Culture, Music

Best albums of 2013: top 10

Aaron's best albums of 2013 collage 10-01 (2500x1000)Here we are. The final 10 and my chosen favourites. Over the first and second parts of my album round-up, there have been disappointments (yep, no Bowie, no Kanye), there been surprises and there has even been some grief.

A picture may tell a thousand words, but music can paint a million different images. Which is why no amount of text could ever capture how those moments of musical elation feel. Still, if you’ve faced struggles and doubt this year, then, in their own way, each of these 10 albums offer reasons for you to press on in search of better days to come.

Let me know what you think in the comments section or tweet me via @dk33per.

Rudimental - Home, album artwork (500x500)10. Rudimental – Home
My first introduction to the energetic collective that is Rudimental was, like many others, seeing them perform at Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend. Here was a band that reflected the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures in London among their members, laying down mellow dub, jazz rock and triumphant anthems. By the time I heard John Newman’s gravely tones on ‘Feel the Love’, I was sold.

Home, the debut album from the DJ four-piece and their ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, put them among a select group of artists and producers that have been pushing dance music in ever-more alternative directions. Songs such as ‘Spoons’, a soothing oasis of downtempo, show a meditative side to the band. While the likes of ‘Right Here’ and ‘Not Giving In’ flood your ears with a riotous cacophony, urging you on when all your energy seems spent – honestly, when you’ve got eight minutes to get up and down a hill to catch a train, there’s no better steroid for the mind.

Excluding fellow label mates and collaborators, such as Newman, Sinead Harnett, MNEK and Ella Eyre, some of the supporting artists raised a few eyebrows. There’s Emeli Sandé, Voice UK contender and recent Parlophone-signee, Becky Hill and New York rapper Angel Haze. While their presence seemed like commercial box-ticking to me, even I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much each of the tracks has grown on me. Rudimental is a collective that exude bombast and aplomb. With tracks to raise the ground at festivals or your spirits as you listen alone, Home is a strong debut that justifies the notation that they’re revolutionising dance music.

ASAP Rocky - Long Live ASAP, album artwork, standard (500x500)9. ASAP Rocky – Long. Live. ASAP
ASAP Rocky leaves me utterly conflicted because he’s a cut above many contemporary rappers, and is one that values more than guns, girls and glam. Pity, then, that he spends so much of his time and talent rapping about exactly those things and little else. Born Rakim Mayers, the man loves art. He and his affiliates, the ASAP Mob, came from the rough streets of Harlem and are now flying high in Hollywood and beyond, thanks to Rocky’s $3 million record deal. The man respects Danger Mouse. And he wants to annihilate racism. But, forgive me, Rocky’s music is unlikely to do that for some time – at least not in this form, as a sweet pill of desire and distraction.

Still, that’s no reason to dismiss what is one of the dirtiest party albums of the new decade. From the instant the filthy dubstep of ‘Wild for the Night’ claws it’s way to your ears, you may start to believe that busting out, getting high, shooting the shit and courting some “bad bitches” is exactly what you and your posse should be doing. Boasting about dirty cash, the size of his wang and how many hoes he has hosed with it, Rocky’s not exactly a fount of originality, and if soundtracks to ‘thug life’ aren’t your thing this is unlikely to change your mind.

But for those that enjoy some naughty bump n’ grind that’s NSFW, Rocky’s biting, artfully strung rhymes are reason to stick with it. The likes of Clams Casino, Hit-Boy and Danger Mouse on beat duty also mean there’s plenty to get you moving. Thematically unoriginal, despite patches of flair in its delivery, Long. Live. ASAP won’t be bringing about world peace anytime soon. But it will set a party ablaze in minutes.

Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, album artwork (500x500)8. Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Rights Words, Right Action
Most of us know what to expect from a Franz Ferdinand album: catchy, foot-stamping rock music to make girls dance. That still applies to the boys’ fourth LP, Right Thoughts, Rights Words, Right Action. But the surprise is how sure of themselves they are and, as a result, how well executed the entire album is.

Opener ‘Right Action’ is typical Franz – instantly likeable with a chorus ripe for the anthem song sheet. There’s a touch of surf rock to the easygoing ‘Stand on the Horizon’ – a song which also manages to make a lyric about Nazis harmonious. The second half of the record is darker in tone, yet equally as compelling. The nonstop, rapid-fire beat of ‘Bullet’ is a pleasant ambush, like a surprise party. Similarly, ‘Treason! Animals’ never lets up, push you to unruly celebration.

Alex Kapranos says the process of making RTRWRA was the least stressful of all the band’s efforts to date. And the album’s comedown backs that up with sauntering, wistful songs, like ‘The Universe Expanded’, that hang around long after the music disappears.

Tonight – possibly the finest late-night party album of its kind, taking you from your first beer all the way to your 5am bedtime – was a tough act to follow. Franz Ferdinand’s fourth LP is neither an attempt to recapture that feeling, nor run away from their past. It’s an indie rock buffet, free from filler, to jumpstart your day. The music media keep telling us “guitar music is dead”, while proclaiming that Peace or the Palma Violets will rescue it. But there’s no need for a saviour with records like RTRWRA, which exhibits the band’s songwriting and self-confidence at their peak.

AlunaGeorge - Body Music, album artwork, standard (500x500)7. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Forget Kim and Kanye. Aluna Francis and George Reid are the power couple of 2013 – whether it is a romantic relationship, as well as a creative one, is for the papz and gossip rags to ponder. Together, they’ve made an electro pop album filled with addictive rhythms that also makes self-assured scoops at the emotional ups and downs of getting into a relationship. In a post-Girls, post-online-dating-is-socially-acceptable age, you won’t find an album that’s so 2013.

You Know You Like It’, the song that thrust them onto the scene and earned them a place as runner-up of the BBC Sound of 2013 list, is a playful club belter and one of the strongest examples of the duo’s musical partnership. Backed by Reid’s house beat with a video game-esque twinkle, Francis’s airy vocals sound out, diva-like, teasing, inviting you to come closer. Intimacy is the intent and Body Music has been shaped to achieve that from head to toe.

Through her honeysuckle, estuary-accented voice, Francis charms on ‘Kaleidoscope Love’, and chastises on ‘Bad Idea’. Meanwhile, Reid’s twitchy sounds back her up throughout with audible muscle when the time calls for attitude (‘Attracting Flies’) and unhurried comfort during her soft confessions (‘Superstar’). The final track, ‘Friends to Lovers’, tells us all we need know about Francis and Reid’s relationship. Whatever the reality, Body Music is a seductive affair that you should engage in yourself.

Bonobo - The North Borders, album artwork (500x500)6. Bonobo – The North Borders
Master of downtempo, Simon Greenfield (aka Bonobo), has influenced the likes of Flying Lotus and James Blake. His 2010 album, Black Sands, was something of a breakout success for the artist, who had previously been confined to hotel lobbies and backing tracks on The Culture Show.

While his latest album doesn’t quite achieve the coherent atmosphere of his last, The North Borders still served up this year’s best in earthy, electronic ambience. Ranging from the soft ting of clanging wind chimes to the velvety call of harp strings, the worldly variety of sounds that Bonobo is known for are present in every rhythmic pulse, soft click and harmonious refrain. The mood is at its best on some of the more trippy tracks, if you could call them that, which are like ascending a towering mountain to be in the presence of temple gods – ‘Emkay’, ‘Jets’ and ‘Cirrus’ among them.

Heaven for the Sinner’, an ethereal, trance-like ride, featuring the goddess of neo-soul Erykah Badu, is one of the record’s musical peaks. It shifts and meanders like incense, Badu’s treacle-like register lifted by its rapid intonation. The journey is psychedelic, more disembodied than his last effort, but Green’s imaginativeness shines through and makes The North Borders a treat for the adventurous listener.

Ghostpoet - Some Say I So I Say Light, album artwork (500x500)5. Ghostpoet – Some Say I So I Say Light
With lines devoted to oven chip meals for one, long waits at the train station and wallets being “overdosed on Amazon”, Obaro Ejimiwe continues to carve out his place as UK hip hop’s voice of the everyman. His 2011 debut was a standout record. Among its fans is Roots Manuva, whom Ghostpoet shares an audibly similar vocal tone with, as well as a knack for storytelling over unusual electronic beats.

On his second album, Ghostpoet’s sound is perhaps even more experimental than before. And amid his soul-searching questions, there’s more love to be found this time. ‘Meltdown’ is his most direct address of commitment. And while you could let the melancholy envelop you, it’s really just cathartic medicine for mind – self-motivation (‘Plastic Bag Brain’), facing up to anxiety (‘Them Waters’) and following your heart (‘ThymeThymeThyme’) are all sewn into the rhymes. Many of the tracks began as piano demos. The lazy, ambling stroll of ‘Sloth Trot’ and, at the opposite end, the piano chord tremolos of ‘MSI musmiD’ solidify Ghostpoet’s musical evolution. An unmissable album to comfort and reinvigorate you from the unpleasant in the everyday.

Laura Mvula - Sing to the Moon, album artwork (500x500)4. Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
To quote music critic Alexis Petridis, Laura Mvula is “a lot more inventive than people give her credit for”. But as a black female composer and singer, she’s been branded the ‘new Adele’ and ‘new Emeli Sandé’ – both tired labels which do this lady a disservice.

It’s not every day that a former music teacher from Birmingham releases one of the year’s most imaginative debut albums, and subsequently pulls off a glorious live performance at Glastonbury. Refined in her composure, and unafraid to defy ‘normal’ visions of beauty, Mvula is a champion. Drawing on gospel, her African heritage and her classical music training, Mvula has blended all three together to create songs that are an exotic buffet for the ears.

Marching band drums, horns and harps permeate ‘Flying without You’ and ‘That’s Alright’, giving them a large-than-life swagger akin to Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’. These are songs for holding your nerve against adversity, no mattered how large or small. Elsewhere, she demonstrates a delicacy with her songwriting in ‘Can’t Live in the World’ and ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’. Both are about steady contemplation and easing your mind from the everyday chaos. Too many black female artists are pigeonholed as having a ‘jazz style’, which immediately brands them and turns certain people off. Laura Mvula doesn’t fit this mould, and listening to Sing to the Moon reveals why.

Disclosure - Settle, album artwork (500x500)3. Disclosure – Settle
Considering their music has been almost everywhere in the last 12 months, I’ve been surprised by how many people are unaware of the production duo that is Disclosure. Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence each have an exceptional gift for production that, for once, makes their place in the charts and the tsunami of hype behind them justified. Anybody can list J Dilla beats, but it takes talent to be able to separate the layers of a song and understand exactly how a producer went about making it. Guy and Howard possess this talent, and the result is one of the most satisfying and fully formed debuts of 2013.

Fast, hook-heavy and diced with rhythm and tempo changes that are hard to resist, ‘You & Me’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘F for You’ are three of its best floor-fillers. Despite what some detractors say, this isn’t Calvin Harris-style, lowest-common-denominator production either. There’s subtly and simplicity to it. The brothers know just when give the music space (‘Defeated No More’), when to amp things up (‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’) and when to introduce a bizarre tone or break that adds that indescribable head rush to dance music (‘Grab Her!’).

The influences are there: garage and soft house, but it feels modern from top to tail. While some tracks call out to be put on repeat until you’ve warn yourself out breakdancing in your bedroom, it takes longer to feel the genius in tracks such as ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’ and ‘Voices’. Featuring the likes of Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge and London Grammar also shows the duo’s taste for fresh voices, which remains two-steps ahead of the charts.

The guest appearances add plenty of familiar tones, but even without them, Disclosure is, at heart, simply remarkably accomplished dance music. Settle is the kind of album that can be listened to from start to finish, whether you’re on the dance floor, wandering around city streets or pelting to catch your morning train.

Myron and E - Broadway, album artwork (500x500)2. Myron & E – Broadway
Were it not for the return of a certain genre-bending songstress, Broadway would be my album of the year. Contemporary music that harkens back to the heyday of 60s soul is seen as a novelty by most. The Aloe Blaccs and Michael Kiwanukas that have managed to make an impact on the mainstream charts are just some of a number of contemporary artists that are keeping the heart of soul music alive, while making records that may well achieve classic status in years to come.

Myron & E’s debut album Broadway is one such record. If you didn’t already know that this album was recorded between 2008 and 2013 by Myron Glasper and Eric ‘E da Boss’ Cooke, then you’ll likely think – as I did when I first heard the haunting canter of ‘If I Gave You My Love’ – that this an undiscovered, soul rarity from the 60s itself. There is a harmonious quality to Myron & E that evokes the Temptations, MFSB and Bobby Womack, while still feeling entirely its own.

Stories of love (‘Broadway’ and ‘I Can’t Let You Get Away’), of resilience (‘Turn Back’) and good, old 60s disco (‘Cold Game’ and ‘Do It Do It Disco’) are the order of the day. They might not speak to you right away, but it’s the passion and gentleness with which the duo and their Finnish band, the Soul Investigators, perform each track that makes this album far greater than the sum of its parts.

People flocked to the likes of Aloe Blacc’s ‘I Need a Dollar’ because it has a message that they can identify with in hard times. “Complications along the way make you wonder if it’s all in vain,” sings Myron on hidden track ‘They Don’t Know’, capturing in a line what makes Broadway a thoroughly inspiring and life-affirming album. No record (save one) this year feels so genuine in melody or in message.

Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady, album artwork (500x500)1. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Much like the android alter ego she embodies on her records, Janelle Monáe still remains an unknown face to the mainstream. But catch her – like the thousands that watched her Glastonbury 2011 performance, which boosted sales of her debut album by 4928 per cent – and you glimpse raw talent and finesse sharp enough to test any of her compares.

The Electric Lady is the follow-up to Monáe’s stellar debut album, The ArchAndroid. This genre-surfing masterpiece introduced us to Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run for “falling desperately in love with a human” in an oppressive society of the future. Monáe and her band soundtrack your journey through this world’s neon valley streets and forgotten suburbs with faultless dynamism. There are ripples of 60s soul, heaps of funk reminiscent of the Meters, Hendrix-style guitar solos and ethereal ballads, all held together by tactful production. And that’s just the first listen.

So why the world still hasn’t embraced Monáe with goddess-like levels of acclaim, I will never know. Her new album has reached more people this time round, but a wonderfully delicate and seductive compendium such as this, which bulges with personality and yet remains all about us, the people, deserves far more listeners.

Through her guise of neo-futurism, Monáe steps up her allegory on our world, its beauty and its injustices. The never-ending debate over the female form reached a new high/low in 2013, and the result was white noise with no victor to be found. The message, however, whether it came from Miley gyrating to the dismay of millions or Beyoncé putting her booty on display over and over, was that sex, and sexual exhibition, is what it takes for women to be successful in music today.

Janelle Monae - Electric Lady, press photo 03, by Marc Baptiste (1448x815)That’s not a view Monáe subscribes to. She needn’t say so either, as her actions speak volumes. The Electric Lady is all about the virtues of women; their strength, their beauty and their temptation. It’s an album with more breadth than the Amazon River. A fact illustrated by five-minute stunner ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, where Monáe challenges views of identity and female sexuality with poetic ease. Her stirring rap, a call to rise up against the oppressors (“I’m tired of Marvin asking me: ‘What’s going on?’”), is surely one of the finest moments in music full stop.

Monáe and her tribe of virtuosos, the Wondaland Arts Society, are storytellers at heart. From the summer-soaked guitar riffs of ‘We were Rock & Roll’ to the sheer romantic ecstasy of ‘Can’t Live without Your Love’, the imagery is vivid. The interludes even have the comedic punch of Fresh-Prince or Barbershop, which is something few, if any, R&B records have ever achieved. Lesser artists might produce a cheese and chalk combination, but Monáe draws on the most disparate of elements and makes them feel one in her world. Take ‘Ghetto Woman’, a supercharged palette of funk that’s also a touching story about Monáe’s own upbringing and the bravery of her mother.

This titanic offering feels more pop-friendly than her first outing, but it is no less impressive in production. Sounds of the future are blended expertly with Monáe’s motifs of femininity, identity and the pursuit of freedom. Her own roster of guest stars – Erykah Badu, Miguel, Solange and Prince – are a sign of her growing status. But, again, a lesser artist might fall into the trap of collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Not Monáe. With her, everything is crafted to perfection. No more, no less.

You can have big-name stars and a big booty, but neither could overshadow the music of this pop goddess. She’s a heroine in the purist sense of the word, and The Electric Lady is her heartfelt blueprint for a better tomorrow.

And that’s a wrap. Thanks for taking the time. Now that you’ve seen my chosen albums of 2013, what do you think? What are yours? And do you have any recommendations of little-known records that absolutely must be heard? Let me know in the comments section or via @dk33per.

See my entire albums of 2013 series.

Images: collage of album covers by Aaron Lee; album artwork belongs to respective parties; Marc Baptiste (Janelle Monáe, main body)/PR