As we near the end of 2013, almost a full year after the world was supposed to end, it is necessary to arbitrarily and pretentiously name the best 10 albums from this year. Music critics always seem to have a sense of disdain for the status quo, “there’s no more good rock music,” “hip hop is dead” etc. Perhaps it is my own ignorance, perhaps I have no respect for the forefathers (and mothers) of modern music, but in my own relatively humble opinion, music is fucking great right now. 2013 was a year in which musicians continued to push the boundaries of pre-determined and archaic genres, resulting in music that is sonically fascinating and different and weird. This list tips a proverbial cap to the artists who are making this kind of music.
Preface over. The best 10 albums of 2013, as selected by my brain:
With apologies to honorable mentions Travis Scott, Sampha, Wavves, Disclosure and Pusha T
6 Feet Beneath the Moon is unpolished and pretty rough around the edges; sometimes you can almost sense King Krule, born Archy Marshall, struggling to keep himself under control. Marshall howls in his weird English hip-hop accent – even whistling at points throughout the album. Musically, Marshall is all over the place: “Easy Easy” sounds like an ultra-minimal Sex Pistols song, “Will I Come” is a classic English post-dub synth track, and “Out Getting Ribs” is as bluesy as it gets.
The lack of direction and control is perhaps what is so endearing about the 19-year-old’s debut EP. It is a unique and fascinating musical experience to listen to Krule as he wanders through the album. Awesome things are definitely in store for this young Brit.
On Sail Out’s first track, “The Vapors,” Aiko asks, “Can I hit it again?” As the LP unfolds with catchy hooks and trendy hip-hop features (Kendrick and Childish Gambino to name a few) I say yes, Ms. Aiko, you may hit it again. Sail Out is fun, sultry, and sexy, but Aiko isn’t your average R&B maiden, as evidenced by her rapping on “What a Life:” “I been through some shit man/But I be on my shit man.” This kind of attitude has drawn comparisons to Rihanna, but on Sail Out, Aiko is much more grounded and subtle than Riri.
Jhene Aiko is clearly here to stay as she links up with some of the best and coolest names in hip-hop. Please hit it again?
When you hear real punk rock, it’s impossible to avoid. Its obvious, it slaps you in the face, gives you the finger, then slaps you again. The Danish foursome that composes Iceage repeatedly slaps you in the face on You’re Nothing, starting with “Ecstasy,” the first song on the album. Incessant, mind-numbing guitar riffs accompany the screeching vocals of lead man Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. Iceage has gained relative infamy with crazy live performances complete with bloody noses and mosh pits. (What’s more punk than that?)
There isn’t a lot of good, genuine punk rock these days (putting on my grouchy music critic voice) but Iceage is the real deal. Try to listen to “Ecstasy” and not immediately attempt to run through a wall. I dare you.
With Trap Lord, A$AP Ferg has transformed himself from “that other dude that A$AP Rocky chills with” to one of the predominate voices in hip-hop. Ferg’s flow is completely unlike Rocky’s smooth, southern-influenced drawl, and the Trap Lord isn’t particularly easy on the ears if you aren’t ready to bop to his tales of “Cocaine Castles” and other trap goings-on.
The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, delivers on the hype of his three mixtapes with Kiss Land. The album, and his music as a whole, has an absolute aesthetic goal, one that juxtaposes his velvet-smooth vocals against deep, brash, and bass-driven production.
All of the success and impact that Tesfaye has had on contemporary music leads us to Kiss Land. Never before has The Weeknd seemed so accessible. He details the struggles of his newfound fame in much the same way that Drake did on Thank Me Later. There has always been an emotionally protective layer around Tesfaye, yet he finally seems comfortable enough to let his guard down and let us in. On “Love in the Sky” he admits, “I’ve been killing these shows/But I’m always getting high/‘Cause my confidence is low.” This sort of raw emotion is what makes Kiss Land so intense, not just good. Kiss Land does not let up; there are no moments of comfort or tranquility. The album serves as a sort of hour-long drug trip. However, at the end of Kiss Land there is no relief or catharsis, only the need to listen again. Every song is perfectly crafted and tailored to Tesfaye’s unique talent and it all seems perfectly natural.
The peak of this Kiss Land drug trip is midway through the title track “Kiss Land.” In the seven-minute song Tesfaye abandons his usual melodic vocals for a menacingly monotone rap about his success and how it has changed him, “I got a brand new place/I think I’ve seen it twice all year/I can’t remember how it looks inside/So you can picture how my life’s been.” And even “I don’t got any friends.” Tesfaye is telling the listener about the trials of fame until he seems to realize that he’s revealed too much, “I don’t care about you/Why you worried ‘bout me/All I want is that smoke/Give me all of that smoke.” I thought you cared, Abel.
When it comes to true blue musical talent, James Blake is simply one of the best. Blake combines his classical piano mastery and his Joni Mitchell-like song writing with intricate hip-hop beats, generating sounds that are completely new. Blake constantly keeps the listener guessing and every sound on Overgrown seems to be perfectly set into place. On songs like “Life ‘Round Here” (recently re-mixed with Chance The Rapper) Blake transitions from the prototypical laid-back James Blake song to an abstract wall of sound, back to laid-back James Blake, all with astonishing ease.
Blake’s musical omnipotence is evidenced by how naturally he integrates RZA, the album’s only feature, into a post-dub love ballad, “Take a Fall For Me” on which the hook is “you can’t marry her yet.”
From classical music to the Wu-Tang Clan, Overgrown isn’t simply influenced by every genre; rather, Blake is constantly forging his own new independent category with every note. One listen through Overgrown is simultaneously a musical history lesson and a predestination of where music is going; it’s an astonishing product.
I realize that I just made some very profound claims about the importance of James Blake’s music, and may have been slightly hyperbolic. Obviously Overgrown has flaws, mostly because of the complexity of the music. Sometimes it seems as though Blake is trying to outthink himself. All in all, though Overgrown is complete sonic bliss.
Apparently Chicago rap is not all guns, lean and Young Chop (the super-producer behind much of Chief Keef and Lil Reese’s success). Chance the Rapper is a symbol of the more musical side of Chi-town hip-hop. Chance attended the prestigious Jones College Prep High School in downtown Chicago and the recently turned 20-year-old was suspended for ten days in the spring of his senior year. Chance turned his suspension into a debut mixtape, 10 Day.
On Acid Rap, Chance’s second tape, he demonstrates his unique skills as an MC, pulling from numerous musical influences, including jazz and soul, genres that have long-standing traditions in Chicago. Chance rhymes and sings in an inviting Chicago accent, providing an alternative to much of the gangsta shit coming out of Chicago.
Acid Rap is a study in Chance The Rapper’s individuality, both musically and personally. The mixtape begins with “Good Ass Intro” in which Chance assures us that he’s “even better than I was the last time.” Its clear on Acid Rap that Chance is better than he was last time, he’s also one of the best new talents in hip-hop. The Chicago kid is a fresh breath of air in a genre that can sometimes feel over-saturated with the same old shit.
All of Toro y Moi’s projects have sounded singular and unique in and of themselves. That is not to say that it’s hard to identify Toro y Moi, real name Chaz Bundick, his signature smooth vocals and catchy songwriting prevails across his oeuvre. His technique is always the same, he simply changes the tools that he uses. Bundick’s 2010 debut album Causers of This was a major catalyst of the chill-wave trend at the beginning of the decade. 2011’s Underneath the Pine was Toro y Moi’s second major release and showed more music, more instruments, and less chill-wave echoing.
As a whole, Anything in Return is one long rump-shakin’ groove. It’s hard to highlight particular songs as Anything in Return is so cohesive and complete, but “So Many Details” and “Rose Quartz” are among the best songs of the year.
Toro y Moi navigates new areas of music with obvious homage to the past much in the same way that James Blake does. With Toro y Moi, however, it seems a little less intellectual and more fun to two-step to.
Anything in Return is perfect for a window-down summer road trip, and although I’m unsure if that is a compliment or not, it’s a fucking great album.
Yeah, this is a complete cop-out. I have two number one albums on my list of the top 10 albums of 2013. I have no defense for this cowardice and that’s all I have to say about that.
Kanye West has been one of my favorite artists since College Dropout was released when I was in 6th grade. When I first listened to Yeezus and songs like “I Am A God” part of me yearned for the days when Kanye was swearing off “rhyming about money, hoes, and rims.” But then I kept listening and listening and listening to this album and it’s really just the best. The whole idea of the album is so self-absorbed, arrogant, and un-relatable, “in a French ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants” is hardly impressive song writing, yet everything that happens on Yeezus is simply impossible to ignore.
Moments like the end of “New Slaves” when West transitions from rapping things like “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” into a heavenly harmony sung by Frank Ocean show the contradiction that is Yeezus. The contradictory sentiments here are prevalent throughout, how do Bon Iver and Chief Keef possibly function on “Hold My Liquor” together? Isn’t the sampling of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” in kind of bad taste? Does Kanye have any friends? These are the questions one must ask when they are confronted with the minimal-yet-complex thing that is Yeezus.
What is truly phenomenal about Kanye West and Yeezus is that you can completely hate him, everything that he stands for, all the really weird shit he says, but you can’t deny his genius. As polarizing as a figure Kanye is, Yeezus is the pinnacle of music in 2013, if not for a while.
“Degenerates but even Ellen love our shit” Drake claims on the intro track to NWTS, a song that runs over six minutes, something he seems aware of. Drake, like Kanye, is somewhat of a polarizing figure, not because he’s a dick or anything but because he can come off as really, really corny. Rapping longingly about “Courtney on Peach Street” and all the other lost loves of Drizzy’s life, it can be hard to really care about what he’s actually talking about.
Just as you think Drake is getting a little too soft (refer to “Hold On We’re Going Home”) he unleashes monsters like “The Language” which is basically a four-minute diss track to no one in particular, “fuck any n**** who talkin’ that shit just to get a reaction.” On tracks like these, Drake is reminding everybody that he’s pretty much the best in the game and there isn’t anything you can do about it.
The mastermind behind all of Drizzy’s success, 40 (Noah Shebib), keeps the production on NWTS to virtual perfection. Say what you want about whether or not Drake really “Started From the Bottom” every song on the album keeps you nodding to every Noah Shebib drum-kick and repeating all of Drake’s catchy adlibs.
Header photo by Adam Gendler