The 20 Best Albums of 2013 and an open letter to Jay Electronica

One of these guys released an album in 2013, but it wasn’t the right one.

Dear Jay Electronica,

First of all, Happy New Year! I’m positive 2014 is going to be a great trip around the sun, and I wish you nothing but the best for this solar orbit. I have to imagine you have a full plate for the next several months, what with your status as the biggest Roc Nation signing yet to have released an album with the label. And speaking as a long-time fan of rap, not to mention a long-time fan of yours, I’m excited for the day when your debut album finally drops. Emphasis on finally.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not grateful for the 90-some tracks that you’ve released over the last, what, seven or eight years: the Exhibits A through C, which all still send chills down my spine; the thoughtful and explosive verse on the amazing “Control” remix; even the tinkling piano track you made for Nas, who jumped on it and made it the opening to his last album. The stuff you’ve done is fantastic enough to keep my interest piqued after all this time.

But I’m also not going to pretend I’m not getting impatient at this point. I’ve been hearing the album is more or less in the can for what feels like several years. You even addressed the anticipation building up for your debut in your verses on Exhibit C, which was released … holy crap, that was 2009. A 4-year-old track addresses how long people had been waiting for your album to drop BACK THEN.

This is getting out of hand. This is the kind of thing I’ve grown to expect from Dr. Dre and D’Angelo, but at least they already have albums out. I’m pretty confident that if you had released your album in any of the last four years, it would have been my album of the year. I think if it was a 2013 release, it would have dominated my year in music, and that’s even with a pretty strong slate of hip-hop releases. It definitely would have been the best Roc Nation album, given that your boss Jay-Z’s album didn’t even make my top 20 (despite what I said about it earlier in 2013, it just didn’t have any staying power with me, though I still think it’s one of his better albums in a while).

So with all that said, here’s the 20 best albums I heard this year, another year in which I had to say “maybe next year, Jay Electronica will release his album.” I’m sorry if this sounds rather Stan-ish, so to speak, but what can I say? I’m a fan of good music and I want to hear what you’re bringing to the table these days.

20. Black Sabbath – 13

I know it’s sacrilege for a lot of metal heads, but I never really got into Dio-era Sabbath. He’s fine and all, but I always preferred the Ozzy sound. So last year, the band got back together and Ozzy sounds, well, as good as he has since the 1970s. Go figure.

19. CFCF – Outside

This Montreal-based electronic musician’s second album just kind of washed over me this year. It instantly grabbed me with its atmospheric-yet-almost-pop sensibility. I’ve heard his music described as “immersive” and I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

18. Black Milk – No Poison, No Paradise

Black Milk’s last solo effort, “Album of the Year,” in 2010, was not that great. The last album he was a major part of, last year’s “Black and Brown” with Detroit rapper Danny Brown, was pretty amazingly great. “No Poison, No Paradise” is a little closer to the “Black and Brown” caliber. He seems to be evolving into a bit grimier, more creative musical force, which I’m in favor of.

17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs put out almost the same album every time, to my ear, but as long as it’s this good, I don’t really mind. Lots of vocal repetition and aggressive rock soundscapes with interesting twists (like the choir in “Sacrilege”) and Karen O wailing in various registers. It’s a winning recipe.

16. Curren$y – New Jet City

Take what I said about Yeah Yeah Yeahs and apply it to Curren$y. He has a definite Sound: generally slower-paced, lower-key raps with sultry, funky beats. It works. He has a very good ear for beats and basslines and while sometimes he puts together albums and mixtapes that just miss for whatever reason, “New Jet City” is solid from beginning to end if you like cool-out raps about marijuana and fast cars.

15. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

Last year’s hip-hop album of the year, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” by L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar, caught my ear for its fantastic beat selection and won me over with intensely personal and introspective raps and storytelling. Fellow Los Angeleno Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris” didn’t grab me quite the same way, but the introspection and the skillful storytelling is definitely there.

14. Blu – York

Speaking of L.A. rappers, there’s just something about Blu’s laid-back flow over laid-back beats that always hits that hip-hop sweet spot for me. “York” brings some weirdness to the equation via super weird/genius producers Flying Lotus and Madlib, who gets weirder every year. This album has been floating around since 2011, but finally got a proper release in 2013. Good thing it did, so I could put it on this list.

13. Captain Murphy – Duality

Speaking of Flying Lotus, here we find the multitalented hip-hop weirdo donning a new secret identity to rap and make funky sounds for his friends to rap over. The mixtape/AV presentation known as “Duality” is an exercise in strangeness, a sort of meditation on becoming a cult leader (?) that just works on some strange level for me.

12. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

While I still enjoy “High Violet” more, “Trouble Will Find Me” seems like The National at their most clear and accessible. If you don’t like the smooth-yet-sullen vocals and interesting melodies on display here, maybe you just don’t like The National. And that’s OK, it took me a couple of years before they clicked with me (or I clicked with them, however that works).

11. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze

It’s another album of sunny, spaced-out, jangly guitar and low-fi stoner crooning from Mr. Vile, which means it’s OK by me. I guess 2013 was a year when several of my favorite artists stayed in their lane and produced solid music. Of course, as we’ll find out, occasionally my favorites excavate a new lane and it can be pretty spectacular.

10. Ugly Heroes – Ugly Heroes

Apollo Brown, Verbal Kent and Red Pill are Ugly Heroes, a sort of indie-rap super group who came together to great effect on 2013’s self-titled debut. It’s conscious, it’s creative, it’s interesting and familiar all at once. Plus Apollo Brown’s production kind of sounds like the evolution of J Dilla, which is always welcome.

9. Danny Brown – Old

Danny Brown’s high-pitched, raspy voice has become one of my favorites despite itself. Honestly, it’s a very weird voice, and I don’t know why it works. But there’s no denying how dynamic and varied Brown’s flow is. Not all the beats chosen for “Old” are ones I would have gone with, but Danny Brown is always entertaining.

8. Lorde – Pure Heroine

I tend to be impressed by young musicians who sound way more mature and intelligent than their age would suggest. Lorde’s “Royals” was a giant killer on pop radio this year despite (or because of?) its anti-materialist message, but it was a great pop tune, to boot. “Pure Heroine” is full of excellent modern pop, which I’m a sucker for. I hope she cuts a record with Nate Ruess of The Format/fun. so we can watch two masters of the genre at work together.

7. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

If Pusha T had released an album that was just “Numbers on the Boards” and “Nosetalgia” over and over again for an hour, this is about where it would have landed on my list. Those two songs are incredible examples of what I love about Pusha’s rap style and two of the best rap songs in the last several years. It more than makes up for the presence of the deplorable Chris Brown on one of the tracks.

6. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork

As far as I’m concerned, Josh Homme does very little that doesn’t beg consideration for “best of the year” designation. Whether he’s working with Them Crooked Vultures or Queens of the Stone Age or the Eagles of Death Metal, I love it all. There’s nothing quite like his flavor of stoner rock.

5. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

It’s been three years since “ArchAndroid,” and somehow in that time Janelle Monae has managed to become not just an R&B phenomenon, but also a Cover Girl makeup model. I say good for her on both counts. The music is amazing as ever, and she’s someone we as a society do well to present as an example of how to be fully yourself and still succeed at what you do.

4. Toro y Moi – Anything in Return

This album was my go-to chill-out album in 2013. If it were on cassette, I would have worn it out. There’s R&B, there’s funk, there’s more ambient elements. It puts me in the mood to eat sushi for some reason.

3. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Given that I like Danny Brown’s weird voice, maybe it’s not a surprise that the even higher-pitched, even more nasally and strange Chance the Rapper has caught my attention. I will say this: Chance’s voice is very much an acquired taste, but if his wordplay, flow and beat selection weren’t all so unbelievably top-notch, I wouldn’t even bother recommending him. “Acid Rap” is a hip-hop tour de force, a combination of a young Lupe Fiasco (not current cranky Lupe) and Bushwick Bill, if that makes sense, but way better than that even sounds. He emotes, he tells stories, he freaks out and makes weird noises … it’s a trip, man.

2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

The first time I heard “Get Lucky” was a transcendent experience, the kind of musical sensation that scientists say gets harder to have as people get older and their neural channels calcify and certain neurochemicals related to pleasure stop firing as much. That good feeling honestly hasn’t left me, as I still perk up and start butt dancing in my chair when I hear the melody. I know this wasn’t the album Daft Punk fans were expecting, but it’s one I’m glad they did. I wouldn’t have guessed a disco album would have had me so excited in 2013.

1. Kanye West – Yeezus

I know all the reasons I shouldn’t like this album, and furthermore I know all the reasons I shouldn’t like Kanye West. That said, there’s still no famous person alive who captures my attention more quickly than he does. And when I heard this album for the first time, even though it was way out of left field in some ways, in some other ways, it made a lot of sense. This is a guy who, over the last few years, has made a habit of swerving left when most people expected a right. Of course he would open his album with two aggressive, crunchy, Daft-Punk-produced tracks. Of course he would make a questionable artistic choice with that “Blood on the Leaves” sample and still make it hot somehow. Of course he would release a mind-bogglingly cheesy video with his fame-hungry wife. Of course he would do all those things because none of us really saw them coming. Well, maybe we could have predicted he’d trot Kim Kardashian out for a video, but the WAY he did it was what was hard to fathom.

The fact is, this isn’t a hip-hop album. This is a Kanye album. It’s like he carved a chunk out of his skull and told everybody “come look at what my brain is like, guys. It’s real weird most of the time.” He might be an aggressively self-centered guy, but he isn’t hiding behind anything. He’s the most open and honest celebrity we have and I’m enjoying watching what he does, even when it’s seemingly crazy or stupid.

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