Kelela and Chance the Rapper dominatedthis year with their breakout mixtapes – which charted at numbers three and five in our albums of 2013 list – so here we shine a spotlight on the best of the rest, from Tinashe's skin-tingling R&B to Arca's shape-shifting electronica and Total Freedom's originals-packed set. Honourable mention goes to Tink's Boss Up, 18+'s MIXTAP3, and James Ferraro'sCOLD, releases lurking just outside our top ten.
10. Hit-Boy Presents HS87 – All I’ve Ever Dreamed Of
Featuring the usual suspects of 2 Chainz, Ricky Rozay, Method Man, Raekwon, Schoolboy Q, Juicy J, and many more, hip hop's favourite producer Hit-Boy released his All I’ve Ever DreamedOf full-length back in March. The general reaction of "fiiire" was on point – and the "hater-proof" beats and features rivalled his best productions such as "Niggas In Paris" and "Clique".
9. Trinidad James – 10pc. Mild
Trinidad "All Gold Everything" James dropped the highly-anticipated follow-up to "Don’t Be S.A.F.E." this year, featuring Gucci Mane, Danny Brown, and Childish Gambino, etc. Opening with the deceptively delicate piano keys of "WutEL$e" (swiftly followed by him yelling “DJ, WHAT YOU DO THIS FOR?” over and over again), the 10pc. Mild mixtape is filled with some heavy bangers where he of course reveals he has a "hoe addiction", don’t we all.
8. Gorgeous Children – ICE
With Montreal producer Jacques Greene’s venerable Vase label as their outlet, Denver/Washington duo Gorgeous Children presented a haunting rap mixtape titled ICE, made up of eight cohesive albeit fairly similar downbeat tracks. The production is crisp and the vocals dark and breathy, creating an intoxicatingly menacing and sombre vibe.
7. Zebra Katz – DRKLNG
NYC’s finest and most fierce MC Zebra Katz dropped his DRKLNG mixtape with the help of Busta Rhymes, L-Vis 1990, and Teenwolf (three names we’d never thought would appear on the same release). Here his leftfield take on rap is refined, and through atmospheric backdrops and rumbling basslines his fearful deep drawl sucks you in and refuses to let you go.
6. Katie Got Bandz – Drillary Clinton
Following her debut 2012 mixtape from Bandz and Hittaz, Chicago’s young Miss Drillary Clinton aka (Katie Got Bandz) made her return this year with Chicago producer BlockOnDaTrakk (Sasha Go Hard, Lil Durk) taking care of the majority of the Drillary Clinton release. The signature elements of drill are all there, whilst her cutting voice and equally sharp lyrics giving her that inimitable edge keeps her on top of the game.
5. Arca - &&&&&
Brooklyn-based producer Arca first hit radars with his Stretch 2 EP on cult label UNO NYC, and shot to relative fame this year through his contributing productions on Kanye’s Yeezus and FKA Twigs’ stunning EP2. His mixtape, the self-released &&&&& out earlier this year, is a continuous stream of wildly innovative ideas forming trippy electronica, laden with sensual textures and shape-shifting drum patterns that move from high-NRG to abstract hip hop rhythms. The track titles throughout, such as "Fossil", "Anaesthetic", "Coin", "Pinch" and "Obelisk", are expectedly representative of the conceptual and elusive elements of their nature.
4. Total Freedom – Dummy mix 181
Ok so we know this isn’t strictly a mixtape, but given that Ashland Mines, aka Total Freedom, takes DJing and making bootlegs to the next level, the Fade To Mind member, who's known for his impressive style and rough cut edits of Ciara and Jhené Aiko, really strikes a chord with us. Deftly blending tracks from his contemporaries such as "avant-grime" producers like Future Brown (NGUZUNGUZU, Fatima Al Qadiri & Teklife’s J-Cush) Ft Tink, Visionist, Rabit (Diskotopia) and labelmate Kingdom to Rihanna, Kanye, and Aaliyah edits, Mines’s mix from earlier this year really deserves a shoutout nonetheless.
3. Tinashe – Black Water
On the back of her previous mixtapes Reverie and In Case We Die, 20-year-old Tinashe made an enticing return with Black Water, her third mixtape which took a more upbeat turn. Her skin-tinglingly sensual voice complements the catchy melodic tunes (see "Just A Taste", "Fugitive" and the blinding title track) interposed between abstract interludes in true 90s-inspired R&B fashion. With her loose singles produced by Greene ("Painted Faces") and Ryan Hemsworth on "One For Me", we’re expecting big things – and more unexpected collabs – from the LA singer in 2014.
2. Physical Therapy – Non-Drowsy
Arriving as the first record on his own label Allergy Season, New Jersey’s Physical Therapy (aka producer Daniel Fisher)’s Non-Drowsy release was less of a traditional EP, crossing over into ‘mixtape’ territory given its almost-full-length, distinctively varied nature and free download format. Known for his experimental style on the likes of cult label Hippos in Tanks, his new label is a genre-free beacon for emotive and inexplicable dance music. As demonstrated via Non-Drowsy, Fisher’s reckless abandon of boundaries means an exhilarating seven-tracks of unexpected gems from "d.T", an emotive layered synth experience to the piano house-reforming "Leonia" and "Huminbeen", to "Coffee" playfully experimenting with garage-harking cut up girl vocals.
1. Cassie - RockaByeBaby
Cassie is the ultimate contemporary R&B dreamgirl. With her sultry eyes and voice to match, she has self-released mixtapes and celeb collabs with the likes of Nicki Minaj and ex P. Diddy since her 2006 debut. Who else has garnered the same level of fanboydom from the electronic and house community – from "Me & U", which often seems like the world’s most sampled track, to Kingdom’s edit of "All My Love", and Jacques Greene/Brackles/Girl Unit’s collaborative Skydiver tribute remix package. Her 2013 mixtape RockaByeBaby, featuring everyone from Jeremih, Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, Fabolous and Pusha T, sees her move from soft, heart-wrenching melodies ("Sound of Love"/"Numb") to her bad girl persona rapping on the title track. With noodling beats and hooks for days, it was only rivalled in R&B by Beyoncé and Cut 4 Me this year.
Follow Flora Yin-Wong on Twitter here @petitflo