It’s hard to believe we’ve broken off three months of 2015 already.
Every quarter we pull together a rundown of our favorite albums of the season, and while it feels like just yesterday we were pooling records for 2014’s end-of-year haul, it’s that time again.
The last three months has been a blur for good reason – while we usually pick 20 records for these quarterly round-ups, there was so much good music we just had to move the goalposts a little and plump for 25 this time. With mindblowing art pop from Dawn Richard and Björk, genre-pushing rap from the Awful Records camp and explosive house and techno from Zenker Brothers and Paranoid London, it’s a list that should have something for (almost) everyone.
Alexandria’s debut album – last year’s Alexandria – took us by surprise, so much so that we actually missed it at the time. Produced by Awful Records’ Ethereal, it took the framework of Aaliyah’s stone-cold-classic Aaliyah and dragged it into 2014, embellishing it with a few dusty rave memories for good measure. Bad might be even better – Alexandria gains confidence on the mic and Ethereal heads further into the abyss with his phenomenal selection of beats; just peep the title track and tell us you’re not hooked.
Those of you desperate for more reverb-drenched vocal-laced material that inhabits the same realm as Portland’s Grouper need look no further. ANAMAI’s debut album Sallows blends Anna Mayberry’s haunting songs with Egyptrixx’s subtle production and the result is charming and oddly beautiful. It’s not a record that needs to shout and scream to make you take notice; it unfolds slowly, thoughtfully and delicately. In 2015, as we’re subjected to a barrage of YouTube comments, promoted tweets and Soundcloud drops, that’s a blessing.
(One Little Indian)
“Its comparatively conventional sound may bring to mind earlier albums, but Vulnicura never feels like a rehashing of old ideas. Rather, it’s as if, as she sings on ‘Black Lake’, Björk is “a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home”. As such, Vulnicura is better taken as a companion to her earlier work than a step backwards from the innovations of Medulla, Volta and Biophilia. It may be her way of relating and dealing with a narrative that is hers alone, but the outcome is Björk’s most fully realised, accessible record in years.” Read the full review.
The best Björk record of 2015 isn’t actually Vulnicura. Dawn Richard – previously of Making the Band supergroup Danity Kane and Dirty Money – has landed on a career-best with Blackheart, an album that blends her massive multitude of influences, from Afro-futurist pop to crystalline electronics, into a mindbogglingly coherent narrative. It’s the kind of album that takes multiple listens to unravel, and one that gets better and better with every subsequent spin.
“Alexandra Drewchin has a track record of great psychedelic work (and an impressive voice) with her other band Guardian Alien, and left to herself under this aptly named project there’s nothing to hold back her imagination. With song structures that begin to melt as rapidly and drastically as the surroundings of someone 90 minutes into an acid trip, Eartheater sounds like she’s done just what her world-destroying moniker might imply, and is simply gazing out beyond at what’s to conquer next. We’ll probably have to wait a while to find out, but after Metalepsis you’ll want to follow her anywhere.” Read the full review.
Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First
On his follow-up to Young Hot Ebony, Father is a little older, a little wiser but just as raunchy as ever, armed with the effortless flow and sparsely seductive beats that have made him such a captivating talent. KeithCharles Spacebar, RichPoSlim, Abra and the rest of the Awful family assist as he charts new ground (Miami bass, a 3/4 waltz) and finds even deeper depths of depravity.
Dream A Garden
It’s not surprising that most of the conversation around Dream A Garden are veiled complaints that “this isn’t Classical Curves,” but it is unfortunate. What this lush, intimate and, yes, awkward album proves is Jack Latham has more on his mind than sticking around for a party he started years ago. ‘A Walk Down Chapel’ hints in vulnerable coos and processed shouts what he states so bluntly, and painfully, in the aptly named centerpiece ‘Today’: “And not so long ago, I was a child with a computer.” Of course this album is awkward, and of course it isn’t easy, but since when has growing up ever been fucking easy?
Living on Superstition
Despite being filled with moments of hauntological bleakness, there’s something quietly comforting about James Place’s Umor Rex debut, Living On Superstition. Channeling Actress, Cluster and even the deconstructed looping pop of The Field’s early material, it combines intricate miniatures and sprawling electronic compositions, each reflecting the mood of the Manhattan high rise in which he recorded it. James Place might be another producer making introspective music with analog gear, but this is how you do it right.
“The world is filled with too many restless people,” says Jeff Bridges, whose Sleeping Tapes are packaged as a gift to the picky insomniac; a noodling patchwork of soft drones, found sounds, whispery jazz and radiophonic creaks and whirrs which frame Bridges’ grizzled story-poems and avuncular musings “to help you get a good night’s rest”. You might find yourself too wrapped up in his Dude-like locutions to actually drift off, but it’s a charming detour either way.
A Year With 13 Moons
Following up a record about falling in love (2010’s Love is a Stream) with a break-up album was never going to be easy, but Jefre Cantu-Ledesma manages it simply by sticking to his guns. The bliss and abandon of A Year With 13 Moons‘ predecessor is replaced with melancholy guitar tones and sparse beats, recalling the Cocteau Twins at their most elegiac, or Endless Summer-era Fennesz. Who’d have thought reveling in someone else’s misery could be so rewarding?
Ambitious young footworker Jlin stole the show on the second volume of Bangs & Works with the hypnotic ‘Erotic Heat’, and four years later the Gary, Indiana, producer reappears on Planet Mu with a mind-blowing debut that seems to redraw the boundaries of the now-ageing genre. The “dark energy” that fuels her creativity is translated into a series of meticulously crafted and (astonishingly) sample-free tracks that dance with the macabre while retaining the locomotive power of the finest footwork cuts.
John T. Gast
Like the music of his former collaborators Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland, there’s a simmering sense of claustrophobia to the music of John T. Gast. On Excerpts he finds multiple ways to explore it, across blown-out dub, sluggish house, acrid drone, scrambled radiophonic tones and crusty ambient textures. Gast’s music might feel like it exists in a self-contained bubble, but the breadth of different ways he finds to explore his oppressive atmospheres makes for a compelling collection of tracks.
Johnny May Cash
My Last Days
“Chicago’s Johnny May Cash has been on our radar for some time, and My Last Days feels like his chance to finally shine. Often overshadowed by his popular, prodigiously-talented brother Young Chop (who incidentally produced most of the tape), Cash’s Autotuned sing-song style is nothing new — think Lil Durk’s or Chief Keef’s more melodic moments, or King Louie’s terminally-underrated Jeep Music tape — but My Last Days doesn’t concern itself with innovation, simply with coherence and quality. You read that right, it’s a tape that’s not overlong and appears to have been crafted, mastered and sequenced with genuine care and attention to detail.” Read the full review.
To Pimp A Butterfly
“Where Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city told the story of one man, To Pimp A Butterfly tells the story of a nation and a people, through the eyes of that same man […] On songs like ‘i’, ‘Blacker The Berry’ and ‘King Kunta’, Lamar is selling revolutionary ideas with a song and dance, in a medium that delivers the message. It may be the most important lesson he’s learned from Tupac.” Read the full review.
“The album’s centrepiece is ‘Launch Ramp to tha Sky’, an 11-minute epic climaxing in a dizzying tornado of ascending keys and choral harmony. In anyone else’s hands it would probably feel overly grandiose, but for Vincent it’s a brittle moment brandishing a rawness more concerned with emotional honesty than slavishly creating a “straight-to-tape” sound – one that’s increasingly becoming a stylistic dead end.” Read the full review.
Mumdance & Logos
Separately, Mumdance and Logos have given us some of the most innovative UK club music of the past few years. Together, they’ve created an album that’s downright raucous, fusing their love of ’90s hardcore and ’80s bleep with the alien grime that’s become both their trademarks. They’re not the first producers to put their spin on the heyday of the UK underground, but few have done it quite so well – Proto is more of a blistering alternate reality than a stale nostalgia trip.
The latest Noveller album is a keeper: a collection of densely layered instrumental drifters steered by Sarah Lipstate’s effects-laden Fender Jaguar over hypnotic rhythms and glacial, sumptuous drones. While its shimmering layers invite you to crank up the volume and simply sink in, there’s a cool, clean air to tracks like ‘Rubicon’ and ‘In February’ that recalls the soaring heights of early kraut and kosmische records.
(Beats In Space)
For all the rigid precision often associated with house music, it’s funny that Kai Hugo managed to best everyone this year with Palmbomen II, a shambling, wheezing record of single-take jams. Don’t mistake them for improvisations though; Hugo only recorded each of these 14 tracks after hours upon hours of planning (and X-Files episodes). What results is an alternately fun, silly, creepy, and touching LP that never sounds slaved over so much as relaxedly pondered.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
“If Lennox’s fifth solo album as Panda Bear often does feel idyllic, it’s surely in large part because he’s worked hard to realise his more homely, down-to-earth dreams. Today ensconced in Lisbon, Portugal, where he lives with his wife and two young children, Lennox lives out the humble and apparently happy existence he longed for on Animal Collective’s ‘My Girls’. Discussing the genesis of Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, he’s talked about drum-powered music – dub reggae, producer 9th Wonder, and the boom-bap sound of ‘90s hip-hop. At its root, though, it cleaves close to the formula Lennox realised wonderfully on 2007’s Person Pitch: samples crushed, treated and reconstituted into ramshackle, rhythmically cyclical loops that sound like ocean waves crashing against some rickety old jetty.” Read the full review.
“It’s hard to predict how long the duo can or will hold true to their promise, but if it continues to lead to results like this, here’s hoping that Paranoid London maintain radio silence; their debut is one of the most eclectic yet visceral house records of recent memory. That they manage to show respect to the diversity of acid’s beginnings while delivering dirty, brutal tracks without pandering to nostalgia is impressive and refreshing.” Read the full review.
The kids are all right: teenaged brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy — under the watchful eye of hip-hop hitmaker Mike Will Made It — followed 2014 smashes ‘No Flex Zone’ and ‘No Type’ with an album of hypnotic, zeitgeist-riding anthems that turn memes into funhouse rap bangers (‘This Could Be Us’). And don’t forget the video game-meets-safe sex PSA that encapsulates what the SremmLife is all about. Don’t forget this one when spring and summer come around.
(Camp & Street)
“Lo Motion/Camp & Street singer Rahel accomplishes a feat that a multitude of so-called alt-r’n’b artists have been trying to do since that sub-genre name was coined […] Alkali does this not only in the billowing romantic textures of the beats, but by employing a narrative structure and shirking the über-raunch or utter scorn of R&B au courant.” Read the full review.
RJ & Choice
Rich Off Mackin
“Rich Off Mackin wastes no time setting the scene, kicking off with a blaxploitation sample, a DJ Mustard beat and the line ‘Poppa was a pimp and momma used to ho and strip.’ This is the mixtape for anyone looking for a better successor to YG’s My Krazy Life than DJ Mustard’s uneven 10 Summers, with the cultural touchstones of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata.” Read the full review.
The Brothers Slim
“This is one we’ve been waiting for: the pairing of Awful Records rappers RichPoSlim and Archibald Slim. Not just because ‘The Brothers Slim’ is a clever tag-team name, but because we knew their styles — Po’s big-mouthed brashness and Archibald’s half-lidded, deliberate attack — would be perfectly complementary […] Dichotomy doesn’t disappoint on any of those counts, and rather than showing ‘two sides of every story,’ the pair are on the same page throughout.” Read the full review.
Although they are both accomplished producers in their own right, brothers Marco and Dario Zenker form an extremely potent partnership. The Munich duo first teamed up in 2011 for an EP on their own Ilian Tape imprint before dropping a pair of mighty EPs for Tresor in 2013 and 2014, and their combined powers are fully realised on their impressive debut full-length. Sparse and beatless numbers like ‘Erbquake’ and atmospheric opener ‘Minto’ provide a rare chance to surface for air between the hazy throb of ‘TSV WB’ and ‘Innef Runs’. Their rhythmic sensibilities are showcased throughout, coming to the fore on peak-time bomb ‘High Club’ and the broken rhythms of ‘Ebbman’. An enchanting ride from start to finish, Immersion truly lives up to its title.