The Top Five Albums of 2013

Finally, Rock and Rolle’s BEST albums of 2013, the top five!

For numbers ten to six, click here.

It’s been a vintage year, but these are the albums I’ve come back to again and again – obsessed over, agonised over, adored. Here’s the order of my list that it’s in.

5. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – Eminem

The sequel to a much revered classic by a living legend, MMLP2 had a lot of scope for ending terribly. Instead, we were treated to the best Eminem album in a decade – packed with furious flow, fantastic wordplay and the full spectrum of human emotions. The immediate high of the scattered call-backs to his earlier works remain a thrill; but it’s an album that reveals more with every listen thanks to the sheer complexity of the rhymes. Even just taking phenomenal opener ‘Bad Guy’, hook-laden ‘Rhyme or Reason’, speed-of-light ‘Rap God’ and earworn ‘Dangerous’, this was one of the most impressive and entertaining records around.

4. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk

Forget how many times you’ve heard ‘Get Lucky’ in the last 6 months and remember how you first heard it. A slice of pure, irresistible funk – a perfect pop song? Then mounting anticipation; frantic commentary on the game-changing natures of Discovery and Homework whipped up with a teasing, enticing marketing campaign. Unbelievably, Random Access Memories lived up to all the hype. Prog, funk and jazz, live recordings and not of 4/4 beat to be found confounded expectations, once again throwing electronic conventions out of the window. From the first over-excited stream to the latest replay, this is an uplifting, fresh album, cleverly bringing together the past and future. And ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ was the best track of 2013, which helps.

3. Holy Fire – Foals

The best guitar-based record of the year comes from Oxford, the formerly spiky mathrockers turned luxuriant indie stadium rockers Foals. Building on the spatial, instrumental expanses of Total Life Forever, their third record saw them hit a new creative peak. It’s an album that creeps out of the speakers, from the slow-burn intensity of ‘Prelude’, through the anthemic ‘Inhaler’ to the sheer pop of ‘My Number’ – a single that demanded sun and bright blue skies. Carefully constructed, Holy Fire yields gorgeous lilting riffs, explosive rhythms and a newfound rock and roll crunch that entirely suits Foals. Beyond the singles, there’s an excess of massive indie to enjoy here.

2. Acid Rap – Chance The Rapper

Cutting above Kanye, A$AP, Jigga and the rest, the best hip-hop record for me this year was a free mixtape, from a 20 year old Chicagoan. Yelping and cartoonish, his style brings to mind early Eminem – but there was none of the aggression or insanity that characterised Slim Shady present here, but more the anti-gangsta analysis of Kendrick and early Kanye. Those are some colossal comparisons, but if Chance isn’t a household name by 2020, I’ll eat my blog. Alternately woozy and cartoonish, Acid Rap was off-the-walls, ADHD bursting with ideas and pop hooks. Infectiously good-natured, it will soon have you grinning and languidly struggling to keep up.

1. Overgrown – James Blake

Much as I am loathe to agree with the Mercury Prize, James Blake came a long, long way in 2013. Long gone is the dubstep, as is the taut, silent spacing of his 2011 debut. Instead, he brought us a disjointed, incredibly emotive brand of electronic soul and R&B, with both the trademark dubby shakes and voice-cracking melodies still present. Fragile beauty and a sense of yearning dominate Overgrown, but the songs are, for all their complexity, ridiculously hummable. There’s no doubt Blake is taking himself seriously, but the intimacy of ‘Retrograde’, ‘Life Round Here’ and the rest is utterly immersive; sensual, intricate, and like nothing else you’ve heard this year.

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The Best of 2013 (10 – 6)

Mindblowing avalanches of hip-hop, a (whisper it) indie renaissance and the ever-growing dominance of an endlessly inventive electronic scene: by anybody’s standards, 2013 has been the best year for music in some time. As everyone’s music taste has steadily melted into one gigantic crossover success, the genre divides have seemed less important than ever. In a year where ‘Get Lucky’ led a disco revival, Kanye went full space-cadet, and Bowie had a number one album, these were my favourite records.

Thanks for reading, see you in 2014!

10. Psychic – Darkside

Nicolas Jaar’s woozy, skittish techno made a longform return in October, as he returned with guitarist Dave Harrington in his side-project, Darkside.  Having early in the year released their gorgeous album-remix of Random Access Memories, their third LP was a more experimental affair, adding dub beats and fuzz to the cyclical, disjointed Jaar sound. It’s minimalism calls to mind the 90s techno elite (Hawtin, Villalobos etc), but it also incorporates the space-prog and psychedelia alluded to in the band’s name – it’s techno-progrock fusion, undulating on whirring beats and strung out riffs, looping through the dark side of your mind.

9. Settle – Disclosure

Omnipresent thanks to its inescapable string of singles, the Lawrence brothers’ Settle was just one of the years’ fantastic mainstream successes. Brain-wiping repetitive beats, giant hooks, and a raft of excellent guest vocalists allowed the album to dominate the summer, zinging dance-pop, heavily indebted to late 90s garage, that was as suited to drivetime sing-alongs as mindless gurnathons. Get past the singles’ over-exposure, put it back on, and just try and sit still.

8. FIDLAR – FIDLAR

Dumb surf-punk will always have a place in my heart, and in 2013, FIDLAR did it best. Though Light Up Gold beat the Strokes at their own game and Wavves put out a decent second LP, only these LA boys were operating at a Black Lips level of debauchery and young-dumb-fun. Pure sex, drugs and rock n roll, I’ve played this again and again since February and thanks to its stellar hooks and sheer euphoric delivery, it’s still fresh. If you enjoy getting buzzed and shouting, this is the album for you.

7. Zomby – With Love

Following in the footsteps of Actress and Pantha du Prince, 2013 brought us a newly delicate, emotive Zomby – on record, if not in reality. Dark paranoia, lush instrumentation and beats from jungle, garage, dubstep and hip-hop pulsed through this double album, interspersed with miniature symphonies that were more classical than electronic. Spacious, beautiful and complex, With Love only grows with each listen.

6. Arc – Everything Everything

Taut, rhythmic indie has been stuck on the back-burner since Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand were relevant, but in January, it hit boiling point again with Arc. Stuffed with riffs, witticisms and creativity, it was a colossal follow-up album for the Mancunians – all electronic-influenced indie with wordplay worthy of the most tongue-twisting MCs. The gun-fire percussion and razorsharp guitars combine to hysterical effect, building complex songs that are catchy enough to be termed pop.

Album Review: Bryce Hackford – ‘Fair’

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Twenty minute-long songs are principally associated with overblown, over-extended prog or with self-indulgent, solo-laden hair metal. Of course, it is also a format that is extremely well suited to the electronic genres’ repetitive beats. Without resorting to sprawling outros or overstretched bridges, Bryce Hackford’s debut album features two tracks that are longer than an episode of The Simpsons, using the extra time to sustain its looping grooves and carve out an immersive listening experience, as the tracks’ myriad layers slowly intensify and lull, complicate and simplify, often so subtly that you hardly notice until the change being wrought is complete.

Fair begins with ‘Another Fantasy’, a much-hyped blast of storming techno that builds to a slightly disorientating climax with an industrial jitter reminiscent of Mitstabishi’s ‘Printer Jam’. Thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect soundtrack to losing all your friends in darkened room full of strangers and lasers, it’s exactly what you would expect from a man who has spent recent years playing pounding Brooklyn warehouses. It is also, however, entirely incongruous alongside the rest of the record. Like an experimental jumping-off point, from here on in the tracks only get longer and increasingly ambient.

By second track ‘Heart To Beat’, the bpm has plummeted and the vocals are already dreamily slurred. An iambic pentameter as strong as Shakespeare’s forms the beat and everything else continues to stretch and compress – metallic claps, growling sub-bass and floating drones combine excellently. Here again, both the instrumental layers and the hazy vocals dip in and out allowing the song to range infinitesimally from the minimal to the complex. With ‘Slow Emotion’, things only become more horizontally chillaxed, as a gentle, slightly mystical intro twinkles over gorgeously warm bass and a slow 4/4 pulse; distinctively trippy.

Finally come the mammoth closers, with the last two tracks almost hitting 50 minutes runtime between them. At first listen, ‘Run On Cirrus’ sounds like the product of those apps that build pretty rippling jingles according to the pattern left by your fingertips on the screen. Soon, the lazy fuzz of a stationery lightsabre flickers in the background, then slashing and clashing – conjuring distracting mental images of sparring Jedis. ‘Modern Propeller Music’ builds looping electric guitar samples to create a warm, ponderous ambience, a meditative conclusion to a decidedly out-of-body album.

Ethereal and cosmic, Fair is perfect listening for lucid dreaming or dope-fuelled naps. Too inaccessible to win any ambient converts it may be, but certainly an unexpected pleasure for the initiated. And those brought here on the back of ‘Another Planet’, chasing more brain-wiping techno, will be thoroughly disappointed.