Wednesday saw the discussion of ten songs that I thought about this year. Today, the albums.
mac miller, watching movies with the sound off
2013 was an incredibly busy year for rap, and much of this list will focus on the medium. Albums by Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Eminem got much of the attention. Flying under the radar was the second proper full-length from Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. Mac was an afterthought, a delightfully wacky pop-rapper who teens loved.
On Watching Movies with the Sound Off, he got introspective and handled a bucket load of production. Miller’s growth is most obvious on the track “S.D.S.”, which was produced by Los Angeles instrumental composer Flying Lotus. Over a dark beat, Miller just raps and begs of someone to do something.
FlyLo wasn’t the only guest, with plenty of guest spots reserved for the likes of Schoolboy Q and Jay Electronica. Yes, the notoriously reticent Electronica made his way to another song, and in a place many never would have expected. Mac Miller’s second record is proof that an artist can work with more talented peers to achieve a better overall individual product.
earl sweatshirt, doris
Odd Future came to the forefront a few years a go, a brash group of kids who didn’t give a fuck and reinvented DIY for the new web era. The collective’s biggest stars were Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt.
Tyler has already made two albums full of personal pleas to his audience, asking for a willing audience all the while saying some bullshit. Whereas Tyler was considered more of an architect of the group, Earl Sweatshirt was the prodigious talent with the effortless flow. Sent to school somewhere in the Pacific, OF began dotting shows and merchandise with “Free Earl”.
In the latter stages of 2012, Earl Sweatshirt finally resurfaced in North America and began his trek back to the studio. It culminated in Doris, his debut full-length. He had a story to tell, and it unfolded over the course of his album.
Unlike Tyler’s albums, there was a more genuine sense of self reflected by Earl in his songs. He didn’t hide behind any premises, letting his talent do all the work. Earl has much to prove, but he’s already out-dueling his Odd Future counterpart.
haim, days are gone
Haim (HAIM?) are three sisters from Los Angeles, just to refresh you. On their debut album, they’ve managed to perfect the formula on “The Wire” throughout. Nowhere in this record does it linger. Dead spots are not to be found, with those 80s pop flourishes doing their job in every sense.
Much has been made of the fact that Danielle and Este Haim were part of a made-for-the-contract act the Valli Girls in the mid-oughts. Thus, the argument is that they can not find an authenticity if they have been subjected to the industry beforehand. I find this incredulous.
Our most obvious example is Justin Timberlake, who broke off from *NYSNC to have a laudatory career as an adult. At the time of the Valli Girls, the Haims were teenagers. They’ve grown up since and have experiences to write about. With that in tow, they’ve created a great, entertaining album.
In August, I decided to see Phoenix on a whim. I’d found the cost of tickets a bit prohibitive but decided to say screw it and went to the show. For their set, Phoenix completely held control of the venue with an incredibly high-energy set. What I saw was the act of professional musicians with a strong back catalog putting on a great show.
it made me revisit their newest offering, Bankrupt!. The album went without much fanfare, perhaps because it lacked a whizbang of a single like “1901”. Instead, it’s an album full of fantastic songs, like “Entertainment” and “Trying to be Cool”.
Several bands can just show up, drop an album, and then have one or two strong ones. It takes a lot more effort to have that consistency throughout a career, especially when it’s a long one like Phoenix’s.
arcade fire, reflektor
Arcade Fire made the most successful album of their careers when they made The Suburbs. They were rebounding from the somewhat disappointing Neon Bible, which failed to capture a lot of the charm of their debut, Funeral. Tasked with not trying to fail again, they came back with Reflektor.
On the whole, Reflektor is not as strong as its predecessor song-for-song. Certain songs just become dull, highlighting the more exciting offerings. Outside of the title track, there are a couple songs that immediately spring to mine.
“Normal Person” is the most traditional rock song on the record and shows what would happen if Arcade Fire stuck to their guitars more often. The result? A fantastic song about reflecting on society. “Afterlife” is the other track, which is more in the traditional vein of Arcade Fire by being a song layered with instruments. It’s a stark reflection on God and The Big Questions, which dominates the record. By going into new territory, you can sometimes find something that keeps you going.
danny brown, old
Danny Brown has made no secret about his age. In rap, it’s often considered a detriment to your career if you enter in at a later stage in life. Brown called his breakthrough mixtape XXX, because he was thirty years old. His first full-length continues that, by just admitting he is, well, Old.
He’s an independent darling of rap, given his unorthodox style and preference for stuff like Grimes and Purity Ring. His drug use, especially ecstasy, is not shied away from in his career. Danny Brown does all of this with aplomb, sort of yelling at you yet sort of pleading with you.
Drugs aren’t just some pointed “inspiration”, they’re his release. His anger and anxiety is a driving point of the record, a way to navigate his innermost thoughts. Danny Brown’s rise was unpredictable, another one of those long journeys that repaid hard work.
chance the rapper, acid rap
If Danny Brown is the weird dude old guard in the Midwest, Chance the Rapper is the prodigy. The Chicago rapper is here to explain some shit about being young. His “Good Ass Intro” uses elements of Chicago house to show how fast his rapping can be and to introduce the listener to his unorthodox voice.
Chance grasps at the beat, with every couplet possibly being his last. He wants to come up for air, but he’s gotta get this out to you. Acid Rap is light on features though they feature some more world class weirdos and Chicago luminaries. One track features superspeedspitter Twista, with another bringing along alternative rap star Action Bronson.
My biggest problem, weirdly enough, is “Favorite Song”. It is, honestly, one of my favorite songs from the whole tape. Chance decides to bring along Childish Gambino. Donald Glover thinks he’s weird and ultimately everything he does feels incredibly staged and awkward. Every choice can’t be great.
speedy ortiz, major arcana
Every now and then a new band comes along which does something nice and unexpected. Enter Boston’s Speedy Ortiz, whose Major Arcana is a reference to midnineties Jawbox-inspired indie.
Guitars dominate the album, a nice touch in an era that’s dominated by synth sounds. Now, I do enjoy synth sounds on records and have no problems with them. It is refreshing, though, to hear purely guitar-driven rock. Sadie Dupuis, the woman who fronts the band, puts it all together.
Sadie’s voice is earnest and concerned, begging to get to the point right before the cavalcade of guitars. She uses everything to her advantage, bringing herself out as the star of the record. It’s an honest day’s work (and quite possibly journaling) in an album.
drake, nothing was the same
Regardless of your stance on Aubrey Drake Graham, his third record was going to be a smash. Still living off of the claim that he could “sell a million off a blank disc”, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll claim #1 in the charts when he debuts. Instead of resting on his laurels, he tries new territory each time.
Nothing Was The Same isn’t about several relationships, but rather the permutations of one with some machismo thrown in for good measure. Drake’s pressures are different than yours or mine and that’s all right. Most of us aren’t going to have girls for “three or four days” and don’t know when they came here, like on “The Language” but we may have very well “Started from the Bottom”.
Drakes tries to cover a small breadth of topics with some depth. He willfully engages in his “soft” side, which is especially evident on the smash “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. His most notable attempt at rapping is on “Worst Behaviour”, and he just comes off as a guy who really wants you to understand that he’s got some shit.
Drizzy continues to build on his craft, even within some very small confines. Perhaps this is a good thing, preventing him from making an incredible overreach.
kanye west, yeezus
Unlike Drake, Yeezy can’t be guaranteed to sell the most records every week anymore. Kanye West wants to get weird, real weird, and make an actual point. West probably doesn’t like being outsold by J Cole. He also thinks that the consumer has been lead astray.
Over the course of the year, Kanye has been on interview after interview saying something without anyone attempting to parse what it means. Instead, the hosts just listen and pick out some words they think were relevant and ask a question.
Passive listening is not a way to understand any of Yeezus. Kanye’s latest is not intended as a pop-friendly radio album with a message hidden here or there. No, he is all about expressing his problems with racism, classism, and struggle in all parts of his life.
His strongest parables show up in “New Slaves”, “Black Skinhead”, and “Blood On the Leaves”. It’s somewhat amazing how Ye intersperses serious social thought with debasing talk about how he views women. Kanye is always contradicting himself, perhaps trying to present small-scale representation of the society at large he is discussing.
Yeezus is ultimately more important than it is good. In the discography of Kanye West, it is behind a few other records. The album lacks a coherence and feels like a bunch of post-it notes put to tape and then expounded upon. Luckily, Kanye has a lot to say.
Kanye West has proven that you do not need to take the same route every time and that you can go completely in a different direction. However, there’s a chance it could fail and alienate audiences who are expecting formulaic results.