The theme for my top 10 list this year leans heavily toward work that pushes against the grain of conventions with really strong songs (not marketing; sorry Beyonce). If you don’t have any of these records, it’s not too late to catch up. If you don’t like any of these records, you need to try harder. If you like other records more, congratulations: you too have an opinion.
Note: not ranked.
James Blake – Overgrown
The best electronic album of the year, period, and there was some really good stuff this year. Blake is using sounds that no one else is using in ways that no one else is using them. He stands alone in music right now. He also deserves a medal for getting me to listen to a full set of RZA bars in 2013.
Standouts: “Retrograde”, “Take a Fall for Me”, “Life Round Here”
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
The real shit. El-P is a smart and dexterous lyricist, and a powerful beatmaker. Joining forces with Killer Mike to create Run the Jewels gives us a dense yet root-based hip-hop album that we’ll still be listening to even after all of Kanye West’s cameras run out of tape. Mind you, this is fresh off of El-P giving us his best record to date in 2012.
Standouts: “36” Chain”, “Job Well Done”, “Run the Jewels”
Jose James – No Beginning No End
I knew when this came out early in the year it wasn’t getting knocked off of my top 10 list. James comes off like a vocal chameleon, having released straight-head jazz records, R&B records, and whatever Flying Lotus is doing this season. The reality is that the man’s baritone can swing over anything, and he’s got a genuine sense of what a song needs. This largely R&B offering is grown folks soul music, and he’s backed by some of the best players in the game right now.
Standouts: “Vanguard”, “Make It Right”, “It’s All Over Your Body”
Toro y Moi – Anything in Return
I love how the perpetually underrated Michael Franks has been sneaking into a lot of artists’ vocalizations these days. When I got hip to this cat I thought it was some kind of Donald Glover side project. Turns out, they’re both members of the Phillip Michael Thomas Look-Alike Society. Toro gives us summer-ready grooves that actually groove, and are so infectious that you almost forget that he sings like he’s barely holding on to his own tunes. I miss the old Naked Music compilations, and this totally filled the bill. Of course, he’s going to blow up now that he’s had a song in a Grand Theft Auto game.
Standouts: “Harm in Change”, “So Many Details”, “Grown Up Calls”
Sango – North
This isn’t so much minimalist electronica as it is an artist knowing just how much production a song needs. Sango, who occasionally sings on his tracks to great effect, doesn’t muck up the works here for club consumption. It’s clean, slow, beautiful stuff that not many cats put out these days. This is probably my second favorite electronic album of the year after James Blake’s, and it is certainly the prettiest-sounding.
Standouts: “Middle of Things/Beautiful Wife”, “No One Else”, “She Yells” (Seeing the theme here?)
Thundercat – Apocalypse
I don’t even want to write anything about this cat. He lives to eviscerate critical labels. You just have to hear it. Know that if you liked his first one, his influences are even more apparent here (Frank Zappa and George Duke most notably). Let’s just say, if you don’t like “Tenfold”, just step away from the record because something in you is broken and you need prayer.
Standouts: “Tenfold”, “Seven”, “Lotus and the Jondy”
Amel Larrieux – Ice Cream Everyday
A fine return to form for Larrieux. I thought we’d lost her on the last few albums (really since her first one), but this one finds her melding all of her interests and touchstones into a strong collection of songs, and not just the 2-song-hit-it-and-done albums she’s been doing. What’s caught my eye this week that wouldn’t have been possible last week is noticing the way that the sonic peaks and valleys of her album line up with Beyonce’s. So if you want Beyonce’s album without needing the videos to better enjoy it, have at (and remember which one came out first).
Standouts: “You Don’t See Me”, “See Where You Are”, “Afraid”
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up!
Harper’s old soul meets up with genuine blues master Musselwhite for the long haul and we’re given an authentic blues bow down here. I’d like to think it’s the kind of record Hendrix would have gotten around to making: a return to roots, while still keeping the strains of its children present.
Standouts: “Get Up”, “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say”, “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)”
Foreign Exchange – Love in Flying Colors
Unless we’re just meeting, you already know I go hard in the paint for this band. They stay my favorite working band, and if you follow their catalog at all you knew this album was coming. FE has been inching backwards through eras and across multiple genres with each record, so really this is probably one of the best records of not only this year, but also 1987. This album probably would have appeared on more lists if they had included also-released in 2013 songs like “Pity”, “So What If It Is” and “Don’t let it Be So”, which are all wonderful songs released on their own steam.
Standouts: “Call It Home”, “If I Knew Then”, “Better”
Tyler, The Creator – Wolf
We have officially arrived at the WTF moment in every year-end list. Even if I were ranking this list I would have had to put it last because the minute some of you saw it, you’d discount all of my offerings. I spend more time defending my enjoyment of this cat’s repertoire than I did the L.A. riots. This isn’t an easy recommendation; due to the graphic nature of the lyrics and the trashcan production of the beats, it’s not for everyone. What I find most appealing about it is that it’s a truly daring record, filled with engaging beats and songs that just don’t care what anyone thinks. It is music by an artist who truly wants to make music he likes, brain-dumping every possible feeling and image he can conjure up. Again, this isn’t for our enjoyment, it’s for his own, and it makes for a truly unique listening experience. He talks about things that we all deal with – heartache, depression, backstabbing frenemies – but he does so using words you would never use, creating a real disassociation in the listener WITH THEMSELVES. Now, I’m not saying he does this on purpose, but I am saying that’s what makes it work. Not for the feint of heart, but man, his music is honest and the turnarounds midway through some songs are hype.
Standouts: “Jamba”, “Slater”, “Lone”
Cécile McLorin Salvant – WomanChild
Forget all the Billie Holiday, shaky voice pretenders: this young woman been here before.
Lapalux – Nostalchic
While a clear grab for a little mainstream attention, it’s got some greats tracks here.
Buika – La noche mas larga
The Latin record to own this year.
Bobby Earth – The Book of Genesynth
A free download that’s better than most of the stuff you heard this year, so Merry Christmas.