2015: Favorite 50 Music Releases

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


Dawn Richard (D∆WN)


[Our Dawn]

I forgot about Beyoncé. To be perfectly honest, I had also forgotten my name, along with the names of my friends, families, and co-workers, after awakening in an abandoned hospital full of animated marionettes and dog-man-crab hybrids. Weird stuff. All recollection of Beyoncé had been twisted, stretched, perverted, refracted, and cyclone-blended into new, shining memories of an album called Blackheart by a person named Dawn Richard. Maybe a person, that is. In my heart, I felt like Dawn Richard must be a person, as albums are most frequently made by people. But she seemed more like a morphing, endlessly pliable pop-spirit, fitting herself over sophisti-jams, then stretching those songs into genuinely adventurous territory. Though, it's doubtful that any spirit could possess a voice so radiantly human while strong enough to blend into both sensory-overload "Calypso" and pit-of-stomach lament "Swim Free." Here, in this dark world, there is no Beyoncé, there is Dawn Richard. And I don't mind, the warped voice "Billie... Billie Jean" pounding away pleasurably inside my foggy mind. This dog-man-crab hybrid is my best friend. I love it.



A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended In Darkness


Is love wonderful? Tragic? Nerve-racking? Something that happens or something you nurture? A chemical reaction in the brain or a much mythologized part of human history? On A Shapeless Pool, it was everything and nothing, both all and none of the above. For Jessica Smurphy, love was an abstraction that expanded and collapsed on its own, and while intangible, she tried to conjure it in music, harnessing its energy into the sounds invoked on this album. A Shapeless Pool represented a new expansion in #smurphwave, one that, while still bass-heavy and groovy, reduced her use of concrete beats. In turn, we found ambience, gibberish voices looped into their own mechanical pings that appeared and disappeared, melodies coming from out of nowhere. Even her use of rhythm served her aural non-narrative, which was at times innocent, at others seductive; sometimes dissolving a few notes into the ether, other times using as many as possible. On A Shapeless Pool, Smurphy built a glowing, breathing soundscape, only to lose herself and the listener within it.





In three hours, we traveled through several histories of LIL UGLY MANE, chiefly the excessive trim and unusable fat: snapshots, sketches, scenes from long-ago parties, obsessions of the month, wormholes, loopholes, little forgotten documents, texts, beats, half-baked musical projects, scribbled secrets, moments of silence alone inside a car in the winter, smoking a cigarette. The project generated a hyper-complexity that mimicked the shedding away of a linear history, of a body, and of a name. LIL UGLY MANE wedged all of these individual moments — these B-sides, this detritus — into huge chunks so as to end the material history of this project and let his spirit move on, onto other projects, onto other names, onto other trajectories. Genres collapsed, leaving the whole thing free. Call it a garage sale. Call it cleaning out your closet. THIRD SIDE OF TAPE's desire for an exchangeable language failed, which made the project teeming, almost flooding, with importance.





Leland Jackson has come a long way from his Couch under the alias, Ahnnu. Shit, Ahnnu? That Los(t) Angeles dwelling, left-field freak-beat turned arts & crafts sound sculptor? For miles of reel, Ahnnu has traversed the dingy in Pro Habitat, fried radio with Battered Sphinx, collaborative cap cai involving D/P/I on She Was No Tame Thing, traveled in exploration of World Music, and then this year brought us his most modern, Perception via LEAVING Records. Perception came during a time when music by the likes of Seth Graham, Lieven Martens Moana, and Susan Balamar peaked progressive production, witnessing Ahnnu building a found sound broken and Scotch-taped on the reel, effortlessly. Guiding listeners to a sense of goose-bumped serenity, Perception kept observers at the edges of their seats with such magnificence that y'all had to flip that tape for weeks to pinpoint each burst of music into the hundreds. With Perception, it felt like Ahnnu had reached one hell of a nirvana in music-making, stretching time and space into something beyond a reality that our holodeck-minds fed upon. What is 2016?



LP [2015]

[Spectrum Spools]

High Techno might be underrated as a storyteller's medium, but not by the artists who make it. From Shinichi Atobe to Drexciya, Danny Wolfers to Jeff Mills, the genre's biggest names tend to save their lengthiest, unlikeliest tales for the album format, their airiest concepts and their gentlest grooves. Ren Schofield's Container project, on the other hand, continues to make the case for a Lowbrow, greasy Biker Techno: a moral panic in a meteor shower, a tire fire visible from space. Using only a drum machine, a four-track, and some guitar pedals, Schofield pestled into dust the disenchanted notions that minimalism is a byword for boredom, that fun is a toothless ideal, that all the best ideas have already been executed. Don't try DIY like this at home!


Joanna Newsom


[Drag City]

The antidote most often sold to us to treat the fear of death is an excess of the present: seizing the moment, as if piling "now" on top of "now" can buttress against later. Divers was inspired by this fear, which, for Newsom, came along with finding the love of her life — so romantic, right? Yet the album itself offered a heterodox treatment plan, easing off the romanticism of Newsom's previous emotional swellings (and vocal idiosyncrasies) in favor of even more of her unparalleled, intricately sturdy song-craftsmanship: Newsom, in fact, cured death through composition, Divers's final notes and syllables following perfectly, and deliberately, into its initial ones. More radically, though: the album was her least immediate to date, and listening to it had the deferred, slowly-accruing pleasure of a long-term relationship. Instead of the snakeoil of a heightened present, Newsom built for the future. Divers will be around for a long time.



If You're Reading This It's Too Late

[Cash Money]

There's a ghostly quality that ran through If You're Reading This It's Too Late. The cryptic Jim Joe cover, the slasher-flick instrumentals, the wailing vocal loop in the second half of "No Tellin'," the spooky amusement park DKC2 sample on "6 God." Even the album release managed to be mysterious in an age when dead-of-night drops are the norm. It's as if Drake really did die in “Legend” and now he haunts the record like a smooth poltergeist stoking an awesome graveyard party. For all the flak he gets and punchlines he generates, Mr. Graham always seems to have his finger on the pulse of what’s strange and interesting in the zeitgeist. The odd mix of sadness and celebration, candor and posturing, big drum hits and soft echo-y samples felt like a bullseye on this year’s pop vibe. It was a blowout soundtrack for both the dead and the living, making you wonder which side’s having more fun.


Sicko Mobb

Super Saiyan Vol. 2


Lil Trav and Lil Ceno aren’t grown up, but they’re growing. To accept the responsibilities of adulthood, to acknowledge danger or loss head-on — Sicko Mobb does not make music for these purposes. Their bottomless energy and ADD-BPM productions frosted with video game synths suggest a rarefied teenage lifestyle, streaking off into uncertain futures with no fucks given, nearly tripping over their own momentum, definitely tripping on drugs. But this cover does no justice to the book. Super Saiyan Vol. 2 succeeded, like its predecessor, because Trav and Ceno are craftsmen who know how to make perfect songs. We beamed as hooks blasted past our faces, as melodies harmonized with day-glo backdrops into the type of earworms whose playback literally released dopamine into our systems over and over. While “Kool Aid” and “On Fire” exchanged their warp-speed flows for pure candy-paint crooning, the Mobb ascended to even higher planes when they mixed these styles equally. Jams like “Major League” and “Trending Topic” found Trav and Ceno fleshing out their individual styles, singing dynamic chorus lines and ripping into verses that wound through diverse rhythms in a blur of girls and cars, gold and good OG, dreams and unabashed victories.


Beat Detectives

Boogie Chillen / The Hills Of Cypress

[Where To Now?]

Raw doggie trio Beat Detectives (Chris Hontos, Aaron Anderson, and Oakley Tapola) juiced up Boogie Chillen / The Hills Of Cypress, another RBV bacchanalia, satisfying Atari Dionysus and our own C-assette Lorde while us mortals sat beneath it all, catching discharge and rearranging it on the floor. With the help of #dropboxmap, we organized what fell into our mouths and hands into four parts. Everyone loves a W. Play all-four-quarters, right? And this game’s in the bag. Phone your bookie, Beat Detectives are +420 to repeat in 2016. Odds too good to pass around. Ultimate side dishes become main mixes every day. Boogie Chillen / The Hills Of Cypress loosely wrapped up like a mix without dead space or pause. The syndical songs/clips/cuts were veiled for smoother play. We were huddled and shivering in bed, still on the fence over whether we were being slowly beaten down or uplifted. Either way, thanks for Meet Dave-ing a hottie body pile, BD.


Julia Holter

Have You in My Wilderness


If the title track didn’t have lyrics from which we could glean the meaning of the album’s title, we might’ve assumed from the album itself an exposure to the natural inclinations of the human brain, where neurons prey on neurons, and neurons impulsively hibernate for the seasonal neuron, their fur growing all bushy. Listeners saw religious figures in their toast, and Julia Holter responded by accepting a pattern’s possibility but frequently denying an intent. Her songs were composed in the moment and largely without the blatant literary inspirations of albums past, and accompanied by vocals lifted out of instrumental cover (with coaxing from producer Cole M. Greif-Neill), we had a release that more obviously brought Holter and her mind to the fore. The tracks “Sea Calls Me Home” and the distinctly upbeat “Everytime Boots” compelled discussions of escapist themes, but what has Holter said when presented with these reasonable conclusions? “Talk to my subconscious,” which resembles an ecosystem, and we can continue indulging our apophenia. Wilderness was beautifully told, otherwise.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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