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The best albums of 2013 so far: A mid-year status report

July 04, 2013|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Kacey Musgraves performs on Day 4 of the 2013 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Her recent album, "Same Trailer Different Park," is one of the best of 2013 so far.
Kacey Musgraves performs on Day 4 of the 2013 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival… (Wade Payne/Invision/Associated…)

Given the volume of music released already in 2013, a half-year update on the best so far is assuredly in order. After all, six months in and already Coachella broke records, Lil Wayne was nearly pronounced dead by the press, the Rolling Stones have come and gone, Azaelea Banks still hasn’t released her debut, LL Cool J and Brad Paisley have attempted to solve the problem of race in America, a bunch of Frenchmen have stormed the charts, Beyoncé has stomped across the Super Bowl stage and Snoop Dogg has changed his name to Lion and back again. 

Oh, and Kanye West has declared himself a god and desecrated “Strange Fruit” while releasing a phenomenally produced record that smited (smote?) nearly all his people, especially the women, the fashion purveyors preying on the poor and servants sleeping on his damn croissants.

And within all that drama, roughly 100 trillion hours of new music has been uploaded to the Internet. 

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A very small percentage of this is essential, but so far, 2013 has been a stellar year for surprises both big and small. It’s impossible not to drown in the volume, honestly, and despite a life that affords and encourages voluminous listening, I can’t argue that this list is definitive. But we've got six months to catch up. 

Below are my favorite 11 records of the year so far, in alphabetical order. 

Bombino, “Nomad” (Nonesuch). A shimmering electric guitar record that no fan of the instrument should miss, “Nomad” by young Tuareg musician Bombino is, well, perfect. Overflowing with sonic and lyrical joy, the record, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in Nashville, continues to grow with each listen. Fans of Jimi Hendrix and Amadou & Miriam alike can connect through Bombino. Listen to "Amidinine."

David Bowie, “The Next Day” (Columbia). Close your eyes, pick a song, ignore the release date and the advancing age of its composer and let a random Bowie track on “The Next Day” seep into your head. Be it the riff rock of “Love Is Lost,” with the insistent cry of “What have you done?,” or the next track, “Where Are We Now?,” which asks a similarly huge and unanswerable question, Bowie released in “The Next Day” not only the best album he’s done since the 1970s but also a record that might take over your psyche. Gone are the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust. In its place: the man himself. Maybe for his next album he’ll revert to his birth name, David Jones, and dig deeper into the living, breathing man within.

Chance the Rapper, "Acid Rap." (self-released free download). His name doesn’t lie. The young Chicagoan released his second mixtape, “Acid Rap,” in the spring, and from there it’s been a quick ascent. Currently being courted by virtually every label of note in hip-hop, the lyricist on “Acid Rap” offers a distinctly Midwestern take on what it means to be young, talented and human in 2013. Just listen to "Cocoa Butter Kisses" for quick evidence of a lyricist willing and able to rap about something as touching as missing the scent of cocoa butter on his mom's skin. You can listen to "Cocoa Butter Kisses" on Soundcloud and download the mixtape here.

PHOTOS: Best albums of 2012 | Randall Roberts

Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories" (Columbia). A record that lives up to its hype -- which is saying something -- “Random Access Memories” is a shimmering time capsule, a spinning mirror ball in an orbit that connects the disco of 1977 with the dance tones of 2013. The record is a testament to grand statements in an age of bedroom EDM, proof that laptop auteurs are all well and good but  that something truly magical can arise from a seemingly limitless budget and a community of well-tuned, imaginative ears eager to think big.

Laura Marling, "Once I Was an Eagle," (Ribbon Music). Fans of acoustic guitars and searing lyrics who love a convincing voice and a temperament that’s both fearless and delicate should track down “Once I Was an Eagle.” Produced by Ethan Johns, the record hums with organs that suggest Garth Hudson’s work with the Band, is propelled at times by driving snare and tom toms. Although Marling’s only 23, she’s firmly in command throughout 16 songs. Listen to "Where Can I Go?" below.

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