rickross

Running a digital music startup is a tough racket, especially when even Spotify, the golden child of this space, has major gaps in its catalog. There are a lot of reasons why your favorite band might not be on Spotify. Some artists have exclusive licensing deals, like the Beatles do with iTunes. Other artists or labels just don’t want to play by Spotify’s rules, like Taylor Swift whose 2012 hit album “Red” was glaringly absent. As the founder of her record label explained to Billboard, “I personally struggle with that model — I don’t think that it should be free.”

And then there are the mixtapes. While mixtapes used to be relegated to the underground, sold out of car trunks or on street corners, these unofficial releases now reach massive audiences, and artists like Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross have released some of their best work using the format. But because Spotify says it only provides content licensed from labels, listeners still have to hunt down these releases the old fashioned way — a minor inconvenience considering the vast majority of mixtapes are free, but still a barrier to Spotify becoming the one-stop destination for all your music needs.

So think of this list as not only a recommendation guide but also a word of warning to listeners who use streaming portals like Spotify exclusively for all their music. There’s a whole other world of music out there just waiting to be discovered.

10. Heems – Nehru Jackets

There’s a fine line between funny rap and joke rap. And while Das Racist first gained notoriety for a song about meeting at a combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell, the Brooklyn hip-hop trio (who this month announced they were breaking up) has since proved that their sense of humor goes much deeper than fast food parody. And yet after three albums of biting satire, there’s little to joke about on the January mixtape from Das Racist’s Heems. On “Nehru Jackets,” undocumented immigrants tousle with poorly-trained cops while juveniles are detained at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know about his old bandmate Kool AD, but Heems has definitely left the Pizza Hut-Taco Bell in the rearview mirror.

Listen if you like: Odd Future

How to get it: Free download on Mediafire

9. Taylor Swift – Red

No one writes a breakup song like Taylor Swift. That’s not to say her songs are as heartwrenching as, say, the songs on Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” but there’s a universality to titles like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red” that few can match. Even when love is good (and when you’re Swift there’s no shortage of suitors) it’s damned hard work for two people to fit into each other’s lives. “Red” isn’t a huge step forward for music (or even pop music) but in a year when living without irony was supposedly no easy task, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sincere record.

Listen if you like: Melody and rhythm

How to get it: It looks like some of the songs have been made available on Spotify, but for the whole album you’ll have to pay for it at iTunes

8. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems

I guess it’s fitting that a record called “Luxury Problems” is featured on a list bitching about albums not on Spotify. On his third album, the Manchester-based producer crafts beats that harken back to the days not so long ago when the word “Dubstep” meant something very different than it does now. (Thanks, Skrillex.) Stott takes sounds traditionally associated with a night out clubbing (growling bass, soaring female vocals, dagger-like percussion) and swirls them into something much darker and more alien, better-suited for after the party when the dancing gives way to sore legs and sore hearts.

Listen if you like: Burial

How to get it: Buy on iTunes or the digital download site Boomkat.

7. The Chromatics – Running From the Sun

“Kill For Love,” the fourth album from Portland’s electronic 80′s-damaged band the Chromatics was one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the year. And if that wasn’t enough for many listeners, the band’s multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel posted a collection of outtakes from the “Kill For Love” sessions on Soundcloud. Jewel writes, “Jet lagged & buzzing from Friday’s show in Paris, I couldn’t sleep…so I stayed up all night with Oko talking about color based dreams while blending these tracks together…Recorded November 2009 through December 2011, these songs were all mixed between 4 & 6 a.m. After hours of tracking at the studio in Montreal, we’d clear the channels on the mixer, open a bottle of wine, & feel around in the dark…working our way through the atmospheric elements & peeling back layers of rhythm…throwing the songs into the abstract pile & playing them while driving home in the snow.”

Listen if you like: Depeche Mode

How to get it: Soundcloud

6. Clams Casino – Instrumentals Mixtape 2

New Jersey’s Clams Casino has made beats for A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller, the Weeknd and Lil B. On his second “Instrumentals” mixtape, these songs are stripped of vocals, allowing the somber, spaced out tone that marks all his releases to take center stage.

Listen if you like: M83

How to get it: Free download on Sharebeast

5. Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva N A Day

2012 was a banner year for hedonistic rap, from Rick Ross to Schoolboy Q. But if you like your hip-hop more soulful, check out Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. who like clockwork released another great mixtape to join 2010′s “K.R.I.T Wuz Here” and 2011′s “Return of 4Eva.”

Listen if you like: Outkast

How to get it: Free download on Sharebeast

4. Merchandise – Children of Desire

Oh great, another 80s revival band. But peel back the played-out new wave aesthetic and you’ll find one timeless melody after another. Indie rock as we know it is dying and that’s probably a good thing, but bands like Merchandise prove that as long as the songwriting is solid, there will always be a place for sadsack singers and jangly guitars.

Listen if you like: The Cure

How to get it: Free download on Mediafire

3. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes

Flying Lotus’ unique sound incorporates elements from hip-hop, electronic music, rock and roll, and classical, but it’s the boundaries-pushing spirit of jazz that’s makes up both his musical and physical DNA (he is the great nephew of John and Alice Coltrane after all). Never content to merely reproduce the sound of his peers or his forebears, Flying Lotus (nee Steve Ellison) takes familiar sounds (a jazz drumfill here, an industrial machine noise there) to create something truly original.

Listen if you like: DJ Shadow

How to get it: Buy on iTunes

2. Rick Ross – Rich Forever

Ross’ official release “God Forgives, I Don’t” was pretty good, but it had nothing on his self-released January mixtape, “Rich Forever.” Over outsized beats that make even Ross’ previous material sound small, the rapper is spurned on by Bugatti-driving devils to chase after money, drugs, and women. But Satan’s work can be exhausting, and while the music is often exhilarating, there’s a weariness to Ross’ flow. For him, staying “Rich Forever” means selling your soul over and over again.

Listen if you like: Notorious B.I.G.

How to get it: Free download on DatPiff

1. Action Bronson – Blue Chips

Das Racist made it safe again to make funny music while still being taken seriously. But while Heems and co. captured the angry satire of George Carlin then Action Bronson is more Louis CK, illuminating great truths through dick jokes.

Listen if you like: Ghostface Killah

How to get it: Free download on DatPiff