1. Jai Paul
It’s poetic justice that, in a year dominated by major-label mega-roll-out record spectulars—Daft Punk, Kanye West, etc.—the best album should be an unfinished leak from a relative unknown who won’t even take credit for its creation. The British producer Jai Paul generated considerable buzz with a couple singles in 2011 and 2012 but when a Bandcamp page posted this album in April, Paul disowned the work to (deliberately?) mysterious effect. His R&B-inflected vocals are distant, like his persona, placing his post-world-music laptop-production style front and center for these 16 mostly unnamed tracks. While artists like West succeed in gaming the album format in the Internet-era supercontext, Jai Paul’s enigmatic persona and accompanying work are actually its freshest exponents.
2. Danny Brown
Detroit is America’s most conflicted and compelling city in 2013, so it’s only proper that Michiganian Danny Brown should be making this country’s most conflicted and compelling hip-hop. Old is a bipolar beast of a rap record, splitting the difference between Dilla-inspired confessionals and molly-laced club anthems with brutal EDM hooks. After Danny Brown, rap music is never going to look or sound the same.
It’s been a banner year for British house music, and it was the brother duo known as Disclosure who built the genre’s most undeniable dance anthems. Sexy yet urbane, Settle introduced larger audiences to a who’s-who of young British vocalists: Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge, and made “Latch” and “When a Fire Starts to Burn” contenders for song of the year.
4. Atoms for Peace
I wouldn’t honestly be heartbroken if Thom Yorke never went back to Radiohead after joining up with Flea and Nigel Godrich. Atoms for Peace is a supergroup for the cultural moment, who struck a deft balance between Yorke’s rock ennui and the percolating hope of electronic dance.
5. Chance the Rapper
Don’t be surprised if Acid Rap is the only hip-hop record on many critics’ rockist year-end lists. The Chicago prodigy blew open the very notion of how a rap record is supposed to work here with his nasal half-sung style, elements of gospel, juke and ghettotech.
After conjuring Feels-era Animal Collective on their debut, Calgary band Braids deepened their textural and emotional range for Flourish//Perish. The tracks are alternately cold and ethereal, owing to bands like Portishead, and agitated and organic—in each case accentuating vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s incredible instrument.
Flying Lotus is the undeniable mastermind of LA’s tastemaking beat label Brainfeeder, but bassist extraordinaire Thundercat is becoming its great performer. The sophomore album from Erykah Badu’s touring bassist is a chops-heavy blast of freak fusion, both heady and immensely danceable. “Oh Sheit, It’s X” is probably the jam of the year.
8. Kanye West
Kanye West is not a great rapper and Yeezus is an imperfect song cycle, but West, the artist, and Yeezus, the concept, are game-changing. The persona, the tour, the costumes, the interviews, the videos, the merchandise—hell, the parodies: This is the new musical macro-package that the LP used to be, and West isn’t lying when he calls himself a genius of the form. Love him or—better yet—hate him, West commands attention and demands that culture respond.
9. Daft Punk
Random Access Memories
File this entry with the above under “albums that are significant for nonmusical reasons.” Save for the Panda Bear collaboration, RAM was a grandiose exercise in analog nostalgia that felt quaint in our digital moment but was nonetheless impossible to ignore. Daft Punk are expert mythologists, and the roll-out campaign for RAM was as entertaining to watch as better records were for listening.
10. Earl Sweatshirt
Nineteen-year-old Earl Sweatshirt shrugged his way through this debut and still affirmed that—MF DOOM aside—he’s the best rapper alive. Doris is, at times, lazy and uninspired, which only helps lift the wunderkind’s lyrical brilliance into higher relief.