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.

#8: Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady
Janelle Monae doesn’t make small albums. Both of her records thus far are packed with overtures, skits, enough different sounds to match Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, and an absolutely epic scope, all amounting to long albums that are not at all slogs to get through. The Electric Lady actually manages to top her last album The ArchAndroid in all of these aspects (although the skits, while fun, don’t really need to be there other than to push the vague sketch of a story along). The album has rocking burners (the Prince-assisted “Given’ ‘Em What They Love,” quiet storm love jams (“Primetime” featuring the great Miguel), ‘40s-style pop balladry (“Look into My Eyes”), and “Q.U.E.E.N.” which is just a jam of the greatest proportions. If this was a just world, “Q.U.E.E.N.” would have been one of the biggest hits of the year, but we don’t, so the most exciting pop song of the year didn’t break through to the mainstream. Prince has made it clear in interviews that he loves Monae’s music (and who else has ever managed to get a Prince feature on one of their tunes?), and her comfort with such a wide range of sounds, her conceptual scope, and most importantly her ability to write great songs makes her a natural successor to the Purple One.
#7: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons to Die
With the possible exception of his crazy abstract Supreme Clientele style, Ghostface’s greatest strength has always been his storytelling. So it’s kind of surprising that it took him eighteen years after his first solo record to make a concept album. The wait was worth it. Twelve Reasons to Die channels the best aspects of late ’60s and ‘70s exploitation and grindhouse flicks: the out-there concepts, the ultraviolence, the rich details, and the dark atmosphere. Tony Starks breaks away from and declares war on the DeLuca crime family in Italy, gets betrayed by his lover, and is killed and boiled down into twelve vinyl records. When these records are played, Tony Starks, reborn as the Ghostface Killah, rises from the great beyond to take his gruesome revenge on those who murdered him, along with all of their friends and family. It’s over the top and ridiculous, but Ghostface and his Wu compatriots completely sell the concept with their lyrical abilities. Adrian Younge, who is probably the most effective artist when it comes to channeling the sounds of old movie soundtracks in his music, served as producer and director of the project, and his musical contributions, all atmosphere and mood, nearly overshadow the rapping. Without any raps, Twelve Reasons to Die would make a great movie soundtrack. With them, the record sounds like a great movie.
#6: Danny Brown - Old
Danny Brown’s 2011 album XXX was a masterwork of unrestrained hedonism slowly curdling into pain and disillusionment as Brown started aging out of that lifestyle. It took me longer than I would have liked to appreciate Brown’s vocal style and unconventional beat selection, but I now recognize it as one of the best rap albums of the last few years. Brown’s follow up is the more difficult album. Split into two halves that loosely separate the production between boom bap and more electronic sounds, the album is considerably darker than XXX. Brown goes on four day drug binges in hotel rooms, ignoring text messages from his daughter because he’s ashamed to be seen in his condition. Dope fiends rob him of his Wonderbread when he goes to the store. More and more, he prefers to smoke alone and he needs Xanax in order to sleep. Even the songs that celebrate drug use and promiscuous sex seem like they were made to sound increasingly empty as the record progresses and he finds nothing at the end of his path but more addiction and empty, fleeting relationships. It’s a haunting record, capturing the ecstatic highs and crushing lows of drug addiction better than any other rap album I’ve ever heard. 

#5: 7 Days of Funk - 7 Days of Funk
Snoop Dogg’s career has been disappointing. Doggystyle was so good, but with few exceptions (“Drop it Like it’s Hot,” about have of Tha Doggfather, his guest verses on 2001) he has failed to live up to his talent since. He had lost his way, and he needed to get back in touch with his funk roots to get back on the right track. After a one-off performance with Dam-Funk at SXSW last year, he reached out to Dam about recording a funk record and releasing it independently, and Dam, sensing a kindred spirit, happily agreed. Their resulting collaboration 7 Days of Funk is the best thing Snoop has done in twenty years and tops everything Dam-Funk has done since his titanic 5LP 2009 debut Toeachizown. With the exception of the weak Kurupt verse on “Ride,” I don’t have a single criticism of this record. Snoop sounds reenergized as a rapper and proves himself as a more than serviceable singer. Dam-Funk’s music sounds amazing as always, eliciting joy at every turn. The guests, former Slave frontman and funk legend Steve Arrington and Snoop’s compatriots in the Dogg Pound, are used well, but for the most part this is a two man show, as well it should be. 
#4: Savages - Silence Yourself
I read a criticism of Savages amazing debut album Silence Yourself somewhere this year that basically wrote off the album as sounding like 1983. It’s a fair criticism, except Savages sound better than most of the post-punk bands that were actually recording during that year. Silence Yourself is, if you’ll pardon the pun, an absolutely savage first album from the London quartet. Over 39 relentless minutes, the band rips through eleven tracks of searing post-industrial doom and gloom. The band’s reputation as one of the best live acts in recent years (a reputation that is completely deserved, based on the two times I’ve seen them) set expectations sky high for their first album, and they surpassed them in every conceivable way.
#3: The Underachievers - Indigoism
With the possible exception of my #1 album of the year, there is nothing I listened to more in 2013 than the Underachievers’ debut mixtape Indigoism. From the jazzy boom bap of “Leopard Shepherd” to the bass and negative space of “Herb Shuttles,” the beats are uniformly incredible, but its emcees AK and Issa Dash that make it the best mixtape I heard all year. Both started rapping not long before they started recording the songs from Indigoism (with Issa Dash picking up the mic only a few months before they came together as a group), but you can’t tell from the way they twist their nimble flows around the beats that the mostly unknown New York beatmakers served up for them. In the classic mold of Smif-n-Wessun, the two are so evenly matched that neither is the star of the tape. Instead, they work seemingly as one for their shared goal of making the dopest music they can. Their somewhat limited subject matter started showing some wear on their follow-up EP The Lords of Flatbush, everything works here, and their braggadocio and dedication to psychedelic drug use as the path to enlightenment never wears out its welcome. They signed to Brainfeeder, home to Flying Lotus, Teebs, Ras G, and tons of other intensely forward thinking beatmakers. For rappers this skilled and intelligent, it represents a natural move and a signal that Indigoism is only the start of a great career.

#2: Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
There’s no shortage of self-aware, witty rock coming out of Williamsburg and the other hipster-infested neighborhoods of New York City these days, but so much of it is too smug or too soft or too plainly shitty. Parquet Courts are none of these things. The Brooklyn quartet sticks mostly to short bursts of clever, literate post-punk, perfectly sequenced so that every song on the album follows the song it was meant to follow. “Stoned and Starving” provides a silly break from the witticisms of the other songs, but it’s no less effective than the songs about how the band couldn’t find bagels in Texas or careers that are going the way of the buffalo. The emphatically shouted line (and my vote for one of the best lines of the year) “Socrates died in the fucking gutter!” comes right in the middle of the terrific first song “Master of My Craft,” and the top-notch lyrics never stop for 35 minutes. Most importantly though, these guys fucking rock. The drunk guy who told me after their July show at Lincoln Hall that they gave him a feeling that he hadn’t gotten since seeing the Dead Milkmen play in the ‘80s agrees.

#1: Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
El-P’s Cancer for Cure was my favorite album of last year, and the El-P produced R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike wasn’t far behind. I still listen to the two of them more than I listen to almost anything else that made my top ten. The news that they were going to put out an album where they both shared mic duties equally shot the first Run the Jewels album right to the top of my most anticipated records of the year list. And oh man did they deliver with this one. Both are at the absolute top of their game here. Not many artists can make an album that mostly consists of threats to the listener and everyone around them into the most compelling album of the year, but few rappers have ever matched the heights these two reached on this album (check El-P’s verse on the title track and the best description of knocking someone’s teeth out that’s ever been committed to record, Mike’s verse on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”). As far as El-P’s beats are concerned, Killer Mike puts it better than I ever could: “Producer gave me a beat said it’s the beat of the year, I said El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck out of here.” By mostly abandoning the heavy concepts of their monumental 2012 albums and focusing strictly on straight lyricism, these two made it clear that absolutely no one is fucking with them right now. They are the best rappers, and El-P is the best producer. Everyone else needs to step their shit up or continue getting embarrassed by every song Run the Jewels put out.

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