These are the 2013 albums I listened to most, which means they’re also the ones I probably liked the best. In reverse alphabetical order.
Kanye West – Yeezus: This would be at the end of my list if it was ranked. I love a lot about it–the production, the energy, the whole fuck-up-your-whole-afternoonness of it all, but I can’t get behind some of the last-minute, subpar lyrics. “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” is just not good, no matter how many fans scream it back to him from the audience. A lot of the lyrical ideas weren’t worked through, which is perhaps a necessary aspect of the project’s exhilarating rush, but is also a disappointment after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy raised that bar. I still listened to this shit a whole lot, though.
The Shondes – The Garden: I’m just so so so proud of them!
I made this. I’m making another video with them this month.
Savages – Silence Yourself: This is the first new rock band that I’ve liked in a while. I don’t like most new rock music the cool kids like. It’s flaccid. It doesn’t move me. I don’t think it moves anyone. This, though. The chorus of “She Will” makes me want to punch a hole in the wall, in the good way. DRUMS. Thank GOD for these drums. Yes, they do sound like long lost post-punk geniuses of a tense and aggressive flavor, so of course I’m prone to liking them. They don’t sound like any band in particular beyond isolated elements and overall vibe. Siouxie is a decent reference point vocal-wise, but Savages don’t sound much like The Banshees. Etc. Every member of the band is on point.
This fall I was at a video shoot with my friend Frank and it was like 2am and he was fading, and I just gave him my phone and ear buds so he could listen to this album for a few minutes, and then he was fine. Savages are better than coffee.
One of the absolute best live shows I saw (twice!) last year. Or ever.
Run The Jewels – Run the Jewels: So Killer Mike and El-P made an album.
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady: I have nothing bad to say about this album. I don’t understand critics who were mad the narrative wasn’t clearer–have they never heard a concept album before? As with several albums on my list, the whole Archandroid mythology adds a layer of enjoyment that listeners can delve into and engage with as much or little as we have the desire and attention, but aside from that you still have one of the most excellent collections of songs this year. That make me so, so happy. Seriously effective instant mood lifter, this album. Actually worthwhile skits, too. “ROBOT LOVE IS QUEER!”
MeLa Machinko – Hov Said it Best and 9am Blues: Another album that served as an antidepressant for me many days in 2013, Hov Said it Best also works completely as a collection of fantastic songs even without the Jay Z references woven throughout. Jay’s oeuvre may have been the muse, but MeLa moved well beyond clever fangirl response and establishes her own very specific voice as a singer and songwriter, deftly turning from bittersweet to choke-on-your-drink hilarious on a dime. Her voice is so purty and nice to listen to that you bliss out and start humming along to lyrics that you suddenly realize are about telling some dude to eat a bag of baby dicks. That’s the kind of thing that just makes my morning just a little bit better. Then, right before the year ended, she dropped an ep of more straight-forward songs that maintain Hov‘s balance of fantastic craft, humor and immediate relatability. Only thing is I wish both were available on vinyl.
One of my favorite songs on the album.
Jean Grae – Gotham Down Trilogy: If anyone paid me to write think pieces (or if I just had more time to think and write unpaid) I might do one about how the three eps that comprise Gotham Down prefigured Beyonce with their sudden, direct-to-fans-style releases (They were eventually compiled as Gotham Down Deluxe). As for the contents– Jean introduced an assassin character on 2003’s choose-your-own-adventure-themed song Chapter One: Destiny, which ends on somewhat infuriatingly open note, if you were me in the aughts wishing the prompts inside the song to skip to various other tracks in order to continue the story actually did so (there was no track 7!) That story is continued here, ten years later, though chronology is a little more complicated for the time-traveling character. The more you listen to these songs, the more the different pieces of the complex narrative tapestry begin to come together though, in keeping with a theme of this list, the songs work perfectly well on their own, as self-contained stories.
Alongside consistently stellar fancy wordplay and jokes (and lots of violence,) Gotham Down contains some of Jean’s most biting, emotional lyricism, despite what the action-packed high concept. Volume One: Love in Infinity is the most obviously partially autobiographical of the trilogy, but the other volumes also make room for sweet and painful moments, notably the apocalyptic gut-punch of the beautiful Crayon Ruins off Volume 2: Leviathan. Elsewhere we get some of the densest, funniest work of Grae’s (or anyone’s) career on tracks like 76% and FUCKERY LEVEL 3000, in which Jean manages to work in references to Rick Moranis and John Goodman’s character on Roseanne (and one million other awesome things. I counted.) respectively between spitting on children and going her office job with fresh assassination blood on her blouse. So. Pretty happy about that.
I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the rewards the song cycle allows careful listeners. Who exactly finds the (faked?) suicide? Do all the Hunter S. Thompson references mean more than that Grae is a fan? So many questions I’m still delighted to explore.
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap: Yeah, me and everyone else.
Beyonce: I loved it, like most people around me. Loved it. More than I expected to!
Almost everything I have to say about these songs has already been said to death, but I will comment on how much I appreciate the “visual album” aspect, which I originally feared might be a somewhat underwhelming excuse to jack up the price. Hahahahahahaha. No. Who makes an excellent video for every single track on their album? Plus some song that was originally a Pepsi tie-in? Beyonce, motherfucker. Every video legitimately builds on the song, there’s not a lazy or half-assed filler clip in the bunch. They’re all some of the best music videos I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a bad time for the form, and it’s one I greatly enjoy. Beyonce did a whole lot to remind us of how they can be, I hope she inspires others to step up their game, though videos with these kinds of production values are not gonna be feasible for most artists. All I can figure is that she shelled out a lot of her own cash to do this, because no label is gonna pay for that many videos, let alone ones that were obviously so expensive. And, I believe, free of paid product placement, the usual way lavish videos get funded these days. I used to have a job that involved spotting product placement in movies and TV shows, and now I can’t help but notice logos and product appearances. I was shocked and refreshed by their anachronistic absence here, especially when opportunities for brand integration abounded. Good for Beyonce! I would pay to see the whole visual album projected on a big screen in a theater.
I love this video, even though it was directed by Terry Richardson. I guess it’s pretty hard to mess up Beyonce-at-Coney-Island. This is great because of the footage, which really could have been shot by anyone with a good camera and a rig to attach it to the Cyclone. Just sayin’. Still great.