Continuing on the crusade to find the perfect groove, once again another year has hit me and caught up in the aural blitz I am. As par the course, 2013 wasn't without its disappointments, over-hype, hilarity, and eye-brow raisers, and as far as the soundtrack to a year that I was pretty 'meh' about, there were some musical moments that got me out of the blue funk I was in for most of this year. To alleviate the load (I am but one person!), this year I decided to shorten my album round-up list and whittle it down to 25 albums and throw in the EPs as well to flesh things out. So what will roll out in the next couple of days is a countdown of the albums and EPs that found me and kept me wide awake and inspired all year round. Some were hated, some were beloved --- and really I don’t care --- I loved them, and I hope maybe you did too. If I missed any, then well, they'll find me some kind of way later on down the line, but for now, this was my 2013 in albums and EPs.
A crash landing into fierce funk, Liddell's self-titled doesn't even blush over its obvious Prince and Andre 3000 homages, not to mention its dipped itself in the day-glo vats of the 1980s, making this the brassiest album of his career. There are some lumps in the formula though as Liddell goes overboard with trying pick up where The Love Below left off. Yet when he thins things out a bit and lassos in all that energy, his intergalactic ride into synth-funk of yore is well-worth a round-trip or two. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Big Love, Do Yourself A Faver, So Cold, I'm Selfish, Don't You Love Me
Bareilles has yet to match the brilliance and pop sensibility that is her 2007 coming out project, Little Voice, but this year's The Blessed Unrest, her now fourth album does dare to challenge at matching its class. As her last record, 2009's Kaleidoscope Heart, had a little trouble taking off, The Blessed Unrest soars with this year's most inspirational number "Brave", but Bareilles doesn't clock out as she spins an personalized aural tome that once again blends the same intimate songwriting and piano-pop style that has Bareilles spreading her wings even wider.
Notable Tracks: Brave, Hercules, Chasing The Sun, Satellite Call
I found 2010's Authenticity on the dry and derivative side, but this is FE+ back to where they belong giving a big warm hug of jazz laced lounging R&B. With guest spots from friends Sy Smith, Eric Roberson, Carlitta Durand, and Jeanne Jolly, Love In Flying Colors brims with talent and focus, and also a few surprises. One such surprise is them giving Disclosure a run for their money on the standout, "The Moment". If there is any album this year that invites you into the honest devotion of music making then the FE+ family welcomes you with yet another classy set.
Notable Tracks: The Moment, If I Knew Then, On A Day Like Today, Can't Turn Around
Whoa. In what is the year's biggest artist transformation, VV Brown went from doing sunny-side up pop to crafting an art pop palette that can be best described as if Grace Jones and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Renzor got together and decided 'what the hell?'. For all those who claim to be "re-inventing" themselves need to look at VV's success at grabbing the indie reigns and making an album away from label and artist image pressures. What is the reward is not just a sense of self for VV, but as listeners we get a well-crafted album rooted in a allegorical Biblical tale that tastefully explores all the facets of romance --- both good and bad. In the words of Miss Jones: 'It's scary, but fun'.
Notable Tracks: The Apple, Nothing Really Matters, Ghosts, Samson
Nina Simone often noted that her music wasn't "soul" music, rather it was classical. Mvula, an appointed Simone disciple, can also echo the sentiment as her debut album, Sing To The Moon, is on the fringes of soul as it's draped in orchestral motifs and operatic vocalizing, all tied up in a gorgeous bow of astute classiness and grace. This is not your typical soul sista reflective, oh no, Mvula has crafted something much more special. At times the classical ideals get carried away in the sauce of it's strife to be as unique as possible, but inventive moments like lead-off single, "Green Garden" are enchanting and draw you into the aural web Mvula has spun.
Notable Tracks: Green Garden, That's Alright, Like The Morning Dew, Can't Live In The World, She
Elli Ingram may look like she is ladylike and demure, but she had some right cajones when she released the femme response to Kendrick Lamar's hit "Poetic Justice". Her take (which brilliantly mixed in Janet Jackson's "Anytime, Anyplace") was nothing short of genius as Ms. Ingram did double duty by carrying a note while also latching onto KL's ferocious lines, and doing both parts mighty well. For her debut EP she continues to show her dual musicality of being sweet n' sour, with six-songs that hopscotch from jazzy-blues crawls ("Elliott") to '90s R&B poems about loving bad boys ("Mad Love"). [Listen + Download] [Review]
Notable Tracks: Poetic Justice, Mad Love, Sober, Fun
For years I had been on the fence about Mayer Hawthorne, liking a song here and there, but not being quite sold --- until now. Hawthorne diverts away from the Michael Jackson bating of his peers, and (thankfully) applies all the best elements of the late-'70s and early '80s soft rock era making the likes of Hall & Oates, Average White Band, and Robert Palmer proud. Integrating Jessie Ware and Pharrell into the mix was wise as was adding lots of fat basslines, Fender Rhodes, and melodic harmonies as the result is a nostalgic pop-soul album with a pulse.
Notable Tracks: Favorite Song, Back Seat Lover, Crime, The Stars Are Ours, Reach Out Richard, Where Does This Door Go
Disco-funk's revival this year leaned into warmer suns and basked in joyous foot stompers that were radio ready, but Little Boots' wasn't in the mood for being chipper. With Nocturnes, she detours into a paved dance road that has shaded trees and lacks the chirping of birds and was far more cerebral and sinister than one could expect. Little Boots latches into less disco, but leans into early '90s Freestyle and House/Electronica styles with a little Pet Shop Boys mystic wrapped in. The brilliance of "Every Night I Say A Prayer" is here, and "Motorway" is a gorgeous opus of an opener that draws you into the abstract frosted flow, but if you're looking for a ray of sunshine, "Beat, Beat" will take you to the glitter roller disco dome you seek. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Every Night I Say A Prayer, Beat Beat, Motorway, Crescendo, All For You, Confusion
What some artists do in two-part albums, Active Child does in just six songs on Rapor as he unleashes a expansive art pop project that feels so complete, and yet is so short. AC's penchant for panoramic sound spreads isn't belittled on this set, just the intensity is heightened. "Subtle" with Mikky Ekko giving off some serious MJ spits, is massive and parts funky and operatic. Ellie Goulding also pops up and finds herself in a soulful state of mind as she matches note for note on the gorgeous duet "Silhouette". [Listen] [Review]
Notable Tracks: Subtle, Silhouette, Feeling Is Gone
If the UK wanted to continue to rub in the fact that they are doing smarter pop and R&B than us Americans, this year they give us the TKO with the massive Home project from the five musician collective known as Rudimental. With a laundry list of the brightest and newest of talents (MNEK, Emeli Sande, John Newman, Angel Haze, Ella Eyre, Alex Clare) Home is big on sounds and big on giving new directions on ways to bend and shape the ideals on House, Pop, Hip-Hop, and R&B.
Notable Tracks: Baby, Spoons, Right Here, Waiting All Night,
Husband and wife team, Malice & Mario Sweet make an set that is out of time, but right on time....if that makes any sense. With inventive word plays for titles, they throw in a sound processor influences from the past like Zapp, Cameo, and (of course) Prince to churn out old school funk and soul with a 21st Century mindset. [Listen] [Review]
Notable Tracks: Eddee Murfy, AM/PM, Jawn Travoltuh, Janie Phonda, Flo Joe, Mork & Myndy
Alice Russell has been quietly leading the pack of the current crop of British chanteuses as her peerless vocals and saucy attitude are hard to ignore. On the surface she can be whittled down as a hybrid of Adele and Amy Winehouse, yet, Russell is of her own make and breed, and once again she brings power and panache to the ever fickle soul music market. On what is her fifth solo installment, she is even more latched into her element as she is a true lady singing the blues and spreading the gospel with a collection of songs that shimmer and stomp with Southern fried charm, making this her most ambitious and thematic album she's done. Just one listen to the likes of "I Loved You" and "Let Go (Breakdown)" you'll find yourself a believer of Russell's fire and brimstone. [Review]
Notable Tracks: I Loved You, Hard and Strong, Heartbreaker Pt. 2, Drinking Song
...and checkmate. Betty Who is playing the indie game well as she has strategically crafted four songs that burst at the seams with '80s mall rat spunk and polish --- and she's doing this all with being unsigned and is content being that way. What I love most about The Movement is not just the rebellion, but that it doesn't even shy away from being glitzy electro-pop. Unabashed it is and dammit is it fun. Her euphoric breakout single, "Somebody Loves You" (which was obviously inspired by the poppier tracks of the late Whitney Houston) is a real winner and should make her a unknown no longer. [Listen + Download] [Review]
Notable Tracks: High Society, Somebody Loves You, Right Here
I've been a fan of Blood Orange’s (aka Dev Hynes) work since he latched up with the likes of Sky Ferrierra, Solange, and MKS and did magician tricks in the studio to create a sound that is dense and immersing, and all-around coked-out ‘80s nighttime funk. He takes his eclectic insight to another level on his first full-length, ramping up the variance (genre-centric it isn't), and proving he is a true Prince disciple in the process. The whole set is just so entrancing, as when it ends, you have to face reality and the fact that the soundtrack of life is not a cotton candy synthesized dreamscape like Cupid Deluxe is.
Notable Tracks: You're Not Good Enough, Uncle ACE, It Is What It Is, Chamakay, On The Line
Maylee Todd decides to play it straight after the wack-a-doo funky space incarnation called her debut album, Choose Your Own Adventure. Maylee revitalizes the elements of late-'70s soul with all the wah-wah guitars, shivering strings, and Fender Rhodes that one can pack into an album, and she presents a atmospheric sound that is laid-back as it is infectious. As plush as most of the album is, she lets some of that ol' quirk sneak in as her cover of Sesame Street's classic Pinball Countdown is just tons o' fun. [Listen][Review]
Notable Tracks: I Can't Stand It, Baby's Got It, Successive Mutations, Pinball Countdown, First and Last