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Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2013!

Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2013!

Five years is an eternity in the life of a record.

Five years is an eternity in the life of a record. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed albums of 2013 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Modern Vampires of the City, Settle and mbv all didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!

10. Danny Brown – Old [Fool’s Gold]

Old is the curious midpoint between the drug-addled craze of XXX (2011) and the clear-headed experimentalism of Atrocity Exhibition (2016), containing nearly everything great about Danny Brown slammed into a messy, bloated album. The first side is a harrowing look at the systemic forces that lead to the drug addiction, violence and poverty surrounding him, the second a hedonistic party romp stocked with nearly every known narcotic. The switch between these poles happens almost immediately, as the somber promise of rehabilitation on “Clean Up” gives way to an archetypical Danny Brown line: “Codeine in my cereal/ Always behind a smokey.” It’s like hearing a relapse happen right in front of you, where there’s no line between hopes of betterment and ravenous substance consumption.

While this could make Old an album that conflicts with itself in an unforgiving way, Brown is too careful with his sequencing and long-form vision to let this happen. “Wonderbread” is a vivid description of a young Brown encountering hard drugs for the first time, and the confusion and discomfort he feels carry into even the most debased tracks. The gunshots that sound like fireworks on “Torture” turn into the sound of popping synapses on “Kush Coma.” The structure of the album is purposefully disorienting and contradictory, placing the listener at will to the frequent one-eighties and skewed self-justification Brown goes through on these tracks. It’s the closest he’s come to not just writing about his life, but actually making an album that feels physically related to it. The widely varying production moves from boom bap to trap to dubstep to cloud rap, neatly following the winding path the lyrical themes take. At the center of all the chaos is Danny Brown, the maniacally talented, cackling maestro of confusion. – Connor Lockie

9. Bill Callahan – Dream River [Drag City]

Repeated trips through the gentle soundscapes of Dream River, the unassuming fourth studio album released by Bill Callahan under his own name (his 15th overall, counting those records he released as Smog) reveal new, wonderful moments even five years later. That Callahan chose to start with the simple ode to drinking alone, “The Sing,” feels like an intentional misdirect, a joke to break the ice. But even after the “Beer” and “Thank you” section of the song, he turns his monosyllabic drink request into something else: “Giving praise in a quiet way.”

From here, Dream River settles into a looser framework and becomes more—forgive me for this—dreamlike. Hypnotic hand drums, flute and violin are deployed tastefully, which combine with warm, rich guitar tones and occasional moments of shredding—but even that noodling is gentle enough that it never feels like showing off. Callahan’s classic baritone helps tie the entire package together in a wholly arresting way, clear as a bell and almost comforting, to the degree that when he sings “All I want to do/ Is make love to you/ In the fertile dirt” on “Spring,” it sounds seductive, rather than repulsive. Callahan hasn’t released an album since—unless you count Have Fun with God, the inexplicably tasteful dub version of Dream River—but he sure gave us something wonderful to unknowingly keep us company while we wait for the next one. – Holly Dixon

8. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe [Domino]

Cupid Deluxe is a prophetic album in many ways, even if Dev Hynes had no pretensions for clairvoyance. It’s an album that lives and dies on its reinterpretation of the past as it reintroduces its audience to the clean, funky guitars and smooth rhythms of ‘80s soul and funk that were too often dismissed as cheesy and disposable by critics for years. It’s an album that embraces fluid definitions of gender and sexuality at a time when those definitions were only just entering the mainstream vernacular. Hynes may low-key be the most influential artist in modern pop at the moment, and that extends far beyond his work producing and writing for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Solange. Cupid Deluxe is overflowing with ideas, all of which could be an album unto themselves.

Recent Blood Orange albums have had a unifying concept or idea to carry them, but Cupid Deluxe largely sacrifices this in favor of Hynes trying his hand at whatever he can. The album veers from Caribbean dancehall to new wave to smooth disco all in the space of the first three tracks. Lyrically, it offers little in the way of stridency, even as it occasionally delves into the queer experience in America. Everything on Cupid Deluxe, from the sexual frustration of “No Right Thing” (“You can’t see me/ When you’re pushing me away,” sings Samantha Urbani following the introduction of the chorus) to the album’s seeming mantra introduced on “It Is What It Is” and recalled on later songs. Later on, Hynes would use his albums to deliver relatively straightforward messages, but Cupid Deluxe is an album about feelings and experiences, intimate and messy at different turns. – Kevin Korber

7. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories [Columbia]

Outside of the then ubiquitous “Get Lucky,” Random Access Memories largely refuses to be date-stamped. Given the throwback nature of the album, the guest artists involved (namely Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder and that staple of ‘70s pop music, Paul Williams) and Daft Punk’s particular brand of retro-futurism, it essentially exists out of time, sounding as though it could’ve been produced any time between the late-‘70s and mid-‘10s. It’s quite a feat, one that goes beyond mere genre pastiche and shows the French duo to be both faithful to their influences and able to rightfully place themselves alongside the likes of Moroder and Rodgers. Furthermore, unlike the majority of modern pop albums, Random Access Memories plays like an album.

Sure “Get Lucky” was inescapable in 2013, but it still manages to feel of a piece of the album rather than simply a massive single surrounded by a bunch of tepid filler. “Lose Yourself to Dance” is just as strong and of a similar sound and feel to “Get Lucky,” but it’s also not far removed from the autobiographically-narrated “Giorgio by Moroder,” a track that allows Moroder himself to expound on the evolution of his creative process within a context clearly heavily indebted to his achievements.

Ambitiously sprawling and yet intimately accessible, Random Access Memories stands as that rarest of 21st-century pop cultural artifacts: one that holds up more than a year later (five years in this case) and was clearly created to stand the test of time. It’s one thing to ape an era or cop a sound; it’s another thing entirely to emulate and replicate music deserving of a place alongside its influences. Random Access Memories manages all this and more, making it an album that will sound as transcendent 50 years from now as it did five years ago. – John Paul

6. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap [self-released]

For some, Chance the Rapper’s second mixtape was perhaps the most momentous and inventive hip-hop album since his Chicago forefather Kanye West’s The College Dropout (2004). Building on the acclaim of his self-released 2012 debut, 10 Day, Chance went full technicolor for this sophomore effort, Acid Rap, availing himself of a brilliant team of producers and collaborators to create a magical, carnivalesque sweep through the worlds of soul, funk, gospel, rap, pop and juke.

Propelled by his baby-talk, Dr. Seuss flow and yelped “ah!” ad libs, Chance’s album is virtuosic and sincere, awash in the joy of pure expression—a major sound from an artist not signed to a major label. It is the sound of being young and defiant, of thinking you and your friends are the funniest, coolest people around, even if everyone else treats you like weirdos. Like a friendlier and less grotesque Tyler, the Creator, Chance made kids feel embraced and listened to, and despite not branding himself a “conscious” rapper, he had an implicitly activist and socially-minded approach to music-making, aiming to raise up his community and not just himself.

Five years later, his music is still self-released and his star has only risen further. Looking back, the audacity of Acid Rap, a psych-soul-rap classic, is still palpable in its every heave and sigh, and in the flurry of scribbled lines pouring from Chance’s restless, ADHD-delivery. This album is the musical equivalent of a high-school yearbook—irreverent, nostalgic, outrageous, self-questioning, yearning. Chance is rap’s Mad Hatter, and the tea party hasn’t stopped yet. – Dylan Montanari

5. Burial – Rival Dealer EP [Hyperdub]

William Bevan’s intimate understanding of solitude made his early albums as Burial such essential records of the 2000s. And this decade has seen him expand deeper upon both format and message with EPs transcending his typical sample-and-breakbeat construct of late-night dubstep to deliver a more heartfelt expression of empathy. The elusive producer’s 2013 EP Rival Dealer represents the creative peak of those efforts, fitting in his catalog as the most passionate Burial record.

Burial tracks had easily stretched to the 10-minute mark by the release of Rival Dealer, resembling less songs than extended meditations set upon the most experimental post-garage beats. But every stylistic cue of the three-track EP serves an important purpose to connect with the isolated and comfort the oppressed. The ghostly vocal samples, a definitive Burial signature, speak warmly and directly to listeners lost in the dark. “I wanna love you more than anyone,” sings a voice emerging from the intense jungle beat of the title track. “I will always protect you,” consoles another in the spiritually new age interlude “Hiders.”

As broad as those affectionate phrases stretch, Bevan doesn’t leave any ambiguity in his messages. “I am who I am,” declares an anonymous voice in “Rival Dealer,” and the record invests its entire duration paving a path to self-acceptance. The EP’s concluding excerpt of Lana Wachowski sharing her experience growing up as a transgender woman spells out the intentions behind his music the clearest out of any Burial track. Rival Dealer was the project that coincided with a rare selfie from the producer, who notoriously had been hidden from the public eye. The photo was a fitting gesture to pair with an EP that finds Bevan at his most sincere and compassionate. – Ryo Miyauchi

4. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual [Rabid]

Regardless of whether the sprawling, avant-garde Shaking the Habitual truly ends up as the Knife’s final album, it will forever remain the Swedish brother-sister duo’s definitive statement. At the time of its 2013 release, Karin and Olof Dreijer hadn’t released a proper studio album since 2006’s sublimely icy Silent Shout, and Karin had recently branched out into her brooding work as Fever Ray (an act which, itself, has undergone a metamorphosis in the eight-year gap between its first and second albums).

Shaking the Habitual opens by combining the sound of those two prior efforts on “A Tooth for an Eye,” a track that melds the glacial-palatial tone of Silent Shout—Karin’s repetition of the word “eyes” in the chorus even sounds like “ice”—with Fever Ray’s emphasis on atmosphere over rhythm. But the track also throbs with an eclectic mix of tribal-sounding electronic instrumentation that teeters precariously close to the shambolic while remaining barely constrained.

This type of compelling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach works its dark magic over a 90-minute journey that sees bangers with sexual and political overtones (“Full of Fire”), protracted experiments in unnerving Lynchian atmospherics (the 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” and the sinister clatter of “A Cherry on Top”) and brief and abrasive sci-fi-tinged interludes (the Atwoodian-titled tracks “Oryx” and “Crake”). While the album is memorable for the moments, such as those found on “Full of Fire,” that lend themselves to danceable rhythms, it’s more impactful at its most unnerving, such as the metallic groaning of the hugely cinematic “Fracking Fluid Injection.” As vivid as it is strange, Shaking the Habitual will stick with you. – Josh Goller

3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels [Fool’s Gold]

Before Run the Jewels’ 2013 self-titled debut, Killer Mike was best known to non-rap nerds for his OutKast features, and El-P basically wasn’t known to non-rap nerds at all. There was no reason at the time to suspect that their releasing music as a duo would alter this status quo; yet here we are five years later, and through a combination of consistently high-quality output, astute branding and an uncannily prescient relationship with the zeitgeist, RTJ have made themselves into the biggest underground rap group in the world.
Of course, not all the credit for this transformation can go to the duo’s first album: 2014’s Run the Jewels 2 was sonically better-crafted, and 2016’s Run the Jewels 3 was politically sharper. But their progenitor still holds up surprisingly well. The eponymous opening track knocks like a sledgehammer: a scorched-earth statement of purpose that the duo have revisited, with tracks like RTJ2’s “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” and RTJ3’s “Talk to Me,” but never quite surpassed. And the album’s centerpiece, “DDFH” (short for “Do Dope, Fuck Hope”), feels timelier now than ever, its references to police brutality and vision of an authoritarian near-future capturing the deep malaise of Obama’s second term as vividly as RTJ3 captured the desperation of the early Trump era.

Perhaps the best thing about Run the Jewels, however, is how studiously it avoids the pitfalls of similar late-career supergroups. Mike and El-P, both of whom were 38 at the time of the album’s release, could have come off like curmudgeonly old heads; but instead they let their virtuosity speak for itself, rapping circles around kids half their age without turning it into a tiresome generational skirmish. RTJ is classicist in its political spark and lyrical focus, but sonically futuristic: El-P’s beats on tracks like “36” Chain,” “Get It” and “Twin Hype Back” are neither imitation trap nor boom-bap revivalism, but in a class entirely their own. Five years later, and with RTJ4 inevitably on the horizon, they still don’t sound quite like anything else. – Zachary Hoskins

2. Beyoncé – Beyoncé [Columbia]

Just when she seemed content to be grandfathered into the pop canon with the domestic sigh of 4, Beyoncé dropped one of the most ambitious blockbusters in pop history with nary a warning. Beyoncé initiated the singer’s pop culture apotheosis through 14 epic tracks that felt like emanations by which her divinity made itself known on Earth. Sex stories that exalt monogamy. Moments of startling vulnerability that cast her decision to settle down into doubt, foreshadowing the infidelity play of Lemonade (how many platinum albums have not one but two songs about postpartum depression?) Songs about being drunk, acting hateful, finding catharsis in a lover, comfort in a child. This is the album that minted the modern image of Beyoncé in our minds: a walking meme of regal poise, human enough to get sweaty after sex but untouchable enough that “bow down, bitches” seems like a perfectly reasonable command.

Beyoncé will probably go down in history as the artist’s definitive statement over the slightly-more-praised Lemonade. That “visual album” has been ripped off to no end, but there’s still nothing that sounds much like this one. It’s an early harbinger of the merger of chart and alternative R&B, but while the latter term often denotes streamlined minimalism, Beyoncé still has the power to stun through its sonic ebullience: the massive bass and bigger drums on its bangers, the meteoric piano chords on its ballads. And though it’s synonymous with the surprise-release strategy it popularized, its progeny (Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered, Eminem’s Kamikaze) tend to be stopgap, haphazard, minor. By contrast, Beyoncé is massive, monolithic by design, its one-color cover and itinerant sprawl evoking another definitive mid-career self-titled album to celebrate a milestone this year. – Daniel Bromfield

1. Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

It already seems so long ago that Kanye West used to be unambiguously received as a genius rather than a rap iteration of Syd Barrett’s tragic burnout, but even in a post-cancelled era it is easy to be reminded of his vital talent by putting on any given track of his hyper-focused, ferocious Yeezus. In 10 tracks and 40 minutes, West offers the most cohesive document of his career, paring his earlier tendencies of excess into a grinding roar of industrial noise and squelching beats. The topic, as ever, is Kanye, with all current events and historical grievances filtered through the avatar of pop’s most magnetic narcissist. Whether using his wife’s father’s connection to O.J. Simpson to make a crude joke about her romantic predilections or using Nina Simone’s bracingly political “Strange Fruit” as a core sample for a track about his own hang-ups, West invited heaps of controversy yet again.

Dig into the album’s abrasive, sandpaper surface, though, and you get one of West’s most unvarnished confessionals, the wrathful outburst to complement the somber grief of 808s and Heartbreak. He unleashes the closest thing to an ethos in the line “As soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” crystallizing his simultaneous push for respect and suspicion of acceptance. Setting aside the hypocrisy of West’s criticisms of over-expensive fashion in “New Slaves,” the track still remains a vicious attack on the way black culture is largely taken over by white curators who then sell it back to the community with a wild markup. It’s no wonder that Lou Reed was moved to tears over “Hold My Liquor,” given how much the track’s blunt, unromantic description of inner demons overwhelming West with self-immolating rage and anxiety resemble Reed’s own acidic cries for help. West’s unpredictability crests in amusing fashion with closer “Bound 2,” which surprises precisely for its beautiful arrangement that underpins West honestly weighing his aversion to monogamy to his feelings for his current partner. It has to be the sweetest, most open-hearted song to ever include the line “Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?– Jake Cole

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