10. Doris, Earl Sweatshirt
Thebe Neruda Kgositsile — the dazzling teenage rapper who for a period famously ”disappeared” to boarding school in Samoa, just as his fellows in Odd Future achieved viral liftoff — has a great story. On Doris, his official debut, the prodigal phenom reclaims his own tale over shadowy, off-center beats. On ”Hive,” he’s wry and riddling: ”So here I sit, eye in the pyramid/God spit it like it’s truth serum in that beer and then/Disappear again.” But unlike most brainy, restless 19-year-olds, he’s generous with his epiphanies, rapping about his absent father, his intense partying — and how not to carry a skateboard. Pay attention and you might even learn something.
Best Track: ”Hive”
9. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend
Eager, assured young men such as these rarely settle for even unexpected success. But few of them amplify their ambitions as gracefully as Ezra Koenig and his chums do on Vampire Weekend’s lovely third album. Easing off their signature moves — music borrowed from Africa, lyrics referencing New England — they open up and allow some vulnerability into their vibrant, sculpted sound. Now pushing 30, Koenig remains his clean-cut, undaunted self, but with grown-up neuroses creeping in: Upbeat songs like ”Finger Back” and ”Worship You” resound with nervous energy, and ”Diane Young” warps the manic, baby-baby-baby rock sound favored by ’50s teens just as pointedly as it puns on ”dyin’ young.” World-music chops, bookworm mentality, old-fashioned diligence — all good qualities that benefit from a little breaking in.
Best Track: ”Step”
8. My Name Is My Name, Pusha T
The last great gangsta rapper also happens to be his own most hilarious critic. On his first official album since winding down Clipse, the coke-rap duo he founded in 1992 with his brother Malice, Pusha T describes his evolution this way: ”Nowadays I sell hope/ What, you rather I sell dope?/ What I sell is a lifestyle/Naked bitches on sailboats.” (The man’s so deadpan, his jokes deserve chalk outlines.) With these beats — private-stash stuff from the likes of his label boss Kanye West and Pharrell Williams — he could sell fire in hell. In fact, Pusha plumbs his emotional depths, breaking down his parents’ divorce after 35 years of marriage and his conflicted feelings about his brother, who now calls himself No Malice, finding God. Not to worry: My Name comes down on the side of ”sinnin’.”
Best Track: ”Nosetalgia”
7. Hummingbird, Local Natives
Time was, mopey dudes cloaked large swaths of indie music in their melancholy hoodies. More recently, bearded guys loosed rich harmonies on the land. These five from Silverlake, Los Angeles, have, on their second album, taken rock-with-feelings past simmering resentment and dream-catcher whimsy and straight up grown-man mountain. It’s not that you’ll glean a whole lot from the lyrics, which tend to involve mundane details of life, like lovers bumming cigarettes or a solitary soul scarfing a bowl of cereal before bed. But the music — from the post-hobo harmonies to the pitter-patter rhythms to the sly guitar work — rarely rates anything less than exquisite, and the songs swell beautifully without ever insisting on their own importance.
Best Track: ”Heavy Feet”
6. Paramore, Paramore
The best rock album of 2013 certainly didn’t announce itself as such, even if it did debut at No. 1, a first for the band that made it. And it came with a title defiantly declaring their return after the 2010 departure of two founding members: Paramore. The renewed group — led, as it could only be, by the incandescent singer Hayley Williams — doesn’t dial in any vague political messaging or specially procured club beats (although the clap-along ”Ain’t It Fun” will flip anyone’s dance switch). Williams simply belts like a pop-punk-weaned millennial who has learned a thing or two, like how thrills lurk even in years-long relationships (”Still Into You”) and compromise can look like failure (”Fast in My Car”). When the music ramps up to big-ol’-rock-band grand, it’s only because her boys are trying to keep up.
Best Track: ”Ain’t It Fun”
5. Kiss Land, The Weeknd
You know that voice — the one that tells you to force your chauffeur to get high and gun it to 110, and entices potential lovers by whispering little nothings like ”If you commit to this ride, there’s no turning back”? No? That’s the murmur Toronto R&B singer Abel Tesfaye so ably indulges on his first non-mixtape album, a nearly hour-long head trip in which sexual obsession, betrayal, addiction, and big-ticket trust issues tangle like limbs under silk sheets. Drake hustles in for a hot verse during strip-club anti-anthem ”Live For,” where ominous submarine bleats give way to guitar plucked like a Renaissance lute, but it’s Tesfaye’s delicate falsetto — and dark, distinctly ’80s guitar and synth sounds — that envelops you everywhere else. It’s a weirdly exhilarating experience, with the bonus effect of torpedoing the make-believe encouraged by cheery online dating profiles.
Best Track: ”Wanderlust”
4. Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves
Even with ”Follow Your Arrow” — her lilting anthem recognizing that the ”straight and narrow/Gets a little too straight,” that girls might want to kiss other girls, and that you might consider rolling a joint sometime — Kacey is no Katniss. But while she may not be a country outlaw, she’s a girl next door you’d be wise not to underestimate. The powerfully pretty first single, ”Merry Go ‘Round,” touches down on trailer-park life like a heartbroken tornado. Better yet, the muscular ”Blowin’ Smoke” takes a waitress’s-eye view of the women in those trailers: ”Well, Janie got divorced again/Her ex-husband’s in the pen/With 2 to 5, or 5 to 10/Or longer.” In a scenario where the future’s none too appetizing, Musgraves sings as sweet and slow as pancake syrup.
Best Track: ”Blowin’ Smoke”
3. Bangerz, Miley Cyrus
If you want a list of 21 things to restore your faith in humanity, wait for your uncle to post that claptrap on Facebook. If you’re looking for 13 songs (or 16, on the totally worth-it deluxe version) that drive a stake through arbitrary notions of how a young woman and onetime tween star should conduct herself, immerse yourself in Bangerz. Miley’s not shy about her sexuality — check out her narrating her own orgasm on ”#GETITRIGHT.” But more than anything, she flaunts her savvy, backed up by an acute ear for cutting-edge rap (via executive producer Mike Will Made It), a soulful voice capable of showstoppers like ”Adore You,” and an underappreciated emotional directness that flowers on the too good to be a bonus track ”Rooting for My Baby.” Humanity could use more renegades like her.
Best Track: ”We Can’t Stop”
2. Nothing Was the Same, Drake
In a year that practically oozed smoove vibes from Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake, Drake got pop working its core. Even ”Hold On, We’re Going Home,” in every other way the ’87 Oldsmobile of fall’s top five hits, boasts a beat as crisp as anything by Phil Collins. When he gets to flexin’ — as on ”Worst Behavior,” with its Rube Goldberg underpinnings; the MC smackdown ”The Language”; and the hypnotic ”Started From the Bottom” — he’s flawlessly confident. But his restless thoughts keep the elegant music here taut. He revisits old flames (Courtney from Hooters, Bria from Macy’s) the way a Zen master meditates on a candle, and even calls out his mother for ceding energy to her illness. Intimacy needn’t be soft.
Best Track: ”Started From the Bottom”
1. Yeezus, Kanye West
He can’t be serious. That’s what all the late-night hosts and lists of ”craziest Kanye quotes” told us about Kanye West in 2013. And sure, he’s the one who said that thing about being a god, and that other thing about hurrying up with his damn massage. But like any human (even one who raps, ”No sports bra/Let’s keep it bouncing”), Kanye’s got every right to be serious. Asserting that freedom on Yeezus, he exposes the rage of a wildly ambitious artist confounded by the wily shape of racism today. He smashes the atoms of his fears, ego, and sex drive together for tracks like ”Black Skinhead,” featuring rhymes about ”coon s—” and a beat decidedly free of Under Armour. (It ended up soundtracking a popular TV spot for smartphones.) Mostly, his sound obsession runs riot, from the blown-speaker fuzz of ”On Sight” to the abundance of dancehall singers and samples to ”Blood on the Leaves,” with its unflinching appropriation of Nina Simone’s ”Strange Fruit.” The overriding message: Listen closely. Kanye will never validate anyone’s celebrity worship. On Yeezus, though, he throws down serious thunderbolts.
Best Track: ”Blood on the Leaves”