2013, the year Kate and William validated our very existence as a species by popping out a right royal sprog. The year Robin Thicke proved that it’s definitely possible to make people’s skin crawl through YouTube. The year pop stars decided that a song under four minutes and a video that wasn’t considered a ‘short film’ just simply wasn’t worth making. It’s been an interesting year and, as is customary for all blogs everywhere ever, we’re looking back over the past twelve months and picking out our musical highlights. So here it is, part two of The Year That Was 2013:
Chance The Rapper
I spoke about Chance’s incredible mixtape, Acid Rap, earlier this year and whilst doing so claimed that it was one of the best releases I’d heard all year and that I wouldn’t be surprised if I was still saying that come the end of the year. Well, here we are and I am still saying it. Acid Rap was a mixtape so complete, so sure of itself and so ridiculously enjoyable that it’d be a crime for any end of year list to overlook it. With its plethora of druggy beats, incredible hooks and top drawer spitting from Chance throughout, it catapulted the young Chicago emcee into the consciousness of hip hop fans around the globe. Chance The Rapper is one of, if not the, highlight of my year in music because of the way he dealt with this sudden acclaim and popularity. Popping up on features all over the place, from a stunning collaboration with James Blake (more on him later) to more recently dropping a sixteen on a slice of pop heaven on a track with Justin Bieber. Numerous magazine front covers and a US tour, in which many of the dates sold out, followed the release of Acid Rap, a free mixtape. It’s an incredible achievement for such a young artist and it would take previously unknown depths of stoicism to not find yourself excited by the prospect of this guy’s career.
Numbers On The Boards
My Name Is My Name, the debut album from hip hop artist Pusha T, dropped earlier this year to critical acclaim. It’s a dirty, gritty album that is relentlessly aggressive and hard-hitting. The highlight for me however was the single Numbers On The Boards. A minimal, pulsating beat lays the backdrop as King Push spits in his trademark, quietly understated, way; managing to be threatening and intimidating without even raising his voice. Numbers On The Boards, released in April, felt like a statement of intent; Pusha’s way of saying, “I’m here, sit up, pay attention”. The Jay-Z sample midway through the song immediately asks for comparisons between himself and Hova and whilst the lyrical content of Pusha T’s raps may be similar to that of early Jay-Z (the rap game, the drug game, life on the streets etc) he sounds hungrier, more focussed, more determined and ultimately more enjoyable than Jay-Z has in a long time. Easily one of the best hip hop tracks of the year.
Chic (Live at Bestival)
This September I returned to the Isle of Wight for Bestival and for what would turn out to be one of the best weekends of my entire life. I could put Bestival as a whole as one of my musical highlights of the year and it would be entirely justified, however I’ve decided to focus on just some of the moments that really stood out to me from the weekend. Which brings us to Chic. Heading over to the main stage on the Sunday afternoon only aware that Nile Rodgers who had recently featured on Daft Punk’s Get Lucky was the front man of the band I remember saying to my mate, “I’ve never even heard anything these have ever done” to which he turned, looked at me and just said, “You have.” That was it, no hints, no reminders of a time when I would have heard their music, just an ominous “You have.” It turns out that I had. Rodgers, with the help of his incredible band, proceeded to burn through a set containing pretty much every single disco classic you’ve ever heard, Sister Sledge, Dianna Ross, David Bowie, it was all there and Nile Rodgers had written them all. It was one of those moments that only really happen at festivals where you can turn around and every person, in every direction is having the time of their lives; simultaneously in awe and unable to stop dancing. It was truly incredible. The set was party anthem after party anthem and ended in a legitimate onstage party as Bestival’s main stage was filled with people dancing around and singing along as Chic drew their set to a close with Good Times (famously sampled on Rapper’s Delight). That last song really sort of summed up the entire performance, and the whole weekend, just one big party, plenty of good times.
It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
Upon its release, I fawned over Reflektor, declaring Arcade Fire’s fifth album as an out-and-out triumph. Upon subsequent listens and after reflection and analysis I realise I was probably slightly hasty. Although still one of my favourite albums of the year, it’s not quite as good as I first thought. However one song really stuck out to me when I first heard it and has been the song I’ve revisited most frequently since. It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus) came exactly halfway through the superior second half of the album and, for me, was the moment where everything Arcade Fire wanted to do and tried to do with this album all slotted together. It’s got that energetic percussiveness that the James Murphy production would undoubtedly bring with the nostalgic disco vibes that were littered throughout the rest of the album. However the song also maintains something distinctly ‘Arcade Fire’. The meandering song progression, the interaction between Win and Regine, everything about it just worked; all coming together to create a song so beautiful that it almost moved me to tears when I first heard it.
Blood On The Leaves
The past six months of this year have basically been all about Kanye West. Following the release of his stunning sixth solo album Yeezus, Kanye has been popping up in interviews making ludicrous claims, speaking passionately about his desires, his goals and what’s stopping him get there, beefing with talk show hosts on Twitter, dry humping on a moving motorcycle; it’s been a tumultuous few months for Mr. West. However, as is always the case with Kanye, the music outshines everything else. In particular Blood On The Leaves was one of the standout songs on Yeezus, starting off sounding like an off-cut from 808’s before switching up midway through as Kanye delivers probably my favourite verse on the album. There’s a lot to be said about the use of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit as a sample in a song that sees Kanye pondering the nature of ‘second string bitches’, instagrammed watches and girls popping their first molly. However the song sort of sums up Yeezus for me, confused messages, jarring samples, incredible production and Kanye on top form. Also, witnessing thousands of people completely lose their minds to it when Hudson Mohawke dropped it in his Bestival just served to add to my love for this song.
James Blake (Live at Bestival)
Mercury Prize winning album Overgrown was one of my favourite full length releases of the year but seeing James Blake perform live in September was an even greater highlight for me. The last night of a festival always has that special vibe to it, as it begins to dawn on you that the real world looms around the corner and you’ve got to make the most of every final experience. This was the perfect setting for a James Blake set that stunned a jam-packed Big Top into near silence on numerous occasions. Blake’s wavering voice and cold, empty melodies crept into every inch of space in the tent sending shivers down spines and causing hairs to stand on end. A truly stunning performance, totally fitting for the Sunday night at Bestival with a set so full of incredible songs from one of the year’s best releases.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse
In August, Big Sean decided to drop a song that didn’t make his soon-to-be-released Hall Of Fame. I could say that “little did he know how much of a wave it would make in the hip hop scene”, however I suspect that he definitely did know just how much of an impact it would have and that is precisely why he released it. Despite Big Sean and Jay Electronica seriously turning up on the track, the hype and the excitement surrounding it came for one reason and one reason only. King Kendrick. Widely regarded as the best in the game right now, Kendrick Lamar’s verse was a brutal, no-nonsense address to his peers. Setting himself out as the greatest emcee of his generation and challenging other artists to try to match him. After comparing himself to Jigga, Nas, Em and Andre 3000 he name dropped a list of up and comers and new school artists and then proceeded to, controversially, declare himself the king of NY. It caused an almighty stir in the hip hop world as fans and critics picked over the details of the verse and desperately awaited responses from some of the artists mentioned. Very little of note was offered up to Kendrick as a response which perhaps proves his point, he really is at the top of his game right now.
Hold On, We’re Going Home
Platinum in three countries, double platinum in the states, a top ten hit in eleven countries. If music were judged purely on the numbers, then this would speak for itself. Thankfully that’s not all that matters and thankfully, with this single at least, it doesn’t matter at all. Despite impressive sales figures all over the world, the track is still a slice of pop/R&B heaven. Brooding, sensual, devastatingly catchy, it’s everything a good R&B song needs to be in the 21st Century. Led mainly by a largely straightforward drum beat the song’s crowning glory is the vocal performance delivered by Drake that simply begs to be sung along to. In a year of noisy, trap-influenced beats this incredibly chilled and impossibly smooth slice of R&B was more than welcome.
LONG.LIVE.A$AP was one of the year’s pleasant surprises for me, going into the album largely unaware of A$AP Rocky’s work prior to his debut full length I found myself really enjoying it. The highlight for me however had to be the lyrical onslaught of 1Train. The song features Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T, all of whom brought their A-game. The track’s beat, with its dark, reverb laced drums and dramatic strings, feels incredibly cinematic which serves to accentuate the dingy and harrowing feel. Kendrick, obviously, spits fire and Danny Brown finds himself in fine form (again, obviously) bringing my favourite verse in the song. My most revisited track from LONG.LIVE.A$AP and on an album with so many great tracks, that is saying something.
The 20/20 Experience
2013 saw the long-awaited return of the smoothest man in music Justin Timberlake. Leaving terrible rom coms and SNL skits to one side JT burst back onto the scene with The 20/20 Experience, an album packed to the brim with incredible pop songs. With Timbaland on production this album could have been a disaster. Having produced very little worthy of note for a long time somehow with this album he managed to tap into a fruitful vein of ideas and ingenuity resulting in twelve exceptionally polished and interesting beats. Timberlake consistently delivers on the vocals, making the songs the complete package. Fantastic production, fantastic songwriting and fantastic vocals. The 20/20 Experience is just that, an experience; not a single song clocks in at under four and a half minutes and they’re all the better for it. A true ‘album’, which for pop music is a rare occurrence. It also features one of the best songs of the year, Mirrors, which is such a good pop song that I struggle to believe there wasn’t divine intervention in its creation.
Joseph Ainscough – @TheJoeSco