Best albums of the year overseas see R&B, rap, slacker sounds of the '90s return to the fold

by Chris Talbott and Mesfin Fekadu


Top 5 albums of the year

Ariana Grande, “Yours Truly”: Executed perfectly (or extremely close to it), there are a few elements to creating a perfect pop album: great songwriting, groovy melodies and vocals that capture and reel you in. With the help of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, 20-year-old Ariana Grande crafted an album that harks back to 1990s R&B and highlights her gorgeous, rich tone that mirrors Mariah Carey and, at times, Toni Braxton. From the hip-hop flavored jam “Right There” to the honeyed ballads “Daydreamin’ ” and “Tattooed Heart,” Grande’s debut is proof that a true star is on the rise. “Yours Truly” is truly a gift.

Dawn Richard, “Goldenheart”: While Danity Kane’s reunion was somewhat exciting, Dawn Richard’s solo project was electrifying. The singer, who was also part of the Diddy-Dirty Money trio, is in perfect form on “Goldenheart,” where she explores various R&B and pop sounds, including beats that are electronic, smooth and down-tempo. The album tells stories of Richard’s struggles in music, the good and bad times in love and more — making for a rousing, breathtaking listen. Each of the 16 tracks flow magically as Richard’s voice blends in, sounding raspy at times and soft at others. Let’s hope Danity Kane doesn’t hold this talent back.

Sara Bareilles, “The Blessed Unrest”: The Grammys got it right — Sara Bareilles’ third release, “The Blessed Unrest,” is one of the year’s best, thanks to its mix of upbeat and classic-sounding piano tunes, all anchored by the performer’s sweet and powerful tone. Bareilles is an exceptional songwriter who puts on a live show that brightens your day — and week. With songs such as the emotional “1000 Times” and the inspirational “Brave,” Bareilles hits all the right notes. Even Katy Perry was impressed.

J. Cole, “Born Sinner”: This year featured anticipated albums from Jay-Z, Kanye West and Drake, but J. Cole has the rap album of the year. “Born Sinner,” his sophomore release, is full of smart rhymes that forces the listener to think. He’s a born winner.

Beyoncé, “Beyoncé”: Yes, Beyoncé’s new album was just released this month, but it’s still one of the best offerings this year. The R&B queen gets major props for literally slapping the world in the face with an album full of progressive R&B tunes that feel fresh and appealing. The impressive batch of tracks — from the addictive numbers “Drunk in Love” and “Blow” to the beautiful and soft “Heaven” — showcase the singer’s growth and easily puts her ahead of the competition. “Beyoncé” is larger than life.

Honorable mentions

Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rap”: When it comes down to it, the best music is all about the ability to cut through great geographical, cultural and musical distances to deliver an emotion or memory that resonates one to one. We spent 2013 trying to find authentic music that taught us about people, that reaffirmed we’re all the same regardless of how much our T-shirts cost. Take Chance the Rapper. “Acid Rap,” the second mix tape from this 20-year-old Chicago MC who turned down all the major labels to tour the country in a beat-up RV, is a stream-of-consciousness epic. It’s full of delightful romps of juvenile delinquency mixed with a few frightening moments that drip with a sense of dread and paranoia. Check out the second half of “Pusha Man” if you want to see what it feels like to be scared all the time. Or take it in the opposite direction with the righteously unhinged “Smoke Again.”

Queens of the Stone Age, “… Like Clockwork”: Josh Homme turned in one of his most nuanced, thoughtful and emotionally powerful albums with this melancholy examination of mortality in what was otherwise a tepid year for rock ‘n’ roll. The music was difficult both thematically — it was written after Homme nearly died during surgery — and technically with upheaval within the band lengthening the recording process.

Earl Sweatshirt, “Doris”: For a while there Earl Sweatshirt was a myth. We finally met the real guy behind the persona on the long-awaited “Doris,” and his music was far more interesting than the buzz that accompanied his yearlong disappearance from public life. Earl tells you more about himself on songs such as favorites “Burgundy” and “Chum” — his feelings about his parents, his friendship with Tyler, the Creator, the claustrophobic crush of attention — than he’s revealed in hours of interviews. It all rolls out in dense, dazzling verses packed with triple meaning with a world view that’s refreshingly honest and devoid of pop aspirations.

Kanye West, “Yeezus”: Angry, sometimes absurd, but endlessly fascinating, “Yeezus” is a punch in the face to the status quo. Grouse all you want about West’s lyrical content, ridiculous statements and outsized ego, the man’s production work is so far in the future you might as well call it science fiction.

Parquet Courts, “Light Up Gold”: We all miss Pavement. Since it looks like Stephen Malkmus and the guys aren’t going to give us new music, we’ve been looking for a suitable replacement. Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts comes the closest to reproducing the elegant anarchy of our ’90s slacker heroes. Songs such as “Master of My Craft,” “Borrowed Time” and favorite “Disney P.T.” remind us of how clever wordplay and minor chords used to make us so happy.