Lists. I love 'em. You love 'em. I have 'em. You have 'em. I try to summarize my thoughts on music every year around this time for a few reasons. For one, I really like music but I also do it because it's difficult. I find expressing why a song or album is great to be really hard sometimes. Saying why something sounds good to you is a very personal and interesting thing. So, I challenge myself and try to tell others (and mostly myself) every year WHY I liked the music I did. This whole thing was written in one go at around 4 in the morning and was a struggle at times so forgive me if I ramble or don't make much sense at times but here's my list.
Top 10 Songs of 2013
10. Earl Sweatshirt - Hive
The hype surrounding Earl Sweatshirt's hotly anticipated debut album reached near astronomical heights this year. On top of the internet's general fascination with the now 19 year old rapper after his return from Samoan exile, Earl released three jaw dropping singles before the album's release, all of which could easily be featured on this. It may have ended up hurting "Doris" when all was said and done because those three tracks ("Hive", "Chum" and "Whoa") may very well be the best three tracks on the album. Regardless of all that, the standout among a trio of standout tracks is "Hive", featuring some of the best lines spit by any MC the entire year. Earl's second verse in particular is maybe the most on-point he's ever been. And the whole thing is topped off by a star making verse by frequent Odd Future contributor Vince Staples, who threatens to steal the entire show.
9. M.I.A. - Come Walk With Me
Between getting sued by the NFL and having her previously laughed at government surveliance conspiracy theories become a reality, M.I.A. had a real interesting, "told ya so" kind of year. The first half of "Come Walk With Me" is everything the haters...well, hated about M.I.A. It's an obnoxious (though incredibly catchy) and obvious sing-a-long lamentation about government outreach and invasion of privacy. And everything explodes into a insane, pounding club beat. The whole song is much more powerful middle finger than any Super Bowl performance.
8. Janelle Monae - Q.U.E.E.N.
2013's verse of the year isn't from a rapper. "Q.U.E.E.N." plays out like a pretty typical Janelle Monae song for most of its 5 plus minute runtime, meaning it's a great, funky pop song. However, near the end of the song, Monae feels like her message isn't completely clear so she decides to take a new approach. The result is a jaw dropping verse that tackles both race and gender issues head on, pulling zero punches and calling people of all wakes to creed. "Be the change you want to see" is not a original statement but it has never been delivered so definitively.
7. Rustie - Slasherr
Oh, the mighty power of the drop. We wait for it. We brace ourselves for it. But we always end up never quite ready for it. The drop most likely to have you spasming out in front of your computer screen comes from UK producer Rustie, who had himself a pretty damn good year and branched out into some interesting directions. (More on that later.) "Slasherr" is a pure club, dance track through and through but there is a lushness to the sound that only Rustie can produce. It's a track designed to make you dance but that doesn't mean there aren't layers to peel back here, if you're into that kind of thing. And even if you're not, that drop is still so good.
6. Majical Cloudz - Childhood's End
And now for something completely different. First things first, yeah, Majical Cloudz is a goddamn terrible band name. It's just the worst. But this song is really, really good so bear with me. The mission statement of Cloudz (ugh) is to do as much as possible with as little as possible. They make very minimal, sparse music and "Childhood's End" is the perfect example of that. The synthesized backing track sounds like something out of Mass Effect and the ambiguous, subtle lyrics can take any number of meanings. This is not feel good music. It's downright haunting and it's only enhanced by one of the most genuinely upsetting music videos of the year. Like the song, it never makes clear why you should be upset but sometimes letting you feel in the blanks is even more frightening.
5. Neko Case - Man
Neko Case has been doing this for a long time now. But her most arresting and powerful statement yet may have come nearly 20 years into her career. "I'm a man." To Neko Case, being a man isn't a matter of biology. It's a state of mind. She's more of a man than you'll ever be and she is not ashamed of that for one second. It's one of most declarative "I am who I am" songs I have ever heard and an inspiring sentiment no matter what gender you happen to be.
4. Sophie - Bipp
You may have heard the term "bubblegum pop" before. Well, "Bipp" is pure distilled sugar straight to the brain. Seriously, you may need to go to the dentist after listening to this. But like anything that's bad for you, it's delicious and dangerously habit forming. By far the catchiest song of 2013, there is no way that "Bipp", love it or hate it, won't be bouncing around in your head for hours to come to. Just make sure to floss afterwards.
3. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Arcade Fire, James Murphy and David Bowie all got in a room and made a great song. Who would have guessed it? "Epic" is one of many words ruined by the internet but there's really no other way to say it, this song is epic. There's just a ridiculous amount of stuff going on here. Arcade Fire have never really done "small." They have always been the band with the biggest aspirations and "Reflektor" may be one of their biggest accomplishments to date. There's a near countless amount of things to like here but my personal favorite is around the time Bowie enters the song and the horns kick in. God, those horns.
2. Kanye West - Blood on the Leaves
Let's be honest, not many people can get away with "Blood on the Leaves" Combining Nina Simone with a TNGHT beat should be straight blasphemy and to some people, it was. Using a song about the oppression of an entire race of people and rapping lines like "when you tried your first molly" over it? It's downright insulting. But as he almost always does, Kanye makes it works. He knows exactly what he's doing and he does it, like he does everything, with such a brazen cockiness that you can't help but respect in some weird, twisted way.
1. A$AP Ferg - Shabba (Remix)
Ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. These are all words that I could use to describe the remix to A$AP Ferg's "Shabba" but none of them even begin to do it justice. Where do you even begin with this thing? This is a song just made up of incredible moments. There's Shabba Ranks, the man himself, getting things started, Ferg's Yeezus impression, when Ferg just starts barking at the end of his verse, Migos topping off their incredible year with a pair of great verses. But my personal preference has to be Busta Rhymes' impression of an air horn. Just ridiculous.
Top Albums of 2013
10. Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
Honest to god rock bands are pretty hard to find nowadays. But Speedy Ortiz may be one of the purest and best of a dying breed. There's something almost quirky about a band with just a guitar, a bass, some drums and a voice. Major Arcana transports you back to the 90s when that was all that mattered and proves that front woman Sadie Dupuis would have taken her rightful place among the grunge greats of the era. It's simple music that anyone can enjoy and sometimes that all you need.
9. Drake - Nothing Was the Same
A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions about Drake. It's probably safe to call him the most polarizing member of Degrassi at this point. A lot of people seem to have a problem with his "started from the bottom" mantra, which is fair. The idea that Aubrey Graham started from the bottom is pretty ridiculous, to be fair. But Drake is a kind of ridiculous guy. Underneath it all, the dude is just a giant dork. He's not very self-aware, he's not really cut out for the cut throat rap world. So when he yelps about how "muthafuckas never loved us", you kind of laugh and nod but at the same time, it's kind of refreshing. There's nothing ironic about Drake. Take it or leave it, he is who he is. And while it's definitely fun to see show that other side on songs like "Worst Behavior", he is at his best when he embraces the real him. A sappy, sentimental, dork. Perhaps the best example of this comes on "Hold On, We're Going Home", a perfect sticky sweet pop song that's hard not to sing along to and harder still to hate. Even the music video is so corny and ridiculous but it's clear that Drake either doesn't care or doesn't even notice.
8. DJ Koze - Amygdala
DJ Koze, out of Germany, isn't exactly a new face in the techno/house scene. He's been producing remixes an singles for years but think of Amygdala as his coming out party. This isn't the pulse pounding techno you're expecting. It's restrained, understated and most of all, beautiful music. Koze brings in a cavalcade of other musicians to help him out, including Caribou and Matthew Dear but his real power lies his uncanny ability to blend these other artists seamlessly into his tracks making them part of the beat, not featured on it.
7. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
With the explosion of popularity rappers like Chief Keef, the Chicago rap scene goes hand in hand with violence but Chance the Rapper is different. He's a breath of fresh air to a city that desperately needed one. But he doesn't just differ in subject matter of his Chicago brethren. Chance abandons the trap beats for a much more 90s influenced production, clearly influenced by early Kanye, A Tribe Called Quest, among others. Chance laments the memory of the lives the violence of Chicago has taken throughout Acid Rap but it's also a record full of just fun tracks. It's a rap record about positivity and love, which is becoming rarer and rarer.
6. Danny Brown - Old
Compared to most of other rappers releasing their debut commercial album in 2013, Danny Brown is downright ancient. Largely unknown until 2011 when he released XXX, Danny Brown is 32 years old and just now hitting his stride. Like XXX and Danny Brown himself, Old is dual sided. Side A is filled with introspective tales from the Detroit hood where Danny grew up while side B erupts into a flurry of druggy club tracks. Danny Brown is a complex character and "Old" is a perfect self-reflection. He's a smart dude with a fantastic ear for all kinds of music, which evident by the perfect beat selection throughout the album. Listening to Old is like walking through a hip hop museum taking in the influences and production that got the genre to where it is today.
5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Like most people reading this right now, I miss Ryan Davis. Everyone has got their own ways of remembering Ryan. Going back and watching old videos and podcasts doesn't really work for me, personally. The best way for me has been Random Access Memories. I don't know of a single piece of media that more showcases the spirit of Ryan Davis than this album. That's obviously a very personal reason for the album being on this list but it's also just a great record in its own right. Random Access Memories is both a nostalgic love letter to the past as well as an ode to the future. The album wears its influences on its sleeve. Hell, most of time they just cut through the whole "influences" part and feature them on the record itself. It's luxury that many artists don't have but it's one that Daft Punk thankfully doesn't pass up on.
4. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
The bands of the future are going to look a lot like CHVRCHES. A bunch of dudes (in this case, two dudes and a girl) with synthesizers instead of guitars but if they're all even half as good as The Bones of What You Believe then we're in good shape. It's the best pop album of the year but it's more than just mindless superficial shallow pop music. The Bones of What You Believe is an emotional and personal record. It's an ambitious album that aims high and reaches its goals in seemingly effortless fashion.
3. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P individually released two of the best rap albums of the year in 2012. It only makes sense that the two would come together and release one of the best rap albums of 2013. Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music and El-P's Cancer 4 Cure were very rich with themes and cynical messages about race, government and just about everything in between. As Run the Jewels, they say fuck that. The duo are in full blown scorched earth mode, eradicating everyone and everything in their path. And the whole time they barely seem to break a sweat.
2. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
It's hard to imagine a person who listens to Cerulean Salt and doesn't hear something that strikes a cord. It's a record that so incredibly truthful and real that it can sometimes feel like Katie Crutchfield is plucking these songs right from your own life. There's not a whole lot to the music on Cerulean Salt. A lot of the songs are just Crutchfield and a guitar, sometimes with a backing drum track but the emotional honesty behind every song elevates the album to one of the best of the year.
1. Kanye West - Yeezus
Yep. I racked my brain real hard. I really did. I tried to figure out if there was any album this year that I could put at this number 1 spot instead of Yeezus but putting anything else in this spot just seemed disingenuous. There's no album that I went back to more this year than Yeezus. It may not be the best rap album of the year. It may not have the best lyrics or flow but no other album this year could top the visceral experience of the 40 wild minutes in Kanye West's insane mind. It's an unrelenting, pounding, no holds barred assault on your senses. Say what you will about Kanye (and many have) but no one can say that the guy doesn't have a vision and he's intent on sticking to it and accepting no compromises. They say you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Well, last I checked Kanye is still breathing so that can only mean one thing.