If I had an MBA, I might be better qualified to criticize much of the work that dominated the conversation about music in 2013. The marketing was as essential to the art as the sound of projects like Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, for which the terms of the rollout constituted its great innovation. Released as a download at no cost to consumers of a Samsung app for the purpose, the album had music made like corporate mergers, with nine writers and four producers for a single track. The merchandising was equally integral to the twelfth-hour social-media surprise by Mrs. Z—the self-titled Beyonce, a "visual album" for which the absence of advance hype provided better hype than hype. And so it was for the exercises in cross-exploitation that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus constructed around the singles "Blurred Lines" and "Wrecking Ball"—two masterpieces of tweet-making notionally passing for songs. As mere music, "Wrecking Ball" is not at all bad; but that's irrelevant to its essential purpose as a work of branding and promotion.
Still, the year was strong—exceptionally so, in fact—for music that stands on the merits of its sounds. There was a great deal of fresh and serious music in pop, hip-hop, electronica, rock, jazz, and classically oriented new music, as well as in the hybrids thereof that nearly surpass marketing as the defining art our time. This year, it was easier than usual for me to name ten albums of recorded music that are well worth listening to. Here they are.
1. Darcy James Argue, Brooklyn Babylon
A genre-scrambling piece of programmatic music for 18-piece jazz band, Brooklyn Babylon hangs on the fictional story of a plan to build a gargantuan tower in Brooklyn. It's almost crazily ambitious music about ambition itself. Conceived in collaboration with Danijel Zezelj, a Croatian comics artist and writer, Brooklyn Babylon was produced originally as a multimedia stage piece, though the music hold up on its in the same way (if not quite to the same degree) that Le Sacre holds up without dance.
2. The Blow, The Blow
Deliciously fun and unpretentiously intelligent electronic pop from Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne, a duo out of Olympia, Washington. Aural collages made with thrift-store sounds, shower singing, spoken language, and glittery junk.
3. Kanye West, Yeezus
When I first listened to this album and wrote about it here, I found it oppressive. But I've gone back to it and back again, and I've come to realize that I had been transferring my well placed disgust with Kanye West onto his music. As aural art, Yeezus is so rich and original that it almost justifies its maker's egomania.
4. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
Superbly crafted and terrifically varied 21st-century pop-rock. The hype is right about this one.
5. Wayne Shorter Quartet, Without a Net
Shorter, the living lion of the soprano saxophone, plays not a tired riff or a cliche on this gorgeous and thrilling collection of live recordings made with his longstanding quartet of Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums).
6. The Knells, The Knells
A song cycle of quasi-classical, quasi-psychedelic head music by a group led by Andrew McKenna Lee, a rising new-music guitarist and composer.
7. John Hollenbeck, Songs I Like a Lot
A bravely quirky album of songs from all quarters—the folk standard "Man of Constant Sorrow," Ornette Coleman's "All My Life," Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman"—arranged by the jazz-orchestra leader and percussionist Hollenbeck, and sung by two of the most gifted singers alive, Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann.
8. Mary Halvorson Septet, Illusionary Sea
Non-jazzy jazz by a dazzling guitarist and composer and her septet.
9. Lorde, Pure Heroine
Will she sustain past her teens? Who cares? This album of bleakly tuneful pop laments is twice as interesting as most records made by songwriters twice her age. Grim and assured, sparely textured and smart.
10. Clifford Jordan, The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions
Six CD's of uncompromising music from the early prime of the 1970s' independent jazz movement.
If this list were longer, I would add Sixteen Sunsets by the saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom; North Borders by the electronic producer Bonobo; and Another Self-Portrait, the "Bootleg Series" release of stripped-down tracks from Bob Dylan's early '70s albums Self Portrait and New Morning.