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Top 20 Favorite Albums of 2013

December 11, 2013

2013 was another strong year for music. A considerable amount of rap artists stepped their game up after Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control” shook up the hip-hop world once again. Alternative music got richer and denser in songwriting in contrast to watered-down EDM that dominated the pop charts. Los Angeles artists continued to gain recognition, representing good music for my hometown. Here’s the annual disclaimer for the list:

 

There are many artists who I admire and whose albums I enjoyed that didn’t make the list. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t make good music or were ignored, just that I feel that the artists who appear on this list had stronger cohesive albums. And also, I am just one man; I can not listen to every single album released this year. But from the many many albums that I did listen to this year, this is what I feel are the best.

 

20.  Wolf by Tyler, The Creator [Odd Future 2013]

 

Tyler-The-Creator-Wolf
 
There’s a notable evolution in production and songwriting on Tyler’s follow-up to Goblin. The jazzy keys and psychedelic tone is reminiscent of N.E.R.D. (as referenced on “Slater”). Tyler seems to be growing up, but is relentless in his freedom to be young and carefree. The Wolf-Salem-Sam storyline is continued on this LP. Although, Tyler occasionally falls into character on these songs, this is probably the most personal he’s ever been. On the gorgeously produced “Answer,” the hurt is revealed in Tyler’s voice. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from an artist who perpetually turns his middle finger to anyone who dares to critique or support him. Almost any 20-something year old who’s experienced losing a close grandparent (as I did), can empathize with the death mentioned on the closing track, “Lone.” He still shrugs it off in character at the end and threatens to kill one of his alter-egos. Tyler isn’t just a crass comedian with intentions of surpassing Kanye; he’s a force to be reckoned with artistically. He’s lyrically skilled and produce better than his seasoned competition and peers. Some may say that his maturity and subject matter is what holds him back from reaching the artistic acclaim that he deserves, but it’s also a part of what makes Tyler, The Creator, Tyler, The Creator. Also to be noted, Erykah Badu makes a memorable appearance on “Treehome95” alongside Coco O. from Quadron.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Answer” ~ “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer (feat. Lætitia Sadier & Frank Ocean)” ~ “Lone”

 

19. Nothing Was The Same by Drake [OVO Sound/Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records/Republic Records 2013]

 

Drake-Nothing-Was-The-Same2

 

Drake spent the last three years gloating in the spotlight as hip-hop’s dominant contemporary rapper. As his radio singles became more abundant and less passionate, more of his mixtape-era fans started to tune out. Drake wasn’t oblivious to the backlash. He spends the first six minutes of the album rapping his ass off about how far he’s come in his career and why he feels he’s one of the greatest. The Wu-Tang references and samples provide a hint of nostalgia for other ‘80s babies and Gen X hip-hoppers. It becomes most evident how game-changing Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city was when listening to albums with the same type of ambition as Nothing Was The Same (post-GKMC hip-hop). Now rappers want to remind people that they have something to prove, lyrically. It’s refreshing to hear Drake rap in depth and candidly about his real life; it’s far more interesting, far easier to empathize with than his ‘money, cars, hoes’ flows. “From Time” he raps “My mother is 66 and her favorite line to hit me with is ‘Who the fuck wants to be 70 and alone?’”  That line strikes a cord because it’s real; it’s a reality we all have to deal with if we’re lucky enough to live that long. Drake haven’t had this kind of intimacy with his fans since before he signed to Young Money. Then, he was a charismatic eager rapper wrapping up his filming for Degrassi. Now, he’s one of hip-hop’s most successful artists with an acting career that’s seemingly a distant memory. Nothing was the same after his fame climbed new heights, but he’s wise enough to know he can navigate his way through adulthood and celebrity, no matter what curveballs are thrown his way.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Wu-Tang Forever” ~ “Worst Behavior” ~ “From Time (feat. Jhene Aiko)”

 

18. Woman by Rhye [Polydor/Republic Records 2013]

 

Rhye-Woman
 
In some ways, local Los Angeles-based duo Rhye is reminiscent of Beach House if they had more upbeat and polished production. In other ways they can be heard as an indie reincarnation of Sade. All comparisons aside, their music presents a familiar sound that still stands on its own two feet. Singer, Milosh, smoky crooning is androgynous and laid back over plush instrumentation. Like many of their contemporaries, their potential for growth and prominence is definitely there.

Favorite 3 tracks: “The Fall” ~ “Shed Some Blood” ~ “One of Those Summer Days”

 

17.  Born Sinner by J. Cole [Roc Nation/Columbia Records 2013]

 

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Drake isn’t the only rapper that have something to prove in the post-GKMC era of hip-hop. On J. Cole’s sophomore studio album he explains why he needed to balance his career with commercial songs and more potent fan-favorites. Like Drake, he also pays homage to his hip-hop idols (Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest), by sampling a few classic songs from them. “Let Nas Down” took his tribute to the next level, even engaging Nas to respond with a remix track (“Made Nas Proud”). J. Cole is one out of a handful of successful young rap artists to tackle rhyming and producing; he’s more than efficient at doing both. Whereas Tyler, the Creator (another rapper/producer) tracks sound more contemporary, J. Cole offers recent throwbacks in the vein of College Dropout-era Kanye. He doesn’t let go of his commercial appeal, but similar to Drake he’s talented and aware of the extent of his potential.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Runaway” ~ “Chaining Day” ~ “Let Nas Down”

 

16. Apocalypse by Thundercat [Brainfeeder 2013]

 

Thundercat

 

Stuck somewhere in between obscurity and influencing a subculture gone mainstream, the Brainfeeder label continues to drop hidden gems. Thundercat shines front and center on his sophomore studio album as a soulful vocalist and musician. “Oh Sheit It’s X” had pop appeal to it that seemed more natural and funky than the year’s biggest hit, “Blurred Lines.” Flying Lotus even tweeted in a competitive yet playful manner “When I heard people trippin on the new daft punk song I said to myself. Wait till they hear this new @Thundercatbass” (referring to the other summer hit “Get Lucky;” Pharrell would later redeem himself with the magnificent single “Happy”). Thundercat may not have crossed over, but he definitely showed that he’s capable of writing songs that should be crossover material. A part of Brainfeeder’s charm is its artists modest approach to making music and developing an authentic connection with their fans. Flying Lotus production blooms on this album; it’s familiar but still ambitious. “Oh Sheit It’s X” is a part of FlyLo FM on the Grand Theft Auto 5 video game. The album closes with a tribute to the late, talented, and young Brainfeeder artist Austin Peralta  who passed away a little over a year ago. Thundercat hanged out with him the night before he died. He expressed his grief about Austin’s death on Twitter throughout the year. I had the fortunate experience of seeing Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Austin play live in Hollywood a few years ago. The three had a creative chemistry that was undeniable.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” ~ “Oh Sheit It’s X” ~ “A Message For Austin/Praise The Lord/Enter The Void”

 

15. Anything In Return by Toro y Moi [Carpark 2013]

 

Toro-Y-Moi-Anything-In-Return1

 

Heartbreak and love often fuels great music. Toro y Moi wanted to write songs that his girlfriend would like; the romantic tone on the LP is an indication of that. Part of the reason why these are the most accessible songs in Chad Bundick’s catalogue is because of his drive to impress his girlfriend. What resulted was an album with an authentic retro ‘90s house feel and funky midtempo grooves . Chad sounds comfortably confident in his crafts and continues to excel as a songwriter.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Say That” ~ “So Many Details” ~ “High Living”

 

14.  Obsidian by Baths [Anticon 2013]

 

Baths

 

In a similar way as James Blake, Will Wiesenfeld as Baths is great at building a unique eccentric world of sounds. The local LA artist’s third studio album is much darker than his previous efforts. It’s also an upgrade all the way around in songwriting. He seems more focused, his singing voice sounds improved, the production at times is cutting edge. In the ‘post-Frank Ocean’ indie music world, Baths confidently sings about his very human struggles he’s endured in his same-sex interactions. He sings about the tumultuous relationship with his first boyfriend on “Incompatible.” He acknowledges the emptiness in one night stands on “No Eyes” even demanding the love interest in the song to “Come and fuck” him. The dilemma of settling in the gay community is a real one, as Baths cleverly illustrates in some of these songs. Orientation aside, he’s a talented artist who’s bound to ascend in his career as long as he stays true to his crafts.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Worsening” ~ “Miasma Sky” ~ “Ironworks”

 

13.  Feel Good by The Internet [Odd Future 2013]

 

TheInternet_FeelGood_608x608

 

Queer artists continue to gain more visibility in the independent music world. Syd tha Kyd of the Odd Future collective turns up her sensuality and musicianship alongside Matt Martians on The Internet’s sophomore studio LP. The title of the album is a reflection of how you should feel while listening to the best grooves the duo has ever come up with. Feel Good  is a bright euphoric soulful summer record. It’s a total upgrade from the stale generic tunes of the third-tier of neo-soul singers from 10 years ago. Syd’s smooth sultry voice pairs nicely with the stellar instrumentation. This would be the year that Odd Future finally started to outgrow their reputation as immature goofy kids from LA that only aimed to offend. Notably missing from Feel Good are songs like “Cocaine;” it’s more earnest this time (though Purple Naked Ladies is awesome).

Favorite 3 tracks:  “Dontcha” ~ “You Don’t Even Know (feat. Tay Walker)” ~ “Runnin’ (feat. Tay Walker)”

 

12. No Poison No Paradise by Black Milk [Computer Ugly/Fat Beats 2013]

 

black-milk-no-poison-cover

 

2013 definitely seemed like the year of producer rappers. Black Milk, one of hip-hop’s  most truly underrated rappers, continues to lyrically slay while avoiding contemporary rap trends. His  production is soulful, but not in the way J. Cole’s is. As a producer, Black Milk sounds more like a descendent of ?uestlove or The Ummah. Lyrically, he’s just as competent as anyone signed to Top Dawg Entertainment. Black Thought, Robert Glasper, and Dwele’s contributions to the album are among its highlights.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Sunday‘s Best” ~ “Monday’s Worst” ~ “Perfected On Puritan Ave.”

 

11.  Love In The Future by John Legend [GOOD/Columbia 2013]

 

vibe-john-legend-love-in-the-future

 

As Jamie Foxx rode across the plains on a horse, a powerful soulful voice shouted and crooned temporarily stealing the scene. “Who Did That To You” was a soundtrack cut from Quentin Tarantino’s slavery epic Django Unchained. John Legend then released the stunning promotional single “Who Do We Think We Are” featuring Rick Ross. The future of soul sounds sophisticated and exotic on John Legend’s follow up to 2008’s Evolver. Yeezus might not had been his strongest effort, but Kanye West’s best production this year is on Love In The Future. “Caught Up” sounds like a Kanye B-Side from the Dropout Bear days. A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip blessed the album with his production on “Tomorrow.”

Some people dismiss John Legend because they think that he lost his touch after crossing over to being a commercial artist. There are songs on the album like “All of Me” and “Save The Night” that have an element of cheesiness to them. It’s a turn off to people on the fence with John Legend or unfamiliar with his discography. Those same people miss out when they reject him ignoring gorgeous gems like “So Gone” and “Aim High” (on the deluxe edition of the album).

Favorite 3 tracks: “Who Do We Think We Are (feat. Rick Ross)” ~ “Tomorrow” ~ “Aim High”

 

10. Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails [The Null Corporation/Columbia 2013]

 

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Hesitation Marks is a scratchy rhythmic journey with tunes that show off Nine Inch Nail’s signature sound as well as Trent Reznor’s contemporary experimentations (“Satellite” and “Everything”). Reznor’s music often resonates more with rockers than club-goers, but he’s clearly capable of putting together catchy foot-tapping music (such as “Only”). His dance tracks have a layer of edge to them that maintains a constant flirtation with darkness. It is one of the defining characteristics of NIN that differentiated it from Radiohead’s own eccentric style of fusing rock and electronic music. Some of Trent’s musical explorations on this album may draw comparisons to Thom Yorke’s output, but needless to say, Trent Reznor holds his own and have for many years.

Favorite 3 tracks: “All Time Low”  ~ “Everything” ~ “Satellite”

Check out this full live concert from Nine Inch Nails at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

 

9. Matangi by M.I.A. [N.E.E.T./Interscope 2013]

 

M.I.A.-Matangi-608x608

 

M.I.A. stuck up a big middle finger to the mainstream music industry with the release of 2010’s Maya. She was an artist confident in her eccentricity who was being  questioned and scrutinized by conventional American listeners. She dropped a mixtape at the very end of that year (Vicki Leekx), bringing back the kind of high-energy dance tracks that made people fall in love with her music. Matangi, stylistically, contains all of the elements present on her previous albums and mixtapes. It also reflects her musical growth; “Bad Girls,” produced by Danja, may be the best single she’s released to date. To compete with that is “Bring the Noize,” which features her best rapping on record.

She spits “Truth is like a rotten tooth, you gotta spit it out” encouraging listeners to fight against the war of misinformation. Even after it was proved that M.I.A. was indeed correct about her accusations that Google was connected to the United States government (“The Message“), people still question her political messages. A lot of hip hop fans discomfort with M.I.A. is because she presents her political music in a lot less conventional manner than Public Enemy. It doesn’t mean that the things that she is saying aren’t true. She’s gotten a lot of unfair backlash from white male hipsters in the States, presumably sexist and racist resistance to an assertive woman of color. She points this out on “Boom Skit” in the opening lines (“Brown girl, brown girl/Turn your shit down/You know all America don’t wanna hear your sound/Boom boom, jungle music/Go back to India”).

Matangi is a fun listen from start to finish, it’s a ride of eastern dance jams with spiritual Hindu overtones. Her music is a fusion of deeply relevant political subversion and eccentric club-bangers. Whether it’s for you or not, it’s resonating with many other people out there in the world who live their lives coloring outside of the lines.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Warriors” ~ “Bad Girls” ~ “Bring The Noize

 

8. …Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age [Matador/Rekords Rekords 2013]

 

QOTSA

 

In high school, Songs For The Deaf was one of my most favorite albums. I was hooked to Josh Homme’s dark psychedelic heaviness. Ten years later, Queens of the Stone Age has inevitably evolved, yet still maintains a familiar signature sound. The harmonizing and softer melodies sprinkled throughout the album are among the band’s best efforts. Elton John even makes an uncredited cameo on “Fairweather Friends.” QOTSA always had a stroke of genius in their music; it’s what made Homme stand out from other Southern Californian rockers in the ‘90s. As his career progress and he becomes an older man, his output grows stronger in quality. He’s a bottle of wine from Generation X. Part-time drummer Dave Grohl made contributions to the album, as well as former bassist Nick Oliveri on “If I Had A Tail.”

Favorite 3 tracks: “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory” ~ “My God is The Sun” ~ “Kalopsia”

 

7. Doris by Earl Sweatshirt [Tan Cressida/Columbia 2013]

 

earl-sweatshirt-doris-1376338988

 

Earl is another under-appreciated producer rapper appearing on this year’s list. Behind the crass humor of the Odd Future collective is a group of gifted young artists who are serious when it comes to their individual skills. On Earl’s debut album he exemplifies why he isn’t just a background rapper in a music clique (notice his album ranks higher than Tyler’s, and Wolf was a solid album). Doris includes one of the best beats of Tyler’s career on the track “Whoa.” My most favorite hip-hop album of the year comes from a small-framed alternative kid from Los Angeles who hid behind no gimmicks; he just stayed true to himself and told his story.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Sunday (feat. Frank Ocean)” ~ “Whoa (feat. Tyler, The Creator)” ~ “Knight (feat. Domo Genesis)”

 

6. Regions of Light and Sound of God by Jim James [ATO Records 2013]

 

Jim-James-Regions-Of-Light-And-Sound-Of-God

 

Regions of Light and Sound of God is in a completely different lane than Jim James’s work with My Morning Jacket. All of the top shelf spacey ambiance and bouncy grooves heard on MMJ albums are magnified and fine-tuned on this one. James is versatile enough to work comfortably with both The Decemberists and The Roots in his career. His voice also sounds great over dance beats (check out his excellent A.E.I.O.U.R.E.M.I.X.E.S EP also released this year). Regions achieves sounding state of the art without trying too hard. It is an example of the type of art that separates the brilliant from the wannabes. James sang on “Wordless Chorus” eight years ago “We are the innovators/They are the imitators.” He lived up to his boast.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Know Til Now” ~ “All is Forgiven” ~ “God‘s Love to Deliver”

 

5. Overgrown by James Blake [ATLAS/A&M/Polydor Records 2013]

 

james_blake_overgrown

 

Multiple layers of an eerie soulful voice wash over the ears of listeners on James Blake’s sophomore LP. The 25 year old English producer/singer/songwriter has always been at the vanguard of the cutting edge in electronic music. His self-titled debut album earned him widespread critical acclaim for his idiosyncratic experimentation and innovation. Like others on this list, his songwriting has become more developed from the first album to the second. He’s capable of channeling either Nina Simone or the Aphex Twin; his piano ballads are just as poignant as his club beats are infectious. Legendary ambient artist and producer Brian Eno even collaborated with him on “Digital Lion.” “To The Last” and “Our Love Comes Back” are gorgeous abstract ballads. Jim James’s line from “Wordless Chorus” couldn’t be more relevant for the British James’s album as well.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Retrograde” ~ “Digital Lion (feat. Brian Eno)” ~ “Voyeur”

 

4. Hummingbird by Local Natives [Frenchkiss 2013]

 

Hummingbird

 

By the hair on my chin, I was able to get into the album release show for Hummingbird held at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. Local Natives puts the same perfection and passion heard on their recorded songs into their live performances, stage or found space (see the alternative live version of “You & I”). I was introduced to the newer songs on the album for the first time hearing them live. The LA-based band doesn’t shy away from sensitivity. Their sophomore album carries a much more somber tone than Gorilla Manor. In 2011, bassist Andy Hamm parted ways with the band. Expressed throughout the album is the grief front man Kelcey Ayer endured while losing his mother to cancer. The obstacles of the band members are reflected in tracks such as “Three Months” and “Colombia.” The latter featuring the heart-tugging lines “Patricia, every night I ask myself/Am I giving enough?/Am I loving enough?/Am I?” (Patricia is the name of Ayer’s mother). Gorilla Manor was a snapshot of youth and beauty under the Californian sun; Hummingbird is its rebuttal in a way, confirming that the grass is never greener on the other side. It was an acknowledgment that adulthood is a packaged deal that comes with loss and disappointment as well as personal freedom.

Favorite 3 tracks: “You & I” ~ “Black Spot” ~ “Three Months”

Check out more live performances of songs from the entire album.

 

3. AM by Arctic Monkeys [Domino 2013]

 

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One of the beautiful things about living in a post-Gen X music world is the irony of  alternative rock bands being influenced by Dr. Dre and Aaliyah. The Arctic Monkeys were inspired by urban American artists of the ’90s for their fifth studio album; AM can easily be considered the band’s R&B album. “Mad Sounds” is like a long lost Lou Reed song (who unfortunately passed away this past October). Splashes of David Bowie and The Beatles can be heard on “No. 1 Party Anthem.” Alex Turner’s songwriting ability is on point; this album contains some of the best collection of songs in the band’s catalogue. I saw the Arctic Monkeys live at Coachella 2007. Back then they were still a new young energetic indie rock band. I remember there being a huge buzz around them. Some critics scoffed and wrote them off as temporary hype. The Arctic Monkeys has blown my mind with their evolution over the years, growing better album to album.

Favorite 3 tracks: “One For The Road“ ~ “I Want It All” ~ “No. 1 Party Anthem”

 

2. The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae [Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy Records 2013]

 

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Electric Lady introduced fans to the prequel of the Cindy Mayweather storyline in Janelle Monae’s fictional music world of Metropolis. 2013 has proved to be the year of strong comebacks for artists releasing their sophomore efforts. Electric Lady has more accessible songs than The ArchAndroid, but it doesn’t sound compromised; Janelle is still as eclectic as she wants to be. Her guest features are perfectly placed; Prince, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel, Erykah Badu, and Solange fit naturally into the songs they’re featured on. Monae’s strongest vocal performances to date are on this album (see “Victory”). The Wondaland Arts Society is turning out to be the crème of the crop from my generation of artists. Their blend of retro and futuristic is flawlessly executed. Monae is a powerful positive symbol of women empowerment, getting her message across without having to be preachy or provocative. She’s thought-provoking and catchy at the same time (similar to how Mr. Curtis Mayfield was throughout his career). She is a descendent of the Prince/James Brown/P-Funk/Jackson 5 family of music. She wears her influences well, but maintains her own voice and identity.

I saw her in concert last month with the very talented Roman GianArthur and Deep Cotton; it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to in my life. Sharp psychedelic guitar riffs cut through the air throughout the night. The live brass section reminded me of why it’s so much more refreshing to see musicians on stage instead of playback music (though I understand touring limitations). Janelle’s full of energy while performing and had an endurance that carried her past two encores.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Givin Em What They Love (feat. Prince)”  ~ “Electric Lady (feat. Solange)” ~ “Victory”

 

1. A Love Surreal by Bilal [eOne 2013]

 

bilal_a_love_surreal

 

Bilal spent a good amount of time in his career providing guest vocals for other artists. His own albums have been met with strong critical acclaim. Bilal is a brilliant songwriter. He’s worked with both Beyonce and Jay Z, Thundercat, and his Okayplayer comrades, The Roots. Despite being a well-respected artist in the industry, he’s still relatively obscure to many out there in the mainstream music world. He’s been compared to Prince, D’Angelo, Van Hunt, and other exceptionally talented male singer-songwriters. He puts every fiber of his soul into his performances, whether he’s quietly crooning or wailing. Bilal is another artist with a great versatility, easily bending his voice to suit whatever genre he peruses. “Sleeping Away” is Funkadelic in Little Richard drag; “Lost For Now” and “Butterfly” are notable highlights.

I also had the opportunity to catch Bilal in concert this past Spring. As with Janelle, it was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He’s a powerful performer that at times sounded better in person than he did in his recordings. A Love Surreal is Bilal’s strongest album so far. It’s not only an artistic peak in his career, but it’s representative of the high quality songwriting an inclusive generation of artists put out in 2013.

Favorite 3 tracks: “Slipping Away” ~ “Astray” ~ “Butterfly (feat. Robert Glasper)”

 

Honorable Mentions

If my list was a Top 30 one (as last year‘s was), these would be the albums that would fill the ten spots. I don’t necessarily feel that these albums are inferior, they just didn’t make the Top 20 numerical ranking. I break down my criteria track-by-track, album-by-album and assign a numerical score to each song. Run The Jewels and Danny Brown released excellent albums this year. Even Big Sean, an artist I initially wasn’t much of a fan of , stepped his game up and reminded people why he decided to become a rapper. A$AP Rocky flowed like a pro throughout his entire album. The Knife’s experimentation on their latest album is awesome. Eminem rapped his ASS OFF on the Marshal Mathers LP 2; it is some of his best tongue-twisting spitting in his whole career. What dragged his score down are the bad choices in hooks and choruses for the songs. Danny Brown’s Old would have placed at #21 if the list continued.

Update: At midnight on December 13 (after the publication of this list) Beyoncé released a surprise self-titled album with 17 music videos to accompany it, exclusively through iTunes. The album would have placed within the Top 10 if it was included above. Check out an extensive interactive review with an essay about feminism following it.

beyonce_album_cover

Danny Brown – Old
Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels
Talib Kweli – Prisoner of Conscious
Eminem – The Marshal Mathers LP 2
A$AP Rocky – Long. Live. A$AP
The Knife- Shaking the Habitual
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Kid Cudi – Indicud
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Big Sean – Hall of Fame

Other artists who fell outside of the Top 30 that made albums that I really liked are MGMT, Boards of Canada, Junip, Savages, and Arcade Fire.

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