Exclaim!'s Best of 2013: Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, Part One

11. James Blake

No matter the era or style of music, we always thirst for artists who express our fragility and uncertainty. When it comes to the dubstep/hip-hop/R&B world that James Blake has made his neighbourhood, the rent is usually paid with swagger and braggadocio, and that makes his vulnerability and understatement all the more compelling.

Taking the stark minimalism of his debut a shuffled step forward, Blake unlocks the code for a soulful cycle of piano-driven torch songs in an age where the torchlight is provided by computer screens and smartphones. The beats flow slowly but with skeletal precision, and when RZA turns up for a guest appearance on "Take a Fall for Me" the Wu-Tang connection clicks on like a spotlight. Where autotune played a significant part on his last album, Blake here uses reverb, echo, and overdub, sometime entire choirs of overdub, to great effect. His voice, already a strong and mournful instrument, often is treated with a filter of distance, sounding like it's coming from a different time or space, eerily haunting the song and the singer in the present.

The lyrical strength of Overgrown is its open-endedness. Phrases repeat ("Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day"; "And we lay nocturnal / Speculate what we feel") and then fade without attaching themselves to an explicit narrative, thus becoming part of our own narratives of uncertainty, connection and disconnection, and romantic ennui. (Eric Hill)

Look for pop and rock albums 10-1 on Monday (December 9).