Michelle Ofiwe’s Top 9 Albums of 2013 (With Video)

In 2013, R&B made its first stabs at reviving its cultural relevance, and hip-hop found its darker (and lighter) side. So which albums rank as the year's best?

2013 did some really excellent things for music: R&B made its first stabs at reviving its cultural relevance, hip-hop found its darker (and lighter!) side, and pop finally got the memo about the whole “EDM” thing. Though it may not seem like it, the fast-paced thrill of 2013—its whirlwind of innovation, satisfying reunions, and wide embrace of underground acts–definitely makes up for even the roughest parts (like the time we all allowed Robin Thicke to make a weird song about consent or the doubly uncomfortable conversation we somehow had to rehash re: R. Kelly.)

Of course, this also means that lists like these are that much harder to curate, and so even now, I am glad I have managed to somehow wheedle even nine albums out of my ever-growing collection of yearly favorites. The number of honorable mentions for this particular list would probably surprise you, but don’t fear—these are all deeply loved albums and mixtapes, and have probably inspired at least five dance routines apiece. Here’s to 2013!

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

Yeezus consumed 2013 in ways no one had ever seen before. Even now, its unbridled mix of electro, dancehall, industrial, and rap feels too big for the space it carved in hip-hop. Maybe that’s a good thing. This is an album that continues to grow on every listen, and is only enhanced by its accompanying tour, which put superfans and haters alike even closer to the man who – intentionally or not – seemed to have spent the majority of his newest album asking for space. The grit and aggression of Yeezus only trades places with its emphasized coldness; there is as much space as there are pounding beats, half-yelled dancehall samples, and Chief Keef slurs.

The album can (and should) boast many successes: from the rich, Frank Ocean assisted interlude that seizes “New Slaves,” to “New Slaves” itself, to the unfazed arrogance of “Hold My Liquor,” to the thump in the night that is “Black Skinhead,” Yeezus stays committed to Kanye and co’s static-soaked vision. But the real star is “Blood on the Leaves,” which apes the iconic C-Murder jam “For My N*ggas” effectively enough to get your heart racing. As Yeezus’ crescendo, it propels the album to the highest parts of 2013.

8. BANKS – London EP

I’m usually weary of EPs (four to five more songs and you have an album, come on!) London, singer-songwriter BANKS’ debut EP, has arguably agitated this avoidance: clocking in at only four songs and roughly seventeen minutes, it is over before it really begins. BANKS benefits because we are forced to hit “repeat,” and really—so do we. London can’t be held responsible for what it doesn’t have, because what it does offer is an incredibly addictive mix of 1990s-R&B-slow-jams sensibilities,  a wide breath of vocal acrobatics, and the diary-like intimacy of BANKS’ ruminations. London also makes the perfect calling card for execution producers Lil Silva and Jamie Woon, whose work on the debut single “This Is What It Feels Like,” reminds us what producers are really capable of these days.

7. Barf Troop – Summerslime

Other albums on this list have (or probably will) boast other awards, but no one’s jocking “most disgusting” from Barf Troop, the “group of filthy girls spitting bars.” Making their way from all corners of the internet to rap about things like cannibalism, witches, and long lists of “bodied” enemies, Barf Troop takes all the fun of a girl group, DIY resourcefulness, and much-needed humor, and sprinkles it on top of sickeningly sweet (but mostly filthy) bars. And it works, because we know what a good female rap group can do in a genre that regularly spits out love letters to even the lamest male emcee.

Summerslime is the peak of all things Barf Troop, providing flows and beats as varied as the emcees themselves. Its founding members – Babeo Baggins, Babenstein, Babe Field, Justin Baber, and Baberella Fox – trade off hits with glee with the backdrop of spooky organs, rolling piano melodies, bubbly 808s, and staccato hiccups and claps. Bookending all of the filth is the endearingly sweet  “Strawberry Fields,” a Paul Baribeau cover that ushers out the mixtape on the last strains of member Babeo Baggins’ soothing vocals. It is an important sign that if the “Barf Babes” aren’t limiting themselves in taste or ambitions, we definitely shouldn’t either.

If we’re lucky, 2014 will be the year of the Troop, complete with all the nasty, fun, and flair we could possibly ever handle. Download the whole thing here.

6. Rhye – Woman

Woman fills you up; its presence is tangible. It’s possible that this was not the intention of the alt-R&B duo, but it’s still hard to escape the weight of this album. Woman flows like it was granted space to breathe, and its neat use of violin, piano and stilted guitars creates most of that imposing space. Its impressive use of layers and drum patterns—most tangible in the album’s opening track, appropriately titled “Open”—gives it enough richness to drum up unnaturally spot-on Sade comparisons (the two artists for a wonderful late-night playlist, naturally.) Those who have yet to catch on to the ever-transforming sound of R&B might find it easier to arrive on the backs of Rhye. Easily one of the best sounds to bat for the genre this year, the band undoubtedly have much to offer in 2014.

5. Monster Rally – Return to Paradise

2012’s Beyond the Sea was not an aberration, nor a fluke, nor a tease. Monster Rally’s Ted Feighan, in fact, is the real deal when it comes to his tropicalia-happy mix of soul, hip-hop, and chillwave. Return to Paradise, his follow-up effort, experiments even more with a variety of sounds, like the poppy “Beach Boys”-like harmonization of “Lovely You,” or thhe scratch-and-buzz of “El Retorno.” No track on this album drags it feet, and somehow, the album overall avoids stagnation, even while sporting eighteen tracks. What feels like it should be an obstacle is actually to Feighan’s genius: even if you don’t like a particular song, you can still sit through it and find some reasons to love it. Never imposing, it stuns as easily as it retreats.

4. Ciara – Ciara

If it were up to me, Ciara would always have a ball in her court. 2013, along with this eponymously titled release, truly displayed what a little time (and a publicly requested, much-needed “break up” with Jive Records) can do for a down-and-out R&B diva. Those quick to dog this new, self-assured Ciara should be quick to remember previous chart toppers and numbers, but also that these clearly aren’t the goal for Ciara herself anymore. Ciara is an appropriate mix of club bangers (see: the self-celebratory, Nicki Minaj-assisted “I’m Out”) and sexy slow jams (“Body Party”) that remind us of whatever Robin Thicke attempted to exert this year, and it switches effortlessly between these two sounds and plenty more before we make it to “Overdose,” the obviously Janet-inspired closing track.

Ciara’s joys, of course, aren’t limited to music alone. A pregnancy rumor-soon-turned-announcement and the succeeding celebration of engagement to fellow crooner Future have kept a permanent smile on her face, a comforting sign of good things to come. Which is just as well. We all should’ve started doing right by Ciara ages ago, any way.

3. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

If Yeezus plead a case for the grit-and-gore of rap (and Kanye’s ego), then Acid Rap is the mixtape-that-sounds-like-an-album that is meant for rap’s humorous, soulful side. Chance honestly makes music that sounds like a smile, and you can literally put a smile on anything: church pianos, a backing choir, thumping 808s, horns—just name it and Chance will sing over it. There are no limits to Acid Rap. The album rises and falls as quickly as Chance’s raspy, warbly voice (you get very much used to it, trust me). You can hear his smirk in “Juice” when he declares “even my haters are kinda glad I’m on;” or the cough in his chest as he references lean squares and a good ol’ blunt in “Smoke Again.”

The featured artists are generous and well-placed (TDE’s Ab-Soul, Twista, fellow Internet sensation Vic Mensa, and more), and the production elevates it far beyond “mixtape” status. With Acid Rap, it is clear that mixtapes are changing and always for the better.

2. Dandy – CHARMS

You didn’t know you needed a “Sailor Moon” sample for a frenetically poppy beat, but Dandy Warhol did. Over similarly sickening beats, Dandy drags us through a world comprised of Pokémon theme songs, Dragon Ball Z reruns, and a serious “kawaii” overload—all of which should sound concerning but is actually just an envious mix of what’s new and what’s loved. Dandy is a gay, anime-loving, creative-kid rapper, so none of what’s happening in Charms sounds like its out of his bounds. One second he’s rapping about outfits and money over video game sound effects, the next he’s blowing mid backstage and bussin’ shots at Miley Cyrus in an interlude. Parts Lil Kim and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Charms is aggressive filth and meditated, even mocking cuteness. In other words, it’s perfect.

1.    Beyoncé – Beyoncé

What can I say, really? I’ve been a fan of Beyoncé for roughly thirteen years of my life, and naturally that comes with a little bit of bias (forgive me, or don’t!). It also means that you, like every other fan, gets to watch one of your favorite artists grow, and Beyonce is at  the tail-end of ten years of Knowles’ sometimes heartbreaking—but mostly just impressive—growth. That change is evident everywhere: in the music, the lyrics—hell, even her features, which dips sharply from the “good enough” verses of husband Jay-Z  in “Drunk in Love” for the soft, “good girl” philosophy of Drake  in “Mine.” Beyonce has always been about narratives, specifically her narratives and the control she wields over them. Recent examples of this (like her self-directed, self-edited HBO special, Life is But a Dream) have drawn her plenty of criticism, but in an age where misappropriation is the name of the game, especially with celebrities, such control is admirable, even envious. Beyoncé is no different than her personal endeavors: we see what she wants us to see, sexual innuendo and all. But even what we get is less sanded-down, less concerned, less “Beyoncé” fresh-off-the-block-in-2003. She croons, screams, snarls, and raps—and the diva is put on hold, for once.

And because she’s Beyoncé, there is always something to love: the heavy funk bass of the throwback jam “Blow;” “No Angel,” which sports a visual ride through Houston’s most iconic neighborhood; or “Rocket,” the soft-and-sensual nod to D’Angelo; or “Partrition;” “Yonce,” (I could really keep this going.) What you don’t like, you can at least gawk at with one of her seventeen videos that accompany the album. Sported as a “visual album,” Beyoncé is equal parts eyes and ears, captivating over one million fans and spectators worldwide (at the time of this writing.) Its true joy is that it only serves harder, stronger, and better every time—a true testament to Knowles’ longevity and musicianship.