Here they are: The top 20 albums of 2013, as chosen by inthemix. From disco to trance, low-slung bass to homegrown floor-fillers and everything in between, this year sure gave us a wide spectrum of essential records. So with 2013 in its final days, we’ve combed through the standout dance releases of the past 12 months to give you the twenty indispensable albums of 2013. You’ll notice that there are no mixes on this list, a deliberate decision on our part to stick strictly to albums. Not that there weren’t plenty of excellent compilations to come out of this year – Sasha’s Involv3r was a sure standout, as were Guy J and jozif’s Balance contributions. But with that disclaimer out of the way, grab your headphones and get stuck in below.
We know, we know – Benga’s Chapter II might seem like an oddball inclusion here. Released to little fanfare in May, the dubstep don’s third album (and first solo effort since 2008’s game-changer Diary Of An Afro Warrior) slipped out more or less unnoticed. It wasn’t hard to see why – by mid 2013, everyone was just kind of over dubstep.
The thing is, Chapter II is actually a great album. Forefather probably should have ranked in our list of the Top 100 Tracks of 2013, and tracks like I Will Never Change are as good as anything of the Night era. Yes, the record flits between tempos and styles and yes, that cover art is god-awful. But when you put all of that aside, Chapter II’s only real misstep was that it came too late. That doesn’t mean history should forget it. [Katie Cunningham]
Don’t call it a comeback. Sure, it’s been eight years since Boards of Canada’s last album, The Campfire Headphase. But what they do is not like headlining festivals, slinging guitars onstage with cool haircuts. Their enterprising ambient experimentalism is far more organic and craftsmanlike, despite how weird and alien it sounds on the surface. It’s a way of life, like cooking or gardening; age doesn’t really factor in. As with Warp labelmates Autechre and Aphex Twin, they’ll probably be doing this when they’re 90, as long as they can sit at their machines. It’s beyond cool, beyond classic, almost timeless. Then again that’s exactly how BOC’s music felt when their full-length debut, Music Has the Right to Children, turned the electronic music world on its head 15 years ago.
All this is just what I glean from the surface after listening to it for a couple of weeks. If you’re a fan of BOC you know you’ll be unpacking the weird layers for years – the math equations, the obscure science, the codes and eerie subliminal messages that lurk beneath the beats and melodies. Boards of Canada put more painstaking effort into the craft of sonic architecture than any other band or musician I can think of. More than anything, that’s what makes the timing, or anti-timing, of this release make sense – there’s a whole new generation out there ripe for warping. [Jim Poe]
Rudimental’s Home had the perfect recipe for success. Four guys from East London have taken the genres of the moment (house and drum and bass) and added vocals from some of the fastest rising acts around – and the result? Well, the proof is in the pudding: they’ve had two UK #1 singles (‘Feel The Love’, ‘Waiting All Night’) and now have an album that looks set to emulate that success. Despite this commercial ambition, Home never feels like a sell out. Apart from Emeli Sande (whose album is one of the most successful UK records ever), they’ve chosen relatively unknown guest slots that add to the project more than they overshadow it. The record feels like a collaborative effort and as a result has a real joyous, communal feeling to it.
Home is a cleverly crafted effort of sounds that seem to be defining London dance music at the moment and the addition of soulful, up-and-coming vocalists gives it huge crossover appeal. It’s a job well done. [Sam Murphy]
It was high time Classixx gave us an album, and the L.A. smoothies’ long-overdue debut LP didn’t disappoint. The product of two years of on-and-off studio time in Los Angeles, Hanging Gardens’ Californian home base, sure shows. Chilled out house, touches of disco and borderline pop numbers each get a look in, all unified by breezy, summery vibes (they call it the “L.A. Sound”). The best moments might be the Nancy Whang and Active Child collabs’, but as a whole, this is an essential summer soundtrack. [Katie Cunningam]
Having teased fans of the Brainfeeder family with a few exceptional EPs over the last few years, Lapalux’s debut album Nostalchic was destined to be an underground hit, but it’s the album’s wider and more mainstream (if you will) success that truly shows how brilliant a piece this is. Thanks to the legacy of recent crossover artists like James Blake, The Weeknd and SBTRKT, Lapalux’s low-slung, R&B inspired beats were a refreshing and more accessible take on the psychedelic Flying Lotus inspired sound.
The only Brit signed to FlyLo’s label, there’s definite evidence of that wet, melancholy UK vibe weaved through the album, while still maintaining the quirkiness of other Brainfeeder producers. With utterly infectious tracks like Guuurl and Without You alongside more unusual, off-beat and clunky tunes like Kelly Brook and Swallowing Smoke, this album was able to appeal to both ends of the spectrum, a testament to Lapalux’s skill and ability to nail the balance between popular and experimental sounds. [Melanie Mahony]
Ed note: ‘Nostalchic’ isn’t available in full on Rdio, but you can stream the ‘Without You/Guuurl’ single.
Apparat and Modeselektor’s first album as Moderat received near-universal acclaim, so they had a lot to live up to with their sophomore effort, II. And not only did they live up to expectations, they blew them out of the water. Taking their sound even further outwards into the farthest reaches of electronic music, Moderat delivered a more song-based, shoegaze-influenced vibe while still retaining the heavy low end pressure and grit that won them so many fans to begin with. From the chunky, rhythmic pulses of Milk to the grimey breakbeats and melancholy vocals of Bad Kingdom and the euphoric, celebratory feel of album closer This Time, II contained all the essential elements that won Moderat so many fans to begin with while also treading new ground and taking the trio’s music to new, exciting places. [Andrew Wowk]
We don’t hear anything from Zomby for a couple of years, and then out of nowhere he turns up with two discs worth of miniature experiments in down-tempo dubstep beats and bass, drawing on two decades of jungle, hardcore, grime and early techno history and synthesising it into 33 short tracks (that average around 90 seconds each). The short track lengths make for a disorienting listening experience, playing out like sketches for song ideas cut together in the fashion of a fast mixed DJ set, rather than an immersive album, with the tracks roughly divided between ‘hard’ on disc one and ‘soft’ on disc two; With Love lurches and skitters from rolling beats to knife-sharpening breaks, all underpinned by a meditative air of paranoia and deep sub bass.
From the apocalyptic DNB of Overdose to the haunting strings and glockenspiel of Black Rose and static crackle of the title track, With Love may overload the senses, but it’s packed full of memorable moments, from the sublime to the hands-in-the-air ravey. With Love deserves its place on this list for its detailed cataloguing of musical movements, bringing together some of the best bits to come out of 20 years of raving into a sprawling conceptual statement on bass music’s history. [Nick Jarvis]
Andrew Bayer marked himself as one of the most talented and unpredictable weapons in the Anjunabeats arsenal with his 2011 debut It’s Artificial. Barely more than a year later, though, he’s followed roughly the same glitchy, downbeat template on his sophomore effort. This time, though, he’s perfected his vision to such an extent, his own debut has effectively been left in the dust.
There’s a gob-smacking amount of sonic experimentation on If It Were You, We’d Never Leave, though Bayer’s real achievement is how he’s managed to weave all this stuttering, jittery white sound into something that carries so much musicality. Just like Vince Watson chose dreamy ambience, minus the genre’s rough edges, on Serene this year, Bayer has delivered an intoxicating, enigmatic and experimental album that people won’t have any trouble connecting with.
Lasting impressions are of a sound technician’s mastering of the technology, combined with classic musicality, plus a heavy dash of rogue Aphex Twin-style sound adventuring. If It Were You, We’d Never Leave will stack up as one of the year’s best electronic albums, and it locks in Andrew Bayer’s status as one of the next-gen’s most devilishly-talented producers. [Angus Paterson]
“I want to do something different and original… Hopefully the future will be an eclectic future.” UK production prodigy Mat Zo said these words to inthemix in 2011, and he saw his vision realised on his debut Damage Control album this year. While to a degree, Zo’s sound might have been more brain-bendingly innovative when he was making straight-up trance for his Anjunabeats label (recalled occasionally here on tracks like The Sky); in its place he goes all out in creating a genuinely diverse package that draws the different elements together cohesively.
Scattering a few musical interludes throughout to give form to his wild sonic canvas, Zo leaps from mutant electro hip-hop on Caller ID, over to old-school rave euphoria with Time On Your Side, to his crossover Porter Robinson collaboration Easy, one of the most triumphant anthems that boomed out over the mainstages this year. The Chuck D sampling Pyramid Scheme sees Zo in unabashed bigroom mode, as does the spectacular Lucid Dream where he’s at his most innovative again. His finest moment though comes when he dials the emotion up on the fractured trip hop of Hurricane.
While the deeper, trancier moments might be lacking as a whole, nonetheless, Damage Control is a hugely sophisticated debut that brings real versatility, class and style. [Angus Paterson]
The Australian dance music scene is reflective of the nation’s character, I feel: modest, unpretentious, and all about a damn good time. Sydneyside indie-dance outfit RUFUS are emblematic of this approach. The achievements they’ve racked up in a short time is nothing short of impressive – support slots for LCD Soundsystem and Holy Ghost!, appearances on the Australian festival circuit, singles that have received a warm welcome on Australian radio, and the recent signing to Sweat it Out (home to fellow practitioners of the good-vibes, no-bullshit approach to dance music, Yolanda Be Cool).
The pressure of releasing a debut album seems to have remained largely ineffectual in the face of expectations – Atlas is not a record that tries too hard. Atlas is your mate who never takes more than five seconds to dress themselves and still looks better than everyone else at the party – effortless, cool. Atlas continues in this esteemed tradition – spanning a cool fifty or so minutes, it’s a chilled-out ride that will likely launch them to even greater heights. [Miki McLay]
Major Lazer’s original plan was to deliver second album Free the Universe on November 5, 2012. It didn’t quite turn out that way: first, the release date was pushed back to February 19. Then, the album was rescheduled again for an April 12 release. “For anyone disappointed, we are truly apologetic and we promise that this hiccup has only made what we have planned for the album stronger,” Major Lazer head honcho Diplo said in a statement at the time. “We tried extremely hard to keep the date but it was ultimately decided that rushing the album would have been unfair to you and everyone who worked so hard on it.”
When Diplo says ‘everyone’ who worked on the album, he really means everyone: Free the Universe’s tracklisting boasts no fewer than 31 collaborators. There’s regular collaborators like Santigold and Flux Pavilion on board, but they’re joined by more intriguing guest stars like Bruno Mars, Peaches and Shaggy. So to be fair, the crew certainly had a few studio visits to coordinate. Not to mention the changes in the group’s own line-up. Diplo’s former partner in crime Switch is no more (“creative differences”, apparently) and Skerrit Bwoy’s found God since Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do, so it’s over to new members Jillionaire and Walshy Fire to back the super-producer up.
“In Jamaica and Trinidad, the sound systems represented their various neighbourhoods,” Jillionaire told inthemix last year. “That’s one of my favourite things about being a part of Major Lazer: being on a team again.” Sure enough, the sounds of the Caribbean are what Free the Universe is built on: reggae, dancehall, bounce and (okay, US-bred) moombahton are all represented here in the stylistically expansive tracklist. But the bottom line? This is a very good album. [Katie Cunningham]
By now Bonobo might as well be classic rock; entire subgenres of breakbeat have come and gone since 2010’s orchestral-funk landmark Black Sands came out. As with Four Tet, veteran mad-genius status means Simon Green does whatever he wants. That’s a very good thing. After the dizzying heights he attained on Black Sands, the follow-up found him in a more sombre and reflective mood, exploring inner space. The results were no less rewarding.
The North Borders is hushed, darker, more abstract, but the great power that marked its predecessor is felt at all times, lurking patiently in the murky depths. The aching, feverish strings are still present, as are the soulful vocals (including a splendid guest shot from Erykah Badu), but are used with tantalising spareness amongst the richly textured instrumental beauty, often buried in the mix. Most tracks unspool in eccentrically glitchy patterns, almost shy to reveal their glittering melodies. That restraint made the album one of the year’s best “growers.” At times, as on opener First Fires, the sound verges on Sufjan Stevens-esque orchestral indie pop. Other cuts, like Cirrus and Antenna, swing with a refreshingly direct groove that’s almost housey. All up it’s a substantial milestone in the discography of a growing legend. [Jim Poe]
Clocking in under 40 minutes, Overgrown is light on its feet; it’s also loose and surprisingly playful. And no, it doesn’t have as many instant gold standards as James Blake’s self-titled debut. Still, it manages to feel epic. Blake has everything working here. One facet of his genius is the way his music appeals to both guys and girls (or pick your dichotomy if gender types don’t work for you). It’s soft/hard, bitter/sweet, beautiful/freaked-out in exactly the right proportions, whether Blake’s warbling a ballad or delving into some new-school studio science.
Every year a British singer with uncanny old-school soul or blues chops comes along to be the Great White Hope. Blake could probably sell twice as many records if he would just play it straight and become the next Adele. We’re incredibly fortunate he also happens to be a brilliant and forward-thinking electronic producer. But he deserves a place in the pantheon of artists who transcend the genre, along with Radiohead, Björk and Massive Attack. Overgrown isn’t as earthshaking as its predecessor, but it should age well and help nail down his legacy. [Jim Poe]
When I first reviewed Yeezus, the thing that stood out the most was just how inaccessible it was for a chart-topping artist with a proven brilliance for writing pop-hooks; this is no certainly Graduation – Yeezus is an industrial, abrasive howl of anguish. Lots of people hated it – I thought it was awesome. Yeezy was mad, and he’d found the perfect musical palette to express his frustration. Six months later and nothing’s changed my opinion – not even learning that the thing which was pissing Kanye off so much was Hedi Slimane rejecting his leather jogging pants.
But putting aside whatever you think of Kanye himself (because he’s a genius provocateur, duh), Yeezus is a seriously left-field album, the kind of record you only get by collecting material from a crew of the best niche producers in the game and then getting Rick Rubin to help you whittle it down into a brutal concept piece. Paranoid synth lines and hard techno from Gesaffelstein and Brodinski, heavy trap bass from Hudson Mohawke and, of course, the primal house influence of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Homem de Manuel-Christo. Even if you don’t get a kick out of Yeezy demanding that you hurry up with his damn croissants, you’ve got to respect the music. [Nick Jarvis]
Yep, Disclosure pretty much owned 2013, despite only having an album out for the second half. Guy and Howard Lawrence may have been eight and five years old (respectively) at the peak of UK garage, but their adaptation of its skittering, arpeggio basslines and four-to-the-floor house kick, mixed with Howard’s chops for writing pop-hooks, was a winning combination. Shall we count the chart hits from one 14 track album? When A Fire Starts To Burn, Latch, F For You, White Noise, You & Me, Help Me Lose My Mind; a debut at number one in the UK singles chart, number two on the US and Australian dance charts, a Mercury Prize nomination, an NME cover – and all this for an album of bona fide house music. Warm bass, ear-worm melodies, top notch vocalists and a well-defined aesthetic: Disclosure signalled the resurgence of quality house music in the mainstream, and we thank them for it. [Nick Jarvis]
“Headphones music” might be a tired way of labeling electronic offerings that sit at the gentler end of the spectrum, but it’s hard to describe Mount Kimbie any other way. Cold Spring, Fault Less Youth, the London duo’s second album together and first on the legendary Warp Records, feels like a victory march for fans all things restrained and meticulous. The tracks where angst-extraordinaire King Krule features ( You Took Your Time and Meter, Pale, Tone respectively) stand out as affecting highlights in an album that sucks you in from start to finish. Who wants a big-room banger when you could get lost in this? [Katie Cunningham]
Comfort has been long in the making – Coles says she’s been working on it for at least four years, and some of the initial ideas date back to her teens, when she first started playing music. It’s a far cry from your typical collection of tracks re-purposed from earlier hits; instead it’s made up entirely of vocal tunes, and almost all new material. House is a definite connecting thread, but the album explores many styles and tempos of contemporary electronic music, from indie to dubby breakbeats. Coles herself handles lead vocals on the bulk of the album; guest turns include Karin Park, Miss Kittin, Kim Ann Foxman from Hercules & Love Affair, and none other than Tricky. It’s all knit together with Coles’ lush sonic sensibility. Massive Attack and their progeny such as Lamb and Goldfrapp are obvious signposts; as are more recent and indie-ish acts like Hercules and The xx.
My generation was seduced into the underground by crossover acts like Deee-Lite; Maya Jane is probably destined to be a hero to kids thirsty for intelligence in their dance music and awakening to new sounds. Even better if she’s a symbol of girl power. [Jim Poe]
We won’t lie to you – inthemix very nearly crowned Psychic our album of the year. The debut record from Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s Darkside project was always going to be one for the end-of-year lists – what with Jaar’s proven track record and he and Harrington’s long history as like-minded bandmates – but even with expectations high, Psychic still managed to floor us. It’s nothing short of a visionary effort, consuming and urgent in the way only the best music is. It’s also further proof – as if we needed it – that Nicolas Jaar is one of the very best producers working in the electronic sphere today. [Katie Cunningham]
The universal appeal of this Random Access Memories is not only deserved but well-timed. Daft Punk came along with their analogue synthesizers and their robot costumes and placed themselves, like a postmodern Trojan horse, right into the middle of a frighteningly inhuman mass culture with the most intensely human music that could be imagined right now.
It must feel like a triumph for collaborator Nile Rodgers, 30 years after he was left out in the cold by the ‘death’ of disco and a fickle music business. When it comes to chart-topping sounds, if the choice is between Random Access Memories and something else – say mindless EDM on the one hand and The Voice on the other – we’d have to take this every time, are you kidding? [Jim Poe]
Yep, Aleph was the best album to come out this year, and here’s why. Mike Levy’s debut album is the fully formed realisation of five years of experiments in creating his own unique sound that seemingly came out of nowhere: industrial, primal, paranoid, dystopian techno. It’s underground music for late nights at Berghain, and yet it’s been picked for the backing of a major label marketing campaign. While there are no explicit references to art in Levy’s music, he’s made his interest in art history abundantly clear in interviews, and there’s a strong feeling of connection with the grotesques of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Brueghel the Elder: nightmarish, post-apocalyptic visions.
Then there’s Levy’s mysteriousness, his carefully studied personal aesthetic (face it, you either want to fuck him, be him, or both) and the powerful, symbolism-rich video clips. And there are the high profile collaborations about which he just DGAFOS (on working with Kanye: “I did the Kanye stuff not because I’m a fan, but because for me it’s interesting to make some new music in an old style”). But most of all, it’s the best album of the year because it sounds like nothing else out there. [Nick Jarvis]