Saturday, 28 December 2013

HMM Presents: The Best Of 2013 - Album Of The Year (10-6)

Well, here we are; Heavy Metal Mouth's album of the year culminates with the top ten. Here are 10 through 6, with the final 5 records to follow tomorrow:

10. Nothing Was The Same- Drake

In spite of his rapid-fire rise to the top of the game in the last 3 years, Aubrey Graham has taken a LOT of shit for his sensitive side and divided rap fans perhaps like no other before him, but on Nothing Was The Same Drake seems to be fuelled by a desire to prove those naysayers wrong right from the get go- he opens up his third release with straight up, shit talking, no pulled punches rap on ‘’Tuscan Leather’’, wherein he spits over a 6 minute beat with no chorus, sending a message that is reinforced throughout the album. Drake desperately wants you to recognise he is the biggest and the best right now, and if you haven’t already accepted it, he’s going to change your mind.

He may be making a point of dropping bars over the minimal, stylish production of long-time collaborator Noah 40 Shebib, but the features that make Drake so loathed to some and beloved to many are still strewn throughout the album- most crucially his acute awareness for melody. This mainstream friendly, accessible approach is what separates the Canadian from the rest of the game, and combined with undeniably skilled lyrics it’s a fool proof winning formula. Drake gets deeper than most around him; for the most part the album deals thematically with perceptions of fame, changing lifestyle through riches and success and this brooding subject matter is dealt with in a manner more articulate than most.

There are some definite lowlights to be had; generic first single ‘’Started From The Bottom’’ is by some distance the worst song on the record while the easy listening sounds of ‘’Wu Tang Forever’’ are enjoyable but pay absolutely no homage to their namesake, exposing instead a strangely chosen title that was perhaps no more than a cheap shout out to a more hardcore fan base.

The thing about Drake is that he doesn’t need to appease anyone or attempt to reach out towards these bases, because the fact is that he’s best when he’s embracing his softer persona, as evidenced on ‘’From Time’’, ‘’Too Much’’ and the finest moment on the album, ‘’Hold On, We’re Going Home’’. Graham stated that he made the songs to be played at weddings while also paying tribute to Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and the result is an incredible pop song, perhaps recalling classic R. Kelly with its irresistible romantic tone- at its simplest, this is true R’n’B greatness.

And from here it’s easy to see why so many rap fans have a problem with Drake- it’s not easy to welcome change, and many will feel that the emotional honesty and heart on sleeve attitude of Aubrey Graham doesn’t have any place in the game, but for better or worse, Drake is probably the most significant artist in hip-hop right now, simply because he is changing it almost single handedly. Nothing Was The Same continues his streak with an album that has met all expectations, defied some and introduced a more confident, confrontational and electric personality, one that’s willing to fight for a place at the top, and it will gain even more fans and followers as Drake continues to spread his ever growing influence in modern music.

Best Tracks: Tuscan Leather/Hold On, We’re Going Home/Pound Cake & Paris Morton Music 2

9. AM- Arctic Monkeys

As I've always seen it, there are only two reasons for a band to self-title an album post debut- either they've churned out an indifferent, meaningless effort lacking in ideas and imagination and can't be bothered to name it anything else, or they've created a work of art that they feel defines them better than ever before. Fortunately, AM most definitely falls into the latter category, combining the styles and sounds of the Arctic Monkeys previous four albums and some more in a wonderful pay off for fans of both early and later work.

AM captures the Arctic Monkeys in a moment of totality and completeness; content with image and sound after years spent searching. This is a stellar work of music that can be built on, and crucially, feels like it surely will. Perhaps the best thing you could say about this record is that it makes me think Arctic Monkeys will improve from here, and considering their previous catalogue, that's quite a statement to make, and a truly exciting prospect.

When asked about the title pre-release, Alex Turner replied with a knowing smile, claiming he'd ripped it from the Velvet Underground's 1985 complilation VU: ''Did we cop out? Yeah, but something about it feels like this record is exactly where we should be right now. So it felt right just to initial it.'' It's an insightful comment, and while he might be laughing at the complacency of those initials himself, in reality, it couldn't have been named anything else.

Best Tracks: Do I Wanna Know?/R U Mine?/I Wanna Be Yours

8. Doris- Earl Sweatshirt

Earl Sweatshirt has come a long, long way since 2010 when he burst onto the scene as a fresh faced 16 year old rap prodigy with Earl, a startling mixtape that captured the attention of every self-respecting hip-hop fan with its outstanding lyrics, clinical delivery and dark, often disturbing subject matter over a minimal backdrop provided by mentor and close friend Tyler, The Creator. To those already familiar with the teen's controversial rap collective Odd Future, the story is one that has taken on an almost mythical status, as Sweatshirt vanished from the scene as quickly as he had appeared, leaving fans puzzled as to his whereabouts until February of last year when it emerged that Earl had been sent to a detention camp for troubled youths in Samoa by his mother in order to clean up his act.

Upon his return, Earl set to work immediately with the announcement of Doris followed by the release of ''Chum'', a brutally honest, emotional single that detailed his feelings on his time in Samoa and issues regarding his father, growing up and increased expectations. The last part isn't so surprising, as the wave of hype that followed the teenager is one that would heavily burden even the strongest of shoulders, and repeated delays due to a lengthy production process didn't help to cool the baited breath of OFWGKTA's devoted fanbase. Sweatshirt took to Twitter weeks before the long awaited release with a blunt warning to fans who may have been expecting a record he was unwilling to provide: ''...I anticipate a loss of fans. I also anticipate gaining some... I hope you lose me as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15.''

A brave statement maybe, one that could have proven a smart move or the beginning of a backlash, but when Doris dropped it became time for all the talking to stop and let the music and the man himself speak.

And then he did, as Doris silenced critics and dubious fans alike with its raw power and majestic flow. Much like Tyler's Wolf in April, this album will indeed be a breaking point for the rap collective's teen following, however the process of a changing fanbase should come as quite the opposite of a loss for the young rapper as a broader audience respond to Earl and OF's desire to develop their skills rather than regurgitate them.

While it shouldn't be a factor, in reality the massive hype revolving around Earl since last February won't have helped Doris- those expecting a classic in the vein of good kid may be slightly underwhelmed, but that would be an unfair way to analyse Earl's first full length release; this flawless 44 minutes of raw, old school rap is just the first demonstration of Sweatshirt's incredibly natural talent, and it seems inevitable that he will only get better. For now, Doris is more than enough material to satisfy, but the most important thing to take from these 15 tracks is that at 19 years old, Earl Sweatshirt's potential is limitless. Watch this space.

Best Tracks: Hive/Chum/Guild

7. Monomania- Deerhunter

Monomania finds Deerhunter and Bradford Cox in a strangely playful mood that’s executed in a series of lo-fi, retro style indie tracks, displaying the band at their most melodic and, as bizarre as it sounds, conventional. The bands usual wall of noise (for which they’ve found themselves branded somewhere between genres as distant as shoegaze and punk) has been demolished in favour of the melodies usually hidden behind, with pop/rock sensibilities unashamedly brought to the forefront.

The result is inexplicably successful as Cox conducts the band over a wave of irresistible alternative rock tunes that retain a sense of the underground, grunge styling the band is renowned for, while simultaneously showcasing an undeniable flair for pop songwriting that was deeply buried within Deerhunter records previously (see ‘’Strange Lights’’ from Cryptograms for evidence). The emergence of such talents, combined with the lo-fi aesthetics of the band’s sound, unmistakably recalls the work of Lou Barlow with Sebadoh near its finest, yet towards the finish line Cox and co. make a point of showcasing the fact that they’ve still got plenty of loud noise left inside, as the title track climaxes with the band making their instruments scream in a brief moment of madness that feels like it’s been longing to escape the entire time. In extreme contrast, seconds later the listener finds themselves coming down to the sound of Cox’s vocal and lone acoustic guitar on ''Nitebike'', a hauntingly beautiful standout.

Ultimately, Monomania is a daring, illogical, and definitely surprising album that toes the line between excellence and absurdity at times but always comes out on the right side. Incredibly, we’re listening to the sound of a content, assured and most of all, happy Deerhunter. But while the band may have settled down they’ve also transcended the possibility of boredom or flatness, crafting a record of exceptional artistic merit while skilfully shifting into the next phase of their never dull career. Surely only Deerhunter themselves will know what their next step is going to be (it’ll probably be as unpredictable as Monomania), but this remarkable fusion could very well be the realization of the band’s true purpose.

Best Tracks: Sleepwalking/Monomania/Nitebike

6. The 20/20 Experience- Justin Timberlake

2013 saw the return of Justin Timberlake after 7 years spent in Hollywood making himself an even bigger superstar than before he paused in the music industry, but the one who returned was an altogether different animal. The jazz styled electro R’n’B of The 20/20 Experience marked a vastly different record than the Timberlake’s two previous- Justified was a hyper developed Nsync, bursting with chart hits and pop greatness, while FutureSexLoveSounds hinted at this electronic direction with tinges of experimentation but was ultimately too inconsistent to succeed.

Here we find the full realisation of JT with pop sensibilities still ever present but hidden beneath an ultra-creative, artistic vision that is conveyed through extended song lengths (the average track clocks in at around 7 minutes), rich, layered production from Timbaland and complex vocal harmonies. Here is the climax of Timberlake’s potential, the album he has been threatening to make his entire career- a genuine pop masterpiece and work of art that signifies its artist fully embracing his talents and taking a bold, but perfect direction having considered contemporaries like Frank Ocean, Miguel and The Weeknd. If anyone was in doubt as to the reigning king of contemporary pop/R’n’B music, it’s an issue that has been put to rest in style on The 20/20 Experience.

Following this release in March, Part 2 came later in the year, an album mostly consisting of leftovers that had no real right to be recognised as an official studo album, but if anything this demonstrates the fact that Timberlake is bursting with creativity at the moment and hopefully this is an indication that there’s more to come soon, because while he may be a Hollywood titan these days, the fact remains that Justin Timberlake was put on this planet to make music. To wait another 7 years would be utter madness- this is, quite undoubtedly, the sound of his prime.

Best Tracks: Pusher Love Girl/Tunnel Vision/Mirrors

Next: 5-1

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