The Best Music of 2013 [Albums #10-#1]
January 13, 2014 Leave a comment
Our countdown concludes with albums 10 through 1. Thank you for joining ROTI on this journey. Key tracks from each — and the entirety of great jams from earlier in our countdown — can be found on the final, authoritative Spotify playlist:
#10. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana
Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis is one my favorite new musicians in 2013 — an MIT dropout and former Brooklyn rocker who ended up studying poetry in Western Mass. Living in Northampton, a famed hotbed of 90s indie gods (Frank Black, J. Mascis, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lou Barlow) she joined forces with a guitar teacher, a librarian and a burger-slinger to form Speedy Ortiz, a band that pulls from 90s rock motifs and infuses ’em with Dupuis’ unique voice and sensibility. One promising EP (Sports) and one brilliant LP later, they’re on a rocket to the big time.
Major Arcana is a truly exciting record, firing two- and three-minute gems at you faster than you can even process ’em. Dupuis is ridiculously great. She’s equal parts Stephen Malkmus and Elliott Smith — she knows how to coil a cynical lyric around a jagged guitar line on songs like “Tiger Tank,” but she also isn’t afraid to lay her emotions bare on a brutally honest track like “No Below.” Major Arcana also displays the band’s sonic attack — “Plough” starts sparse and gradually builds to a raging conclusion, while “Fun” is a tightly coiled machine-gun burst. My favorite song on Major Arcana might be “Hitch,” with its twin-guitar attack bouncing off Dupuis’ cryptic lyrics, and a nice touch of Kim Deal-esque backing vox. This ain’t no 90s cover band. They play the hits, but they have a swagger all their own.
#9. Danny Brown, Old
Danny Brown was an underground sensation in Detroit and New York for years before he got a record deal, in part because his unique persona didn’t fit any established label’s marketing concept for a hip-hop star. “It’s all macho because they’re trying to be gangster and there aren’t any jokes. Me, I still talk about the same stuff that those guys talk about, but I figured out a way to put some humor into it.” 50 Cent wouldn’t sign him because he wore skinny jeans. To their credit, Fool’s Gold Records realized that, hipster wear aside, Brown was a huge talent and snapped him up (Fool’s Gold also released Run The Jewels — they had a hell of a year). Since then, he’s been building to this.
Old is an incredible album. Fool’s Gold owner DJ A-Trak put Brown together with a cadre of crack British and American producers, and the resulting tracks just keep coming at you. First he’s dropping a crack-corner anthem like “Side A [Old],” then he’s riffing on an old Outkast track in “The Return,” then shifting into a superb Purity Ring collab, “25 Bucks.” There are hard tracks like “Side B [Dope Song],” tender moments like “Lonely,” and super-catchy songs like “Clean Up.” Brown’s creative flows are perfectly complimented by a series of extremely creative beats; he’s noted in interviews that J. Dilla was an inspiration for this record, and the legendary crate-diving producer certainly would have approved of Old. Although many of hip-hop’s hottest names guest on this record, Old is at its best when Brown goes one-on-one with a great backing track and unleashes his talents.
#8. Savages, Silence Yourself
I had the delight of seeing Savages live in concert several months ago. It was a mesmerizing experience. The ferocity with which these London punkers attack each song is staggering. The rhythm section lays down a solid foundation, singer Jehny Beth challenges the audience with her forthright intensity, and absurdly talented guitarist Gemma Thompson crushes them with massive waves of sound. The band tore through their set and peaced out, encoreless. It was badass.
That experience perhaps informs the extremely high regard in which I hold Savages’ debut record, my favorite punk album of the year. “City’s Full” encapsulates the power of Silence Yourself, bringing together the energizing beats of drummer Fay Milton, the rumbling bassline from Ayse Hassan, the Tom Morello-like guitar work of Thompson, and the commanding vocals from Jehny Beth — all building to a fist-pumping chorus. The fierce “Husbands,” brooding “She Will,” and powerful “I Am Here” are all personal favorites — but I also favor the idiosyncratic, dark closer, “Marshal Dear.” If Savages can find a way to advance their sound from here, look out, Earth.
#7. Bombino, Nomad
Omara Moctar’s life story is even more incredible than his new album. Born to a Tuareg nomadic tribe in Niger, he was forced by war into exile in Algeria as a child, where he learned how to play a secondhand guitar and devoured clips of Hendrix and Knopfler. Returning to his homeland as a teenager, he was recognized as a prodigy and invited by older musicians to play with them, whereupon he was given the nickname “Bombino” (wee child). Once again forced to flee as the Tuareg tribes rose against the central government, Bombino and his fellow musicians became such symbols of Tuareg identity that the Niger authorities actually banned the use of guitars among the Tuareg. Returning in triumph after peace was restored, he became his nation’s foremost musician, and brings his talents worldwide with this insanely good record that he made with Black Keys axeman Dan Auerbach in Nashville.
That’s the history. The music is no joke either. The power of Bombino’s guitar is apparent at the very outset of the opening track, “Amidinine,” which is anchored by an incredibly nasty riff. Song after song delivers Saharan sounds that play off of the Delta blues in compelling and fascinating ways. “Ahulakamine Hulan” pairs gentle guitar strumming with thumping percussion and North African backing vox. “Azamine Tiliade” is a complete shredfest that any 60s psychedelic rocker would be proud to have recorded. “Aman” is akin to a raucuous Irish jig. And “Tamidtine” is a gently rocking number with soaring pedal steel guitar. Nomad is so incredible because it combines sounds we’ve heard before in fascinatingly new and compelling ways. Globalization at its finest.
#6. James Blake, Overgrown
James Blake’s sweet spot vocally is an area most singers struggle to handle: the so-called “break” between the modal register and the falsetto. He completely wallows in this region, effortlessly sliding between his “chest” voice and his “head” voice in staggeringly gorgeous fashion. Listen to the opening of “Retrograde,” as Blake gently slides up the register in a vocal run that gradually turns into a funky backing track. He’s taken a weakness of the average singer and turned it into an overwhelming strength. Overgrown is such a fantastic album because it’s incredibly intimate: Blake invites us in to that tender space most singers try to hide from us. The electronic backgrounds he composes to compliment his vocals add additional layers of surreal beauty.
Blake’s 2011 debut was an outstanding headphone listen, and Overgrown is in the same category. By that I mean, the textures and sounds on this record don’t hammer you over the head like a big pop chorus or nasty guitar solo — they creep in and out stealthily. Combined with Blake’s killer voice (and one outstanding cameo from RZA), these subtle, masterful elements form a truly mesmerizing record. Put Overgrown on with a set of good headphones and go for a walk on a cool, clear winter evening. You’ll be transported.
#5. Kurt Vile, Waking on a Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile’s last album, Smoke Ring for My Halo, nestled comfortably within our 2011 Top 10. This record is every bit as good, and perhaps even better. Vile has augmented the sparse acoustic guitar sound of Smoke Ring with keyboards and a variety of other instruments played by Steve Laakso, and the effect is to trade in a vibe of cynicism and desperation for one of quiet confidence and placidity.
As much as I loved Smoke Ring, it didn’t have anything in the vein of the epic, nine-and-a-half minute opening track off Pretty Daze — just as it seems to be reaching a conclusion around the four-minute mark, Vile sneaks back in, saying “Rising at the crack of dawn, I gotta think about what wisecrack I’m going to drop along the way today,” and then unfurls another five minutes of comely jamming. The album’s equally lengthy closer, “Goldtone,” provides a statement of purpose: “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned / But I never as they say, touched the stuff / I might be adrift, but I’m still alert / Concentrate my hurt into a gold tone / Golden tones.”
Pretty Daze is indeed packed with golden tones. “KV Crimes” is a stomping rocker delivered in Vile’s usual understated style; “Girl Called Alex,” is a wistful rumination with a shredding solo at its heart; “Never Run Away” is a tender ballad of love; and “Shame Chamber” is a rambling jam powered on by a touch of cowbell. The latter contains the great lyric, “Feeling bad in the best way a man can,” which as surely encapsulates this album as anything I can muster. Kurt Vile’s rising status in the record industry on his own terms, and his by all accounts happy domestic life with a wife and daughter, hasn’t cheesed him out. It’s just put a tender spin on the Kurt Vile style we’ve already grown to love. Happiness suits him.
#4. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Janelle Monae’s space opera cycle Metropolis continues with this mighty record that combines the futuristic with the classic. Although the album spins a tale of a dystopian future where androids live uneasily alongside humans, and rumors of rebellion hang ominously in the air, the music is a wide-ranging tribute to R&B styles of the past half-century. There’s an extremely funky track that’s highly Prince-like, probably because Prince himself appears on it. There’s a ballad that reminds you of early Michael Jackson, raps that hearken back to the best of Lauryn Hill, an uplifting jam in the vein of Stevie Wonder, a righteously sexy duet with Miguel that evokes 90s R&B, and an Esperanza Spalding collab that brings visions of smoky jazz clubs.
But it would be completely wrong to describe this album as derivative. It’s anything but. Monae drives music forward with her take on each of these styles, like a highly skilled magician that has mastered close-up tricks, huge illusions, sleight of hand, and escape from an underwater safe — and innovates all of these in fascinating and compelling ways in a single performance.
The musicianship, vocal and instrumental, is flawless. Monae’s voice is an incredibly versatile instrument deployed to ultimate effect. Her collaborators Roman GianArthur and Nate “Rocket” Wonder consistently bring cool arrangements to the fore, and guitarist Kellindo Parker covers the album in nasty axe-work. A series of outstanding guests add to the fun. Even the interstitial skits are great and hold together the album in an interesting way. And the songs, let’s not forget the songs!! “Dance Apocalyptic.” “Sally Ride.” “Givin Em What They Love.” “Q.U.E.E.N.” “Primetime.” “What An Experience.” What an experience, indeed.
#3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
It’s easy to know where to begin: “Get Lucky” is an immortal dance jam that will always be considered awesome. After hundreds of listens since the first teasers leaked out at Coachella, I’m still not sick of it in the slightest. Combining a funky Nile Rodgers riff, a superb lead performance from Pharrell, and a touch of the vocoder-vocals that are Daft Punk’s trademark, it’s on a short list with “Hey Ya” and “Crazy In Love” as songs that will be played on the radio (or streaming stations, or in-brain-antenna broadcast) for as long as we are alive. Book it.
Considering that EDM has practically taken over the music industry in the eight years since Daft Punk released their last album, expectations for RAM couldn’t have been higher. The masked ones not only inspired the entire Electric Daisy Carnival crowd, but sounds they pioneered are all over contemporary pop music, and have leaked into hip-hop, most obviously through Kanye West’s “Stronger.” The world was looking to Daft Punk to define the next chapter in EDM progression. That Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter eschewed bass drops and other Skrillexian cliches for a disco album that celebrates and rehabilitates a maligned era in music history was a downright radical move, and they completely pulled it off. They reboot the increasingly-stale genre by going back to the very beginning. “Giorgio by Moroder” is probably the best example: it’s literally a history lesson in the early days of electronic music by the godfather himself. While it undoubtedly provoked many a “WTF,” the music that jumps in after Moroder says “Everybody calls me Giorgio” beats the pants off any bass drop in recent memory. Later, at the eight-minute mark, a searing guitar riff takes the track over the top.
Every collaboration works brilliantly, and the choices of collaborators are inspired. Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear, Paul Williams and Todd Edwards are all fantastic on this record. Lord knows how much great stuff got left on the cutting room floor. Random Access Memories is a masterpiece because Daft Punk had the confidence to ignore the expectations to create the future, and to remind us of something we’d forgotten. Disco didn’t suck.
#2. Kanye West, Yeezus
What’s to say about Kanye that hasn’t already been said? I’m a longtime worshipper of his ability to innovate mainstream hiphop by synthesizing sounds from across the musical spectrum. Yeezus floored me from the first listen. Working with an army of producers, he’s thrown everything imaginable in there — trap beats, Justin Vernon, EDM, Nina Simone, Death Grips, soul samples, Hungarian rock, and Chief Keef singing like a sensitive thug. And it all hangs together, it works as a united whole.
There are no real cash-register hooks in there, just an endless stream of creativity. Sure, he’s pulling from the work of many great minds that have come before, but his ability to collage those styles and sounds is breathtaking. The lyrics are unquestionably the weak point, but when the music sounds this righteous, I’ll forgive another tired menage a trois reference. And the absurd genius of “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” helps me forgive a lot of bad lyrics.
I’ll leave it at that and turn it over to the late, great Lou Reed to close this particular argument:
There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit. But the guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.
Very often, he’ll have this very monotonous section going and then, suddenly —“BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!”— he disrupts the whole thing and we’re on to something new that’s absolutely incredible. That’s architecture, that’s structure — this guy is seriously smart. He keeps unbalancing you. He’ll pile on all this sound and then suddenly pull it away, all the way to complete silence, and then there’s a scream or a beautiful melody, right there in your face. That’s what I call a sucker punch.
Over and over, he sets you up so well — something’s just got to happen — and he gives it to you, he hits you with these melodies. (He claims he doesn’t have those melodic choruses anymore — that’s not true. That melody the strings play at the end of “Guilt Trip,” it’s so beautiful, it makes me so emotional, it brings tears to my eyes.) But it’s real fast cutting — boom, you’re in it. Like at the end of “I Am a God,” anybody else would have been out, but thenpow, there’s that coda with Justin Vernon, “Ain’t no way I’m giving up.” Un-fucking-believable. It’s fantastic.
#1. Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Nobody saw it coming, but suddenly, there it was. After most every Best Music of 2013 albums list had gone to press, with zero advance fanfare, in mid-December, and at midnight eastern — a new Beyoncé album, complete with music videos for every song, suddenly blanketed iTunes. (Until then, every story had claimed her attempts to record a fifth studio album were a complete debacle, with “50 tracks scrapped” and no release date in sight.) The Internet immediately melted down:
Fans flooded Twitter with more than 1.2 million messages about the album in the first 12 hours after its release…The day after the release, 25,392 original posts about Beyoncé appeared on the microblogging service Tumblr, roughly 26 times more the usual amount of posts that appear about her on an average day…And a recent hashtag search for Instagram photos and videos tagged “I woke up like this,” a reference to one of the catchier songs on the album, turns up close to 7,000 photos.
As a masterful marketing move, the unexpected album release was unprecedented and completely genius. But the content is what made Beyoncé a true game-changer. Perhaps taking a page from Yeezus, this record doesn’t bother to tantalize with huge pop hooks. Beyoncé doesn’t really give a damn if you play her songs on the radio. She’s digging deep into the most compelling sounds of R&B past and future, bringing together known hitmakers like Timbaland with rising stars like Noah “40” Shebib and discovering unknowns like Jordy “Boots” Asher. She knows what sounds good when she hears it, and she’s confident you’ll agree. That confidence, and the talent to back it up, makes her erstwhile competitors (pretentious Gaga, boring Katy, and washed-up Britney) look stupid. She’s been summoned to a higher league.
Beyoncé is an inspirational listen, grappling with a ton of mature themes with honest and raw lyrics, lifted always by Knowles’ rad vocals. “Drunk in Love,” like so many of the best cuts, is a bedroom jam for a sultry married lady to unleash on her awed husband. “XO” is a trumphant love song. And “Jealous” is a sensitive track about insecurity and inequality in a relaish. But it’s a fun record too: “Partition” is a slamming cut about banging in a limo. “Flawless” has Bey rapping hard over trap beats about how everyone needs to “bow down, bitches,” while “Superpower” features an absurdly great backing track and hook from Frank Ocean.
Everything I love about this record is encapsulated in “Rocket,” a six-and-a-half minute supersexual grande jamme. It begins with the words “Let me sit this ass on ya,” and escalates in a flurry of Timbaland bleeps and bloops and D’Angelo-inspired vocal stylings (with subtle assists from Miguel and Justin Timberlake) to a plateau 3.5 minutes in — then it takes off to a new realm of glory. I definitely yelled “JESUS CHRIST” the first time I heard this transition. It just keeps getting more intense, more funky and more seeeeeaaaayeeeeexxxxxy.
With Beyoncé, Queen Bey shows that she’s moved way beyond singles pop into the musical vanguard. Bow down, bitches.