When we introduced this year’s first quarter report, we described 2016 as bittersweet.
Three months later, you can probably ditch the “sweet”. In the wake of further tragic losses (Prince, Andreas Gehm and Bernie Worrell among them), last month’s tragic massacre of LGBT clubbers and Britain’s recent exit from the EU, it’s been hard to feel optimistic.
Thankfully, as ever, music is still here to soothe the soul and essential releases are coming thick and fast. In the last three months we’ve witnessed the “surprise release” become significantly less surprising as James Blake, Radiohead, Drake, Chance The Rapper and Beyoncé kissed goodbye to long lead times, all dropping albums without proper warning. Surprisingly, only one of those albums (Beyoncé’s excellent Lemonade) made our list, and while each is worthy of a closer look, the most interesting developments are still coming from just left of the mainstream.
Click the album title on each entry to preview or stream each release, and check out our Apple Music playlist.
A Pregnant Light
(Colloquial Sound Recordings)
Damien Master, head of shadowy experimental metal factory Colloquial Sound Recordings, is a virtuoso of obscurity. After years spent shrouding his projects in mystery, hiding behind alternative monikers and extremely limited physical releases and running a savagely sarcastic Twitter account that’s basically black metal’s answer to Vince Staples, he’s dropped the elusive disguise and emerged with Rocky.
Paying tribute to his late father, Master allows strangers a humbling level of access to his grief. Just as Staples’ nihilistic dive inward has made him one of rap’s best subverters, Master’s pained epic is more vulnerable and hits harder than any metal release we’ve heard this year. MB
Africans With Mainframes
Chicago’s most prolific acid phreak and Afrofuturist torchbearer is still on a tear following last year’s cosmic live collaboration with Arkestra leader Marshall Allen (one of our favourite albums of 2015), a full Soul Jazz release for his Acid Documents CD-R and a collection of rarities made under his Insane Black Man moniker.
All essential business, but the debut album from Africans With Mainframes, his project with fellow Chicago producer Noleian Reusse, might be his most exhilarating and boundary-pushing to date – an eight-track assault of increasingly furious industrial acid which, aside from a kosmische cloud providing a breather between the two sides, is hell-bent on degrading into a thicket of nail-pulling noise by the finale. CR
If you thought Autechre’s earlier canon was impenetrable, just try elseq 1-5 on for size. The veteran Rochdale duo surpass themselves with this four-hour trip into jagged, often unfamiliar territory, and even if it’s not ideal for first time listeners, it’s like Christmas and birthday combined for confirmed AE maniacs.
The sheer range of the collection is jaw-dropping. Don’t like the serrated noise and atmospherics of the opening disc? Flip to disc two’s rapid-fire rhythmic experiments. Still not convinced? How about disc three’s queasy ambience and uncharacteristically restrained flirtations with hip-hop, or the gaseous dub techno of the final disc?
It’s not going to offer something for everyone, but if you’re looking for confusing, forward-facing electronics that still retains a dotted line to the dancefloor, there’s simply nobody doing it quite like Autechre. JPT
Read next: Autechre bury the post-club poseurs in the digital dirt with elseq 1-5
Lemonade is not its all-star roster of writers and producers. It’s not the mess of gossip and speculation about Beyoncé’s personal life (but the elite Beyhive has definitely considered it’s about her bodyguard Julius). It’s not the shit that goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.
It’s the third full-length on which she’s completely defied our expectations of what one of the most famous pop stars in the world can do. It facilitated the best music writing syllabus of the year. It’s being wholly yourself, and if that’s not enough, it’s saying, “Boy, bye”. It’s a marker that when Bey asked to upgrade us, it wasn’t just about watches and trips to the Amalfi Coast, but to just how adventurous mainstream entertainment can be. CL
Read next: The hidden meanings in Beyoncé’s filmic journey through grief
Let’s face it, most techno albums are fucking boring. Far too much attention gets paid to carefully crafting the atmosphere of a techno long-player when what you need is to grab listeners by the scruff of the neck and throw them headfirst into a dark basement where it’s already going off.
Bjarki already proved he can make big dumb techno better than anyone else with last year’s ‘I Wanna Go Bang’, and Б is in much the same vein, traversing everything from AFX-style acid to hoover rave via Roulé-style slammer ‘It’s Just My Thing’.”
The Icelandic producer would argue that Б is just a collection of tracks made in the years before Nina Kraviz plucked him from obscurity, but it’s got everything you could want from a techno album in 2016 and more. SW
DJ Marfox has been steering Lisbon’s Principe Discos imprint as its unofficial A&R and flagship artist for the past few years, but this EP fully realises his alchemic vision. Pouring the jackhammer beats of ‘90s techno and EDM’s sugary build-ups and drops into an ever headier brew of Afro-Portuguese batida rhythms, Chapa Quente is a statement of intent, spanning cosmic disco-flavoured reggaeton and artillery fire to a ferociously looped flute melody that will make you rethink everything you ever knew about that most maligned of school instruments. ACW
The Human Pet
If you could translate the strange soundbites and visage of grotesque ‘80s TV caricature Max Headroom into music, it would probably sound like Elon Katz’s The Human Pet. The L.A. artist’s solo material has a lot in common with the ‘80s-inspired industrial of his former project White Car, but his move to Powell’s Diagonal label sees him unleash a different animal. Adopting the vocal flamboyance of a cyborg Prince, Katz breathlessly launches himself through six tracks of gristly, fragmented body music that swap retro analog grit for the wipe-clean gloss of a glowing digital display. One of the year’s most unlikely pop classics. SW
Robert Hood cares not for your self-consciously bleak and oppressive industrial techno. Instead, he wants to use 4/4 to inspire nothing less than complete elation. Victorious is the second album from Detroit veteran’s Floorplan project, and like the first it fuses gospel vocals with elements of house and disco to create an ecstatic sermon delivered at the altar of techno.
If you’re not familiar with Floorplan then you might assume from the description that Hood holds back, but it’s as slamming as anything you’ll find on the classic Minimal Nation. Even better, Hood’s brought his daughter Lyric on board for this album, and the results prove that two Hoods are better than one. SW
If I Can’t Handle Me At My Best, You Don’t Deserve You At Your Worst
Glasgow polymath Kay Logan recorded her debut tape as Helena Celle on a dictaphone, a broken MC-303 Groovebox played at full volume and a practice amp. The album fizzes, spits and crackles like a malfunctioning HAL 9000 while layering chalky, looped refrains like slabs of concrete. ‘VR Addiction’ serves up silky cascading synths and spluttering organ funk while ‘Miming Swinging Baseball Bat’ floats off on an arpeggiated cloud. It’s one of the most accomplished records of messthetics-indebted electronics you’ll hear all year. ACW
For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Huerco S.’s unexpected dive into deep ambience is one of the most gorgeously weightless records we’ve encountered this year. Mood pieces like ‘Lifeblood’ and ‘Promises Of Fertility’ float and drift like dust caught in a beam of light, and even its most rhythmic moments (‘On The Embankment’, ‘Kraanvogel’) ditch conventional progression for somnambulant spirals which invite listeners to get lost in the delicate repetitions. It may seem counterintuitive, but by staying perfectly still, Huerco S. has made his biggest leap forward. MB
Read next: Huerco S. swaps lo-fi house for timeless ambient on his therapeutic second album
Jessy Lanza’s second full-length distills her obsession with Yellow Magic Orchestra and the production work of founding member Haruomi Hosono into a tightly-coiled statement of heart-on-your-sleeve electronic pop. While Lanza’s previous efforts helped hone her ability to work fluidly with others, with this record she’s found her own voice, and isn’t afraid to bend it to fit her needs. Gauzy synths and syncopated rhythms collide with blockier keys for a frenetic collage of footwork and R&B, while Lanza appears both vulnerable and tough enough to face the heartbreak at the root of her inspiration. ACW
Read next: The dreamy club fantasia of Jessy Lanza’s Oh No
It would have been easy to miss Klara Lewis’s disarming 2014 debut Ett. Emerging from the busy Editions Mego stable with little explanation, it spread simply by word of mouth. Lewis’s calm, crackling vignettes do anything but shout from the rooftops, and this year’s Too follows a similarly subtle line, bursting with delightful whisper-quiet compositions.
On Too, Lewis emphasizes the loose thudding rhythms that were barely audible on Ett, obscuring obvious tropes with washes of white noise, processed field recordings and the kind of synthesized drones you might expect to hear from the Touch label. Somehow she avoid the fustiness you might expect, injecting her sounds instead with a sense of awe that’s just infectious. Tell your friends. JPT
¬ b (fka Lee Bannon)
(Not On Label)
Sacramento-born producer Lee Bannon broke through on the back of his golden era-style production for teen rapper Joey Bada$$’s Summer Knights mixtape, but his interest in ‘90s tropes has long extended to a passion for IDM, ambient, jungle, grime and rave, as proved on this 30-track collection of cracking studio leftovers from the past four years.
Reflections 2012-2016 is essentially a loving homage to the hardcore continuum as heard from over the ocean, packed with time-flattened, Burial-esque collages of hoover noises, radio crackle, breakbeats, dark garage and muddy techno, channelling everyone from Aphex and his hero Goldie to the entire history of FWD>>.
It’s not just nostalgia, mind – a cluster of tracks (including a collaboration with Angel-Ho) are straight from the contemporary school of noisy club deconstructions. Skip straight to the three-track run starting with ‘3m1 (hyper eclipse)’ to have your mind curdled and your legs jellied. CR
Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi vs. The World
(Not On Label)
Symere Woods “ain’t from this earth, like Invader Zim,” or so he spits on ‘High Roller’. Actually, he’s from North Philly, but the fast-rising Thug collaborator’s point remains: there’s a sense on his vivid second mixtape of a rap talent from another planet, one where the rules are different and deep trap rattles can meet Pokémon references with barely an eyelid blinked.
Lil Uzi vs. The World, inspired in part by graphic novel Scott Pilgrim, radiates a near-nuclear charisma: ‘Ps and Qs’ is a Fetty Wap-ish tale of broken romance set over sea-shanty accordion, while ‘Grab The Wheel’ is a hazy float of sung-rap melodies that you makes you feel like you’re floating above your enemies. At just over five foot tall, he’s called Lil Uzi for a reason. On …vs. The World, though, he threatens to tower above the competition. AH
Fuck Marry Kill
MikeQ’s Qween Beat roster is packed with potent talent, even in a time when Masters At Work’s ‘The ‘Ha’ Dance’ is not just a vogue house staple but a trick up nearly every DIY club DJ’s Supreme sleeve. Q remains a master in his own right (have you gagged over his ‘Formation’ remix lately?) and Byrell the Great is always exactly that, but LSDXOXO is transformative.
It’s clear on tracks like the Guerra flip of Ducky’s ‘Work’ and LSD’s own ‘Angel Dust’, and Fuck Marry Kill builds on the solid foundation created by those loosies. Sure, Charles Hamilton and Bryson Tiller have both appropriated the sacred text of K.P. and Envyi’s Rhythm & Quad staple ‘Swing My Way’, but what happens on opening track ‘Lady Vengeance’ is a most appropriate tribute to the classic cut. Like so much of Qween Beat’s work, the tape is a dancefloor investigation of sexual identity, especially on tracks ‘Sugarfalls’ and the Cakes Da Killa-featuring ‘Frozen Over’.
While Fuck Marry Kill is primarily original constructions, late in the tape there is a tearing apart of Kanye West’s Pablo nightmare ‘Freestyle 4’. Here, it’s not just blackout drunk sexual requests over menacing strings – it builds on the terror before blowing it out into a ballroom blitz. You may have a difficulty deciding between fuck and marry, but the only kill option here is slay. CL
Turning depression and anxiety into her tools, 25-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Mitski has made a powerful and positive document of confessional songwriting which goes beyond the usual tropes with its cleverly woven patchwork of sounds. Peppered with synth stabs, horns and Breeders-style driving guitars as well as dream-pop and girl group melodies, this is junkyard garage for anyone who’s ever had to deal with the angsty second round of mid-20s adolescence. ACW
Sacramento rapper Mozzy doesn’t have the headline-grabbing profile of LA’s YG and Kendrick or the summery hooks of the Bay’s Nef The Pharaoh or Kamaiyah, but his gravelly street tales are nevertheless an important part of the West Coast’s continued ascent. Mandatory Check is his most high-profile release to date, boasting guest appearances from Iamsu!, Rich Homie Quan and a posthumous turn from Bay legend The Jacka, but the rapper refuses to pull his punches.
While stylistically the tracks are not a million miles from DJ Mustard and HBK’s patented ratchet style, Mozzy imbues each with a sense of melancholy, from the lonely ‘All Day’ to the charged ‘Cold Summer’. This isn’t party music by any means – Mozzy offers commentary from forgotten, disenfranchised streets and punctuates it with a levity that’s frankly all too rare. JPT
(Styles Upon Styles)
Israel-born, Brooklyn-based bedroom musician Ohal Grietzer has made one of the most gratifying yet low-key albums of the year so far, absorbing dream-pop, ambient, drone, new age and stripped-back R&B into her densely layered yet marshmallow-light debut album for NYC label-to-watch Styles Upon Styles.
Displacement, nostalgia and memory are the recurring themes for the wandering Grietzer (who counts TVOTR’s Tunde Adebimpe and Tyondai Braxton as her mentors), with birdsong, distant creaking and various field recordings blended with watery synth-drifts (‘Hornet’s Cave’), soaring vocals (‘All Mine’) and tender, Ghost Box-esque keys (‘Acid Park’). CR
Read next: Meet Ohal, the wandering soul making epic dream-pop
Payroll Giovanni & Cardo
Big Bossin’ Vol. 1
(Not On Label)
Dallas-based producer Cardo’s recent collaboration with underground name Payroll Giovanni may not be his starriest – this is a man who’s laid down beats for Drake, Kendrick, Freddie Gibbs and Wiz Khalifa, after all – but it’s arguably one of his most fruitful. Big Bossin’ Vol. 1 is a tape that, against all odds, lives up to the swagger of its title and accompanying artwork.
You might not expect a Texan and a Detroit rapper to cook up a genuinely excellent tribute to West Coast rap, but Big Bossin’ feels authentic, with its heart in the right place even if its geography isn’t. Payroll, whose slickly delivered rhymes tell rags-to-riches hustler stories, has a chemistry with Cardo that makes this fizz with fun; from the Ice Cube homage of ‘Day In The Life’ to the ‘90s summertime radio nostalgia of ‘Sucka Free’, it’s an overlooked gem that doesn’t deserve to stay that way. AH
(Peder Mannerfelt Produktion)
After 2015’s academic, modular-led The Swedish Congo Record, Swedish producer Peder Mannerfelt needed a palate cleanser. Looking to distance himself from gear fetishism and analogue purism, Mannerfelt started collecting vocal samples, trawling YouTube as well as his record collection and asking Cameron Mesirow (aka Glasser) to assist. The result is his most accessible set to date, fusing a laundry list of influences into a tight 40 minutes of music ranging from dub-flecked ambience to pounding techno and far beyond.
Mannerfelt has been producing music for many years, assisting Fever Ray, Blonde Redhead and Glasser among others, but it was a conscious step back that led to this beguiling record. In searching for what he really loves about music, without technological restraint or snobbery, Mannerfelt has stumbled onto a breathless, excitable naivety that’s impossible to fake. JPT
(The Death Of Rave)
Bristol producer and Young Echo member Sam Kidel (also known as El Kid) channels the impotent rage triggered by labyrinthine call centre conversations into one of the most bizarre and addictive experimental albums we’ve heard in yonks. The idea is basic: a lengthy suite of gloss-and-crackle ambient – his own version of “hold music” – gets played down the line to automated robot voices and confused government workers, simultaneously massaging our stress points and giving us a laugh at the Department of Work and Pensions’ expense.
Detached and anarchic, gloriously pointless yet weirdly poignant, it’s Muzak taking on a life of its own while underlining the tedious melancholy of our Kafkaesque everyday. The B-side is a DIY version for added relaxation – or homemade pranks. CR
Second Woman, the duo of Turk Dietrich of Belong and Joshua Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv, occupy the same category as inquisitive synthesists Lorenzo Senni, Gábor Lázár and Theo Burt – they stretch, squash and chop a limited palette of sounds into what sounds like the musical atom being split, detonated, and pulled back together by interstellar gravitational forces.
At moments, their self-titled debut sounds like Emeralds in 4K resolution, at others it sounds like walking around a Basic Channel track with an Oculus Rift. You might think that Autechre’s elseq collection has a monopoly on dense, mind-warping electronic music this year, but LP1 is equally brilliant and far more digestible. SW
Since We’re Here
(Not On Label)
All Since We’re Here needed to be was a confidence booster that Tate Kobang was more than just his viral hit ‘Bank Rolls’. The Baltimore rapper has collected the attention from rap’s elder statesmen, from being remixed by The LOX to joining Nelly on stage in Las Vegas to getting Swizz Beatz to executive-produce his eventual debut album. What Kobang delivers on Since We’re Here is a fluid statement that shows his breadth as a rapper and his commitment to his city, scrapple references and all.
The East Coast rap constituency doesn’t need New York right now, even if Remy Ma is back from Rikers and rapping with abandon. A lot of the genre’s music is the fruit of trauma, and Baltimore is teeming with it right now, a little over a year since the uprising after Freddie Gray’s murder and in the wake of the loss of rising rapper Lor Scoota.
Since We’re Here is our reminder to pay attention to the city, that it’s more than just Where The Wire Takes Place and that real people, like Baltimore club legend Miss Tony, live or have lived there and have stories to tell. CL
The more things change, the more they stay the same for Vancouver thrashers White Lung. Paradise, their fourth album, may have a name that hints at utopia, but singer Mish Barber-Way is still to find hers, left lamenting again how “love is a beast now, it rots my teeth” (‘Kiss Me When I Bleed’) and vowing to “take it all down, burn in the waste you have found” (‘Below’).
Though they’ve dialled back the distortion and menace of 2014’s Deep Fantasy for a cleaner sound, the breakneck ferocity remains, a violence that even at their poppiest they just can’t seem to shake. The two years since that last album have seen Barber-Way emerge as a respected writer and journalist as well as frontwoman, and her wailed message is at the heart of what makes White Lung so gripping – on Paradise more than ever. Their machine is unstoppable. AH
Where YG let narrative drive his 2014 debut My Krazy Life – slipping into character on a good kid-ish tale of temptation in gangland LA – paranoia reigns on its more intense, autobiographical follow-up. Still Brazy was sparked by a shooting that saw the Californian nursing a hip wound and, crucially, a more chaotic state of mind. He recorded ‘Who Shot Me’, the album’s moody totem, the same day, and the rest of Still Brazy is spent intermittently peering over his shoulder.
The result is remarkable: a record that pulses with G-funk good-times vibes (see the massive ‘Twist My Fingaz’) but seldom stops wondering who might show up at the party. His rise two years ago was largely credited to collaborator DJ Mustard, but here YG goes it alone, and emerges all the better for it. AH
Read next: YG steps out of the shadow of DJ Mustard on Still Brazy
Read next: First Quarter Report: The 25 best albums of 2016 so far