(It’s almost absurd for me to post a year-in-review post for the previous year in November, but I’ve had this post sitting near-done for a long time and it’s time to just get it posted so I can start on this year’s!)
Since 2007, I’ve really enjoyed putting together these year-end personal “best-of” lists. Since most of my music “journalism” these days is limited to Twitter, I take the time at the end of the year to put together a list what really grabbed me.
Everything’s sorted in alphabetical order. (Note: Many album links are affiliate links to Amazon’s mp3 store.)
(See also: all previous years-in-review.)
Best of 2013
- abolitionist: the growing disconnect
Punky punk punk punk punk punk from Portland!
- Banda Magda: Amour, T’es La?
I read about this fun little album on the NPR Music site and really dug the French ye-ye influence mixed with samba and other international sounds.
- Colossus: Colossus
Rochester, NY-based big band Colossus doesn’t play big band music (if they did, they likely wouldn’t be on this list). Instead, they play that slightly dark, modern jazz oft dubbed nu jazz or future jazz. Whatever the case, this six track album showed me that this style of jazz doesn’t have to be played only in a small group setting for good effect; it actually works really well in a big band setting.
- Cornell Campbell Meets Soothsayers: Nothing Can Stop Us
It seems so hard to find new roots reggae that features classic singers and a solid backing band with a real feel for the 70s roots sound. This is one of the rare new reggae albums that fits the bill. Favorite cut: “With You My Heart Belongs.”
- Demigodz: Killmatic
Celph, Apathy, and crew give you that aggressive drive time music you need and love. Peep how they flip the Rocky theme.
- Erin McKeown: Manifestra
Not my favorite of her releases, but it’s hard to deny that Erin McKeown loves what she does and isn’t afraid to try new sounds. She can always be counted on for a good album.
- Franz Ferdinand: Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
Sounds Buddhist-y from the title, but isn’t. Super catchy title track. Actually, the whole dang thing is catchy.
- Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge: Twelve Reasons to Die
One of the most interesting Wu albums in years. Based on a comic of the same name, it’s hard to imagine a hip-hop concept album that doesn’t feel at least a little corny, but this is it. Though the main theme is Godfather-esque, I actually get more of a 70’s giallo vibe from Adrian Younge’s excellent production, which makes me love it even more. Fantastic stuff all the way through. (Apollo Brown’s remix version of the album called Twelve Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape is also well worth checking out.)
- Jazz Addixx: Tomorrow’s Yesterday
I’ve known Ragz for 15 years and Mudd for even longer, so I’m a touch biased. These three guys worked so long and hard on this album and it really shows. They’ve managed to stay true to their 70s-and 80s-soul-jazz-influenced roots while adding layers of complexity and nuance to their tracks that make this one of the most engaging albums of the year. Unown tears the ish out of the mic and his own beat on “Far Out” and you can hear the group’s effortless interaction on “Love Song” and “Ahhh!” where Un and Mudd trade lines while Ragz adds his signature cuts. This is grown up hip-hop that’s not afraid to battle every so often.
- Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: Unvarnished
The Joan Jett sound hasn’t changed all that much since the 80s (shoot, since her time with the Runaways), and that is totally, 100% OK. The fact that a 55-year-old can still rock (and be engaging when doing it) like she did at 25 is good enough for me.
- Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (Volume One)
What can I say? It’s about as engaging as pop gets. The second volume, oddly, was exactly the opposite.
- Kid Tsunami: The Chase
I’d never heard of Australian-based Tsunami before this album, but I’m glad I found him. The Chase is a brilliant slice of the 90’s boom bap sound. All of key players of the 80s and 90s are involved, including Kool Keith, OC, Percee Pee, El da Sensei, Bahamadia, and KRS-One, and they’re all at their best.. The title track is like “Crooklyn Dodgers part 4″ with Buckshot, Chubb Rock, Pharoahe Monch, and Jeru. There’s not a single piece out of place here.
- Klaus Layer: The Adventures of Captain Crook
As they say, Klaus Layer is “skilled in the trade of that old boom bap”… with a nice dash of psychedelia to round things out. Love this dude’s instrumentals.
- Meerenai Shim: The Art of Noise
Super awesome compositions that combine classical, experimental noise, and blippy chiptune. (Meerenai is an uber-talented flautist my wife knew in elementary school. And she’s vegan. So she’s got a lot going for her.)
- Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2
Yeah, I mean, come on now. The Quintet sounding absolutely awesome on this late-60s date.
- Shawn Lov: Grotesque Heads
Shawn’s an underground NJ hip-hop head from way back (his dad ran the recording studio where many south Jersey classics were recorded) with a deep catalog dating back to when he was only 12 years old. He’s living out in San Fran now and running an arcade, but hooked up with Custodian of Records (aka Self, aka Grizzly Adams) and German producer Sebastian Hochstein to put together this tight collection of tracks with “old days” reminiscences and straight battle rhymes. Nothing fancy, just what I’ve grown to love about Shawn’s music.
- The Sign of Four: Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup
Miles Newbold’s (Natural Yogurt Band) new band serves up fantastic funky space jazz with just the right balance of almost exotica melodies, swirling cosmic tones, and jazzified funk.
- Son Lux: Lanterns
Synthpop with downtempo breaks and a little boom bap for added depth.
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: We the Common
Thao Nguyen is on that short list of artists I will check for each and every time. We the Common kicked off 2014 nicely with her blend of catchy indie folk-rock. The title track and “Holy Roller” are awesome.
- Valerie June: Pushin’ Against a Stone
Pushin’ Against a Stone held the same appeal for me this year as Michael Kiwanuka’s Home Again did last year: a soulful album with classic sensibilites that doesn’t feel like a kitchy retro-throwback. And the new spin the style gets doesn’t feel forced or mashed up; it feels natural. This type of album is not an easy thing to pull off. Love the lead off track “Workin’ Woman Blues,” “Wanna Be On Your Mind,” and “You Can’t Be Told.”
- Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ: Three-Mountain Pass
Beautiful modern Vietnamese folk. “3 Gnossiennes” is stunning. See also her NPR Tiny Desk concert.
- Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo: Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo
Onra’s is one of my favorite producers of the last ten years thanks to his pair of Chinioseries albums and 2012’s Deus Ex Machina by Buddy Sativa was pretty great, too, so naturally I was looking forward to this spiritual jazz collaboration between the two. It didn’t disappoint.
Almost Best of 2013
- Aceyalone: Leanin’ On Slick
Acey’s one of those super talented dudes that keeps dropping quality albums quietly. I’ve been a big fan since All Balls Don’t Bounce and (especially) A Book of Human Language. His latest effort is bouncy and jazzy and all growed up, a nice extension of the doo-wop and funk influenced “The Lonely Ones” from 2009. The MC-as-lounge-singer (in a good way) vibe is evidenced by “30 and Up” where Acey declares, “This is for the 30 and up, / Grown folks who’s earnin’ a buck.” He also rocks it on “Workin’ Man’s Blues'” (ever-so-slightly different than the version on The Lonely Ones) and “Hit the Road,” which is way better than it should be using “Hit the Road Jack” as its base.
- Al Supersonic And The Teenagers: It’s Alright
If I were a soul singer performing classic soul-style tunes, I’d also call myself Al Supersonic.
- Archie Shepp and the Attica Blues Orchestra: I Hear the Sound
It’s going to be hard for Shepp to ever hit me like he did with his 1960s albums, but he’s still got the fire on this Kickstarter-backed album. This orchestral take on some of his classic work is generally quite enjoyable (though I was definitely disappointed by the “Attica Blues” rendition). He brings back “Steam,” “Mama Too Tight,” and “Ujaama,” all of which fare better than “Attica Blues.”
- Danny Brown: Old
I never messed with Danny Brown before. The little I’d heard didn’t grab me and I just couldn’t understand why he was held in such high regard among the newer breed of MCs. The first half of Old made it all clear to me. “The Return (feat. Freddie Gibbs)” has funk and soul elements with spacey synths and touches of eastern flutes that is compelling as it gets. “Wonderbread” is wonderfully odd and erratic, like if Sun Ra and Kool Keith covered a nursery rhyme. The first half of the album is significantly more enjoyable than the second, but it’s still a carefully conceived album best ingested as a whole rather than its independent pieces.
- DJ Dister: Roll Wit Dis
Artifacts, G Rap, Kool Keith, KRS, and other old school favorites keep rocking over dope Dister tracks.
- Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Em’s audience may not be as rabid as they were ten years ago, but no one can deny the guy’s still got bars who “can just walk up to a mic and just bust.” And he’s still capable of making aggressive, offensive music that makes you want to punch someone in the face. Can you imagine back in 1988 the idea of a 40-year-old white rapper (hell, anyone over 35 at that point) being a legit MC? It’s not a perfect album (those sung hooks, man), but it’s a good listen. Favorite cuts: “Survival” (a song there’s no reason I should like, but I do), “Berserk,” and “Rap God.”
- Hieroglyphics: The Kitchen
This one didn’t seem to get much attention after its release, but it’s a solid, classic Hiero crew album. Not everything clicks, but if you’re a long time Hiero fan, you didn’t leave disappointed.
- Jasiri X: Ascension
It’s hard not to like a dude like Jasiri X who is out with a new track with accompanying video within what feels like moments of any major politically-charged event. Though his beats don’t always grab me, Jasiri X is this generation’s Paris (who had the same issue with beats after his first two albums).
- Las Supper: Back to the Future
Big Daddy Kane’s “grown-up” rap/soul/funk band certainly offers a matured, relaxed version of Kane, but there are still some classic fast rap Kane moments throughout. The guy’s still got it and though this new project didn’t always hit on all cylinders, it’s a fun listen and probably a pretty awesome live show. Dig “Where Do We Go (From Here)” and “Last Chance.”
- L’Orange and Stik Figa: The City Under the City
The mighty Stik Figa mayne sounds great over L’Orange’s soulified beats.
- Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea
Halvorson is certainly an acquired taste, but if you’ve acquired it, you’ll want to taste this.
- Mikrokolektyw: Absent Minded
Mikrokolektyw’s second album on Delmark (!!) is just as enjoyable as their first. Fans of Suchar and Majewski’s work with Robotobibok will be pleased.
- Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels
El-P + Killa Mike = pretty much what you’d expect. Industrial strength beats, hard bars, and a nice dose of don’t-give-a-fuckness. “Banana Clipper (feat. Big Boi)” is pretty boss as is the non-album late-year leak, “Pew Pew Pew (feat. DJ Q-Bert).”
Best of 2012 I missed until 2013
- Grand Daddy I.U.: Self Made Man
- Brownout: Oozy
- Buddy Sativa: Deus Ex Machina
- Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes (check a good review here by Vijay Iyer)
My Daughter’s Favorite Tracks This Year
My daughter, now seven, has been gravitating more toward pop tunes, but every so often still surprises me with a random song I’m playing that she’ll like. Here are her new favorite tracks from 2013 (not limited to songs from this year).
- Donald Byrd: “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes”
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: “We the Common (for Valerie Bolden)”
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: “Holy Roller”
- Quiet Riot: “Cum on Feel the Noize”
- Owl City: “Fireflies” (this kills me a little bit inside)
Best Tracks of 2013
Here’s my list of favorite tracks of the year, along with a Spotify playlist of as many are available there. (Songs not available in the playlist are denoted with a *.)
Note that while the list below is sorted alphabetically, the Spotify playlist has been carefully organized to provide a cohesive listening experience ™.
- abolitionist: “Bright Red Blood Letters”
- Aceyalone: “30 and Up”
- Adam Pieronczyk Quartet: “The Storks of Marrakech”
- Al Supersonic And The Teenagers: “It’s Alright”
- Archie Shepp & The Attica Blues Orchestra: “Blues for Brother G. Jackson”
- Banda Magda: “Amour, t’es là?” *
- Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite: “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say”
- Colossus: “Up and Up”
- Cornell Campbell Meets Soothsayers: “With You My Heart Belongs”
- DJ Dister: “Regardless (feat. Artifacts & DJ Stylewarz)”
- Danny Brown: “Wonderbread”
- Deltron 3030: “What is This Loneliness? (feat. Damon Albarn & Casual)”
- Demigodz: “Dead in the Middle” (almost “Demigodz is Back”)
- Dooley-O: “Burn Dem Up (feat. Smoke)”
- Dr. OctoTron (Del & Kool Keith): “Good Stuff (feat. Motion Man)”
- Elvis Costello & The Roots: “Cinco Minutos Con Vos”
- Eminem: “Survival” (almost “Rap God” or “Berserk”)
- Erin McKeown: “The Jailer”
- Franz Ferdinand: “Evil Eye”
- Ghostface Killah: “Beware of the Stare”
- Grand Daddy I.U.: “Sasquatch Feet”
- Hieroglyphics: “Passing Fads”
- Jasiri X: “42 Bar Thesis”
- Jazz Addixx: “Lemonade”
- Justin Timberlake: “Pusher Love Girl”
- Kid Tsunami: “The Chase (feat. Buckshot, Chubb Rock, Pharoahe Monch & Jeru the Damaja)”
- Klaus Layer: “In My Mind (Instrumental)”
- L’Orange and Stik Figa: “Decorated Silence (feat. Open Mike Eagle)”
- Las Supper: “Last Chance”
- Mary Halvorson Septet: “Red Sky Still Sea (No. 31)”
- Meerenai Shim: “Mercurial”
- Mikrokolektyw: “Little Warrior”
- Oh No: “Controlled Riots (feat. Souls of Mischief)”
- Quantic, Alice Russell, and Combo Barbaro: “Here Again”
- Red Baraat: “Shruggy Ji”
- Run the Jewels: “Banana Clipper (feat. Big Boi)”
- Rustee Juxx: “Countdown to Def (feat. Chip-Fu and Brother J)”
- Shawn Lov: “Another Level (feat. Self as Grizzly Adams)” *
- Son Lux: “Easy”
- Soul Sugar: “East of the River Nile” *
- Souleance: “L’Insoulence”
- Tanya Morgan: “The Vehicle (feat. Spec Boogie & 6th Sense)”
- Tech N9ne: “My Haiku/Burn the World (feat. Kriss Kaliko)” *
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: “Holy Roller”
- The Godfathers: “Crook Catastrophe & The Gunblast Kid”
- The Hip Abduction: “Why Say One”
- The Sign of Four: “Jumping Beans”
- U-God: “Zilla” *
- Valerie June: “Workin’ Woman Blues”
- Van-Anh Vo: “3 Gnossiennes: Gnossiennes No. 3″
- Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo: “Honey, Hash, Rose”
My Top 15 Scrobbled Artists for 2013
1 Johnny Clarke 115
2 King Tubby 107
3 The Roots 104
3 Jungle Brothers 104
5 Hieroglyphics 92
5 Half Pint 92
7 Twinkle Brothers 90
8 Max Romeo 87
9 Stevie Wonder 86
10 Horace Andy 79
11 Brownbird Rudy Relic 77
12 Jazz Addixx 73
13 Dennis Brown 71
14 Ultramagnetic MC’s 70
15 Del Tha Funkee Homosapien 68