This Summer in ... Music
SONG OF THE SUMMER: Robin Thicke
Seven years after "Lost Without U," Robin Thicke came back in a big way with "Blurred Lines," the song that will probably be remembered as 2013's song of the summer. Vagrantly misogynistic lyrics aside, the song was everywhere: even former Secretary of State Colin Powell couldn't escape its charm.
BEST DANCE MUSIC: Daft Punk
The robot-men of Daft Punk got the summer off to a roaring start with Random Access Memories, their first studio album since 2005's Human After All. With a far smaller electronic influence than their previous work, Random Access Memories' vintage vibe felt like the auditory version of a walk on Venice Beach boardwalk in the 1970's. The first single "Get Lucky" got all the love, but "Lose Yourself to Dance" (also featuring Pharrell) is the effortlessly sexy stuff dancehall dreams are made of.
BIGGEST COMEBACK: Ciara
We've all got fond memories of "Goodies"-era Ciara. But then something happened and we almost never heard from her again. Ciara will tell you it was Jive Records (her record label which she successfully petitioned to be released from in 2011), but we know the truth, it was Bow Wow. Now, having dropped both the label and the boyfriend, she's back in a big way. Ciara's self-titled fifth album dropped in July, and while it may not have been a major hit sales-wise, it is a massive success. The entire 11-song CD is sexy, clever and a complete joy to listen to. Highlights include "Body Party," "I'm Out" (featuring Nicki Minaj and a killer, "Scream"-inspired music video) and "Super Turnt Up" which Ciara produced herself. Welcome back CiCi.
MOST EXCITING: Janelle Monáe
Without even releasing an album, Janelle Monáe was the most exciting artist this summer. Though we've still got 9 days until The Electric Lady comes out, the three songs she's released off it so far have all been outstanding. "Q.U.E.E.N." features Erykah Badu in a delicious funk-fest, "Dance Apocalyptic" is the party anthem of the summer and "Primetime" with Miguel is the sexiest thing since, well, Ciara. The rest of the CD features appearances from Prince, Solange Knowles, Big Boi, Cee Lo Green and Esperanza Spalding (you'll remember her as the one who beat Justin Bieber that one time). She's proven herself to be sonically diverse, quirky, talented, conceptual and, most importantly, fun as hell to listen to.
BEST ALBUM: Kanye West
Recall, if you will, a time in early June. North West was born a month early and Yeezus dropped; Kanye West was all anyone could talk about. The CD was, in a word, divisive. There were no obvious singles on its 10-song track list. And while it maybe lacked its "Gold Digger" moment, it was a feat of artistry: dark, haunting and sharp. Yeezus wasn't intended for radio play, it was intended to be listened to in its entirety. As much as he yammers about being an artist, Kanye proved it with Yeezus.
BIGGEST UNDERDOG: J. Cole
If Yeezus was the critical darling of the summer, J. Cole certainly didn't notice. His latest, Born Sinner, was released the same day as Kanye's CD and outsold it in its third week to take the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart. The album, which was largely self-produced, features deeply personal content. J. Cole is both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, and it works to his benefit.
MOST PROVOCATIVE: Miley Cyrus
The former teen queen has twerked her way into our nightmares this summer with the inescapable "We Can't Stop" and an even more inescapable VMAs performance. Love her or hate her, Miley Cyrus has proved herself to be a master provocateur. But here's the thing, just a few hours before she hijacked a week-long news cycle in a set of latex underwear, Cyrus released another song from her upcoming album, the regrettably named Bangerz. It's called "Wrecking Ball" and it's, well, it's fantastic. Cyrus sounds great here: mature, vulnerable, the song is dripping with emotion. "Wrecking Ball" is so good, it has me, dare I say it, anticipating the full album. (Get the lyrics to the song at Directlyrics.)
MOST MEH: Lady Gaga
After a long hiatus -- thanks in part to a hip injury which required surgery and sidelined the reigning Queen Weirdo of Pop -- Lady Gaga returned to her ever-faithful fans this summer. First there was the leak of "Aura" (or maybe "Burqa"). Then Gaga released "Applause" early after it, too, was leaked. Both songs were notably lackluster, leaving me less than excited for ARTPOP, due out this fall. But remember how much fun "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" were?
MOST CATCHY: Katy Perry
August 2013 set up a major diva-off between Gaga and Katy Perry, both of whom are preparing to release new albums this fall. Thus far, the only full song we've heard from Prism is "Roar." It's not the type of song you fall in love with immediately, but it's one you find yourself humming and before you know it, you're listening to it several times a day on YouTube... or so I've heard. In other words, it's quintessential Katy Perry.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Anna Kendrick
If four years ago you'd have told me the Oscar nominated Up in the Air star would record a chart-topping summer smash, I'd have told you to shove it Up in the You-Know-Where. But here we are, and here Anna Kendrick is. "Cups" is certainly the unexpected hit of the summer. Originally recorded as her character from Pitch Perfect's acapella choir audition piece, the full version was buoyed into success via downloads on iTunes. It peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot 100.
BIGGEST SELL-OUT: Jay Z
Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z's first solo album in four years (and his fourth since his retirement in 2003), was disappointing for several reasons. Primarily because the entire thing was essentially an advertisement for cellphones. Good or not, Hova was guaranteed to sell at least a million copies, thanks to his deal with Samsung. There are some highlights, though, "Holy Grail" is interesting and complex. But, overall, Magna Carta Holy Grail sounds a little disappointing, especially compared to Watch the Throne.
MOST DISAPPOINTING: Beyoncé
If Jay Z was disappointing this summer, wife Beyoncé was a true tragedy. Initially she promised us a new album in the spring of 2013, but that came and went. Then Beyoncé released "Grown Woman" this summer and it looked like maybe we could look forward to a fall album release. Since "Grown Woman," though, there's been nothing. No word at all. There have even been rumors that Beyoncé scrapped the whole CD and decided to start over. We'll cut her some slack, since she's been on a world tour, but there's a big difference between those who can afford a $100+ concert ticket and those who can afford a 99¢ song on iTunes. I'm all for letting the artist take her time, but don't make a promise you can't keep, Beyoncé, I'm sure Tina taught you better than that.
CHILLEST: John Mayer
It's been a rough few years for John Mayer. After draining all goodwill toward him and nearly permanently losing his voice to a vocal chord granuloma, Mayer is back. And if anything could make me forget he once called his "dick" a "white supremacist," it's an album as calm and confident as this.
MOST ANTICIPATED: Haim
Haim has been playing gigs for a little while, picking up a respectable following before even releasing a debut album. This summer, however, the sister-group that combines the sounds of Fleetwood Mac and TLC in the best possible way released "The Wire" and announced plans to release a full CD, Days Are Gone, in September. "The Wire" is as infectious as it gets and Days Are Gone is absolutely my most anticipated release this fall.