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The best music of 2013

Here are the 15 albums I enjoyed most this year, in no particular order of quality, with two or three standout songs listed below if you want to get a feel for what they sound like and why I liked them.

Action Bronson – Blue Chips 2

Essential tracks: Silverado, Contemporary Man, Flip Ya

Busta Rhymes & Q-Tip – The Abstract And The Dragon

Essential tracks: Thank You, Come On Down, Vivrant Thing

Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe

Essential tracks: The Mother We Share, Gun, Night Sky

Danny Brown – Old

Essential tracks: Side A, Clean Up, Smokin and Drinkin

David Bowie – The Next Day

Essential tracks: Valentine’s Day, I’d Rather Be High, You Will Set The World On Fire

Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

Essential tracks: Refuse To Be Saved, Come The Meantimes, Viceroy’s Row

Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – 12 Reasons to Die

Essential tracks: Beware Of The Stare, I Declare War, The Rise of the Ghostface Killah

Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Essential tracks: Givin Em What They Love, Electric Lady, We Were Rock & Roll

Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia

Essential tracks: Year Of The Glad, Immortals, Proof Of Life

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Essential tracks: I’m From Nowhere, City Swan, Local Girl

Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Essential tracks: Numbers on the Board, Nosetalgia, Pain

Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

Essential tracks: Banana Clipper, Sea Legs, A Christmas Fuckin’ Miracle

Suede – Bloodsports

Essential tracks: Barriers, Snowblind, It Starts And Ends With You

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

Essential tracks: Closer, I Was A Fool, I Couldn’t Be Your Friend

!!! – Thr!!!er

Essential tracks: Even When The Water’s Cold, One Boy/One Girl, Meet Me At The Station

 

And here’s link to my top 50 tracks of this year, with streaming links for your listening pleasure.

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My 15 Favourite Albums of 2012

15. JJ DOOM – Key To The Kuffs
The latest DOOM collaboration project features producer Jneiro Jarel creating an ever-changing sample-heavy soundscape that’s a fitting backdrop for DOOM’s brand of intricate wordplay and surreal humour.
Essential Tracks: Guv’nor, Rhymin Slang, Wash Your Hands

14. Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Hawley changes up his style from retro-50s crooner to wall-of-sound heavy rocker, managing to make every track on this short album an epic, elemental storm of noise.
Essential Tracks: Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Leave Your Body Behind You

13. Future Of The Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
Still furious, still filthy, still brilliantly funny, still face-meltingly loud – we need Future of the Left more than ever, and they don’t disappoint.
Essential Tracks: Failed Olympic Bid, I Am The Least of Your Problems, Notes On Achieving Orbit

12. Smoke DZA – Rugby Thompson
DZA enlists some top-notch production from Harry Fraud and hits the expansive, cinematic beats hard, contrasting ice-cold aggression with luxuriant smoothness.
Essential Tracks: Ashtray, Kenny Powers, Rivermonts

11. Action Bronson – Blue Chips
To be honest, Bronsolino’s other mixtape released this year, the Alchemist-produced Rare Chandeliers, could also be in this position. But I’ve had most of the year to listen to this one, and  Party Supplies’ heavy-on-the-funk-samples production is appropriately scuzzy backing for Bronson’s down-and-dirty rhyming about crime, food and women.
Essential Tracks: Steve Wynn, Expensive Pens, 103 and Roosy

10. Santigold – Master Of My Make Believe
Pop music in 2012 looks a lot more like Santigold than it did in 2008 when she released her debut album. But while she may be less of an outlier than before, she’s still mixing styles to great effect. Master takes elements of hip-hop, orchestral pop, electro and more, making them into propulsive dancealong numbers or melancholic ballads. Genre-hopping doesn’t usually look this easy, or this fun.
Essential Tracks: Go!, Disparate Youth, The Keepers

9. Nas – Life Is Good
Nas as elder statesman – comfortable without being lazy, unafraid to try, digging into his past without being self-indulgent. It’s the best he’s been in years.
Essential Tracks: A Queens Story, Accident Murders, Back When

8. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here
The Doomtree crew member delivers another dose of polemical rap and hard-hitting beats, sounding like a war report from a lost generation.
Essential Tracks: Fuck Your Stuff, How We Land, They Can’t Come, All Of It

7. Bob Mould – Silver Age
Mould deploys heavy riffs and his often-overlooked gift for a hooky chorus to mine a string of pop-punk gems.
Essential Tracks: Star Machine, The Descent, Angels Rearrange

6. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
El-P and Killer Mike were always going to be an uncompromising pairing, and this album fulfills that promise. El’s bone-rattling crunchy beats give the album its shape, and offer a perfect fit for Mike’s Southern drawl. The lyrics are righteously angry and fiercely intelligent. It’s a perfect representation of the best that rap can be.
Essential Tracks: Big Beast, Reagan, Butane (Champion’s Anthem)

5. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Anointed as Compton’s next great hope, Kendrick Lamar does a lot of playful self-mythologising on his major label debut (not least on the Dr Dre-featuring closing track). After a string of excellent mixtapes and features, good kid feels like something he’s been building towards for a while; an atmospheric concept album about his younger self struggling with temptation. Lamar excels at complex rhyming and crystal-clear storytelling, and the moody, downbeat production mirrors the album’s journey through introspection, depression, darkness and recovery.
Essential Tracks: Sherane (Master Splinter’s Daughter), Money Trees, good kid, Swimming Pools (Drank)

4. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
Like a soundtrack for an unrealised film, ominous and abstract post-rock guitar patterns build to shattering crescendos.
Essential Tracks: Busy Bees, Simmer, The Pit, Dots And Dashes

3. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
As our world gradually turns full sci-fi dystopia (Drones Over BKLYN, anyone?) El-P seems more and more in step with the times. The production is a warzone where every electronic sound is broken apart and hastily repaired, as the lyrics plumb depths of self-loathing and paranoia. It’s dark music for dark times; in other words, essential.
Essential Tracks: The Full Retard, Oh Hail No, For My Upstairs Neighbour (Mums the Word)

2. Ab-Soul – Control System
It’s been a good year for the Black Hippy crew, and Ab-Soul in particular outclassed the competition. His latest album is a stack of back-to-back classics, with a stable of producers responsible for jittery Dre-influenced beats that never let the listener get comfortable. Soul’s lyrics range from conspiracy theorising to sharp dissections of gender relations. The album closes out on The Book of Soul, a masterful, moving story of personal tragedy.
Essential Tracks: Track Two, Double Standards, Lust Demons, ILLuminate, The Book Of Soul

1. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Trickily verbose wordplay and darkly witty lyrics stand out against beats that stutter and glitch like malfunctioning machines or corrupt digital artifacts. Every line is so densely packed with meaning that it takes a series of listens to decipher. It feels like a coded transmission, or a Rosetta Stone that will give up all its secrets with only a little more digging. It’s an album to get lost in, a soundtrack for feeling lost and trapped inside your own head. In terms of depth and staying power, it’s an epic achievement.
Essential Tracks: Leisureforce, Zero Dark Thirty, Cycles To Gehenna, Crows 1, Racing Stripes

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Linkage: 26/3/11

Nuclear power, technology lock-in and safety issues, considered by the Boston Globe and an old Adam Curtis documentary.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Counterinsurgency: Rolling Stone tells the story of how a couple of twentysomething stoners became arms suppliers to the Pentagon’s war effort in Afghanistan.

Changing attitudes to Wikipedia in universities. I’m always heartened when institutions stop trying to reject/ignore irreversible change, and start working out how to deal with it.

Speaking of which … turns out filesharing isn’t killing off the music industry. I’m hopeful for more sensible policies from labels and industry bodies, but I’m not holding my breath.

Writing, expectations and disappointment: “I think disappointment is evidence we’re on the right track. I think it means we’re after the things that matter. I think we should stop being afraid of getting caught caring about our failures.”

The Economics of Niche Programming at Overthinking It: why some cult shows thrive and some fail.

And last but not least: “The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire””:

The Wire began syndication in 1846, and was published in 60 installments over the course of six years. Each installment was 30 pages, featuring covers and illustrations by Baxter “Bubz” Black, and selling for one shilling each. After the final installment, The Wire became available in a five volume set, departing from the traditional three.

The serial format did The Wire no favors at the time of its publication. Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before. To consume this story in small bits doled out over an extended time is to view a pointillist painting by looking at the dots.

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My Top 50 Tracks of 2010

It’s been an incredible year for music. And thanks to Spotify, and the internet in general, I’ve been able to take in more music than I ever have before. There have been so many excellent releases that I’m still struggling over the order of my Top Albums of 2010 list. But in the meantime, here are the 50 best tracks I heard this year. I’ll be editing as I go, to include links to listen to the songs so you can judge for yourself. Enjoy!

50. The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind

49. Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land

48. Band Of Horses – NW Apt.

47. Lights On – Red Lights Flashing

46. The Futureheads – Heartbeat Song

45. Admiral Radley – I’m All Fucked On Beer

44. Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside

43. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Round And Round

42. The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio

41. The Fresh And Earlys – Waterfall

40. MGMT – It’s Working

39. Admiral Fallow – Squealing Pigs

38. The Fall – Bury Pts. 1 + 3

37. Laura Marling – Devil’s Spoke

36. Grinderman – Worm Tamer

35. Beach Fossils – Desert Sands

34. Civil Civic – Run Overdrive

33. Kings Go Forth – Get A Feeling

32. The Morning Benders – Excuses

31. Rohnert Park – Into The Wayside Part I/Sick

30. Two Door Cinema Club – Cigarettes In The Theatre

29. A Classic Education – Gone To Sea

28. Villagers – That Day

27. Local Natives – Wide Eyes

26. Jenny and Johnny – My Pet Snakes

25. Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

24. The Soft Pack – More Or Less

23. Drive-By Truckers – Birthday Boy

22. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Back In The Saddle

21. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes – Home

20. Magic Kids – Hey Boy

19. Holy Fuck – P.I.G.S.

18. Yeasayer – O.N.E.

17. The Tallest Man On Earth – Burden Of Tomorrow

16. The Gaslight Anthem – The Spirit of Jazz

15. Marnie Stern – Transparency Is The New Mystery

14. Tame Impala – Lucidity

13. Surfer Blood – Swim

12. The Roots – How I Got Over

11. Fang Island – Daisy

10. Best Coast – When I’m With You

9. Broken Social Scene – Art House Director

8. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Even Heroes Have To Die

7. The New Pornographers – Moves

6. Big Boi – Follow Us

5. The Hold Steady – The Weekenders

4. Kanye West – Power

3. Janelle Monae – Cold War

2. Arcade Fire – Ready To Start

1. Superchunk – Learned to Surf

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More on releasing music online

Further to my earlier piece on the internet’s effect on how we engage with artists and discover new music, I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a new model (or models) for music distribution in the offing, and if so, who’s driving it.

Listening and buying to music via the Internet has never been easier. As well as iTunes and other online music stores, there are streaming sites and music blogs that offer first tastes of much-anticipated tracks from famous artists and promotion for up-and-coming acts.

And Twitter, as well as the usual stuff about engaging with fans, etc etc, has become an actual distribution channel for artists willing to make that leap, as well as a venue for spontaneous collaborations (Kanye! Raekwon! …Bieber?). While a quick and convenient option for less well-known acts trying to build buzz, it’s also been used by bigger artists. The most famous example is Kanye West, who has committed to releasing a track a week as a free download. And UK grime artist Wiley spontaneously gave away over 200 tracks via Twitter back in July.

These artists are the exception rather than the rule (Wiley in particular is a fasciating individual who clearly sees the business of labels, publicity and promotion as an active obstacle to what he really loves; making music), but there’s definitely a change in the air here.

While new methods of online distribution are impacting every genre of music, most of the really inventive tactics in this area seem to be coming from “urban” music (hip-hop, grime), and electronic music, with the remixes that have been part of dance music since it began, as well as the recent surge in mashups.

A reason for this could be that the first-single-album-second single model is much less locked in place in hip-hop than it is in rock. In its infancy, hip-hop was like rock in the 60s; singles reigned supreme, in large because most people heard individual tracks being mixed together by DJs.

While hip-hop artists nowadays release albums by traditional routes, mixtapes given away for free online are an essential part of the discourse around a given artist, helping to build their profile before they take a step into traditional releases. (To give just one example, Wale’s free mixtapes outclass his debut album by a long, long way.)

This isn’t to say that non-hip-hop artists are completely hidebound. Radiohead garnered plenty of publicity with the online, pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, due in large part to their high profile. More recently, Sufjan Stevens released an 8-track EP online with next to no publicity, letting the word spread through music blogs and social media. This, to me, is a very canny move; Stevens isn’t exactly a superstar, but has a devoted and vocal fanbase, a lot of whom are connected to each other through following the same blogs or Twitter feeds.

Anyway, the “drop a track when you feel like it” approach doesn’t seem to have filtered out to rock or indie artists (I could be generalising here; let me know if a well-known artist does do that on a regular basis). Maybe it’s an effect of the longstanding rock belief in the album as a discrete unit, with a playing order that has to be honoured. (There’s a school of thought that iTunes, digital music players and the shuffle function are bringing an end to this; I personally hope that’s not true. The best albums are the ones with a clearly defined structure, where listening to the songs out of order is as bizarre as skipping back and forth between chapters in a novel.)

My overall point is that the Internet is still changing the music business in ways that won’t even be apparent from our current perspective. But as every genre adapts, they all carry something of their original DNA into the future. This isn’t a revolution; this is evolution.

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Album review: Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

It’s already been an incredibly rich and fertile year for music, with established acts delivering fine additions to their back catalogues, while newcomers crawl out of the woodwork to surprise us on a regular basis. The 2010 version of my personal Top Ten list of albums is already full, a little over halfway through the year. There will no doubt be some intense jockeying for a position in the list as the year wears on, but one album is already a dead cert to stay.

Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is that rarest of beasts these days: a pop album that’s genuinely unafraid to push boundaries and take risks. The album’s influences are myriad and worn on its sleeve – Prince, Motown, Moroder/Summer disco, and a host of fearsomely theatrical divas from Bassey to Beyonce – but the near-omni-talented Monae mixes them into a concoction that’s all her own.

The concept-album weirdness of The ArchAndroid doesn’t detract one bit from its ridiculous catchiness, even as it segues from the infectious bangers “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to the downbeat-yet-beautiful “Oh, Maker”. Monae contains multitudes, and is as much at home with hip-shaking dancefloor jams as she is with jazzy vocal improvisation or impeccably arranged ballads. In that way, it’s almost a quintessential American record: building from the varied roots of its musical traditions a work that celebrates the past even as it looks to the future.

In an era where Lady Gaga-ish empty-calorie posturing is held up as the best pop music can aspire to, Monae combines a well-crafted image with genuine talent and an independent-minded spirit that takes her to wonderfully imaginative new places. This joy in invention is something that’s been missing from mainstream music for a long time. The ArchAndroid heralds its return.

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Paid In Full: the Internet, artists and money

Leading on from my last post, I recognise that as much as the Internet is opening up horizons and introducing artists to new audiences they wouldn’t have acquired otherwise, the issue of making sure artists get paid for their output is still there.

Spotify is an incredible service, and while I’m currently on the free, ad-supported version, I would gladly pay for it if my financial situation was better. There have been recent criticisms of the amounts it pays to songwriters, but there are many who see it as opportunity rather than a problem. For my part, I’ve bought tons of albums off Amazon and at my friendly local record store, thanks to hearing them on Spotify.

There’s another layer, though – artists that you may hear through MP3s posted on their blogs or MySpace pages, or shared through Tumblr sites, or through free downloadable mixtapes. I’d love to be able to pay even a token sum for this wonderful free entertainment. But Paypal is unwieldy, and a lot of smaller artists won’t have access to large-scale distribution channels like iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. Micropayments have been progressing in the last few years – there are a few promising options available. I don’t know how effective they can or will be, but I think it’s important for people to be able to earn money from the art they create. It’s a brave new world, but some things stay the same:

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