. Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw mine the overlapping ground between jazz and classical music. Darcy James Argue references John Philip Sousa and LCD Soundsystem. Hey, what would a multi-genre list be without a few multi-genre albums?
So, with that, please enjoy our favorite albums of 2013 so far. There's a little something for everyone, with bonuses for those who like their boundaries blurry.
Full of undeniably hypnotic trance-guitar music, and produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Nomad rocks like no other record this year. Omara "Bombino" Moctar is an electric guitarist from Agadez, Niger. His songs document the struggle of his nomadic people the Tuareg, but he grew up watching videos of Jimi Hendrix. Hearing Bombino in any American nightclub, the reaction is ecstasy and complete connection; though he studied with a skilled Tuareg guitarist and sings in Tamashek, there's an inevitable sense of familiarity in his music. It's blues, it's trance and it's psychedelic in its repetition. Oh, and did I mention it rocks? --Bob Boilen
CHANCE THE RAPPER, 'ACID RAP'
Chance the Rapper is the feel-good story of hip-hop this year — he was highly anticipated, and he came through. The organ-ridden tracks and thoughtful samples on Acid Rap make a soft bed for barbed words, brassy tones and tongue-twisting, acrobatic proficiency. It's a moody album, bouncing between raw celebration, oppressive foreboding, full-bore mockery of unseen competitors and young-blood sincerity. About halfway through, he takes a break, but it's not a skit. He rhymes a few bars, closes with the words "It ain't nothing better than falling in love," and falls out into a hook that sounds like Randy Newman wrote it. Acid Rap is a balm. Chance is a sure thing. --Frannie Kelley
DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY, 'BROOKLYN BABYLON'
It's a soundtrack to a multimedia installation, a tone-poem suite that commits to the community and a hometown. That's only part of the ambition of Darcy James Argue's Brooklyn Babylon, though. The composer prefers the medium of jazz orchestra, through which he filters Sousa marches, DFA Records, Balkan brass bands, Steve Reich. Basically, he's the sort of guy who hears a piece of music out there in the world and thinks, "It would be really cool if I could capture that spirit with my 18-piece big band." Then, amazingly, he does. --Patrick Jarenwattananon
DAVID LANG (BRYCE DESSNER, NICO MUHLY, OWEN PALLETT & SHARA WORDEN), 'DEATH SPEAKS'
You probably wouldn't expect The National's Bryce Dessner and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden to work on a classically focused project inspired by Franz Schubert, but that's exactly what happens within composer David Lang's amazing Death Speaks, which also features Nico Muhly playing piano and Owen Pallett on violin. In this song cycle, Lang creates incredibly intimate, often terrifyingly visceral experiences, with texts borrowed from Schubert's songs. Despite Lang's ice-cool textures, emotions run hot and quick. "Nothing escapes me," Worden sings, personifying Death — and it's easy to believe her. The companion piece on this album, Depart, features Maya Beiser's multi-tracked cello and four voices; it comes as luminous, sweet relief. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Where there is light, there is darkness. Deafheaven's Sunbather is all about contrast, as it pits chiming guitars against George Clarke's scathing monotone screams like blocks of black paint across a fuzzy pink canvas. The band's strong debut explored the same approach, but there's a stronger sense of purpose here. The key is guitarist Kerry McCoy, who significantly steps up his songwriting game, unabashedly looking to Johnny Marr, The Edge and Mogwai for tonal inspiration. --Lars Gotrich
Sometimes the way forward involves simply re-imagining the past with the tools of the present. Disclosure brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence were just babies when house and garage first crossed over from the dance floor to the British pop charts in the mid-1990s. A generation later, they've taken that upbeat template and infused it with jaw-dropping production and what sounds like a cocktail of Top 40 compression techniques and subterranean bass timbres. The result, Disclosure's debut album Settle, feels familiar yet fresh — both of the moment and of a movement. No wonder it topped the British album charts this week. --Otis Hart
DJ KOZE, 'AMYGDALA'
Born from the eclectic mind of producer Stefan Kozalla, Amygdala takes a vivid tour around techno's luminescent edges. Equal parts warm and weird, it's a trip where some stops bubble over with effusive pop, while others sink into minimally molded drum loops. Kozalla pulls from a sprawling pool of sounds, including the voices of Matthew Dear, Apparat and Caribou, as he embellishes his rhythms with cartoony horns, plump basslines and nostalgia-inducing vocal samples. Steadily startling and rarely predictable, Amygdala is one of the quirkiest and most compelling albums of the year so far. --Sami Yenigun
THE FLAMING LIPS, 'THE TERROR'
The Flaming Lips' career spans more than 30 years, with many landmark achievements along the way. But in many ways, the group is just hitting its stride, with a nonstop stream of experimental side projects, collaborations, mind-bending albums and tours. Its latest achievement, The Terror, is a massive record that rattles and grumbles, with disjointed rhythms, chilling melodies and bizarre textures. It's remarkable not only for its endless surprises and sonic curiosities, but also because it shows that this veteran group still has a sense of wonder and adventure that many younger bands can't sustain beyond an album or two. Many fans who prefer the celestial pop of Lips records like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or The Soft Bulletin were baffled by The Terror. But it may be the band's most impressive achievement yet. --Robin Hilton
GLENN JONES, 'MY GARDEN STATE'
After what felt like a long moment of silence for the late Jack Rose, the last two years have been an embarrassment of riches for the American Primitive guitar style. This is thriving music, set in the John Fahey tradition while still moving outward. Glenn Jones is one of its most faithful practitioners; each of his records is somehow more understated and astonishing than the last. On My Garden State, every pluck and strum is methodical, yet each is a quiet wonder. --Lars Gotrich
JEREMIAH JAE & OLIVER THE 2ND, 'RAWHYDE'
RawHyde is muddled, dusty and groovy — its dueling rappers rhyme with a suppressed intensity that sounds a little bit Quasimoto, a little bit Z-Ro and a little bit Mr. Cheeks. The album builds a head of steam slowly, like a locomotive, as it folds blaring, restless sounds into sunset tones, clips from Clint Eastwood's 1960s TV show, saudade samples and beachy guitars. Jeremiah Jae, who made the beats, shares vocal duties with Oliver the 2nd, and both of them bend Wild West motifs to bad-man tales — broken hearts are dry like cacti, for example — and rewrite diehard American stories with bravado. --Frannie Kelley
JOSE JAMES, 'NO BEGINNING NO END'
It comes as little surprise, for those who follow such things, that Jose James was born an Aquarius. Like that water-bearing astrological air sign, James seems to float and swim through his sexy songs simultaneously, as he rides the musical slipstream that arises where jazz meets soul meets hip-hop. James is brainy and sensual, propelling groove-based genre-busting into the future while honoring the legacies of fellow subtle daredevils from Bill Withers to Erykah Badu. No Beginning No End is his fourth album, and it's the one where he really finds his balance, with help from fellow travelers like Pino Palladino and Robert Glasper, as well as guest singers Hindi Zahra and Emily King. Quietly cosmic stuff. --Ann Powers
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, 'THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE'
Much of the hubbub surrounding the third solo release from the most successful boy bander to grow into a 21st-century man focused on its commercial triumph: Almost a million units shifted out of the box. It's fun to contemplate what happened when that legion of Justin Timberlake fans got the thing home. The 20/20 Experience is one long, strange trip — a confidently experimental outing by a vocalist stretching out like a cat, with a producer (JT's brother-by-another-mother Timbaland) who flexes his talent for shining up uncanny grooves and samples. "Suit & Tie," with its Jay-Z feature, was an early victory strut, but most of The 20/20 Experience lays back beautifully, wrapping you up in JT's ridiculously creamy space-lover cocoon. --Ann Powers
KACEY MUSGRAVES, 'SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK'
At 24, Kacey Musgraves already possesses a remarkable assortment of creative gifts, among them a voice that's lovely but never show-offy, great collaborators in Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, and slice-of-life songs filled with grabby hooks and grabbier lyrics. But rarest of all is her sense of purpose and perspective: Musgraves already sings with a distinct and clear-eyed point-of-view. She stuffs Same Trailer Different Park with songs about escape — from crummy jobs ("Blowin' Smoke"), from judgmental scolds ("Follow Your Arrow"), from suffocating small-town mediocrity ("Merry Go 'Round"). But, rather than merely wallow in despair or false hope, she views these straw men as obstacles that can be dodged or defeated — if one desires to do so — through a cocktail of determination, self-reliance and a fierce indifference to what others think. --Stephen Thompson
THE KNIFE, 'SHAKING THE HABITUAL'
The Knife waited seven years to release a proper follow-up to the mysterious electro-pop album Silent Shout, yet Shaking the Habitual shares more in common with the Swedish duo's thrilling 2010 opera, Tomorrow, In a Year. With bizarro pop songs set against industrial rhythms, Shaking the Habitual is mesmerizing and challenging, with Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer's deepest, darkest and most personal vocal and synth experiments. This is transgressive art in the purest sense, busting genres and politics in an aggressive and propulsive 98 minutes. --Lars Gotrich
LA SANTA CECILIA, 'TREINTA DIAS'
The more time this band spends together in the studio and on the road, the better it gets. From small venues in its Southern California hometown to performances at festivals and stages across the country, La Santa Cecilia is collecting new fans every step of the way. Treinta Días is a perfect example of an impressive musical vision that makes La Santa Cecilia truly special. --Felix Contreras
LA VIDA BOHEME, 'SERA'
Much has been written and said about the crisis of Latin rock: how the genre hasn't grown since the '90s, and how what remains sounds too much like English-language rock 'n' roll cover bands. It's hard for this rockera to admit having difficulty getting excited about new Latin rock projects. But Venezuela's La Vida Boheme succeeds in making Latin rock "Latin" once again — lyrically, musically and thematically. Sonically, it's a perfect fusion of jazz, dance and punk, complete with traditional Latin percussion. Thematically, it's a Latin American Opera Prima; a musical One Hundred Years of Solitude. --Jasmine Garsd
LATVIAN RADIO CHOIR, 'RACHMANINOV: ALL NIGHT VIGIL"
Latvia is a land of singers. The small Baltic country boasts more than a million Latvian folk songs, plus regular song festivals where 20,000 people show up to sing together. Among Latvia's many choruses is the Latvian Radio Choir, considered one of the finest in the world right now. The group's new recording of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil is a stunning display of the power of two dozen unaccompanied voices. Within this liturgical music, Rachmaninov weaves an orchestral complexity of textures and colors. Voices toll like church bells; they swell and dovetail seamlessly from multiple planes of sound. The group's blend of upper voices is especially breathtaking. --Thomas Huizenga
LAURA MVULA, 'SING TO THE MOON'
Laura Mvula may be one of many young U.K. soul singers, but Sing to the Moon never gets bogged down in glorifying or emulating the past: Alternately futuristic and familiar, the classically trained musician's debut evokes everything from classic movie scores to the Vocoder-aided vocals of Imogen Heap. Instrumentally rich, timelessly produced, agreeably breezy and utterly indifferent to genre — with songs that embody worldly dance music, socially conscious folk, sprightly pop and richly warmhearted soul — Mvula's boundary-burning songs signal a singer for the whole world to watch. --Stephen Thompson
MARIA SCHNEIDER & DAWN UPSHAW, 'WINTER MORNING WALKS'
Maria Schneider is already widely hailed as an incredible composer for big bands. But for this collaboration with the silvery-voiced classical singer Dawn Upshaw, she takes her talents to a new and welcome realm: two song cycles for soprano and orchestra that limn both classical music and jazz. In the title song cycle, performed with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Schneider and Upshaw — who's as much an actress as she is a singer — lead us along paths taken by poet Ted Kooser, who wrote an affecting set of poems while recuperating from cancer. (Schneider and Upshaw are also cancer survivors.) In the second cycle, Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, Upshaw sings texts from the Brazilian poet Drummond, this time with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. For this outing, Schneider borrows brightly colored Brazilian musical elements, from an opening, wordless vocalise that echoes Heitor Villa-Lobos to the sly and sensuous Quadrille at its close: "John loved Teresa who loved Raymond who loved Mary who loved Jack who loved Lily who didn't love anybody." --Anastasia Tsioulcas
N.O.R.E., "STUDENT OF THE GAME'
N.O.R.E.'s career has been a roller-coaster ride — partnerships formed and dissolved, multiple name changes, a well-paid tour through reggaeton, hits, misses, you name it. Student of the Game is his sixth solo album, but he's made 10 full-lengths if you include his output with Capone. These days, his voice is leathery and buoyant, sounding better for all the wear and tear. His lyrics are unabashed and compact. He's working with everyone under the sun, from flashy pop stars like French Montana and Lil Wayne to old friends like Tragedy and titans of the genre like Pete Rock and Large Professor. He's always attracted talent, though — in one of the several radio-friendly tracks on Student of the Game, the glistening "Problem (Lawwwddd)," he's back with Pharrell, who helped produce "Nothin'" a decade ago. This album is willful and greedy and loud — N.O.R.E. will not go gently. --Frannie Kelley
PATTY GRIFFIN, 'AMERICAN KID'
Midlife is a bitch. Your parents are gone or heading toward their final hours; your friends are dealing with the sorrows that make a real dent in life. The sense of huge possibility that fills up youth condenses into ordinary pragmatism. What do you do for magic? At 49, Patty Griffin answers that question on her seventh studio album. It's a tribute to her recently departed dad; a reckoning with history and religion; an embrace of adult romance, warts and all; and a sorting through of memories that open up into stories bigger than any one life. Americana music luminaries (Luther and Cody Dickinson, Robert Plant) contribute to the sound, which taps into gospel, country, the Irish waltz and the torch song. But Griffin centers everything on her gift for uplift and her equally powerful emotional clarity. --Ann Powers
Contemporary love songs — especially songs of seduction — are rarely as muted as the ones on Woman, the first album by the enigmatic duo Rhye. Here, desire doesn't register as lust so much as warm, affectionate, all-encompassing yearning. Mike Milosh's innocent, androgynous voice exudes dreamy vulnerability in every note, while Robin Hannibal's arrangements involve many component parts (strings, horns, synths, et al) but use each only sparingly. Opening with a come-on that doubles as a motto ("stay open"), Woman radiates tenderness, grace, sensuality and even innocence. But, as befitting musicians who won't show their faces, it also leaves ample room for mystery. --Stephen Thompson
SAVAGES, 'SILENCE YOURSELF'
One of the most confident and fully realized studio debuts in recent memory comes from the London post-punk band Savages. Silence Yourself is a much-needed record right now: a feminist statement that combines art, politics and brute-force rock. Jehnny Beth sings with a powerful vibrato, but in case you don't get the message, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton provide corporeal reinforcement. (The band's visceral live shows back this up.) As the album title demands, shut up and listen. --Amy Schriefer
VAMPIRE WEEKEND, 'MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY'
Conventional wisdom suggests that a band's second album is the most difficult to make — that it determines whether an artist has staying power — but the third album may well be the toughest. Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City is one of the best third albums ever, along with After the Goldrush, London Calling and Born to Run. Like all those records, it's lyrically brilliant, marked by depth and character that didn't come through fully on albums one and two. Melodically, it's a potent mix of songs that stick in your head long after the music stops. But instead of shopworn lyrics about the same old relationships, it's full of tunes about God, faith, doubt and love. This poetic pop record signals a long career full of fruitful, groundbreaking music. --Bob Boilen
WAYNE SHORTER, 'WITHOUT A NET'
Wayne Shorter, who turns 80 later this year, is a reviser. He's spent the last decade and change looking at his older work — along with other older works — and gutting them for parts and salvage. Then, with the help of his gunslinging acoustic quartet, he makes them new again. But the other hook of Without a Net, a collection of live recordings, is the new-new compositions from one of jazz's greatest writers, including a 23-minute work for quartet and wind ensemble. It's another manual for risk-taking from a guy sufficiently at peace personally to remain constantly restless artistically. --Patrick Jarenwattananon