For me, the year was a twelve-month period of redirection. I quit a stifling corporate job that I truly hated early in the year to force myself to follow my true passion and to create a path to do what I truly desired. The only hard part was figuring out what exactly those passions were and deciding which path I truly wanted to take.
For the music industry, sales continued to dip, ringtones and Spotify/Pandora hits continued to drown out the monotonous sounds of the radio and most notably, manufactured hype resulted in quickly forgotten disappointment.
Many of the industry’s most hyped records followed this trajectory across the board. The trend was most notably seen in the Top 40 arena with Justin Timberlake’s two-fold comeback and new albums from Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Heavily promoted major label rap releases from both celebrated vets (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Drake, Eminem) and young guns alike (J. Cole, Wale, Tyler the Creator, Big Sean, 2 Chainz) fell out of general consciousness soon after they dropped.
Even many of the albums that I anticipated most proved to be a tad disappointing. While Jose James’ No Beginning, No End, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, The Foreign Exchange’s Love in Flying Colors, The Stepkids’ Troubadour, The Weeknd’s Kissland and plenty others—all featured some very tasty individual morsels, they all left me underwhelmed as a whole.
Yet, in the midst of all the self-discovery and decidedly flaccid state of much of the year’s released music, I discovered a grip of gems that enlightened my ears—and life—by providing the soundtrack for the year:
TORO Y MOI. Anything in Return
Chazwick Bundwick, the spectacled South Carolinian, released the virtually unskippable Anything in Return—his third effort under the pseudonym Toro y Moi at the top of the year (after it leaked at the tail end of 2012). The album’s warm, softly percolating soulful synth-laden glow—that’s bound to give both Ariel Pink and Miguel pause--provided me with joy as I drudged along as a retail management slave.
Anything’s charm wasn’t only buoyed by its gentle, unassuming yet ultra-catchy grooviness but by Chaz’s fragile yet strident falsetto. If Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye is the scuzzy guy in the club who wants to take a girl home for a one-off night of drugged-up sex, Chaz is the nice guy who wants to take same said girl home so that they can sip milkshakes and watch episodes of The Simpsons together.
My album of the year.
BILAL. A Love Surreal
Bilal Oliver may be the industry vet with a resume of providing assistance to A-listers for more than a decade while still remaining unknown to the general public but with A Love Surreal—his third release in twelve years—Bilal proves himself as one of the most consistent artists of his generation by connecting the outré to the beautiful. On A Love Surreal finds him softening the frayed edges of 2010′s equally brilliant Airtight’s Revenge while keeping its progressive vibe. If D’Angelo flakes out on that now-mythical third album, Bilal’s here to keep our ears satisfied.
Quietly released at the tail end of 2012 but officially release in the States in March, Rhye’s Woman is the perfect aural example of hushed sensuality. Quietly grooving and softly soulful, Mike Milosh’s exhausted falsetto (that’s often found to be androgynous) and Robin Hannibal’s trademark dense, minimalist soulful production provide the perfect soundtrack to slowly caressing bedroom sheets and softly audible sighs. A crossover hit since it’s stateside arrival that’s caught the attention of The New York Times, Pitchfork, NPR, Spin and many other mainstream outlets, Woman might be the LP to not only bring sexy back. But to ensure that it never leaves.
inc. No World
Imagine listening to Maxwell on codeine. That’s describes the sound of inc.’s debut, No World., released on 4AD, the illustrious British alternative label that was the home of the Cocteau Twins and The Pixies. No World is bedroom music that embodies the meanings of both the world ‘quiet’ and ‘storm’. The Aged brothers-Daniel and Andrew-that comprise the duo create an unified suite of steamy, unhurried grooves and sensuous whispered vocals that draw just as much from My Bloody Valentine and the aforementioned Twins as they do Maxwell. No World has a shadowy, dreamlike quality that is as haunting as it as sexy. It’s the audio equivalent to mist.
BONOBO. The North Borders
While certain tracks can easily veer into hip muzak if not listened to in the proper context, The North Borders, Bonobo’s follow up to 2010′s Black Sands, is an audio delight of deeply complicated grooves that reveal many layers upon repeated listens. Call it Flying Lotus for the Earthbound, if you will. While instrumental numbers dominate Borders, it’s the vocal tracks that display Bonobo’s expertise the best. Erykah Badu illuminates “Heaven for the Sinner” and Szjerdene crystallizes “Towers“; both women’s vocals arguably bring the music to a height of beauty it couldn’t reach without. More than a rainy day soundtrack, The North Borders, during its best moments, is music in the (minor) key of life.
JAMES BLAKE. Overgrown.
Mr. Blake, the rock press’ Great White Hope of Dubstep, returns with a sophomore release that is colorful, confident and bold where his self-titled 2011 debut was grey, unsure and hesitant. Whether it’s personal growth or a larger production budget (it’s likely a mixture of both), Overgrown is a quietly penetrating step forward. The soul influence that always colored Blake’s work is even more pronounced and the singer/songwriter flourishes are now completely intertwined with the electronics of the production. Overgrown sounds like the soundtrack of a psychological thriller that has yet to be made. (Also: any one can have RZA woefully lament over a lost love for an entire track deserves serious props.)
Daft Punk’s long-awaited return, Random Access Memories, dazzled the critics yet disappointed many more by providing a lavishly produced, warmly colored Steely Dan-esque throwback album instead of the modern disco floor filler that the world anticipated. The Lawrence Brothers—Guy and Howard--known as Disclosure delivered the 4/4 thump that made both the airwaves and the clubs jump instead. Accessible enough for the charts yet authentic enough to pass as unlisted white label 12”s, Settle was the year’s crossover dance release. Guy and Howard-- like the far older robotic duo of Daft Punk—also wanted to look back. Yet, inside of the late ‘70s FM radio sunshine captured on Random, Settle bases its core on the deep house and vocal garage jams of the late 1990s (interesting considering that the brothers were born in 1991 and 1994, respectively.) While the vocal tracks—featuring forward-looking electronic vocalists like Jessie Ware, Jamie Woon, Eliza Doolitte, Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge and London Grammar—dazzle more than their instrumental counterparts, Settle is the fire that burned and started to spread from the dance floor to my ears, feet, heart and beyond.
CHANCE THE RAPPER. Acid Rap
My interest in hip hop waned throughout the year, mainly because of both the decidedly steady decrease in quality of much of the genre and (perhaps) personal maturation but 20-year-old Chicagoan Chancelor “Chance the Rapper” Bennett’s second free album proved to be one of the handful of rap releases that I was charmed by. Chance’s nasal, sing-song-y flow invokes a slew of rap icons—Eminem, The College Dropout-era Kanye West, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Kid Cudi, Lil’ Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, The Pharcyde—sometimes simultaneously. Depending on the ear, that same flow can sound either grating or deliriously jazzy. Yet, Chance, for all his likability, wasn't quite the star of Acid Rap. The production was. Acid’s warmly soulful grooves are firmly of the present even while often steeped in the past (peep the “Clean Up Woman” guitar loop on “Favorite Song”, the Slum Village flip of “Everybody’s Something”). Despite some somewhat shallow navel-gazing that reveals his tender age, Acid Rap’s generally warm vibe--musically and lyrically-- makes you both want to nod you head and pinch Chance’s cheek and say “Aah!”.
Here’s how you slightly commercialize your sound without selling your soul and losing your initial charm. Fresh off the heels of the crossover acceptance of Rhye’s aforementioned Woman (his album-long collaboration with Canadian vocalist Milosh), producer Robin Hannibal upgrades his other collaborative duo-- with CoCo O. -- with the studio polish that only a new contract with Sony could buy. Yet, without compromising any of the twosomes’s signature sound. CoCo’s voice—a magical instrument in its own right—sounds more exuberant and full than it was on their ’09 debut. Whether the musical backdrop dreamily drifted or thumped with a cosmopolitan bounce, Avalanche’s rapid flow of quality doesn't end even after its duration.
More vocal-orientated than his 2010 debut, Apocalypse is no less compelling despite Thundercat’s now full-time reliance on his George Duke-inspired falsetto. Recorded in the wake of close friend and fellow Brainfeeder Austin Perlata’s untimely death, Apocalypse isn’t just a funky genre-less cosmic expedition but a moody rumination on life, death and where we all fit in the middle.
OMAR. The Man
Talk about consistency. Over two decades over his arrival on the scene, UK soul icon Omar Lyke-Fook drops yet another filler-free gem in The Man. The audio equivalent of sunshine, Omar’s rich, worldly-wise vocals shine over grooves that sound both festive and effortlessly funky. He is The Man, indeed. Bow down.
MAYER HAWTHORNE. Where Does This Door Go?
Mayer Hawthorne releases album number three, teams up with A-list producers (Pharrell, Pop & Oak, John Hill, Greg Wells) and switches the time machine from the 1968 Motown haze of his 2009 Stones Throw debut, A Strange Arrangement to both 1979 AM gold and 2013 platinum . Balancing modern yacht-funk grooves (perfectly demonstrated on the Pharrell productions “Wine Glass Woman”, “Reach Out Richard” and “The Stars Are Ours”) with modern hip hop soul that he sounds more at home at on (the Jessie Ware-aided “Her Favorite Song” and the Kendrick-assisted penthouse groove of “Crime”; both Pop & Oak co-creations), Where Does This Door Go? is Hawthorne’s best album yet because it suggests that the world outside this door is rich with possibility.
JANELLE MONAE. The Electric Lady
Between following up a masterfully ambitious—and widely acclaimed-- debut and seriously aiming to increase your commercial profile, Janelle Monae had a lot on her tiny lil’ android hands. Yet, The Electric Lady proved that Janelle could not only completes both lofty tasks but exceeds them. Even if it doesn't exactly top The ArchAndroid (which is next to impossible to do), Electric expands Monae’s sound while adding a slightly more human touch to the chronicles of Metropolis. It’s now clear that beyond all of the android speak, Electric is the latently Afro-centric travelogue of a young black woman finding herself in a crazy, mixed-up world where she is an “other.” Identity issues, existentialism, and individuality all get artfully tackled on the first half (or suite IV) while good, old fashioned heartbreak covers nearly all of the compelling (and very accessible) second portion (or suite V). Sure, Electric may be a tad derivative (“Ghetto Woman” sounds like three different songs from Songs in the Key of Life playing all at once; “Victory” might as well be dubbed “To Zion II”; “It’s Code” could easily pass for a spot-on cover of an early Jackson 5 b-side), over-long (19 tracks at nearly 70 minutes) and over-ambitious but by now, we all know that’s just Janelle’s M.O. And if it’s this inventively funky and heartfelt, who can complain?
KING KRULE. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
King Krule may look like a thuggish Howdy Dowdy and sound like a drunken lad who likes to fight at your local Irish pub but a listen to 6 Feet Beneath the Moon reveals a tender-hearted, thoughtful young man who doesn't pull punches even he isn't too quick to throw them either. Moodily nocturnal and refreshingly genre-less, Mr. Marshall delivers the late-night listen of the year. Despite faltering just slightly in its final third, this debut points to the 19-year-old’s potentially illustrious future.
SAMPHA. Dual EP
Soulfully evocative and electronically progressive, this EP proves that no one makes electronic singer/songwriter soul like the UK’s Sampha. Forget the exposure-increasing Drake feature that came several months after Dual’s release, Sampha is already ready for his close-up.
LIL’ SILVA. The Distance EP
UK Funky with the bounce, swing and stroll (as well as the soul) that it’s often missing. Many pop ‘n’ lock attacks occurred to this one throughout the year.
Richly upbeat, overwhelmingly positive, and designed for the cool two-step, South Africa’s Muzart delivered the groove album of the year.
THE INTERNET. Feel Good
A marked improvement over the still-worthy 2011 debut, Purple Naked Ladies, the duo of Syd Tha Kid and Matt Martians deliver the best aural dream of the year. Feel Good sounds like a blur. Albeit a dreamy, otherworldly, euphoric blur. Syd’s fragile vocals sound more confident this go ‘round and the live touches enhance the pleasingly meandering grooves. Feel Good lives up to its title to become perhaps the most agile and mature release to come this year from either inside and outside the Odd Future faction this year.
VIC MENSA. Innanetape
Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper’s 19-year-old crony almost topped the aforementioned Acid Rap with his official debut free album. While Mensa may lack Chance’s affability, he surpasses him with a focus, range and less divisive flow. Plus, “Orange Soda” may be one of the best hip hop singles to drop this year…that wasn't saturated on the radio.
ODDISEE. The Beauty in All
Not many producers can invoke feelings, worlds, looks, scents, viewpoints and unspoken thoughts. Yet Oddisee does. Quiet well, I must add.
AMEL LARRIEUX. Ice Cream Everyday
Amel finally returned after an extended hiatus with perhaps, her best solo set. A new found confidence and ease radiates throughout. The title is a metaphor for indulging in a slice of daily joy. This album being one of those such joys.
BLOOD ORANGE. Cupid Deluxe
This album’s late-year release is the only reason it’s not in my (unofficial) top 5. Devonte Hynes’ Blood Orange project is the most fully realized that the British Caribbean musical polymath has unleashed to the world. This album’s back-to-back brilliance is nearly unparalleled. Cupid Deluxe’s juxtaposition of ‘80s nostalgia, modern Brooklyn hipster cool, urban ennui, androgyny and a free-spirited approach makes for, not only one of the best albums of 2013, but perhaps, the last five or so years.
Black Milk-No Poison, No Paradise
Boards of Canada-Tomorrow's Harvest