From neon-lit vaporwave to modular exotica to Kanye West reimagined, Bandcamp was once again the most consistent – and consistently surprising – source of incredible new music in 2016. Miles Bowe picks the shiniest nuggets from a year of dedicated gold panning in his Best of Bandcamp column.
2016 was an alienating year, especially online. It was difficult to navigate the web without being bombarded with terrifying news, both real and fake, and tragedy after tragedy. We close the year reflecting on the vulnerability of DIY spaces and the place of artists in their communities, so it’s encouraging to know that a platform like Bandcamp is flourishing – offering an artist-focused alternative to dominant platforms such as iTunes and Spotify.
Bandcamp offers an escape into anonymous, unfiltered expression. It offers a platform for growing and established labels, breakthrough and veteran artists. It’s packed with bold artistic statements, scratchy experiments, monuments to passed loved ones, imagined versions of other albums and Dat Boi.
The following 20 albums represent the year in Bandcamp and are a testament to the diversity and freedom the platform encourages. If you’re looking for more, there are plenty more great releases to find in our archive — better yet, head to Bandcamp and see what you find.
“His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
Imagining The Life Of Pablo
After a year of Kanye West’s tedious edits and tweaks, it’s easy to forget just how much excitement there was around the release of The Life Of Pablo. One Japanese producer took this hype to the next level. TOYOMU was so desperate to hear the album – which at the time remained unreleased in Japan – that he took the lyrics and list of samples and simply made his own.
The process recalls that of Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, who used to record imagined versions of albums he was anticipating, an exercise he credits with generating some of his early tracks. Imagining The Life Of Pablo is equally idiosyncratic – an immensely strange album that sounds nothing like its namesake, but captures West’s pioneer spirit regardless. It isn’t on Bandcamp anymore (for obvious reasons), but there was no way I could leave it off the list.
19. Tredici Bacci
Amore Per Tutti
Simon Haine’s Tredici Bacci almost seems too amazing to be real. The former member of Boston band Guerilla Toss conducted an ambitious 14-piece band to pen a love letter to ‘60s Italian cinema, blurring Morricone’s majesty, Nino Rota’s character and some frenetic lounge music with a psychedelic fluidity.
Amore Per Tutti couldn’t have brought Haine’s formidable vision together better, landing a wild roster of guest vocalists and dizzy instrumentals like ‘Columbo’ and ‘Swedish Tease’. It’s one of the most original, not to mention fun, albums you could hope to dig up this year.
Over The Mountains
Over The Mountains is ambient techno producer Jordan Sauer’s most exploratory and seamless album to date. Epics like ‘Celestial’ and ‘Exposure’ chart gentle rhythmic paths through field recordings and synthesizer clouds, tucking away subtle climaxes like hidden treasures.
Other moments, like the chilly, percussive ‘Alpinglow’ or ‘Deep Valley’, where a melodic burst fills the second half like a flash-flood, dispense with restraint completely. Mountains is a mysterious maze that’s a pleasure to lose yourself inside.
Foodman used to make something that sounded like footwork, but on this carnival ride of an album he produces tracks that are the closest we’ll ever get to hearing emojis. The Japanese producer lets his hilariously strange sound effects whizz, collide and nuzzle up to each other in dizzying patterns. Thankfully, it isn’t simply chaos – one of the great surprises is how confidently Foodman acclimatizes you to his strange world.
Ironically, the biggest shocks on the album are the moments of calm: the sparkling pop of ‘Mid Summer Night’ (feature a sultry vocal from Diskomargaux) and the grinding groove of ‘dddance’. It’s one of the head-scratchers of the year – you might not even notice yourself dancing.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Rain Temple’s crystalline soundscapes until after moving back to New York from LA. True to the name, it’s an album built for walking along glassy, rain-soaked streets at night.
But for each of 2814’s murky, lonely passages on tracks like ‘Lost In A Dream’ or ‘This Body’, there’s a neon-lit oasis waiting around the corner: the rippling ‘Transference’, the cyber-noir epic ‘Eyes Of The Temple’. It’s an album that can make you feel lost, which makes stumbling upon its wonders all the better.
The Dream Is Over
Even with PUP’s newfound popularity, they still feel like our underdogs. Lead vocalist Stefan Babcock runs a tightrope of pain and self-deprecating humor that puts you right in his corner, matched with the band’s even greater dynamics. ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will’ is a frothing band break-up/murder fantasy written by friends close enough to turn conflict into something positive, while ‘DVP’ is the most satisfying drunk-dial from a Canadian since ‘Marvin’s Room’.
But in between all the raging, there are sobering moments, like the panic attack build of ‘The Coast’ and the closing gut-punch of ‘Pine Point’, a song that feels like PUP ending the next big chapter of their career. The dream is just getting started.
Kai Hugo opted to follow his excellent 2015 debut as Palmbomen II with a series of EPs spread across several labels. It sounded like a scattered approach when he divulged this information in an interview last year, but this growing series of tributes to aging European hotels, recorded with fellow Dutch producer Betonkust, finds the producer hitting his stride.
The EPs lull you into a trance, with watery mood pieces like ‘Aqua Mundo’ nestling alongside the tropical punch of ‘Verminkte Toekan’, while Breukelen’s bleary opening tracks act like a bait and switch to the acid aggression waiting for us. Who knows which hotel they’ll take us to next, but I hope the vacation never ends.
Through distorted folk passages, Akron musician Mike Tolan uses his project Talons’ to dwell on 21st century anxieties with as much honesty and detail as a diary entry. The thoughts on Work Stories often grow from vivid, simple observations (a shopping cart on its side, a dying rabbit on the ground) into gnawing fears about debt and supporting a family. But his poetry captures it all with a stillness and quiet strength.
The album name-checks the Microphones but brings to mind the weathered poetry of Phil Elverum’s subsequent project Mount Eerie, creating vivid atmospheres for each meditation on pain, faith and existential endurance. In one heartbreaking moment Talons’ confesses, “I’ve been worrying that all of my favorite records have all already come out”. That may be, but I hope he takes solace in knowing he may have made someone else’s.
12. James Ferraro
Human Story 3
Vaporwave pioneer James Ferraro returns to the dystopian easy listening of Far Side Virtual with Human Story 3, an orchestral cyber-dream offering twinkling, hyper-melodic meditations on a life spent drowning in technology and advertising. You know – our life.
The sickest part is how uplifting, even inspiring, Ferraro can make it all sound as he creates poetry out of stilted corporate speak and rigid, familiar branding. At one point a deadened voice celebrates, “In praise of individualism / I say unto you my weary brother / the super me era is here”. It’s one of the most terrifying things you’ll hear this year.
11. Luxury Elite
Luxury Elite dropped Noir at the very beginning of 2016, and these 20 short mood pieces have lost none of their murky mystery. Tracks like ‘Corrupt’ and the saxophone-packed ‘Lounge’ and ‘Dreaming’ are like experiencing some lost ‘80s cop flick on damaged VHS.
Each track is an example of the producer diving into an imaginative new mode, ranging from cozy locked grooves like ‘Rain Drops’ to the chintzy strut of ‘Future’, which shows off Lux and Palmbomen in an unexpected dream collaboration. And she gave us ‘Desire’, a song that I have found no good reason to ever take off repeat after 12 months, so it’ll likely last us till her next album.
Deconstructed folk? John Fahey visits Brainfeeder? James Blake, but actually good!? Five years in, I’ve learned better than to try and snappily describe YYU’s singular debut TimeTimeTime&Time – these days I’m just grateful for a release, and this one delivers.
Karaoke opens with a glistening Satie-esque fake-out before going off like a kaleidoscope of footwork anxiety, field recordings and intimate electro-acoustics. Imagine Jam City unplugged and — oh, damn, there I go again.
09. Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv
Death’s Dynamic Shroud was responsible for one of our favorite albums of 2015, but it’s not a moniker for one artist alone. Rather, it’s a collective project, and Classoom Sexxxtape is a different producer’s handiwork. This version of Death’s Dynamic Shroud uses the same chopped ‘n’ screwed pop distortions to steer the project into some of its most extreme places yet. Opener ‘Do You Like Me?’ kicks things off with creepy mechanized vocals but the record heads into blissful territory on ‘SIDE ℬÆ’.
In between those extremes Classroom Sexxxtape is stuffed with stoned delights like ‘✰RARE EMOJI COLLECTION✰’, ‘Girl On The Internet’, and ‘Thigh Gap’, which take eccojams to places far beyond where Chuck Person ever left them. There’s no telling who will even make the next Death’s Dynamic Shroud album, but by now they’ve proved it’s a name you can trust.
08. Jefre Cantu Ledesma
Jefre Cantu Ledesma’s In Summer isn’t meant to be a concise statement; rather, its scrapbook feel is in the design. Cantu Ledesma calls the album a “catalogue of photographs” and arranges manipulated field recordings with two larger pieces recorded with bassist Drew Piraino. While the short release offers some fascinating curios, opener ‘Love’s Refrain’ is a treasure like no other.
The track builds on a steady, methodic drum loop as Ledesma unleashes some of the most emotive guitar work since Love Is A Stream, tape loops moving from a soft glow to a blinding burn. That slide into noise is like watching the entire track explode in slow motion and it’s an experience that has lost none of its drama or beauty after hundreds of listens. It’s my favorite song of the entire year.
07. Typhonian Highlife
The World Of Shells
It feels constraining to even call these things Spencer Clark releases “albums” – they’re more like portals into his endlessly imaginative mind. With Typhonian Highlife’s The World Of Shells he offers one of his most evocative doorways yet, an aural ecosystem that skitters and shakes with vivid fauna and flora.
Alien creatures, otherworldly textures and self-made samples move with their own personal logic, providing puzzles too complex to solve and too marvelous to ever make you try. It isn’t easily penetrable by any means, but for listeners who get off on feelings of disorientation and confusion (hi!) it is psychedelia of the most noble order.
06. MJ Guider
Through decayed industrial pulses and impressionistic synths, New Orleans’ Melissa Guion achieves a difficult balance on her debut album. With her celestial soundscapes, a simple drum machine and an entrancing voice, she basks in dreamy ambience and skips over sprinting, brittle rhythms.
‘White Alsatian’ matches a grim John Carpenter-esque rigidity to liquid vocals, and on ‘Evencycle’ she rides a 4/4 beat for 10 of the most trance-inducing minutes you’ll encounter this year, all built around the mantra, “In control, in control, in control”. By the time the album’s done it couldn’t feel like more of an understatement.
05. Japanese Breakfast
I wasn’t writing this column when I first came across Michelle Zauner’s Japanese Breakfast on Bandcamp, but those early recordings stuck with me, and checking in on her new uploads was one of the first things that brought me back. One of the great joys of following her work from that point has been hearing it explode into the shimmering Technicolor of Psychopomp.
Written in the wake of her mother’s death, Zauner’s debut exudes grief and heartbreak, but never without joy and romance and humor. What makes its so special is the vividness of her poetry and the passion of her delivery, like the way she addresses her devastating subject on ‘Heaven’, with her observations of the family cat confused by an empty room. Whether in its darkest moments (‘Jane Cum’) or its most joyful (‘Everybody Wants To Love You’) Psychopomp is overflowing with life.
Lifter + Lighter
On Lifter + Lighter, Natalie Chami evolves the choral tranquility of her 2015 solo debut like a damn Pokémon. Lifter + Lighter transforms TALsounds with sharper electronics and dynamic vocal experiments. Opener ‘Surrender’ has the swelling grandeur of an epic; the delicate ‘I’m Just Around’ and ‘Hair’ on the other hand toy with Arthur Russell’s sense of space.
The album’s best moment is something else entirely — ‘I Am Why’’s flurry of vocal loops swarm around a 4/4 beat like bees around a hive. The album reaches to so many places, yet it gels into a perfectly formed statement. It’s another classic for Hausu Mountain.
03. Andrew Pekler
Andrew Pekler made his name grinding dusty old exotica records into some of the most beautiful and otherworldly noise music of this decade, but Triste Tropiques offers something of an inversion. Here, he uses modular synths to craft his very own exotica, where birds fly backwards and rain falls upwards.
Created from scratch, these humid electronic worlds sound miles away from the tropical plunderphonics of Sentimental Favorites or Cover Version, adding fresh complexity to a discography that already felt completely unique. It will either be an exciting reintroduction or one of the best discoveries you make this year.
02. Katie Dey
Katie Dey makes uplifting music by showing just how hard it can be to feel good. Her debut album Flood Network is about the struggle to pick yourself up and keep going, even as it concludes with ‘It’s Simpler To Make Home On The Ground’. Each song is broken up by fuzzily distorted transitions, giving it a digital sinew in the spirit of Neutral Milk Hotel.
But through warped bedroom pop gems like ‘Frailty’ and the crushing ‘Fear O The Light’ her spirit shines through. Her music connects with the immediacy of an electric current, and it’s no surprise that’s how fast this album has spread. That’s a good thing – she’s going to make a lot of people feel a little less lonely.
01. A Pregnant Light
One death. It’s been tough to keep track of what that means this year. I’ve lost track of how many inspiring people we lost in 2016 and how many tragedies we endured during an election season that feels like a grotesque milestone. And they just won’t stop. I finally stopped giving a shit about four months ago, holding my critically injured friend as he teetered on the brink of death in a parking lot. He ended up pulling through, but another acquaintance wasn’t so lucky. There were too many familiar tales this year. Some blame it on 2016 being the year of the monkey – a Chinese Zodiac sign related to egotism, manipulation and chaos. It sounds crazy, but I don’t have a better answer. Lately, I just try to block everything out.
And then Rocky pulls me back. Rocky is a musical eulogy to Damian Master’s late father, Rahul S. Master, delivered in a handmade envelope scented with his father’s cologne. As numb as this shocking year threatened to make us, Master shakes you with a volcanic outpouring of grief, faith and love. Over 21 minutes of blasting drums, searing guitar melodies and pained screams, Rocky spins in fits of rage before collapsing into weathered acoustic breakdowns.
The album opens with the shout of, “Sons — remember your fathers” and ends with a voicemail from the hospital: “Hopefully they’ll release me today”. They’re the final words from a father to a son. It’s not an album that will make you feel like things are going to be okay. They won’t. But it will make you feel like you’re a human being, and we’ve never needed that more.
Read next: The 25 best club tracks of 2016