Top 10 albums of 2013

The Daily Cal Arts staff lists the top 10 (and more) albums of 2013

Artists in the top 10 include James Blake, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West and Disclosure. (Courtesy credit from top left: ATLAS/A & M/Polydor Records, XL Recordings, PMR/Island Records, Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam Records).

Honorable Mentions:

Jai Paul — Jai Paul

Jai Paul has embarked on a colonial voyage across the archipelagos of popular music to hoard a trove of genre gems, stopping at Ghana and Mumbai along the way. In the process of synthesizing dozens of bizarre mismatches, the British songwriter has discovered a completely uncharted territory of music that gushes with a kaleidoscopic, wildly exotic energy. The album is part post-dubstep, part Chillwave and part ’80s nostalgia, with the coolest shred-guitar solo since “Beat It.” Then he really starts to set your head spinning as he seamlessly blends in Bollywood samples and syncopated Eastern rhythms, all the while barraging you with what are inexplicably futuristic laser sounds. The result of it all is groundbreaking and effortlessly dazzling. What do we label this? Post-Chillwave-step? Synth-Colonial-Core? It’s impossible to say. It’s just Jai Paul.

Years from now, when “post-genre” becomes a Pitchfork buzzword, creditors will be looking to Jai Paul as some sort of landmark laptop wizard genius behind it all.

— Jason Chen

Danny Brown — Old

Danny Brown got the whole world listening. The Internet has added a multidimensionality to music, allowing rappers such as Danny Brown to gather a fan base not only because he can seriously rap but because of his wild hairstyles, his skinny jeans and his impressive vernacular.

Old is dynamic; Side A lets us hear introspective tracks about the drug-ridden chaos of Brown’s past, while on Side B, both his cadence and sound become more wild and outlandish. The switch parallels Brown’s own journey.

Listen to Old. But also watch Danny Brown wearing a “FUCK SWAG” T-shirt as he talks to ASAP Rocky about picking up girls on Twitter. Also follow him on Twitter — he’s pretty funny because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Old is powerful because Brown gives listeners access to the complexity of his mind. He may be ridiculous, but that’s exactly what makes him great.

— Anya Schultz

Read the full review here.

10. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories

Daft Punk is back, and it’s brought da funk in full force in its best album to date (but really, isn’t every album of the band the best to date?). Every song on the album is brimming with glorious, dance-inducing rhythm and flow, coming together for a 75-minute celebration of disco and science-fiction, the best example of which is the amazing last track, “Contact.” Yes, “Get Lucky” played on every radio station on repeat this past summer, much to the chagrin of Daft Punk fans everywhere, but don’t pass over it because of its popularity. It is one of two incredible collaborations with Pharrell Williams, and one of the many others with artists, such as the Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear (of Animal Collective fame). From the aptly named, synth-heavy first track “Give Life Back to Music” to the nine-minute epic “Giorgio by Moroder” (featuring interviews with the disco pioneer) to outro “Contact,” Random Access Memories shines.

— Youssef Shokry

9. Arcade Fire — Reflektor

During pre-release touring for Reflektor, Arcade Fire had an intense guerilla marketing campaign, which included street art that took over major cities (including Berkeley) and secret shows in which the band performed as “The Reflektors.” As a promotional campaign, it was incredibly successful. Yet this campaign also redefined the band’s image from modest Canadian indie group to David Bowie-esque rock band, which was warranted when Reflektor, its best album since Funeral, was released.

From the first couple of minutes of the first track, “Reflektor,” the ’80s disco influence becomes clear. But it’s an influence Arcade Fire and producer James Murphy are able to manipulate in a way such that it becomes organic to Arcade Fire. The glitz and glamour of the album are well-matched lyrically, with songs about the removed collective human experience in the digital age. Each song is a pleasure to listen to, successful in making a glittery ’80s pop-rock album while maintaining the indie-baroque pop essence that Arcade Fire has previously mastered.

Art Siriwatt

Read the full review here.

8. Arctic Monkeys — AM

“The nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day,” croons Arctic Monkeys’ lead singer and lyricist Alex Turner on “Do I Wanna Know?” The Yorkshire quartet’s latest release, AM, is a sleek — albeit dark — look into one of the many weaknesses of humanity: desire. Moving away from stoner rock into new territory, the Arctic Monkeys have shed their youthful facade and developed an achingly frank (though bleary-eyed) vision of bad decisions that may have come from a move out west to Los Angeles. “No. 1 Party Anthem” paints drunken 21st-century loving in a beautifully sincere and wistful way, while “Mad Sounds” includes some of the most heartfelt, sun-drenched “ooh-la-la-la’s” to ever be done. Although it is a tad bit sad bidding farewell to the twitchy, spastic pop that made the band famous with “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” the Arctic Monkeys are ushering themselves into a new era — an era of Los Angeles-induced, boozy, glam noir.

— Addy Bhasin

Read the full review here.  

7. Death Grips — Government Plates

No album this year is as scarring as Death Grips’ November release Government Plates. MC Ride’s anguished scream (“my throat like pipe bomb”), coupled with Zach Hill and Flatlander’s splintered musical production, makes for a record with staying power. The industrial rap group’s schizophrenic lyrics probe political consciousness but ultimately drop social issues into the black hole of who gives a fuck. Ride hints of the “federal cloaked key and lock shit” — e.g., unchecked corporate power, unbridled state surveillance, inept government — that sent the nation, and the world, lurching in 2013. But it’s more calculated wordplay than social awareness. “Fuck your idols, suck my dick,” Ride spits to anyone who makes the mistake of imbuing his music with meaning. Yet that’s what sets Government Plates apart from other rap records. Death Grips’ insistence on tearing itself to shreds in its pursuit of aggressive, chaotic art lands the trio in a category all its own. Government Plates is exquisite violence.

— Natalia Reyes

Read the full review here.  

6. Lorde — Pure Heroine

Lorde’s Pure Heroine is more than that one single you’ve heard a bazillion times. It’s a haunted set of tracks, masterminded by a 16-year-old Kiwi witch who purrs through poetry that speaks from her own young but poignant life. Brilliant lyrics on songs such as “Glory and Gore” or “White Teeth Teens” will help you deal with the fact that we’ll never be “Royals.” Her stripped-down lo-fi sound is smooth and uncomplicated, perfect for a low-key groove when you’re sick to death of EDM at every single party. Pure Heroine is a deconstructed tour through the beauty of the verse the likes of which has not been heard since Suzanne Vega stopped into “Tom’s Diner.” Keep your eyes on Lorde. We’re going to get something better than a beaver shot out of this teen dream.

— Meg Elison

Read the full review here

5. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap

Baptist hymns, a repurposed Tribe Called Quest-inspired beat and a throwback to Rugrats are all featured on Chance The Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap. Chance (his legal name is Chancelor Bennett) got himself suspended from high school in Chicago, but he’s transformed himself in the past year. On “Acid Rap,” the 20-year-old proves his versatility, jumping from soulful rap to reflective ballads to playful, semi-obnoxious funk. “Acid Rap” opens with a contagious bubblegum bounce in “Good Ass Intro,” which is — as one would expect — a pretty good-ass intro. On “Favorite Song,” Chance and Childish Gambino hop around in childlike ecstasy, while “Acid Rain” takes on an atmospheric nostalgia that seems to take cues from Frank Ocean. “Lot of niggas wanna go out with a bang / But I ain’t tryna go out at all,” he laughs on “Chain Smoker.” That’s the best part about Chance. He doesn’t even know how big he’s going to get.

— Addy Bhasin

4. Disclosure — Settle

U.K. brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence have exploded from their London roots to the international scene under the name Disclosure, revolutionizing electronic house with their signature sound. Through their debut album, Settle, Disclosure melds together a synthetic ethereal energy with a controlled, smooth bassline that flows into innovative, bouncy rhythmic patterns. Settle is all about the composition, about the finely tuned co-mingling of its myriad parts. The album’s energetic “When a Fire Starts to Burn” and “White Noise” are prominent festival hits. To say that Settle is pop, electronic or even house is to seriously undermine and undervalue the complex interactions of writhing synths, kick-beats, bass and softly integrated vocals in each song. Die-hard Disclosure groupies argue the duo carved out a new genre entirely its own, while more conservative fans classify Disclosure’s sound as nostalgic and lyrical deep house. Settle has been nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize and settles for nothing less than acoustic perfection, soothing the ears and the soul.

— Kate Irwin

3. Kanye West — Yeezus

When Kanye thunderously pronounces, “fuck whatever y’all been hearing,” his ludicrous statement speaks Himalayan amounts of depth. He’s force-feeding the world his new hypermegalomania that you’re bound to hate. Yet, he’s also forecasting some groundbreaking sounds you’re bound to marvel at in awe.

Yeezus is a conceptual album that brims with jarring contradiction. Helmed by Rick Rubin, this is his most minimalist album yet but also his most deliriously indulgent in distortion and hubris. There’s the drunken call-and-response between polar opposites Chief Keef and Bon Iver. Herein lies the most gratifying contradiction: The trampling overload of synth and the howling screams hit such feverish swells of violence that the work is elevated into poetry. When Kanye West challenges you to like a madman fueled by hookers and cocaine, even the briefest moment of sincerity is heart-shattering. “We could have been somebody” — a trite line is now lyrical. Suddenly, all the contradictions seem completely necessary. That’s impeccable design. That’s poetry.

— Jason Chen

Read the full review here

2. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

The release of “Modern Vampires of the City” made even the most pessimistic of unbelievers of Vampire Weekend stand corrected. Sure, their shout-out to Berkeley was stereotypically skewed (Communist reader? Really?). But the Columbia grads made up for that generalization with lyrical content that trades the hang-ups of their Ivy League-attending youth for wisdom while harkening back to the hyperliteracy of their previous two efforts. Instead of DGAF-ing about Oxford commas, they grapple with bigger concepts, such as the repercussions of not believing in God and having “the luck of a Kennedy.” This kind of sophistication also Kwassa Kwassa-d its way into their music — where their influences became less of a show-and-tell of borrowed sounds and more integrated into their own style. Seemingly disparate effects — such as the appliance of autotune to Ezra Koenig’s voice, the surf guitar slide on “Diane Young” and an Irish folk flute on “Unbelievers” — all weave together seamlessly. Maybe their maturation is more “Modern” than anything.

— Caitlin Kelley

Read the full review here

1. James Blake — Overgrown

In another year full of popstar publicity stunts, James Blake just wants to be a stone on the shore. The 25-year-old Brit won the Mercury Prize for his sophomore effort Overgrown, but the young artist’s path to widespread acclaim has been marred with doubt. After the release of his diverse self-titled debut, critics pondered Blake’s musical future as he approached the crossroads of R&B and dub. His 2011 Enough Thunder EP was mostly the former, while previous EPs had been heavily influenced by the UK garage scene. Overgrown rises above his previous efforts with a blend of genres and emotions that swells and settles, at times bursting forth with pounding energy (“Voyeur”) and at others nesting itself in contemplative isolation (album-closer “Our Love Comes Back”). Blake’s recent collaboration with Chance The Rapper is a promising dip into yet another genre — using Overgrown standout “Life Round Here” as a backdrop, the track is a testament to the album’s versatility and, ultimately, its longevity.

Damian Ortellado

Read the full review here