Sunday, December 29, 2013

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.

#18: Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
I didn’t like Acid Rap when I first heard it. I was one of the few contrarians that argued that Chance the Rapper’s debut 10Day was better (not that I even listened to 10Day all that much). It seemed to me that he had accentuated many of his more annoying vocal qualities the second time around, and most of the beats didn’t grab me. I held onto “Good Ass Intro” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and mostly ignored the rest of the album even as Chance’s hype grew and it became clear that Acid Rap would be one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. Then one time while walking to the L from work, “Interlude (That’s Love)” came on shuffle, and I finally got what everyone was so excited about with this kid. I’m still not 100% sold on the project, and there are a few songs that I skip more often than not, but it’s still an exciting, assured project from a young talent. He’s so close to the level that so many have lifted him up to, and his next project is automatically one of my most anticipated albums of 2014.
 #17: Dirty Beaches - Drifters/Love is the Devil
In spite of their status as one of the great proto-post-punk bands (that subgenre tag makes no sense, but bear with me), it’s a shame that Suicide’s influence isn’t too deeply felt these days. Their first two albums still hold up, and it’s great to see their torch being held up by one artist: Alex Zhang Hungtai, better known as Dirty Beaches. His double album Drifters/Love is the Double is a huge step forward from his great album Badlands, and finds him moving away from the more sample-based approach of his earlier work. For Drifters, Hungtai performs as part of a five-piece band that recorded and looped their own instrumentation, Portishead-style. Love is the Devil, the more ambient second disc, is a collection of live in the studio compositions performed by Hungtai alone on guitar and keyboard. Both discs are absolutely haunting, and are a great example of an artist working in an established aesthetic and pushing on the boundaries of that aesthetic until it’s completely his own.

#16: Billy Woods & Blockhead - Dour Candy
In an old entry on his Phatfriend blog, Blockhead mentioned that he isn’t happy with the drums on the beats he gave Aesop Rock on Float and the landmark Labor Days. Since the latter album, he’s worked with Aesop Rock only occasionally, and his beats became a rarer sight on other rappers’ albums, leaving him to focus on his solo instrumental work. That all changed this year with an album with Ohio rapper Illogic and upcoming projects with Marq Spekt and Open Mike Eagle. The most surprising and unexpectedly the most exciting of these was Dour Candy, his album with Vordul Mega protégé Billy Woods. Billy Woods released the promising History Will Absolve Me last year, but working with one producer helped him put together a much more concise and cohesive work. While he hasn’t gotten the attention that other, more publicized rappers get, he’s an astonishingly talented and verbose rapper, and his assured performance forced Blockhead to turn in some of the best beats of his career. Blockhead made good on his desire for better drums, from the enticing cymbal work throughout to the handclaps on “Lucre.” I never would have thought that the middle ground between Cannibal Ox, the Cella Dwellas, and the Artifacts could be so tremendously fertile for post-Def Jux underground rap.

#15: Kanye West - Yeezus
Somehow managing to be one of the consensus albums of the year on most best-of lists and one of the most divisive hip-hop albums in years, Yeezus’s contradictions are its most compelling quality. An immaculately crafted industrial background is merged with mostly half-assed and frequently reprehensible lyrics from an artist who’s always been a producer first and a rapper second. Yet most of the beats on Yeezus are music-by-committee sounds that were arguably more the work of Daft Punk, TNGHT, and Rick Rubin than they were of Yeezy himself, and those same half-assed lyrics can be interpreted as a purging of Ye’s monstrous id on the verge of the birth of his daughter. I’m still unpacking and interpreting these ambiguities six months later, and while I’m still convinced that the conversation surrounding Kanye West as an artist needs to change, there is no doubt that his sixth solo album is one of the most compelling of the year.

#14: Forest Swords - Engravings
Getting Lee “Scratch” Perry to version one of your songs is a tremendous honor and validation for any dub artist. So when Scratch deigned to put his stamp on Forest Sword’s excellent “Thor’s Stone” a couple of months ago, it was a great show of faith for the young artist. Yet Engravings, Forest Swords’ debut album, isn’t dub reggae, and it isn’t quite dubstep either. It sounds just outside established genre conventions, forging a new path for dub, placing the guitar in the foreground of the music along with the bass. Each listen pulls away new layers of the compositions, allowing the listener to become wholly immersed in the sounds, a sea of sonic trees that is both comforting and unsettlingly difficult to escape from.
#13: Ka - The Night's Gambit
If someone made an avant-garde black and white street crime movie, a sort of Boyz in the Hood for the arthouse crowd, then Ka’s third album The Night’s Gambit could be the soundtrack. It’s more impressionistic than plot driven, eleven dark vignettes that are all cool menace and minimalist soundscapes. Ka is one of the most calmly talented emcees out right now, and his production is a marvel of New York boom bap. That he’s sticking it out in his day job as a NY firefighter while spending his nights handling every aspect of writing and recording his albums, directing videos for every one of his albums’ songs and spending his off days selling his CDs in front of the old Fat Beats storefront is all the more impressive. Ka released The Night’s Gambit in the middle of summer. I listened to it once, recognized its greatness, and put it on the shelf until winter. An album this ice cold just doesn’t sound right if it isn’t grey, cold, and gloomy out.
#12: Jonwayne - Rap Album One
Aside from a few taps between lines near the end of the song, there are no drums on “After the Calm,” the opening track on Jonwayne’s Rap Album One. Without the rhythmic base that has been the bedrock of hip-hop since its foundation forty years ago, Jonwayne leaves you nothing to focus on but his voice. And what a voice it is, a meaty baritone that demands attention like few other new rappers. Aside from one verse by Scoop Deville on “The Come Up, Pt. 1” and a song given entirely to Zeroh (appropriately titled “Zeroh’s Song”) Wayne’s is the only voice you hear on Rap Album One, allowing for few distractions from his astounding and confounding lyrics. Plus he’s got the funniest album cover of the year once you figure it out.

#11: The Flaming Lips - The Terror
This is the darkest, most unhappy album that the Lips have ever made. Goodbye to the soaring melodies and uplifting lyrics and goodbye to probably about half of the group’s fans too. There are a lot of bleeps and bloops and misplaced sounds drifting all over this record like cosmic detritus, and Wayne Coyne’s voice sounds absolutely ragged. Every song on the album gives the impression that this album was absolute hell to make. It sounds as if the group is trying to boil the existential terror of the universe and of human relationships into nine songs, and they were remarkably successful. I hope that this is the furthest they go down this particular rabbit hole (Embryonic is definitely the better album from this phase of their career), but this is a great direction for the band to take for now. Instead of making the personal political on The Terror, they made the personal cosmic.

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