Forget decking the halls — for music critics, December is all about making the lists. As 2013 winds down, newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs everywhere have taken to publishing exhaustive lists chronicling the year's best music. But who has time to wade through all those lists. And who are half of these artists?
Here, a guide to some of the most praised and notable albums that have popped up on music publications' year-end lists:
The critical darling: Kanye West, Yeezus
Forget what you think popular music sounds like. Kanye is here to tell you — amid grating industrial synths — that he is a god. While other top 40 artists were content to release half-baked pop music manifestos and uninspired, Samsung-sponsored hip hop this year, Kanye unapologetically embraced the abrasive. The result? An angry, gritty, all-encompassing rap record that truly sounds like nothing else.
The critical darling, UK press edition: Arctic Monkeys, AM
It shouldn't be a surprise that the "quintessentially British" Arctic Monkeys' fifth record topped the year-end list of quintessentially British music publication NME. But AM is by no means an exclusively British experience. From the bluesy, stomping opener of "Do I Wanna Know?" to the quietly anthemic comedown of the album closer "I Wanna Be Yours," AM is a seductive rock album that proves that universal appeal and artistic vision aren't mutually exclusive.
Best debut album: Haim, Days Are Gone
The debut LP from this buzzy trio of Los Angeles sisters is 11 tracks of energetic pop, with hooks so relentlessly addictive they should be given a restraining order. Days Are Gone proves Haim's effortless musical chops, and further emphasizes that while we may consider them newbies, Haim's fast rise from blogged-about band to festival favorite was no accident.
Best album that will actually get radio play: Lorde, Pure Heroine
The full-length debut from the internet's favorite 17-year-old Kiwi pop star proves that Lorde is more than a hit single. Above minimalist beats, Ella Yelich O'Connor's rich alto brings both relatability and elegance to stories of suburban teenagerdom.
Best electronic album for EDM haters: Disclosure, Settle
There are plenty of reasons to fear the mounting popularity of EDM — Disclosure is not one of those. While the Lawrence brothers' tracks are club-ready, they take their cues from genres like deep house and U.K. garage rather than from the of neon-clad mega-DJs that dominate the festival scene. Settle is at turns funky, soulful, and raucous. While Disclosure may simply be pressing buttons during live shows (although that's up for debate), the one thing that's for certain is that Settle pushes all the right ones.
Best self-released album: Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
Despite the fact that it was never released on a record label, Acid Rap has topped many critics' lists this year. And for good reason. The gleefully idiosyncratic and unapologetically offbeat mixtape from the 20-year-old Chicagoan is the perfect trip: It's both rowdy and sobering, spontaneous but also thoughtful. For someone whose lyrics boast about all that acid, Chance's brain is far from fried.
Best under-the-radar indie album: Kurt Vile, Wakin' On A Pretty Daze
On his fifth LP, the Philadelphia native's hypnotic rambling is fully realized and maximized. Throughout the 70-minute odyssey, guitar lines unfurl and weave together, before unraveling completely. It's a record to get lost in, but Kurt will always make sure you get home safe.
Best album you've never heard of: Ka, The Night's Gambit
Brooklyn rapper-producer Ka has perhaps intentionally kept himself out of the spotlight, selling copies of The Night's Gambit on a New York City street corner rather than via iTunes or a major label. But promotional methods aside, it's clear from hearing The Night's Gambit that music is an intensely personal pursuit for Ka. Over dark, obscure samples, Ka austerely delivers hyper-intellectual raps about moral quandaries, religion, and crime with layers of wordplay that reward each re-listen.
Also of note...
Arcade Fire, Reflektor: The Grammy-winning indie rockers made sure that everyone knew about their new, dancier musical aesthetic. It could have been a total promotional faceplant had the music fallen short, but Reflektor has been mostly praised for taking the risk.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: This impeccably produced and overtly retro album from the reclusive French DJ duo feels carefree despite its obsession with the details.