By the BTR Editorial Staff
Now that 2014 is here, it is only at this moment that we at BTR find it appropriate to finally pass judgment on the musical output of the year 2013 proper. While trying to commemorate a year that saw the release of plenty of outstanding records, we feel the need to publish a feature that wouldn’t end up being a drop in the great ocean of end-of-the-year lists. Especially since this past year it appeared that, if you’re a music enthusiast, either you worshiped at the altar of Vampire Weekend or Kanye West… Okay, maybe Daft Punk too.
These are great records, and by all estimates are likely to last that troublesome “test of time.” Simultaneously, these selections hardly reflect the spirit of music discovery that we here at BTR pride ourselves on delivering to you. So instead, we conducted a poll using our DJs a few weeks ago, asking for a list of their ten favorite album releases of 2013 that they felt were “criminally ignored” by the mainstream music press. Many of the records they mentioned received some generally positive reviews, and a great many more received mixed or dismissive reviews. Otherwise, why mention them? Namely, none of which received any noteworthy acclaim from the major music journalism publications.
Our editorial team each narrowed these lists down to a top-five to minimize repeated mentions and albums that could no longer be considered “ignored” thanks to end-of-the-year-list revisionism by other publications. Since we personally find lists featuring tallied ballots and a consolidated hierarchy outside of the spirit of music discovery, we’ve listed each DJs selection separately to adequately accommodate the eclectic tastes of our listenership and avoid any sense of elitism that tends to go with these sorts of lists. Every DJ has their own genre(s) of expertise and it would be unfair to judge one against the other, especially given how so many of these artists deserve an equal chance to be discovered.
So today, we bring you the first installment of two 2013 guides that make up an annual BTR feature we like to call the “Best Music No One Told You To Listen To”.
Host of DJ Drew BTR on Sundays and the Reggae Hour
1. Kings And Queens – John Brown’s Body [Easy Star Records]
Reggae tends not to be a genre that invites invention, but for DJ Drew, who hosts BTR’s Reggae Hour, creativity is the hallmark of exceptionalism. “Seems like everyone ‘does’ reggae, but nobody does that ‘future roots’ sound like JBB,” he writes.
Still, Kings and Queens isn’t a record that necessitates an acquired taste. In fact, many fans of the genre might find themselves coalescing to John Brown’s Body’s aforethought with relative ease. Says DJ Drew, “They pride themselves on their heavy kick-drum/bass forward tunes and this record shows us why that ‘future roots’ label really just means smart, progressive, and genre-bending brilliance.”
2. Honeys – Pissed Jeans [Sub Pop]
The Allentown, Pa., hardcore quartet are no longer the it-band they were in 2005 with their sublime debut, Shallow, or even with 2007’s critically acclaimed Hope for Men. Still, DJ Drew has a hard time thinking of these boys as all-grown-up.
“Their mature album? As mature as an album can be from a band called ‘Pissed Jeans’,” he writes. “The couldn’t-care-less lyrical styling straddles the line between irony and boredom but still somehow sincere. A noisy punk band with a song about health insurance is something I needed to hear before my twenties were over.”
3. Water on Mars – Purling Hiss [Drag City]
Purling Hiss and their debut album mark a high point in garage rock for 2013, with one foot in Mudhoney-esque early grunge and mixing that accentuates their sledgehammer, idiot-box riffage a la Thee Oh Sees. Though, you might not have been able to tell since the band only garnered some fervent approval from the blogosphere and mild reviews. Some may have found it a bit too much, but not DJ Drew.
“Easy listening for me. I love this record,” he tells our Editorial staff. For him, nothing else came close in the already crowded genres in which Purling Hiss demonstrates immediate mastery over throughout Water on Mars. “Stop listening to all the imitation lo-fi noise and listen to this. It’s real and it’s tasty!”
4. Blackbird – Fat Freddy’s Drop [The Drop]
Not familiar with Fat Freddy’s Drop? Then it sucks to be you. As BTR’s resident reggae scholar puts it, they are “the largest reggae ensemble you stupid Americans have never heard of,” and they come to you by way of New Zealand, land of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings franchise.
But just think twice about scoffing at the thought of a mixed-race dub quintet from lands down undah. “Kiwis know what’s up with the drop,” says DJ Drew. “They do so much more than reggae though, but they do reggae so well it can’t be denied. Bird is the word!”
5. Blood Drive – ASG [Relapse]
“This record took me back to high school when ‘stoner rock’ wasn’t a genre I knew, but it was a sound I loved,” writes Drew. Though true to the stoner ethos, “The opening track makes everything feel better.”
In short, we here at BTR recommend putting on Blood Drive, breaking out the Cheetos, and lighting a great big fatty. (Especially if you live in Washington state or Colorado where, in 2013, you no longer have to fear arrest for personal use of every music lover’s favorite plant.) Foxygen’s Sam France may have the lyric-of-the-year by calling out Brooklynites who smoke J’s on the subway, but DJ Drew implores you to instead “stop being so hip with your indie crap and listen to these face melters.”
DJ Wayne Ski
Host of BTR’s Hip-Hop Show and The Electric Ride.
1. Mix Files EP – Bumpy Knuckles [Gracie Productions]
It’s no secret that Bumpy Knuckles (a.k.a. Freddie Foxx) is among DJ Wayne’s favorites. Last year’s Kolexxxion scored the top spot on his “Best Music” list last year. (Though, full disclosure: our staff sadly had to nix Wayne Ski’s first top choice for this year, Pusha T’s My Name is My Name, due to its inclusion on Rolling Stone’s end-of-the-year list.)
Despite curating a long lasting and audacious career stretching back to rubbing shoulders with Eric B. and Wakim, Bumpy still tends to linger on the outskirts of hip-hop. So his inclusion here at number-one once again is only appropriate. Still, the Mix Files EP makes for a career highlight, at least in DJ Wayne Ski’s ears.
“This is authentic boom bap,” Wayne Ski writes. “People don’t know that he gets busy on the beats as well. Check the heart felt joint ‘Keep on Grinding’ with Christopher Williams.” You can catch tracks like “Keep on Grinding” and more on BTR’s Hip-Hop show every week.
2. Malt Disney – Koncept [Soulspazm]
If only for title alone, Malt Disney deserves to be on anyone’s end-of-the-year best rap albums list. But for DJ Wayne Ski, it’s about the production.
“The homie J57 remixed this album. These guys are dope. If you’re looking for beats and rhymes that you can feel check this one out,” he writes. Which is not to say the MC’s linguistics are anything to ignore, in fact, it’s what ties Malt Disney’s eccentric music pallette together. Says Wayne Ski, “Koncept’s delivery on tracks to me are what makes this go.”
3. Albert Einstein – Prodigy & Alchemist [Infamous]
“It sounds like Mobb Deep on a trip,” says DJ Wayne Ski. Our staff is at a loss to give Albert Einstein a better description. While receiving some praise from hip-hop insiders and taste makers, this record only raised a few eyebrows among the standard music critic brass. From the sounds of Einstein (a first for this writer), this is one of those releases where it’s really difficult to tell just why exactly the world hasn’t gone ape-shit over it yet.
“Prodigy sounds right in the pocket with the rhymes. This is what Hip Hop needed this year,” writes Wayne Ski. “You need to add this to your playlist ASAP. Alchemist does not disappoint with the sample selection.”
4. 360 Waves – Durag Dynasty [Nature Sounds]
Fresh from their collaboration on “Junkyard Fight Scene” from the Alchemist’s last album, 2012’s Russian Roulette, the west coast trio knew they had the momentum to pull off a full-length. With 360 Waves Planet Asia, TriState, and Killer Ben craft a set off on a three-man quest to bring back the authentic sample-heavy ‘90s California sound. Oh yeah, and Durags.
5. A Star in Life’s Clothing – Dynasty [Jakarta Records]
“Dynasty delivers. Period. She is the dopest female MC, period,” says Wayne Ski, but don’t take his inclusion of A Star in Life’s Clothing as mere gender tokenism. “Her voice over these bangers should put her ahead of the pack. When I heard the album I said, ‘It’s about time.’ We need her.” With guest spots from Talib Kweli, DJ Premier, and Skyzoo, it seems like that range of hip-hop that matters seems to agree.
Host of the Afrobeat Show, Xtreme Endurance, and Caribbean Fever
1. Party Never Ends – Inna [Roton /UMG /Ultra Records]
DJ Meredith wants listeners to know first that this artist’s back catalogue should not be ignored. “I recommend all of Inna’s albums, but this one is the latest and my favorite! I love her blend of languages, finely tuned vocals, genres she’s incorporated and her creativity,” writes the eclectic DJ. Like Kwes, Robert Delong, and other artists you can find on BTR, Inna’s talent is the kind that could easily rival any chart-topper. But to hear more of her infectious dance anthems and her preference for a party scene with longevity, tune into Xtreme Endurance with DJ Meredith.
2. No Place For My Dream – Femi Kuti [Knitting Factory Records]
“This album is the Afrobeat revival album of the decade for me,” says the host of BTR’s premier Afrobeat podcast. “Most pop artists at the age of 50 don’t do much else than rehash their greatest hits in a live setting. Femi, however, continues to be a torchbearer of the Afrobeat movement his late father, Fela Kuti, initiated,” writes DJ Meredith. “I love the style Femi went with this album because it’s a faster, more dance-oriented and Motown-influenced version of the Afrobeat concept.”
No Place for My Dream is an album for 2013, one in which the full scale impact of globalization are being felt. A voice like Femi Kuti’s only becomes more valuable at a time when first-world and third-world problems are beginning to merge in ways never anticipated before.
3. Bruk It Down 2.0 – Mr. Vegas [MV Music]
The heavyweight contender for King of Dancehall follows up on last year’s stellar Sweet Jamaica with an album equally prepared for the club as it is for the open road. “I think this album has an innovative approach with the perfect vibes needed for a party or even a road trip,” writes DJ Meredith. “Mr. Vegas offers a captivating, head nodding and hip shaking musical interpretation of what is to come.”
4. Dripping Wet – Cherie Lily [STEEV MIKE]
The fitness-guru-turned-pop-star believes that music should inspire you to a better life, and that means a better sex life too. With a little help from husband Andrew W.K., Lily turns the all-night party of pop into a healthy life decision, one the Extreme Endurance DJ can appreciate.
“As a fitness fanatic myself, this club-centric approach to the album just hits the nail on the head,” writes Meredith. “I love this steamy album because it is so sexually, energetically, and mentally charged! You can always rely on the contagious beats of this album to be an adrenaline raiser!”
5. Power Struggle – The Liberators [Kudos Records]
As in the case New Zealand’s Fat Freddy Drop (see DJ Drew’s number-four choice), Australia isn’t the kind of place you think of first in search of quality Afrobeat. In the genre’s ongoing tradition of big bands, like Daptone Records’ Anti-balas, The Liberators deliver a quality multi-instrumental experience, with extended jams reaching into the far corners of individual ability. “I love the way the band gives almost every instrument a chance to shine,” says Meredith. “As the band claims, this is an album ‘worthy of fueling any revolution!’”
Host of DJ Lottie BTR on Thursdays, Spotlight on the City, and Lottie’s Sideshow Acts
(Editor’s note: DJ Lottie sent back her list with the following excerpt that doesn’t exactly explain in detail the reasoning behind each of her choices but is just way too awesome to ignore. Our staff did our best to fill in the blanks but for now, enjoy unadulterated, USDA-approved DJ Lottie in her own words.)
“I don’t read Rolling Stone and I haven’t looked at Pitchfork in years,” writes Lottie. “I don’t listen to anything but my own ears. Here is what I liked this year (in no particular order). The reason I liked these albums? That’s easy! It’s because they were all awesome. Long explanations are bullshit. Just listen to the damn music.”
1. II – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
It kind of sucks how UMO might go down in the books as Stones-style also-rans in the psych revival, just behind the universally beloved Tame Impala. Part of the reason is that II didn’t scream instant-classic pop jams like Lonerism did when both bands were met with high expectations after their transcendent debuts, but that’s exactly what makes this sophomore record so special.
As opposed to the Revolver-isms of their more acclaimed counterparts, Unknown Mortal Orchestra tacked towards funk with II, with hi-end jangle guitars steeped in glorious wah-wah malaise. Start with the tin-can-horn section of “One At a Time” and work your way down.
2. The Child of Lov – The Child of Lov [Double Six]
Dutch-born singer and poet Cole Williams, was perhaps the music tragedy of the year — found dead at 26 earlier this month, no more than five months since releasing his debut self-titled album. His memory aside from his palpable talent, it’s not hard to admire a record with as many lovable songs as the eccentric R&B personality seemed to have aliases. DOOM crawls out of the woodwork for a cameo, while D’Angelo may be the only influence on Child of Lov who doesn’t make a guest appearance himself.
3. Jamie Lidell – Jamie Lidell [Warp]
Perhaps no album, besides Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, was met with a more polarized reception this year than Jamie Lidell’s self-titled release. Which makes sense since it served as an ode to the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in 80s synth pop with tactfully campy lyrics to boot (just take a single like “You Naked”). Still, Jamie Lidell cannot be called anything else besides a labor of love, crafted with the same relentless attention to detail that fans have come to expect from the songwriter, no matter what sounds or eras he lingers towards.
4. B-Room – Dr. Dog [Anti-]
A favorite band of the late Lou Reed, it’s surprising the derided “alt country/dad rock” quartet haven’t been given the respect they deserve as one of America’s finest and most transcendent contemporary rock bands; the kind My Morning Jacket were around 2003’s It Still Moves. Like MMJ, it seems like anyone else who dips their pens in the same ink seems to get more credit for it. Though like DJ Lottie, Dr. Dog could really give a damn about who calls them what. As such, B-Room brims and grins with the arrogance of not fixing what they don’t consider broken.
5. Personal Record – Eleanor Friedberger
On last year’s Last Summer, Eleanor Friedberger took a step out from under the shadow of the Fiery Furnaces, the avant-garde duo she shares with brother Matthew Friedberger, establishing herself as a firmly developed singer/songwriter. The aptly titled Personal Record keeps a close fidelity to literalism, leaving almost no lyric or title to ambiguity, symbolism, or metaphor. Her focus on keeping meaning right at the surface also transfers into the music, giving us a record that contains her catchiest batch of songs yet (see the infectious “Stare at the Sun”).
Editorial Staff, Co-Host of The Hash
1. Something About Knowing – Maria Taylor [Saddle Creek]
“In the vein of Hafdis Huld, Maria Taylor’s Something About Knowing is chock full of lilting vocals and melodic instrumentals,” writes DJ Molly, co-host and musical curator of the Hash on BTR. “Even if the cover of the album weren’t a photo of a beachscape, I’d feel like I were on a peaceful vacation while listening to the album.” The long-time Saddle Creek chanteuse spends much of Something walking on sunshine, but at a pretty leisurely pace. Which is just fine with we humble BTR staffers who are so plagued with holiday season deadlines, or anyone else in the Northeast who might be feeling the seasonal depression coming on, for that matter.
2. Lily & Madeleine – Lily & Madeleine [Asthmatic Kitty]
“Lily & Madeleine’s self-titled album falls a bit on the sadder, more haunting side of the indie singer songwriter spectrum,” writes Molly. “It’s a great soundtrack for those rainy days from a fantastic female duo.”
3. Beyond Wilderness – Gold & Youth [Arts & Crafts]
Another debut album from a pop act that may have been huge had there been any terrestrial radio play. Though if Gold & Youth get into the commercial licensing game, they could probably fund their next tour off the royalties — and that’s a compliment. “The Hash’s intro song is off of Gold & Youth’s Beyond Wilderness, which is full of cool electronic beats and fun indie pop songs,” writes Molly.
4. Coastgaard – Coastgaard [Self-released]
Sacrifice yourself on the altar of retro-pop and this foursome will surely be your spirit guides to nostalgia heaven. With dreamy soundscapes and a strong ’60s influence, this album embraces warm analog vintage. Definitely feel-good tunes, with any rough edges smoothed by basslines and guitar swells.
“Coastgaard mixes a lot of sounds together to create their self-titled album,” says DJ Molly, “their music is at times reminiscent of Minus the Bear or Blue Oyster Cult in a way that creates a unique listening experience.”
5. Hunt and Chase – Megan Bonnell [Nevado Records]
“Another fantastic female singer-songwriter, Megan Bonnell’s Hunt and Chase is wonderful,” says Molly. “With her music on the quiet, acoustic side, she sounds a bit like a female version of Bon Iver.” Which would make rural Ontario the new northwestern Wisconsin? Comparisons aside, Bonnell’s debut should write the book for fellow acoustic fiends on how to keep arrangements spare enough to accentuate thoughtful songs like “Coming Home” without overwhelming them. It’s a talent rarer than you might think.
Host of DJ Madalyn BTR on Saturdays and God Bless Weirdmerica.
1. Julia With Blue Jeans On – Moonface [Jagjaguar/ Paper Bag]
“Spencer Krug’s always been a favorite of mine — Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Sunset Rubdown. His voice is beautiful, and his intricate fanciful lyrics always draw me in,” writes Madalyn. But for Julia With Blue Jeans On — a popular choice among our DJs for this list — Krug demonstrates remarkable restraint along with songwriting prowess. “On this album, it’s just Spencer’s voice and a piano – for a big fan, it’s all the best things about Spencer distilled down into a perfect break-up album.”
2. Finding Meaning in Difference – The Mallard [Castle Face Records]
“Sadly this San Francisco band broke up before they even released this album, but that only adds to its appeal,” says the God Bless Weirdmerica DJ. Though “heavily rocking” LPs didn’t exactly dominate most critics list this year, whenever the press gets around to treating the genre more like jazz, Finding Meaning in Difference may get the credit it deserves for capturing such blistering performances, true to the band’s short-lived stage presence.
3. How Far Away – Alex Bleeker and the Freaks [Woodsist]
Does anyone want really hear the pop indulgences of one of Brooklyn’s most priceless comodoties? Sounds like music to DJ Madalyn’s ears. “This record from Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker didn’t get the best reviews, but I can’t help but love Bleeker’s laid-back love songs,” she says. Ducktails may have been the sideproject du jour of the year among several blogs, though Madalyn reasons: “Sure, they’re simple, but he does suburban relaxation so well that I’m definitely going to keep this album on rotation.”
4. Yeah Right – Bleeding Rainbow [Kanine Records]
“I remember seeing Bleeding Rainbow play as Reading Rainbow as the first of five bands in Death By Audio five years ago. So hearing this album, [with the group] so grown up with a much better and more evolved sound made me feel proud to see just how far they’ve come, and how much better a band can get,” writes DJ Madalyn.
5. Wish Hotel EP – Ducktails [Domino Records]
In speaking of Real Estate side projects, you can give this overlooked EP to Madalyn over the band’s hook laden full-length The Flower Lane, also out on Domino. Wish Hotel, however, took more chances and better advantage of its status as a more compact release. “Any album from Matt Mondanile with an experimental song called ‘Jazz Music’ on it is okay by me,” writes Madalyn. “Mondanile has such a great ear for the strange and unexpected, and this little album is another gem in his collection.”
Music Editor and Host of DJ Emily BTR on Tuesdays, Alt-Country with DJ Emily, Ladies Skate Only, BTR Top Ten, and Revolver.
1. Effra Parade – The Melodic [Anti-]
“I think the band’s name pretty much sums it up. Where have you been all my life The Melodic?” asks Emily. Still, a two-word description of an act reaching into so many musical territories — classic minimalism, second-step horn sections, and Irish folk woodwinds — would be doing this pioneering quartet quite the disservice. “You could take the vocals out of each and every track and I would still dance around my bedroom in a fanciful fashion to the entrancing instrumentals.”
2. Miniboone – Miniboone [Ernest Jenning Record Co.]
For the Alt-Country DJ, depressing acoustic acts with descriptions like “haunting” and “heartbroken” only do so much. “Ya know, life is pretty good for me these days. Sometimes I just want to listen to some upbeat music with a fun, funky vibe, and Miniboone fits the bill,” writes DJ Emily. For some of us, escapism — if that’s what you want to call “having a good time” — can go a long way. As Emily describes the band’s self-titled debut: “Energetic tunes, delightful harmonies, and ‘70s-tinged poppy wonderfulness. Why everyone doesn’t own this album, I’m unsure.”
3. Songs From The Vanished Frontier – Yellowbirds [Royal Potato Family]
Two years ago, Yellowbirds were riding a pretty healthy wave of hype from the blogosphere and music press. The reviews weren’t necessarily outstanding, but the music stuck with you. Moreover, there was a sense of excitement over where the band could be going next. So it’s a little strange for a fan like DJ Emily to wonder where the hype has gone with a follow-up this good. “Maybe it’s not as flashy as its predecessor, 2011’s The Colour but Songs From The Vanished Frontier is quite inviting,” she says. “Warm, comforting, dreamy, and complete.”
4. Golden Suits – Golden Suits [Yep Roc]
“‘Swimming in 99’ was the first track I heard from the new Golden Suits album and so began my love affair,” writes the BTR DJ. Enshrined in hollow-bodied guitars with slapback echo and reverb tanks with string sections drowning in them, the band’s self-titled debut still hardly sacrificed textures for foot-tapping hooks. “Golden Suits serve up track after track of some tasty folk-pop on a plate and I’m always ready to dig in.”
5. Lizzobangers – Lizzo [Totally Gross National Product]
Since DJ Emily covers such a wide array of genres for BTR, she has a special preference for discovering talented female MCs wherever they may be found. In the case of Lizzo, that means Minneapolis, Minn. “‘I got my batches and cookies…’ says Lizzo as she flows through what is my favorite track (‘Batches and Cookies’) on her debut solo album, Lizzobangers. The album is fun and fresh; she can rhyme with the best of them,” writes DJ Emily. In the wide spectrum of indie hip-hop, Lizzo strains less for musical innovation, and instead weaves a tapestry between the many flavors from the late ’90s to early ’00s — an era when serious beatmaking began to spawn from the South and Midwest instead of just the coasts.