The 33 Best Albums of 2015
The long players we loved the most this year.
Photo by Joel Fowler, Design by Christopher Classens. Drum machine featured Elektron Analog Rytm.
All this month, THUMP will be looking back over the year in electronic and dance music. We rolled out our favorite tracks and our favorite mixes earlier this week, and today, we're pleased to bring you our favorite 33 albums of 2015. Figuring out which records would make the cut wasn't easy, but if anything, that shows just how many records gave us the chills.
33) Future Brown - Future Brown [Warp]
It's not often that a group's very first song arrives as a fully realized mission statement, but that's just what Future Brown's "Wanna Party" accomplished when they released it in the summer of 2014. Over a slinky, metallic beat, young Chicago MC Tink brashly raps, "Don't you wanna party, put some liquor in your body, fuck this club, let's get drunk."
Fast-forward to February, when the globe-spanning outfit—Iranian producer and composer Fatima Al Qadiri, Chicago's Lit City Trax founder J-Cush, and Los Angeles production/DJ duo Nguzunguzu (Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda)—put out their self-titled debut, where their discussion of club politics blurred seamlessly into a celebration of banging but too-often overlooked sounds from all over the globe. Colliding transatlantic genres from Latin American pop to UK grime with the ease of seasoned selectors, and a little help from an eclectic cast including bop ambassadors Sicko Mobb, R&B singer Kelela, and veteran rapper Shawnna, it's music that's deserving of the post- prefix without feeling pretentious. Now get yourself a drink.—Max Mertens
32) Julio Bashmore - Knockin' Boots [Broadwalk]
Julio Bashmore has no problem delivering hooky music; much of his legacy has come from his knack for conjuring the catchiest sounds of the summer, like 2012's "Battle for Middle You" and "Au Seve." Yet when we spoke to him about the record back in July, Bashmore stressed his desire to create a proper debut album, not just "a load of beats" stuck together. It's this foresight that gives Knockin' Boots longevity past the dancefloor. Between massive hands-in-the-air anthems like "Holding On," "Rhythm of the Auld" and "Kong" are plenty of tracks brimming with character. Whether on "Umuntu," featuring Okmalumkoolkat rapping in a mix of English and Zulu, or barbed, ballroom house nods "What's Mine is Mine" and "She Ain't," Knockin' Boots promoted Bashmore from a producer of big tunes to one with a vision.—Angus Harrison
31) Siete Catorce - Paisajes [Enchufada]
Twisting and deforming club music as much as possible seems to be a challenge that Siete Catorce (AKA Marco Gutierrez) seems to enjoy. After breaking out with an EP released with one of Mexico's coolest collectives, NAAFI, the young producer has followed up a song of the same name with a full album on Branko's former label, Enchufada. Tracks on Paisajes are named after the different climates that you'll find from coast to coast in Mexico, and their sounds are just as volatile. The release presents a challenge for everyone, from the DJs who must figure out how to sync this with the rest, to the people who will have to learn new ways to dance. Paisajes is a true explorations of new waves and rhythms for the global dance floor.—Valeria Anzaldo
30) Brawther - Endless [Balance]
Continuing the long line of championed records from Chicago's Balance (the sub-label of Chez Damier and Ron Trent's Prescription legacy) is the first long-player from Parisian producer Brawther. Endless veers into the less frenetic side of Brawther's discography, relying more on stripped back, late-night groovers than his earlier, more throwback productions. It also re-packages some of his sought-after early releases on Balance and My Love Is Underground, like "Late Night Paris," "Don't Go," and "Le Voyage"—along with an unreleased remix of Jeremiah's "Khawuleza." The end result is an exceptional collection of music spanning five years—as well as a utilitarian pocket knife for any DJ who knows what's good.—Joel Fowler
29) Seven Davis Jr - Universes [Ninja Tune]
During one of George Clinton's bawdier jaunts to the far reaches of the galaxy, he made sweet, funky love to a cluster of stars. 30 years later, Seven Davis Jr showed up on the West Coast with a stack of records and a song to sing. Davis Jr's soul, positive energy, and groove as both a producer and vocalist overflows on his Ninja Tune debut Universes. Put this record on at a party, and everyone from your kinda-basic neighbor to the chinstrokiest technohead will be grooving within minutes. It's not just funky—it is the funk. Who needs to reinvent the wheel when you have a spaceship?—Jemayel Khawaja
28) Helena Hauff - Discreet Desires [Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune]
Hamburg resident Helena Hauff's Discreet Desires is a record so beautifully beguiling that we can't stop talking about it alliteratively. Sorry. We'll try not to from now on. It's a compact thing, a tightly coiled set of razor sharp minimal wave workouts that fizz with inventiveness and ingenuity. Sorry, we can't help ourselves. Let's try again. Discreet Desires is the kind of album Xeno & Oaklander spent years trying to make—a taut, wiry, steely assemblage of acid-ravaged arpeggiation, John Carpenter horror movie synthesis and ghost train ambience. It's not immediately loveable—and nor does it strive to be— but within repeat listens rests something truly special.—Josh Baines
27) DJ Sotofett – Drippin' For A Tripp [Honest Jon's]
DJ Sotofett's first dance with Honest Jon's was a clear example of the producer's unstoppable creativity. The Sex Tags Mania co-founder's debut on the forward-thinking British label brought together refreshing house, exquisite tribal, and levitating dub alongside collaborations with six different artists. The intense rhythms you hear on cuts like "Nondo Original Mix" seemed the result of strange collisions between genres, fleshed out with guitar licks and keys to form thick, dubby grooves. If you didn't make it to the beach this summer, then a pair of headphones and this album probably took you close enough.—Juan Pablo López
26) Xosar - Let Go [Opal Tapes]
The uncompromising utilitarianism of techno and the intangible mysticism of the paranormal make for strange bedfellows, but at 4AM in the kind of underground dungeon that Xosar's beats are made for, strange bedfellows sound like a great idea. Sheela Rahman rose from the obscurity of the San Jose suburbs to having her own room in analog legend Legowelt's Den Haag studio in the space of a year, and her debut LP Let Go, released on Black Opal, is the heaving, psychedelic masterpiece that has confirmed her as a techno iconoclast. Its eight tracks take more risks under the space of an hour than many producers take in their whole career, and by the end of it, you might even be willing to rethink your stance on healing crystals.—Jemayel Khawaja
25) Hunee - Hunch Music [Rush Hour]
The Amsterdam-based Korean-German's album for Rush Hour may feel a bit different on paper from the upbeat disco and house-focused DJ sets he's made a name on, but it's just as adventurous and tasteful. Over the course of the two-disk'er, Hunee, aka Mr. Hunch, aka Hun Choi, plucks colors from all over his artistic easel, veering between booming techno, wacky synth splatterings, perfectly restrained house ("Rare Happiness") and even a hypnotic Sun Ra sample ("The World")—all the while refusing to get caught in the tropes of the more inviting forms of house music that soundtracked his lauded EPs (and a great deal of house music this year), as well as ironically, his DJ sets around the world.—David Garber
24) RP Boo - Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints [Planet Mu]
RP Boo makes the kind of footwork that sounds like someone chucking the entirety of US music post-1985 into a washing machine on a hitherto unused EXTREME SPIN setting. It's a disorientating experience, one that forces listener into submission, weighed down by the sheer propulsion of it all. Footwork, after all, has a way of warping time and space, playing with perception through repetition. And Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints is the sound, and the shock, of the new. Well, the new-old, at least.—Josh Baines
23) Len Leise - Lingua Franca [International Feel]
Friendly reminder: there is no more boring question in the world than "What is balearic?" It's 2015, and we know what balearic is now—it's whatever you want it to be, baby! It's a state of mind! It's palm trees and bottles of Estrella Dam! It's sunsets and pedalos, Jose Padilla and DJ Harvey, conga drums and chiming guitars! It's Len Leise's Lingua Franca, an absolute masterpiece of contemporary Balearic brilliance released on the best balearic label around, International Feel, and it's easily the greatest Balearic record to ever emerge from Australia, which is about as far away from the Balearic Islands as you can get. It's Balearic, by the way. It's a really good Balearic album.—Josh Baines
22) M.E.S.H. - Piteous Gate [PAN]
looms with a threatening presence—there is no party to speak of here. James Whipple never descends into self-indulgence on his first album as M.E.S.H.; every hiss, every liquid embellishment, is considered and full of purpose. From "Epithet," with its sounds of a SWAT team kicking down the door, to the negative space-filled "Jester's Visage," it's elemental beyond any easy, explosive drop. All nine tracks on Piteous Gate are anchored by a cohesive mood, alluding to dance tropes without once descending into cliché. No exposition, just intrigue.—Lachlan Kanoniuk
21) Dam-Funk - Invite the Light [Stones Throw]
This Pasadena native has been churning out cheeseburger-juicy slabs of funk for many years now—which is no surprise, seeing as he has one of the most absurdly pheromone-doused record collections known to man. On Dam-Funk's most recent long player for Stones Throw, Damon G. Riddick offers a history of the genre's sprawling lineage, ratcheting up the fun with cameo from Ariel Pink, Junie Morrison, Leon Sylvers, and Q-Tip. Combined with Riddick's glossy hooks and renewed focus on lyrical content, it's a star-studded cast that makes for an LP full of certified good vibes.—David Garber
20) Nicolá Cruz – Prender el Alma [ZZK Records]
Released on Argentinean label ZZK, Nicolá Cruz's debut album is a marriage of local heritage and digital technology. But it's also a search for his place in the world, as though the Ecuadorian producer were kneeling down to listen to the heartbeat of the landscapes that inspire him. The resulting Andean expedition is as introspective as it is voluptuous, employing fat, analog sounds and ritualistic rhythms to lull the listener into a meditative state. Prender el Alma is the sound of the heart of the continent awakening.—Juan Pablo López
19) Rustie - EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE [Warp]
might just be the most glorious, world-beating, syrup-soaked "fuck you" we've ever heard. From its defiant title to the sly "Feat Rustie" credits that are listed next to certain tracks, the record is the sound of a producer refusing to work to any specification other than his own. The production is what catches the ear first—this is a Rustie record after all—but on return spins, it's the irresistible pop hooks that hit home, tucked away amidst the frantic, fizzing sound effects and shattering, bass-heavy beats. Cuts like "Death Bliss" and "Big Catzz" waver between weirdo ultra-builds and showers of major relief, while hitters like album highlight "Morning Starr" clap their way into trap heaven. Like the record's cover art, it's a pink, peculiar, perfect storm.—Angus Harrison
18) Rionegro - Rionegro [Cómeme]
When Rionegro's debut album was released on Cómeme in October this year, it became an instant contemporary classic. The collaborative project from Matias Aguayo, Sano (Sebastián Hoyos), Gladkazuka (Gregorio Gomez), and Natalia Valencia was named after the Colombian town near where the four friends holed up for a month, exploring traditional Latin rhythms like salsa, boogaloo, and merengue with the machines of today. Their wild and powerful neo-cooking—which includes a standout homage to the Peruvian cumbia anthem, "La Danza de los Mirlos"—honors their native roots while taking you on a psychedelic journey through the Amazonian jungle. Infectious rhythms are jammed between progressive maracas, bombastic percussions and MPCs, resulting in an 11-track LP of timeless galactic house emanating from the bowels of the South American jungle.—Juan Pablo López
17) Letta - Testimony [Coyote]
It's easy to think of grime as a London thing, but the past few years have seen the sound emerging from a variety of unexpected places—Los Angeles being, arguably, the most unexpected of the lot. Skid Row-based producer Letta's debut LP—the first long-player to see release from increasingly influential label Coyote—is a pitch-black, mutated piece of music that perpetually seems on the verge of imploding. Its razor-sharp take on the genre's top tropes—eskimo synth curlicues, savage sawtooth bass beats, 2d platformer chirrups, cutthroat percussion—are all present and correct, but rearranged and recontextualized. Turns out that Americans can do grime, after all.—Josh Baines
16) Rabit - Communion [Tri Angle]
When Rabit released his debut album Communion on Tri Angle the day before Halloween, the press got itself a bit tied up in knots trying to define Eric Burton's difficult, label-defying music. Burton himself has stated his reluctance to pigeonhole his music with genres, telling FACT, "I don't think I've ever put a genre tag on one of my songs on SoundCloud." Once you spend time with Communion it's easy to see why—from the violent assault of "Pandemic" to the curling atmospherics of "Burnerz," it's a potent and intrinsically visceral experience. The album also packs in plenty to think about, as issues like sexual politics, injustice, and media manipulation are explored through jagged-edged vocal samples and bleak, grime-influenced beats. But as the low threat of final track "Trapped in this Body" bows out, it's clear that trapped in any person's body is exactly where this album does its most potent damage.—Angus Harrison
15) DJ Richard - Grind [Dial]
Since he founded it with fellow RISD student Young Male back in 2012, DJ Richard's White Material has established itself as a premiere destination for shadowy techno and house. Following his wonderful contribution to Dial's 15-year anniversary compilation earlier this year, the enigmatic, Rhode Island-born newcomer's debut LP departs from the rebel techno sound he brought to his White Material output; instead Grind finds DJ Richard turning inwards, inking each of the album's nine stripped-back tracks with a different shade of emotion. A controlled and at-times psychically overwhelming album from one the best upcoming talents of the States.—Juan Pablo López
14) Funkstörung - Funkstörung [Monkeytown Records]
If you've ever had a know-it-all music nerd as a friend, you've probably heard about Funkstörung—if not for their music, then for the endless history lessons people like to tell about how these two Bavarian guys were "So ahead of their time, long before Ostgut Ton and Innervisions." Truth be told, nobody wants to hear about that anymore. What matters is that in 2015, ten years after their last album, Chris De Luca and Michael Fakesch have gone ahead and done it again. Every track of this self-titled LP left us lost in the beats. Just don't get too deeply into it: otherwise you'll be the one boring your friends with the never-ending monologues about their great work.—Andreas Meixensperger
13) Linkwood - Expressions [Firecracker]
The amazing thing about Linkwood's second full-length, Expressions, is the Scottish producer's ability to evoke so many different places while covering them all with same hazy mist, like the haar of his Edinburgh home. Full of pensive ambient textures, much of the record sounds like a microscopic string section packed into a scallop shell tumbling around the current. While the album's gateway tracks—like "Ignorance Is Bliss"—nod vaguely to Linkwood's earlier boogie-esque material, tunes like "Reef Walking" take precedence with their timeless melancholic drudge. An exciting sign for the future of both Linkwood and Firecracker Recordings.—Joel Fowler
12) Arca - Mutant [Mute]
We may be celebrating a lot of records this year that have garnered praise for repurposing the past, yet if the continued achievements of Arca are anything to go by, the electronic landscape of today is still riddled with opportunities. Picking up from where 2014's Xen left off, Alejandro Ghersi continues to build hulking industrial bridges and delicate gossamer threads between the fractured cold of technology and the warm sting of human flesh. Mutant is, if anything, a more sensual record. The reverberating, plucked stabs of "Gratitud" see the producer expressing a far more poignant and tangible side, while the lilting "Faggot" has a tragic sort of loneliness to it, its single, sampled voice ringing plaintively against scattered percussion. Even on aggressive-sounding tracks like "Vanity," the undeniably human quality of Arca's music comes through even louder than before.—Angus Harrison
11) Lotic - Heterocetera [Tri Angle]
2015 has been a very big year for Lotic. His is a familiar name nowadays, having recently garnered critical acclaim for his Agitations mix on Berlin's Janus label, been profiled extensively by nearly every electronic publication, and earned a pretty historical Björk cosign (he's remixed her and opened for her live), but it really wasn't until his debut EP for Tri Angle, Heterocetera, that it all started coming together. Named after an essay by influential black feminist Audre Lorde, it's a statement of purpose so commanding that it simply demands to be reckoned with. Working with collaged club sounds, spindly electro-acoustic synthesis and even a Masters at Work sample—of their vogue anthem "The Ha Dance"—the EP marked a real stepping stone in Lotic's highly-politicized, radically exciting approach, and we can't wait to hear what comes next.—Alex Iadarola
10) Kode9 - Nothing [Hyperdub]
At the beginning of this past fall, just as trees around us were beginning to wither, I took a morning stroll with Kode9 (AKA Steve Goodman) to a nearby Taoist temple, hidden on the top floor of a nondescript building in Chinatown. As we knelt in front of a Buddha statue, the Hyperdub label boss unwrapped some of the mind-bending concepts behind his new album, Nothing: "When I was reading about voids and vacuums, I kept coming across this idea that [they] may seem empty but actually contain all this invisible excitation, agitation and energy," he said. "It's called Zero Point Energy, which is the name of the first track—and what I'm trying to convey with this weird, sparkly sound."
This idea—that nothingness can actually be full of meaning—surfaces again and again on the album, which he made in memory of the Spaceape, who died in October 2014, six months after the passing of DJ Rashad, another one of Goodman's close friends and collaborators. On "Void," empty spaces are left where the Spaceape's growling vocals were supposed to be; another track, "Wu Wei," is named after a Taoist principle espousing non-action.
But the most powerful song on the record is the last one, "Nothing Lasts Forever." Recalling John Cage's seminal "4'33," it consists of ten minutes and nine seconds of silence. Except, of course, that it's anything but: you can hear little clatters and shuffles in the background if you listen closely. "I was searching for 'nothing' on YouTube, and I came across a video of this Japanese Zen Buddhist monk," Goodman explained. "He says, 'I'd like you all to hold your breath now.' [The idea is that by] holding his breath, he said everything he wanted to say." Goodman took the two-minute segment and looped it five times, resulting in the final track.
As we put our shoes back on and headed to the door, I realized this was why Nothing would prove to be one of the most powerful records of the year: it epitomizes our common struggle to find meaning in the emptiness around us—and especially the most fathomless of empty spaces, death.—Michelle Lhooq
9) Jlin - Dark Energy [Planet Mu]
By now most of us know the Jlin story: she doesn't live in Chicago; works in a steel plant in Gary, Indiana; soundtracks high-end fashion shows; and makes some of the most brutally dark and damaged footwork we've ever heard. Which means we can focus on the music. The Planet Mu-released Dark Energy lived up to it's name. It's a ferocious, angry, gloriously confusing, anti-social blast of energy that just pummels and pummels, but somehow still makes for one of the most satisfying listens of 2015.—Josh Baines
8) Darkstar - Foam Island [Warp]
"Um, personally I've not experienced that much of the world, I've not travelled much, and it's probably because of that I feel content here. I'm happy here." Thus begins the spoken extract at the start of "Javan's Call," the penultimate track on Darkstar's Foam Island. Inspired largely by interviews the duo conducted with twenty-somethings in Huddersfield, samples of which appear throughout the record, Foam Island articulates existence in the North of England and a life lived apart from the attention and prosperity of the capital. Despite originally building their reputation on 12"s for Hyperdub, Foam Island continues Darkstar's more recent run of making song-based albums. These paeans to place and person are intricate affairs; playing lithe hooks and catchy choruses off against a bed of swirling synths and delicate instrumentation. As with the sentiments that ground it, the production is upbeat yet undercut by something far weightier.
It may seem a tad unfair to call the album sad. It contains a huge amount of hope, and the characters who occupy the record sound far from broken, yet there is an undeniably poignant gravity weighing it down. The voices heard throughout speak of occupying a place in modern Britain that the rest of the world has seemingly forgotten. Against the backdrop of May's Conservative re-election, and the disenfranchisement that has followed, Darkstar explore the complicated realities of living in an ambivalent bubble, and most disconcertingly, the comfort that comes with it.—Angus Harrison
7) Björk - Vulnicura [One Little Indian]
On "Stonemilker," the opening track from her ninth album, Vulnicura, Bjork moans, "All That Matters is/ Who is open chested/ And who has coagulated." The line could have been a reference to what it means to be emotionally open or emotionally closed, but it functioned equally as a description of the record's gruesome, vaguely sexual cover art, on which the singer's torso appears rent open. The music within is equally disturbing and bewitching—a breakup record, sure, but also something bigger and more bottomless than that, couching the Icelandic artist's gut-wrenching first-person account of a fracturing relationship within a pillow of enveloping strings and sparse production flourishes, some of them contributions from Arca and The Haxan Cloak. When this epic, at times excruciating psychic journey of an album comes to an end, it's hard not to feel a little relieved, and maybe also a little healed.—Gigen Mammoser & Emilie Friedlander
6) Jamie xx - In Colour [Young Turks]
Like Disclosure's Caracal, Jamie xx's solo debut looks longingly at the past, be it through the warm thump of old drum kits or the unearthing of musty samples from the annals of UK rave culture. Jamie's diverse range of influences—grime, drum and bass, dubstep, and his work with The xx, among others—lends a literal quality to the album's title, as though on In Colour he were somehow unveiling the full, dazzling spectrum of his sonic memory bank.
Though it's not the most revolutionary album in the world, the London producer takes some risks—namely, on the dancehall-inspired "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," which enlists Atlanta MC Young Thug and Jamaican artist Popcaan in a sincere attempt at creating a universal summer turn-up jam (it worked). That track may hold the key to what makes this album so powerful, showcasing Jamie's ability to blend air-tight production with the sounds of yesterday, and somehow still seem like he's putting his finger on the zeitgeist.—Gigen Mammoser
5) Floating Points - Elaenia [Luaka Bop/ Pluto]
It took five long years for Sam Shepherd to drop a proper full-length, but as fans of his meticulously worked-over singles and EPs and DJ sets anticipated, it was worth the wait. Recorded in a highly improvisational manner—and eventually performed live via a 11-piece band—Elaenia takes the listener through fields of delicate live instrumentation, whispers of spiritual jazz, and, of course, the boundless Rhodes and Buchla melodies that sprang the Londoner to underground stardom.
All along the way, Smith's career has been testament to his risk-taking spirit, whether he's touring the world with his live set or playing out in clubs like the sadly defunct Plastic People, where he once held a residency alongside barrier-breaking jazz-house iconoclasts like Theo Parrish, who also held a residency there. Here, it surfaces in the album's continuous, durational nature, transitioning from calming to nearly out of control by the time "Peroration Six" comes around. Elaenia's not made for peak time, but it's music that speaks to your entire body, hitting every section of your senses consistently, but unpredictably. Because isn't that what life, and great music, are about?.— David Garber
4) Hudson Mohawke - Lantern [Warp]
The best way to listen to Lantern is on your own. Yes, it's huge, it bangs, it's a celebration. Put it on at a party, and you'll be jumping around and hugging your homies within minutes. But if you want to fully realize its potential, switch off the sounds of the world around you, plug in your headphones, and close your eyes.
Some records sound like movies, but Lantern sounds like a dream. Hudson Mohawke is so widely known for his huge club tracks as part of TNGHT and collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and Drake that many of us came to Lantern expecting high-profile names and heaters. What we got instead was a reckless, heart-filled charge through dark basements, sweeping cityscapes, sparkling galaxies and the low-lit rooms of sleeping lovers. HudMo's been refining his own idiosyncratic voice—one that zaps from live rock instrumentation to gabber throbs in a heartbeat—since as far back as 2009's Butter, yet on Lantern, these erratic quirks found their fullest realisation, and with that, maturity.
And that may appear an odd word to apply to a record so relentlessly hyperactive, yet it's appropriate. Lantern is a ludicrously emotional record, but that doesn't render its emotionality cartoonish—the closeness of "Indian Steps," the jittery joy of "Brand New World", and the triumphant swagger of "Scud Books" are all the maximal, orchestral conclusion of a feeling untethered and a singular imagination unrestricted. With this freedom, and his now considerable experience, Hudson Mohawke was able to produce a record that soars through across universe via the space inside your head.—Angus Harrison
3) Grimes - Art Angels [4AD]
A love letter to Nashville radio that doubles as a critique of the ouroboros-like character of the music press? Maximalist Top 40 pop anthems that lend themselves as easily to singing along to in bedrooms as they do at stadiums? A spaghetti Western-inspired hip-hop track featuring a Taiwanese rapper named Aristophanes? If you had any concerns that Claire Boucher's new management deal with Jay Z's Roc Nation would tamp down on her artistic ambitions or idiosyncrasies, Grimes' highly anticipated fourth album should dispel them immediately.
As far-flung and even incongruous Art Angel's musical reference points may be, the album is the Canadian artist's most pointed and singular-sounding record to date. And many of its best tracks—"Kill V. Maim," for example, with its blown-out cheerleader-with-a switchblade chants, and the Janelle Monae-assisted "Venus Fly"—see Boucher putting self-doubt and industry sexism in her crosshairs. While Grimes has been outspoken about these issues for years, her platform for doing so has never been larger—or more urgently needed.—Max Mertens
2) Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete [Warp]
Garden of Delete made me tear up the first time I heard it—which is weird, because it isn't exactly a sentimental-sounding record. I was sitting in a conference room in front of Daniel Lopatin and some coworkers, soaking in its screechy synths and beastly roars, and all I could think about was how free it sounded. Here I was—probably in the middle of some pressing writing or editing deadline, my gmail pinging me every minute with another email from another publicist—and Lopatin was busy excavating the shadowy, buried recesses of his pubescent, Nine Inch Nails and straight-to-tv-horror-movie-addled brain, making a record he probably knew would polarize his fans.
As a society, we Americans can be shockingly bad at introspection, and even worse at being kind to ourselves when we uncover things inside us we'd rather not think about. On Garden of Delete, Lopatin has done both: from the headache-inducing neo-drum solos on "Sticky Drama" to the sickened, scorched ballad vocals on "Animals," he's plunged himself into the thicket of rage, hope, shame, and bodily discomfort we all experienced in the stage between childhood and adulthood. What's more, he's channeled those feelings using the period-specific, at-times cringeworthy, musical languages that soundtracked each rite of passage for him, like industrial and nu metal. How embarrassing, you might say. Maybe, but aren't the most confident people you've met the ones who are brave enough to show their vulnerability?
As Lopatin put it to me himself during our recent Beats 1 conversation, if you really take a cold hard look at puberty—that moment when our bodies mutate, and our schema of the world around us become uncertain—there's something pretty inspiring, even political, about it. Something that may well hold the key to understanding his culture-jamming, elastic productions. "I think mutation on a biological level is as punk as anything can be," he told me, by way of explaining the song "Mutant Stardard." "It just flies in the face of order."—Emilie Friedlander
1) Holly Herndon - Platform [4AD/RVNG Intl.]
In was probably the crowning achievement of my career, I got blocked by Deadmau5 this summer after calling him a "daddy troll" on Twitter. A few days after the "incident," I went to see Holly Herndon bring Platform to life at a show that was part of Pitchfork's Tinnitus Music Series in Brooklyn. Herndon was joined onstage by collaborators Mat Dryhurst and Brian Rogers, all three of them peering slack-jawed into their laptops for most of their thought-provoking performance.
Herndon sang and sighed while plugins and processors she built herself warped her disembodied voice into an alien spectre. She treated her laptop as an instrument, raking her fingers down they keys as if they were guitar strings. Interactive videos of synthetic environments populated by human figures, food, and technological detritus were projected on the wall. Meanwhile, Dryhurst and Rogers picked through the social media trails of people in the audience (presumably selected from the event's Facebook page), commenting on our online lives with clever one-liners that were projected on a screen behind them. To my surprise, I suddenly became the target of their quips: "Michelle, consider him blocking you a favor in disguise." I felt like I'd been hit by a lightning bolt. The rush of realizing I'd been picked out of the crowd was heightened by the violence of this intrusion into my digital world.
My favorite track on Platform is "Lonely at the Top," Herndon's homage to the YouTube phenomenon of ASMR videos where (mostly) women use a variety of soothing noises to trigger pleasurable tingling feelings in their viewers. According her collaborator, ASMR expert Claire Tolan, their version reimagines the anxiety-relieving tool as "therapy for the 1%," exploring the "coping strategies developed by the extremely wealthy to justify their status [...] about being on the upper-end of vast global inequality." Against a background of keyboard clacks and shuffled paper, a babyish female voice insists: "You really deserve it... so many people depend on you, and it's not because you're good at what you're do—it's because you're a great person."
Both this track and my experience at the show perfectly sum up what made Herndon's album this year's biggest masterpiece. While many others tackled the themes that she is concerned with—Internet culture, online surveillance, invisible power structures, and our anxiety over all of the above—Herndon's genius lies in her ability to comment on these issues in a way that feels intimate, emotional, and sometimes even funny. Whether she's data-mining her audience, appropriating the weirdest corners of the Internet, or just creating cerebral club music you can still dance to—Herndon's cyborg pop gazes towards the future, but is primarily concerned with the things that make us human.—Michelle Lhooq