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Music, Year in Review 2013

Year in Review: The Best Albums of 2013

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Sasha Kalra
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Album: Yeezus          
Artist: Kanye West
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Released: June 18, 2013

Kanye West’s Paris-inspired brainchild came out on June 18 after a deliberate lack of promotion. West began recording Yeezus while living in a minimalist loft and often visiting the Louvre for inspiration – not your average hip hop record – and the album was recorded in an extremely fast amount of time.

What was the end result? A focused 40-minute record that adheres to a minimalist style of production encapsulates the rawest of emotions. Very few of the songs are considered commercial, perhaps “Black Skinhead” or “Bound 2”, and the majority of the tracks fit within very basic, but extremely effective, parameters.

It opens up with “On Sight” and within the first second of the album the listener is blasted with a filthy distorted drum snare that sets the tone for the rest of the piece.

“New Slaves” is the standout song on the record and it isn’t even close. He debuted the song on Saturday Night Live, and the instant you heard it, you know something unique was happening. West delivering a scathing critique of what he feels are new slaves compliments the tribal beat. These new slaves are materialistic, and close-minded – much like the same people who would go on to dislike Yeezus. And West? He’d rather be a “dick than a swallower.” “New Slaves” is inherently minimal and its existence embodies everything that this album was about. Not a fan? “Fuck you and your hampton house.

West appears to be yelling, almost screaming in some of the tracks, most notably in “On Sight” and “I’m in It”.

“Blood of the Leaves” has Hudson Mohawke’s name written all over it and the trap-like drums combine with West’s not-so-popular auto-tuned voice to create another standout track. The song starts off with a Nina Simone sample but quickly turns into a domain for West to air his personal grievances.

Simply put, Yeezus is one of the most unique hip-hop records ever. It’s dark, raw, minimalistic and unlike anything West has ever done before. Every scream, snare, synth and adlib is perfectly placed, creating a cohesive listening experience.

West has once again shown an ability to grow and adapt as his career progresses. Looking at his back catalogue it’s fair to say that none of his albums are similar. College Dropout is not Dark Fantasy and Late Registration bears no resemblance to 808s and Heartbreak. Yeezus is just the next step in his evolution and every ‘mad scientist’ has a moment where they stop caring (even more than they did so before) and go completely off the rails. The problem is, when West does that, the end product is incredible.

 

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Album: Old
Artist: Danny Brown
Label: Fools Gold
Released: October 8, 2013

danny-brown-old-artworkDanny Brown has been on the cusp of something great for a couple of years and the Detroit MC had a mainstream coming out party to remember with Old. His unique voice and delivery combined harmonically with non-traditional beats to create something special. Brown isn’t your typical rapper. His hair constantly changes – it’s resembling something along the lines of a nappy 2011 Skrillex right now – and he’s missing a couple of teeth. He wears whatever he wants, and stuck his tongue out before it was cool (I’m looking at you, Miley).

“Dip” and Smokin & Drinkin” are two of the standout records on the album that are congruent with Brown’s earlier style. That being said, he showcases a new, different side on many songs. Brown credited his career to British grime rapper Dizzee Rascal in an interview earlier this year telling a reporter “If I didn’t know about Dizzee Rascal, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.” His song “Dubstep” showcases these grime influences and he recruits English MC Scrufizzer to join him on it. The level of production on Old is very refined, and it’s no surprise since A-Trak, Rustie, Purity Ring, and SKYWLKR handled it.

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Album: Settle
Artist: Disclosure
Label: PMR
Released: May 31, 2013

disclosureUK garage, deep house, disco, UK funky, and future garage are all genres that have been used to describe the groovy, funky sound emanating from British duo Disclosure. Guy and Howard Lawrence came out of nowhere in the fall of 2012 with their single “Latch” featuring Sam Smith, and they followed it up with a game-changing Boiler Room debut where they went back-to-back with Skream, trading tunes to send a hotel room into a pillow-laden frenzy. In fact, Boiler Room sets are notorious for having a crowd full of ‘stiffs’. Search any Boiler Room video and you’ll see what I mean. People stand around and nobody is really into the music, as they all prefer to listen.

Disclosure and Skream’s set? Let’s just say there wasn’t much standing around going on. Skream’s usually perfect hair covered in pillow feathers is as the primary piece of evidence.

“F For You” and their remix of Jessie Ware’s “Running” are standout tracks but the undoubted star of Settle is “White Noise” featuring fellow blogosphere darlings AlunaGeorge. The smooth beat is complemented by Aluna’s high-pitched, cute vocals resulting in the dance music song of the year.

 

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Album: Guilt Trips
Artist: Ryan Hemsworth
Label: Last Gang Records
Released: October 22, 2013

“Remix Ryan Gosling” had an impressive 2013 that culminated in a tour with Cyril Hahn and the release of his debut album. Hemsworth created most of these tracks while on the road and the result is a 36-minute masterpiece.

The Halifax native’s brand of smooth, moody tunes are complimented by an eclectic range of guests, including Sinead Harnett, Lofty 305, Baths, Tinashe, Haleek Maul and Kitty. Hemsworth’s productions embody a certain generation that grew up playing video games and essentially listened to whatever they thought sounded cool. Because of this, he can mix Drake’s verse in the “Versace” remix with an instrumental lifted from the “Zelda: Ocarina of Time” video game (he’s done so during a Pitchfork x Boiler Room after-party) during his live sets and connect with the crowd on a deeper level. Guilt Trips carries this video game influence and it’s sprinkled amongst leveled R&B vocals laced with raw emotion.

The third track, “Weird Life”, is where you get drawn into the virtual, video game influenced part of the album. The unique sampling reminds you of something you might hear in a Pokemon or Zelda game on an old N64 console. The track is something that plays as the main character in an anime series reaches his end goal. He’s fought long and hard, endured hardships and sacrificed his personal well being, and as he approaches the final boss and gets ready to finally overcome whatever it is that’s been impeding him all this time, the beginning of “Weird Lie” would fade in. It moves up and down, the notes are reflective and at no point does it ever let up. It’s one of the standout songs on the record.

Guilt Trips seamlessly transitions between tempo ranges and styles. The underlying theme of self-exploration is exuded in the curiously titled, “Ryan Must be Destroyed.”

Earlier this year I predicted that Guilt Trips would challenge for the Polaris Prize next year. Nothing’s changed.

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Album: Overgrown
Artist: James Blake
Label: Atlas
Released: April 5, 2013

Overgrown_James-Blake

James Blake’s self-titled debut did extremely well and his follow up, Overgrown, maintained those standards. I’ll be honest, it took me a few listens to form an opinion on this record. It’s pretty short and on first listen, can seem a little misguided. But, after a couple of more listens, the complexities will startle you. It gets better and better.

Blake has been criticized before for being too melodic, for his music to be composed well but lack a voice, and that his music can have too many vocals, too many voices, and lack the eclectic electronic composition that defined his earlier releases. It kind of became a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for the Englishman but he answered all questions on this release.

Overgrown is a combination of everything that makes Blake’s music great. “Overgrown”,  “Retrograde” and “Digital Lion” are the standout tracks but this is very much an album that needs to be listened to in its entirety – it’s only 39 minutes long – for you to get lost in its moody, rocky textures.

 

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