Monday, March 17, 2014

BRL 2013 Year in Review (Part 4 - The Grand Finale)

...And finally, the top 10:

10. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (81)

I was sort of surprised how highly this album ranked. In a stronger year for music, this probably wouldn't have placed in the top ten, but that also doesn't take away from the many strong qualities of Drake's third LP. Nothing Was the Same is a far cry from Take Care, both in sound and quality, but was still one of the year's most exciting records. 
09. The Weeknd – Kiss Land (81)

It seems like there's a general consensus that The Weeknd's major debut LP is his weakest project to date. In fact, remember all of those "Top Albums of 2013" lists that you read 3 months ago? Hardly any of them included Kiss Land, let alone having it in the top 10. But here's the thing, this is The Weeknd's most focused effort yet, and his songwriting has improved tremendously. The hype,  uniqueness and mysteriousness of his House of Balloons era of the Canadian singer has long-since passed, and I will also concede that production-wise, this is his least interesting sounding record. But his ability to tell a story throughout this record, while also pushing the boundaries of modern R&B, is proof that The Weeknd is more than a flash in the pan type artist.

08. Terrace Martin – 3ChordFold (81)

Terrace Martin's 3ChordFold is easily 2013's Cinderella story. I recognized Martin's name from several production credits he's accumulated over the years, but never checked out any of his solo projects. I don't remember why I was inclined to check this album out, but I'm glad I did. A perfect blend of hip hop and modern jazz, made for one of the best produced albums of the year.

07. HAIM – Days Are Gone (82.5)

Kid Cudi's Indicud album, which was released in April 2013, was for the most part a pretty forgettable record. One notable song from the album was a track called "Red Eye," which served as my introduction to the Haim sisters. Since then, I've seen their name pop up left and right, and how they were destined to be one of the most exciting new bands of the year. I missed a chance to see them at Lollapalooza back in August (their set was during Local Natives and The National, neither of whom I wanted to miss), which was a bummer because their debut album Days Are Gone more than lived up to the hype. It's easily one of the funnest albums to come out all year, and is just plain, good old fashion pop music.

06. Black Milk – No Poison, No Paradise (83)

In 2013, Detroit set a record for becoming the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy. For a long time, Detroit has seen a great amount of struggle with a dying automobile industry leading a once prominent city into poverty. And on Black Milk's fourth album, No Poison, No Paradise, the Detroit beatsmith/rapper paints a very vivid picture of what it is like to grow up in such a place. While Danny Brown also did an excellent job of describing Detroit's plight on tracks like "Wonderbread" and "Torture," Black Milk tells a story of "a decent kid to doing a bid"over the course of a full album. It's the Detroit version of goodkid m.A.A.d. city and it's the perfect autumn album.

05. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (87.5)

I didn't play Daft Punk's long awaited Random Access Memories in its entirety until December of last year. Initially I was so absorbed by "Get Lucky," which is the perfect pop song and is probably this decade's "Hey Ya." Slowly I was getting introduced to new songs from the album that I would fall in love with, until I finally decided to sit down and play the whole thing through. And damnit, if this album isn't brilliant. The robots showed off their human side by making dance album made up of live instruments instead of synthesizers and bringing back some disco vibes. RAM is a meticulously crafted masterpiece that may not hit you immediately, but when it does it will become one of your favorites. 

04. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (88)

By the end of 2013, Chance the Rapper pretty much cemented himself as the next big thing in hip hop. He toured with Eminem and appeared on a Justin Beiber single, but it all started with his stellar sophomore mixtape. It'll be very interesting to see what he does next; does he sign to a major or go the solo route? Regardless I'm very certain that Acid Rap is just the beginning.

03. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (88.5)

Vampire Weekend, along with bands like The Shins and MGMT, is one of those essential "college bands" whose music always takes me back to dorm rooms and stale beer. Their self-titled debut album was one of my favorite albums as a Freshman in college, and their sophomore effort was a favorite as a sophomore too. But the main issue with both of those albums is that despite their intoxicating melodies and fun grooves, they sort of lacked the type of substance that requires repeated listens. But with Ezra Koenig and company's third effort, that all changed. Modern Vampires wasn't as instantly gratifying as its predecessors, but much of the album is what I would consider a slow burn. "Hudson" and "Hannah Hunt" are some of the most stripped down and vulnerable songs that Koenig has ever written, but they also may be among his best. While a lot of the album deals with heavy themes such as mortality and religion, there are still some classic Vampire Weekend bangers like "Diane Young," "Step" and "Everlasting Arms."

02. Kanye West – Yeezus (88.5)

What can I say about Kanye and this album that I haven't already? I am an unabashed Kanye Stan, and I think Yeezus is an exceptional piece of music. Many people disagree, and I understand why people wouldn't be into this; it's not music made to please everybody. In fact it's intentionally abrasive to evoke strong feelings from the listener - be those feelings positive or negative. But it's also just a lot of fun to listen to. This is Kanye's worst moment from a lyrical standpoint (although I don't think he was striving to rap like Nas on this record), but that doesn't stop it from being one of the most quotable albums I've heard in a while. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye achieved perfection. This is Kanye's flawed masterpiece.

01. The National – Trouble Will Find Me (90.5)

The major life event for me in 2013 was my move from Ohio to Chicago. The National's Trouble Will Find Me was released about a month and a half prior to my move. So this album is held in high regards partially due to the fact that it was the soundtrack of those final nights with my good friends in Ohio. But this album is the top of 2013 mainly because it features my current favorite band at the top of their game. Matt Berninger is rock music's best lead man and his songwriting continues to get better with each release. And the Dessner and Devendorf brothers' production and instrumentation has also continued to improve, as they find a way to combine the somberness of High Violet and the more upbeat, straight forward rocking of Alligator, while still creating a cohesive record.

Monday, March 10, 2014

BRL 2013 Year in Review (Part 3)

20. Danny Brown – Old (79)
To say Danny Brown's Old was a disappointment, would be an understatement, considering it was one of the most lyrically dexterous albums all year. But following 2011's breakthrough, XXX, Brown's follow up seems a little bit like a let down. He delves further into the EDM sound that he has been experimenting with, but that's not the issue here. He again splits his album off into two sections: the more dark and gritty tracks and the more upbeat and sexual cuts. This time it doesn't have the same effect as it did on XXX, but that's not really the issue either. The real issue is that the hype that Danny Brown amassed in the two years since his last album led to unrealistically high expectations, that it was nearly impossible for the Detroit spitter to live up to.
19. The Uncluded – Hokey Fright (79)
This was one of the more bizarre releases of the year. Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson, despite being pretty much total opposites, found a way to make a great album together. Uncluded featured Aesop, whose music is often complex, loud and sort of ugly sounding, meeting halfway with Dawson, whose music is often simple, soft and sweet sounding. Aesop sounded great rapping over Dawson's acoustic guitar, and Aesop's songwriting is easier to take in with Dawson's straight foward lyrics (best example: "Delicate Cycle").
18. Mac Miller – Watching Movies with the Sound Off (79)
 Another surprise last year was the vast improvement of Mac Miller. I saw glimpses of his potential in his unfairly panned debut, and had high hopes for his second full-length, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, but was blown away when I heard it. It was released on hip hop's most eventful release date of the year, and was initially ignored by many folks (including myself), it managed to be a much more interesting release than J. Cole's album and a much more lyrically enlightening release than Kanye's release.
17. Run the Jewels (Killer Mike & El-P) – Run the Jewels (79)
Killer Mike and El-P now have hip hop's best bromance, so it was natural that they'd release an album together. Their chemistry is undeniable, and their self-titled debut is exactly what you would want out of such a release: lighthearted, impeccable raps, neck snapping beats, and a ton of fun. Word is that they're working on a follow up, which I hope offers a little more in terms of subject matter, but the first Run the Jewels record is a perfect summer album.
16. Pusha T – My Name is My Name (79)
Pusha T's long-awaited album didn't come without its share of setbacks. After a couple of lukewarm mixtapes, my expectations began to wane, but after hearing lead single "Numbers on the Board" I knew Push was about to release an excellent project. Despite all of its pushed back release dates, I think October was the perfect time for this dark, cynical album to come out. 
15. Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob (79)
This was an album I only checked out because it was January/February and there was nothing else to listen to. Heartthrob was the first full album I've heard from the indie pop duo, and it was a fantastic introduction. This album has been in rotation for most of the year, with its great pop melodies and poignant songwriting.
14. Gilbere Forte – PRAY (79)
This was an album that I was surprised to see how badly it flew under the radar. Easily one of my favorite hip hop releases of last year damn near went unnoticed by essentially every major hip hop publication. PRAY sounds like a drunken summer night, and Gilbere Forte raps with the intensity of a Royce da 5'9" over Drake-style production.
13. Local Natives – Hummingbird (80)
The Local Natives' second album, much like Tegan & Sara's Heartthrob, stayed in rotation for most of 2013, thanks to being released early on in the year. But unlike Heartthrob, and the band's debut album, there is nothing immediate about Hummingbird. This album is a slow burn, but you'll be glad you came back for more. Well, maybe not glad. More likely mildly depressed because this album is a bit of a downer. "Heavy Feet" is not only one of my favorite songs of the year, but also the most gut wrenchingly depressing.
12. Red Pill & Hir-O – The Kick (80)
Sometime towards the end of 2012, I received an email from a fellow Okay Player and respected music writer about an artist that he managed. The song he sent me hit me immediately and it quickly became one of my favorites. I posted about the song, "Waiting on a Train" and then was given a copy of Red Pill & Hir-O's The Kick. The album took a little while to grow on me - mainly because "Waiting  on a Train" was so excellent, I couldn't stop playing it. But when The Kick finally sunk in, I knew these two relatively unknown cats from the Detroit area were something special. Red Pill teamed up with Apollo Brown and Verbal Kent for Ugly Heroes, while Hir-O has been producing for several other emcees including Greenlee, but I think they have a phenomenal chemistry together. I am excited to see what they come up with next.
11. Arctic Monkeys – AM (80.5)
The Arctic Monkeys is a band I've always meant to check out, but never got around to doing so. Finally I was sucked in this year by their amusingly titled "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" and from there I was hooked. AM is packed with blues riffs, excellent songwriting, and a whole lot of sense of humor. Alex Turner has become one of my favorite lead singers, and the Arctic Monkeys made the best blues record since the Black Keys' Brothers.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BRL 2013 Year in Review (Part 2)

30. Tonedeff – Glutton (75.5)
29. John Legend – Love in the Future (75.5)
28. Louis Logic – Look on the Blight Side (76)
After seven years without a solo album, Louis Logic finally released a new record in 2013. Logic handled all the production himself, which at times resulted in some mediocre and same-sounding beats. But overall it was another great release from one of the most technically gifted rappers in the game. The album's opening track, "A Day Late & a Dollar Short" was one of my favorite songs of the year.
27. Cold War Kids – Dear Miss Lonelyhearts (76)
I discovered a lot of great music listening to University of Findlay's radio station last year. One band that I re-discovered was the Cold War Kids. "Miracle Mile" was getting a lot of plays and it was a great song, which prompted me to further investigate their latest LP. It was a slow burn of an album, where I only liked a few songs at first, but by the end of the year, it become one of my favorites.
26. Big Sean – Hall of Fame (76.5)
G.O.O.D. Music's most polarizing figure showed his great potential in 2012 with an excellent mixtape and stole the show on Cruel Summer. And that potential became more realized this year with his sophomore effort, Hall of Fame. This album showed the Detroit can do more emotionally driven subject matter, in addition to his swagger raps.
25. Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does this Door Go? (77)
24. Dessa – Parts of Speech (78)
This album came out right before I moved to Chicago. I didn't play the fourth track of this album until a few months after getting this album. The third track is the excellent lead single "Warsaw," where Dessa proves her battle rap chops. But the first two cuts - "Man I Knew" and "Give Up Your Ghost" - are as fierce of a one-two punch to start an album as any I can remember. When I finally got to the entire album, I realized Parts of Speech was damn good.
23. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (part 1) (78.5)
22. Tuxedo (Mayer Hawthorne & Jake-One) – Tuxedo (78.5)
Mayer Hawthorne had a pretty solid year between his third LP, Where Does This Door Go? and his "secret" project with Seattle beatmaker Jake-One. His latest full-length is probably his best album, but his 3-track Tuxedo managed to have the three best songs he made all year. "Do It" is one of those undeniable songs, that you love the second you hear it.
21. Ugly Heroes (Apollo Brown, Red Pill & Verbal Kent) – Ugly Heroes (78.5)