So, it’s mid-late December. Without any major releases scheduled for the remainder of the year, I figured it would be safe to complete my list. There are usually a ton of R&B/hip-hop albums released in December, a trend that has apparently skipped 2013. I don’t remember what my point is.
Part two begins with the biggest selling album of the year.
Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (The Complete Experience)
I know Timberlake is polarizing for many just by virtue of being who he is. I know Justin could use a lyric writing class or 6…or 60. Yes, I know some of the songs on both 20/20 Experiences are too long. Yet, despite its overindulgence, the combined Experience is full of enough good moments to warrant a space on this list. And unlike Timberlake’s two previous albums, there’s not one outright embarrassing song a la “Nothin’ Else” or “Chop Me Up.” The worst songs are decent, and the good songs are damn good.
If anything, The 20/20 Experience indicates an artist that’s studied his influences carefully and is capable of applying what he’s learned in a 21st century context. It’s also the rare album by a pop icon in the 21st century that isn’t blatantly trend-hopping. Two guest rappers (and no other singers,) no EDM-style beat drops, and some killer R&B-inflected dance jams in “Suit & Tie,” “Let The Groove Get In,” “Take Back The Night” and “Strawberry Bubblegum.” Some of the edgier songs on Part 2 (like “Drink You Away”) hint at more versatility than we initially pegged Justin as capable of, and as I’ve said before, Part 2’s “Not A Bad Thing,” in an ideal world (and with an edit to remove the unnecessary F word in the chorus) should be a #1 hit for weeks upon weeks and weeks.
Kanye West: Yeezus
Is Kanye West an asshole? Well, that term is relative. Personally, I think ‘Ye gets raked over the coals unnecessarily for antics that would be laughed at and dismissed if they came from the likes of, say, Charlie Sheen. Or, hell, Bono. Sure, he’s put himself in the line of fire for being outspoken (and for involving himself with a member of the second most media-whorish family in America,) but a) there’s nothing wrong with being outspoken, b) you love who you love (I guess,) and c) no one in the past ten years has created more intriguing and challenging music (with mainstream credentials) than Kanye. No one. NO. BOT. TEE. Nann.
Yeezus is easily Kanye’s most “WTF?” musical moment, and in order to fully appreciate it, you have to have an open mind. You also have to see past Kanye’s media personality. Well, no. That’s wrong, because in a lot of ways Yeezus is about Kanye’s media personality. I guess you’ll have to look at it from his perspective. Because as much as Yeezus is musically and lyrically difficult, it’s also an album-length rant about racism and black celebrity similar to (and better than)-wait for it-Michael Jackson’s 1995 post-Jordan Chandler HIStory album.
Let’s face it; half of the folks who panned Yeezus did so because a) they don’t like Kanye West (not that they don’t like Kanye West’s music, they straight up don’t like the man himself) or b) Yeezus doesn’t sound like a typical Kanye album, or a typical rap album for that matter. To be sure, this is ”Ye at his most daring and most uncommercial, not giving a fuck about anything and daring the music-buying/listening public to meet him on his terms. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m certainly glad I made the leap.
John Legend: Love In The Future
From a sonic perspective, it’s interesting to note how informed by one another Kanye’s Yeezus and the latest John Legend album are. Add in John’s creamy vocals and subtract Kanye’s misogny & persecution complex, you get this year’s best mainstream R&B album…well, if the icy textures and abstract musical beds of Love In The Future can be considered mainstream R&B. As it turns out, Love In The Future seems to take some of its sonic cues from last year’s most critically-acclaimed album, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. This is not a bad thing. From originals like “Made To Love” and “All Of Me” to well-chosen covers like Anita Baker’s “Angel” and Bobby Caldwell‘s “Open Your Eyes,” Love In The Future is the baby-makin’ album for 2013. Hell, any album that makes a Rick Ross cameo tolerable deserves to be on a year-end best-of list.
The Lone Bellow: The Lone Bellow
Take a little country, a little rock & roll, a little folk, and a dash of soul and gospel, and you’ve got this excellent debut album from the Brooklyn-based trio The Lone Bellow. Ever heard the phrase “making a joyful noise?” Well, lead singer/principal songwriter Zach Williams took some unfortunate circumstances (his wife suffered an accident while riding a horse that left her temporarily paralyzed) and created some of the most life-affirming, soul-stirring music made of 2013. Seeing this trio perform tunes like singalong standout “Bleeding Out” and the hushed “You Can Be All Kinds Of Emotional” in Boston just a day after the marathon bomber was caught is what hammered the emotion in these songs home for me. Certainly not what would be considered “soul” music, The Lone Bellow, nevertheless, is the most soulful debut album of 2013.
Matt Nathanson Last Of The Great Pretenders
Color me embarrassed to have arrived late to the Matt Nathanson party. The singer/songwriter (and funny motherfucker, as you’ll glean from his Twitter and Instagram feeds) has been around for well over a decade, but Great Pretenders is the first of his albums that I’ve purchased on release date (I’ve caught up on many of his previous albums over the course of the past two or so years.) At its core, Last of the Great Pretenders is an album-length tribute to Nathanson’s homebase of San Francisco, but even without the connection to the city by the Bay, it’s a smartly written and warmly performed collection of pop-rock. The stuff modern-day singer/songwriters are made of.
RJD2: More Is Than Isn’t
Turntablist/producer/composer/multi-instrumentalist/singer RJD2 has proved his mettle with an interesting array of albums over the past decade. More Is Than Isn’t is the album that brings everything together. A little backpack rap courtesy of his Soul Position partner Blueprint. A little avant-R&B with his Icebird co-pilot Aaron Livingston. A little Moby-esque ambient pop. Dope Dilla-ish instrumentals. It’s all here. More Is may not be as cohesive as RJ’s masterpiece, Since We Last Spoke, but it will take you on one of the most satisfying musical rides of 2013.
Back in the mid Eighties, quiet storm was all the rage. Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Sade. Hell, the quiet storm era even spawned Kenny G. (sorry for ruining it for everyone.) At any rate, the mysterious duo Rhye came out of nowhere and gave us a smooth, seductive slice of that era in 2013 with their debut album, Woman. Songs like “Shed Some Blood” and “One Of These Summer Days” may cause unexpected movement in your nether regions. In an age where most music seems to throw sex at you (and the sound of the “quiet storm” era lives largely in the past,) it’s nice that there are still some artists out there who know how to create classy, sensual music, whether serving as the soundtrack to bedroom excursions or just existing for aural enjoyment.
Sure, Inspiration Information is forty years old (FORTY!!.) And most of the material on Wings of Love dates back to the Seventies and Eighties. But, we’ve also never heard the material on Wings Of Love prior to this year, so to me, it’s a new release and not a reissue. I’ve been digging on Inspiration for a decade or so, but Wings Of Love proves that Shuggie Otis’s creative genius didn’t die when he stopped making albums. The songs on Wings reveal some killer songwriting, fantastic guitar playing, and makes you wonder if Shuggie might have rivaled Prince for funk/rock supremacy had he continued recording past the mid-Seventies. Due to age (and the fact that Shuggie still doesn’t appear to have gotten over his demons,) there will never be a full-on comeback, but Wings of Love suggests that what could’ve been is a mighty tasty thing to ponder.
Toad The Wet Sprocket: New Constellation
If you’d told me at the top of the year that there would be a new Toad The Wet Sprocket album, I’d have clapped my hands with glee. OK, I probably wouldn’t have done that, but I’d have been pretty psyched. If you’d have told me that New Constellation would end up being not only one of my favorite albums of the year but arguably the best album of the band’s career, I’d have called you a liar. That said, here we are, and here I am, stating my opinion that Glen, Randy, Dean and Todd are at the top of their collective game right now. Amazing what a decade and a half off will do for you!
Seriously, Toad’s lyrics have always spoken to my feelings. They did at 16, and they do as I’m in my mid-late thirties. New Constellation is as thoughtful (and hooky!) as you would expect, plus absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Nice job, guys. Let’s not wait until I’m 50 for the next one!
Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires Of The City
To say that Modern Vampires Of The City is Vampire Weekend’s least essential album but still one of the best albums of 2013 says one of two things: either 2013 was a crappy year for music, or Vampire Weekend is that good. Fortunately, I lean towards the latter. Ezra, Rostam and the Chrises get a little more experimental on album #3. The songs are longer, a little more reliant on loops and sound effects, but still full of skewed wit and sing-along hooks. “Diane Young” is right there with “Cousins” and “A-Punk” in the annals of great VW singles, “Everlasting Arms” is as pretty a love song as you’re gonna get from these guys, I don’t know what “Finger Back” is about but I love it anyway, and the playful “Ya Hey” is another highlight. Dismissed as a one-trick pony on their (still fucking excellent) debut, I think by now Vampire Weekend has proven that they’re here to stay.
…and, to emphasize the point that 2013 was a pretty decent year for music, here are an additional 8 albums that just missed the cut, either because I haven’t fully digested them yet, or…well, just because I liked the other albums listed here a little bit better:
The 1975 The 1975
Amel Larrieux Ice Cream Everyday
Childish Gambino Because The Internet
Jamie Cullum Momentum
Laura Mvula Sing To The Moon
Neighbours Prime Numbers
Queens Of The Stone Age Like Clockwork
Tommy & The High Pilots Only Human
…and because I love you guys so damn much, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite songs of this year (including at least one song from each album mentioned in either part of this list. Enjoy!