The Top 30 Projects of 2013 (That We’ve Heard)

30 projects

The year 2013 was a momentous one for music, and probably the perfect time to start up a music blog from nothing. There was the revival of the twerk revolution, spearheaded by an angsty former Disney starlet. There were high profile releases that ultimately disappointed (MCHG anyone?), and releases of the same profile that were divisive yet… godlike (*quietly smirks*). There was “Royals”. There was that custom Breitling that made you feel some type of way. Vampires were unleashed upon an entire city. French robots got lucky. Beyoncé released a surprise album full of bangers and reckless trash talk that came out way too late to be included on anybody’s year-end list (including ours). Oh yeah, and there were a ton of artists both new and old (but mostly new) that came out with some of the year’s most amazing material. The projects vary from soft and tender soliloquies, dressed up and disguised as pop or R&B, to straight up street thuggery, and everything in between. There’s beauty, there’s violence, there’s vibrance, and darkness. But in our opinion, it’s these 30 projects that accurately capture 2013 through well-honed skill and impressive sound. They’re the best (that we’ve heard) and we’d like to share them with you. And all of them (except for one) are either on Soundcloud, Spotify, or available to download for free. So Merry Christmas and we ask that you at least give one song off each album a listen. Some write-ups are longer than others because we had more to say or describe about a given project, but that doesn’t mean another album is lacking in quality. And realize that since there are only two of us, we couldn’t listen to everything.

P.S. We really like rap. Enjoy. ~Jared

[Honorable Mention]

Charli XCX, True Romance

Tei Shi, Saudade EP

Action Bronson, Blue Chips 2

Ryan Hemsworth, Guilt Trips

London Grammar, If You Wait

[Top 30]

30. Banks, London EP

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The year 2013 saw a formidable amount of talented newcomers appear onto the R&B scene. But amongst the most promising and enticing was a mysterious 25-year-old singer, that seemed to appear out of nowhere, with a dark and sultry tale of burnt out love.  Then the woman only known as Banks followed that up with one of the best songs of the year in “Warm Water“. All of this gained the attention of her genre’s newest superstar, The Weeknd, who was so impressed that he decided to take her on tour with him. What should be noted is that while Banks’ voice is beautiful in its own right, the Los Angeles songstress isn’t going to out-sing you. What she’s going to do instead is seduce and disarm you with vocals driven by raw and rare sensuality. London is the only EP that made this list, named after the location where Banks recorded it and its multiple English producers. The project’s haunting sound and production do (very slightly) remind listeners of Abel Tesfaye’s original coming out party, House of Balloons. But there are no drug-laced references and cleverly cloaked narratives of debauchery here. Instead, the only thing present is tangible, human emotion. ~J.

29. Skin Town, The Room

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Skin Town, comprised of vocalist Grace Hall and beat specialist Nick Turco, is a dark R&B/pop group that specializes in making enticing, late night bedroom music. Their debut album The Room is a skillfully crafted, synth-driven collection of progressive R&B tunes that fall on the electronic side of the music spectrum. Hall’s vocals are strong and seductive, as she croons out lyrics that aren’t really as suggestive as they are outright and overtly explicit. While this aspect isn’t always ideal for quality listening, it actually works pretty well in this instance, as the songs are less about love and more about lust. With standout tracks like “The Zone“, “Ice Crystal Palace“, and “The Abyss”, this duo was able to create a menacingly impressive debut. We can only wait to hear more. ~J.

28. Vic Mensa, Innanetape

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Vic Mensa had a choice to make.  He could either man the ship of the middling, yet undeniably talented, rock/jazz/rap band Kids These Days, or he could call it a cool split and find out exactly how rewarding a full-time rap career could become.  Mensa’s been rapping for years, and from the very first Kids These Days records, it was easy to spot a kind of raw, malleable energy and innate rapping ability; some kids just make rapping seem easier than it actually is.  But, (and again, absolutely no disrespect to Kids These Days, one of the few rock/rap outfits who actually got it right) trying to pursue a fruitful solo career while simultaneously fronting a hybrid rap band is playing the game with a hand tied behind your back.  The target audience is just too small, and the ceiling is not nearly as high.  Thus, Mensa’s 2013 is less surprising and more so overdue.  Coincidentally, its Mensa’s ties to his former outfit that makes his music so instantly compelling.  It’s his affinity with melodies, more technical arrangements, and the keen eye of his former bandmates, with their more traditional expertise, that helps Innanetape reach it’s own plateau of finely crafted melodic hip-hop.  Whether it’s the twinkling piano loop on “Hollywood LA”, or the accordion-like sludge synth spaz-out on “Tweakin'”, or the mystical flutes of “Holy Holy”, Mensa’s approach to rap is soundscape based, with a heavy emphasis on musicality first and foremost.  Perhaps his only fault is how his slithering, highly polished flows and raps are not yet quite as sticky as the melodies they’re layered over. But part of me thinks Mensa’s gonna figure all of that out in due time. ~ Dylan M.

27.  Lorde, Pure Heroine

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Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, more commonly known as Lorde, is a 17-year-old New Zealander that’s currently the darling of indie outlets and mainstream America alike. Her smash-hit “Royals” is presently sitting at #1 on the U.S. Hot 100 chart, and it’s hard to find someone in the 18-25 demographic that hasn’t at least heard of her. At the moment, it’s hard to project where the singer will be 10 or even 5 years from now, especially when she rose to the top so rapidly. However, what can be said for sure is that she’s no one-hit wonder. Pure Heroine, Lorde’s debut  10-track LP, isn’t perfect but is still a strong first showing for an aspiring (or already certified?) pop star. She’s introspective and transparent, meditating on what seemingly makes the world go round by rejecting the social norms. The album does occasionally suffer from lulls and uneven aspects of production. But alluringly infectious  beats like those present on “White Teeth Teens“, “Team” and “Buzzcut Season” mesh well with Lorde’s charming vocals and make up for a weak track or two. (Oh, and she’s Kanye fan too). ~J.

26. Glasser, Interiors

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Cameron Mesirow, who goes by the stage name Glasser, is quite the talent when it comes to creating mesmerizingly hazy electronic music. On Interiors (Mesirow’s second studio album), her alluring voice soars at times over her own weirdly beautiful production, and then calmly comes down to serenade the listener at others. Mesirow uses an interesting sequencing of percussions, violin strings, and horns which combine with her slithering keys on the synth to form vibrant and unique instrumentation. Interiors as a whole sounds less like a 12-track project, and more like a free-flowing and cohesive offering of dreamlike electronica, accentuated by Mesirow’s modest but exceptional vocals. ~J.

25. Lil Bibby, Free Crack

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It’s called drill music. You’ve probably heard it before, whether it was via Chief Keef’s hood-anthem-turned-pop-cover in “Love Sosa” or more recently with Kendrick Lamar and Fredo In The Cut going ham on “Jealous”. It’s hip-hop’s newest subgenre which originated in Chicago. And it’s there where it resonates most. Hardened beats filled with sirens, horns, and eardrum-splitting bass, laid out underneath the grisly tales of young and savvy street veterans in the booth. It’s championed. It’s detested. But above all, it’s a social freeze frame of the times. In the middle of all of this is an 18-year-old rapper whose stage name sounds like the smaller and weaker version of a pretty small, and pretty weak point guard (at least in NY). But then you hear him speak, and all of those thoughts are immediately wiped away. Yet Bibby’s low-pitched and rough voice is only one of many tools that’s helped the young rapper become one of Chicago’s preeminent rap stars and, perhaps, the new king of drill. Free Crack, Bibby’s debut mixtape, is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a violent, often graphic, project that’s laced with drug references and riddled with metaphoric bullet holes. But unlike his competition, who nowadays are pretty undecipherable (seriously though what is he saying?), Bibby possesses a tight flow that doesn’t rely on the ‘stop-and-go’ style as heavily as his Chiraq peers. In songs like “Shout Out” and ‘Whole Crew”, he is able to fluidly maneuver through a barrage of bass and synths, allowing those who listen to actually hear and vibe with what he’s saying. In my opinion, Bibby could potentially bring gangsta’ rap back to the forefront of Hip-Hop’s ever evolving landscape. But even if he doesn’t, Free Crack still bangs. ~J.

24. AlunaGeorge, Body Music

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My dream wife Aluna Francis found the perfect music mate when she met the electro-synth wunderkind George Reid back in 2009. Since that time, the duo slowly unveiled what they could offer the music world with a track release here and an EP there. But 2013 was the year AlunaGeorge was finally ready to release their anticipated proper debut Body Music, and it was just as smooth as fans expected it to be. While the album doesn’t break any barriers in terms of the electropop genre, Francis’s tender and bubbly voice melds so well with Reid’s splendid mid to up-tempo’d synth-work that the two members seem like they were put on earth to make music together (lucky for me they’re not dating :)). I know I like it. ~J.

23. A$AP Rocky, Long. Live. A$AP

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A$AP Rocky definitely gets our vote for top 5 album covers of the year. But the young gold grill-wearing Harlem spitter couldn’t quite make it that high on our list in terms of his actual album’s ranking. But that doesn’t mean Long. Live. A$AP isn’t worthy of some deserved end of the year recognition. While Rocky’s official debut doesn’t come level with the game-changing Live. Love. A$AP, his latest project still demonstrates the rapper’s ability to rise above the “tumblrsphere” and appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience. Rocky’s lyrical acuteness is still present and with certified hits like “F*ckin’ Problems”, “1 Train” and ScHoolboy Q running amok on “P.M.W.“, it’s hard to deny the album’s catchiness. But you have to scratch your head at why incredible songs like “Angels” and “Ghetto Symphony” got relegated to bonus track status and earsplitting selections like “Wild for the Night” were included instead (Seriously who had the final say with that?). ~J.

22. Denzel Curry, Nostalgic 64

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How do you explain someone like Denzel Curry? Well to start, he’s a hot spittin’, fireball hurlin’, furiously flowin’ 18-year-old rap phenom from Florida. The Carol City resident is as “underground” as they come, and is one cog in the quickly emerging machine that is South Florida rap. Though Curry was originally a member of the Miami rap collective Raider Klan, and a protégé of SpaceGhostPurrp, his debut album Nostalgic 64 is a work that is separate and all his own. The project is dark and harrowing, and functions as a tangible representation of a very expressive and raw emcee. The self-proclaimed ‘Raven Miyagi’ only has one mode: blistering. The words that come out of his mouth are more like a flurry of sharpened knives than frenzied rap lyrics. This can be heard clearly from the get-go in the murderous intro, “Zone 3” (“It’s real in the field/either kill or be killed, like BG/so they got a grip on the tec”). There are political themes at play here, like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin (who went to his high school). He also creates a vivid, and sometimes brutal description of the daily life for people his age and in his environment, like in “Dark & Violent” or the trunk rattling ‘Threatz”. Finally, Curry’s production team should never be overlooked, as POSHtronaut and Ronny J provide the rapper with some monster beats that near-perfectly capture his unsettling and mysterious trap mentality. ~J.

21. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2

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The Justin Timberlake of today (32) is much different from his younger, woman-chasing alter ago. And with this maturity, we get a slightly different brand of music with The 20/20 Experience.  The album isn’t as eye-opening as Justified or groundbreaking as FutureSex/LoveSounds, but definitely still gets the job done when it comes to pop music.  Timbaland still handles all of the production, and once again he gives listeners a distinctive sound that only he can provide.  From the up-tempo barrage of bass in “Don’t Hold The Wall” to the subtle smoothness of “Spaceship Coupe”, we get a nice balance from JT to sink our teeth into.  Since he is now married, we get a sense that Timberlake is settling down while listening to most of his songs.  They’re less about one-night stands and straight up sex, and more intimate and focused on singing to one woman, especially with songs like “Pusher-Lover Girl” and “Strawberry Bubblegum”.  Two songs that should not be slept on, however, are “Let The Groove Get In” (a scintillating track that blares its horns while beating congo drums thump) and “Tunnel Vision” (a mid-tempo head thumper, full of synths and all the typical Timbo ad-libs). If you haven’t already, enjoy.

20. Pusha T, My Name Is My Name

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Terrence Thornton had big expectations for his first solo album. At age 36, the rap vet had seen and done a lot, both musically and on the streets. But what remained to be seen was whether he could pack the same potency and vigor in his rhymes without his older brother Malice’s assistance. Don’t forget that it was Clipse, as a unit, that gave us hits like “Grindin” and “When The Last Time“. They gave us powerful, drug-filled stories and bravado in projects like Til’ The Casket Drops. But what could Mr. Thornton do by his lonesome on a 12-track album? This was “Motherf*ckin’ Pusha T“, after all. Well we got our answer, and ‘King Push‘ definitely didn’t disappoint. While My Name is My Name might suffer a little from too many features, the album is still textbook Pusha and vintage Clipse. The VA rapper stays unequivocally on point when pitted against the likes of Ab Liva on “Suicide” and “Nosetalgia” with the ever scene-stealing Kendrick Lamar. But Pusha is at his best when he’s got a track to rap on all to himself, like on the Future-assisted “Pain”, and “S.N.I.T.C.H.” with Pharrell handling the hook. ~J.

19. My Bloody Valentine, mbv

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The concept of a rock band in the year 2013 isn’t nearly as sexy an idea as it was, say, 20 years ago. As our friend Kanye so elegantly alluded to, rap stars are pretty much the new rock stars from a pop culture standpoint. That isn’t to say the idea of traditional ‘rock stars’ is a deteriorating notion wispily crumbling away as time marches on, but its almost as if rock bands as omnipotent icons is becoming less and less likely. Though there are plenty of bands fighting to make the genre’s case for pop culture supremacy, Ireland’s own My Bloody Valentine continues to lead the way, strutting their influence and advanced songwriting panache to inspire a new generation to move the genre forward just as they did nearly 20 years ago with Loveless. Before Beyoncé flipped the industry on its head a few days ago and unleashed her album out of nowhere, MBV did the same exact thing back in February only this was done after damn near twenty years of virtually no band activity whatsoever. MBV is an otherworldly impressionistic album with thick, highly stylized analog recordings brimming with potent reverb soundscapes band leader Kevin Shields uses to transmit the emotional resonance of the music he so desperately has attempted to perfect. Shield’s fluttering falsetto, a revelation in its own right, is pretty much secondary to the modulated, otherworldly mayhem that has long been the band’s bread and butter, and is almost deployed exclusively as a reminder that the sounds here are in fact of this planet.  It’s a nine track clash that strikes the balance between riotous clatter and meditative introspection, but more than anything, it’s an album that attests to Shield’s dedication to exploring every crevice of what a guitar can achieve and the impact is can still leave on a growingly guitar-averse listening public. ~ Dylan M.

18. El-P and Killer Mike, Run The Jewels

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“Killer Mike and El-P/ Fu**boys know the combination ain’t healthy”

Lord Ye’ and Young Hov, if you can recall, formed the holiest of unions back in 2011 and self-appointed themselves as the undisputed overlords of the rap game.  Though an almost nauseating display of hubris, it was a convergence of two rap demigods, a feat the genre had never seen executed with such uniformly veneered and successful acts.  The lingering criticism in the wake of the duo’s subsequent album then was the excessive flaunting and overall elitist message the record seemed to promote.  While many chose to contextualize the album as a celebration of black excellence, many others, including a lot of rappers, took exception to two grown men gloating about political asylum while smugly dangling Maybach keys in their faces.  Run the Jewels then, whether they’d admit it to it or not, is almost a call to arms of sorts by resident ‘your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper’ cohorts Killer Mike and El-P.  Whereas the Throne was perversely championing their infiltration of the upper echelon by explaining how much richer they were than you,  Run the Jewels spends every track explaining how much better they are than you at rapping.  It strips away all of the decadence and opulence of the Throne in favor of honest to god, furiously chiseled bar after venomous bar.  It’s retro Southern trunk music with a Blade Runner tonality and foresight and El-P’s flurry of 808 wizardry and his barrage of disorienting bass rattlers sends Killer Mike into a dizzying frenzy of quotable after quotable.  Oh, and El-P’s no slouch either.  His codex of densely crafted rhymes are the under appreciated Pippen to Killer Mike’s more accessible Jordan.  But at the end of the day, many tried and failed to take the throne, but only two successfully ran the jewels.

~ Dylan M.

17. Migos, Y.R.N.

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“Ridin’ round, deuces on a damn Audi/Before I had a deal, young ni**a copped it.”

From the onset of Y.R.N., Atlanta rap trio Migos’ breakout mixtape, you can hear and see the genius that propels this group to the top of the South’s current hip-hop hierarchy. If you look at the first track’s title, “Rich Then Famous”, then subsequently listen to it, it’d be easy to think that the group erred in word usage by confusing “then” with “than”. “Ni**a, I’d rather be rich than famous,” is the chorus that’s drilled into your head repeatedly as hard bass and frenetic hi-hats turn your eardrums into helpless punching bags. It’s not until after a couple of run-throughs of the album that you realize that there’s a certain duality at play. If the real title of the mixtape and drug-slinging tales of tracks like “Bando” and “Hannah Montana” are to be believed, then it’s easy to see that the group already made their riches before the rap game was even an option. Yes, they would rather be rich than famous. But they’d also rather be rich, then famous. And whether it was Drake’s appearance on “Versace“, or Zaytoven (of Brick Squad) providing them with some of the best beats of the year, something caught on enough to help boost their rep to a definitive level of early fame. Quavo (22), Takeoff (19), and the newly returned Offset (22) possess a lyrical dexterity and swiftness that fellow ATL trap rappers like Gucci and Waka couldn’t even dream of. Pair that with raw southern drawls that reel off encyclopedic basketball references and we have ourselves a little something. And by something I mean the best thing to come out of Atlanta since this. Just kidding. ~J.

16. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap

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2012 saw the Chicago drill scene, the trap influenced, hi-hat obsessed movement often criticized for championing gang culture, reach national exposure and bring light to a subset of Chicago rappers whose brand of hip-hop was a far cry from the ‘backpack’ aspirations of Chicago forefathers Kanye, Lupe, and Common.   Unfortunately, this meant a depreciation of a misunderstood burgeoning music scene and, in its place, a national clamoring for a more positive, non-gang riddled perspective for a city that has been cavalierly referred to as ‘Chiraq’.  Enter the Savemoneycrew and, more specifically, one Chancelor Bennett.  Acid Rap finds Chance blending influences, from Jamiroquai’s acid jazz (An often referenced influence from Chance) to the perfectly repurposed 90’s golden era nostalgia of a Tribe Called Quest, to concoct a mixture of crafty wordplay and scat based jazz rap that respectfully pays tribute while also allowing the 20-year-old to carve a niche all his own.  It’s the album Chicago needed in 2013 to finally pierce through the ominous clouds of adolescent murder rates often documented on primetime news specials.  From “Pusha Man’s” painstakingly documented despair of a generation lost to a failed system, to “Everybody’s Somethings” reassurance that, regardless of circumstance, self-worth is incorruptible, the sage wisdom and perspective scattered throughout this tape helps Acid Rap transcend the confines of rap, elevating it to one of the definitive music releases of the year. ~ Dylan M.

15. King Krule, 6 Feet Beneath The Moon

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King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon is a gut punch of moody, atmospheric art rock with a dank jazz/hip-hop vibe thrown in for good measure.  It’s a 13-track odyssey into the depths of a 19-year-old whose world is crumbling beneath the surface at any given moment but he somehow manages to stay composed at all times.   It’s music so personal and so teeming with adolescent existential rage, that sometimes Krule can’t help but wail uncontrollably just so that you properly understand just how deep-seated his anger truly is.  Musically, it’s a marvel to behold even if all of the moving parts don’t always mesh seamlessly.  There’s the cooing arpeggio of “Out Getting Ribs” or the echoing MPC slaps of  “Neptune Estate” where Krule does his best J. Dilla impression, both contrasting examples that can coexist in Krule’s unique musical spectrum given the decisiveness of his vision.  There are a ton of jerky transitions and Marshall has by no means perfected the formula, but it’s a piece of work so intent on crumbling up the playbook and starting from scratch, that it’s to be expected when an artist is still trying to work out the kinks of such an original style.  At times, it may feel as if this was music not meant to be heard by the masses and we as listeners are invasively peaking into the life of an emotionally exhausted youngster.  But then again maybe we as listeners are meant to share in that pain with him as a means of alleviation.  If that’s the case, then count me in Mr. Marshall, count me in. ~ Dylan M.

14. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

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To be honest, I waited way too long to give this album a listen, which is surprising since I really liked Contra. But regardless, Vampire Weekend’s third album is pretty captivating and if I had had a longer time with it, it’d probably be higher on this list. When lead singer Ezra Koenig isn’t busy being better at Twitter than you, he’s writing intelligent and varied music that can be honest and upbeat, reeled back and melancholy, or somewhere nicely in between. It’s Koenig’s pleasantly folksy voice that is still the centerpiece of Vampire Weekend’s music, which sounds so broad and inclusive that it’s hard not to be somewhat intimidated by the band’s seemingly endless talent. Beautifully arresting moments on the record, like the entirety of “Step”, can be abruptly and non-apologetically interrupted by funky, old-school rock-infused selections like “Diane Young“. Then slowly forming ballads like “Hannah Hunt” evolve into graceful outbursts of creativity. A serenading violin plays before and after the mid-tempo’d beating of drums and quiet guitar riffs on “Everlasting Arms“. And then you realize how alive the album is, as if it was a little creature whose ability to impress was wholly dependent on your willingness to listen. But make no mistake, whether you’ve heard the album or not, nothing will stop the record from being considered something truly special. If I have one regret in 2013, it was not listening to Modern Vampires of the City sooner. ~J.

13. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris

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Do you guys remember “Home“?  The track that reintroduced Earl to the manically invasive blogosphere and subsequently kickstarted the bustling hype train whose destination wouldn’t be reached until this very album saw the light of day?  Well, in the grand scheme of things, “Home” was a wholly forgettable track confused, yet elated rap fans placed entirely too much importance into.  It’s negligible impact aside, the track was a marker of sorts, segueing the birth of the more mature Doom Jr. we’ve now come to venerate, and the brash, abrasive, quasi-slim-shady that has since fallen by the wayside.  With Doris, Earl achieved something much more memorable than the horror-core, shock-rap his 16-year-old counterpart came into notoriety for.  Doris is an insular, detached piece of meditative rappity-rap, so dense and so intricate that it takes successive listens to properly parse through the layers of a rap prodigy whose days in the spotlight have been both misconstrued and exploited.  Now, I’m not gonna sit here and try to convince you this album is perfect.  Perhaps Earl could’ve strayed from the stoic monotone flow every once in a while and make rapping actually sound, you know, fun.  Perhaps he could’ve trudged a bit deeper internally and given more personal anecdotes in the same vein as “Chum” and “Sunday”.  But at the end of the day, when a 19-year-old kid is effortlessly weaving together lines such as “Fist clenched/ emulating ’68 Olympics/ Rock it from the cradle til’ he middle-aged and limp-sticked” or “Desolate testaments/ tryna stay Jekyll-ish/ But most ni**as Hyde/ and Brenda just stay pregnant”, it’s hard for any such arguments to stick. ~ Dylan M.

12. Rhye, Woman

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When Dylan first played “Open”, Rhye’s incisively seductive hit single, for me, my initial thought was: “Wow, this is a Sade song I’ve definitely never heard before.” You can imagine my disbelief and slight embarrassment when he told me that the person I was hearing was actually a dude… and it doesn’t help at all that Rhye’s debut album is simply titled Woman. Mike Milosh, a Toronto native, possesses a voice so light, soulful, and utterly androgynous that distinguishing between his vocals and a 20-something-year-old female R&B singer’s would be like trying to count the differences in stripes between two zebras standing side-by side. Paired with Danish instrumentalist, Robin Hannibal, Milosh intimately swoons over addictive and mesmerizing production. Some songs have a way of gently luring you into a peaceful lull, like with “One of Those Summer Days“. Others will slowly slink and seep their way into your bones, as with the soft guitar-laden track “Shed Some Blood“. There’s a jazzy horn here or a subtle groove and harp string there, which makes the whole record so enticing and cohesive that there might not be a skippable track on Woman. You’ll be hard-pressed in finding an album that more appropriately fits the term ‘bedroom music’ but if you do, please let us now. Because if all of it is as good as Rhye’s debut then  we’ll be the first ones in line. ~J

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11. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe

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Chvrches took ahold of the electronic world by the throat in 2013, and have yet to let go. The once music journalist Lauren Mayberry now leads the Glasgow synth-pop trio, but the tremendous work and production of Iain Cook and Martin Doherty should never be understated. The Bones of What You Believe boasts brightly-colored, lucid synths amidst a collection of striking sounds that range from simple guitar twangs to the beating of drumlines that sound like they were ripped straight out of an 80’s movie. Another highlight is the songwriting, which is deeper and more heart-rending than what you’ll find on most pop songs. But the focal point of almost all of the action centers around the airiness of Mayberry’s voice, which frequently stirs listeners into an elated state. That’s not to say Doherty doesn’t have his moments (listen to “Under The Tide”), but Mayberry’s performance on songs like “Tether” and “Lies” are too hard to ignore. The album is chalk-full of hits like “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” that have gained the attention of the mainstream, yet Chvrches still manages to appeal to the indie crowd from which it first formed. Overall, the Scottish band has a bright future ahead, and in 2013 managed to create one of the most fluid albums of the year. ~J.

10. Drake, Nothing Was The Same

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When Nothing Was The Same‘s first track, “Tuscan Leather“, (literally one of the most epic intros ever) starts to play, the listener is immediately vacuumed into Drake’s world. And for the briefest of moments, you’re led to believe that Drake has shed his perceived “soft” ways, abandoning them for overly masculine bravado and the typical antics of your favorite rapper. But then “Furthest Thing” rears its head as if the Toronto native is giving us this look and saying to us, “Not so fast, I’m still the same rapper you remember.” In short, NWTS will do next to nothing in helping Drake’s rep as being “sensitive”. But regardless of how you feel about him, Drake has a unique way of luring the listener in and eventually getting you on his team. The rapper turned singer still wears his emotions on his sleeve, and sometimes you just have to roll your eyes (“She just wanna run over my feelings like she drinking and driving in an 18-wheeler/And I’d allow her”) at particular moments because, while nice, it’s just too much. But even soDrake is able to create a welcome balance between guilt-ridden and addictive cuts like “Connect” and “From Time” versus the fun, stereo-destroying tracks i.e. the insanely bouncy “Worst Behavior” and sneering braggadocio that is ‘The Language”. And we can’t forget about the almost always slept on “Wu-Tang Forever On Repeat“, which is simple but still low-key genius. NWTS might not be a great rap album per se, but it’s still a great album nonetheless. Oh and Drake’s still in the same city, with the same friends if you’re looking for him. ~J.

9. Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

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Whether he goes by the name of Lightspeed Champion or Blood Orange, 27-year-old Devonté Hynes knows how to capture the sound of 90’s R&B and inject it with some impressive modern creativity. This can be realized through the random bar chatter of one track, an airy sax playing in another, or a woman with a heavy French accent fondly recalling the first time she saw her true love. Moments like this spotlight Hynes ability to cultivate a distinctive atmosphere within Cupid Deluxe, which is a reflection of his UK heritage, and years spent living in New York City. By enlisting the help of artists he admires and has worked with in the past, Hynes is able to lift his album up to great heights that could never have been reached alone. Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek sounds amazing in the tropical album-opener, “Chamakay“, and underground NYC rapper Despot turns in a lyrically engrossing verse on the alluring “Clipped On”. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Hynes’ leading lady on both the project and in real life: Samantha Urbani. The gifted songstress from Friends has vocal credits for 7 of the 11 tracks on Cupid Deluxe. And while it usually works in a supportive role alongside Hynes’, Urbani’s Mariah Carey-esque voice stands out the most on the melancholy “Always Let U Down” and depressingly upbeat “You’re Not Good Enough”. All in all, Cupid Deluxe doesn’t redefine the R&B genre, but it definitely reinvigorates it with a fresh and entrancing flair. ~J.

8. Toro y Moi, Anything In Return

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From the moment Anything In Return’s first track (“Harm In Change“) starts playing, the mood is set and Chaz Bundick’s mesmerizing seduction of the listener’s audial capacity begins to take place. Toro y Moi’s second studio album ventures out and expands upon what was done on Underneath The Pine. There’s less organic instrumentation here, and more of a leaning towards engaging synth arrangements that gently meld with mostly R&B-inspired beats. By putting his own electronic spin on things, Bundick is able to create captivating tracks like “So Many Details“, “Grown Up Calls” and “Studies”. Yet the South Carolina native still offers up material that sets out on the paths less traveled with songs like “Say That” and the hypnotic “Rose Quartz”. There’s no overarching story here, or grandiose concept disguised as an album, yet the music provided on Anything in Return is nothing short of fascinating. Bundick’s voice hasn’t gotten any stronger over the last few years and, at times, sounds a bit flat during certain sequences. But his vocals are by no means a crutch, and positively contribute towards one of the year’s best albums. ~J.

7. James Blake, Overgrown

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As one of the founders of the post-dubstep movement, James Blake has been a very influential music figure over the last three years. Overgrown, the followup to his 2011 self-titled debut, expands upon the electronic nuances and experimental sound that the London artist is known for. When you’re listening to the album, what you’re really hearing is a master at work. Blake combines intricate and layered production with gospel-like vocals, and simple but heartfelt songwriting. Examples of this are reflected in certain sounds and moments, like the gentle strobing synth and quiet static in “Our Love Comes Back“. Tracks sounds as if they’ve been stripped down, laid out, and then slowly built back up, as with the bubbling “Voyeur” and beautifully haunting “Retrograde“. The same can be said about “Digital Lion“, which starts off with a mechanical beating that quickly rises to a steadily frenzied pace as Blake’s voice comes in and out of focus. But nothing epitomizes Blake’s knack for constructing majestic production than on “Overgrown”, which begins with his slow humming over meandering piano keys and the slow beating of drums. But as the track goes on, it builds into a song that’s laced with regret as it loops the lyrics, “But what she really really wanted was my rights and my wrongs/and I wouldn’t understand, but I would try playing along.” Amazing. ~J.

6. Jai Paul, Demo

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“I know I’ve been gone a long time but, I’m back and I want what is mine.”

Most respectable music blogs know about it and have heard Jai Paul’s leaked demo. But most won’t include it on their year-end lists because it was supposedly illegally leaked to the public. While we may never know what really went down in April, we considered how (not so) often Jai releases music to his starved yet devoted fans, and decided that the demo should be included regardless. With that being said, the recluse Londoner known by two first names is quite frankly a musical mastermind who deserves all of the quiet praise that’s been heaped on to him.What Jai is able to do with a beat is near miraculous, genre blending R&B, pop, and electronic rock into his own mad scientist-like creations. Whether it’s making a track from scratch like the best song ever made slow-burning “Jasmine” and cracked-out bass destroyer that is “Genevieve“, or completely remaking old 90’s pop songs like “Crush“, what you’re hearing on this project is a genius allowed to devise and create. There are random Harry Potter and Lara Croft sound bites skittered about, funky guitar riffs, and otherworldly synths present that mesh with Jai’s lo-fi, featherlight vocals in reverb to form something that really is exceptional, if unfinished. In an instant, Jai can go from pleading and seemingly nostalgic like on “Track 11” to startlingly confrontational (“Don’t f*ck with me/Don’t f*ck with me”)  like on “BTSTU“. It’s obvious from Jai Paul’s past history that his music is something that is very precious to him, and not necessarily something he is ready and willing to share with the rest of us. He is meticulous and shy, yet simultaneously audacious and overwhlemingly talented. At this point, it would be hard to find links that are still up to use, and we’re not advocating the illegal downloading of music… but every day that passes by without hearing the demo is another day you’re really missing out on. ~J.

 

5. Haim, Days Are Gone

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The sisters of Haim are three unique and multi-talented Los Angeles artists that, when drawn together, form one formidable monster of pop. There’s Este, 27, who sounds like she could be the lead singer in a current-gen R&B group. There’s Danielle, 24, whose overpowering and slightly androgynous voice seems to be in direct conflict with her reserved nature off stage. And finally there’s Alana, 22, who takes cues from both siblings by projecting a spunky flair and impressive (if underutilized) vocals. This sister trio had a wide range of appearances and interests in 2013 that gained them some welcome popularity. They hi-jacked a Kid CuDi track in “Red Eye” and made it into one of the best songs of the year. They sounded like celestial ghosts on the tail-end of A$AP Rocky’s “LVL”. And they proclaimed their love of Yeezus in multiple interviews. But where Haim was finest this year was on their sensational debut album Days Are Gone.

While they are officially rookies on the scene, technically Haim have been doing the whole ‘music thing’ their entire lives. Specifically, what they’re incredibly adept at is making vibrant ‘indie’ folk-pop that teeters on the edge of bona fide rock & roll. Most of their songs are fast and upbeat with Danielle’s powerful voice used as the beacon that guides listeners on an adventurous journey of sound. Examples of this are on songs like “If I Could Change Your Mind“, which has a certain catch-and-go flow that’s electric, or the urgently pleading “Don’t Save Me” with it’s kicked-back drumline and organ-like synth keys. They can completely dial it back, as with the enchantingly sluggish “Go Slow“. Then they can go hardcore rock and heavy metal like on the devastatingly devilish “My Song 5” (dat guitar doe). The three are experts at varying their music to different degrees, but never stray too far away from their guitar-laden bread and butter. To close, the sisters Haim are an exceptionally talented bunch of women. And if they’re not certified pop stars yet, they’re well on their way. ~J.

4. Danny Brown, Old

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He did it.  Danny Brown actually did it.  At 32 years young, the Detroit emcee not only perfected his homespun formula of elastic punk rap that is awe-inspiringly genre expansive, but he managed to do so just two years after flipping the industry upside down with his previous crown jewel XXX.   Whereas XXX numbed the pain of being a struggling (well by rap’s glamor-obsessed materialistic standards) elder statesmen who couldn’t quite seem to crack the code, Old finds Brown reflective, uncertain of his greater impact, and weary from years of drugs, poverty, and the suffocating stress of hip-hop aspirations.  In that sense, Old is a much more cerebral and self-aware effort Brown probably could not have properly pieced together in 2011.  It’s audacious without being self-indulgent, but what often gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that the man can rap really really well.  There are very few other rappers in the game clamoring for a beat from Purity Ring or a relentless, bass liquefier from Rustie, because most other rappers couldn’t even begin to navigate such treacherous waters.  Old is the culmination of years of style experimentation and is a meticulously comprehensive project of every facet of Brown’s career up until this point.

If XXX was an off-kilter cult comedy of sorts, than Old is his tonal shift into Alexander Payne style dramedy where humor alleviates the sobriety of everyday life.  The character Danny Brown put forth in 2011 was endearingly abrasive and crass, but there was almost a sense of entitlement; as if, putting in ten years of frozen Detroit treks to the studio and an overall dedication to craftsmanship somehow substantiates a blooming rap career.  The Danny Brown we find on Old, now somewhat vacated of the stress that comes with being an indie rapper on the cusp, is better equipped to speak on why the man on XXX was insatiably hungry.  It’s in that wisdom and experience Danny Brown’s age becomes an indistinguishable asset, helping him weave together the revelatory tales of terror and druggy mayhem found on Old.  He’s got the credibility of Uncle Snoop and the foresight of K.Dot all while being undeniably Daniel Brown and it’s honestly a sight to behold.  Whoever thought he’d be the greatest growing up? ~ Dylan M.

3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

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“Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want…”

The quote above is spoken by Giorgio Moroder on the third track of Daft Punk’s fourth studio album, Random Access Memories. Moroder, a pioneer of the electronic dance genre and one of the first users of the synthesizer, served as a muse for a project that frequently dipped into the past for inspiration and creativity. Musically speaking, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had done just about everything. They started off in 1997 with an experimental electronic record that fostered a cult following in Homework. They created a game-changing dance album with 2001’s Discovery, a beloved project that influenced younger generations of producers for years (and an album I consider as one of the best of all time). In 2005, they created a polarizing, and ultimately unsuccessful mechanical techno record in Human After All. They even helped Kanye create one of the best singles ever in 2007. So what was there left to do? Well, go backwards of course.

Random Access Memories can still be considered a “dance” record. But it’s more of a modern throwback to retro-house funk and disco than a progressive project for the electronic genre. Giorgio Moroder’s quote is important because it puts into perspective exactly what Daft Punk was trying to accomplish with R.A.M. The robots didn’t care about playing by the established rules or being correct with their approach. Instead they enlisted the help of disco rock legend Nile Rodgers and contemporary wunderkind Pharrell Williams. They gave us psychedelically funky guitar riffs in place of throbbing synths, and groovy basslines instead of headache-inducing bass. Their mission wasn’t to recreate the dance genre so much as it was to redefine it.

Once you press play, all of the old-school influence rushes up at you at once with a frenetic guitar line that sounds like it came straight out of the 70s in “Give Life Back to Music“. Then there are the mid-tempo’d moments of tracks like the slowly invasive “Lose Yourself to Dance”, and Julian Casablanca’s scene-stealing performance on the melodically poppy “Instant Crush“. There’s a melding of Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, and Marvin Gaye presented here under the guise of robotic vocoder vocals. “Giorgio by Moroder” beats with a distinctive android-like energy, while the sluggish and hypnotic “Game of Love” emotionally pulls at the heartstrings. There are eye-opening instances, like a children’s choir appearing in “Touch”, and moments of brief rapture as with the epically symphonic intro of “Beyond”. And my god if “Doin’ It Right” isn’t doin’ it right then I don’t know what is. With Random Access Memories, Daft Punk wanted to sincerely pay homage to all of their influences while still being fun and fluid. Well they certainly managed to do both that and create one of the best albums of the year in the process. ~J.

2. Disclosure, Settle 

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Guy and Howard Lawrence achieved something rare and special in 2013. Not only is their debut album Settle a masterfully crafted and eclectic dance album, but it also functions as a showcase for rising artists with extraordinary talent. Many times when you see a project with so many features, it signifies a lazy attempt at drawing more attention to the album through other big names, or an exploitative money grab. But with Settle, each track demonstrates a fully collaborative effort towards creating songs that are both unique and dynamic.

Taking cues, from the Chicago and London garage-house and grime scenes, the brothers Lawrence’ fingerprints are all over the album. With simple, melodically sweeping hooks and a 90’s R&B influence that can be heard throughout, we get one of the most fascinating dance projects since Discovery. There are certain obscure touches like the brilliant sampling of hip-hop preacher Eric Thomas used as the intro, which leads into the absolutely infectious “When a Fire Starts to Burn”. There’s the steady house drum of “Stimulation” that builds and builds over fleeting synths and the chopped-up vocals of Lianne La Havas. Can we talk about the beautiful and homely voice of Eliza Doolittle on “You & Me“? What about Jessie Ware’s semi-duet with Howard over the quickly beating grime instrumentation of “Confess To Me”?

What makes Settle so great is that while it’s soaked in the electronic production of its genre, the music still sounds organic, while never being too over-the-top. Take the smoothness of “January” for instance, which pushes the soulful vocals of Jamie Woon to the forefront, as cooly energetic synth-work subtly takes ahold of the listener. Then there are the star-maker tracks like the vibrant “White Noise” featuring AlunaGeorge (see above), and the serenely melancholic “Help Me Lose My Mind” featuring London Grammar.

Oh and finally  there’s “Latch” the monster jam of a hit featuring Sam Smith that propelled both him and Disclosure into the stratosphere. You should hear fans faithfully chomping at the bit for the duo to play the song while at their concerts, and then the euphoric hysteria that hits when the two finally give in and do play it. With all of this said, the point is that Settle is an instant classic record that, from top to bottom, is expertly well-done and is almost always replayable. So here’s to hoping that Disclosure’s sophomore effort will be anything as good as the first. ~J.

1. Kanye West, Yeezus

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 What? You thought this wouldn’t be number one? Well you must be new around these parts.    Say You Will to Say what you will about Kanye West… that he’s a chauvinistic asshole, he’s self-absorbed, and crazy. It’s all been said before. But mark my words: you’ll miss him when he’s gone.

What Yeezus is is an industrially-produced lightning rod of controversial music. Although his previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is universally revered (widely considered as the masterpiece of Kanye West’s expansive career), it’s Yeezus that serves as his crown jewel of sonic creativity. And sonically speaking it’s important to note that even though West can be placed in the rapper category, the physical rapping that’s done on the album might be the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th most critical aspect. Instead, what impresses most is how he frames proclamations like “I am a god” in between the hard blaring of mind-numbing bass and distorted screams, or “I’m aware I’m a wolf as soon as the moon hits” inside of beating tribal drums, heavy breathing, and primal rage.

 Don’t misunderstand though; Kanye still has multiple messages that are heard both loudly and clearly. One of the most eye-opening of these is that his obsession with sex has only grown more twisted. His perversive ways, which slowly crept out in songs on MBDTF like trickling blood out of an open wound, are now streaming outpours of oversexualized aggression. Who knew that a civil rights sign could be more graphic than anything mentioned in West’s explicit tale of pornographic fantasies, “Hell Of A Life“? Or that being an organ donor at the midnight hour has nothing to do with saving lives? Disgusting? Maybe. Entertaining? Absolutely.

So much more can be said about this divisive project. We could address West’s compelling yet pathological need to stick it to the industries that slighted and discriminated against him in “New Slaves“. We could dissect the kind of political message West was trying to convey when he picked two prominent members of Chicago’s drill scene to be on the album instead of any true superstar artist (including his whole G.O.O.D. music roster).  There’s “Blood On The Leaves”, West’s menacingly powerful tour de force that I’m convinced would be the marching song of Sauron’s armies if they had access to the internet. Yeezus has frequently been deemed a harsh listening experience, which is a criticism that may be true. But the record is as beautiful as it is brash, and listening to it is more like beholding the destructive magnificence of an erupting volcano than appreciating the natural grandeur of a majestic landscape. If Yeezy has taught us anything over the last 10 years, it’s that he absolutely refuses to stay the same. While he could give us a project ripe with vintage soul samples, a la “Bound 2”, that’s just not where Kanye is in his career right now. We can all beg Chicago’s native son to give us another College Dropout, which is something stubborn hip-hop heads would foam at the mouth for. But that just seems so unoriginal, and I’d rather have Kanye West be a leader than a follower. ~J.