Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 13 Non-2013 Albums of the Year

I have regular segment called Fresh Produce on the MusicVox on Vocalo Public Radio in Chicago every Tuesday. I highlight three to five new albums that are out that week. As such, I listen to at least five and usually closer to ten new releases each week, most of which I never listen to a second time. Even with all of this time I spend keeping up with the torrent of new releases, I still find time to listen to great older albums. To honor some of these older albums that dominated my year, I put together this list of my top non-2013 albums of the year in no particular order. Some are albums I’ve been listening to for years, and others are ones I discovered for the first time in the last twelve months. All of them are excellent.

 #1: Mr. Lif - I Phantom (2002)

Mr. Lif was one of my first favorite rappers. Mo’ Mega and the Emergency Rations EP were so important to me in high school, and Mr. Lif was more instrumental than almost any other rapper in getting me to really plunge into the world of hip-hop, but I didn’t hear I Phantom until a couple of years into college. Spurred on by El-P’s phenomenal work last year, 2013 has found me listening to a ton of Def Jux stuff again, and I Phantom has gotten the most plays from me this year out of that crop of exceptional albums. It’s a great album that follows a loose multi-part concept, and Mr. Lif proves that he is a remarkably talented rapper, especially on tracks like the second half of “Return of the B-Boy.” More than anything, revisiting I Phantom reminded me why I got into hip-hop in the first place. And “Live from the Plantation” helped me get through a lot of drives to a shitty job.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Albums of 2013: #10-1

#10: Ty Segall - SLEEPER
Throughout his insanely prolific career, Ty Segall had certainly given the impression that his strengths came from fuzz and noise and general garage rock abandon. So when word came that his first album after his trifecta of amazing albums from 2012 would be largely acoustic, it was cause for some minor concern. Sure, his knack for songwriting could be expected to remain intact when it was ported into an acoustic setting, but what about that power? SLEEPER dashed those fears, finding the power in quietude. Even the most pleasant of dreams often come with a feeling that something isn’t quite right, and the prettiest songs on here are the most unsettling. Songs like “She Don’t Care” are gorgeous, but the lyrics signal the deterioration of an important relationship. It’s a dark, sad, beautiful, catchy record, and it’s possibly the best of his career so far.
#9: DJ Rashad - Double Cup
Electronic music has spawned so many distinct subgenres over the last forty years that it’s hard for a relative outsider such as myself to find a good place to start with most of them. Outside of the recent L.A. beat scene which I have listened to a lot of, my explorations of other vibrant electronic forms, such as house, techno, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep, minimalist/ambient, and others is unfortunately been very limited. As a Chicago native, the sound that I am most disappointed in myself for ignoring is footwork, which was built by local producers from pieces of house, juke, hip-hop, and R&B. It’s a sound that’s gained increasing traction over the past few years, and it’s pushed into prominence through the Bangs & Works compilations, exciting live performances by Traxman and others, and Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, which counts footwork as an important influence. DJ Rashad’s debut album Double Cup proves that the community of footwork artists is ready for and deserving of more attention. It’s about as funky and soulful as electronic music, even sample-based electronic music, gets, and it makes the most of footwork’s sonic parameters. Rashad’s canny use of vocal samples and guest features, which he chops up and uses in the same way he uses the instrumental, is the best part of this record, which situates him as the man to beat among footwork producers in Chicago.

Top Albums of 2013: #20-11

#20: The Delfonics - Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics
Due to his prominence as the bandleader of the Roots, Questlove is in the rare position where he can try to make a record with Bill Withers and end up with Al Green as a consolation prize. With his work revitalizing the Delfonics, Adrian Younge deserves to jump up to that level, allowing him to work with some of the greatest and most prominent artists in the history of soul. Younge absorbs old music with the ear of a great sampler, flipping old film soundtracks and obscure break-filled R&B nuggets into his own compositions. When this instinctive method is paired with an unfairly forgotten soul legend like William Hart, the resulting album sounds like it was made in a world where seventies soul and nineties hip-hop somehow developed simultaneously. Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics sounds completely out of time, a record some future crate digger will be mystified by.
 #19: Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric - Czarface
Insepctah Deck’s verse on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds” remains one of his career best. It was also a tantalizing view into what a member of the Wu-Tang Clan could sound like over more traditionalist New York boom bap as opposed to the groundbreaking RZA sound that the Wu generals mostly stuck to during the group’s best years in the ‘90s. Czarface, Deck’s full length collaboration with 7L & Esoteric, shows how great it could have been if any of the generals had made a more straightforward boom bap record back then. Deck sounds revitalized here, turning in the second best album of his career (for all its detractors and its couple of weaker songs, his first album Uncontrolled Substance remains the most underrated Wu album of the ‘90s). Esoteric remains a very good emcee in spite of his general lack of personality, but the stars here are Deck and 7L’s head-knocking beats. Czarface manages to be both an enticing alternate history and a strong revitalization for one of the best rappers who never quite managed to pull off a satisfying solo career.

Top Albums of 2013: #32-21

In his piece on his own top 10 albums of the year over at Grantland, Steven Hyden made the important distinction between the notion of best albums and of favorite albums. Trying to claim that your own list consists of the best albums of the year (as I did last year) is inherently dishonest, since no one has heard every album that came out in a given year, so every listener or critic’s personal scope is too limited to declare unequivocally that anything is the best. As such, Hyden appropriately labeled his article “My Top 10 Best (Favorite) Albums of 2013.” I’ve tried to take the same approach here. Forcing myself to ignore the impact, buzz, controversy, or acclaim that albums got this year and focusing just on the albums that I liked the most has really helped me put this list together. I’m still constantly reordering the albums on this list, and I’m sure I’ll regret almost everything about how I ranked these the second I put them up (which begs the question of why I bothered ranking them at all, but whatever). So before I keep changing my mind, without further ado here are my top 32 albums of the year.