I hear a lot of great music almost every day, and it really adds up. I might not be rich or famous, but my life is wealthy with incredible music. I want to make everyone else as wealthy, too. Every single year, there are so many great albums that I’d recommend anyone, far more than I’d feel comfortable putting on a top ten list.
So here we are, my “honorable mention” list of 2015 albums. Every one of these albums are worth your time. Unlike my top list, they appear in the order that I heard them.
After you’ve checked this out, make sure to see the 17 Best Albums of 2015 here.
Read on to hear the best of the rest of 2015:
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
I’ll just quote my own adoring post about the album, from January:
I was finally sold on giving these guys a try with a friend’s comparison to This Heat. The legendary experimental band from England released only a pair of bewilderingly fresh albums and disappeared at the turn of the 80s, leaving an indelible legacy that’s rarely touched, much less spiritually evoked. If you’re at all familiar with that band, give this your rapt attention. Right now. See also: fans of The Stooges, Public Image, Ltd., Bauhaus, and probably The Velvet Underground. What these bands have in common is a tough, motor-driven veneer with a knotty, heart-on-sleeve artfulness at center. Mining deeper into this territory, Viet Cong marries ragged noise and unapologetic beauty.
• • •
Marco Shuttle – Visione
Here’s what I had to say nearly a year ago:
Pried open with a slow motion drone tumble, the album kicks off in spectacularly ominous fashion. The cavernous sound would feel right at home on the Modern Love imprint, as a close cousin to Demdike Stare in their rhythmic moments. There’s a primal undercurrent at play here, soaking the beats in atavistic decay.
As the tracks progress, a heavy momentum kicks everything up a notch. The dread remains, yet creeps into a muted frenzy as the pace quickens. This is techno as a death march, stomping panic underfoot before emerging into brighter timbres in the album’s second half.
I feel like I’m giving the impression that this music is scary. It might be spooky at a glance, but it’s definitely not the howling-existential-panic I’ve plumbed the depths of in the past. There’s a buoyancy and charm to the mix, shining through in the handcrafted nuance of these songs. There’s the very fact that it never drops completely into a droning abyss; the beat always remains within arm’s reach. This is certainly not club material, but it is resolutely not a soundtrack for laying in bed all day
• • •
Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2
This EP was only one small clutch of the incredible amount of music Aphex Twin dropped over the course of the year. The vast majority of it, free tracks on soundcloud, spanned his entire career and the recorded spectrum from thin demos to fully mastered tracks. This set gets the nod because it’s the only official release, but they’re all worth a listen. This short but powerful set mostly echoed the structures of 2014’s incredible comeback, Syro, but boasted a more percussive, hard edged sound.
• • •
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Euclid
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith makes synthesizer music with a hopeful sense of wonder, weighted with a dreamlike melancholy. Unlike the alien soundscapes of early Oneohtrix Point Never, for example, there’s a delicacy of construction here, and an affection for overt melody. This feeling evokes a narrative, likely Smith’s intention, that culminates in the twelve-part Labyrinth suite that covers the second half of the album. It’s music for adventuring and for falling in love. Or maybe losing a love and finding yourself.
I’m reminded of nothing more than this achingly beautiful scene from one of my favorite films, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s a simple walk down the block between two strangers that feels weighted with decades’ worth of history and shared affection, ending on a surprising mixture of sweet and sour.
• • •
Ahnnu – Perception
This is electronic tape music that manages to feel like field recordings from some blasted out industrial zone, or perhaps a look at a future archaeological dig concerning our recent past. It’s got that indefinable “unearthed” feeling despite its clearly manmade aesthetic. There are entire stretches here where momentum slows to a halt, where we simply exist in the sound. Inevitably, some echoed, distant rhythm gains some gravity and pulls us onward, stumbling into the next alien echo chamber.
Next, a massive warped voice or instrumental crumble looms into view, completely disrupting the trance effect. We’re made aware of the human behind the controls, if only for a moment, before the sound is subsumed and carries on. This is truly music to become entirely lost in. I’m often at a lack of words to describe it, so forgive the brevity of these paragraphs.
• • •
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee
As noted in my Best of 2011 post, and what would have been in my post for 2013 had I written one, Matana Roberts is simply one of the most vital, groundbreaking jazz artists of our time. In fact, take away the “jazz” qualifier, because she operates in the true spirit of exploratory free jazz, making music that feels unabashedly new in every way. There are no direct precedents for what she does with her saxophone, her studio, and her voice.
With this album, Roberts moves in for the most intimate experience yet, centered directly on her voice. The full band is still there, yet almost completely subsumed by an expansive drone. This creates an almost monochromatic backdrop for her whisper-in-the-ear lyrics, setting the ever present yet disembodied voice even further adrift from what we recognize as jazz music. Instead of the violent eruptions of noise heard on the first installment, or the orbiting, melodic cacophony of the second, the sound here is confrontational only in the sense of how dreamlike it is, stitched together out of the half-remembered history we live and breathe in. When recognizable saxophone or piano tones peek through, they’re often matched by found sounds: babies crying, traffic, then Roberts’ alternatively matter-of-fact and desperately pleading voice re-emerges to lead the way.
• • •
OOBE – Stealth
Crunchy, compressed, claustrophobic yet epic-feeling techno from a producer who seems to have lifted his atmosphere from Actress himself. Everything contained in this album seems to erupt from a high pressure valve down in a cave somewhere, all steamy hissing, subsonic thump, and echoed whispers. Yet instead of a menacing dankness, the music lifts at some point during the 16 minute intro track, floating above the clouds and getting brighter and more friendly as it grows.
There are dark, tumbling moments throughout, pieces where the oppressive atmosphere threatens to derail the constant pulse. It never quite happens. This is music to get lost in, at night and home alone. It’s music for the icy drive home through empty streets and flickering stoplights. It’s the kind of techno that reminds you of the genre’s heady origins, with its obvious introspective bent coloring everything.
• • •
Nico Niquo – Epitaph
[Orange Milk Records]
After falling in love with Giant Claw’s breakthrough album, Dark Web, I started combing through the Orange Milk label’s roster, finding gem after gem until stumbling onto this brief but unforgettable release. The album opens with soft, almost jungle-tinted midi melodies, a sort of warm cousin of Oneohtrix Point Never’s work on R Plus Seven a couple years back. That album seems to have become somewhat of a holy text for certain artists, but aside from Giant Claw, Nico Niquo is the only musician to truly do something new with the inspiration.
This is a cloudy dream of mid-90s utopian nostalgia, as gentle as a warm bath while granting an elevated feeling like those first optimistic hours of a Japanese RPG, exploring a new world with seemingly endless possibilities. Remember how good it felt realizing that Midgar was only one small portion of Final Fantasy VII? So does Nico Niquo.
• • •
Oneohtrix Point Never – Commissions II
The first two tracks of this EP arose as a direct homage to those sensory-overload shooter games from the early 1990s, games like R-Type and Gradius III, lovingly called bullet hell. In the games, you basically fight exponentially increasing numbers of enemies on screen with an equally matched set of continually upgraded weaponry. The music is, accordingly, a maelstrom of synths and effects that eventually tumbles into near-hypnosis from its snowballing accumulation of density. It’s astounding, but it’s not why this is one of the year’s best releases.
The second half, Suite For Magnetic Rose, was originally commissioned as a new soundtrack for a live showing of Katsuhiro Otomo and Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece short anime film, Magnetic Rose. A sort of psychological take on the Gothic haunted house in space aesthetic borne from the original Alien film, the short orbits around its Madam Butterfly-inspired score. Instead of aping the operatic original, Oneohtrix Point Never unfolds a uniquely progressive take on his ambient space-drone past, creating a truly symphonic evolution of that aesthetic. Instead of backwards-looking, it feels truly revolutionary, a new step for the artist. Of course, it turned out to be a red herring, as his definitive 2015 album Garden Of Delete ended up proving.
• • •
Voices From The Lake – Live At Maxxi
I haven’t written much about them yet, but Voices From The Lake are one of my favorite existing techno acts, and most credit goes toward Italian techno god Donato Dozzy. His maximized minimalism explores the galactic outer bounds of beach psychedelia, and on this release, begins as small and unassuming as the universe did, moments before the big bang.
While this set never truly erupts, it unfolds like an origami supernova, eventually cresting in the relatively melodic Max, a 13 minute low-key epic of melodic minimalist techno. It may take a long time to get here, wading through stark waters of nearly ascetic, wrinkled greyscale techno for almost 40 minutes – an engrossing set of monochromatic music, to be sure – but the sudden bloom of color cannot be understated. This is revelatory music, so long as you’ve got the patience to let it happen on its own terms.
• • •
Annabel (lee) – By The Sea…
I wrote about this wildly underrated and unknown gem after crashing my bicycle last year. Here are a couple exerpts:
Listening as the coffee and pills took effect, I dreamed of spaces in imaginary David Lynch films, lost in smoke and obfuscation, sensual and menacing all at once. The sound is a quietly stunning, with a fresh, spaced out atmosphere belying its traditional jazz setup. The closest analog that comes to mind, in terms of production, is the self-titled Portishead album, with its thumping trip-hop structures obscured by shadows and crackling dust.
The instrumentation here billows from street level guitar minimalism to multi-tracked orchestral clouds, wrapped in a cocoon of timeless drift. The album connects a specific through-line from Billie’s 1958 recording You Don’t Know What Love Is to the mystic folk of Robbie Basho on 1978’s Visions of the Country to, indeed, the raw modern jazz poetry of Matana Roberts. If you’re remotely interested in any of these, you owe it to yourself to hear By The Sea… And Other Solitary Places.
Since it’s important to me, I’ll mention that the music of early David Lynch is an obvious cosmic cousin to this sound. Listening again, I think of nothing so much as Julee Cruise singing in the Road House outside Twin Peaks, and the lost soundtrack of the Fire Walk With Me band, Fox Bat Strategy. They all share a real sense of spiritual drama, emerging from nighttime earthen blues under a bygone twentieth century glow.
• • •
Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Sounding Lines
Moritz Von Oswald trio might seem, at a glance, to be refining the same sound over and over again with each successive album release. It’s true that they adhere to a Spartan 4 by 4 beat like ascetic monks, but the band uses this dogmatic framework to grind out a galaxy of colors, shapeshifting the surface of their sound while retaining its timeless structure.
What I feel has been added with this fourth studio album is a much more tangible sense of the band as a living unit, made up of real people. The drumming, as precise as ever, simply feels more loosely embodied. The synth washes arrive sounding playful. This is one of the finest evocations of techno as a studio band experience I’ve ever heard.
• • •
Pulse Emitter – Digital Rainforest
[Beer on the Rug]
2015 was the year I discovered Pulse Emitter. The artist, real name Daryl Groetsch, always seemed to orbit the periphery of what I was into, mentioned at the tail end of lists including Oneohtrix Point Never and Bee Mask. I don’t know what held me back, but I finally got familiar via a two hour compilation known as Planetary Scale Synth Hypnosis. While it endeared me to his experimental take on synthesizer music, it was nothing groundbreaking to my ears.
Then I discovered Digital Rainforest, a cassette-only release, and witnessed a radical evolution for an artist I thought I’d nailed down in a couple hours. Trading in bright midi tones straight out of Donkey Kong Country, this brief set of short tunes cuts right to the center of a post Replica world, where it launches into landscapes far from beneath the shadow of that experimental music titan.
• • •
Thundercat – The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
The main criticism leveled at Thundercat before 2015 was that he was too stiff – a pure technician, obsessed with the physicality of his instrument, rendering hair-trigger melodies at hyper speed. His albums were packed with virtuosic displays of bass guitar mastery, buffered by sublime but well worn hip-hop and funk beats. It was impressive, but not totally endearing. He was showing off, more for the geeks than those truly in love with funk. Because I am a geek, I loved it anyway. But I understood the friends who weren’t on board.
In the summer of 2015 though, I started evangelizing all over again. “You really need to give him a new chance,” I assured everyone. I’m still on the same page. With this slim release, Thundercat completes his evolution over a mere 16 minutes, finally using his considerable powers for something wildly passionate and personal. Working with frequent collaborators Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, Thundercat manages to fuse his latent Isley Brothers and Parliament influences into the sharpest iteration of his unique space funk sound yet. The song below, Them Changes, is the most pure pop moment of Thundercat’s career but the remainder of the set veers into more funky, instinctually jazzy territory. I wrote about it in July. It may have taken his heart getting ripped out, but at least Thundercat finally found it.
• • •
A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP
Here’s what I wrote in June, when exploring the first single from the album:
L$D, funny enough, is one of the more conventional tracks on the album. It acts as soft, neon-glow connective tissue, sliding effortlessly into the kaleidoscopic heart of the hallucinatory album. In that way, the name suits it perfectly.
The full album, At.Long.Last.A$AP, is a full-bore journey through psychedelic underworlds both street-level and subliminal. It’s one of the most cohesive yet dreamy hip-hop full lengths I’ve heard in a while, and surprised the hell out of me. After only kind of enjoying his major label debut a couple years ago, this one feels like a revelation.
• • •
Tame Impala – Currents
I wrote a little bit about Tame Impala earlier this year, smitten with the band’s bright new synth-laden sound. You can read that if you want, or you can just watch this fan-made video for the song Yes, I’m Changing. Featuring hypnotic clips of Audrey Horne from David Lynch’s legendary tv series, Twin Peaks, it basically says everything I could imagine about why Currents is one of the year’s best albums.
• • •
Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015
If you’re of a certain disposition, you’ll fall into this sound immediately. Waves of gentle feedback wash over, and echoes that open up like a giant’s maw swallow you whole. It’s often formless, but never vaporous. There’s a weight and drive behind this music. It could soundtrack an apocalyptic Western or a gallery of Dali paintings. I will definitely color your dreams.
With zero warning, this vaguely titled album has begun making its way around the world and touching people based purely on word of mouth. Despite its focused dedication to drifting sounds and little to no sense of melody, it’s achingly beautiful and sensual. It proves that David Pearce has a lot to offer the world, well over two decades since releasing his masterpiece album Further. I’m just hoping that this is the opening shot, a prelude to bigger things. The man who invented rural psychedelia is back, and I’m hungry for more, all over again
• • •
Kuedo – Assertion of a Surrounding Presence
Over a slim 22 minutes, Kuedo annihilated my expectations of his work as a nominally dubstep-descendant artist. This album feels like the product of someone who’s stepped into the future and come back shaken and pale, yet wholeheartedly determined. To do what? I’m not sure.
The sounds evoke nothing so much as the psychic neon dystopia of the epochal 1988 anime feature, Akira. The film’s taiko-infused score worked its way into last year’s Progress mixtape, so I’ve got a clear predilection for these sounds. But Kuedo does something more than ape the timbres present; he folks that timeless, vaguely sci-fi sound into an amped up and evolved take on his own bass music. It’s not a full length release, but what it does in one third of an hour is set an extremely high bar for anyone else working in dance music today. This is how you go conceptual but keep things beat-centric.
• • •
Seabat – Synthus
[Beer on the Rug]
“Synthus is a state of mind ”
The music here combines the sensuous texture of modern beat-driven electronic dance with the epic drift of the best 70s prog artists. To a guy whose favorite albums include both Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon and Caribou’s Swim, this felt like a dream come true.
Don’t let my simplified comparison steer you wrong; this is elegiac synthesizer music built for rocketing through space. There’s nothing remotely danceable here. With surprising restraint, the band never gives in to that overtly grandiose impulse that eventually doomed the original prog movement. While the trio of songs here steps from a 3 minute intro to a twenty minute suite, the cumulative effect is one of subtle awe. Every time the album ends, I feel like I’ve been orbiting a Fantastic Planet, never quite touching down to meet the inhabitants face to face.
I feel like I’ve done a poor job of expressing why this album is one of the best of the year. Still, if there’s one utterly unknown artist you explore because of this list, I hope it’s Seabat.
• • •
Deepchord – Ultraviolet Music
[Soma Quality Recordings]
Deepchord, aka Rod Modell, is an absolute landmark in the world of Detroit techno. His releases consistently stand at the vanguard of what’s possible within the galactic confines of the genre. Surprisingly, the methodology isn’t so complicated, at least on paper. Most songs introduce a consistent 4/4 beat at a medium-to-glacial pace and then are colored in, from edge to edge, with a spectrum of tones, moods, and micro melodies.
As Modell said in a great Fact interview a few months back, “I’m a painter who just replaced his paints with sounds, I guess. My songs are snapshots of places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had, seasoned with a little otherworldly cosmic dust. All my songs start with field recordings and drones. Beats and bass are incidental and added last… and probably not necessary.”
This unique take on techno construction has resulted in a two CD set comprising over two hours of peak Deepchord techno, at turns hazily drifting and intricately detailed. Dub bass often hides behind a veil of hissing atmosphere, ever present yet a step removed.
• • •
Arca – Mutant
Arca makes incredibly mystifying music. With both his first album and now Mutant, only a year later, he’s carved out an utterly unique sound from the digital detritus of a thousand years of piled up electronics. The faceless deluge of tunes, running from depth-charge beat productions to atmospheric explorations, folds in on itself and explodes. This music tears unexpected holes in space-time. Arca’s dysmorphic identity is pulled even further from recognizable corporeal form, making for one of the most substantive experimental crowd pleasers of 2015.
As I wrote last year: You’ll probably find this cutting through your mind, if you’re a fan of the alien architecture of Oneohtrix Point Never, the neon contrast footwork of DJ Rashad, the depth charge techno of Andy Stott, the weird end of Warp‘s catalog, or even Kanye West. Seriously: Arca helped craft his ear shattering album Yeezus.
• • •
Gr◯un土 – Vodunizm
My first discovery of the last month of 2015, Vodunizm was so captivating I had to write about it immediately:
The music structurally reminds me of slow motion dub techno, but it’s far too active and bright to fit with Basic Channel or Deepchord. The mood leans into the celebratory tent, all neon strobes and moving bodies, yet the tempo is suited for the chillout room. I’m sitting here on my third listen, fourth cup of coffee at noon on a Saturday, and it sounds perfect. That says it all.
The deep, rubbery beats are sprinkled with a galaxy of tangible instrumentation, whether sampled or recorded live. Songs erupt, cut through with traditional Japanese percussion, bells, and chimes. Obvious samples are rare, but at one point the classic Godzilla roar makes an appearance. The fact that it’s not jarring or dumb says a lot about the otherworldly context.
These tracks manage to dilate time, slowly expanding in a beat cloud of unknowing. I felt lost inside a mere 4 minute song at the center of the album, ping ponging between antique female vocal samples like a foggy hall of mirrors. At 77 minutes, it’s a long album, but it felt like waking from a dream at the end, the homogenous sound washing tracks together in memory. It’s a cohesive sound world that I want to be cocooned in.
• • •
Jlin – Dark Energy
If DJ Paypal pointed the way toward free jazz from footwork, Jlin is doubled down on starker, darker, even more primally beat-worshipping spaces. To many people, this is the definitive footwork release of 2015, refocusing on the core premise of the style and fleshing it out more grandiosely than anyone’s done before.
As both a woman and non-Chicago resident, Jlin arrives at the footwork throne as an outsider nonetheless. The fresh perspective works wonders, as this album unfolds a more cinematic take on the hyperspeed sound without losing any of the propulsive focus the genre’s known for. I’m reminded of the moment Massive Attack took trip-hop to new sculptural heights in 1998 with Mezzanine.
• • •
Gabriel Saloman – Movement Building Vol. 2
This is experimental chamber music for the post apocalypse. The construction I picture is a fantasy ideal of jazz using traditional Japanese instrumentation, blasted through an industrial framework.
Coming from one half of the late, great Yellow Swans, you might be expecting extreme noise, howling drone tunnels, or feedback for days. Instead, there’s a spare delicacy at play, with each instrument living and breathing in its own space, slowly cponverging on a distant supernova. While the music eventually gets to that heavy moment, the chaos is contained, laser focused. All sounds are pressed into a flat circle as the album crescendos. And then he ends with a crumbling yet elegant cover of My Funny Valentine.
Recommended for fans of Bee Mask, Morton Feldman, and John Coltrane.
• • •
Young Thug – Barter 6
Barter 6 was one of the last albums I heard in 2015, despite being released in early spring. It’s actually a current obsession. I simply wasn’t familiar with Young Thug a year ago, only knowing him from occasional guest verses, as removed as I was from the trap scene he’s emerged from.
This was a massive oversight. With lyrics often as unintelligible as an extraterrestrial language, the rap delivery itself becomes the message. Young Thug is not like most other rappers, and in my view, has handily usurped his supposed greatest influence, Lil Wayne, from the alien hip-hop throne. The production is structured minimally, yet employs incredibly nuanced textures and flat-circle bass to bracket its abundant open spaces. This high contrast embrace ping-pongs the mind over the stream of consciousness lyrical word soup, occasional concrete phrases jumping above the whitewater churn. This is holistic hip-hop, a singular picture that resists deconstruction. It’s wildly psychedelic. It is, frankly, some of the most invigorating music I heard all year.