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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Marshall Mathers and His Many Alter-Egos: ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ Album Review

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Content-wise, Eminem has always been problematic –the misogyny and homophobia that lurk throughout his lyrics are still there. But somehow, we collectively got over it. Funny and intelligent though he often is even at his most deplorable, his saving grace is Marshall Mathers’ infinitely fractured personality; is he genuinely advocating what he’s saying or is he in character?

It was a question that dominated The Marshall Mathers LP and one that he addressed perfectly in ‘Stan’, satirising the media frenzy about the violence his songs might inspire whilst counselling, “maybe you just need to treat her better”. He had just devoted a track to rapping about killing bitches, but the distinction was clear. What happens on record isn’t okay in real life (despite his own history). The point is that ever since he first got the outraged reaction he was looking for, Eminem has been mocking the humourless critics who take what he’s saying entirely seriously – the jokes and insults, like his true self and his alter-egos, have long been expertly blended.

Thirteen years later, and the master of self-referential mythologizing is back on top form. With The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the connection to its iconic prequel is explicit. As well as revisiting the sounds of his earlier album with rock-rap production and furiously fast flow, he further complicates and enriches his web of self-obsession by scattering call-backs throughout the album (the “Hi!” from ‘My Name Is’, a snippet of the hook from ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and more). Even better, many lines are careful echoes of the past, pseudo-homonyms that both subvert his old lyrics and beautifully mess with our expectations. On ‘Asshole’, it’s the altered line “Soul’s escaping through this asshole that is gaping, whilst ‘So Far’ has him again “spittin’ on your onion rings” and the ‘Rap God’s dizzying flow conceals references to ‘Kill You’ and ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’. When he raps “It’s just you and the music now, Slim, I hope you hear it; we’re in the car right now – wait, hear comes my favourite lyric!” during ‘Bad Guy’, he knows exactly what he’s doing – this is meticulous manipulation of the millions who have his words seared into their minds and it’s grin-enducingly glorious.

The Inceptionesque complexities of his inter-alter-ego references at the heart of MMLP2 are most overtly laid bare in its opening and closing tracks. ‘Bad Guy’ tackles Marshall Mathers’ biggest legacy head on, kicking things off with an astonishing, seven minute follow-up to ‘Stan’. Initially, with the simplistic flow, he takes the voice of Matthew (“that’s my little brother man, he’s only six years old”…), taking revenge for his long-dead older brother: this time around, it’s Eminem screaming in the trunk. It’s a chance, confusingly, for Eminem to take a shot at himself, as Matthew mimics him “I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people that die / And hey, here’s a sequel to my Mathers LP just to try and get people to buy” – he’s always been a fantastic mimic of his critics. Deeper self-analysis comes, as “Matthew” raps “I’m the bullies you hate that you became with every faggot your slaughtered / Coming back on you every woman you insulted with the double-standards you have when it comes to your daughters” – he’s well aware of his own contradictions and it’s irresistible listening.

Closer ‘Evil Twin’ is just as satisfying complex, another piece in the jigsaw as the album continues to seesaw wildly between justifying, apologising for, and glorying in his own character creations. Here, it’s all swagger, he’s the “borderline genius who’s bored of his lines”. Singing sweetly, he proclaims “That ain’t me […] he’s just a friend who pops up now and again, so don’t blame me – blame him” – but it’s never that easy. Next, he spits “Then again, who wants a plain Eminem […] look at that evil grin, evil twin, please come in!” before proclaiming “Still Shady inside, hair every bit as dyed as it used to be when I first introduced y’all to my skittish side and blamed it all on him when they criticised – cus we are the same, bitch” – Jesse Pinkman, eat your heart out. Immature insults, self-obsessed analysis, and deadly flow – Eminem is back, the same old hot mess he’s always been.

Aside from the occasional freestyle, Em hasn’t stretched himself like this in a long time. It’s an album that’s jam packed with ideas; constantly upping the ante with each verse and unstoppably gaining momentum with every track. It’s incredibly energetic and bursting with evident enjoyment despite the anger that’s being chronicled; for a man who’s just turned forty, he hasn’t sounded this young since 2002. Slinking ‘Rhyme or Reason’ packs the jokes in as he further explores his thoughts about his father, ‘Headlights’ contains an astonishing apology to his mother (“I love you Debbie Mathers, oh what a tangled web we have”), and ‘Rap God’ is the fastest, most technically complex song  Eminem has ever recorded. The excellent ‘Love Game’ will be a genuine passing of the baton if this really is Em’s last album. Kendrick Lamar’s verse is exemplary, but it’s irrelevant whether or not you consider him to have “outshone” Eminem. Despite the earlier “why be a king when you can be a god” putdown, this is still the Eminem show, and adding Lamar’s skills to the mix is a generous move – he isn’t close to being threatened by Kendrick.

Imagine a world where Dr Dre had never uncovered Detroit’s greatest export, that this was somehow your first time hearing Eminem, and there’s no way that MMLP2 would not be as seismically important and game-changing as its prequel. This is Eminem’s best record in a decade – and one of the most impressive, entertaining and addictive hip-hop albums of the year.

Leeds Festival 2013 – Hip-hop and Dance Take Over!

Vast quagmires gorging on beloved trainers, a tsunami’s worth of rain, and the immortal cries of “Alan!” and “Buttscratcher!” – 2013 saw Leeds Festival celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in style.  While many of the weekend’s scenes were familiar to anyone who’d spent an August Bank Holiday at Bramham Park, beneath the familiar layer of sludge something had changed.

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With two new stages dedicated to dance and urban music and a hip-hop superstar headlining was the heyday of NME-indie drawing to a close, just like Kerrang-rock before it? Or, less dramatically, was this just a reflection of the new alternative scene – a festival that was branching out, abandoning the old punk-versus-disco tribal traditions and embracing artists of a high quality regardless of genre, as so many fans have already done?

Dance

Leeds’ stylistic shift was most evidenced by the Friday night Disclosure/Nine Inch Nails clash. Though many (including Reznor) had questioned the justification of Biffy Clyro leapfrogging them to headline, Nails’ industrial rock crashed out to an astonishingly small crowd. It seemed that cult status or not, most punters wanted to cram in and watch Disclosure rattle through most of Settle.  With Ed McFarlane, Aluna “-George” Francis and Sam Smith as guests, the brothers whipped the packed tent into an utter frenzy – and the success of their dynamic house was the start of a much-repeated trend. Australians Parachute Youth delivered an excellent electro-house set early on Saturday, Charli XCX brought the house down with ‘I Love It’, and Friction’s drop-heavy DnB set delighted gurning people in all kinds of silly hats.

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Come Saturday, it was the turn of the big hitters. Rather depressingly Chase and Status’ DnB-lite drew a truly colossal crowd, as did Skrillex’s spaceship show and aggressive brostep. Major Lazer pulled out all the stops (Diplo’s zorb, an audience member tied up on-stage and aggressively twerked over by scantily clad Lazer ladies) to successfully create a dancehall rave within a “rock” festival – though Jillionaire’s shout outs to all the Jamaicans, all Dominicans, then rather desperately, to all the West Indians in the house fell tellingly flat. Diplo’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ remix may have caused chaos down the front, but you had to wonder what the veterans of ’92 would have made of it all.

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Hip-Hop

Facing a crowd that each year sports exponentially more snapbacks and a mainstream comeback not seen since the early noughties boom, it’s not surprising that this year’s Reading and Leeds had the best hip-hop line up in ages. One of the biggest breakout stars of 2013, Chance the Rapper’s short set to a small but dedicated crowd was the crowning glory of Leeds’ hip-hop. Chance looked slightly taken aback by his reception, but increasingly delighted by the rapturous reception. Radiating charisma, he raced through Acid Rap hits, bringing call and response support on ‘Juice’ and building up a crowd that finished eating out of his hand. A nod to fellow Chicagoan Kanye with ‘All Falls Down’ and too quickly it was over; the crowd left in no doubt that Chance will soon be a household name.

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Angel Haze stuck to rocknroll clichés, turning up late and encouraging a closing stage invasion – but sneaking in a funky Missy Elliott cover and finishing with a thundering ‘New York’. More flamboyant visually, Azelia Banks still played it slightly safe – sticking to her singles rather than airing Broke With Expensive Taste – though ‘212’ proved an earworm, echoing around the campsites for the rest of the weekend. On the 1Xtra stage, Austrian Left Boy performed the weekend’s most complexly choreographed set, but booing of his version of ‘Call Me Maybe’ proved that a certain level of anti-mainstream sentiment lingers at Leeds.

Ferocious, shuddering sub-bass heralded the start of Earlwolf’s set, something of a homecoming after Odd Future’s manic reception in 2012. With tracks from Doris and Wolf, Earl and Tyler stayed away from the singles, leaving a persevering crowd a little disappointed, though the puerile crowd interaction was well-received. Cutting their afternoon set 45 minutes short, it seemed as a joke at the crowd’s expense –Tyler in particular playing on their discomfort,  yelling “Give it up for black people!”. Later, opening to broad-accented chants of “ayy-sap”, A$AP Rocky’s set was an altogether easier affair, propelled to instant madness by a breakneck ‘Long Live A$AP’. Given extra bulk onstage thanks to support from the A$AP crew, Rocky evidently enjoyed himself, flashing golden grills as he grinned throughout and enthusing as the crowd sparked up en masse for ‘Purple Swag’, screaming every word back to him.

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All of which left us with a 40-year-old white guy closing out the festival. Eminem last headlined in 2001, but aside from the sheer quantity of hits and variety of his back catalogue, there were no sign of fatigue; he remained as razor-sharp and energetic as he was over a decade ago. With material from his first (and best) three albums interspersed by more recent singles (‘Airplanes’, ‘Love The Way You Lie’), it was a set that constantly astonished, with a mesmerised crowd mimicking every rhyme –continually surprised as hit followed colossal hit; the man has simply too many to hold in mind. The best-selling artist of the 2000s had come out to play. Unintroduced and initially unnoticed by many, Dido’s appearance for ‘Stan’ seemed to make Eminem more comfortable than many recorded parts – but nothing could distract from the man of the hour. It came to a euphoric close – asking “Can I take you back to back to a time when I used to get fucked up?”, he brought out ‘My Name Is’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘Without Me’ – before ending on ‘Lose Yourself’. From laugh-out-loud to tear-jerker to vitriolic aggression, via tunes and rhymes that are seared into the consciousness of a generation – for the umpteenth time, he’s back.

 

So, Leeds was certainly sold on Marshall Mathers’ hip-hop. But will the trend continue beyond 2013? Of course, Reading and Leeds have always had a strong mainstream element with a big proportion of the crowds going more to get wrecked celebrating their GCSE and A-Level results than out of any affinity to a specific scene. There’s no real evidence that this year’s swing in style and sound will have any more staying power than when everyone was into nu-rave and Klaxons headlined – but that the line-up was so dominated by two entirely non-rock genres surely says something. Biffy Clyro, System of a Down, Green Day  – the big rock bands put on great shows, to great reception.

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 In a weird crossover, almost everyone who was into the dance and hip-hop acts went to see skate punk bands – with no discernible link beyond an affinity for snapback hats? FIDLAR, Skaters and Wavves all pulled in devoted crowds with fierce circle pits demonstrating the old popularity of energetic fury hasn’t disappeared with the riots. But with dubstep, house, and hip-hop creeping up the bill, one wonders if Reading and Leeds aren’t leaning towards becoming “young” festivals, offering a range of music and an anarchic intensity, rather than the cream of the rock acts. There’s still that preference for ferocity, regardless of genre.