“How much time is John spending on the intro?” NOT MUCH! Here you are, the top ten of 2013 10. Kanye West – Yeezus
For all we talk about Kanye West (and we talk about him a lot), we do not talk about how dependent he is on other artists. His early production work was marked by sped-up samples. His first album ends on a 12-minute track with a spoken personal history (WE WILL COME BACK TO THIS ON OTHER WRITE-UPS LOL). He mirrored that on Graduation with “Big Brother,” frustration built over years of being in Jay Z’s shadow. West doesn’t seem as concerned with those levels anymore. His ego is backed by commercial and critical success. He still talks about respect and genius during his concerts, but they appear in his work more as themes than subject matter.
As Kanye is at the top, he does not have to bother producing to others’ whims. He produces what he wants (Hi, My Name Is My Name!) and his own stuff. His music geekery is unparalleled, and he has the means to make any collaboration he wants happen. Only he is capable musically of incorporating Evian Christ, King L, TNGHT, Daft Punk, Justin Vernon, and Chief Keef on the same album. Only he is able to practically make that happen.
Does Random Access Memories happen without Kanye’s “Stronger”? (Once I played a Daft Punk song at a college event and someone said it was a Kanye West techno remix.) Does Bon Iver win Grammys if Vernon wasn’t all over My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy? Probably not! It’s conjecture, but there is a huge amount of exposure that comes with a Kanye collaboration. The other side is West will mold someone into what he needs. Vernon goes from wilderness art-noodler to West’s gruff choral voice of divination. West wrenches the songs he samples away from their original meaning so he can express his own ideas. Mostly this works, but sometimes it makes you cringe (for instance, the bundle of issues for using “Strange Fruit” on “Blood on the Leaves.”). Musically, Kanye West is a God and he does not care what you think about what he does.
Lyrically, West still has awkward moments (“Pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist” “I’m a Rapolic priest” “I be speaking Swaghili” from the end of “I’m In It” are particular instances. The fisting imagery earlier in the song might also make you uncomfortable, but maybe you should just expand your horizons and try some new things) but he is clever and funny as a lyricist where he can pull of ridiculous boasts (“Send It Up”) and silly frankness (“Hey, you remember where we first met/ OK, I don’t remember where we first met” on “Bound 2”) alongside the political and social weight of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.”
This album is probably at ten because of the unrealistic expectations of Kanye West. Yeezus is magnificent, but for some dumb reason, that seems like a low bar for West. He is as abrasive as this set of songs, but they are both some of the most interesting things that happened in 2013.
9. Disclosure – Settle
In 2002, Eminem went after Moby on a single with the line “Nobody listens to techno” as techno was the catchall term for electronic music in 2002. There is more familiarity with electronic music and its subgenres now, but it is still lends itself to a host of subdivisions and classifications. The frequently used term EDM is humorously broad (electronic + dance + music) but reserved for the most popular and bombastic parts of the genre. The most knowledgeable electronic fans all have their own quirks, dividing lines, and preferences. I once spoke with a guy who really hated Justice because they just took what he called rock music elements and applied them to electronic production. That’s fair, but I still enjoy †.
When Settle came out, there was a lot of classification discussion that was over my head. Some critics I read said it was house-oriented but also used elements of one genre before shifting to another one on the next song. That willingness to hop between genres probably contributed to the success of Settle. Disclosure never dwell on an idea for too long. They used nine guest vocalists (mostly British, very hip) and manipulate vocal samples on the other songs, giving each a distinct feel. Through it all, Disclosure are able to build an alluring groove and style. It’s infectious stuff. It’s great dance music and I say that from dancing to a lot of it while brushing my teeth. That’s probably the ideal setting for dance, yes?
8. Beyoncé – BEYONCÉ
Of all the quickly announced and unexpected album releases of 2013, Beyoncé’s was the most surprising. It was surprising in that there was no advance notice at all. With Jay Z’s album, Yeezus, and Eminem’s album, there were varying degrees of notice. There were commercials, retail solicitations, live TV appearances, and some of the usual chatter that surrounds big pop artists releasing albums. There was none of that for BEYONCÉ. One night, it was just there. Knowles’ album release was also surprising since most of her other albums usually came with a monster single. But you can’t have an advance single without a promotional period. Driving around this week, one hip-hop station was playing “Drunk In Love.” Another was playing “Yoncé.” Pop radio has been blasting “XO.” If you are a massive star and you do not designate a single, does EVERY SONG become a single? Sure, there’s a video for each song, but the videos seem more interested in aesthetic and tone than garnering streaming views.
The songs are interested in balancing marriage, sexuality, and motherhood. It is the most forthright Knowles has been regarding the latter two subjects. The slinky sexuality on the album is alluring and enticing, (it’s Beyoncé! [Also, good lord those videos! Is it hot in here or is it just my iTunes video player!]) even with a President Clinton mishap during the backseat encounter in “Partition.” The parental tribulations hit on the final two tracks on the album, where Knowles sings to her unborn child lost to miscarriage and her daughter Blue Ivy whose voice joins the end of “Blue.” Interestingly, the last two songs are more about Beyoncé’s relationship with her child rather than the family unit as a whole. The sexy songs are more concerned with matters of matrimony. For all their eroticism, it feels like the songs were waiting for Knowles to be firmly entrenched as a wife and mother before dropping.
For all the respect and accolades Knowles receives, BEYONCÉ had some of the most open discussion of Knowles as a figure in popular culture. Some discussions were silly but some were worthwhile (especially the discussion of the album in regards to Ms. Knowles’ LGBTQ fanbase). BEYONCÉ was able to dazzle and surprise while the perception around Knowles shifted from unconditional love. The mood seems more appreciative without fear of asking critical questions. That is not to say this has been a complete turn to it, but at least some steps were made towards that. Despite the discussions, BEYONCÉ the album reminds the world of how adventurous and interesting Knowles can be despite the preconceptions surrounding BEYONCÉ the woman.
7. Drake – Nothing Was The Same
Conceivably, Drake could have put two albums out this year. If you take the deluxe tracks from this album, “The Motion”, “Girls Love Beyoncé”, “Trophies”, “5AM in Toronto”, “We Made It”, and some re-works from things left off Take Care, this generation could have had their own Sweat/Suit. I don’t know if it is a business plan, artistic decision, or sample issue, but Drake leaves fire off of Nothing Was The Same.
Not just regular fire (“5AM in Toronto”) but also emotional fire (“Girls Love Beyoncé”). The variety of Drake tracks makes you wonder what qualifications he (and I would guess his main producer 40) have for album tracks. “Girls Love Beyoncé” is more interesting and less self-congratulatory than “From Time.” “5AM” drags less than “305 To My City” but the inclusion of different tracks doesn’t sink the whole thing.
Speaking of variety, people have many opinions of Drake. Some call him soft while others accept his place as one of the more gifted rappers going. Due to his acting history, it’s easy to call him fake, but some of the emotion he puts out there makes you wonder what is realer than a son lamenting their mother’s depression? In a way, Drake can be whatever people want to think, right? On “Worst Behavior”, he talks about getting up early to shoot Degrassi and then proceeds to rip “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems.” He lets Jhené Aiko stroke his ego, but then fixates on exes and missed chances with female friends like eight other places on the album (Aside: I might have ‘made’ a five minute long mix which is just loops of two weird Drake lines – from “Furthest Thing” and “Come Thru” – called ‘WORST’). On many parts of Nothing Was The Same, Drake is an asshole. Ok, most parts. But it’s interesting to see the persona jump from success to regret, from gloating to contemplating the mortality of aging relatives and the fragility of life. Drake’s not the “voice of the generation” because who knows if those things even exist. He does reflect a lot of the foibles, fears, and opinions of the generation though.
6. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
When I do these lists, I start with a Word document containing the title of every album/ tape from X year I have on my computer (and records that I don’t have digital for [“Oh, Johnny Cool Guy over here, dropping that he has a record player.”]). Then I go through first taking out things that don’t make the cut. Next I begin to number things. It’s not scientific and takes too long (This is February after all). I usually start with general intervals and then fit the exact numbers in later. The first thing I marked off was that Run the Jewels was in my top ten.
Being so sure of its place made me realize I would probably give the album short shrift talking about it. It’s the most cohesive rap release of the year. Killer Mike and El-P come with ten banging tracks that cake Mike’s R.A.P. Music with a grime and scuzz absent on that release. It’s just really good. El-P and Mike push each other so it’s not just an album rehashing their previous collaborations like “Butane” and “Tougher Colder Killer.” Those pieces were hints. “Get It” and “Job Well Done” are fully realized bombastic collaborations.
5. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Here is a slightly relevant Vampire Weekend story: In college, two friends were talking about music. One friend was involved in music and finding new music and such pursuits. The other friend liked music but liked arguing more. We were talking about songs of the year. It was December and we were not studying for finals so lots of smarts going around. My music friend posited that “M79” was the best song released in 2008. My other friend did not accept this essentially because the idea of this preppy East Coast band who poked fun at the conventions that bore them (but not enough fun) was unsatisfactory. What other songs came out this year, she asked? Not much really, my music friend said. That’s not true, as “A Milli” and “Single Ladies” both came out that year. “M79” is a great song. This story is nothing more than a piece to tell you that the first Vampire Weekend album came out in 2008.
Vampire Weekend were a New York band then, but not in an obvious or necessary way like the Strokes or Billy Joel. They were a New York band that reflected an increasing number of young New Yorkers who would work jobs in nebulous young fields while the rest of the world caught up. Sometimes these New Yorkers move. For Vampire Weekend’s next album, they moved west. Contra wasn’t grounded anywhere in particular (except for “California English”) but VW gave into their electronic impulses wholeheartedly on this record. They were still a band, but they were drifting from the typical indie rock sounds. Lead single “Cousins” had guitar riffs right off of Spanish-language pop radio. Live drums were beefed up with drum pads. Every instrument was pitch-shifted. Indie rock has bounced closer to pop and the monogenre the past few years, but the ball had just started to fall in 2010.
Through the first two albums, Vampire Weekend held on to everything you could use to criticize them – appropriated tones from African and Hispanic pop, string parts that wavered between twee and pretentious depending on who was complaining, and god, just their general manner. Are they in on it or are they really like that?
Five years and three albums in, the audience at large has become a bit more accepting of Vampire Weekend. They are self-aware to a greater degree than they were when they first started. Modern Vampires of the City is more focused than Contra while breaking out of the raw boxes of their self-titled album. A bit of this is probably due to producer Ariel Rechtshaid. After working on their own for so long, a fresh voice and brain helped open up Vampire Weekend. Rechtshaid is having a moment (Hi, Haim and Sky Ferreira albums!) as a hip producer now so he was an ideal person to bring along the songs the band has been kicking around for the past few years.
Modern Vampires of the City brought back some of the faux-classical flourishes of the self-titled first album. Instead of pop laments regarding seeing people on campus and fucking on Cape Code, Vampire Weekend’s latest is more concerned about death and existence, yet somehow I am trying to say that the band has gone away from the cloying pretension affixed to them earlier. They have! The barrage of references hold more weight and come across more matter-of-factly than on previous releases. Ezra Koenig and Rostram Batmanglij seem less eager to impress lyrically. They are making the most out of the lyrics.
So much of Modern Vampires of the City is about getting away from overbearing systems (religion? economy? lovers? life?) so it makes sense the band would shake off their old preconceptions. They sound like Vampire Weekend, no duh, but everything rings more true and has a new purity. Once you cast everything aside, you are free to be yourself. You might be completely different, but in some cases you might just be more at ease.
4. Deafheaven – Sunbather
There are enthusiast cultures – like putting in REAL HOURS for a hobby – that are so inclusive and off-putting to the rest of the world that you wonder how the fuck anyone could ever get into that shit? For example, most adult people enjoy wine to varying degrees. Most of these adults enjoy sitting around during the summer and killing a few bottles. Vintage and vineyard and age are immaterial to them. They just like the tasty grape juice and its fuzzy feelings. Then there are the obsessives who get into all the details and information that the rest of the world could not care less about. However, these enthusiasts did not start out like this. There was a time when they were just drinking wine and curious. Then they went down the wine hole.
During this wine hole, they began to taste things they liked and things they didn’t like. They could also describe and express themselves more accurately regarding their preferences. “I like this because. . . ” or “I hate this because. . . ” Along the way, they also filled in a knowledge spectrum about things they liked to varying degrees. Various wine facts and terminology and trivia and whatever else. They can talk your ear off about burgundies and bourdeauxs just like metalheads can talk your ear off about death versus black metal.
So you see Jimmy Wino and he knows his shit. At one point, though, there was a wine he tasted and whatever it was about this wine, it hooked him. It got him thinking about wine. It got him dreaming about wine. Sunbather is the metal equivalent of that.
This is the metal album that hooks people. Real metal fans argue about how metal it actually is (“It’s really more post-rock”). Things that snarl and thump like this should not be popular. People I know who do not like metal or hard rock or whatever do admit that Deafheaven’s stuff is pretty wonderful. I post a bunch of dumb stuff on my Tumblr, which is not a widely seen blog by any standards. However, I posted a Deafheaven song and there are over two-thousand likes and reblogs.
I don’t think metal is at a point where shows are overrun with former hipster kids trying to wrest hold of the genre from its long-standing fans. Heavier bands are getting more exposure thanks to metal focused writers on sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. Some people will hate Deafheaven for that, but a bunch more people will get really into their anthemic and melodic brand of metal. From there, they will search. The searchers continue the scene.
3. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
In my (much) younger years, I played a lot of soccer. My coach for a long time competed at a high level so he used this experience to mold a ragtag group of adolescents into a functioning soccer team. If I recall correctly, we wrecked the shit of everyone in the Catholic league. We had enough potential that Coach convinced us all to join a spring soccer league as well as our Catholic Youth Organization fall league. I had to drop baseball to do so, which was fine because I was terrible at baseball. Between fifth and seventh grade, I played a lot of soccer. Mostly I was a defenseman as I was slow and prone to kicking balls inaccurately. I was able to lumber enough to slightly intimidate kids approaching and allow our midfielders to get back and our forwards to cover ground awaiting my indiscriminate downfield kicks. During the summer before eighth grade, the middle school that three-quarters of my soccer team attended hired our coach. This meant he couldn’t coach CYO anymore. Most of the team would join him on the public school team. Those of us remaining merged with the seventh grade team. Those dudes already had their mojo going, so us leftovers mostly sat on the bench.
You did not know I played soccer because it was a different part of my younger life. I don’t really talk about it outside of stories of the crazy fucking parent who appointed himself assistant coach but was never allowed to sit on coach’s side. However, if I ran into you and you knew me in seventh grade, that might be the first thing you ask about. It’s how people say Los Campesinos! changed, but really they just aren’t talking about the same shit from 2007. Singing about 2007 indie culture is their seventh grade. You can’t heap praise on No Blues for being a return to form, as that’s not exactly it. Musically, Tom Campesinos! has evolved to craft songs that are more complex and more sonically lush. The return you speak of is Gareth Campesinos!’s embrace of wearing his obsessions on his sleeve and responding with a hearty “Don’t CAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARE.” to anyone who complains about his soccer lyrics.
No Blues follows up the excellent Hello Sadness but is not burdened with the break-up themes of the earlier album. I don’t mean this as a slight. In their Heat Rash magazine, Gareth admits that his lyrics were colored by a break-up immediately preceding the recording time. Musically, Hello Sadness runs LC! at their most professional sounding – the pop songs glisten, the dirges wail, and the guitar solos shred (Hello Sadness has the most moments amongst LC! releases where you can yell “GUITAR!” before a solo). Yeah, the band sounds different but they have also gone from this to this to this. Los Campesinos! aren’t constantly reinventing themselves, but they are constantly striving to be better.
They are made better this time by being loose. The words are more literary than literal. The songs find their way with pianos, samples, and cheerleaders swapped in for LC!’s previous musical motifs. They aren’t embarrassed by those old sounds, but why not try some new toys, yeah?
I saw Los Campesinos! last month. They had a new bassist and they were still a wonderful live band. After the show, I bought some t-shirts and talked to Tom briefly. I fawned like I usually do and asked him about guitar pedals. He was lovely as he had been in our minor meetings in the past. Five albums in though, and this was the most crowded I have seen a LC! merch table. During the show, there were a ton of people wearing the band’s shirts (both shirts being sold and shirts brought from home). Everyone was smiling and talking and laughing and having a great time. Who cares about day jobs and decorum and indie style points? People at the show were in love with everything going on. Who cares about day jobs and vacation tours and sleepless nights driving half of America? Los Campesinos! are always in love with everything going on.
2. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Around ten minutes into “Marais La Nuit” from Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone, I fast-fowarded trying to find the start of a secret song. There is no secret song that begins during “Marais La Nuit.” It is just a field recording taken around a pond at Case’s farm. I have listened to this recording in its entirety only a few times. I might have subjected others to it if I put the album on during work and then left to go buy lunch. The most striking thing about the track is how it split Case’s catalog into two colors for me. There are the “night” songs – “Marais La Nuit” and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” among others – that remind me of a deep blue fading to indigo. It’s not a cold color. It is enveloping and warm and sticky in a way blues aren’t usually. The other color is a powder-coated amber hue, approaching rust but without the deep reds and oranges. It makes up a larger part of Case’s catalog – “Man” and “This Tornado Loves You” and “Ragtime” and “Wild Creatures” and “City Swan” and a ton of other songs fall under the designation. It’s dusty, but not due to disrepair. It’s dusty from activity, from rocks being moved and wood being cut and things being burned.
My favorite Neko Case song goes from one color to the other. “Calling Cards” plays like some sun or moon setting but never leaving the sky. The spare guitar strum and Case’s voice slowly get wrapped into the drum flourishes played with brushes, the horns floating into the song, and several droning instruments in the background. Everything swirls around lyrics of nostalgia and love lost. It’s like a fuzzy memory you are desperately trying to keep.
Neko Case is probably the most successfully evocative songwriter we have these days. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You has songs that will make you cry and songs that will make you soar. The strength in her songs lies in the ability to be frank while using metaphor and description to the fullest purpose. Never are the songs weighed down by attempts to be beautiful at the expense of meaning. On this record, meaning and beauty are one in the same.
1. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
In broad popular culture, you could create an easy narrative painting Chicago as a city of ambition. Like trying-to-light-that-“Second City”-moniker-on-fire-and-fling-it-in-your-fucking-face, NYC-and-LA ambitious. For a while, the musicians and comedians and actors of the town have become wildly successful while being able to love and honor their city without tying themselves directly to it. Kanye West and Fabolous were both born in 1977, but Fab seems to need his New Yorker status more than Kanye needs Chicago. Not to say that West doesn’t hold Chicago in his heart, but he needs it less for his identity as a whole. Younger rappers like King L, Chance the Rapper, Chief Keef, Katie Got Bandz, and Vic Mensa draw more on their Chicago heritage than West does, but their careers are all at different places than West’s career. Chicago is a different place than when West was growing up.
At times in this aspiration, there is fixation. Like the aforementioned period where Kanye spent the last part of his albums talking about his personal history. This stuff even rubs off on the people close to you (HI, PUSHA T’S VMA APPEARANCE). Chance’s fixation is the school suspension which inspired his first tape, #10Day. It’s not a grating theme for that tape by any means, but it does lighten the tape to an unintentional degree. There’s a lot going on within #10Day but it all falls under the suspension narrative.
The ten day suspension isn’t the forefront of Acid Rap (thought it is mentioned from time to time). This mixtape (please download it here right now) is too big for that. The tracks are bursting with joy, loss, drugs, friends, fears, former 30 Rock writers, family, and, of course, ambition. Chance is a lot different than his Chicago contemporaries. He’s more manic. The samples and features on the album skew to trendy crossover rap, but the horns and samples keep everything grounded in Chicago. He steps away from that at times – notably with the Nosaj Thing-produced highlight “Paranoia” – but Chance’s voice is strong enough to keep the whole thing afloat.
Here is Chance’s debut on the Aresenio Hall Show:
Chance lives in a different world than contemporaries Joey Bada$$ and Fat Trel, but he is drawing from the same large landscape as Chief Keef. Chicago is a big place, so their experiences are different of course. For a while, it seemed like the only narrative in current Chicago rap would be apocalyptic. It is easy to look at drill and its associated acts and say that such terror has given way to a nihilistic worldview. Chicago is big, and for every Keef and Chance telling their story, there are probably a huge number of other kids who haven’t been able to yet. This is some of the most important ground Keef and Chance cover (in INCREDIBLY different and indirect ways of course) so neither can devote all of their artistic energy to it. They are young and they have a lot going on in their heads. There’s a lot to touch on in Acid Rap so you can’t just spend time on the important stuff.
Somehow, Acid Rap ends up with three closing-quality tracks. There’s the dark “Acid Rain,” the joyful “Chain Smoker,” and true closer “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro).” With everything put forth on the preceding ten (eleven if you count “Paranoid), they are all necessary tracks. Throughout 2013, I gave Chance the same esteem I would give an established artist who has been around for at least five or six years. Then I was listening to the Hypemen reunion podcast where someone posed the question of whether or not Chance could follow up Acid Rap. ‘Oh yeah,’ I thought, ‘because he is still just a kid.’ Acid Rap has enough going on that you can forget he is a kid. An insanely talented kid, but still a kid who sometimes does dumb shit (like the suspension and the “slap-happy faggot slapper” line on “Favorite Song”). Acid Rap indicates that he is going to do less dumb shit and more incredible shit. He’s got that ambition, baby.
WE DID IT Y’ALL. HERE IS A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST WITH SOME 2013 JAMS.