The best music of 2013 that wasn't on Spotify
Spotify makes no mystery of the fact that it wants to be the dominant platform for the world's music. Yet the year's biggest story in music distribution had nothing to do with Spotify, Pandora, or any of the other new breed of music startups. It was Beyonce releasing her new album with almost no pre-release hype on a 12-year-old platform for the lofty, old-fashioned price of $16.99. I thought $16.99 albums had died in the mid-2000s along with jewel cases, CD booklets, and big box electronics stores. And yet it's 2013 and the record industry just found a way to get me to drop almost $20 on an hour or so of music.
While this model won't work for most artists, larger-than-life pop stars like Beyonce can demand premium prices from listeners who want to hear a new album immediately. Yesterday, Nathaniel Mott wondered when Spotify will have its "Beyonce" moment, where a huge artist debuts its music on Spotify before anywhere else. But considering Spotify's low price points ($9.99 for the premium service, though most of its users get the limited version for free) it's possible that Spotify and Pandora will be like the bargain bins and used record stores of the Internet age. You'll find smaller artists and older releases from big stars there, but you'll have to pony up more cash to get the new blockbuster albums everyone's tweeting about.
It's not just big artists who weren't on Spotify this year. The Chicago-based indie label Drag City, the home of critical darlings like Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan, doesn't feature its artists on the platform.
Then there's the "mixtape" problem. A mixtape used to be something you sold out of a car trunk, an early unlicensed display of an artist's (usually a rapper's) talent. Today however, the biggest rappers in the world from Rick Ross to Lil Wayne have released some of their best work as free online mixtapes. Because Spotify only provides content licensed from labels, listeners will need to go outside Spotify to find them — not a huge deal, but still a barrier to Spotify becoming a one-stop shop for music. In recent years, free mixtapes have launched the careers of A$AP Rocky, Tyler the Creator, and Chance the Rapper.
So just like we did last year, we're counting down the best albums of 2013 that you won't find on Spotify. It may sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it's a reminder that in 2013, the music distribution models are far from settled.
8. Jai Paul - Jai Paul
We've been talking about how the Internet's "unbundled" media for years now, freeing content from now-arbitrary packages like "albums" or "newspapers." But nowhere was this trend more dramatic than with Jai Paul, whose songs weren't just separated from an album, they were separated from Paul himself. In April, a Bandcamp user uploaded and began selling what appeared to be a full-length album from Paul, who prior to that had only released a couple well-regarded singles. The only problem? The uploader was not acting in any officially capacity on behalf of Paul or his label XL. Paul and his label allege that the tracks were illegally uploaded and they will make no money from its sale. The album has now been taken down, but not before it was shared by huge music-crit sites like Pitchfork.
Of course no one would've noticed had the album not been so damned good. Combining the low-rent electronica with legit R&B vocal and lyrical chops, "Jai Paul" landed on a number of year-end "best of" lists, whether Paul likes it or not.
How to find it: There is no legal way to obtain it.
7. Thundercat - Apocalypse
Like label-mate and collaborator Flying Lotus, who placed 3rd on last year's list, Thundercat's latest album can't be found on Spotify. Like Drag City, Brainfeeder Records has removed many of its titles from the platform. But that shouldn't stop you from picking up "Apocalypse." Stephen Bruner, who performs as Thundercat, draws no distinction between hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and 80's adult contemporary, with each of these influences playing an important role in these 12 detailed compositions. Dripping in nostalgia, yet futuristic as fuck, "Apocalypse" is like a low-budget version of Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories."
How to find it: iTunes
6. Beyonce - BEYONCE
I doubt more pixels have been spit about any other album this year so there's not much I can say you don't already know. The little-promoted release that threw everyone off-guard. The exclusive to iTunes. The cupcakes.
But "BEYONCE" is more than just an impressive feat of marketing. Emotionally bare yet sonically epic, this is Beyonce's most ambitious album to date. It may not have a eternal club banger like "Crazy in Love" or "Single Ladies," but this is Beyonce at her most serious and mature. On past albums, her populist, crowd-pleasing attitude resulted in some of the most pleasure-activating pop music of the decade. Now she's making music for herself, and audiences are in awe as ever.
5. My Bloody Valentine - mbv
Unlike "BEYONCE," which most people didn't know existed until it was already out, the world has waited patiently for "mbv" for over two decades. After the band's first two albums, released in 1989 and 1991, inspired hysteric yet well-deserved praise from rock critics and college radio DJs the world over, My Bloody Valentine largely disappeared, its lead singer emerging only occasionally for a performance here or a guest spot there. Meanwhile, rock-crit circles never quite moved on, still waiting for the return of My Bloody Valentine's anthemic, fuzz-soaked guitar licks and narcoleptic vocals.
Now the wait is over, and although the band hasn't evolved, well, at all in the 22 years since its groundbreaking record, "Loveless," "mbv" feels less like a victory lap or a cash in, and more like the band simply never went anywhere in the first place.
How to find it: Everyone was so enamored with the album that few people talked about My Bloody Valentine's distribution model, though it bears mentioning: Eschewing Spotify, the band uploaded every song to its official YouTube channel. Knowing many of its fans are big audiophiles, My Bloody Valentine also has a higher quality download available on its website.
4. Action Bronson and Party Supplies - Blue Chips 2
Last year, "Blue Chips," a mixtape from New York rapper Action Bronson, topped our list of best albums not on Spotify. Not that the sequel is a big step down, the competition was just a bit stiffer this year. Once again Bronson (born Arian Asllani) channels the thick New York accent and carnal, culinary lyricism of Ghostface Killah. In fact, "Blue Chips 2" finds Bronson sounding even more like his forebear, less concerned with telling dick jokes and more on weaving immersive, detailed crime narratives. People can criticize him for being unoriginal, but when imitation comes with this high a degree of difficulty, I don't see what the problem is.
Where to find it: Free download
3. Bill Callahan - Dream River
As a member of Drag City's roster, you won't find more than a handful of songs by Bill Callahan on Spotify. But if there was any album worth dropping a little extra cash on it's "Dream River." Here, Callahan and his band weaves a beautiful musical backdrop that recalls the earthy, flute-tinged classicism of Van Morrison's landmark "Astral Weeks." But where that album's lyrics were all flower-child mysticism, Callahan's baritone murmurings are rooted in the banality of the here and now: hotel bars, summer jobs, and sleeping lovers. But like the great poet he is, Callahan lends gravity to these every day occurrences with the imagery and emotion we often sense but can't describe so eloquently.
Where to find it: Drag City
2. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
Legendary underground hip-hop producer El-P was responsible for two of 2012's best albums: Killer Mike's "R.A.P. Music" and El-P's own "Cancer 4 Cure." Now, Killer Mike and El-P are back with "Run the Jewels," a free download that might even eclipse the more "official" releases the duo worked on last year. With politically-charged lyrics that usually avoid easy partisan distinctions, and beats that are as sonically aggressive as they are irresistibly danceable, the El-P/Killer Mike dream team is light years ahead of almost anyone else in the game.
Where to find it: Fool's Gold Records
1. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
"Acid Rap" is one of the most exciting debuts from a young rapper in years. Chance the Rapper possesses wisdom beyond his years (the dude is 20), a hunger that most rappers grow out of, and a vulnerability that hip-hop rarely lends itself to. If you're a fan of the genre, or storytelling in general, just download it already!
Where to find it: Free download
Illustration by Brad Jonas