Hello readers. You might remember me from my time at the JFP as the writer of the bi-monthly column “The Key of G,” where I covered local and national music, as well as just musing about different topics related to music in general.
One of the things I liked to do was to make top 10 release lists at the end of the given year. While I did enjoy that, I always felt a little disingenuous, because I don’t listen to that much new music; I spend most of my time digging for and listening to old records. Hence, my top 10 lists would barely be made, as I squeezed in a few listens right at the end of the year to go with the few albums from artists that I always check for. Further, I never kept a running list, so my top 10 would have omissions, on top of my already poor sample size. (For instance, I somehow left Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio” off of last year’s list).
But this year has been different. I made it my mission to listen to as many new releases as possible, and to document them. What I have now is a list of 60 new albums that I have listened to and ranked in order. Mind you, this list is not meant to be definitive; there is a lot that I didn’t listen to for several reasons, mainly just because there isn’t enough time in the day to hear everything. I did listen to almost everything from artists that I am a fan of, which is something I have done a poor job of over the years. I also branched out to some artists I never was a fan of before, even though I knew who they were and ignored them on purpose. The results are fairly predictable. I also discovered some new artists I had never heard of at all, which was quite nice in most instances.
So, over the next several weeks, I am going to present you all with a ranked list of the 60 albums I listened to this year. Again, this list is not intended to be definitive at all; it is just a list of what I listened to, ranked solely by my opinions. I am sure there will be some disagreement and head scratching, but some of you might also see some new things that interest you that you go check out. And that’s what it’s all about anyway. Thanks for reading and indulging my opinions.
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10) Dosh “Milk Money” Dosh, who is from Minneapolis, is a multi-instrumentalist who makes experimental beat driven electronic music, with an organic flair, mostly from the marimba and Rhodes piano he normally plays as part of his live set up. He creates lush songs with the help of an array of samplers and loop machines, to go along with the various keys and other percussion instruments he employs. “Milk Money” dropped at the end of October, and it immediately shot straight up into my top 10. And not really because this album is necessarily groundbreaking, or even a vast departure from his past work, but because it is the next in line for an artist who is consistently good and constantly challenging. The first 6 tracks come and go pretty quickly, each clocking in at less than 5 minutes. And in this day and age of laptop producers and beatmakers, who can easily recreate anything an entire band can do, and in far less time, what Dosh does with the live looping can almost seem out of date and potentially pointless. With that probably in the back of his mind, Dosh closes the album with “Legos (For Terry),” a 25 minute exercise in what his capabilities are, and an answer to the questions anyone might have about the relevance of what he does. The song meanders around, teasing themes and drops, before settling in during the final third. Everything I love about Dosh is present, and in giving himself time to breathe, we get probably the best glimpse in his career of what it is he thinks he is doing, no matter what we think. “Milk Money” might not be the best thing he has ever done, but it is perfect for me in 2013.
9) Charles Bradley “Victim of Love” Throughout the course of these reviews, I have mentioned two of my three favorite current record labels, Anticon and Stones Throw, with the third being Brooklyn-based Daptone Records, home of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Budos Band, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and many other, including Charles Bradley. And how can you not love Mr. Bradley, with the incredible back-story of being abandoned by his parents to live a life of poverty with his grandmother, before living for a stint on the streets, making what money he could by taking gigs as a James Brown impersonator, a job that would remain his only foray in the music world until 2011 with his debut release, “No Time for Dreaming,” on Daptone. By then, he was 63 years old. (If you haven’t yet, check out the documentary “Charles Bradley: Soul of America.” It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring. The scenes where he works with a tutor to help him learn to write so he can write down the lyrics of all the songs he pens is just absolutely amazing. You can stream it on Netflix). “No Time for Dreaming” topped many lists in 2011, and for good reason. It was one of the most authentic sounding records of the year and was totally imbibed with a soulfulness that a lot of upstart singers in their 20s and wannabe throwback bands were furiously trying to recreate in their own music in 2011. “Victim of Love” just keeps going with what worked on the debut. Fellow Daptone band Menahan Street Band provides the music for the songs written mostly by Bradley himself. What’s really cool here is that with a second album we are starting to see a progression in Bradley, which on one hand is to be expected, but also a little surprising considering that he could play it easy and still do fine. It reminds me in some ways of the progression made by artists like Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and the Temptations. It will be really cool to hear what he can do as he moves through his career, because he has plenty to say and the pipes to keep it all coming out.
8) Tricky “False Idols” Tricky, aka Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws, is an English producer, musician, actor, rapper, and artist. Most people got on board with Tricky because of his guest appearance on the legendary 1991 album “Blue Lines” from Massive Attack, one of the earliest progenitors of trip-hop, a genre that emerged in the early 90s that basically devoured hip hop, jazz, dub reggae, rock, and everything else and spit out moody, sparse, and heavy hitting beats and songs. Kind of a post-modern renaissance for the MPC. While working with Massive Attack, Tricky recorded a song with a female singer, and played the song for band, but they didn’t dig it. So Tricky decided to record on his own with the singer, the result being his debut “Maxinquaye,” one of the more ubiquitous albums played in smoky college dorms in the mid-90s. The next couple albums were really good, continuing on with what he did best: dark, trip hoppy songs that featured his sing-songy style of rapping coupled with a female vocalist (I always just jealously assumed he put whatever woman he was sleeping with at the time on each record). I lost touch with Tricky through most of the 00s, as he made a few genre shifts, which he was certainly free to do, but didn’t really appeal to my ears. I had read that he was releasing an album this year, and that it would represent a return to form. That can be a tricky (yeah, I know) proposition for any artist, especially a guy credited with essentially helping to create a genre of music. I was a couple months late getting “False Idols” onto my iPod, but it immediately shot up the list one the first listen; in fact, before some re-shuffling, it was as high as #4. It is a fantastic record and it really does play like a bit of a return to the normal. That might be its only weakness though, really. With some time between this and the records it sounds more like, we miss a little of the depth that comes from hearing records build on previous work over the course of some years. But still, when taken alone, this is a great album from one of my all-time favorites and it will get plenty of spins moving forward.
7) Emancipator “Dusk To Dawn” Emancipator is the stage name of electronic producer Douglass Appling. I had never really considered him to be a trip hop producer, but that is how he is characterized on his Wikipedia page and in a couple of on-line reviews I have read. I always have thought of Emancipator as a downtempo producer, although, as you have maybe gotten the sense of if you’ve been reading my reviews, electronic genres can start getting murky and blurred, and, honestly, quite arbitrary. I can’t really describe how much I love Emancipator. I listen to a lot of music for the inherent weirdness, especially when it comes to EDM. To be sure, there is a certain psychedelic weirdness to what he does, but in the electronic pantheon, Emancipator is a little more straightforward, as downtempo kind of tends to be. His is a style that is very melodic and very emotional, with hip hop beats driving it all and a nice touch of live instrumentation (flutes, piano, saxophone, xylophones, etc.) that helps to keep it grounded in reality. I guess I can describe it best as the music that would be playing on an elevator if that elevator was taking you to the moon for a yoga class that was being taught by a guy who DJed for 10 straight hours in a chill room at a rave the night before. What sets this apart from a lot of the other downtempo music I dig is the emotional aspect. Music can take you all over the place, and Emancipator has always done that for me. The lushness of the production, the perfectly mixed drums, and the brilliantly placed electronic flourishes make the album pretty much perfect, at least to my ears.
6) The Uncluded “Hokey Fright” The Uncluded, which is rapper Aesop Rock and singer Kimya Dawson, is definitely one of the most intriguing collaborations of 2013. Aesop Rock is known mostly for his cerebral raps, heavy on the words, and dense with wordplay and vocabulary. Kimya Dawson is known as the quirky, folky singer from the indie band the Moldy Peaches, who gained their prominence on the “Juno” soundtrack. I have been a big Aesop Rock fan since his days on Mush, then later Def Jux, and more recently Rhymesayers. His albums “Float” and “Labor Days” were part of my soundtrack to the last couple of years of college and the weird few years after. I didn’t know much about Kimya, except for the aforementioned “Juno” connection. (I thought that was Ellen Page singing the first few times I saw the film. Can’t get much past me, apparently). I am not really the biggest fan of her style and I have honestly never heard anything else from the Moldy Peaches. However, I was excited for this record, based on the couple tracks I had heard on Rhymesayers record store day releases and her guest spot on Aesop’s “Skelethon” from last year. It just works so well, the combination of Aesop’s gruff voice with her almost childlike singing, which is kind of rough at the same time. The result is an album that is pretty much perfect. They both do what they do best and compliment each other well when not staying out of each other’s way. There are some straight up acoustic songs, some songs with beats, and some songs with both. It is all so weird, but in the really good way. The theme of the collaboration is the emotions dealing with death, especially that of friends, which both artists had gone through in the past couple of years. There is a childlike wonder playing throughout the album in the lyrics, which is driven home by Dawson’s singing style. The sum total is a record that is devastating at times, uplifting at others, and sprinkled with a little humor. It is fantastic and reminds me what it is I love about music and collaboration, especially across genres.
5) Young Fathers “Tape 2” “Tape Two” is the final release on the list from Anticon, a label that had a very strong year. Young Fathers is without doubt my favorite group that I have heard new in the past couple years. They hail from Edinburg, Scotland , but the members have roots in Nigeria, Liberia, and …..Maryland, and they wear all of the influences from these places on their respective sleeves. As such, they make music that defies most attempts at categorization. It is like nothing you have ever heard, to the point that when I heard it last year for the first time, it completely blew my mind, which is difficult. I explain it like this: “Afro-beat inspired gutter-punk hip hop from the streets of Scotland.” That’s about as good as I can do. I sent “Tape One” around to a lot of people early this year, and everyone agreed that it was unique, and, even better, everyone I shared it with loved it. Needless to say, the hype was there for “Tape Two” this Spring. And it delivers. “Tape Two” picks up where its predecessor left off. Dark, bass heavy beats; very interesting samples and influences; and builds and drops that conjure emotions just as much as the lyrics, which are so good, considering they are paired with music that is so cool that it doesn’t even lyrics. “Tape Two” takes a lot of risks (how familiar are you with noise rock samples in hip hop songs) and it is those tricks that make the guys so endearing. They are brutally honest and adventurous with what they do. I really wonder how many people out there really dig Young Fathers, to the point where I don’t know if they are a fun little secret that I share with a few friends, or if they are on the cusp. I can’t imagine them getting big, but if they did the world would be a better place I believe.
4) The Heliocentrics “13 Degrees Of Reality” “13 Degrees Of Reality” is definitely my sleeper pick of the year. The Heliocentrics are a somewhat mysterious London-based band that I was first introduced to through their work with Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke, the founder of Ethio-jazz. They make this kind of psyche-jazz music that has roots in traditional African genres, free jazz, breakbeat, world instrumentation, and psychedelic space funk. In other words, it sounds like music made specifically for me. To top it off, their songs sound like they would have been perfectly in place four decades ago. I absolutely love their first album, 2007’s “Out There,” because, again, it just sounds absolutely perfect to my ears. “13 Degrees Of Reality” is just utterly amazing. The entire record teeters on the edge of insanity, but never really falls off the deep-end into chaos (which, for the record, I would have no problem with). Instead, breakbeats that would make Madlib blush hold things in place, allowing the players to really stretch things out. Speaking of the breaks, the drummer is Malcolm Catto, who just happens to be DJ Shadow’s tour drummer; he has also worked with J-Rocc, The Poets of Rhythm, and Madlib, most notably on “Shades of Blue,” the Blue Note remix album. I say all of this because there is a certain serendipity that sometimes exists with the music I love, be it similar influences, converging sounds, or Kevin Bacon like degrees of connection. “13 Degrees of Reality” is not for everyone, especially if you don’t like weirder jazz grooves, but if you do, do yourself a favor and cop this one. It is special.
3) Danny Brown “Old” If you’ve been reading along thus far, you’ve read that I have mentioned three record labels that I rank as my favorite currently operating labels: Stones Throw, Daptone, and Anticon. I can probably go ahead and add another, even newer label, Fool’s Gold. Fool’s Gold is a Brooklyn based label owned by A-Trak (legendary turntablist and tour DJ for Kanye) that has been running since 2007, with an intended goal of “bridging the worlds of hip hop and electronic music.” They flaunt a very impressive stable of artists that does in fact seem to bridge different worlds together. And, for our purposes, Fool’s Gold released two of my top 3 favorite records this year. Here at number 3 is Detroit MC Danny Brown’s “Old.” It would be difficult to explain how hyped I was for this album to come out. His previous, “XXX,” is one of those albums that is just so great, and real, and funny, and vulgar, and everything else really. It would be completely unfair of me to say that he is like the new ODB, but that is the best that I can do. “XXX” was built on desperation, and you can hear that hunger to succeed, or just to stay alive, in almost every song, whether it was about dodging crack-heads in Detroit or crushing up and snorting pills. “Old” finds Danny Brown in a different place. Well, kind of. Brown has seemingly worked past the desperation (well, kind of) and is working out now how to best live his life after that. We had heard leading up to the album that it was going to be a little different, with Brown stating that the fellatio (that’s not how he said it) jokes would be at a minimum. And that is pretty true. The title of the record refers to his age and time in the game, but it also is a nod to the fans who hope to hear their hero keep making music like his old stuff. And Brown, being in tune with what the people want, gives us both. “Old” is split into two halves (side A, side B), with side A roughly being made up of more introspective tracks and side B being everything else. The split isn’t really that clean, as Brown keeps the themes and styles woven together into a tapestry of harrowing hood tales, wordplay, dark humor, x-rated profanity, and a sort of meta-boastfulness that accepts the reality of the present as a mix of the old past and the uncertainty of the future. Check out “Wonderbread,” a song about going to the store to get a loaf of bread, and all the things one sees on that trip; it is filled with fantastic allegory that keeps Danny Brown in the discussions about top MCs in the game. The production on the album is fantastic, ranging across styles, but handled by Brown effortlessly, allowing him to showcase his skill. Overall, “Old” is an amazing album by an artist who helps represents what I want hip hop to be like in 2013 better than almost anyone else.
2) Boards of Canada “Tomorrow’s Harvest” It had been since 2005’s “Campfire Headphase” since we last heard from BoC before a mysterious 12” single popped up in a few stores on Record Store Day. This record contained a snippet of music and the beginnings of a code that would eventually be deciphered by fans, by following transmissions from the web as well as from BBC and the Cartoon Network, amongst others. Once the code was cracked, users got access to a secret website that began to reveal the details of “Tomorrow’s Harvest” the Scottish electronic duo’s (they are brothers) eighth record, to be released on June 5. (Click HERE http://www.spin.com/articles/boards-of-canada-tomorrows-harvest-new-album-code/">http://www.spin.com/articles/boards-of-canada-tomorrows-harvest-new-album-code/ to check out the whole story with the codes. It’s pretty cool). Musically speaking, this is by far my favorite record of the year; I’ve probably listened to it more than any other record from this year. It’s beyond good. More so than traditional songs, BoC creates soundscapes that are rich with layers of texture and ambience. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” almost totally eschews the melody they played with earlier in their career in favor of these textures, and that is what makes the album so interesting to listen to. Without a melody to hold on to, the listener is guided into focusing on the groove, and more importantly, the progression it takes towards its conclusion, or destruction. It can be challenging. If melody is almost completely absent, then the drums are an afterthought. Unlike some of the previous albums that featured hip hop drums and heavier beats, the drums in “Tomorrow’s Harvest” come in and out as they please to connect a track or an idea onto something more tangible than the atmosphere. A lot of the same ideas as far as beats are concerned that BoC have employed over time are present, but used a lot more sparingly, just popping up for short bursts. It is really to cool to me to think about an artist using negative space with their drum programming. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” is best listened to in it’s entirety, preferably on headphones. There’s a lot going on, and it takes the full record to hear everything resolved. Either way, I can’t recommend this one enough. I knew from the first listen that this one could be the one. Until 3 weeks later.
1) Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels” It’s weird looking back on the year to realize that my two favorite records of the year came out within three weeks of each other in the same month. (“Run the Jewels dropped on June 26). I didn’t put much though into it at the time, even though these two would go on to hold onto their spots together for six months. Run the Jewels is rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P. Let’s talk about El-P first. In the late 90s, there was a label called Rawkus that would represent the era’s East Coast underground hip hop better than anyone. The label’s first album release was “Funcrusher Plus,” from El-P’s group Company Flow (Mr. Len and Bigg Jus are the other members), a group that would be very influential to underground hip hop, but never really achieve any mainstream popularity (not that that was the point). The album has kind of reached legendary status, due to both the lyricism and subject matters, but also for the production. El-P’s beats were thought is a futuristic, like somehow he knew what we would want music to sound like in the future. Let me re-phrase that. His beats made it appear that he knew how hip hop would sound in the future if the world followed the path it was on: his beats are schizophrenic, paranoid, and industrial. His music turned a lot of people off, and inspired far more, but its lasting legacy is that it was kind of prophetic. Artists like Kanye have been imbibing their sound with electronic flairs, due in large part to the popularity of genres like dubstep. Some of the music that is being lauded as ahead of its time or groundbreaking now contain ideas that El-P has been employing for years. I am not saying that Kanye ripped El-P off; I am just touching on the idea that El-P kind of predicted some of this. Now, enter Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, who got his start in 2000 with a guest spot on Outkast’s “Stankonia.” Killer Mike has a harder sound than Outkast, and Goodie Mob even, that has one foot in the streets and the other in politics and social themes. (I have heard him compared to early Ice Cube). El-P and Mike have becoming really good friends over the past couple of years, and they collaborated in 2012, Mike appearing on El-P’s “Cancer 4 Cure” and El-P producing Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (both in my top ten from last year). Something about them together just works; El-P’s once futuristic and now temporally in place beats make the perfect backdrop to Mike’s more aggressive rapping style. I remember back in the day reading an interview where El-P said that he though his beats were real street sounding, even though he got lumped in with the avant-garde section of the backpack crowd. I always agreed with him, because Company Flow always sounded to me what it was like walking to the subway in NYC. All that aside, the two compliment each other so well. The beats help define a sound for Killer Mike that is forward thinking and very southern, as El-P has toned it back a little with the abrasiveness. And Mike’s rapping fits right in there with what El-P does: it’s hard, in a complimentary way where you can hear each artist’s appreciation for the other. This year’s “Run the Jewels” (on the aforementioned Fool’s Gold) finds this new partnership coming full circle. “Run the Jewels” (which is both the group name and album name) is a true collaboration; the artists work together on each track, bouncing back and forth like they have been doing this for years. The chemistry is tight. The topics are what we expect from each guy: gritty tales and dirty politics from Mike and paranoid, scatterbrained observations from El-P, all over another batch of El-P produced beats. It is exactly what hip hop should sound like. Two dudes rapping over beats. That’s it. And sure, there are albums that are “better” than this of course, but I knew when I heard this one that it WAS the one. For me at least. It’s what I want to hear. And that’s what this whole project was all about.
Thank you so much to everyone who has read. It means a lot to me. I had a great time listening and then writing about it and it is possible only because you guys read it. Hopefully you heard something you liked and checked it out further. But at least no one beat me up. That I am most grateful for. Peace.