It’s an arbitrary division of time. But watching the calendar tick is a chance to review what really matters. And ignore the naysayers: this is a wonderful time for music, in quality and diversity, not just quantity.
So, let’s use the beginning of the new year to queue up the best music from the old. We asked Zuzana and David from team CDM to contribute lists, too, as they’re each deep listeners. Let’s go back in time, and revisit the trends and sounds that we hope point to good things in 2016.
I’ve put these lists in alphabetical order before I can’t stand nit-picking rankings, but if I had to go with a #1 album it’d be DJ335’s When Pressure Goes Pleasure, #1 EP would be ENA’s Meteor, and #1 track would beBarker & Baumecker’s “Love is a Battlefield”.
2015 was a year in which it finally felt like we could all relax on drawing battle-lines over microgenres (it’s thankfully been long enough since those obnoxious “with it or against it” trend pieces about PC Music, and even longer since that hilarious NY Times Seapunk feature). I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who stopped caring so much about the labels/movements are black and white arrangements, and started caring much more about the music – and didn’t that feel good?
Looking at my favorite albums, things are all pretty personal. The most political release on there is Holly Herndon’s Platform – and a significant point of that album is the blurring of the line between personal and political. A lot of disarming ambience this year, as in Crushfield (aka XI, and ½ of Graze)’s surprisingly drum-less debut LP, Donnacha Costello’s minimal comeback melodies, and 2814’s futuristic petrichor.
There are also a number of releases here that felt like blankets, with or without percussion – great work from the always-underrated Maurice Fulton in his Boof alias, meditative LA newcomer Shiva, Kid606, Shinichi Atobe (a very welcome reissue), and the always-magical Mercury Rev.
Sinjin Hawke & Zora Jones – “VClipse”. David’s favorite video of the year.
On other end, there was plenty of loud and chaotics emotion this year – and many beats that challenge our regular pattern recognition. DJ335, Lotic, ENA, Kuedo, Lamin Fofana, Zora Jones, Sinjin Hawke, and MikeQ all challenged me out of a certain complicity with defining “experimental electronic music”. I’ve become a bit obsessed with Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones’ Fractal Fantasy label – I’m waiting impatiently to see what happens there in 2016.
Momus – “Because You’re Frightened”. Magazine/Howard Devoto cover.
The two total outliers here are both from veteran niche artists I’ve long admired. Momus’ Turpsycore [sic] featured an original full-length, an album of David Bowie covers, and an album of Howard Devoto (Magazine, The Buzzcocks) covers. Bowie’s been a very present spectre on Momus’ career – to the extent that Momus “covered” Bowie’s “The Stars are Out Tonight” before it was released – making the cover disc unsurprising, if still rewarding. The Devoto covers, however, were just what I (didn’t know I) needed – a set of songs tackling sexual ambiguity and anxiety from a singer who was born to play the part.
Coppé – “Army of 1”
Coppé’s 20rpm, a new set of songs, celebrated 20 years of her label, Mango + Sweetrice. If you want to know what “I do what the fuck I want” sounds like, just go pick up any Coppé album. 20rpm alone starts with opera, moving on to a collaboration with Plaid, a lounge-y lovesong, bubbly pop, mysterious jazz…Coppé doesn’t generally know where to land or stop, and I hope she never decides. Someday I’ll morph into something this alien and universally talented.
Lastly, let’s give it up for partying. I played “Lonesome Street” and “Vyzee” and “Pocket Piano” and “People On The High Line” many, many times. Happy new year!
2814 – 新しい日の誕生 (Dream Catalogue)
Benjamin Damage – Obsidian (50 Weapons)
Boof – The Hydrangeas Whisper (BubbleTease Communications)
Donnacha Costello – Love from Dust (self-released)
Coil – Backwards (Cold Spring)
Coppé – 20rpm (Mango + Sweetrice)
Copy – Chalice Agenda (Audio Dregs)
Crushfield – Resonance Cascade (New Kanada)
DJ335 – When Pressure Goes Pleasure (No-Ware)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
James Welburn – Hold (Miasmah)
Jlin – Dark Energy (Planet Mu / Knives)
Kid606 – Recollected Ambient Works Vol.2: Escape to Los Angeles (Tigerbeat6)
Linkwood – Expressions (Firecracker)
Mercury Rev – The Light in You (Bella Union)
Momus – Turpsycore (American Patchwork)
Moritz von Oswald Trio – Sounding Lines (Honest Jon’s)
New Order – Music Complete (Mute)
The Orb – Moonbuilding 2703 AD (Kompakt)
Pole – Wald (Pole)
Pye Corner Audio – Prowler (More Than Human)
Shiva – The Art of Allowing (Alpha Pup)
Special Request – Modern Warfare (EPs 1-3) (XL)
VA – Visceral Minds (Fractal Fantasy)
B12 – Orbiting Souls (Delsin)
ENA – Meteor (Samurai Music Group)
KiNK – Cloud Generator (Runningback)
Kuedo – Assertion of a Surrounding Presence (Knives)
Lamin Fofana – Another World (Lamin Fofana)
Lotic – Heterocetera (Tri Angle)
NERKKIRN – Antifuse (Snork Enterprises)
Rod – Where I Had Gone (Sound Judgment)
Shinichi Atobe – Ship Scope (Demdike Stare)
VHS Head – Sarah Eat Neon (Skam)
Barker & Baumecker – “Love is a Battlefield”
Blur – “Lonesome Street”
Holly Herndon – “Home”
Kerrier District – “London Grooves”
Kendrick Lamar – “u”
KiNK – “Pocket Piano (Breakbeat Mix)”
Linkwood – “Expressions”
New Order w/ La Roux – “People on the High Line”
Zora Jones – “First Light”
Sophie – “Vyzee”
Summing up the ‘best albums of’ chart gets harder and harder for me every year. I shatter my attention between albums, EPs, mixes, podcasts, singles, mixtapes, streams, concerts and club nights, festivals and soundtracks. I also listen to ‘old’ music, unknown artists, song from a friend’s phone, songs from my favorite series. I read articles, interviews, reviews, I discuss music with friends and peers. And I barely download and buy music lately. I hardly even write it down. Therefore, I won’t write down a list, but will sum up certain trends and albums which I noticed somehow happened in 2015 and resonated in me or which made me pause and think.
For one thing, 2015 followed the establishment of feminism into music and mainstream culture (again). Willow Smith joined Feminist teenage Art Hoe Collective, whose
The question of objectifying a woman’s body and female sexuality were another topic of 2015, in society and music. Peaches, for instance, made a music video about freedom of female sexuality and body, presenting lesbian orgies and naked women peeing on a rock. If that’s the Peaches way, the Twigs way is to show a naked pregnant belly or transform to a sex doll to prove a point. And FKA twigs did hell of a job in a music video and EP project M3LL155X, combining lyrics tackling the ideas of submissive and dominant and outlining a various forms of female energy and power with polished yet haunting beats and choreography, amazingly illustrating the content of each song.
I also can’t ignore artists getting political. Holly Herndon’s Platform is a masterpiece for so many reasons, which have been covered and captured so well already (for example in The Quietus review, interview for The Guardian or article on The Fader). As much as I embrace ideas such as the laptop being a multi-emotional instrument, I also can’t ignore her critical stance towards capitalism and over-individualistic people in her lyrics for Unequal: ‘Why? Why are we unequal?’ she asks and continues with a to do (wish) list: ‘To change the shape of our future, to be unafraid, to break away dignity, identity, why are we? A louder fight, a harder fight. For one, as one.’ It very much reminded me of Borders by M.I.A. with lyrics and video reacting on the refugee crisis and the West being unable to reflect its own mistakes and responsibility and to deal with its own fears. Identities, your privilege, the new world, makin’ money, breakin’ internet, freedom, your power… What’s up with that?
David wrote about Platform being an album which sounds like it’s being made in 2015. I agree. And I’d like to mention another album which I consider being very present, at least from the sound point of view – Arca’s Mutant. Where Holly hesitates which identity to choose, Arca shifts from one to another or unites them into a mutant whose deformed parts spring from his own ears. Arca’s music is like a Phoenix, constantly burning, exploding and coming from its own ashes. There’s always a new ‘me’, yet I’m still the same. The atmosphere is eerie, aggressive, hopeless, proud, sexy, haunting. The melodies are touching as a movie soundtrack. And the record still feels very personal. As well as the last record of 2015 I want to write about: The Garden of Delete.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s seven record is considered being his most personal one – not only due to the use of his own vocal, but also because he captures tattered and contradictory essence of a transformative period of growing up. Be it a human or an alien (Ezra, in this case) – being a teenager in this world is the most confusing thing. Lopatin mixed rage and unstableness with emotional synth melodies. Together with sad computed voice and harsh noises, it all results in melancholic cries for help in the world, where globalization brings the feeling of guilt, where the war news is followed by the new iPhone commercial, where machines often take too much of our attention, where making a difference has never been so easy, yet choosing the right path has never been so hard, because the future seems darker than ever. If we all come from the garden of Eden, then we as well might end up in the garden of delete. And then restart.
I love the people I get to work with, partly because they finish my sentences and complete my thoughts. And that is to say, David and Friday each beat me to many of the things I was going to say – to a track, I’m in love with a lot of the same music. Let me echo some of those, and add a few perhaps left-field choices.
Erika and Jay released a beautiful, oddball EP called The Listeners” on Modular Cowboy. It’s weird, wonderful stuff, and this Detroit duo also have a killer, genuinely spontaneous, gear-laden live set (I was lucky to catch it at Panorama Bar).
Lakker are back on the scene with Tundra, weaving together gorgeous vocals and heavy industrial noise. It’s a wonderful combination, and I really adore the duo (as well as Eomac solo), and their combinations of experimental and electronic.
Filed in the “under the radar” category, Spain’s Kuroi is putting out beautiful, unique techno, not to be missed. Her tracks to me represent some of the path forward for techno: increasingly pushing sound design and breaking the rules of what’s chic at the moment.
Speaking of adventurous sounds, the Monad series continues to serve up delicious soundscapes. Positive Centre’s outing this year was no exception – dark, alien headphone music, not only techno.
Electric Indigo’s music deserves a wider audience, spanning experimental to techno. CINQ/ZERO, complete with remixes by two other brilliant stand-out 2015 artists (Dadub, Bill Youngman), is one of the best releases this year.
More weirdo music – with delightful clashing rhythms and unexpected timbres, Noise Manifesto heralds the arrival of Decon/Recon. That ensemble is formed by rroxymore, Oni Ayhun, Aquarian Jugs (aka planningtorock), and Jaguar Woman (aka Paula Temple), basically a who’s who of the most creative women in electronic music. Decon/Recon sounds like they all decided to play at once, in the best possible way.
Robert Hood is an institution, a connection to techno tradition who continues to play a leading role. Seeing him at Tresor was pure delight, and his remix of Radioslave’ “Don’t Stop No Sleep” has my vote as heaviest track of the year. It might also be my personal motto (better be, with NAMM coming).
Among ambient records, Italian artist Fabio Perletta produced an absolutely exquisite dreamscape inspired by Japanese Hanami. In case you missed the point, the physical release came with cherry tree seeds to plant, but pink blossoms might well bloom in your head unprompted on listening.
Cio D’or is simply one of my favorite DJs and producers, comfortable playing experimental music for theater or techno or anything else. Her release OFF AND ON on Telrae will transport you somewhere else, showcasing her extensive creative range.
Zuzana talked about political issues. I like this musical statement from Indianapolis’ DJ Shiva, who was one of my favorite SoundClouders of the year, thanks to her prodigious live sets and championing truly creative techno on her SUBterror Radio series. This quirky, heavy track “Unsafe” is a sonic response to the issue of how people feel on the dance floor. And consent and harrassment are topics we need to talk about everywhere, no matter how progressive we imagine our particular scene.
This is an older track I made when I first got back to producing.
One thing I don’t talk about much is that it was also me processing feelings after a near queer bashing/sexual assault at a party (I’m okay, it was thankfully averted). But I think it’s important to say that here.
Enjoy this free tune, but please remember that we have to do better at keeping people safe at our clubs and events, and we have to acknowledge the real problems within our subculture with sexual harassment. We can do better than this. Everyone should be able to have a good time without fear. No one should be unsafe.
In comments on that SoundCloud post is a line I want on a t-shirt:
“Freedom, respect, and being weird make this music what it is.”
“Howl” by Rival Consoles (aka Ryan Lee West) was just one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s warm, organic, spontaneous, rhythmic without feeling confined to a grid. It’s the sort of natural-sounding, rough-edged production that I hope catches on more, amidst over-producing on one hand and overblown goth darkness on the other. It’s an album that feels free, a gift to your ears.
If Holly Herndon seems to keep getting mentioned over and over again, there’s a reason for that. She’s reflective and thoughtful about the use of the computer as an instrument at a time when people are too quick to follow the latest trends. (To paraphrase Lcd Soundsystem, I hear you’re buying a Eurorack and throwing your MPC out the window because you want to make something real.)
The resulting music sounds fresh, as Friday and David have noted.
And the message is political in a way that’s personal. There actually is a message, not just applied on the top like a decal, but woven into the reason for the music being. You might not like Holly’s music, but that shouldn’t be the point. I hope that more music in 2016 involves brain cells and opinions, is unafraid of self-examination and political context.
My other artist of the year is, unequivocally, Jeff Mills. (I have an interview with him that is one of my favorite, ever, and I’ve delayed it specifically to make sure this new site is ready to hold it.) If Friday and David left him out, maybe it’s because he did so much in 2015, it was hard to keep track.
He was composing music in Rembrandt’s studio. He was again performing 909 with orchestras. Jeff Mills to me is a modern-day Duke Ellington, in that he’s found a way of elevating a popular music to classical tradition and thought. (Indeed, Ellington’s work is a direct parallel, as his collaborations with orchestras in Carnegie Hall.) To really understand Mills, you need to dive deep into his music and his thought, his creativity and the rigors of technique. And maybe Mills is doing for the 909 what Herndon is doing for the laptop.
Exhibitionist2Trailer from AxisRecords on Vimeo.
The totality of that is better than any one album, but for the record, Mills’ work was accompanied by Exhibitionist 2, Proxima Centauri, Time Tunnel, Woman In The Moon, and, with Mikhaïl Rudy, When Time Splits. It’s cerebral science fiction stuff during a year when people have been pessimistic about the future. But make no mistake: just as sci-fi got us through nuclear and environmental fears in the 20th century, it’s what can help us navigate the path between dystopia and utopia now. And that makes me look forward to next year.
That’s hardly a complete list, but – even that is encouraging. It turns out there’s too much great music to even remember. So, on with the future.
Feature image: (CC-BY) Will Folsom.