Every month, FACT’s Miles Bowe examines the Best of Bandcamp, unearthing the finest, freshest and no doubt weirdest releases the burgeoning DIY platform has to offer.
If you needed any other sign of Bandcamp’s relevance in 2015, consider this: Bandcamp hit $100 million in fan-to-artist transactions this February when just two years ago they were only at half that. The golden days of discovery while digging in record stores may be behind us, but this website has inspired that same old excitement in a new way and brought back a sense of community in independent music.
The records collected on this list were all sought out, stumbled upon or found accidentally. But every single one was rewarding enough to make that effort worthwhile. One note, some of the very best Bandcamp releases made it onto our main year end list and were omitted here to give more releases attention. With that said, here are FACT’s 20 Best Bandcamp releases of 2015.
20. Boreal Network
Itasca Road Trip
It’s been a while since Nicole Johnson released an album as Boreal Network, but she makes up for it with the 80 minutes of Itasca Road Trip. True to the name, these 33 tracks sound like they were meant for a long, nature-filled drive, from the downtempo lightness of ‘Save The Earth’ to the heavy sparkle of ‘Sylvan Lake’. With each track providing something special before driving off to the next, this is a trip worth taking.
Walk into a Guitar Center and you’re guaranteed to be bombarded with countless amateur shredders spilling sound in a whirlwind of awfulness. Somehow Danny Greenwald walked into that aural hell and got the brilliant idea to use it as the source material for No Stairway, and the result was a complete inversion, as Greenwald processed the recordings and filtered the mess until only the pretty and peaceful remained. No Stairway lets you sit back and pick out recognizable moments from the faded slow motion swirl as if you’re looking for shapes in the clouds. If Guitar Centers dream (which they obviously do) — this is the soundtrack.
Exploding In Sound dealt with a double loss this year when two of their foundational bands, Krill and Ovlov, broke up. Fortunately, the former left us with a brilliant swansong whereas Steve Hartlett, frontman of Ovlov, delivered his delightful solo-debut as Stove. Is Stupider is filled with plenty of guitar fuzz, but it balances out better than ever before with Harlett’s songwriting. Songs like ‘Aged Hype’ and ‘Wet Food’ have space to let Hartlett’s voice fit in all the heavy riffs, while ‘Jock Dreams’ let his always great sense of humor shine. Ovlov will be missed, but Stove finds Hartlett on the right track. Things can only get stupiderer in 2016.
17. Periodic Table Tennis
Captive In Babylon
Our first Bandcamp release of the month back in January, Captive In Babylon is what happens if you let a dark ambient record and a hip-hop beat tape simmer, then throw in some field recordings for spice. It’s creepy in some parts (is there a way a child’s xylophone can’t sound creepy?) and surprisingly pretty in others, but Dustin Grant’s steady hand in keeping that tension between both is what made it worth coming back to over the whole year.
16. George Clanton
George Clanton knew what he was doing when he released 100% Electronica under his own name. Maybe you encountered his funny online presence or saw one of his explosive live shows as Mirror Kisses or stumbled across his bizarro work as ESPRIT 空想. It doesn’t matter, because most of this album feels like a long-awaited and deeply satisfying debut. I used to think of George as a kind of internet rockstar, but after this year and 100% Electronica, I just think of him as a rockstar.
Smut is the project of Ale Campos, who also plays drums in Miami riot grrrl band Testökra. I’m telling you this now because six months ago when I heard Conveniently Broken I could barely find out a damn thing about it. Of course, when you have an opener as immediate and heartfelt as ‘Cold’ you really don’t need a bio. Following that we get three originals (including the excellent break-up/rave-up of ‘Can’t Say’) and a Black Tamborine cover, ensuring that this is an artist worth looking into. Now there are two Miami bands worth keeping an eye on.
14. Infinity Girl
Infinity Girl’s Harm is the most slept-on shoegaze album of the year because it actually does something interesting and unique with the genre. It’s an album filled with gorgeous sounds, sure, but they’re all cast through a raw, crunchy filter that never lets you lose sight of the musicians playing their hardest. It’s all tied together by frontman and producer Nolan Eley, who doesn’t just write excellent songs but has the ear to shape them in constantly fascinating ways. If you’re sick of shoegaze bands tripping over themselves to make the next Loveless, this one is smart enough to nail Isn’t Anything first.
13. Donnacha Costello
Stay Perfectly Still
From its alien synth tones to its unmistakable flat touch-plate keyboard, the Buchla Music Easel is a curious instrument. Donnacha Costello explores that in full on Stay Perfectly Still, a meditative stroll through the instrument’s capabilities. Costello recorded each of these seven tracks live without any overdubs or loops, which makes his perfect pace all the more impressive. Each track is relaxing, but with just enough swing to keep you engaged in the instrument, and the result is both one of the most calming records of the year and one of the best pieces of music anyone has made with this odd little instrument.
12. Stara Rzeka
Zamknęły się oczy ziemi
This year saw the demise of Stara Rzeka, the project of Polish producer, songwriter, and all-round really intense guy Jakub Ziołek (I’m guessing on that last one). As an ending, though, Zamknęły się oczy ziemi is spectacular, with spacious, nature-worshipping soundscapes, fiery crackles of metal, and still moments of silvery folk. It’s a goodbye that captures all the beauty and terror that this project channeled so powerfully.
A Distant Fist Unclenching
Krill are gone, but not forgotten. The beloved Boston underdogs called it quits this year, but not before the parting gift of this anxious, funny and gut-wrenching swansong. A Distant Fist Unclenching is Krill at their most ambitious, with complex, constantly surprising songs and a delivery from lead singer Jonah Furman that swerves from silly to devastating without a moment’s notice. From the panic attack-ridden ‘Foot’ to the gracefully sprawling centerpiece ‘Tiger’, Distant Fist ensures that the band’s legacy, to steal a line from the closer, “ends the same way it begins”, sealed with one last adoring cheer of “Krill, Krill, Krill forever”.
Lampgod returns! Lampgod brought so much creativity to early releases on Bootleg Tapes and came back with the finest headfuck he’s made yet. Shrouded Hella throws punching drum samples, ambient soundscapes and a mess of odd samples (I picked out the Sonic 3 warp sound effect on the hypnotic second track), but they’re all woven into a hyper-focused whole. Don’t let the silly artwork throw you off: Shrouded Hella shows Lampgod for the serious talent he is.
9. Negative Gemini
Real Virtual Unison
The term bedroom pop feels increasingly pointless in our internet-fueled time. The line where isolation ends and community begins is blurred when you can get all your social interaction without leaving your laptop or room, and tossing a song online might make you a star overnight. That feels especially relevant on Lindsey French’s Real Virtual Unison, which pumps the old ideas of “bedroom pop” with so much passion and immediacy she might as well smash through your computer screen, Ringu-style. It’s a hell of a first impression and a sign of good things when she gets around to releasing another album.
8. Seth Graham
No. 00 Clean Life
The creme de l’orange of Orange Milk’s always strange crop, the brief 15 minutes of abstract collages on Seth Graham’s No. 00 In Clean Life sparkle with an amorphous playfulness. Like R Plus Seven in turbo drive, harp plucks, disassociated voices, organ heaves and more float in a vacuum before whipping themselves into total cacophony. It’s dizzying and virtuosic, but Graham never loses his personality in the bricolage (anyone with a song called ‘Oboe Malaise’ has to have a good sense of humor). Now if him and Keith Rankin (of Giant Claw and Death’s Dynamic Shroud) can revive their Cream Juice project, we’ll be all set.
I keep wondering if Beach House saw 100%’s Bandcamp page when they were coming up with their artwork for Depression Cherry. The burgundy text on a burgundy field design was the digital equivalent of a diary written in disappearing ink; mysterious and confusing, and the perfect delivery system for such fragile and intimate songs. Had you told me at the time that this was actually the project of Elaiza Santos, frontwoman of the wonderful chiptune-inflected emo band Crying, I couldn’t tell you what I’d have thought. For most of 2015, 100% was the best-kept secret on Bandcamp.
6. More Eaze
More Eaze, aka Marcus Rubio, just kept me guessing all year. This is the guy who thought Fahey-style guitar workouts paired with Young Thug samples would be a good idea and ended up being right, but his best effort was Accidental Prizes. Slicing apart classical arrangements, Rubio crafts curious, deeply original electroacoustic oddities over the first half with pieces like ‘2 In Tents’ and ‘Glass Fragments’, but then appears as an Auto-Tuned singer-songwriter on the title track and even shows off a fractured bit of dance music with ‘The City Speaks Back’. Here’s to another year of keeping us guessing.
5. A Pregnant Light
All Saint’s Day
After delivering the Bandcamp release of the month with his crushing debut as Prison Suicide in August, Colloquial Sound Recordings mastermind Damian Master returned to his best known project with this brutal, beautiful EP. All Saints’ Day was written and recorded in a single day, but don’t expect anything to sound slight or rushed — this is A Pregnant Light, after all. Opener ‘Fear Of God’ surges in on a waterfall of drums, sawing guitars and Master’s savage screams, all fighting in a mad dash to the relief in the breakdown halfway through, and that energy is only stretched on the epic ‘Phoenix Street’. It’s another example of how Master is crafting an entirely unique take on metal through his multiple projects and his label. Forget one-man-bands, this guy is a one-man-music-scene.
4. Ben Varian
Part Of The Y’all
Ben Varian is such a charismatic performer and genuinely funny songwriter that it’s easy to forget he’s also behind all the actual music on this album. On highlights like ‘Szechuan Palace’ and ‘Part Of The Y’all’ he casts himself as an imagined bandleader for chintzy lounge jams, but what puts him on the same playing field as champs like the Silver Jews and Father John Misty is his ability to balance those laughs with pathos, from the self-aware riffing on ‘Sun Sets On The Furniture District’ to the humorous heartbreaker ‘Throw Away My Hair’. From romantic hopefulness to depressed cynicism, few phrased either better than Varian this year.
Three Thousand Flora
Robin Burnett is about as O.G. as you can get in the vaporwave world, originally working under the name Internet Club and defining the original sound better than anyone before moving on to something more undefinable and rewarding as Wakesleep. Three Thousand Flora is the most substantial release to come from the new project, a stunning collection of electronic mood pieces that finds Burnett creating the same hypnotic soundworlds with an entirely different palette; ‘Birds’ percolates on neon tones, while ‘Fairfax’ pokes a heavy snowdrift drone with pinhole glitches. When an Internet Club-style Muzak-sample does appear, it’s not until late in the album on ‘Close-Up’, where it sounds hazy and far-off. That makes sense: Wakesleep is moving into something completely singular and unique, and Three Thousand Flora is proof of how exciting that is.
2. Wished Bone
Ashley Rhodus’ debut as Wished Bone is the kind of gold you dream of hitting while digging around on Bandcamp, a reminder that there are still treasures waiting off the beaten path. You couldn’t find a better love song this whole year than ‘Witty Boys Make Graves’, which opens this perfect little EP recorded in a basement in Ohio. As warm and comforting as the lover’s old shirt referenced in that song, Pseudio Recordings gains a soft-focus beauty from that lo-fi location while letting Rhodus’ voice sit right in the glowing center. Each song offers something familiar while also showing her unique perspective as a songwriter; the gently burning ‘Broken Chill Bone’ brings to mind Angel Olsen’s Halfway Home while name-dropping Ween, then summons the Boognish worshipping duo’s early days on ‘Qui Vivre Verra’. Rhodus draws an innovative line that reminds you how Ween could be deeply sincere when they felt like it, just as Olsen has fitted some great punchlines into otherwise painful songs. It all makes Pseudio Recordings a secret you don’t want to keep, and an introduction to one of the best new songwriters of this year.
When I started calling this column Name Your Price in February, I did it because I wanted to show that “the best of Bandcamp” doesn’t really exist. There is literally not enough time in the day to listen to everything on Bandcamp, and using that term, a generous gesture from artists entrusting you with their work, captured the fun of getting lost in your own unique way. That same month, Alexandra Drewchin released Metalepsis, her debut album as Eartheater, and from its spindly opener ‘MacroEV’ it was like she gave us a ball of string to guide us through this digital labyrinth.
For a record so steeped in technology, Metalepsis sounds completely in tune with nature, like an MPC sprouting magic mushrooms. Drewchin pulls together the future and past by finding the spirituality in both through intricately constructed modern folk music. Listening through her previous uploads reveals that some songs, like ‘Homonyms’, were years-in-the-making, growing and transforming gradually over time until they were just right. It’s not surprising. Looking at this album as a whole or peering into a single track reveals an equally massive world, like some aural fractal loop. ‘Youniverse’ manages to tie together a catchy rock song, an abstract electronic bridge, a field recording of people freestyling and a lullaby in just two minutes, without ever letting the seams show. The abstract moments balance the direct ones, and every time you shift from the penultimate 10-minute sound collage ‘Orbit’ to the blissful closing lullaby of ‘Infinity’, you sense how in control Drewchin is, even if you can’t keep up — in fact, that’s part of the fun.
Albums that made it onto our main end-of-year list were disqualified from this feature, including Eartheater’s second album RIP Chrysalis. Fortunately for all of us, there were two Eartheater albums this year. I can’t wait for another.