Editor's picks: Top 20 hip-hop albums of 2013

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's been a helluva year for hip-hop. The continued explosion of mixtapes, however, can make it especially difficult to keep track of and listen to all the good stuff. Of course, that's half the fun, sorting through each week's worth of releases and finding some that stick and some that don't. Even those that stick might only hold a week's worth of enjoyment. The albums and mixtapes I've listed here, however, have for the most part kept my attention all year. I don't claim these to be the best representations of the year in hip-hop, just my favorites.

20. MellowHigh - MellowHigh

19. A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP

18. Boldy James - My 1st Chemistry Set

17. Black Milk - No Poison No Paradise

16. Quasimoto - Yessir Whatever

15. Inspectah Deck/7L & Esoteric - Czarface

14. Ghostface Killah - Twelve Reasons to Die

13. Pusha T - My Name is My Name

12. Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

11. The Underachievers - Lords of Flatbush

10. The Underachievers - Indigoism

I've been a fan since catching these guys in Oxford, Ohio this spring with Joey Bada$$ and Flatbush Zombies. The Underachievers released two acclaimed mixtapes this year (see Lords of Flatbush in my other significant albums list) after signing to Flying Lotus' label last year. Each are vastly different in tone, with Indigoism more influenced by mysticism and psychedelics while Lords of Flatbush contains more bangers.

9. Prodigy & Alchemist - Albert Einstein

Alchemist is all up in this list (see also Boldy James' My 1st Chemistry Set), but this was his best collaboration of the year. His partner-in-crime, Mobb Deep's Prodigy, proved yet again you shouldn't sleep on him. This was my summer rap album, but digging into it again these last few weeks unveiled a warmth that sounds just as at home in overcast, chilly environs.

8. Tree - Sunday School 2: When Church Lets Out

Self-described as "soul-trap," the Chicago rapper/producer uses his melodic howl/growl (described by some critics as similar to Tom Waits) and warm soul samples to cross that bridge between his Windy City peers Kanye and Chief Keef. Thoughtful, but pleasurable.

7. Action Bronson - SAAB Stories

While not quite technically a full-length album, I found Action's shortest release also one of his most cohesive. Of course, that has its drawbacks too. Still, any rap album that not once but twice references former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo's famously lanky fingers gets my approval.

6. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap

For the first two months after Acid Rap was released I was convinced it'd end up at the top of my year-end list. After settling into Chance's yawps and squawks this album's quirks relax into you, eating out a space where it's all you'll want to hear. It didn't really wear out its welcome so much as it just faded away.

5. Kanye West - Yeezus

I was *this* close to not including this album on my best hip-hop albums of the year because, well, I consider it to only marginally be a hip-hop album. That quibble knocked it a few points on this list, but that's probably not entirely fair either.

4. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike's most recent collaboration didn't grab me the way R.A.P. Music did, but then again, how could it? Many many listens later I can only hang my head in shame. In many ways it's the superior album, perfectly melding the two personalities in ways its predecessor didn't (though it also didn't really try).

3. Action Bronson & Party Supplies - Blue Chips 2

Forget the Action Bronson clichés about food and Ghostface. My favorite emerging trope about Bronsonlino is the one that suggests the more he sounds like he doesn't give a s--- on a mixtape the better the results. Non-sequiturs, ridiculous throwaway lines, commercials featuring Phil Mickelson and Bob Knight, Action rapping over "Tequila," "Sussudio," and John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane," and, of course, Big Body's tough guy talks all add up to the most absurdly fun rap album I heard all year. In many ways it reminded me of a less-polished Madvilliany.

2. Danny Brown - Old

While Kanye was waiting for his damn croissants, Danny Brown quietly released what I thought was the most overwhelmingly compelling album of the year. Old was the complete package, finally pulling in Brown's various influences, skills and life experiences into an album that's every bit the instant classic as Yeezus or last year's similarly acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar.

1. Ka - The Night's Gambit

You could argue this isn't the best rap album of the year (though it's close), but by God was it my favorite. Nearly devoid of traditional hip-hop beats and loops, The Night's Gambit is low-key, reflective and downcast, the focus mostly on Ka's monotone delivery. That makes it refreshing in today's hip-hop landscape, but this album is more than that. A firefighter by day, you can almost hear Ka reciting these lines to himself in a whisper during late night hours at the fire house, as if the out-loud recitation of the facts will help him unfurl and, eventually, make sense of what he's seen. Filled with intricate internal rhymes, The Night's Gambit reflects on crime scenes and street survival theories as complex as any you'll find in a lurid Nordic crime novel.

Honorable mentions:

R.A. the Rugged Man - Legends Never Die

Oddissee - The Beauty in All

Billy Woods - Dour Candy

Deltron 3030 - Event II

Statik Selektah - Extended Play

Big K.R.I.T. - King Remembered in Time