Overlooked albums of 2013
It’s an inevitable consequence of today’s overactive music coverage and the album release cycle: There are always a few albums that don’t garner the accolades they deserve. Great music from the first two-thirds of the year become subject to recency bias as Grammy season approaches, and with the typical massive slate of important records scheduled for September and October, here’s a brief look back at some of the most underrated of 2013 to date.
THUNDERCAT — APOCALYPSE
Going back to his 2011 solo debut as Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, jazz-fusion bass wizard Stephen Bruner’s preoccupation with the end of times starts to suggest the beginning of something new with its follow-up Apocalypse. The grooveheavy debut’s fixation with syncopation, multiple tempos and show-off musicianship seems more transitional in hindsight when compared to the fastidious attention to melody and songwriting of its follow-up. The zero gravity space in opener “Tenfold” is not heard so much as it’s felt through rolling synths and Bruner’s detached bass scales, but it’s through his singing and lyricism — something that’s brought distinctly to the forefront on this record — that Apocalypse should be parsed. This is a record not so much about the end — the life of his departed friend and fellow prodigy Austin Peralta, to be precise — but of memory and evolution. Bruner doesn’t have to lob bass bombs with the frequency that he did on the debut (though he does offer them up with casual
aplomb throughout, most often outside the songs’ core framework) as he offers a vision of fusion whose primary engagement is not virtuosic playing. He didn’t abandon his affection for explosive funk altogether, however. Thundercat’s Brainfeeder label boss Flying Lotus dropped Apocalypse’s untitled iTunes bonus track, an orgy of rubber band bass and disco synths that ranks as one of this year’s best dance tracks, as a set closer for most of his spring tour.
RHYE — WOMAN
The initial discovery that the aching voice wooing its lover back into bed on Rhye’s debut Woman is not some Sade-inspired enchantress, but Canadian jazz/electronic songwriter Mike Milosh, is a Crying Game-level shocker. Yet, Milosh and his songwriting partner Robin Hannibal are careful to keep Woman ambiguous. In a sense, the knowledge that this is indeed a man singing instantly reverses the bias that the sound of his voice creates, but like Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the focus on bright, planar melodies and absence of masculine rock climaxes throughout Woman argues that it is indeed written from a feminine perspective. Either way, it’s as exciting and instantly pleasurable as R&B gets.
TEENA MARIE — BEAUTIFUL
That Teena Marie was one of the most beloved figures in music also underscores the crushingly tragic nature of her death. She was an ivory-skinned chanteuse with as much soul and street cred as any of her contemporaries, but after a freak hotelroom accident in 2004 left her plagued by seizures, R&B’s den mother would be denied the popular revival she was due when they ended her life in 2010. Her first posthumous album, entitled Beautiful, is an enduring tribute to the woman that Rick James affectionately dubbed “Lady T” — its dozen tracks are diligent in showing all faces of a singer that transcended age to the end. Beautiful is jam after jam after jam, a fitting finale for a hopeless romantic with a golden voice who never sounded as if she was ready to grow up. Opener “Luv Letter” is an ebullient nod to her Motown debut, addressed not to any person in particular, but to Motown itself, a notion cemented when she sings “Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours, baby.” Like Shuggie Otis before her, the 54-year-old Marie enjoyed a real and profound acceptance across racial lines, and she masterfully imbues Beautiful with hiphop accents and mild doses of AutoTune to create a fearless spin on urban pop-soul that gives back more than it borrows. It’s just exceedingly unfortunate, however, that she’s not around to enjoy it.
MARC RIBOT’S CERAMIC DOG — YOUR TURN
If Marc Ribot’s work as leader of los Cubanos Postizos was any indication, the façade of ineptness that he maintains on some of his more playful works is as satisfying as his more outwardly rigorous jazz repertoire. On the surface, his interpretations of works by the legendary Cuban composer Arsenio Rodriguez sounded disjointed and blemished, completely riddled with “missed” notes and off-key phrases, like a novice guitarist who’s behind on his fingerwork lessons. That’s the game Ribot plays, however, and that it’s was all according to plan is the madness of Ribot in action. Not surprisingly, that aesthetic translates wonderfully to his first foray into punk rock with his Ceramic Dogs trio, featuring bassist Shahzad Ismaily and hotly in-demand drummer Ches Smith, on Your Turn. The game Ribot is playing here is also one where Ribot makes the rules, which is foreshadowed on the album’s cover — a tic-tac-toe board filled in with Xs save for a lone, taunting empty space. His emphasis of function over form remains ever aggressive, whether his ire is directed via sarcastic punk (“Masters of the Internet”), psychedelic skiffle (“Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around”) or powerhouse garage (“Lies My Body Told Me”). Your Turn demands patience when Ribot and company delve into the more progressive elements; this is a trio of jazz savants, after all, and the urge to indulge feels primal.
But that’s the price you have to play when you play Ribot’s game.
KILLER MIKE & EL-P — RUN THE JEWELS
For all the aural malice that Killer Mike and El-P bring to their collaborative debut Run the Jewels, both through their punk-card-pulling verses and suffocating beats, the duo’s live show does the most to back up the record’s chest pounding. The narrative of their Aug. 9 performance at the Cat’s Cradle? Take what’s yours any way you can. They first presented the bodies of work that gave the two emcees license to clear the lane a la Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn in two solo sets — Killer Mike focusing on 2012’s RAP Music, and likewise, El-P with Cancer 4 Cure — two standout albums from one of the strongest overall years in hip hop in a decade.
If the Run the Jewels set that followed felt like a victory lap, they nonetheless drove it at 180 miles per hour with 36- inch gold chains around their necks and the record’s co-producer Little Shalimar surfing over the crowd while ripping a guitar solo — and still kicked it with their fans at the end.
AARON DIEHL — BESPOKE MAN’S NARRATIVE
Regarding young (for jazz) pianists over much of the 2000s, there was Brad Mehldau, there was Jason Moran and then there was no one. As Gerald Clayton began to refine his voice, another young pianist began to arrive more quickly. Aaron Diehl’s debut from early this year, Bespoke Man’s Narrative, finds comfort in the bedrock
of great jazz piano: exquisite touch and diction, a painstaking attention to tempo, uncanny fluidity and crisp black suits. The last element is the metaphor that underpins Diehl’s debut, a tasteful, exquisitely tailored construction.
VARIOUS ARTISTS — AFTER DARK 2
Where Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories succeeded in informing EDM fans of the existence of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, it didn’t go so far as to shine a light on the actual, current Italo-disco element that has grown out of their immense influence. The After Dark compilation series, started by production house Italians Do It Better in 2007, does, however. Ironically, most of the artists (as well as the label) featured on the second installment hail from the United States (specifically, Portland, Ore.), but the curatorial direction remains actually more consistent with Moroder’s vision than the Frenchmen who brought him back into public view.