2013 Top 50 20 - 11
20. Atoms For Peace - AMOK
AMOK exists within a couple of hyped genres. There are periods of the new school of R&B, as Yorke extends his vocals out over lo-fi beats and depressed synthetic grooves, reminiscient of James Blake or How To Dress Well. The trend now of pop artists rejecting the huge budget sounds of EDM, Grimes and Crystal Castles, is also touched on. Youth Lagoon, Beach Fossils, Toro Y Moi. All artists peddling the new school of lo-fi and existing in a similar air space to Atoms For Peace. AMOK is brilliant when viewed amongst these contemporaries. I doubt very much that Thom Yorke sat down and tried to write a record that would be viewed as the best amongst company such as this, but he has. AMOK just sounds better. It's much more polished, it's denser, Yorke is more enigmatic and insightful. It is an evolution. I think the best work to compare it to is TKOL remix record. It takes all the solid (not brilliant) moments from that and condenses it, binds it tightly in an accessible package. Even with his recent old man rants on the evils of music streaming this record can sit comfortably among the best of this year. Yorke is just so bloody talented you forgive him his idiosyncracies (the most annoying being the lack of Creep in live shows, but you know). His vocals on Default are stunning, he wails about an anxiety ridden existence 'But it's eating me up' and one that is coloured by struggle and trials, 'I'm still hanging on / Bird upon the wires / I fall between the waves'. He is a master, and AMOK is his canvas. His compatriots assist but never direct, and for that the record is fuller and more focused. I haven't heard it since they ripped it off Spotify. I'd go buy it but I don't want to feed that ego..
Best Tracks: Default, Unless, Stuck Together Pieces
19. Snoop Lion - Reincarnated
When I originally reviewed this I compared it to LL Cool J's Authentic and remarked that despite the appearance of gimmick and cynicism, Reincarnated feels like one of the most authentic releases of the year. It's December now and this is still true, despite his subsequent semi-shunning of that alter ego. In fact I wrote this and it is still true: 'It's a dead set 9 this and will feature in my top records of 2013. I can't stop spinning it. You can view it two ways. If you don't want to enjoy it, and prefer to believe in conspiracy theories and things like man never landing on the moon, you will doubtlessly see it as a cheap crossover attempt to re-vitalise an ageing and stagnant career, one that centres more around the pursuit of marijuana than true peace and enlightenment. Or, you can view the project for what it is, and immerse yourself in it. I think Snoop has done enough to reduce any skepticism about his motives and mindset to a small voice in the back of your head rather than a loud siren screeching everytime you listen to it.'
It's laced with bangers. Lighters Up, Here Comes The King, No Guns Allowed and Fruit Juice all slap with E-40 levels of Southern (REAL Southern) hip-hop cred. But it's so chilled. It's another aspect to Snoops personality. Surely the most mellow gangster of all time due to the inhuman amounts of marijuana he consumes, Reincarnated finally debunks the myth that OGs don't exist and real gangsters die young. Snoop enlists so many big names to help him out on this (and also possibly to ensure he remains conscious through most of the recording process), and it all adds to the experience. Major Lazer must be livid right now, their own release pales when compared to this. A brilliant album
Best Tracks: Fruit Juice, Smoke The Weed, Remedy
18. Paul McCartney - New
Macca is amazing. He looks like he could be your grandfather, the beautiful one who spoils his grandkids rotten and is still strong enough to lift you above his head. His voice is as strong as his cash flow, yet New doesn't venture too far down the belting pathway. Instead Sir Paul takes us back, waaaaaaaaay back. Back to when I wasn't even a sperm, and when my dad had long hair and smoked weed out of a skull bong. New sounds dangerously like Rubber Soul, and I've heard critics criticising (they tend to do that) it because of that. Are they insane?! It's like saying a car looks like a Ferrari and that's a bad thing! This is not an album by a man who is simply ticking off the days. Alligator is a dirty funk number, 'I want someone who can save me'. New, the title track, is almost an oxymoron, because his search for clarity and meaning seems to have landed him smack bang in the middle of the 60s. He incorporates all those elements that slightly derailed Bowie in the mid 90s, fusing new wave electro with R&B and lo-fi (Road, Looking At Her), and yet conducts himself with such aplomb. It's almost like the old stalwart has taken up the call to arms and said 'alright youngens this is how we used to do it in the 60s, see if you can keep up' and the rest of the pop landscape collectively goes 'WOOOOAAHH'. When he released Kisses On The Bottom I think we all thought maybe his creative decline was fully in play. New is a drop kick straight in the teeth of that theory.
Best Tracks: New, Alligator, Turned Out
17. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
So yeah, Reznor found Jesus or whatever, he reformed his ways, he quit the booze, he hit the gym. Blah. Scott Stapp did too. But Scott Stapp sucks, and Trent Reznor wrote Hurt. Could a man who was so consumed by his own demons that he himself had written his life off have anything new or interesting to offer? Hesitation Marks is proof that the no junk no soul theory is inherently flawed. Copy Of A punches you straight in your left ear, then your right, and repeats the process until you are completely floored. There's still all of that desperate, depraved mindset that we know and love. Copy Of A signals his hesitation, 'Everything I say has come before'. It's a theme that is not reflected at all in the music. AMOK, for example, is dangerously anxious and the math-rock staccato beat enhances this. On Hesitation Marks Reznor and co swagger their way through an album of loud, abrasive electronics, muted vocals and percussion that only seem to increase the fury, and stratospheric guitars (Everything). It all points to the perfect recovery record. One that acknowledges rather than rejects the past. Titles like All Time Low, In Two, Disappointed, Find My Way all point to a man still very much fighting. 'I am home, I believe, I am home, I am free'. The triumphs feel so much more 'triumphant' for tracks like the mired, murky All Time Low, 'This is where the fun begins, you barely even pierced the skin'. It almost glamorises that needle..
Best Tracks: Copy Of A, Everything, Satellite
16. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
The king of violence Nick Cave returns from Grinderman duties to hook up with his more subdued friends The Bad Seeds. At times he sounds like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, his calmness and serenity as he delivers his threats and slightly unnerving observations paints him as the perfect anti-hero. Not so much a stylistic left-turn as a general reduction in volume, the band who wrote Murder Ballads still has teeth, they're just slightly withdrawn. The menacing We Real Cool and the sprawling, rising Higgs Boson Blues prove these guys can still ROCK, but their judgement on when to do so and when to soften makes this a stunning exercise in restriction and restraint, and allows Cave to take centre stage, which is where he belongs. He even references Miley Cyrus on a long and winding road of thoughts and musings. On Jubilee Street he actually addresses his moral shortcomings rather than embracing them, with lines like 'The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page' and 'I ought to practice what I preach'. On the same track, he transforms in to some form of demonic being though. They haven't mellowed, they've grown. You can either assault an audience or expertly craft their tension to the point they feel like jumping out of their own skin. Push The Sky Away takes the latter option.
Best Tracks: We Real Cool, Higgs Boson Blues, Jubilee Street
15. Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail
Not since 1996 have these words been put together in this order, but Jay-Z's album is underrated. For some reason in 2013 critics decided it was time to stick the boot in to Hip Hop's most successful emcee. His Barney's comments, whilst entirely accurate and rational, sparked a reaction from some corners that can only be described as perplexing. His decision to sell Samsung the rights to a million copies of his album wasn't seen as a ridiculously savvy business decision but a cheap, sell out move. If you walked up to Tech N9ne and guaranteed him 1 million sales, no questions asked, I think his response would probably be similar to 99% of peoples.
Everyone spent their year chastising rather than actually listening. MCHG is brilliant. It takes the definition of 'sonning' to a new level. On tracks like Picasso Baby and Tom Ford Jay details his complete removal from petty party goers and narcotic guzzlers. On Oceans he dreamily announces his superiority through a series of visual lines about the most lavish of lifestyles. On Heaven he playfully shrugs off that long standing Illuminati jibe, 'Conspiracy theorist screaming Illuminati / They can't believe this much skill is in the human body / He's 6'2", how the fuck he fit in a new Bugatti? / Aw, fuck it, you got me'. He drops 2 tracks, Versus and Beach Is Better, that read like battle lines, but Jay doesn't need to hunker down in the trenches anymore. It's an attack helicopter vs foot soliders the way he slays the masses with a slight flick of his wrist, all whilst sipping his own vodka, smoking his own cigar and lounging back with his very own Queen. Kanye is trying to evolve, take the game to a new, unseen level. Jay-Z is evolving, but he'd rather continue to set the bar higher and higher.
Best Tracks: Picasso Baby, Tom Ford, Part II (On The Run)
14. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
In the brilliant cover story by Pitchfork, they explained the true gravity of the project that became Random Access Memories, and revealed more than a little about their impression of their own legacy and obligations. Bangalter said “We like the idea of trying to be pioneers, but the problem with that is when you're too much ahead, the connection doesn't really happen at the time." They began work on this record in 2008. 5 years ago. Most artists release 2 or 3 records in that time, but if you have the patience and time to truly dissect the shockingly vast array of ideas and sounds that have been injected in to Random Access Memories you wonder how they did it so quickly. Whilst humility may be short on the ground in their case, it must be remembered that with confidence comes individual responsibility and pressure. It is entirely possible that there was no-one in this world placing Daft Punk under more pressure to create a masterpiece than themselves. It needed to be dynamically different from anything else out there. Rather than attempt a Justin Timberlake method, lazily pilfering sounds that were popular 35 years ago and passing them off as revolutionary and fresh, Daft Punk dug in to their memory box and extracted only what they needed, before splattering their own genius all over it. This was a meticulous job. Apparently they had orchestral arrangements for every single song on the record, the strings only appeared on four tracks.
Did their hard work pay off? Have they created a masterpiece? I borrowed the first paragraph of this from my original review. But I must re-write this section, because I have changed. Yes, this is a masterpiece. Not in every sense of the word, however the music world is now such that, as they put it themselves, anyone can make music now, and special is beginning to feel a little less special. If this came out a decade ago it'd be heralded as pure genius. The only thing holding it back is itself, it can't truly flourish because it is a product of a forgotten time, one that, like a memory (see?) can be re-visited but never relived. I won't bore you with dissections of each individual song, you've heard them all enough to do that to death in your own head. I'll leave you with this though. Could anyone else have possibly made this record?
Best Tracks: Get Lucky, Touch, Contact, Instant Crush
13. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Ah. Get the black pen ready, there are going to be some ticks on this page. Revolutionary? Tick. Evolutionary? Tick. Direction? Mutliple ticks. Cause mass hysteria and ruin the panties of critics the world over? Tick. Can you even imagine the pressure on Arcade Fire before this release? Reflektor was to be their opus, their stonehenge, their sprawling masterpiece. Their previous records have always had such strength and drive, as if always chasing a common goal and rarely faltering from that pursuit. Reflektor blows all of that out of the water. It's not just a modern hipsters guide to the world around them (Normal Person, We Exist), it isn't just a jaded lash at todays dancefloor culture (Reflektor, Porno), and it isn't even just a bold statement of humanity (Afterlife, Here Comes The Night Time). It shines a sharp, dynamic light on all of these sweeping topics and then blends and melds them. Afterlife is just purely heart wrenching, it begins with the incredible line 'Afterlife, oh my god, what an awful word'. How they write Reflektor and this in the same session is mind boggling.
Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs were constrained. They were masterpieces within a limited window, Da Vinci's compressed to a small canvas. Reflektor throws this notion out the window, they decide to paint the Sistine Chapel with vibrancy and sober humility. The paint is the same though. You Already Know sounds eerily remiscient of the Cars series on Neon Bible. Joan Of Arc is a nod to Ready To Start or We Used To Wait. Supersymmetry borrows from Tunnels and It's Never Over has a spot of Ocean Of Noise about it. Yet they've expanded so wisely. The stomping bass line in Flashbulb Eyes is pure James Brown swagger funk, Normal Person makes a mockery of those 'sell out' stadium rock bands (cough Kings of Leon cough) by filling an entire coliseum with bombastic guitar rock and managing to sound organic and free. There are lulls and missteps, but beauty sometimes arrives in the ugliest of packages. Arcade Fire are one of the truly great bands of our generation.
Best Tracks: Reflektor, Afterlife, Normal Person
12. 2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #metime
2 Chainz first endeared himself to me when he featured on a Nicki Minaj track, and his first words were 'Nicki Nicki Nicki, put it in your kidney', and he still managed to get her to appear on his track Luv Dem Strippers. This is a man you don't say no to, clearly. In fact, he is a man who rarely says no himself. His inhuman work rate is matched only by the likes of Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, who rely on industrial amounts of narcotics to fuel their rambling. 2 Chainz appears on just about everything, and always brings his A game. His debut album as 2 Chainz (having changed his name from Tity Boi) was incredible and sold equally as well.
This record picks up where that one left off, with our simple sam rhyming man employing his genuine love affair with the 'my first rhyme' book and the sort of trap beats that have made E-40 a stereo staple. On the opening track he proclaims 'My wrist deserve a shout out I'm like what up wrist! My stove deserve a shout out I'm like what up stove'. Lines like this would make a kindergarten class cringe, yet it's this personality that he somehow exudes that allow him to get away with almost anything. Write 2 songs about uploading a sex tape to the internet? Yeah sure, but why not put them one after the other on your record? Done. Sold, hook line and sinker. How's this for an opening to a song? 'I keep my hoes in check, you buy Nike for yours / Say they want that loud, I'mma bring that noise / Check my watch on a flight, yeah, I call that airtime / Murk 'em in the middle of the street, that gon' be his deadline'. HOW DOES HE DO IT?! These tracks still SLAP! Ok, things do change. He has grown slightly, there are tracks like Black Unicorn and Beautiful Pain that seem so out of character and almost laughable for someone rapping about sex and money, and they should stink like How To Love stank of pure arrogance. But they don't! Again, he sounds sincere, and as the album goes on you find yourself rooting for Tity Boi. The rapper who could, and still does.
Best Tracks: Feds Watching, Fork, Employee Of The Month
11. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
I don’t know how many of you have been punched directly in the nose. I have, on numerous occasions. Chalk it up to lack of popularity, a tendency to say stupid things and a funny looking face, but I am well versed in the feeling. When “Brennisteinn” first played, I immediately thought I’d selected the wrong playlist on my iPod. Then that almost My Bloody Valentine-ish wall of noise whacked me clean on the nose. I was lying calmly on my floor ready to drift off into another Icelandic wonderland of myth and ethereal noises, of lush green pastures and slow, silky sound scapes, when Jónsi and co drop the bomb on me. This is different. Sigur Ros never do different..
The most pleasing aspect is that every song now feels purposeful, every piece of music has an endgame. Funnily enough, I liken it most to Limp Bizkit’s earlier work. You knew at 3:30 every song there was going to be some form of change, some plan taking form. Anathema are experts at this as well. Whilst both "Hrafntinna" and "Ísjaki” start slowly, both of them build to wonderful moments of sparkling light. The only time they reprise their ambient role is on the lovely “Var”, a piano-based number that feels out of sorts on this album, it almost feels un-Sigur Ros, yet it would fit snugly in to their back catalogue.
This album is nothing short of brilliant. For a band to go through such a dramatic change is hard enough, but the wonderful thing about Kveikur is they actually sound like Sigur Ros, like you always imagined they should or could. It alienates their softer work, consigning it to a past that is no longer theirs. It’s such a staggering record you’re shocked when it abruptly ends and the needle clicks up. The only thing for it is to stand up, shake the blood that’s pooled in your head, pin the needle back down and go for another round.Best Tracks: Brennisteinn, Isjaki, Kveikur