10 Best Albums of 2013

Originally posted 12/24/13
10. Bankrupt!
– Phoenix is one of my new favorite bands. As you’ll see, that happened a lot for me in 2013. I guess you could call it a musical awakening, enabled by screwing over the artists via Spotify. It’s better than screwing over the artists via torrents, right? To make up for it I’m trying to go to more live shows, which also hasn’t really been my thing, but I did see some acts in 2013; call it an ongoing resolution. I mention all of this to say I haven’t always been really into music, but there’s really no excuse to not open your ears (and eyes) to what’s being created (often by fellow 20-somethings). To help I bought some good headphones in 2013 (and a cheap record player), and I recommend you treat yo self to the same, do yourself a favor.

As I was saying, I saw Phoenix twice in 2013 and Bankrupt!, the first album in four years from the French group lead by Thomas Mars, represented a strong return to the alternative rock scene. Bankrupt! isn’t so much a departure from Wolfgang Amadeaus Phoenix, but evidence of a development of a new sound bringing dreamlike synths and heavy guitar just right for the Summer. “Trying to Be Cool” is no doubt one of my Top 10 Tracks of 2013 (more on that later), and the video courtesy of The Creators Project is one of the coolest. Another video courtesy of La Blogotheque is more like a movie, a 20 minute cut called Take Away Phoenix. I almost left this album off the list, but Phoenix was one of my favorites, and Bankrupt! one of the best.

– Beyoncé held it down in 2013 culminating in the release of her self titled visual album out of nowhere. Looking back, her Super Bowl Halftime performance was just the jumpoff, and her HBO documentary was the preview, a rare insight of what was to come. It should have been obvious that the days, weeks, years of video Beyoncé obsessively records wouldn’t go to waste. She’s taken those ideas, cut some footage, and collaborated with a wide range of known and unknown creatives during production of BEYONCÉ, with the visual as much in mind as the audio – rare. The result is an artistic, emotional, and reverential album with respect to her family and its history; delivered in a way only Beyonce can.

The album features production credits from Timbaland, Pharrell, Key-Wayne, Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, and Drake’s Toronto homies 40 and Majid Jordan. Not to mention video production credits from Hype Williams (prod. “All of the Lights”), Terry Richardson (prod. “Wrecking Ball”) and the Swede Jonas Åkerlund who apparently is huge in the pop music video world #themoreyouknow. I’d link the best video with the best line, “Partition” but it’s pay to play (smart), so here’s a good one: Drunk in Love ft. Jay Z. (Sidenote, I got love for the slow jam “Rocket” too, first song on a sex playlist music.)

8. Days Are Gone
– The debut album of Cali sisters Alana, Danielle, and Este Haim, Days Are Gone simply put jams from start to finish. HAIM has quite the background and each sister can play a number of instruments as well as contribute vocals. Ariel Rechtshaid is credited with taking the unique sounds each sister brings to the table and mixing Days Are Gone along with James Ford, and Ludwig Göransson, but it’s the style and swagger the sisters bring that makes them likeable. That power and youthful sense of vigor and independence as they breakout into the mainstream together is in turn empowering to the listener, giving a “let’s get it” kind of attitude just a few songs and maintained throughout. “Falling” finds itself on my Top 10 Tracks of 2013 (more on that later), and has a great Remix. They recently hooked up with Hypem for a best of the year mix and had a criminally underseen SNL appearance, I blame Peeta for not carrying his weight.

7. Modern Vampires of the City
– I realized Ezra Koenig might be the coolest guy in the Indie industry in a haze at this year’s ACL festival. The internet loves him, he’s pretty good at Twitter, and wrote one of my favorite things to hit the Internet this year about one of my favorite albums – more on that later. It had been 3 years since their last album, but performances at festivals around the world like the one in Austin featuring a mix of classics and cuts from their at times frantic and energetic Modern Vampires of the City represent another step forward for Vampire Weekend as a whole. The album brings with it a pervasive sense of death that’s not particularly subtle, but is only really felt after a few listens. At 24 and inching older, it kind of fits. That strange balance of lyric and melodic playfulness despite the subject matter has been chalked up to Ariel Rechtshaid, who will no doubt get an award for his production this year (he won a Grammy last year for co-writing “Climax”). Oxford Commas deserve a place in our culture, but I wasn’t a huge fan of their albums before now. So listen, don’t wait. Also, dat Sax:

6. The 20/20 Experience
– Speaking of returns to the music industry, 2013 saw the return of Justin Timberlake with his first album in 7 years. This was one of those things that everyone who grew up in the 90s wanted to happen, but only if it was going to be good since taking a shit on nostalgia is a thing people make money on now too. Timbaland, who signed to Roc Nation earlier this year, did most of the heavy lifting producing the album with James Fauntelroy co-writing (can’t wait to hear more solo stuff from him). Fortunately for everyone, the album was a hit. It starts with an overpowering flourish of horns leading into an ambitious, balanced 8 minute track that sets a high bar and structure for the entire album. I have a lot of love for this love-drunk odyssey of an album, which is not a feat to be diminished.

The features on Magna Carta Holy Grail and other places in the rap game this year, combined with social media domination and a (still ongoing) marketing campaign has made sure that we heard JT in different places all year. Bailing on his show in Houston is among my biggest regrets of the year (sorry Yoms), and though Part 2 is more of a haphazard soundtrack to a series of sloppy hookups that gets weird and goes on too long, TKO is one of my favorite videos.

5. Acid Rap
I’ve already written some about Chance The Rapper’s mixtape which sits here comfortably in the middle amongst the albums of the year. The thing about Acid Rap is that it marries the unique pace with which Chance raps with a concept much less concrete than standard hazy stoner rap. Underneath it all is a history, a commentary on Chance’s hometown of Chicago which he delivers in unique rhythm and pace ambitious beats tailor made for him. It’s reverential and aware but youthful, able to switch gears with guests as necessary. Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul, Vic Mensa and extra special guest Twista help shape his new druggy style complete with equally an addictive ad-lib. Now he’s in commercials, signing deals, with a legitimate album (and high expectations) on the way in 2014. Chance has an opportunity to be the voice of Chicago and say something about his city and how the youth get by.

Really there’s a little something for everyone and every state of mind. But the visuals for Everybody’s Something gives you a better idea of what’s at the album’s core (short of dropping acid, presumably).

4. Random Access Memories
– Like Vampire Weekend, I was never a huge Daft Punk fan before this year either. I get it, they’re a big deal, and I understand why, but I wasn’t dying for a Daft Punk album like I was for a new Childish Gambino album for example (which was Top 20 good). Still, Daft Punk dropped one in 2013 to much internet hysteria anyway. “Get Lucky” battled “Blurred Lines” for song of the Summer, edge music video (NSFW) and marketing to Robin Thicke. But Daft Punk obviously isn’t concerned about winning anything. They collaborated with Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas, and other legends to create a disco-dance record for robots and humans alike. At times it’s so funky it’s infectious, at others it’s metallic to a modern and deeply melancholy effect (“Within”, “Contact”), and at best it blends both. The music video for “Lose Yourself to Dance” took forever, but I’m thankful for this Soul Train mashup as a result and a theme party that needs to happen.

3. Nothing Was The Same
– It’s hard for me too look at a close up of Drake and not laugh. It just seems like Drake’s the type to ask for a lot of close-ups during a shoot, and it looks like he wants it so bad, it’s funny. He may not hit a home run with every video, but Nothing Was The Same was everything fans and critics expected and then some. It’s not that fans and critics expected much from Drake, more of the same from Take Care would have been fine by me, but it’s evident that Drake took great steps forward with Nothing Was The Same. With Noah Shebib, “40”, doing the heavy lifting the two have cemented a sort of vibe that sits between R&B and Rap, with beats that hit as hard or soft unpredictably and very effectively track to track, sometimes on the same track. Add guest production from Majid Jordan, Boi-1da, Sampa, and Hudson Mohawke (“Connect”), and two clutch features from Jhene Aiko and Jay Z, it’s easy to see that Drake knows exactly what he wants out of his image and sound, engineering and executing both with precision and consistency. That is, Drake has found that magic creative place where what you make, who you are, and what people are feeling is all in line. Kanye West had that at some point in his career.

Drake is in a unique place where he can be Champagne Papi and party every night with his friends, but genuine and open, emotional drunk and high, awake and alone at sunrise. At his level of stardom, that results in some great internet memes, but everyone sitting behind their computers or in their showers are crooning along, “it’s yours”, cause on songs like “Own It”, it’s clear that even given the heights he’s reached – he wants it all, and it’s easy to empathize with that. But just try not to laugh at this:

2. The Electric Lady
– Janelle Monáe’s third album to date, The Electric Lady was perhaps the most impressive this year. It stands more polished than previous efforts, but Monáe maintains hear daring creative breath with which gives life to every aspect of her music from the horns to the lyrics. She’s crafted an album that features a wide range of sounds borrowing elements from Jazz, Hip-hop, Pop, Dance, and R&B with features from legendary artists Prince and Erykah Badu, fellow up-and-comers Solange and Miguel, and the extremely talented Esparanza Spalding who all reinforce the sound and aesthetic Monáe’s created. Furthermore, The Electric Lady lives up to its title, empowering women with to rise up on “Q.U.E.E.N.” which flows effortlessly into “Electric Lady” shifting topic but maintaining tone, never letting up track to track. That consistency is especially impressive given the album’s length of 19 tracks clocking in at 68 minutes, none of which is boring or complacent, with each displaying a different aspect of Monáe’s range. Despite the album’s complexity, one of the simpler songs with a great message, “Victory”, is my favorite. Here’s the video for the album’s single, “Primetime” ft. Miguel:

1. Yeezus
– Think back to 808s and Heartbreak (2008). It’d be even better if you listened to it some of it real quick. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Even better here’s a link.
Now. 808s and Heartbreak and Tha Carter 3 were soundtracks to my Freshman year of College. Back when that album was released, and autotune was at its height of being a thing, Kanye basically said to himself, fuck it, I’m going to make an all autotune album because it’s what I feel like making. He’d just lost his mother, just gotten out of a relationship, and that’s what came out. I was on board and blasted those those low, muddled 808 beats and enjoyed them as they reverberated through the walls and hallways. The thing about 808s is that is it sounds like what its like to feel things, but not be able to actually sing about them, hence autotune (Eminem sorta did it too). His next effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), is the result of all the above, plus time. Time for that new sound to coalesce a bit. Art became the focus of the album and the autotune makes certain tracks like “Runaway” as effective as they are.

Three years later Kanye’s got a new girl, and even his first kid on the way. Though in that time he’d spent most of his time otherwise trying to push himself further into the art scene through fashion and failed. I imagine a frustrated Kanye in Paris, listening to European music, visiting Parisian museums and galleries, and suddenly deciding he was going to make an album like the Europeans do. He called in Mike Dean who co-produced Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne to do the heavy lifting. Then he called in people like Daft Punk, who were conveniently working on Random Access Memories in Paris, and co-produced “On Sight”, “Black Skinhead” and, “Send It Up”. Young Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke co-produced “I Am A God” while Travis Scott, another young protege of Kanye’s, co-produced “New Slaves” and “Guilt Trip”. With those four shaping much of the edgier, harsher, more aggressive tracks, long time collaborators No ID and 88-Keys add my two favorites, “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2”. Rick Rubin, the king of minimalism, came in batting cleanup and stripped much of the album, emphasizing in other places, Kanye laid the vocals very quickly, and Yeezus was born. I’m oversimplifying, really. The Yeezus Sessions feature over at Pitchfork actually breaks it down and is worth a read. If you couldn’t already tell, I believe 2013 was just as much about curating creative minds to produce a record as much as writing or singing well on one, if that’s ever a thought anymore. Maybe the former has always been the case, but having minds who know how to manipulate sound with technology in new ways, to engineer new sounds from old, deeply familiar rhythms is the key.

I knew Yeezus would leak, and I knew I would want to listen to it immediately, so when it did I dropped everything. Listening to “On Sight” for the first time, made specifically to be the first track, I stopped it and made sure I downloaded the right thing, that my computer wasn’t then infected. It was horrible and I was more afraid that I had the correct files and this was the album. Yet each time I’ve listening to Yeezus, or watched Kanye perform some part of it, I’ve liked it more. With each listen it’s less shocking and more nuanced, every noise either in its place or operating wildly in space, as if struggling to express itself clearly or consistently. Add to that the completely random but greatly appreciated drops into classic soul melodies, on “New Slaves” for example then as a whole track on “Bound 2”, the surprises keep coming. On “Bound 2” particularly, the balance of a classic Kanye backing track pitted against the blaring 808, and grinding metallic choral entrance courtesy of Charlie Wilson is the grand result of what I would call the Yeezus Experiment (how would you look at the album differently with that, more humble, name?).

After the album was released and press tours began I watched Kanye devolve from groomed media darling with Kris Jenner, to occasionally intellectual with Zane Lowe, to finally just tired and deranged yelling at Sway. And each time, through the delirium, we learn more and more about Kanye’s goal with Yeezus and how it was executed. Thus, I’ve come to see Yeezus like 808s and Heartbreak, an experiment whose result is a foundation, which is why it’s relevant at the very least.

With Yeezus, Kanye exposed a lot of ears to new sounds to varying levels of success, but with great effect throughout the album. Like it or not, you have to pay attention to it. If a song comes on in the shuffle, you can’t help but notice. When Kanye performs, jumping and swing his arms like a maniac, you have to watch. As a result, the collaborators on this album have gone on to collaborate with others in Rap, Hip-Hop, and R&B where their songs don’t sound so harsh, but are still raw and hard hitting (see: Magna Carta Holy Grail). Part of that is due to a lack of Kanye, but part of it because Yeezus now exists at the end of that spectrum, bordering on intolerable, but instead revealing more and more with each visit, uncomfortable though it may be.

Not everybody can call up Daft Punk, but Travis Scott has put his print on other projects like Pusha T’s My Name is My Name, Big Sean’s Hall of Fame, and John Legend’s Love in the Future, albums whose sounds all reached slightly different places in 2013, the ultimate goal of any artist. With Beyonce’s self titled hit album featuring some of the same producers (Key Wayne, Dean, Hit-Boy), maybe 2014 will bring more Pop-Hip-Hop crossovers. Miley and MikeWillMadeIt showed it’s possible too to the tune of 135 million views, but that’s a topic for another day.

Yet, those albums pale in comparison and come off as safe compared to Yeezus. Unlike Drake or any of the aforementioned, Kanye doesn’t make music for you or I. At least, it’s hard to say that Yeezus was made with anyone in mind other than its creator with all else flowing from there, but that’s another quality of great art. Though, It is pretty safe to say he made the Bound 2 video just for Kim.

Kanye West has said that he will be releasing another album in 2014. My only hope is that he’ll come back less angry and more focused, that the collaborators he brings in can help him find that creative sweet spot, and that the lyrics will strike a chord instead of something that exists to be provocative (maybe his new best friend Drake can help him with that). Other albums were arguably better, but Yeezus will go down as the most influential creative work in music from 2013, one way or another.


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