From ultra-ambitious musical comebacks to hype-surviving debuts to a certain unexpected album released right before the end-of-year buzzer sounded, 2013 contained a beautifully diverse array of full-length statements. After many, many repeated listens, the Billboard staff voted for their favorites in our annual Critics' Picks list. Check out what we chose as the 15 best albums of 2013.
Chance The Rapper, "Acid Rap"
To appreciate Chance The Rapper's brilliant "Acid Rap" mixtape to the fullest extent, one has to listen all the way through "Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro)," the latter bookend of the tape, which begins with the Chicago MC on a phone call with his father, thanking him for his love and support. It's a revealing moment that's followed by a typically rapid-fire rap about the ongoing change in Chance's life, and that juxtaposition between the two halves of the outro exhibits who Chance The Rapper really is: a regular guy with a mesmerizing gift for stringing together rhymes. "Acid Rap" improves upon Chance's "10 Day" mixtape in nearly every way, blasting soul music to the forefront and showcasing the rapper's more outlandish instincts. At the beginning of the year, Chance The Rapper was a relative unknown chatting with his dad about a laptop; at the end of 2013, he was releasing songs with Justin Bieber. - Jason Lipshutz
Lady Gaga, "ARTPOP"
There was the Jeff Koons sculpture, the accompanying app, the shape-shifting performances and the outrageous fashion choices, but the heart of Lady Gaga's "ARTPOP" was a collection of 15 vibrant colors that were uniformly unafraid to exist outside the lines. The slinky sex of "Do What U Want," sneering stomp of "MANiCURE" and exotic sensuality of "Aura" all helped to underline Gaga's versatility, as she strode away from her "Just Dance" persona and delved into more complicated musical matters. "ARTPOP" is the statement of a singer-songwriter who wants to be more than a pop artist, and although the extravagant details surrounding the album cemented Gaga's status as a provocateur, she hasn't lost her touch for creating otherworldly hooks. - Jason Lipshutz
CHVRCHES, "The Bones of What You Believe"
Unlike their Glassnote labelmates Mumford & Sons and Phoenix, Scottish trio CHVRCHES had their respective sound mastered from the get-go, and audiences responded in kind. "The Bones of What You Believe" makes good on the promise of early singles "Recover" and "The Mother We Share" by giving singer Lauren Mayberry more of the full-bodied synth-pop music that works so well underneath her nimble voice. In a crowded fourth quarter that featured a handful of female pop divas unfurling their best assortment of refrains, Mayberry's delicate yet slicing set of pipes made "The Bones of What You Believe" ripe for repeated visits. - Jason Lipshutz
Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City"
Those of us who remember how Vampire Weekend first penetrated the blogosphere -- on a tsunami of hype, with Ivy league-loathing naysayers poised to lash out before ever hearing more than a couple of songs -- can now clearly recognize that the early champions of the band had it right all along. However, no one could have predicted, after absorbing the spunky guitar licks and tales of cross-campus romance on 2008's "Vampire Weekend," that Ezra Koenig and co. would mature into the ace songwriters of "Modern Vampires of the City," exploring themes of love and loss in a manner that's serious without being joyless. Vampire Weekend's first two albums are great listens, but "Modern Vampires of the City" is their first effort that sounds essential. - Jason Lipshutz
Justin Timberlake, "The 20/20 Experience"
After years of fans clamoring for Justin Timberlake to return to music, the pop superstar met those demands with a supremely ambitious full-length. The first part of his two-part "20/20 Experience" series featured Timberlake, alongside producer Timbaland, pushing sonic boundaries with six- to eight-minute songs that keenly explored the depths of R&B and unconditional love. Timberlake captivated and charmed listeners from the beginning of his "20/20" promotional run, with award show performances, TV appearances, buzzing singles (“Suit & Tie,” “Mirrors”) and a collaborative tour with Jay Z. In the end, however, the most memorable aspect of JT's return was the sound of his voice dripping with emotion and inner peace. Welcome back, Justin. - Erika Ramirez
Kacey Musgraves, "Same Trailer Different Park"
2013 found prized Nashville songwriter Kacey Musgraves coming out from behind the scenes and crafting perhaps the year's most unifying album. "Same Trailer Different Park" transcended country music fandom and crossed over into the hearts of pop fans, indie rock diehards and beyond. It's twangy and catchy, sure, but what really made Musgraves' arrow hit the bullseye was her ability to move the listener with her lyrics, which spun tales of dead-end towns, working-class waitresses and friends-with-benefits relationships. Her subjects may seem hopeless at first glance, but Musgraves always injects enough of her winsome charm to make it seem things like will work out in the end. - Chris Payne
Arcade Fire, "Reflektor"
Leave it to Arcade Fire to up the ante after winning a Grammy for album of the year, and then delivering on the hype with another classic. Alternative rock's leading husband and wife duo, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, mused on Greek mythology and oppressed island nations in the follow-up to "The Suburbs," and traded vocals in songs that sound ready to take on the arenas they'll be playing next year. And to prove the band's continued evolution, a famous collaborator, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, pushed Arcade Fire's sound toward more rhythmic boundaries. How great is "Reflektor"? Great enough to (maybe) make one want to abide by the band's friendly request to wear formal attire worn to their upcoming shows. - Chris Payne
The full-length collaboration of singer/producer Mike Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal is a tough sell based on its description: easy-listening love songs with ornate arrangements and a male singer that sounds like Sade. But then you listen to "Woman," and it all makes sense. Rhye offers strong, guileless songwriting instead of studio tricks, letting the flickers of light from Hannibal's production -- a casual beat, some dramatic string flourishes, maybe a stray wind instrument or two -- guide Milosh's elegantly fragile voice. The 10 songs of "Woman" are beautifully drawn and everlasting, making for one of 2013's most pleasant surprises. - Jason Lipshutz
Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories"
Eight years removed from their previous full-length, 2005's underwhelming "Human After All," Daft Punk's return was actually right on time -- thanks, in part, to the revival of a genre that hasn’t thrived in four decades: disco. With Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers riding shotgun on the album’s most danceable songs (“Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky”) and 2013 all-star contributor Pharrell Williams peddling his falsetto, Daft Punk duo Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter showed that, under their robot helmets, they're still a pair of groove-seeking fellas. - Brad Wete
HAIM, "Days Are Gone"
For Exhibit A in this year's "Living Up To The Hype" tour, here's HAIM's debut album, which arrived after a handful of killer singles, must-see festival performances and online tutorials on how exactly to pronounce 'HAIM' (in case you forgot, it rhymes with 'rhyme'). "Days Are Gone" distributed the immediate hooks of early tracks like "Don't Save Me" and "Forever" across a brightly colored album, with producer Ariel Rechtshaid tightening the screws on the ferociously fun rock song "The Wire" as well as "Honey & I," which sounds like the best song Fleetwood Mac never recorded. Este, Danielle and Alana Haim have learned how to flourish in the spotlight after years of playing together in a family band, and no song on "Days Are Gone" shrinks from greatness. - Jason Lipshutz
Drake, "Nothing Was The Same"
Really, what genre does this album even fall into? The question, in regards to Drake's third album — a hybrid of rap and R&B with sprinkles of this and that — doubles as a compliment. In 2013, several heavyweight hip-hop peers (Jay Z, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, J. Cole) dropped new sets, but none can boast an album this innovative, cohesive or flat-out good. There’s the upward mobility banger “Started From the Bottom,” mucking things up with hostility. A few tracks later, the tender “Hold On, We’re Goin' Home” (just a few BPMs shy of being a true ballad) comes in for a hug. Connecting those sentiments requires quality threading. Drake and the set's producer Noah "40" Shebib clearly are excellent tailors. - Brad Wete
Lorde, "Pure Heroine"
One of the best albums of last year, Kendrick Lamar's "good kid, m.A.A.d city," showcased an artist effectively rearranging his genre by emerging with an innovative, fully formed story to tell on his first try. Lamar's first album didn't spawn a single quite as inescapable as Lorde's "Royals" eventually became, but like the Compton rapper, the New Zealand teenager used her first long-player to create a detailed profile of the Outsider life: in this case, in an unseen city, perpetually disenchanted but deeply passionate underneath the eye-rolls. Aided by Joel Little's magnetic trap production, "Pure Heroine" extends the limits of pop music thanks to Lorde's penchant for smart, sticky refrains placed atop hazy beats. Look beyond "Royals," and prepare to be dazzled. - Jason Lipshutz
While American EDM artists cranked out some behemoth singles this year, the English duo of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence curated a staggeringly accomplished debut long-player. When it comes to their respective genre, the Disclosure guys certainly did their homework: if a sound was hot in the dance world, the brothers Lawrence snatched that sound, twisted it next to dozens of other ideas, and manifested that collection into an hour-long album that goes by in seemingly half that time. There are house bangers like "White Noise" built around pummeling production, and then sultry, R&B-tinged jams like "Latch" that showcase the talents of guest vocalists like Sam Smith. On one end, "Settle" is a soundtrack for all the highs and lows of a night out in the city, and on a more serious note, it's probably the trend British dance music will be following for some time. - Chris Payne
Kanye West, "Yeezus"
“Yeezus” is not only Kanye West’s most radical album by a long shot, but one of the sharpest left turns by a major musical artists ever recorded. “Yeezus” transports the listener into the mind of the passionate, polarizing being that is Kanye West, who refuses to conform to expectations at a time in which most artists would rest on their laurels, or muse upon the comfort of a new relationship and impending fatherhood. Instead, West's sixth studio album found ‘Ye aggressively rhyming about his fervid beliefs on social errors, the media’s perception of him and his complex relationship with women, all of which was drenched in unflinching emotion. What makes the opus even more visceral is the progressiveness of the production, which pulled from industrial, techno and acid rap without batting an eye. "Yeezus" was another triumph in a career full of them, and yet again proved that West's artistry should never be underestimated. - Erika Ramirez
Swept away in the hype? Maybe. But really, who isn't crazy in love with Beyoncé right now? It's been less than a week since her fifth solo album parachuted, without warning, into the iTunes store in the dead of night, leaving fans and critics alike in awe of the sheer ballsiness of the move—a superstar releasing their product with zero promotion. Wow, right? That could have been one hell of a failure. It was not.
Sure, a decent amount of time is needed to see past the fog of excitement. We had six days. Not much of a chance to live with it sans rollout (or lack thereof) reverence. But let's try to take a step back and talk music. "Beyoncé" is stellar, standing tall amongst the albums it leapfrogged to land at No. 1 here—accessible enough to appeal to pop ears ("XO"), bizarre and transformative enough with winds and ghostly warbles ("Haunted," "Mine") to qualify as a gorgeous art project. None of the other albums on the list cover as many bases as she does here at as high a performance quality.
Her voice both soars and rumbles about familiar subjects: female empowerment and love. But especially regarding the latter, she delves deeper than ever before—shoveling beneath surface level ditties. That's the key switch-up. Once slightly ajar, Beyoncé knocks the door into her personal life off the hinges on this appropriately self-titled set.
Want to know about additional strength her king provides his queen with an embrace? Conversely, how about the vivid worries she's had about splitting with him? It's all there on "Beyoncé," set to warm, well-curated production from a who's who of hit-makers. This is an album made by a fearless, grown-ass woman—somehow self-assured, stoic, fragile and thoughtful all at once. And for those reasons, she wears the crown. - Brad Wete