Last spring I started having a daydream. What if instead of going through the agony of compiling a year-end Top 10, I did something much more fun — like host a girls' night out? My fantasy involved a night of convivial chatter and music-making across genres and generations: a country music artisan exploring ideas about song form with a jazz revisionist; a punk doyenne giving image pointers to a young pop iconoclast; an R&B revivalist talking emotionalism with an African-born European rocker. Women were making great music all across the world, and by autumn I realized that though I might never get my favorites in the same physical space, I'd have no problem shaping a list that shows how their music works together to form fascinating debates and moments of confluence, even when, stylistically, they seem distant or even opposed.
Plenty of men made outstanding music in 2013 — I've enthused about some of my favorites elsewhere within NPR Music's year-end coverage. But from the controversies generated by Miley Cyrus and Lorde to the overwhelming critical love for Brandy Clark and (surprise!) Beyonce, little presented itself as more worthy of serious consideration than women's identities, attitudes and creative output. (Yeezus did. But it was clearly inspired, at how many degrees of artistic removal we can't know, by one particular, oft-maligned woman — Kanye West's muse, Kim Kardashian.) Women's performances shocked and titillated and gave rise to crucial conversations about race, sexuality, entitlement and cultural disruption. In quieter ways, women were at the helm and the heart of albums that honored innovation, deep craft and risk-taking. I've always been conscientious about including plenty of women on my year-end lists; this year, I'm agonizing about how many I had to leave off.
On to the greatest party ever — at least until next year. I hope you listen to these musicians together, in dialogue that goes long into the night.
And then, just for fun, let's get back together for brunch — my songs list highlights ten more women who made my year more meaningful, challenging and fun.
Ann Powers' Top 10 Albums Of 2013
1. Brandy Clark, '12 Stories'
Country music is a craft that, when executed with patience, fearlessness and love, becomes an art. Brandy Clark, at 38 a young old hand within the songwriting circles of Nashville, gets that. She's part of the tightly knit team of collaborators who helped Kacey Musgraves break through with the remarkable album Same Trailer, Different Park. Clark saved her most sophisticated and poignant performances for her own breakthrough album that's as "pure country" as anything out of Tennessee, while transcending any genre categories. Her songs dwell on the little epiphanies and semi-private crises that make up meaningful lives anywhere on the map. In a year when a female short story writer, Alice Munro, received the Nobel Prize in literature, it's fitting that the top honor on many critics' lists is going to Clark, a storyteller of the highest caliber.
Down the road from Brandy Clark, in Memphis, Valerie June — another thirtysomething singer-songwriting who came into her own this year — grew up on blues and gospel music, honing her skills in an environment where nobody worries about what's pure or authentic as much as what sounds feel right. Blending in rock, country, and even hip-hop elements, the now Brooklyn-based artist has taken the blues form into an open space that's as old as loneliness, yet as relevant as a newly minted secret.
Having Kathleen Hanna on this list feels like a reunion. The voice behind Bikini Kill and Le Tigre returned full force after several years of quiet due to illness. (Full disclosure: I'm featured in The Punk Singer, the documentary about Hanna currently on the arthouse circuit.) This band effort, a new version of an old solo project, reflects Hanna's lifetime of thinking hard and getting wild about feminism, indie culture, and the utopian potential of screaming. It's also fresh with thoughts about being 45, living in a changing New York, and reckoning with one's own history while embracing all the risk and joy of the present.
Even if you don't have a sister, you know what it's like to need one. Patty Griffin mines that feeling of family intimacy, of songs that uplift without any fuss and tear at the heart as gently as possible. She also rocks. On her long-awaited eighth studio album, the queen of Americana music confronted her own family history, dealing with her father's death in gorgeous elegies, and broadened the scope of her compassion and insight to touch upon subjects ranging from slavery to the uncharitable afterlife to the God she sees in the eyes of a wild old dog.
Rokia Traore would be one of most cosmopolitan women at any table. The Mali native, currently based in Paris, made her latest album in Bristol with frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. Still rooted in African rhythms and instrumentation, Beautiful Africa has a bit of Polly Harvey's daring in its fine bones . Traore's singing — mostly in French and Bambara — is so emotionally expressive, and her rock-influenced arrangements so intensely calibrated, that the meanings embedded in her poetic ruminations come across perfectly whatever language she's using.
Nobody showed as much easy confidence this year as did Ariana Grande, a veteran of tween television whose heady, delicious, surprisingly wise debut made her the sweetheart of the year. In songs about young love becoming aware of itself, Grande charts the highs and lows of being 20 without overstretching; her giddy melisma is well-tempered by her talent for pink-and-blue shading. (Guidance from Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds," one of the smoothest producers ever, couldn't have hurt.)A serious confection featuring a singer who's more than just the latest Mariah Carey wannabe, Your Truly is a pure pleasure whose appeal spans generations.
I realized in late May that I might have to let a few male collaborators onto my party list. That's because I fell in love with the second album from the Danish duo Quadron. What fascinates about the electronically generated retro-nuevo R&B of Avalanche is the sensitivity with which the supremely adept vocalist Coco O. responds to what the producer Robin Hannibal (also of Rhye) offers her — or maybe he's making groovy shadow boxes to fit the roving light stream of her voice. Either way, Avalanche goes beyond the embryonic efforts of much electronically based R&B this album feels like the fully-formed expression of artist who understands soul's physicality as well as its ethereal draw.
At 23, this new jazz trendsetter comports herself like a sexy librarian: oversized, white-framed specs, lace dresses, red lipstick, a neat buzz cut. Her repertoire shows a knack for scholarship, too: this debut's track listing reads like a map of the musical diaspora that followed the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, through folk songs and blues into minstrelsy and vaudeville and onward, through Tin Pan Alley and into the standards repertoire. But Salvant is not just a dry historical interpreter. She's a wicked joker, a full-body belter, and an ruminative interpreter who also writes the occasional revelatory confession. She speaks jazz in the small, piano-led ensemble on WomanChild, but the breadth of her phrasing and musical choices reminds listeners that America's indigenous art form is also its fundamental musical language.
The M.O. on these California sisters is that they channel the sounds of pop's past within a highly palatable blend that's clever enough to do justice to its sources. True enough. But what's really cool about Haim isn't the borrowing. It's the invention. Every song on Days Are Gone sounds like a process of discovery. Danielle Haim sings like a kid with a butterfly net chasing down the rogue syllables of lyrics about making out, breaking up and holding onto yourself. All three sisters, playing multiple instruments (and aided by Dash Hutton on drums), embody the happiness of working together toward a sound. It this is music as freedom and fun, every wiggle and sonic punch.
The It Girl of 2013 doesn't need my guest list, and she tends to take over any room she enters. But if we could all ingest a magic pill erasing the memory of Cyrus's often careless yet irritatingly calculated public behavior, momentarily shelving the extra-musical arguments about appropriated dance moves and profitable tongue-wagging, we might be able to actually hear this album. And it's a killer. It contains two of the year's most arresting hit singles, both of which mine hidden emotional depths. It surveys the pop landscape, lays claim to everything from hick-hop to cracked cabaret to EDM to slow jams. Helmed by Cyrus herself along with the future-thinking Atlanta producer Mike Will Made It, Bangerz gives the experienced 21-year-old a showcase for her genuinely versatile voice — and she convincingly communicates real sexual delight, vulnerability, smarts and sass. Bangerz is so much better than all the mishegas surrounding Manic Miley. The music should earn her entry into every celebration of pop this year.
Queen B's stylishly late, overwhelmingly rich self-titled "visual album" appeared suddenly last week, to the utter consternation of critics whose lists suddenly felt empty without it. I'm not taking my list apart to shove it in there. But to not acknowledge its significance would be to miss a central story of 2013. Releases like Beyoncé show how major artists are stepping confidently beyond the shellshock zone of the collapsing music industry to define not only their careers but challenge the very definitions of pop. Unabashedly sexual without ever feeling like self-exploitation; high-art minded and lowdown in its embrace of its maker's Houston hip-hop roots; directly engaged with pop history (hello, Madonna and Janet references) but futuristic in its sheen; personal and explicitly political; feminist and still conventionally super-hot ... Beyoncé, and Beyoncé, is all that.
This daughter of country music royalty speaks in the voice of the grandfather who was never famous in this story of a life-long love that shows how making a marriage work is one of life's most creative acts. I can't not cry when I hear this.
Hayley Williams became the boss of power punk with her band's self-titled masterwork this year. This is her claiming the crown — eight minutes of building complexity that's the sonic justification of the grand claim the lyrics make: "I'm writing the future."
The would-be teen pop star lets her messy side show throughout her excellent album Night Time, My Time, which sounds like perfect 1981 New Wave. This anthem of romantic longing, which recalls both David Bowie and Robyn, is her finest timeless expression.
The android with the tight dance moves continued to let high concepts dominate the sounds on her second album The Electric Lady, but this in Stevie Wonder-infused tribute to the working mother who never let her down, her heart powers the flow.
You gotta love a woman who can really own a power ballad. Nobody did that better than rock goddess-in-the-making Birch on this piano-driven paean to music, broken romance and the twirling twin ghosts of Stevie Nicks and W. Axl Rose.
7. Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Dawn McCarthy, "Omaha"
Intuitive grace and harmonic intuition are as important to music-making as compositional skill; McCarthy, taking a break from her own band Faun Fables, demonstrates this on the haunting centerpiece from the Everly Brothers tribute she shared with her friend Will Oldham.
8. Fantasia featuring Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott, "Without Me"
Pity the cad getting schooled in this dry-ice slow jam, facing three of the most commanding voices in hip-hop and R&B. Fantasia keeps her trademark melisma in check, but it stings everything she spits: what would you be without me?
Kelsey Wilson, one of two leaders of this playfully old-timey Austin-based band, has the voice of a Jazz Age Broadway baby, all coos and hiccups and shivers. Songs like this one are gin cocktails, fizzy with just a hint of a juniper-berry bite.
With her pop smarts married to an unquenchable thirst for a good argument, the seventeen-year-old marvel created a new character for the Top 40: the inside-outsider. This song stays in, revealing a teenage world of hazy risk and nervous dreaming wrapped in the smoke trails of clove cigarettes.