Second Quarter Report: The 25 best albums of the last three months
We’re halfway through 2015, and it’s already been one of the best years for music in recent memory.
Each quarter we pool our favorite albums of the season; 2015’s first quarter report appeared back in March and featured treats from Dawn Richard (now D∆WN), Jlin, and Father, among others.
Since 2015 continues to impress, we’ve opted to go for 25 picks (rather than the usual 20) once more. It’s been a markedly diverse year, and the last three months have brought us rap standouts from West Coasters Boogie, Vince Staples and Tyler The Creator, electronic oddities from Holly Herndon, Smurphy and Death’s Dynamic Shroud, and so much more.
We’ve also put together a handy YouTube playlist, containing a track from each album in the list.
Abra is having a hell of a year. After dropping the moody BLQ VELVET in January, she’s gone on to steal the show on every Awful record on which she’s been featured, and her winning streak continues on her debut album, ROSE. Abra lives up to her “Darkwave Duchess” moniker by blending R&B melodies with ice cold 80s synth-pop sounds, building an album out of Casio drum loops, visceral sub-bass and scintillating synth swells. She layers her vocals and turns them into textures and rhythms; her melodies stay with you, and her lyrics bound from love-damaged vulnerability to sex-fueled empowerment and all points in-between. ROSE may pull from a range of pop music, but Abra is clearly in a lane of her own. “All I ever wanted and all I ever need is a beat and a heart, that can make me feel human,” she sings on ‘Feel’. ROSE has beats and heart to spare, and a very-human artist at its core.
“On The Reach, Boogie is still suspect of social media, still frustrated with the street-life struggle, still doing it all for his son, but his vision is clearer, his voice stronger. His wordplay will please some (“Marshawn Lynch me”) but his real strength is storytelling: “No disrespect to the mother who had my son / If I diss her I be phony / She a great mom / But how it feel to know she fucking on that nigga that used to say he your homie? Fuck,” he raps on ‘Intervention’, avoiding cliché and admitting his vulnerability. On the same song, he raps: “Waking up my kid, he see a puddle by the bed / and he asked me was it rain / I have to tell him it was tears.” Damn.” Read the full review.
Circuit Des Yeux
In Plain Speech
Haley Fohr’s fifth album as Circuit Des Yeux saw her break down and rebuild her entire creative process, expanding her solo venture to a full band and widening the scope of her music to near-cinematic dimensions. From the cowboy rumble of ‘Ride Blind’ to the droning peaks of ‘Dream on TV’ and the quivering rush of interlude moments like ‘KT 5’, it’s a record that travels in many directions, yet everything is tied together by Fohr’s remarkable voice; a throaty, theatrical quaking from deep, deep down.
Captain Of None
Cécile Schott’s voyage to discover her voice has been a joy to behold. 2013’s The Weighing of the Heart was a minor miracle, heralding Schott’s return to the spotlight and unveiling her vocals for the first time. On Captain of None, Schott is confident and assured and the tentative qualities of its predecessor are all but gone as she turns traditional song structures on their head and embraces another lifelong passion – bass. The curious, airy vignettes that characterized Schott’s early records have now been fleshed out into full songs, and the result is both singular and delightfully addictive.
Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv
I’ll Try Living Like This
“For anyone who may have written off vaporwave years back, please let Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv’s messy, marvelous new album pull you back in… It doesn’t try to subvert any of the current trends in vaporwave, it doesn’t try to hearken back to the intensely conceptual qualities of the early days. I’ll Try Living Like This does one single thing: it fucking bangs — hard and consistently — for a dizzyingly complex and immensely pleasurable hour, and then says goodbye (the last track is literally called ‘Good Bye’). It feels like a part of this genre’s strange lineage, yet never feels tied down by it.” Read the full review.
Dr. Yen Lo
Days With Dr. Yen Lo
“Ka is undoubtedly the center of attention. His words reduce the surrounding soundscapes to dust, booming with the assured prowess that only a veteran can bring. He’s battle-scarred at this point, troubled by memories of a Brooklyn that’s disappearing quicker than the old-timers ever thought was possible. Thankfully he’s lost none of the thirst – Days with Dr Yen Lo pits Ka as hip-hop’s answer to Scott Walker: singular, deeply original and difficult to fault. It’s a beautiful anomaly, hard to describe and even harder to properly digest; it’s also one of the year’s best full-lengths.” Read the full review.
The Blue Quicksand Is Going Now
Fis’s deconstructed club mutations have been tickling our ear canals for a few years, and The Blue Quicksand Is Going Now is his most carefully-defined statement to date. Following a slew of crucial EPs and a mix for Resident Advisor that may as well have been a proper album, his debut proper needed to push the New Zealand producer’s sound out even further – thankfully, it does. There are no broad strokes here, no pandering to one sound or another; those of you looking to hear sneaky amen breaks or hoover bass snippets should head elsewhere. Fis’s world has been dissolved within an inch of its life: beats are stretched into granular death rattles and basslines are squashed into gut-churning belches from deep beneath the earth’s surface. It might take a few listens to truly get to the bottom of The Blue Quicksand Is Going Now, but it’s worth every second spent in its presence.
Flava D’s More Love feels like both a step up from and the logical conclusion to her self-released series of Bandcamp mixtapes. The tracks are more complex here, with extended, often beatless intros and more advanced melodies than before, but ultimately it draws from the same combination of classic garage sounds and recognisable samples that made her past Bandcamp releases so hard to resist. It leans a little too heavily on some obvious a capellas at times (‘2 On’, we see you) but more than makes up for it elsewhere – and the ambient outro is a dream.
Olympic Mess sounds like a typical noise record for exactly one second before plunging beneath the surface and entering its dreamlike world. That’s often the feeling on Luke Younger’s latest work as his lulling-but-menacing synths hint at something dangerous gone to rest. It’s a disorienting atmosphere where logic bends — repetitively looped drones masquerade as rhythms, sounds move in reverse, a monologue unexpectedly emerges — yet Younger always feels powerfully deliberate. It’s rare to find an album as chilling and as entrancing as Olympic Mess.
Much has been made of the conceptual elements of Holly Herndon’s Platform. It’s an album which engages with contemporary issues like surveillance and economics that few others are even willing to touch. Herndon and her team of collaborators have created an album that’s thought-provoking, but also one of the most imaginative and tactile sound worlds you’ll hear all year. It’s impressive as an album of complex, alien club music, but the reason Platform works is because it’s a pop record at heart, one that interfaces with your emotions despite its weighty themes and technological veneer. Herndon’s debut album felt like her sound had a way to go before it crystallised: Platform exceeds it and then some.
Through his NTS show, unreleased tracks and mixes, Lithuanian producer J. G. Biberkopf has established himself as one of the most promising acts from a wave of producers making formless, off-grid sci-fi music that thrives on the physicality of club contexts but ignores its traditional structures. It makes perfect sense that he has contributed the first full release to Kuedo’s Knives label – there are obvious links to the way Kuedo approached ATL rap trademarks on Severant – and he doesn’t disappoint; when the EP’s climax ‘Age of Aquarius’ finally comes, you’ve been fully transported.
On Savage, Stones Throw’s resident goofball (well, one of them at least) made ancient free Soundfonts packs sound not only good but exotic — almost mystical at times, in fact. The only letdown is that we get just 14 of the 100+ recordings he’s apparently made. But that’s only a temporary complaint until he gives us the next volume — because there needs to be a next volume. You hear us?! Don’t cut us off James!
Listening to Apocalypse, girl is such a visual experience, it feels at times like you’re watching a movie. It’s unsurprising given that Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona was one of Jenny Hval’s primary influences while making what is one of her best solo albums, an ambitious record of oblique pop described by Sacred Bones as “a post-op fever dream”. While the arrangements are striking enough, it’s the language and imagery that makes this one of the year’s most provocative albums, asking questions like “What is soft dick rock?” among sci-fi electronics that sound like Lynchian audio cues. It’s a difficult album, but once you’ve unpeeled its layers, it’s one of the year’s most rewarding.
Kara-Lis Coverdale & LXV
While Sirens is true to its name in being an intoxicating listen, it’s far more than just a pleasantly hypnotizing ambient record. Each track is expertly arranged so that even the gentlest shifts feel dramatic — a piece of percussion, a hiccuping vocal loop, and the occasional specks of darkness. It all works symbiotically though; the complexity makes it a record which demands many listens, but the sheer vastness and beauty of it never makes that a problem.
“Opener ‘Don’t Be Scared’ sets the bedroom/laptop-recorded intimacy with gently plucked guitar, skittering lo-fi electronics and manipulated vocals, but Dey is full of surprises throughout. Take ‘Unkillable’, which finds her shaking off those flecks of sonic taffy with an explosive rallying cry; ‘All On You’ which peeks at the powerful voice underneath all the haze; or the crisp closing instrumental ‘You Gotta Get Up To Get Up’ which loops a twinkling melody as warm organ drones melt in between… One of the most wonderful surprises of the year.” Read the full review.
Lil Ugly Mane
Third Side of Tape
In short, Lil Ugly Mane does everything better than everyone. He proved that with the previous two Three Sided Tape instalments, which compiled 15 years of Ugly Mane material, featuring everything from breakbeat club to negative-bitrate metal, and the third piece of the puzzle is just as good – if hard to digest, as it clocks in at over two hours long. Never has a marathon breezed by quite like this, though.
808s & Dark Grapes III
Main Attrakionz and Friendzone, reunited at last. 808s & Dark Grapes III is the long-gestating finale in their sound-defining cloud rap trilogy, and it ties up an era for the group with a bow. Friendzone weave tapestries out of elastic synth arpeggios, triumphant horns, digital drum clatter and plenty of weed-smoke ambience. On the mic, Mondre and Squadda trade verses and sing emotional melodies, interpolating Freak Nasty (‘Dip’), Three 6 Mafia (‘Summa Time’) and even quiet storm R&B (‘G.O All I Know’); Green Ova partner-in-crime Shady Blaze shows up to offer technical prowess but also tales of personal loss and perseverance. This is Main Attrakionz at their purest, a message that is repeated throughout the album: for these guys, there’s no other way but the Green Ova way.
Frozen Niagara Falls
“There are no words to be made out here, just dumb, animal terror. As apocalyptic swirls of static and lush synths rise like water in a hurricane, Fernow sounds like he’s desperately trying not to drown. Later, on the closing ‘Christ Among The Broken Glass’, he speaks in an exhausted, half-asleep whisper over softly falling rain finally drizzling to silence. The storm is over; he survived. It’s the 90-minute struggle between those two moments that makes up Frozen Niagara Falls – Prurient’s masterpiece.” Read the full review.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma
We Know Each Other Somehow
Recorded in the middle of nowhere in Australia, We Know Each Other Somehow is the document of a session between two titans of experimental music. Ariel Kalma has been plying his trade for four decades, recording influential electronic music (some of which was compiled on RVNG’s excellent retrospective An Evolutionary Music) and occupying a post at France’s pioneering GRM studio; Robert Lowe has been similarly prolific, playing in influential bands 90 Day Men, Singer and OM, and recording as Lichens as well as under his own name. Their meeting of minds is as charming and fragile as it is absorbing – electronic textures ebb and flow like the sea, washing in and out of view and gently hypnotizing the listener. It would almost be insulting to call it ambient – We Know Each Other Somehow is anything but background music.
The Crucifixion of Rapper Extraordinaire, Slug Christ
“Slug Christ’s gift for aesthetic and narrative is on full display on Crucifixion, a based-goth rap epic that sees the Awful talent tell his own Christ myth. “I’m making up religions off the mushrooms,” he claims on ‘I’m the Ocean’, growing his flock with the us-versus-everybody ‘You With Them’ and casting the money changers out of the temple on the moody ‘Fuck This Money’.” Read the full review.
A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended in the Darkness
Mexico City’s Jessica Smurphy wooed us with her album of psychic wanderings, twitching rhythms and slippery vocals, drawing on the underground club styles favoured by her NAAFI crew as well as headier abstraction from the worlds of jazz, ambient and musique concrete. A Shapeless Pool… is as charming and complex as its name suggests, and of course snatches the quarterly prize for best album title.
Tyler The Creator
(Odd Future / Sony)
The Odd Future graduate handles a dizzying palette for his fourth album, splashing luxurious jazz chords through in-the-red rock drums, blasted basslines and lilting synth-muzak in a genre-straddling manner that’s in Grecian levels of debt to vintage N.E.R.D. Lyrically, he remains introspective and obnoxious in equal measure, hoping that his juvenile slurs still get us “angry, pissed and offended” while fretting over the emptiness of material wealth (“You can buy a car, you can buy many things / You can buy happiness but you can’t buy wings”). Cherry Bomb is chaos through and through, but never less than compelling.
“Summertime ‘06 is the culmination of a key period for Staples, starting with his scene-stealing feature on Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘epaR’ back in 2010 through his increasingly impressive Shyne Coldchain mixtapes to last year’s table-setting Hell Can Wait. Set to be released just days before his 22nd birthday, Staples is excited about Summertime ’06, as he should be. “I’m just excited to see how people feel about where I come from, from a realistic standpoint,” he says. “I don’t even know how to feel about it. It’s never happened before. I’m just excited to see how it turns out.”” Read the full review.
(Not Not Fun)
After a few records as White Poppy, Natural Phenomena is where Crystal Dorval has finally hit the perfect combination of softly buzzing guitar, cloudy synths, and lullaby vocals. They’re songs that are sharp enough to show off how strong her songwriting has become, but the elements still blur together and wrap around you like a warm old blanket. It’s the kind of album you’ll want to fall asleep or wake up to.
(300 / Atlantic)
“There’s nothing as immediate as ‘Lifestyle’ or his recent collabs with Metro Boomin; London on da Track and Wheezy offer an album full of muted trap lullabies, all ping-ponging synths and melancholy piano melodies. The beats on Barter 6 wash over you like a springtime stream rather than crashing into you like a summery wave, which suits Thug’s often lethargic, Xan’d out delivery.” Read the full review.