You could argue that this has already been a fairly list-heavy year before we’d even got to the music roundups that are now de-rigueur in December. But here at The Outmost we like to stick to tradition and given that we’ve already counted down albums the last two years, why stop now?
As always this is a pop-skewed list. Kanye’s Yeezus and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories have had critical raves all year, and everyone from David Bowie to Arcade Fire have soaked up their share of reviewer buzz. Given that so few music writers tend to give pop music any weight it seems fitting to actually do so here. Perhaps you’ll find a new favourite or you’ll just think I’m a taste vacuum but either way these albums stood out on my replay list all year.
Rankings are hard to do with this kind of thing of course and though they didn’t make the shortlist honourable mentions must go out to Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady, Pet Shop Boys’ Electric, HAIM’s Days are Gone, just a few of a number of albums that lived up to hype. I just didn’t have them on my own personal “replay all year” list.
10. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
I was dimly aware of Grant’s name before this album but not really his work. As soon as the end-of-year rumblings about his current album built up I gave it a spin on Deezer and was thoroughly impressed. His following from time in The Czars and 2010’s solo effort Queen of Denmark mean Grant already has a loyal audience. But this release, which touches on his relationship troubles, his HIV status and includes plenty of sharp humour will likely win over even more. There’s an subtle synth pop and electronic flourish driving this whole album and despite Grant’s popularity amongst musos it’s also got an impressive hook-y feel that draws you into the work. The appearance of Sinéad O’Connor on a number of tracks only adds to the experience.
9. Disclosure – Settle
They’ve been the critical darlings of commercial dance music for a couple of years now and this was the year Disclosure went stellar. Sure the production and press around them makes Disclosure seem like another too-cool-for-school blog friendly dance act but their shiny hit singles and clever choice of guest vocalists shows their uncanny knack for mixing the cool and the commercial. From the pulsing, immediate energy of When A Fire Starts to Burn to the pop sheen of White Noise this is consistent, engaging and thoroughly danceable all the way through (something some dance acts struggle to do over an LP length). Believe the hype.
8. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Like Disclosure, AlunaGeorge was a hipster-friendly dance act who prepared a mainstream assault that would move them from 2012 buzz act to 2013 popstars. And like Disclosure their forward-thinking production ideas couldn’t mask that are their heart this was an act that understood slinky pop hooks. Unlike Disclosure, the R&B feel of AlunaGeorge gives them a different energy not least on their mix of tempos throughout. For all the impressive twists and turns that characterised the beats underpinning each track it’s the warm feel of Aluna’s vocals and winks to R’n’B’s prime that drive proceedings. Whether it’s on the low-key but impressive glow of Outlines to the Destiny’s Child-esque Superstar this was an album that impressed and built on the promise of still-great singles like You Know You Like It.
7. Natalia Kills – Trouble
Natalia Kills has been flitting around the outskirts of the pop charts for a few years now including releasing an enjoyable but flawed debut in 2011 that felt too much a copycat Lady Gaga piece to really enjoy. On her underrated follow up she jettisons the squeaky clean synth pop posturing for a moody pop effort that does the dark, personal but utterly catchy thing many big names promised but never delivered in 2013. Kills threatens to disappear up her own character at times but there’s a brutal honesty to the chilling Saturday Night or the Phil Spector-y Boys Don’t Cry that reels you in. And there’s the kind of brassy and bold energy many pop divas could learn from on the Sleigh Bells-goes-pop stomp of Trouble and tongue-in-cheek Rabbit Hole. An album that deserves a bigger audience.
6. Selena Gomez – Stars Dance
Whether it was slapping a fake band name alongside her previous pop outup or her squeaky clean image there was something stopping Selena Gomez from stepping into the pop big leagues, despite some excellent singles. And although her pal Miley Cyrus got all the attention for her reinvention this year, Gomez’s foray into a more grown up sound was for more enjoyable. Sure there’s plenty of the souped-up rave pop moments that are falling out of fashion, but they work far better here than with other similar starlets. As a collection of brash, engaging blockbuster pop this was one of the year’s best. Lead single Come and Get It helped her crossover to new fans. But the Girls Aloud meets dance stomp of Slow Down, the Sleigh Bells does Britney (perhaps Selena and Natalia Kills are both fans) shine of Birthday and the rousing Forget Forever showed that what Gomez lacked in controversy she made up for in giant singles in waiting. Great fun.
5. Little Boots – Nocturnes
A few years back Little Boots was arriving to plenty of big major label promises. While she never quite found favour with the charts the way she’d promised her second album finds her carve out an alternative pop niche that suits her perfectly. Mining house, disco and her own ear for a good chorus Nocturnes is both filled full of earworm tunes and sleek production. There’s the melancholic Motorway which slowly whirls into your brain, the still-impressive stomp of Shake and the disco-bounce of Beat Beat which show the breadth of Little Boots new direction. You may have written her off at all the over the top buzz a few years back but this is an artist still deserving of your attention.
4. Tamar Braxton – Love and War
There’s been plenty of talk about the futuristic / indie-friendly side to R’n’B that’s emerged over the last few years. Critics rave about The Weeknd, Frank Ocean et al and rightfully so. But a well put together R’n’B release that doesn’t try to out do that style can still work when it’s done right. Tamar Braxton may be a reality TV favourite and sister of well-known star Toni Braxton but on this album she uses an impressive voice and a clutch of great songs as her selling point. There’s shimmering, radio-ready pop in The One and the Rihanna-esque Hot Sugar, and there’s also some brilliant balladry in the melodramatic swing of the title track. Braxton emotes in all the right places, and it’s the kind of well played pop listen that puts bigger names to shame.
3. Ciara – Ciara
She’s already on her fifth album and Ciara continues to be a purveyor of consistently interesting pop music that takes R’N’B textures and fires them through with a Janet Jackson level of crossover appeal. This album saw her return to chart favour in the US somewhat but did little business here. It’s a shame as the slinky Body Party is a slow jam that could rival the 90s R’n’B heyday, Overdose is a gleaming pop nugget that deserves to be number one everywhere while Nicki Minaj does one of her best verses in aeons on I’m Out (And appears on the pop gem Livin’ It Up too). Despite a delayed release and back and forth over it ever arriving Ciara is a lean and well played body of work that flitters over a number of styles while all feeling like Miss Ciara herself is still in charge.
2. Lady Gaga – ARTPOP
Whether you were over her or actually kind of glad to still have her, this was a strange year for Lady Gaga. Despite numerous female pop acts hyping up big projects Gaga’s schtick still seemed to grate more than most. Sure, her art-school lite posturing is eye-roll inducing but doing everything to eleven has always been part of the Lady Gaga package. On ARTPOP she may not be doing the kind of artistic avant-garde pop she promises, but what she does is energetic and intense dance pop that scatters hooks at you every chance it gets. The thumping dance beats feel a tad stale at times, but there’s enough inherent Gaga-ness to reel you back in. The glam-rock wink of MANiCure is addictive, Do What U Want is electro-R’n’B genius and Donatella is pure camp thrills and all the better for it. Sexxx Dreams meanwhile shows off a slinky side to the star while Dope is the first song to properly strip back the noise and let Gaga hit you with some emotion. A heady mix of kooky ideas and blockbuster pop magic, ARTPOP may not be as ambitious as it thinks but it sure is a lot of fun.
1. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
This time last week I wouldn’t have thought this album would be available to hear never mind sitting at the top of my list. And while it’s got the shortest time with my ears of these releases it’s also one I know I’ll be coming back to well into next year. Beyoncé’s fifth album may have arrived all of a sudden last week but there is no rushed effort. Taking her cues from 2011’s underrated 4 this sees Miss Knowles take things in a thoroughly interesting direction that eschews some of bigger pop touches that have typified previous releases. Thanks to well chosen collaborators and willingness to let her guard down it works brilliantly. There’s ballads that elevate her already impressive tear-jerker on Jealous, Pretty Hurts and the stellar XO. There’s a fragility and honesty in Mine and Heaven that’s new for her and wonderful to hear. And there’s plenty of eye-popping but thoroughly believable sexuality on Partition, Rocket and the disco-pop cut Blow. The current hype will assert that this is Beyoncé reasserting her mantle as a pop icon but the real joy is in how she’s made a consistent and boundary pushing album that still maintains the sort of accessible quality that pop music excels at.
Album streams via Deezer Ireland.
Written by Conor Behan
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