1. Ariana Grande, "Yours Truly": Executed perfectly (or close to it), there are a few elements to creating a perfect pop album: great songwriting, groovy melodies and vocals that capture and reel you in. With the help of Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, 20-year-old Ariana Grande crafted an album that harks on '90s R&B and highlights her gorgeous, rich tone that mirrors Mariah Carey and, at times, Toni Braxton. From the hip-hop flavored jam "Right There" to the honeyed ballads "Daydreamin'" and "Tattooed Heart," Grande's debut is proof that a true star is on the rise. "Yours Truly" is truly a gift.
2. Dawn Richard, "Goldenheart" : While Danity Kane's reunion was somewhat exciting, Dawn Richard's solo project was electrifying. The singer, who was also part of the Diddy-Dirty Money trio, is in perfect form on "Goldenheart," where she explores various R&B and pop sounds, including beats that are electronic, smooth and down-tempo. The album tells stories of Richard's struggles in music, the good and bad times in love and more — making for a rousing, breathtaking listen. Each of the 16 tracks flow magically as Richard's voice blends in, sounding raspy at times and soft at others. Let's hope Danity Kane doesn't hold this talent back.
3. Sara Bareilles, "The Blessed Unrest" : The Grammys got it right — Sara Bareilles' third release, "The Blessed Unrest," is one of the year's best, thanks to its mix of upbeat and classic-sounding piano tunes, all anchored by the performer's sweet and powerful tone. Bareilles is an exceptional songwriter who puts on a live show that brightens your day — and week. With songs like the emotional "1000 Times" and the inspirational "Brave," Bareilles hits all the right notes. Even Katy Perry was impressed.
4. J. Cole, "Born Sinner": This year featured anticipated albums from Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake, but J. Cole has the rap album of the year. "Born Sinner," his sophomore release, is full of smart rhymes that forces the listener to think. He's a born winner.
5. Beyonce, "Beyonce" : Yes, Beyonce's new album was just released this month, but it's still one of the best offerings this year. The R&B queen gets major props for literally slapping the world in the face with an album full of progressive R&B tunes that feel fresh and appealing. The impressive batch of tracks — from the addictive numbers "Drunk in Love" and "Blow" to the beautiful and soft "Heaven" — showcase the singer's growth and easily puts her ahead of the competition. "Beyonce" is larger than life.
1. Chance the Rapper, "Acid Rap" : When it comes down to it, the best music is all about the ability to cut through great geographical, cultural and musical distances to deliver an emotion or memory that resonates one to one. I spent 2013 trying to find authentic music that taught me about people, that reaffirmed we're all the same regardless of how much our T-shirts cost. Take Chance the Rapper. "Acid Rap," the second mix tape from this 20-year-old Chicago MC who turned down all the major labels to tour the country in a beat-up RV, is a stream-of-consciousness epic. It's full of delightful romps of juvenile delinquency mixed with a few frightening moments that drip with a sense of dread and paranoia. Check out the second half of "Pusha Man" if you want to see what it feels like to be scared all the time. Or take it in the opposite direction with the righteously unhinged "Smoke Again" or my favorite track, "NaNa," featuring Action Bronson.
2. Queens of the Stone Age, "... Like Clockwork": Josh Homme is a sensitive dude. I did not expect this. Homme turned in one of his most nuanced, thoughtful and emotionally powerful albums with this melancholy examination of mortality in what was otherwise a tepid year for rock 'n' roll. The music was difficult both thematically — it was written after Homme nearly died during surgery — and technically with upheaval within the band lengthening the recording process. Dave Grohl, Elton John and other friends joined to help finish off the album. Songs like favorites "My God Is the Sun" and "Smooth Sailing" rank among the best the band has produced, while "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and "If I Had a Tail" are among the most revealing.
3. Earl Sweatshirt, "Doris": For a while there Earl Sweatshirt was a myth. We finally met the real guy behind the persona on the long-awaited "Doris," and his music was far more interesting than the buzz that accompanied his yearlong disappearance from public life. Earl tells you more about himself on songs like favorites "Burgundy" and "Chum" — his feelings about his parents, his friendship with Tyler, the Creator, the claustrophobic crush of attention — than he's revealed in hours of interviews. It all rolls out in dense, dazzling verses packed with triple meaning with a world view that's refreshingly honest and devoid of pop aspirations.
4. J. Cole, "Born Sinner": Kendrick Lamar wasn't the only elite rapper chest-thumping and backing it up in 2013. J. Cole moved the release date of "Born Sinner" to the same day as Kanye West's "Yeezus." On purpose. Thanks to this bold move, June 18 turned out to be the day of the year in music (check out Nos. 5 and 6). While Ye initially outsold him, Cole's sunny outlook, smart humor, nimble production and positive energy eventually won the day. Cole lays out just why he's different from his rivals on favorite "Let Nas Down" and lays down his own I'm-the-greatest verse with the help of Lamar himself on "Forbidden Fruit."
5. Kanye West, "Yeezus": Abrasive, angry, sometimes absurd, but endlessly fascinating, "Yeezus" is a punch in the face to the status quo. Grouse all you want about West's lyrical content, ridiculous statements and outsized ego, the man's production work is so far in the future you might as well call it science fiction. He opens the album by declaring "Yeezy season approaching ... a monster about to come alive again," and he's still in the news raging about this or that six months later. The surprise here is that there's plenty to identify with. Who hasn't just wanted their damn croissant? And when West twines his voice with Nina Simone's in the opening to favorite "Blood on the Leaves," it's just plain beautiful. Who cares what he's saying?