Reviews

Mattison and Sam’s Top 5 Albums of 2013

Mattison’s Top 5

1. Kanye West, Yeezus

Undeniably, Kanye West has done it again. With each album, Kanye has restructured himself and his music in order to produce a new and exciting sound. Its no exaggeration to say that Yeezus seems to be Kanye’s most personal and raw album yet, with its messy electronic beats and serious lyrics awash in emotional autotune. While Kanye typically mixes brash pop-hits with sentimental pieces, Yeezus seems to be comprised mostly of political statements and little peeks into Kanye’s life. Kanye claimed earlier in the year via his Twitter page that the second verse of “New Slaves” (the album’s fourth track) was the “Best Rap Verse of All Time”, and while its hard to agree with such narcissism, he’s close to the truth. Then we have “I Am a God”, which at first appears to be more butt-kissing on the part of Kanye West; However, Kanye responded with surprisingly intelligent commentary to this criticism: “Would it have been better if I had a song that said ‘I am a n****r’ or if I had a song that said ‘I am a gangster’? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in, and your last name is a slave owner’s. How could you say that?” And for that, I tip my hat to him. Not only has Kanye simply produced one of the most entertaining and engaging albums of his career (try to tell me you don’t lose your mind when “Hold My Liquor” comes on), but he has once again outdone himself with bold statements buried in perfectly listenable music. I won’t go into how obsessed I am with Kanye’s production techniques, because I’ll never stop, but lets just say Yeezus has only proven that he’s still got it, even if “it” comes in the form of intense and barbaric electronic beats that worm their way into you and get your hairs standing on end. You don’t have to love Kanye, but you gotta love the album.

2. M.I.A., Matangi

I have been an M.I.A fan for years. Despite her only real hit being “Paper Planes”, which was iffy to say the least, she’s been working underground on some of the most original and exciting music in the industry. A brief bio on M.I.A.: A child of the civil war in Sri Lanka, her family spent much of her early life hiding from the Sri Lankan military because of her father’s involvement with a pseudo-terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers. After escaping this hectic life, her mother moved them to England, where the singer picked up the rest of her musical influences that lead to her music career. Her music, which is heavy with screaming protests about warfare and tribal beats inspired by her home in Sri Lanka, has always had the power to excite listeners and garner international attention. And despite her humble beginnings, M.I.A. has really matured throughout her career, which has culminated to Matangi. While her music still incorporates the wild animalistic sound that brought her to fame, this international diva has stepped up her game with almost trap-like instrumentals, smooth production that eases listeners through the heart-racing album, and tension brought on by her response to critics: “”Let you into Super Bowl/You tried to steal Madonna’s crown/What the f**k you on about?” (following the uproar after she flipped off a camera during her Superbowl performance with Madonna). Overall, the album is an eclectic mix of music types that results in a beautiful final result. Songs to note on the album: the anthem “Bad Girls”, the beat-heavy “Warriors”, and the exciting “Bring the Noize”, all which will make you want to set something on fire and dance around it, or some other such rebellious act. Despite her already blossoming feuds with popular media and other celebrities (including her past-producer/lover and heartthrob, Diplo), M.I.A is a character to watch, fated for the halls of fame.

3. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

Now I know Vampire Weekend isn’t for everyone, but just hear me out for a second. At first, I disliked their minimalistic music about growing up rich and affected on the East Coast. But the more I listened to them, the more I fell in love. Especially in Modern Vampires of the City, I found myself really listening to the nostalgic lyrics and mourning the loss of a priviledged upper-East-Side childhood that I never had. Unlike previous albums, Modern Vampires seems to have finally nailed it. The music is more upbeat and filling than ever before with delicate vocal harmonies (see “Hey Ya”) and resounding instrumentals (see “Unbelievers”) produced by the hand-played instruments of the band’s four members. On top of producing honest, good music, the bands members are notoriously “quirky” in a very genuine way and present a lovely persona via interviews and public interaction. The album discusses serious concepts like life and death and love and the existence of God, but it also dares to slip from its rigid indie sphere and quote Lil Jon and meddle in autotune, as Vampire Weekend has never been afraid to do before. Despite all protests of being an uptight band of white hipsters, Vampire Weekend has really grown on me (I’m sure their hilarious viral video featuring Steve Buscemi helped that) and I eagerly await what the band has in store in upcoming album. And you have to at least admit you like lead singer Ezra Koenig’s accent, if nothing else.

4. Pusha T, My Name is My Name

Alright, I’ll admit this is yet another excuse for me to rain praise upon Kanye West, but his presence on the album cannot be ignored. While Kanye never actually raps on the album, his voice is still loud and clear. I’ve liked Pusha T ever since “Trouble on My Mind”, but I never thought much about him until I heard the second track on this album “Number on the Boards”. I immediately recognized the beat but couldn’t place it. All I knew was that it triggered some memory of Kanye West. After thinking hard about it for a day or so, I realized the beat I had heard was familiar because I had heard it in a song before; Months ago, Kanye had released his own song with this beat, completely untitled, on his website, without any promotion or forewarning, which is most likely why the beat was so easily reused in Pusha T’s album. On top of Kanye’s amazing production on this album, Pusha offers up features to other big names like Chris Brown, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Future, and Kendrick Lamar. But we can’t ignore the work of the actual artist. Pusha T has an intoxicatingly smooth tone for a rapper, reminiscent of rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. But Pusha also has the ability to angrily spit over any beat to make his point. With venom he raps “They said be all you can be/Always knew I could rule the world” in “Who I Am”, with a power that honestly just makes 2 Chainz and Big Sean look bad. Despite his inability to discuss anything other than his drug-dealing (I mean, his name IS Pusha T afterall), the album is well-written and lyrically superior to many other contemporary rap albums.

5. Wavves, Afraid of Heights

Wavves has consistently produced the kind of sound that just makes you wanna pack a suitcase, buy a one-way plane ticket to somewhere warm with a lot of beaches, and subject yourself to the masochism of loving someone who couldn’t care less about you. Afraid of Heights encompasses the feeling of being young and confused and angry but also carefree and lazy. The catchy tunes intermingle pleasantly with distortion to create a rough and unfinished feel, echoing the sentiments of the lead singer, Nathan Williams, who says in Green Eyes (off an earlier album): “My friends/Hate my guts/But who gives a f**k?” If ever there was an album to listen to when you couldn’t care less about anyone but yourself, this is it. Songs to watch out for in this album are “Cop,” “Beat me Up,” and “Everything is My Fault” (remember what I said about masochism?) The entire album is oddly refreshing in a time when most teenagers are told to stop being selfish and figure out their future, because it seems to be screaming the exact opposite while beating its fists on the ground.

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Sam’s Top 5

1. Kanye West, Yeezus

For me, Yeezus was one of those albums that was hard to come around to on the first listen. But like many albums of that nature, it turned out to be yet another piece of brilliance simply too large and too ambitious to appreciate after only one listen. On the day the album came out, I listened to it three times through over the course of a couple hours. Contrary to the Theory of Diminishing Marginal Utility taught in Mr. Belcaster’s class, which states that everything becomes less enjoyable the more you are exposed to it, Yeezus grew on me more and more with each listen. By the third time through, it was my favorite album of the year, and it has stayed in that position ever since. With Yeezus, Kanye has changed the rap industry forever. The album is sometimes terrifying, with songs like “I am a God” and “Black Skinhead,”  haunting with “Blood on the Leaves,” and downright beautiful with “Hold my Liquor,” but the one constant of the album is that it sends chills down your spine. The production value of the album coupled with the intensity of Kanye’s delivery is what makes Yeezus a good album. But what makes this work of art a great album, legendary, even, is all the different feelings and emotions it evokes in the listener.

2. Death Grips, Government Plates

The only album that comes close to Yeezus on this list is Death Grips’s Government Plates. Death Grips once again broke the mold of the music industry by self-releasing their album for free download on their website, without any prior warning whatsoever. To top it all off, they simultaneously released music videos for every single song on the album. All 11 of them. But that’s beside the point, although I highly recommend watching the video for “You might think he loves you…” because it’ll scare the bejesus out of you. No, the point here is that Death Grips doesn’t follow the conventions of popular music, and once again it shows in this album. While with all my heart I don’t want to like Death Grips because of their no-show at Lollapalooza and their Lolla pre-show, it would be tremendously foolish to overlook this album simply because of personal biases.

Government Plates leads off with the banger “You might think he loves you…”, which is one of the more accessible songs Death Grips has ever put out. It’s a solid two and half minutes of heart-rattling bass and Zach Hill’s crashing drums, with MC Ride’s devastating shrieks sprinkled throughout. It’s easily one of the best songs on the album. Then, you get your songs like “This is Violence Now (Don’t get me wrong)” and “Feels like a wheel,” both of which feel like club songs that have gone through hell and back, to give you something better than anything you might find at a local nightclub. But what stands out as a change of form from Zach Hill’s heavy beats and MC Ride’s signature scream is “Birds,” the turning point of the album. The song tackles the concepts of paranoia and death so often found in Death Grips’s music, but the difference here is that the song is actually pretty, an adjective one doesn’t usually use in the same sentence as “Death Grips.” It’s different than anything else they’ve ever done, but its still immediately recognizable as Death Grips.” “Birds” is one of the most beautiful songs to come out of 2013,  and it almost singlehandedly sets Government Plates apart from anything else Death Grips has done.

3. Pusha T, My Name is My Name

On a rap album filled with appearances from musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Chris Brown, The Dream, and Pharrell, it’s difficult to make sure you’re not being overshadowed by the guest on the track i.e.  Kendrick on Big Sean’s “Control.” Ten of the twelve tracks on My Name is My Name feature a guest artist, but Pusha T outshines them all in every single one, which is what makes this album special. The beats are generally pretty minimalistic, since Pusha hasn’t conformed to the electronic music craze, and it’s a breath of fresh air. The mellow beats provide a platform for him to showcase his lyricism and what sets him apart from other rappers of this era. On My Name is My Name, Pusha is refusing to buy into current rap trends. As he so assertively states on the album’s first and best track, “King Push,” “I rap n***a, about trap n***as, I don’t sing hooks.” It’s no wonder then that the best tracks on the album, “King Push” and “Numbers on the Board,” are the ones that don’t have a guest or a hook. Ab-Liva and Kendrick Lamar provide respectable verses on “Suicide” and “Nosetalgia,” respectively, but Pusha stands above it all. It’s refreshing to hear a rap album come out this year that goes back to the roots of hip-hop. Pusha’s not trying to promote an agenda, or gain any new fans by giving them what they want to hear. My Name is My Name is simply a way for him to rap about what he knows, and tell the world why he’s one of the best rappers in the game.

4. Savages, Silence Yourself

Since this is the only album on my list that is in no way related to hip-hop, I think it is a very special one indeed. Savages, the entirely female, 4-piece, post-punk band from England, has started their musical career off with bang, with their debut album Silence Yourself. The manifestos that they’ve put on their website might seem a little pretentious, but they do bring up a good point: There’s too much noise in the world for us to hear ourselves think, and sometimes we need to let our emotions run free and allow ourselves to be the creative, open-minded people that we were born as.

That’s what this album is all about, and what makes it work, what makes it powerful, is the music that backs it up. If the music was weak, or poorly made, Savages’ message of independence would be lost. But Silence Yourself hits you like a punch in the gut, and you can’t help but hear what Savages is trying to say. Upon hearing the bassline that starts out the title track, “Shut Up,” you know that you’re in for an album that is going to make you feel strong and uncomfortable at the same time. And you should feel those things. Savages is calling you out on all your BS, but it’s ok because now you’ve seen how close-minded you’ve been and you’re going to fix it. The blend of emotions that Savages achieves with Silence Yourself is a truly beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

5. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels

It shames me to admit it, but I joined the El-P and Killer Mike party far, far too late. I had only really ever listened to El-P a couple of times, and though I had heard of his frequent collaborator Killer Mike, I never bothered to listen to anything they had done together. But when I saw that El and Mike were performing in succession at Pitchfork last summer, so soon after releasing their collaboration album Run the Jewels, I knew something was up. So I decided to check it out, the album was up for free download after all, and I knew immediately I had stumbled upon something incredible. I downloaded the album about 2 days before Pitchfork, but by the time their concert came around, I had listened to the album at least 5 times, and consequently the Run the Jewels show was the most fun show of the weekend.

This album isn’t typical for Killer Mike, but it’s a bit less shocking coming from El-P. On Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Game, the theme of police brutality and the mistreatment of African-American’s by the government was prevalent throughout. On El-P’s 2012 release, Cancer for Cure, however, we saw much of the same boastfulness that is seen on Run the Jewels. What the three albums have in common, however, is the pounding bass and drums on each song. On Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike prove once again why they are two of the most underrated rappers in the game, but the beats are what puts this album on the list. Both El and Mike are incredible, powerful lyricists, but this album would be good, not great, if it didn’t have the heart-thumping beats behind them. For this, you have to give El the credit. His rapping on the album is notable, but his real talents lie as a producer.

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