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



10

SOPHIE

PRODUCT

[Numbers]


One of the greatest production accomplishments in recent memory, PRODUCT culminated the fordist manufacturing model of SOPHIE’s stellar track release history into a complex assemblage — primarily located on the web — with sex toys, moulded silicon bubble cases, and hover states firing off SOPHIE’s signature metallic glop wildly across the browser. The assembly-line production of SOPHIE’s brand was optimized and specialized into a dynamic workforce, a skill-flexible core — immersive, expansive, and evocative of the physiological ear-popping that the tracks originally induced. With plenty of momentum from previous years, 2015 saw SOPHIE making the definitive production statement in overhauling a stale beat-culture. The saturation of the rhythmic market prompted ears to desire higher quality goods, slicker goods: a Veblen Good of production shiny enough for both noise-heads and McDonald’s alike to grab tracks like lustrous status symbols. PRODUCT ushered in a new gold standard of ideological and material production: that the modern void can always be overcome with sheer quality; that values can always be fragmented, taste always made more eclectic, and culture always more populist.


09

Björk

Vulnicura

[One Little Indian]


There’s a mess of opinions out there about what makes a breakup album work, but mostly what gets voiced is what people think makes a breakup album collapse (“it’s too indulgent,” “too vapid,” “too cliché”). And yeah, compartmentalizing expressions does give us power over our own emotions. But that’s just where our ideals fall out of alignment with our realities, isn’t it? Because loss isn’t rational. Losing a part of yourself makes you ask questions you never would have asked before, because your reality has drastically shifted at a nuclear level. As a diehard Björk fan, it’s tempting touting Vulnicura as a pure, creative triumph over despair (which it is), but what really stunned us all was how it collapsed those distinctions. Björk didn’t just pen a heart-wrenching story here and leave it on our doorsteps; she picked at our discriminating brain tissue with serrated strings and sparkling snares, inflicting us with melancholy through melody so that we could once again feel how music, no matter how negating, can truly make whole again.


08

Future

DS2

[Epic/Freebandz]


Mama warned against going off the deep end. But in Future’s case, the deep end isn’t just the place you’ll eventually sojourn; it’s where true self is discovered, the treasure on the ocean bed. And because his authenticity had been compromised once before — by an eagerness to succeed — he knows too well that true self is the only self. By no longer desperately chasing the high of global success, Future retreated far into his shell to pull from the viscera, producing a complete body of work that was free of deceit. In turn, an unfettered Future welcomed us to DS2 or, more accurately, a man’s enduring quest to purge the soul. Here, the pop star turned monster tried acid for the first time (“The Percocet & Stripper Joint”), devoted himself to literally everything (“Blood on the Money”), and reveled in falling out of love (“Kno the Meaning”). Although many of DS2’s lassitudes were certainly miserable and gut-wrenching, they were also surprisingly humanistic and triumphant — this was living, breathing music. If there was any takeaway from the syrup-drenched DS2, it was that we must dare to be ourselves, however frightening it may inevitably prove to be.


07

Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell

[Asthmatic Kitty]


The sentence-long titles, the kaleidocopian arrangements, the 20-odd cuts per album were all feathers on the barbershop floor: Sufjan Stevens (largely) pared things back to acoustic guitar and piano on Carrie & Lowell, haunted by ghostly swells that tended to hang in the air as codas. He channeled Byron and Shelley, digging up Hellenistic friezes and creating a lenticular effect in which doom’ed desire for an uncaring man could also read as dialog between Jesus and John the Baptist. He bluntly cut to the prosaic modern world, where “you checked your text while I masturbated.” Did he get enough love? There was the odd disturbing snapshot from his Oregon childhood with Mom, but he expressed no resentment; even being abandoned in a video store at three, maybe four, left him “free to explore.” Was that a trill in his voice when he quoted her on her deathbed? Sufjan seemed incapable of anger, even when he wondered if you loved him at all. He practiced gentleness as an extremist act as he beamed the white light of penetrating observation. The only violence he contemplated was toward himself, his pillow-talk vocals running up his register into despair.


06

Elysia Crampton

American Drift

[Blueberry]


A relentlessly futurist endeavor shot through with a pungent historicity, there are few releases this year to rival the degree to which American Drift emerged as a hyper-articulated, hyper-dimensional, hyper-intensive locus of the shuddering, shivering now. A fluid, and yeah, drifting, admixture of crunk, cumbia, house, and new age, it took anti-significatory referentiality to an extreme here-ness, cultural and textural referents morphing into solid reams of sound, incantatory summoning as compositional method. A banger in all senses — and not just because Lil Jon is all over the thing — it reveled in the ecstatic-terrified disintegration of borders, be they between cultures, genres, nations, or genders, utopian and nihilistic in equal doses, burrowing into the contemporary miseries inherent in those border tensions while instantiating the glorious potential-and/or-already-happening ruptures held within. But what really matters is that this really happened — no dry theory, but a dancefloor making-it-real, with your skin in the game too, focused and forceful. All hail the transevangelist; the future arrived, and it was something.


05

Oneohtrix Point Never

Garden of Delete

[Warp]


“Are you even listening to me? As your father, I’m concerned. You spend all day drinking Morpho and staring at your devices. All year long, you’ve displayed unpredictable mood swings. One minute you’re making ‘dank’ memes about serious problems like it’s a big joke, and the next you’re full of rage at the most minuscule slight, making dramatic posts on your Twitter. Every year, I wonder when you’ll grow out of this pubescent phase and do something. Have you set any goals for your future? What was that? Enunciate, you’re mumbling again. Yes, you’re right, I don’t understand you! I don’t understand your obsession with violence and pornography! And yes, I have been monitoring your internet habits. Which reminds me: are you on drugs? I found the website for Kaoss Edge. This music you’re making is fucking weird, son. Sometimes I don’t know if we’re from the same planet. It feels like you’re not my son anymore, as if you’ve mutated into another species like your goddamned dog. Is any of this getting through to you? Are you crying? What’s that on your face? Your face, Ezra… oh, God, Ezra, your face is melting…”


04

Kendrick Lamar

To Pimp a Butterfly

[Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg]


More chameleon than butterfly, Kendrick Lamar examined black identity and consciousness from myriad perspectives on To Pimp A Butterfly, effortlessly transforming his voice, both literally and figuratively; shapeshifting hip-hop form in a genre-tripping odyssey through funk, jazz, soul, spoken word, and R&B; and seamlessly transitioning from micro to macro, personal to political, intimate to universal. The result was one of the most audacious and dazzling music manifestos of the year. We bore witness to all of Kendrick’s struggles, his album-length journey from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly, from those of the material to the spiritual, as a black man in 21st-century America, as a spiritual man, a rapper and an entertainer, and against forces both internal and external. To Pimp A Butterfly was so packed to the brim with ideas, tackling everything from the temptations of Lucy(fer) to the effects of money, power, greed, and fame on individual and institutional levels, all while filtering them through endlessly inventive styles and structures. As passionate and catchy as it was both politically charged and timely, it was no surprise To Pimp A Butterfly was as close to a consensus critical favorite as we saw in 2015.


03

James Ferraro

Skid Row

[Break World]


Humanity was at war with the elements on Skid Row. The burning paradise of Los Angeles smoldered with flame set by the city’s twin demons of unresolved anger and consumptive hubris. Any water not tainted by acidity was bottled in plastic and sold, or better yet, sprayed ad nauseam onto the lawns of the botoxed and bronzed. Air choked with smog, desert transformed into suburban sprawl: this was James Ferraro’s L.A., at once a singular nightmare and a universal truth. Against a soundtrack of plaintive synths, melancholy guitar licks, and subtle slap bass, broadcast voices from the not-so-distant past recounted details of the 1992 South Central riots and O.J. Simpson murder trial. These two iconic L.A. events spoke just as harshly for their nation as their city; they were moments that can only come to life again and again in a country as toxically obsessed with fear and spectacle as the USA. The human byproducts of this desperate world were given voice by Ferraro as street-walking freaks, yuppies, and psycho cops. It would have been nice to write the whole thing off as science fiction if it all didn’t seem so goddamn familiar.


02

Young Thug

Barter 6

[300 Entertainment]


Young Thug spent 2015 trying on different futures before our eyes. He sprayed liquefied syllables through the vapor clouds of his Slime Season mixtapes and smashed distinctions between commercial viability and experimentalism with each new dollop of viral-ready freakishness. But down in deep headphone space, leagues beyond the headline beefs and the dickheads asking “where’s the English version?” in the comments, there floated Barter 6, the long zoom into Thugger’s third eye, soundtracked by the slow swirling of the tides. London On Da Track’s orchestral chord progressions slid through the stitches of his drum programming. Wheezy smeared samples into ambient mush and dialed in quivering synths alongside synthetic choirs. Over this beauty, Thug was himself. The snare-tracing double-time flurries of “Can’t Tell;” the cross-faded ballistics of “Halftime;” the verbal catharsis of “OD” → “Numbers” → “Just Might Be,” in which 24-year-old Jeffrey Williams faced his addictions, the violence coded into his upbringing, the lives of his ten siblings and six children — we acknowledge each of these wonders not as a divine fluke, but as a decision that a breathing human being made in the booth. Barter 6 floated beside us, welcoming us with bombed-out bass and 300 reedy moans, reminding us how far one mind can stretch in order to express its unknowable depth.


01

Arca

Mutant

[Mute]


Is the mutant human or is it Homo superior? From its opening skirmish of moments, this Album is alive, chaosmatically enfolding its every sound with overwrite-delay, lapsing into blackout silences, restless in its constant constructive upheaval. There was no release in 2015 flexible quite like this — it wasn’t that Mutant sounded like nothing else this year; it was that Mutant sounds like it could enfold everything else. The elasticity of Young Thug, the dramatic playfulness of Oneohtrix Point Never, the drifting world-turns of Elysia Crampton, the deranged and immaculate and mutant sound design of Alejandro Ghersi.

To talk about Mutant as this pioneering formal entity approaches a sensationalism and boundedness that the music itself resists in its every blooming breath. And still, there’s the inescapable sense that Mutant is imploding with implications of emerging genres, a thousand tangled possibilities playing at a neofuturist fascination with the Event in all its disruptions, becomings, suspensions, compossibilities. But I think Arca is just as interested in how we’re feeling.

Man, what a time: How are we feeling? It’s been an exhausting litany of terrorisms (state-sanctioned and otherwise), ecological catastrophes, ideological undertows that felt at once apocalyptic and anachronistic, with conceptual ripplings in the music world from an increasingly cool critical animus. And here’s Arca (called wordless, alien, uncomplicated) topping a TMT list in a year that saw a greater media intersection of listening and politics than any in recent memory. Mutant is warmly alive, even in all its anxieties and violent animations, a sort of paradigmatic list-shift from Dean Blunt’s Black Metal (whose worlds were bridged beautifully this year by Babyfather). But, if anything, in Arca, we’re given so much information and so much silence as to be demanded to listen closely. Mutant is maybe critic-proof by virtue of its mass alone — 62 minutes stretched across 20 indivisible parts — in a virtuality that danced with a disruptively morphic energy between essential and potential. I feel like I still haven’t listened to it.

I can’t stop listening to it (Is it listening to me? Am I listening through it?). Gone are the self-contained experiments of Xen, grown into a desiring invitation to a stranger monadic paradise. Mutant opened up portals seemingly within and without itself for a slot machine carnival, de-tuning piano solos, shrieking sirens, infinite voids, molecular shakedowns. It’s Arca at his most formally conventional and groovy (“Front Load,” “Snakes”), his most soothingly bittersweet (“Peonies”), and his least forgiving (“Sinner”). It also represents an immediacy, an immanent imminence from the critical thrush of self-conscious, programmed music. (A thrush is an infection and a songbird.) Here’s the organism, the creator is creature.

And this is the closest we’ve come to seeing this creature. Arca’s visual representations via Jesse Kanda have long blended the compote components of embodied subjectivity, but on Mutant, real human bodies (Ghersi’s and Kanda’s own) stand in for what the genderfucking simulations and genderless divas were doing before. It’s the first sign (though mind that gorgeous red freak staring with a half-smile, comfortable in its own skin) that, for all the defamiliarizing sonics, Arca is more than ever rooted in the human body on Mutant. This is the work of a person who is toying with themself, who is toying with us, who wants us to have more and less than a good time, who would rather undo us all-together in the vanishing ruptures of listening.

The only classical catharsis (which we can’t be blamed for desiring) of the album comes at the end of its very first two tracks, “Alive” and “Mutant.” Its reliefs come prematurely, because I think catharsis can only be premature, as the desensitizing drawl of timelines reminded us over and over again this year. Compared to these listening slips, when the quaking and ruinous soundscape gives way to frustratingly elusive moments of the sublime, the rest of the album is caught in an endless storm of movement and de-localized cloudy noise (like a dandelion head or a fractal that’s not imagined as a GIF). The overlapping and near-relentless structuring has in its heart an anti-programmatic honesty — there’s no narrative to hold to, no feeling to trust for long. Silence and noise precede each other like thunder-flash, illuminating in their system-shocks the imminent darkling downpour.

But maybe there’s an agenda/ethics to this sort of performance/noise that brings it all back to the individual, not in an individualistic way, but as an experiential unfolding/enfolding (not necessarily collectivizing) devotional. The closest we come to that divine healing (maybe other than the uterine hold of “Extent”) is “Peonies,” named after the flower salve whose roots were used to treat convulsions. Mutant, in its radical unknowns, sounds like an ethics of precarity rooted in embodied subjectivity and binding affective forces, but is not dependent on recognizable or marketable symptoms of identity/self-disclosure/uplift. And again, this is noise, so I’ve got little choice but to read too much into it. Ghersi himself says that the music can’t articulate through its own self-negations and perpetually transformative affects: a pool of memory and desire to be tapped into. “Faggot” makes me remember the swagger and fear of feeling sexy in my own way at queer dance parties and also the jarring sense of disconnect or self-doubt that comes with belonging (especially when it’s an imposed belonging, like in high school locker rooms, when I was being namecalled for never taking off my boxers and being weak and admiring their bodies).

Maybe Arca is floating in that pool, held just at the break of surface tension, afloat and soaking without sinking, and easing this moment into the deep end of method audition: Full-frontal process-listening, precarity weaponized with care to snap us out it. Every Mutant moment was invitation to join its freakiness, not in a collectivizing sweep, but in a creative self-unraveling, an unbearable baring of skin and spirit and becoming possibilities that might signal how music can change. Listen!

Favorite 50 Music Releases of 2015

50. Lotic - Agitations
49. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma - A Year With 13 Moons
48. Liturgy - The Ark Work
47. Seth Graham - No.00 in clean life
46. Dr. Yen Lo - Days With Dr. Yen Lo
45. Jlin - Dark Energy
44. D’Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah
43. Food Court - Food Court
42. Ben Zimmerman - The Baltika Years
41. DJ Nigga Fox - Noite E Dia
40. Chicklette - UNFAITHFUL
39. ZS - Xe
38. Amnesia Scanner - AS Angels Rig Hook
37. Autre Ne Veut - Age Of Transparency
36. Lolina - RELAXIN’ with Lolina
35. Holly Herndon - Platform
34. Eartheater - RIP Chrysalis
33. Rabit & Chino Amobi - The Great Game
32. Giant Claw - Deep Thoughts
31. Grimes - Art Angels
30. U.S. Girls - Half Free
29. Carly Rae Jepsen - E•MO•TION
28. Prurient - Frozen Niagara Falls
27. M.E.S.H. - Piteous Gate
26. Fourth World Magazine Vol. II - Pinhead in Fantasia
25. Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee
24. Cloud Rat - Qliphoth
23. Jenny Hval - Apocalypse, girl
22. Helen - The Original Faces
21. D/P/I - Ad Hocc
20. Dawn Richard (D∆WN) - Blackheart
19. Smurphy - A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended In Darkness
18. LIL UGLY MANE - THIRD SIDE OF TAPE
17. Ahnnu - Perception
16. Container - LP [2015]
15. Joanna Newsom - Divers
14. Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
13. Sicko Mobb - Super Saiyan Vol. 2
12. Beat Detectives - Boogie Chillen / The Hills Of Cypress
11. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness
10. SOPHIE - PRODUCT
09. Björk - Vulnicura
08. Future - DS2
07. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
06. Elysia Crampton - American Drift
05. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden Of Delete
04. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
03. James Ferraro - Skid Row
02. Young Thug - Barter 6
01. Arca - Mutant

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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