In 2013, album lists aren’t just best-to-worst rundowns – they’re ways of demarcating what an “album” is (or isn’t) in the first place.
Is a mini-album a full-length or an extended single? Should a clutch of Soundcloud demos be judged alongside a 3xLP pack? Are leaks off-limits – and, if so, why? In a year full of marketing campaign razzmatazz and big bruisers dropping surprise albums, it’s telling – and heartening – that much of the best music arrived through rogue channels. To quarantine mixtape releases, say, away from our albums list might have made sense a few years ago; now, it seems blockheaded and perverse. Mindful of not being Cnuts, we’ve no intention of holding back the tide.
Faced with navigating this increasingly complicated landscape, plenty of blogs have gone down the Grammys route of hyper-specification – Best Hip-Hop Albums That Aren’t Mixtapes; Best Albums Under 15 Minutes That Aren’t Singles; Best Albums With A 16x16 Floor Tom; Best Albums That Didn’t Feature Nile Rodgers. We’ve elected to take the other road, allowing different formats to sit happily alongside one other. It doesn’t matter if it’s lengthy or snappy, physical or invisible – if it’s a great record, it’s in it.
More so than any previous FACT list, this year’s Top 50 is a patchwork – a mix of official LP releases, Bandcamp freebies, cassettes, DatPiff drops and bootlegs. For the first time, we’ve also elected to include our favourite EPs too – rather than agonising over the cut-off point between long-form and short-form, we’ve decided simply to prioritise those collections that moved us the most.
Released late in November, the debut EP from MssingNo – a publicity-shy artist previously only known for his productions for UK rapper Cas – neatly tied together two of 2013’s defining trends: resurgent levels of creativity in instrumental grime, and a dialogue between the UK and US that’s found a rewarding balance through releases like Kelela’s Cut 4 Me and Visionist’s I’m Fine. Grime has always had half an eye on the US (see the reverence for Diplomats that circulated the scene in 2005-2006), but few recent releases have combined tropes from both sides of the Atlantic so successfully: Rihanna, R. Kelly and Shawty Redd-esque drum patterns meet Reese basslines, tube-station-at-midnight pads and fiery synth leads, with the glistening, perfectly still ‘XE2’ as the EP’s centrepiece.
For the past couple of years, DJ Mustard’s brand of jerkin-meets-hyphy-meets-snap simplicity has powered club hits like Tyga’s ‘Rack City’, 2 Chainz’s ‘I’m Different’, and Young Jeezy’s ‘R.I.P’. In 2013, when — for better or for worse — everyone was getting ratchet, turning up, and twerking, the producer born Dijon McFarlane was the master of the function. His first mixtape is a survey of the scene, with frequent collaborators like YG, Ty Dolla $ign, TeeFlii, and Dorrough along for the ride. The fact that Ketchup bangs this hard without including YG’s massive ‘My Nigga’ or TeeFlii’s ‘This D’ speaks volumes.