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


In 2015, we witnessed bullets dancing with debris, unilateral bombing campaigns more lavish than presidential ones, the endless cries of pneumatic sirens forcing compressed air across polluted cities — populated yet protested, abandoned yet internalized. Bodies were strewn, washed ashore, and brutalized, while others were still erecting cultural borders, still constructing justifications, still being acquitted. And yet, our virtual bodies were lodged in the interstices between cascading style sheets and semantic meta-information, between nodes and network protocols — always in between, always connected. And always predictable.

If our social relationships are increasingly mediated by data, then our digital relationships are partly dependent on code to bring about surprise and unpredictability, to fracture our habits and patterns with something. But our code didn’t offer such respite, so we looked once again to music for that necessary disruption; for that hyperreal gesture, that random swerve, that probabilistic mutation; for that sense of cultural robustness and discovery that complemented, critiqued, and provided necessary counternarratives.

And, this year, the counternarratives in our favorite 50 releases were vast. We were in many places and in many times at once: in the wilderness, in the garden, in the river, in fantasia. We were on the hills of Cypress and on the streets of L.A.. We were in the frozen Niagara Falls, at the piteous gate, and in 14th-century France. And like our predictable technological behavior, we were drifting, from product to platform, from days to years. Music broke through our limiting frames of reference, providing worlds beyond our models and templates, whether it was the exposure of chart music’s “radical DNA,” the articulation of “the great game,” or the revelation of “soft dick rock.”

These narratives and counternarratives didn’t compete. They co-existed. Which is why Drake could be both dead and alive, time could be both backwards and quasipolynomial, and even maps could be both real and unreal. None of it mattered. All of it mattered. And as we turn our gaze toward 2016 with our increasingly soggy, inscripted bodies, slinging our versions of culture over our shoulders and finessing its shapeless pool of lovely pale colors, we can take a deep breath in, fetishize our materiality, and dwell on all that we could do with this E•MO•TION.


50

Lotic

Agitations

[Janus]


Nothing, some say, is deeper than flesh. If EDM bounces and slides across smooth, young flesh, dampening it like droplets of water at a Las Vegas beach club or beads of sweat at a warehouse rave in Anytown, USA, Lotic’s variant of electronic music plunges into the boundless world of agitations lying underneath. The last time I went to a warehouse to watch a DJ, I felt anxious that something evil was hiding behind the atmosphere of enjoyment. Are the beats merely an outlet for masculine aggression? Let’s be honest about prototypical sandy boardshorts EDM: it’s not even trying to hide its ugliness. The SoundCloud™ waveform of the meaty drop is a phallus of a sinister and familiar variety: that which scrambles the signifiers “violence” and “pleasure,” inching them blurrily closer to one another, as the bass becomes physically perturbing. The best drops are “filthy” and, in a way, like a threatening nature that is sexily forbidden. Lotic is sick and tired of sliding sexily across the surface of the flesh, dealing only unconsciously with the violence beneath. It is not a matter of piercing that surface, as a decade of filthy drops has tried to perversely do, but rather one of speaking sharp and caustic truth to power. Here, Agitations were both difficult and rewarding.


49

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma

A Year With 13 Moons

[Mexican Summer]


In the fashion of Christian Fennesz or Tim Hecker, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma released a disorientingly euphoric, pop-friendly drone album. But A Year With 13 Moons was an album so delectably damaged as to potentially drive one to ridiculous subgenre superlatives. There are halting, overdriven swathes of airy drone all over 2015, but what made this particular collection so special was its intricate unwieldiness. It was lopsided and impossible to hold in your head, with melodies so incidental, so blandly pretty that they became as textural as the accompanying noises and field recordings. Its 40 minutes went by quickly and the ending was abrupt and unceremonious. It was lovely. It was overwhelming. The calm before the storm and the flying debris. We strode in a haze and we stumbled at darting miniature distractions. We remembered to permit some manageable level of vexation, frustration, irrationality. We remembered to open all the windows and simply take in life, through sound, as a collective distortion. We lived this record out on its own playfully irascible terms and found ourselves transcending.


48

Liturgy

The Ark Work

[Thrill Jockey]


According to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, The Ark Work was “a heap of splinters glued together.” We at Tiny Mix Tapes couldn’t have said it better — that is, had we said anything at all about it. We were too stuck in a cycle of arguing and listening and arguing and listening to actually get around to reviewing one of the most 2015 albums 2015 had to offer. We, like that aforementioned metaphor, were more than divided by The Ark Work; we were atomized, mortified, repelled, and hypnotized by it. As the year went on, we kept listening and arguing, until it took us beyond the vanishing points of critical consensus and our own hyper-curated opinions, deep into the glitched-out far lands of inexplicable and unconscious attraction. Even if “Burzum meets Bone-Thugs” ended up sounding more like Bob Pollard and Jonathan Davis tag-teaming the FFVIII soundtrack, then that was merely further evidence that embracing questionable taste was an immanently braver act than, say, reskinning shoegazey post-rock and pitching it as black metal. And so, on behalf of TMT, I offer this to HHH and Liturgy: we think your album rules, sucks, and rules because it sucks; nevertheless, together we bow before your inimitable pretensions, unworthy.


47

Seth Graham

No.00 in clean life

[Orange Milk]


Apparently, atoms are made up of approximately 99.9999999999996% empty space, so most of the universe is in fact “empty.” Which means finding worth is subjective and supremely individualistic. Which also means that Seth Graham is all about space, regardless of your view or scope. His space — and the space of any artist, for that matter — is implicitly full of meaning and worth. And with No.00 in clean life, Graham’s bugged-out, beyond death-glaze swelling and ruminating sounds got the space they deserved. Here, matrimony loneliness mixed with mustard/ketchup satin bulb drops, bleeding into twine rolls and harmonic deterioration. It was all swayed movement globes and double-dutch grit. Smile, god.


46

Dr. Yen Lo

Days With Dr. Yen Lo

[Pavlov Institute]


In 2012, Ka told Jeff Weiss he was “looking for perfect rhymes.” With this statement, Ka positioned himself as a man on a mission. From The Moody Blues to Afrika Bambaataa, we’ve heard plenty of musicians proclaim themselves on quests for perfection, but what if somebody actually achieved it? What would that sound like? How would we know it if we heard it? “Listen, what you pitching son got ‘em sick and dumb/ Cease all them jewels in your teeth if you ain’t spitting none/ I carve a lane, do it for the starving brain, mine’s stellar/ My wine cellar puts your bars to shame”: these are perfect rhymes found on Days With Dr. Yen Lo, and they’re not the only ones here. Likewise, Preservation’s menacingly tactful production provides the perfect backdrop to Ka’s wordsmithing, employing drums regularly (despite what you may have heard) but in ways most had never considered. Why not? Maybe we’re too preoccupied with defining “good” and “great” to even consider that perfection’s peering from a window right across the street. Make no mistake: Ka wrote rhymes here as if they were natural extensions of language itself, and it was perfect.


45

Jlin

Dark Energy

[Planet Mu]


We are oversaturated with modern electronic music, but I consider Jlin’s Dark Energy to be the transformation exception. Be it the footwork Bible, unraveled patterns, or reconstructed commentary, Jlin imbued her sampling with feeling and depth, causing us to lose ourselves in the satisfaction of something we didn’t understand — a post-total surrealism. The energy overall was a laundering of a genre’s chill-front curvature, the current humanity axiom deduced in familiar anomalies. Whatever classical theory collapses our thought processes, Dark Energy reminded us that maybe we do like too much — but here, it felt like the right amount. The meandering was daring, both paying respect to and exceeding the limits of a now-familiar aesthetic. In the daily news nightmare that we live in, the distractions needed to be more fulfilling, and Dark Energy was there to permeate the void.


44

D’Angelo and The Vanguard

Black Messiah

[RCA]


Black Messiah may not have been released in 2015, but it is every second an album of 2015. Setting the crooked metronome of this extraordinary year in motion two weeks before the ball dropped, D’Angelo’s long-awaited third album stands as an awe-inspiring testament to the enduring power of music at a time when culture itself seems to be constantly working against us. Arriving at a moment when, seemingly now more than ever, established notions of political, cultural, and artistic legitimacy are under fierce and much needed scrutiny, Black Messiah serves as a joyous and disruptive reminder that beauty can indeed be revolutionary, that vibrations can move and transform a society, that you can look to the past for inspiration without becoming prisoner to its sins. Like Dilla’s Donuts and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Black Messiah is that truly rare album that is both of its moment and of all moments: that miraculous sort of work that dares you to believe in what can only naively, humbly, exultantly be called The Eternal. Fifteen days too early, fifteen years too late, D’Angelo has given us an infinitely precious gift in Black Messiah. The burden is now on each of us to go into the world and pay that same generosity forward.


43

Food Court

Food Court

[Kye]


Food Court’s twin interpretations of Solage’s “fumeux fume par fumée” found us enthusiastic bystanders to the application of modern techniques of casual & contingent degeneration to the ars subtilior of the late 14th century: the first side’s version stuttered with air to breathe between intricately timed phrases of charmingly ramshackle chromatics, the second’s a still further rarefied expanse with words (“yeah” and “sell,” I think) repeated on top, the song’s notes only rarely hissing up from below. Rid of the composition’s original lyrics, it seemed instead to live out their reference to minds ever more obnubilated by some (pre-tobacco) smoke or fumes, perhaps hashish (as the gleeful conjecture of some might have it) or vapors in the brain otherwise aroused in consequence of humoral perturbations, haunting the understanding with blear-eye’d smog and amused indecision. It’s true, after all, that the largeness of passages in a hot Head wherein Vapors may ascend leaves some filled and burdened, but for Brains so cold and moist & Souls so smutched and sullied as those of the TMT staff, Food Court we found not schismatical: it pleased us as greatly as smoke pleased Solage’s smoker in his meditations and smoky speculations.


42

Ben Zimmerman

The Baltika Years

[Software]


You call Ben Zimmerman a prophet and you do well. A clarification is in order, though. While the composition exercises he created between 1992 and 2002 anticipated the aesthetic of many current electronic artists, not least his Software labelmates, they were not a product of chance. Zimmerman was not a typical kid who toyed with a RadioShack-purchased PC-imitation and stumbled upon what sounded like real music. Through that decade, Zimmerman received serious musical training, was aware of the work of John Oswald and Harry Smith, and became tech-savvy enough to tweak drum machines into droning synths. He was a pioneer as far as he had the acumen and technological access to produce this type of work decades before any average teenager got a torrent away from such a position. Moreover, the quirks and limitations that Zimmerman’s instrument of choice entailed did not try to call attention to the medium in the manner many contemporary works do. The Baltika Years does not dabble in obsolete technology or memory signifiers. Zimmerman’s Tandy DeskMate was just the material threshold he adopted to chronicle his impressions on the passing of time. He did not question the cheesy 16-bit textures or the lack of note-processing power any more than you second-guessed Liu Kang’s digitized sprites. That’s what sets this album apart from the realm of curiosities, revisionism, or collectors’ fodder, allowing these personal filigrees to transcend the specificities of their time.


41

DJ Nigga Fox

Noite E Dia

[Príncipe Discos]


With historical and geographical factors in mind, it’s unexpected — but deserved, and increasingly crucial — that a handful of producers and MCs from Lisbon would direct a monumental shift in dance music, in its site-specific assumptions and in its identity. Listening to Noite E Dia’s opening track “Um Ano” for the first time brought on the same shivers I experienced while listening to Machinedrum’s “The Statue” or Logos’s “Kowloon.” Granted, these three tracks exist light-years away from each other, but what I was taken by was the experience of listening to something entirely different from anything I’d heard before, a punch in the face from a culture so enthrallingly alien as to assure feverish fascination. While the heavyweights of dance music’s global culture were content to squeeze out cookie-cut, inconsequential drivel (lookin’ at you, Innervisions), Príncipe Discos and DJ Nigga Fox flipped the script entirely, tore the hinges off the doors of house and techno’s dour establishment, and gave it the most important shot in the arm this side of FWD>>.


40

Chicklette

UNFAITHFUL

[Hundebiss]


The first time I heard UNFAITHFUL, I accidentally entered the Lincoln Tunnel toward Jersey, thus beginning roughly an hour of sitting in traffic trying to get back to NYC. I maintained a medium-level loathing for this album for a few weeks afterward, for no reason other than a vague mental association with that experience. On the bases of Hundebiss’s recommendation and Chicklette being half of perennial fav Angels in America, I decided to revisit this venus flytrap the following month. It was a wise move: a second, more careful listen cast on me a spell of sharp edges, ominous synths, and delightful wordplay under which I’m still hypnotized. Chicklette confronted every track with an entirely unique approach, but the album as a whole was thematically cohesive. As shocking/comforting as the riot footage that was playing nonstop when this album was recorded (and hasn’t really stopped), UNFAITHFUL was a never-boring, sometimes-unsettling, always-ass-kicking album destined to be one of 2015’s more memorable cassettes.


39

ZS

Xe

[Northern Spy]


Xe was martial artisanry. The defining statement of 15-year-old ZS was a tangible art object; it felt made of metal, with real weight, formed and assembled, brushed and heat-sealed. It was a realization of powerful avant-garde energies in a display of apprentice-worthy complexity, a perfectly captured performance of telepathic metallurgy; it’s what happens when extended technique becomes learned ability becomes muscle memory and then gains ecstatic purpose. Players Sam Hillmer, Patrick Higgins, and Greg Fox acted out an acrobatic play dependent on a near-psychic synchronicity: they accelerated, complicated, loosened, dissolved, and reconfigured effortlessly, overlapping, deconstructing, and rebuilding flow, suspending it infinitely, shrinking it, reversing it, repurposing it, a stunningly developed noise-rock routine that beckoned terror, catharsis, and deep admiration. Xe was a tripartite handiwork of sound-sculpting that was as much indebted to the legacies of New York jazz, rock, and no-wave as it was to the practices of glass blowing, calligraphy, and pottery — every note was finessed, serving an essential form, focused with the forethought of experience and navigated muscularly in a single perfect take by veteran players exploring the full capabilities of their instruments, their influences, and their physical limits. No other album moved me as physically as Xe did in 2015, and nothing else came close to matching its overpowering energy and sheer force of impact.


38

Amnesia Scanner

AS Angels Rig Hook

[Gum Artefacts]


AS Angels Rig Hook was self-reflexive and fragmented; a wreckage of sound, thoughts, and word — “an abandoned oil rig.” It sounds admittedly less weird now than it did then. A year of sonic contamination from “like-sounding” artists such as M.E.S.H., Lotic, or Arca has familiarized ears to the situation. However, “like all situations, this was several situations at once.” In any case, Amnesia Scanner were well aware; their act was always impatient with the present, their identity ever-evolving — Caiman Nearness; Arcane Sans Mine. Echoed in its curved, angular substance, AS Angels Rig Hook was more interested in reflection, in casting back. Dealing with language and codes, its goal was to make its own system that refers to itself. Overrode by the literary accompaniment of Jaakko Pallasvuo’s text, its device left it open to change and, rendered unstable, left us asking: “What was violence again?”


37

Autre Ne Veut

Age of Transparency

[Downtown]


Arthur Ashin didn’t simply portray the Age of Transparency on his bold follow-up to 2013’s Anxiety. He didn’t simply use post-R&B to outline our current era of ubiquitous connectivity and inescapable media. But rather, he used it to project the histrionic consequences this era will bring to bear on our emotional lives and presentations of self. His vocal theatrics and warped keyboards were the perfect, hyper-emotive complement to a digital world where our constant visibility goads us into performing with ever-increasing melodrama for an ever-present audience. Across social media like the maniacally splintered “On and On (Reprise)” and the creepingly aggressive “Switch Hitter,” he didn’t simply lay his naked self on a plate for all to see; he also pushed this self from one height to the next in a bid to placate the expanding and intensifying hunger for “authentic” performances. In his expressionistic depiction of just how this growing pressure for authenticity will ironically push us to nearly absurd levels of inauthenticity, he lifted his unique take on simulacrum pop and future R&B to nearly absurd levels of brilliance, and in the process, he delivered one of 2015’s best — and most “authentic” — performances.


36

Lolina

RELAXIN’ with Lolina

[Self-Released]


The arrival of RELAXIN’ with Lolina was preempted by yet another addition to Alina Astrova’s litany of pseudonyms, as well as a release date fake-out. So far, so Hype, but don’t get it Miss Understood; even by her own standards, these three delirious morsels constituted one of the year’s more confounding listens. It was a queasy fever dream swollen with broken pianos, throbbing bass, and mismatched vocals, one that seemed to take delight in perverting the logic of pop into a blank, anonymous gesture, all false starts and abrupt endings. And yet, Lolina never entirely committed to facelessness. There were enough glimpses of personality smattered throughout RELAXIN’ — the cynical spiel to a universal (or perhaps more direct?) “you”, esoteric compositional touches — to be examined, grasped onto, and made sense of, all the while knowing that the riddles they posed would remain unsolved. In all honesty, nothing needed to make sense; instead, we marvelled at Lolina’s myth-making and world-building, achieved with brevity and mystique unmatched in the past calendar year.


35

Holly Herndon

Platform

[RVNG Intl./4AD]


Building off the ontological work of Terry Smith, UK theorist Suhail Malik once famously asked, “What is contemporary art? What is contemporaneity?” Malik found that artists working today often “have a common question, but no common answer” and dubbed the “crisis of contemporary art” as one born from the “tenuous, hesitant, anticipatory” nature of our current institutional artistic climate, limited by the circular trajectory of our modes of power. On Platform, Holly Herndon challenged the complacency of Malik’s critique, becoming a bold, dynamic artist of now, shaken from academia into action. Track by track, Platform became “NSA breakup songs” in a sea of emoji-esque icons (“Home”), audio ads for Greek yogurt and aloe vera (“Locker Leak”), “net concréte” software turning keystrokes into sonic chaos (“Chorus”) and ASMR therapy for the “One Percent” (“Lonely at the Top”), as well as GIF art and aesthetic reimaginations like never before. Platform was equal parts dance and contemplation, “same, same, but different” in the way it reimagined speech, software, and aesthetics — every aspect of the artistic process built again, from the ground up, on a pyre of stuffy IDM corpses. Herndon crafted a diverse, stunning work that finally conquered the crisis of contemporaneity, a brilliant statement to the bleakness of our times, wrapped up in menacing bass, skittering rhythms, and ancient Gregorian chants.


34

Eartheater

RIP Chrysalis

[Hausu Mountain]


“Ethereal” is one of those words you start to hate. It’s used so often to describe things that are relatively normal — for instance, music that emphasizes texture or establishes a lethargic mood or flows in an airy sort of way. Alexandra Drewchin’s work as Eartheater is that, but also something more definitively ethereal: it is the music of the ether, the thick liquid through which we move in time and space like woozy thrombocytes, occasionally crashing sidelong into our purposes. RIP Chrysalis, released on Hausu Mountain (co-run by TMT’s Mukqs) posited this process of identity-making — the discovery of meaning that can make everything feel like the first time — as a kind of endless molting, an “Ecdysisophis,” a self-definition that continues on into infinity, perhaps even after “death.” Within the plasma of RIP Chrysalis also floated the sounds of ticking banjos, heaving strings, and Drewchin’s own yeeeows and prrrrrs multiplied and layered into a symphony like the multitude of voices we each keep in our minds. In its free-flowing expression of actualization, RIP Chrysalis was a snapshot of a mind delivered endlessly into and through the ether, right before our very ears.


33

Rabit & Chino Amobi

THE GREAT GAME : FREEDOM FROM MENTAL POISONING (The Purification of The Furies)

[Halcyon Veil]


The Great Game: Freedom From Mental Poisoning zeroed 2015. It reduced the year to zero. It killed it. It became an arbitrary reading point from which all other readings were to be measured. Itself had no measurable quantity or magnitude (none) — not because of deficiency, but because it was situated outside the dimensions. More accurately, it was the dimensions: the beginning and the end. For that reason, whatever number it features in this list is trivial; in short, The Great Game wasn’t a player, but the game itself — a simultaneous surrender and immersion, a mirror of political economy, a critique. The sonic iconoclasm of architects Rabit and Chino Amobi was like a monumental sculpture, such was depicted by its cover art, Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. At the same time, The Great Game itself became a gateway, a singular point of passage through which the year was distilled, purifying and concentrating its substance. And although 2015 has passed, we are inclined to agree that “every song from here on out lives in the wake of The Great Game.


32

Giant Claw

Deep Thoughts

[Orange Milk]


Keith Rankin, musician/artist/label owner/former writer, has been brewing some deep internet miasma for a minute now, but so far his investigations have been more cultural than musical. He hasn’t exactly been writing for the Great American Songbook here as much as chewing up the Billboard Top 40, guzzling it down with the latest trends from the electronic underground, and regurgitating it back to us in horrifically hi-def fashion. But Deep Thoughts felt like a sudden, magnificent leaf-turning for the Giant Claw project. It’s not as if making an album out of MIDIs straight from the Banjo-Kazooie OST was a bold new concept, but here the sound palette felt almost beside the point. Rankin was on some serious Einstein On The Beach shit here, crafting one dazzling symphony of xylophones and flutes after another, each track a more potent cocktail of emotional triggers than the one before. Deep Thoughts was a sentimental, mindboggling experience, an album with all the adventurous composition of Close To The Edge-era Yes that managed to be a completely inward journey. With Deep Thoughts, Rankin encouraged us to choose our own adventures and to let him color inside the lines of our own inner world.


31

Grimes

Art Angels

[4AD]


Am I an art angel? Look at me. Watch me as I burst into flames and eat you alive. What if I pulled my teeth? I became a cheerleader. I became a superhero. I became an artist. I’ll never be your dream girl. I quit trying to be normal, because shapeshifting runs all the way through me. Bright and hot. This year I grew weird and ecstatic. I memorized bangers and lived my life as pop as possible. How could I run the world any other way? Everyone told me not to glow and not to scheme, so I made myself a princess. Everything I love becomes everything I do. Who needs anyone else besides best friends? We scream and invade and realize our fantasies. We sparkle and shatter for each other like stars. There is no time for anyone to be mean. Haters don’t get it. I don’t behave. No one ever gave me permission to act cute and powerful. But I took myself seriously. I did it anyway.


30

U.S. Girls

Half Free

[4AD]


Ever evolving her style, from the early lo-fi one-woman group aesthetic into a virtual cornucopia of peculiar apocalypse pop somewhere between Phil Spector and Prince Rama, Meghan Remy’s artistic vision reached a rousing crescendo with Half Free. Remy’s first record for 4AD continued her work with Louis Percival (a.k.a. Onakabazien), the producer who helped craft her unheralded Free Advice Column EP from 2013. With Percival’s groove-oriented influence, her instrumentals dug their claws into jaunty sax-driven rock, deconstructed 80s pop, piano- and string-laden disco, sci-fi reggae, and cavernous R&B, all clustered around one of the oddest phone call interludes on record. Right from its incestuous opening number — the sluggish Odd Nosdam-esque “Sororal Feelings,” in which the subject hangs herself from her family tree — Remy’s lyrical content was as arresting as her warbling, affected voice, grounding her pop record from the end of time with as much emotional gravity as flirtatious extravagance. Half Free walked a line few others could even see.


29

Carly Rae Jepsen

E•MO•TION

[Interscope]


The last time I ironically liked music was in 2012. The song was Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and it was a brief period sandwiched between a time when I hated the song and before I came around to realizing its crowd-pleasing incantations could transcend. Jepsen’s third album E•MO•TION got a lot of critical attention in 2015, and a lot of people said a lot of smart (?) things about the album’s self-awareness, the producers, and CRJ’s persona(lity). But divorced from any critical dissection, I sincerely loved E•MO•TION SO MUCH. Here’s why: I listened to it a lot in 2015, and I still want to listen to it even more; its impact never lessened. When I listened to it in the car on the way to work, it put me in a positive place, ready for work. When I listened to it with a drink in my hand, it made me dance. The album’s 80s influences never felt chintzy; instead they were an earnest re-packaging of styles Jepsen adored. Sure, there were times this year when I put on Fourth World Magazine or Elysia Crampton to help me transcend, but nothing brought me quicker and more often to the sublime than E•MO•TION.


28

Prurient

Frozen Niagara Falls

[Profound Lore]


“We invite pain. It’s okay to be hungry. Hunger is normal. I’ll meet you there.” These lines from Frozen Niagara Falls (off “Falling Mask”) could summarize the artist/consumer relationship for a lot of Dominick Fernow’s fans. We’ve been long welcoming Dom’s pain, both lyrical and musical, into our lives with albums like Bermuda Drain, History of AIDS, And Still, Wanting, and Through The Window, among many, many others. And while each of the aforementioned releases sound significantly different from each other, they also sound like they couldn’t have been created by anyone else. Frozen Niagara Falls was a sort of compendium of these acts: it featured a ton of noise, some techno, a little cold wave, and even a pretty direct spoken-word track. While covering this ground, the album managed to concisely pull these disparate threads into sharp focus, showing too how Dom is nothing if not adventurous. Now let’s match that intensity by taking off our shirts and screaming into a contact mic until someone’s ears explode.


27

M.E.S.H.

Piteous Gate

[PAN]


I can see it now. The deep, machinic pulse that begins M.E.S.H.’s Piteous Gate forms visually in the ear’s mind’s eye, spectrogramming automatically. Yes, the whole album is in a constant state of approaching form, an expression of making something out through distance or fog, of letting the listener know that these sounds are attached to something, something coming. Pre- or post- disaster songs. Abstractions, jagged and unfriendly, clustered around visualizable objects: the whipstrike on “Optimate;” the tense, aquatic movements contrasting the shocked, gunshot beats on “Epithet” or “Azov Seepage.” Piteous Gate struck us this year as an album of accessibility (to information, to sound, to sense, to others) turned obsessive, of signifier and signified coming together and then bursting apart.


26

Fourth World Magazine Vol. II

Pinhead in Fantasia

[Pacificity Soundvisions]


What did we think of Pinhead in Fantasia? Why did we think at all about it? It was an objet d’art that longed to be lost in time and space, wavering between years, completely destructible, and already long gone by the time anyone thought to order it. It was a limb, disembodied, that slapped in the dark. It hit and hit, but where and who? Once, earlier this year, I sat down and listened and knew that I never needed to listen again, because I had heard enough to know — but what? What is fantasia, anyway? Baroque improvisation? A Music from Earth? Harley_Magoo thinks "you will enjoy this if you love conceptual stuff." I don't know what C Monster thinks, but I love it (and him), too. One other thing of which I'm certain is this: I need to listen to Pinhead again and again, but, first, I need to follow its misdirection, forever, into the light. Bye bye.


25

Matana Roberts

COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee

[Constellation]


The COIN COIN series is limitless in the scope and breadth of its stories. Matana Roberts delves into the emotional trenches of history and religion, which come bound up in the strife and the joy of her interlocutors. The potent and chaotic subjects she exposes us to play out through interpretation and stark yet colorful improvisation. Roberts takes care to define her source material while granting it context within the immersive collage of her work. On Chapter Three, the impact that each contribution had on the artist was brought to the fore by virtue of the album's composition. Roberts offered soundscapes both sullen and boisterous, carrying the sentiment through her use of field recordings, experimentation, and repetition, making this her most deeply personal and affecting record to date. However, the music cautiously uncovered the lives of those represented, which Roberts brought out in ways that were poignant and shattering. This project was about people, good and bad; it was about life, impossibly tough and shamefully brutal. And it conveyed a simple message: Every life has a story to tell, and every story matters. All that's required of us is to listen.


24

Cloud Rat

Qliphoth

[Halo of Flies]


In the last two years, I lost nearly 100 pounds. I have found it hard to lace my workouts with irony, but for the first six months, I tried. I listened to audiobooks while I ran. I scowled my way through it. At some point, though, I put on Cloud Rat and ran to the top of a set of stairs feeling a little corny, but mostly fast and winded. Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli talked about the way that metal and hardcore are some of "the most rigidly codified forms of music around" in his review of Qliphoth, and I'm thinking analogically when I draw a line from that codification to the workouts enforced by the Rocky franchise every time a set of stairs comes in view around mile three. I may be lacking subtlety when I conceptualize Qliphoth as motivational, but I don't mind. The plain fact is that Cloud Rat organized sound in a way that came off violent, beautiful, and suffused with energy. So, hello, this is Taylor at the top of some stairs, wrapped in a warm cliché, smiling, and telling you how much Qliphoth meant to me in 2015.


23

Jenny Hval

Apocalypse, girl

[Sacred Bones]


While a lot of writing about Jenny Hval and Apocalypse, girl fixate on her overt sexuality, such focus can also do this album a disservice. Because Hval grappled with more than just bold subject matter. What she did was actually more sleight-of-hand, planting images like the "four big bananas" she strokes in her lap on opener "Kingsize." It was a powerful image that allowed us to extrapolate more implied meaning than she could ever paint with her otherwise confronting lyrics. The compositions themselves were also deftly touched with these sparse hints of ideas, allowing listeners to draw out elements of stylistic references sitting between the lines of the often minimalist constructions. Instead of presenting ideas of content or style, we slipped through a stream of steamy synth-driven songs that guided us effortlessly to the literal and figurative "Holy Land." It was here, in the album's haunted conclusion, where we were unsure how to describe the musical experience as anything other than a strange pleasure. Which is, in a lot of ways, exactly like any sort of sexual exploration. Genius.


22

Helen

The Original Faces

[Kranky]


A nod is as good as a wink for Helen's principles, who capture the loose energy of rock & roll long left at the roadside. In all the epitaphs for this brand of music, they often harken to some wayward nostalgia of how it used to be and what will never come again. Ignoring old fogey philosophy, The Original Faces was an alternative record in the best possible sense. Considering how fragmented listening habits continue to become, having an album that played it straight to a world of outrageous genres was a blessing. Had me a real good time just concentrating on its distorted riffs, echoing vocals, and pounding rhythm section. But The Original Faces wasn't a monolithic beast paying respect to the past. Just because it felt familiar, doesn't mean it sounded familiar. If rock is ever going to be front and center again, it must take notes from The Original Faces.


21

D/P/I

Ad Hocc

[Zona Music]


With Ad Hocc, D/P/I continued his skin-wrinkling bath in the deep end of the now of the future. This memory stick that flipped out of a business card (memory business card?), which listeners connected to speakers via Universal Serial Bus, had an astounding and proliferative set of fundamental and supplementary tracks — all 41:35 in length — that passed no hot potatoes into the hands of the Gimmick. Instead, they hit, in any and all of their combinations, at the gut-level (voted by Tiny Level Tapes as the most zeitgeist-friendly level of 2015). This wasn't your nephew popping out of the bushes and screaming "Zaireeka!" with his palms up looking for a handout, but a generous statement from a generous and continually evolving artist. Out of the carefully handled, ephemeral sounds trotted pontifications and celebrations of our tinny speakers, our iffy eighth-inch headphone jacks, our Bluetooth connections, our buffering speeds, and the way those meat-meets-cyberspace accidents shape our emotional life. Exhilarating and fragile in execution, strong and mighty in mind and thought. One effect: last week I was listening to a Kinks greatest hits CD in the car and "Tired of Waiting For You" started skipping. I breathed deeply and thought, "If only I also had "Supplement #2" playing on a Jambox. I could keep the speaker in a cupholder..."


20

Dawn Richard (D∆WN)

Blackheart

[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.


19

Smurphy

A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended In Darkness

[LEAVING]


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.


18

LIL UGLY MANE

THIRD SIDE OF TAPE

[Self-Released]


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.


17

Ahnnu

Perception

[LEAVING]


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?


16

Container

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!


15

Joanna Newsom

Divers

[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.


14

Drake

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.


13

Sicko Mobb

Super Saiyan Vol. 2

[Self-Released]


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.


12

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.


11

Julia Holter

Have You in My Wilderness

[Domino]


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.


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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