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Top 10 Albums of Every Year Since 1960

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2014:

 

 

 

10. Azealia Banks – Broke with Expensive Taste

 

Broke with Expensive Taste, the official debut album from rapper/songwriter Azealia Banks, finally appeared in late 2014, despite originally having been scheduled for a 2012 release and well after several songs showed up as singles many months and sometimes years before an album surfaced. Various delays and major-label red tape ultimately saw Banks walking out on her contract with Polydor/Interscope and independently releasing the album digitally with no press notification or promotional lead-up. This surprise-attack release followed a similar approach as Beyoncé's late-2013 self-titled album, which simply appeared online in full without notice about a year prior to Broke with Expensive Taste. Finally a reality, the strengths of Banks' debut are incredibly strong. Aforementioned long-available singles like "212," "Chasing Time," and "Yung Rapunxel" showcase aggressive production that winds together dubstep's relentless bass pounding and Banks' talents as a fluid, sometimes vicious MC as well as a serviceable R&B vocalist. Production assistance from underground dance figures like Lone, AraabMuzik, and Lil Internet, among many others, gives the album an incredibly varied feel, sometimes losing focus and spilling into confused territory.

 

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9. Actress – Ghettoville

 

Cunningham referred to the "conclusion of the Actress image" and, like a micro-blogger who just witnessed a miscue from a professional athlete, signed off with "R.I.P Music 2014." Whether the missive was deadly serious or not, there's no way to listen to Ghettoville without hearing disintegration and dread. It's even bleaker, more industrial and decayed, than 2012's R.I.P. There are more moments of forward motion here than on that previous album. They're all captivating on some level. The trudging "Rims" resembles a Neptunes instrumental -- Kelis' "Young, Fresh n' New," for instance -- mangled and pitched into a tub of liquid acid. "Birdcage" scrapes and tumbles with weaponized hi-hats and decayed kick drums as one of the album's funkiest and most straightforward moments. Another, "Gaze," despite being deeply corroded, bangs as hard as any other Actress track, while the lean "Skyline" jacks with a deep bassline, seemingly piped through a wind tunnel. Toward the end, the mood softens and even lifts a bit. "Rap" makes a saxophone slow jam slower, with the refrain "Wrap yourself around me" repeated to part-comic/part-alluring effect. Finale "Rule" is light-hearted hip-house as only Cunningham could make it -- a clumpy shuffle as a beat, chipper synthesized organ notes bent into blips, an emphatic MC transformed into a syrup-addled Mushmouth. If this is the end of Actress, it ties up a near-perfect discography of experimental electronic music.

 

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8. Objekt – Flatland

 

Hertz's debut album is stylistically unleashed in a way that makes his early records sound conservative. Like the curls of synthetic material on its cover, it's tangled and glossy, abstract but also weirdly tactile. On one hand it's so rich with detail that it can be hard to wrap your head around, but it's also generous to the listener, delivering at every turn. Sound design plays the role of a lead instrument on Flatland. Though incredibly vivid, the sonic palette is thoroughly artificial—aside from a single drum roll on "Dogma," nothing here recalls any instrument in the material world (even most of the drums seem barely suited to that term). As you listen, the mind's eye might conjure up a white laboratory, devoid of human life but whirring with activity—motors spinning, machines pivoting, screens flickering. Hearing that metronomic bleep on "One Fell Swoop," it's hard not to picture a red light blinking on a console. The album's other masterstroke is its structure, which is totally unconventional but follows an intuitive logic that keeps you locked in. It starts with a bang ("Agnes Revenge") ends with a sigh ("Cataracts") and zig-zags wildly in the middle. Some tempos soar well above 140 BPM; "Dogma" chugs monolithically at 91. Individual tracks follow strange, seemingly improvised paths, but the album as a whole occasionally circles back on itself: that metronomic bleep from "One Fell Swoop" returns in "First Witness," "Agnes Revenge" and "Agnes Apparatus" share the sonic boom that opens the record (which also appears on last year's "Agnes Demise"), and various other bits of flotsam reappear throughout, always a little different from before. As heady as all that may sound, Flatland is not a cerebral attempt to subvert the norm. It's bold, maybe even avant-garde, but from beginning to end it's raucous, barnstorming, chair-dancing fun.

 

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7. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

 

Instead of resulting in a piecemeal pastiche of discordant ideas, Lost in the Dream actually represents the most fully realized statement from the group thus far, with all ten songs gelling together with a sense of purpose and understated brilliance the band came close to before, but delivers in full here. Starting with the epic two-chord gallop of "Under the Pressure," Granduciel offers up song after song of incredibly restrained yet entirely engaged rock. The classic rock reference points led to a "blue-collar rock" labeling of the band's sound, and while there are undeniable callbacks to Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen here, as there were on earlier albums, the War on Drugs have come into their own with their sound. What comes on as simplistic or even predictable rock instrumentation always unfolds to reveal buried synth sounds, horn blurts, long ambient passages, and -- more impressively -- an unexpected emotional depth propping up the bare-bones songs. While "Burning" channels the same yelping frustration and working-class trudge of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" meld Jackson Browne's inward-looking sensitivity and Fleetwood Mac-like mysteriousness with an edgy depravity belonging to Granduciel alone. The songs are expansive, regardless of their tone, with the ten tunes sprawling out into almost an hourlong running time, leaving no stone unturned in their nuanced production and deceptively simple presentation. In this way, Lost in the Dream is the War on Drugs' Daydream Nation or Disintegration; lengthy distillations of similar themes result in wildly different threads of song, all connecting again in the end. It's a near flawless collection of dreamy vibes, shifting moods, and movement, and stands easily as Granduciel's finest hour so far.

 

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6. Arca – Xen

 

Arca (aka Alejandro Ghersi) proves his mastery of flux once again on Xen, an album where every aspect of his music is in glorious limbo. Unfettered by vocalists -- Kanye West and FKA Twigs are some of his highest-profile collaborators -- the producer takes his second full-length's tracks in wild but uniquely balanced directions. Borrowing equally from classical and hip-hop inspirations, his impressionistic sounds flow, stutter, bounce off of, and crash into each other in ways that unite and elevate each element, whether on "Now You Know"'s stark recombinations of strings, flute, and percussion or the dense, rumbling "Promise." Xen's intricate miniatures recall Arca's mixtape &&&&&, but where that work unfolded like a 25-minute sound painting (and was even performed as an audiovisual piece at New York's Museum of Modern Art with collaborator Jesse Kanda), these tracks are more discrete. "Xen" itself is a satisfying microcosm of the entire album, packed full of sounds in a way that's challenging but never jumbled. Occasionally, Ghersi allows a beat to proceed more or less undisturbed: "Sisters," which pairs metallic tones with a drumbeat mutated from Prince's "When the Doves Cry," approaches alien pop; "Thievery"'s massive rhythm section nods to Arca's more club-friendly work but retains the uncanny feel of the album's more abstract moments. More often, though, he reconfigures sounds on an almost molecular level. He minces hip-hop into an ebbing, flowing mosaic on "Lonely Thugg," where buried vocal snippets underscore Xen's unsettlingly organic feel. "Failed," one of a few melancholy and melodic interludes, recalls the way Oneohtrix Point Never chopped and pasted the melodramatic sounds of '80s New Age into new forms on R Plus Seven. However, Ghersi tempers cerebral soundplay with pure emotion, a move that gives Xen its own rich character and depth. The piano on the meditative "Held Apart" flows like tears in the rain, while "Sad Bitch" and "Wound" let their electronics sing just as beautifully as a human voice as they flicker between rapturous and mournful. The way Arca plays with and decorates time, letting sounds and moods mutate spontaneously, makes Xen a complete picture of his artistry and also promises much more.

 

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5. FKA Twigs – LP1

 

FKA Twigs' early EPs were such jewel-like statements of purpose, delivering songs full of sensuality and heartache so economically, that an album almost seemed superfluous. None of these songs appear on the simply titled LP 1, a bold move that extends to the rest of the album. Tahliah Barnett opens up her sound by working with a host of producers: along with previous collaborator Arca, indie darlings Paul Epworth and Dev Hynes contribute their sound-shaping skills, along with Emile Haynie, whose contributions to Eminem's Recovery earned him a Grammy. They help give LP 1 a lusher sound that's more accessible, and more overtly R&B, than FKA Twigs' earlier work but maintains its ethereal sensuality. It's an approach that shines on the lead single "Two Weeks": the flipside of songs like "Papi Pacify" and "Water Me," where pain was suffused and eclipsed desire, it finds Barnett powerfully in control of her sexuality, rooting out doubt and infidelity over the verses' underwater beats and soaring on the ecstatic choruses. The album's other singles are just as charged. The Epworth-produced "Pendulum" amplifies FKA Twigs' bittersweet side beautifully, and when Barnett sings "I dance feelings like they're spoken," it's as intimate as the more overtly autobiographical and anguished "Video Girl," a nod to her time dancing in clips for songs by Ed Sheeran and Jessie J. Here and elsewhere onLP 1, she excels at broadening her emotional palette as well as her musical one. She glides from the album's lows to its highs, juxtaposing pitch-black tracks like "Numbers," where chopped-up breaths, beats, and horror movie strings channel panic, loss, and anger, with radiant ones like "Closer," the poppiest FKA Twigs song yet (and one that Barnett produced herself). Elsewhere, the spacious, moody "Kicks" and "Lights On" evoke the EPs without rehashing them, emphasizing the album's seamless transition to a grander scope. FKA Twigs' music was already so fully realized that LP 1 can't really be called Barnett coming into her own; rather, her music has been tended to since the "Water Me" days, and now it's flourishing.

 

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4. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

 

As the producer and keyboardist spent more time absorbing and shaping the recordings, the title, initially comic in meaning, gained emotional weight while he was provoked to consider his mortality and the losses he has been dealt, including the deaths of his father and mother, his grandmother, his great aunt Alice Coltrane, and creative collaborator Austin Peralta. The completed You're Dead! consists of 19 tracks averaging two minutes in length that are intended to be heard in sequence from front to back. Its flow is even more liquid than that of Until the Quiet Comes, though the sounds are more jagged and free, with roots deeper in jazz. Ellison once again works extensively beside longtime comrades and pulls new collaborators into his sphere. All of them -- bassist and vocalist Thundercat, drummer Deantoni Parks, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and many others worthy of mention -- help him push jazz, R&B, rap, and electronic music forward at once. Most striking and powerful of all is "Never Catch Me," easily the longest cut. An album's worth of ideas and a whirlwind guest appearance from rapper Kendrick Lamar are condensed into its four sonically rich minutes. The tone dramatically shifts with the following "Dead Man's Tetris," a sinister concoction of melodic bleeps and gunshot effects involving Ellison as Captain Murphy, and also Snoop Dogg, in which J Dilla, Freddie Mercury, and Peralta are all part of the afterlife fantasy. Previous Flying Lotus releases have their bleak and elegiac moments, but they're central here, highlighted by "Coronus, the Terminator" (an Ellison/Niki Randa duet), "Siren Song" (fronted by Dirty Projectors' Angel Deradoorian), and "Obligatory Cadence." The instrumentals range from playful, as reflected in titles like "Turkey Dog Coma" and "Turtles," to the distressed likes of "Tesla" and "Moment of Hesitation," with the latter two both anchored by Gene Coye's feverish percussion and Herbie Hancock's glimmering/flickering piano. It all plays out in a kind of elegantly careening fashion. It concludes with "The Protest," where Laura Darlington and Kimbra softly sing "We will live on forever" like a defiant mantra. Like his great aunt, and his great uncle John Coltrane,Ellison has created exceptionally progressive, stirring, and eternal art.

 

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3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata

 

With a delivery that sounds like 2Pac pitched down a notch, and a technical, streetwise proficiency that's Scarface-styled and just as solid, Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs is a rare find, but his odd come-up is arguably even more interesting. Promoted by websites with more of an indie spin and hanging with more left-field folk like Chip tha Ripper, SpaceGhostPurrp, and the Cool Kids, Gibbs is a gruff thug who allows access to the avant side of the underground, something that's especially attractive to any edgy beatmaker with a love of hardcore lyrics. In the case of this superior collaboration called Piñata, that beatmaker is Madlib, the wonderfully cloudy king of groove who has long anchored the Stones Throw label to the street. Here, one of his hands is guided by RZA, while the other is guided by Dilla, combining for some creeping, off-world karate movie themes like "Thuggin'" (where Gibbs' proudly admits his "Pants gonna be saggin' till I'm forty"), while "Broken" floats with, apt to its title, some dreamy broken beat soul (prompting Freddie to brilliantly ruminate "Swear I've seen everything but old age"). Madlib's fans will have to do the most adapting, as the skittishness found on his Medicine Show series of releases is smoothed out with more chilled beats and longer running times, but the deliciously off-kilter production style is there and strong, influencing Gibbs to go "Deeper" on the cut of the same name, where he views the local wrecks in his neighborhood as more mature than himself, simply because they're not dealing with this young man's game called "hip-hop". Startling numbers like the block-rockin' then dissolving "Real" crop up throughout the album and make this project even more than a sum of its parts, and with the track list flowing smoothly as attractive guests (Danny Brown, Raekwon, Scarface, Mac Miller, and the list goes diversely and gloriously on) come and go, Piñata winds up excellent overall.

 

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2. Aphex Twin – Syro

 

Low on frenetics, Syro is anchored by rotund and agile basslines that zip and glide, and it's decked in accents and melodies that are lively even at their most distressed. It also flows easily, a notion epitomized by the sequencing of "XMAS_EVET10 [Thanaton3 Mix]" and "Produk 29," where a mesmerizing combination of snaking low-end synthesizers (10:31, not 12:24 in length) is trailed by an avant-rap body mover that bears some resemblance to Dabrye's lithe and sprightly early releases. Components of certain tracks, like the squiggled Mr. Fingers spin-cycle bassline in "4 bit 9d api+e+6" and scrambled rhythms of "CIRCLONT6A [syrobonkus Mix]," make the album seem like a bright progression from the Analord releases. Apart from the straight-ahead slamming drums in "180db_," the most striking aspect of Syro is the funkiness of its synthesizers relative to James' previous output. His playing here is far too fidgety to be grafted onto the likes of "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," "You're the One for Me," and "Just Be Good to Me," though some of the lines in, uh, the title cut, have that grimace-triggering quality. Only a trace of the indiscriminate sequencing and stylistic switch-ups heard on Drukqs remains. It's saved for the end, with a rather elegant, part-drum'n'bass excursion as the penultimate number, followed by a placid piano-only piece in the vein of those heard on the 2001 album. These tracks actually enhance, rather than hinder, one of James' most inviting and enjoyable releases.

 

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1. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah

 

As those who caught later gigs and subsequent uploads could attest, there were no signs that D'Angelo -- enigmatic maker of two classics that twisted gospel, soul, funk, and hip-hop with aloof but deep-feeling swagger -- was developing his third studio album with production pointers from David Guetta or elocution lessons from Glee's vocal director. Instead, he's made another album that invites comparisons to the purposefully sloppy funk of Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. It's more outward-looking, refined, and bristly than what preceded it, however, and has much in common with releases from retro-progressive peers like Van Hunt and Bilal. D'Angelo retains the rhythmic core that helped him create Voodoo, namely Questlove, bassist Pino Palladino, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and adds many players to the mix, including guitarist Jesse Johnson and drummers James Gadson and Chris Dave. Q-Tip contributed to the writing of two songs, but a greater impact is made by Kendra Foster, who co-wrote the same pair, as well as six additional numbers, and can often be heard in the background. The societal ruminations within the fiery judder of "1000 Deaths," the dreamy churn of "The Charade," and the falsetto blues of "Till It's Done," fueled as much by current planetary ills and race relations as the same ones that prompted the works of D'Angelo's heroes, strike the deepest. Among the material that concerns spirituality, devotion, lost love, and lust, D'Angelo and company swing, float, and jab to nonstop grimace-inducing effect. On the surface, "Sugah Daddy" seems like an unassuming exercise in fusing black music innovations that span decades, and then, through close listening, the content of D'Angelo's impish gibberish becomes clear. At the other end, there's "Another Life," a wailing, tugging ballad for the ages that sounds like a lost Chicago-Philly hybrid, sitar and all, with a mix that emphasizes the drums. Black Messiah clashes with mainstream R&B trends as much as Voodoo did in 2000.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

 

 

Call Super – Suzi Ecto

 

When JR Seaton started Call Super back in 2011, it was as a collaborative side project with Matt Waites—an addendum to solo work under his given name. Once Waites distanced himself from it, Call Super became Seaton's main concern. Over four increasingly excellent 12-inches, he's distilled his music down to an elegantly unrefined style techno full of three-dimensional textures both supple and rigid. Now comes Suzi Ecto, a more delicate record that dismantles his music entirely, leaving the constituent parts to dawdle and drift. More ambient than techno, there's an uneasy peace to Suzi Ecto. It's a humble album that seduces you rather than hit you over the head with its greatness. Seaton delights in the innately unpredictable nature of hardware, and on Suzi Ecto, the tracks seem like bare frameworks he's laid down for the synths and drums to explore themselves. The album's basslines are tactile and warm, like they're feeling their way around. The same goes for the drums: on "Dovetail," they land in an almost calypso-like pattern, at odds with everything else, while "Hoax Eye" is a startling slice of techno with noisy outbursts that stick out three-dimensionally, like a children's pop-up book. These more physical moments are offset by new age-y chillout jams. Centrepiece "Raindance," full of gently lapping water sounds, Buddha Bar tablas and a baritone voice wearily intoning "see the rain," is the musical equivalent of someone trying to hold a conversation just as you're falling asleep.For an artist who was on a very clear path, Suzi Ecto looks to the past as much as the future.

 

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Mica Levi - Under the Skin [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]

 

 

Mica Levi's work with Micachu & the Shapes is often maximalist in the best possible way, brimming over with ideas and sounds. While the band's collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, which resulted in 2011's Chopped & Screwed, nodded to her classical training (including her studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama), the masterful restraint she displays on her first solo project, and first score, is a welcome surprise. Her music for Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's film about a man-eating alien cloaked in the alluring disguise of Scarlett Johansson's body, is unobtrusive yet unmistakable, suggesting a mood of barely suppressed panic and emptiness without defining it too obviously. Levi's inspirations are classical and classic, and the way she combines minimalism and the essentials of horror/suspense scores modernizes both. Levi evokes much with little: strings buzz with frantic, insectoid activity, sometimes converging in a nervous hum; meanwhile, lumbering percussion suggests heartbeats, the way time slows down in the face of fear and/or a diabolical machine that, once started, can't be stopped. The score's star, however, is a creeping three-note motif that is even eerier because of its simplicity and strange familiarity. With just a few tweaks, Levi makes it sound menacing, seductive, or vulnerable -- or most dangerously, all three at once, as on "Lipstick to Void." "Drift" is another standout, and one of the finest examples of how Levi creates as much tension with her use of silence as she does within the music; it's no coincidence that the titles of some of the score's pieces suggest not just empty spaces but actively, hypnotically destructive ones. Under the Skin's repetition makes its minute changes stand out even more, whether it's the lower counterpoint on "Andrew Void" that adds weight and depth, the odd sweetness of "Lonely Void"'s high harmonies, or the way "Love" fleshes out and warms up the score's drones into something equally sensual and painful (and reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's fondness for ultra-romantic processed strings). The repetition also intensifies the score's emotional pull -- you don't have to have seen the movie to be frightened whenever that thumping beat kicks in -- and emphasizes its circular nature. Between the scrabbling bookends of "Creation" and "Alien Loop," each track blends into the next like a fever dream. Under the Skin is a fantastic study in tension and terror, and an exciting beginning to what will hopefully be a lengthy career for Levi as a solo artist and film composer.

 

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Mr. Mitch - Parallel Memories

 

 

Just a year ago, Mitch was bumping trap-drenched, hip-hop-adjacent bass-war artillery like the Suave EP. But he also made a point of countering last year's agressive, grime-producer soundclash "war dubs" free-for-all with his own simmered-down "Peace Edits". Now he's breaking out with a full-length record that's more restrained, more skeletal, and often more mournful than anything he's done before, a metamorphosis from somebody who's had fans growing to expect them on the regular. And he so regularly nails that transformative take on grime that it's tempting to assign the things he does here as a new potential signature sound. At the minimum, it gives him a new tool in his kit. The wide-open hushed silences and swooning interplay between synth hooks and pared-down beats puts Parallel Memories in the neighborhood of something that could be called "ambient grime" if that weren't a little too pat. But the slow-burning loops, distance-making reverb, and glassy digital melodies are made to envelop, not built to destroy. The first kick on the album doesn't show up until nearly two and a half minutes into opener "Afternoon After", and when it does finally thump its way through warped-Minimoog swells that chirp like the offspring of harps and whistles, it sounds like a bomb being dropped. That's just one bracing use of negative space, and in a track more suited to scene-setting; in the cuts with more of a focus on rhythm—as busy as the plastic clatter of "Intense Faces" or as screwed-down as the deep-snow trudge of "Hot Air"—the sawed-off beats hit harder for the air around them.

 

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Sun Kil Moon – Benji

 

If ever there was an album for Mark Kozelek's true cult of admirers, Benji is it. Despite the trademark intimacy in his songs, Kozelek has usually concealed himself behind them. Not here. These nakedly confessional songs are adorned by his voice, nylon-string guitar, and sundry instruments and voices. The record is haunted by the ghosts of his native Ohio. Named for a 1974 kids film he liked as a child, Benji is exceptionally wordy. Once Kozelek begins unspinning his life, he can't stop. Lines collide and mundane details combine with memories and shift quickly, making songs sometimes difficult to track. In opener "Carissa," he returns to Ohio for the funeral of a second cousin who perished at 35 in a freak accident involving an aerosol can. It's a eulogy, though he cannot come to grips with what happened. Will Oldham's backing vocal provides support for his bewilderment. "Truck Driver" spookily reflects on the life and death of an uncle (her grandfather) killed on his birthday in an eerily similar accident. On "Dogs," Kozelek details his early sexual history with tenderness, embarrassment, and bravado. When referencing cultural incidents -- "Pray for Newtown" and "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" -- Kozelek turns them back on themselves to reflect him. The latter features a strident, monotone spoken delivery and relentless guitar playing. The serial killer is cyclically referenced, but the narrative ironically juxtaposes other culturally significant deaths -- James Gandolfini, Elvis -- as Kozelek walks through his old neighborhood, remembering its residents, bearing honorable and even generous witness to their lives -- and deaths. A lyrical Rhodes piano introduces "Jim Wise," a song about one of his father's friends who helped his wife commit suicide, then attempted to kill himself but failed. Awaiting a prison sentence, Kozelek and his father visit to bring him food from Panera. "I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same" -- over ten minutes long -- languidly unfolds, disclosing his youthful experience being thrilled by the film, balanced by more personal experiences with mortality as a way of explaining that his well-known melancholy has been there since childhood.

 

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Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

 

After a decade of releasing singles, remixes, and edits to large amounts of acclaim among in-the-know dance music fans, Norwegian whiz kid Todd Terje finally made an album of his own in 2014. It's Album Time is a pretty self-explanatory title, though it could have been called "I Love Many Different Styles of Dance Music and Will Proceed to Put My Warped Spin on All of Them." Well, that one would have been a mouthful, but it does sort of explain what was in Terje's head as he whips from one style to the next over the course of the record's 12 tracks. Stylish neo-disco is what he's best known for, and if any one style dominates, it's that. Bouncy dancefloor fillers like "Strandbar," "Inspector Norse," "Swing Star, Pt. 2," and the light-as-a-feather "Oh Joy" set the dials for the heart of the disco ball and form the shiny center of the album. Terje's unerring grooves and the sophisticated and melodic sounds he lays over the beat make them the easiest tracks to love. He's less successful when heading off the floor and into the chillout lounge ("Leisure Suit Preben"), the tiki room ("Preben Goes to Acapulco"), or whatever strange place the impossible-to-describe (or listen to more than once) "Svensk Sås" resides, though he does get lucky with a guitar-strumming electro '80s style ("Delorean Dynamite") that begs to have some vocoder vocals over the top. The sweeping, ice-colored synths get the job done fine anyway, and it seems like a path Terje would be wise to follow on future releases.

 

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Special mention(s) for 2014:

 

 

 

Shamir - Northtown

 

With a piercing countertenor somewhere between Prince masquerading as Camille and the cracking adolescent soul of the teenage Michael Jackson, the 19-year-old North Las Vegas native dismantles the expectations maintained for vocalists based on their gender, demanding instead that the focus be placed on his agile, fluttering performances. His debut EP, Northtown, is named for the dusty suburban neighborhood where he grew up; it finds Shamir moving back and forth between sweet, almost holy purity and unearthly hysteria over churning, minimal house tracks.Shamir is still a new hand at writing and recording dance music; raised on an omnivorous musical diet of rock, hip-hop, jazz, and R&B, the first explicitly beat-driven track he wrote ended up launching his career. “If It Wasn’t True” remains a stunning opening salvo, one that plays on the tension between Shamir’s slender vocal and lyrical naiveté and grimy, threatening instrumental tones before devolving into a chaotic mess, swallowed by a haphazardly firing synth corroding in real-time. It’s a contrast that’s employed several times throughout Northtown, and it manages to retain its effectiveness because it’s so stark and clear, as Shamir’s fragile, yearning voice is pitted against aggressive, hard-charging electronics that actively warp and decay as the songs develop. The toughness and rigidity of the instrumentation plays well against his lyrics, too. Shamir spends most of Northtown in a state of constant romantic turmoil, and thanks to the delicacy of his voice it sounds like he’s exploring new depths of disappointment with each new track. On “If It Wasn’t True”, he’s trying to process a relationship that quickly soured, eventually settling into a tenuous but deadened peace; the core of the filthy, pulsing “Sometimes a Man” is his resigned sigh, “Sometimes a man ain’t what he says he is/ Sometimes a man is just a man.” You can picture him rolling his eyes and exhaling slowly while a synth spirals out of control, leaping around like a Roomba gone rogue before falling into a dead-eyed pulse. The volatile electronics seem like windows into Shamir’s psyche: anger and resentment made into ferocious backing tracks, shielding his heartbreak. The one song on Northtown that deviates from the distorted electronics first glimpsed on “If It Wasn’t True” is its closer, a cover of Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega’s 2013 track “Lived and Died Alone” that Shamir cut with a single microphone in just one take. Accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, it’s a lonely lament that quickly blackens into something a little more sinister: resigned to a solitary existence, he journeys in the dead of night and excavates a bunch of graves, giving the deserted dead the love he never had the chance to receive himself. It’s strange, surprisingly tender, and blessed with an alien beauty; in other words, a perfect fit for Shamir.

 

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Various Artists - PC Music x DISown Radio Mix

 

 

Brass tacks time: putting aside the question of whether or not PC Music are indeed the spawn of Abaddon, the DisOWN Mix isn’t really an album. In fact, it’s not even an all-originals affair, with a bunch of 2013 tracks sitting amidst the exclusives. But, then again, net labels – and PC Music in particular – move in such idiosyncratic ways that one has to make judgements about when a mix crosses the threshold from odds’n’sods sesh to full-length statement. As it happens, the DISown Mix had more vision, ambition, humour and internal coherence than most full-lengths that clattered onto our desks this year. Produced in association with DIS and Red Bull, who ironically referenced throughout, the DISown Mix is a six-part guide to PC Music’s key players. It’s essentially a PC Music manifesto, a carefully crafted ‘meet the crew’ effort and a showcase for label boss A.G. Cook’s soundworld (vaporwave aesthetic; Glass Swords’ sonic palette; heavy doses of Aphex-style facetiousness). It’s a broad church, encompassing Cook’s queasy takes on house and UK garage, GFOTY’s grotesque psychodramas (oddly reminiscent of Natalie Beridze), Danny L Harle’s breezy late ‘90s readymades, and Kane West’s shonky Casio jams. We can already see the armada of furious commenters approaching, but let them rage – no other hour of music fizzed quite so effervescently in 2014.

 

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Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait

 

Hell Can Wait is a reminder that living is another word for cheating death. It’s bleak and maybe exasperating, but the reality of the street is that babies gotta eat, jobs are scarce, and some people have to resort to tactics that risk death and imprisonment to make it through the day. There’s no wide-eyed good kid narrating the disorder in Staples' city, just a realist making do with the available options. “*****s from my home ain’t enrolled in the colleges/ Fuck a class, junkies hitting glass, get the money long,” Vince snarls on “65 Hunnid”. On “Screen Door” he balks at the popularity of imaginary gangsters, asserting that his own home was rawer than any Hollywood adaptation: “Bobby Johnson ain’t my OG/ This ain’t no movie role/ Pops was off the OE/ Tripping, getting his Tookie on.” In the middle of the EP Staples' ire sharpens into an icepick. “Hands Up” protests LAPD's use of excessive force (“They expect respect and nonviolence/ I refuse the right to be silent”) in a diatribe Staples swears isn’t about Ferguson. But in a climate where surveillance cam and cell phone footage have revealed law enforcement bullying and violence against black bodies for a near-daily operation, “Hands Up”’s volatile objection to “Paying taxes for some fucking clowns to ride around whooping *****s’ asses” hits hard from coast to coast. Lead single “Blue Suede” is a curt rejoinder about gang violence being deadly too; the terse chorus—“New shoes with the blue suede/ Young graves get the bouquets”—folds a lifetime of adversity into just a few words, a series of damning images cataloguing the disintegration of hope. That economy is Hell Can Wait’s guiding principle. Staples never wastes a word in exhibiting a hustler’s hard-won resilience, and he’s abetted by producers that buoy his stories without overwhelming them. Leading the charge is Toronto producer Hagler (best known for a co-producer credit on Drake’s “Trophies”). Hagler gifts “Screen Door” and “Limos” their hypnotic poise, but he truly shines on “Blue Suede”, which sounds like a trap artist’s rendering of the moment Dr. Dre thought to slap high pitched Moog lines over breaks, the resulting menace tracing a line of ancestry between L.A.’s riots and Raiders era and today. Elsewhere Lil Wayne associate Infamous effects a Nawlins death march for “65 Hunnid”, and Staples' mentor and label head No I.D. outfits “Hands Up” with a guttural low end fitting of a song that could be considered a spiritual successor to “Fuck tha Police”. Hell Can Wait is a debut for Staples, but it’s really a refinement, the end result of a years long search for the right producer that spawned a string of good but not always great mixtapes and loosies. Even a casual listener could hear the spark—Staples' first fame came from getting the best of known mic terrorist Earl Sweatshirt—but his production values have finally caught up enough to push him past the scrappy sidekick division into the big leagues

 

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Question: Can we say our top 10s or is it only yours? Great topic btw

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Question: Can we say our top 10s or is it only yours? Great topic btw

 

Absolutely anyone is welcome! You'll notice that other users have listed their top albums for certain years. After all, the entire point of this thread when I started it - besides having something to do while moving - was for others to discover great music!

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Absolutely anyone is welcome! You'll notice that other users have listed their top albums for certain years. After all, the entire point of this thread when I started it - besides having something to do while moving - was for others to discover great music!

 

Ok thank you... I start with my 2014, 2013 and 2012 top albums list ;)

 

2014

10) Metronomy - Love Letters

9) Fanfarlo - Let's Go Extinct

8) I Break Horses - Chiaroscuro

7) Eternal Summers - The Drop Beneath

6) Craft Spells - Nausea

5) The Jezabels - The Brink

4) Wild Beasts - Present Tense

3) The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream

2) Be Forest - Earthbeat

1) Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow

other mentions:

 

 

Maybeshewill - Fair Youth

Stephen Steinbrink - Arranged Waves

Alpines - Oasis

Real Estate - Atlas

The Mary Onettes - Portico:

Royal Blood - Royal Blood

...

and there would be at least other 30 albums, but for the moment I stop here :D

 

 

 

2013

10) Boards Of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest

9) Queens Of The Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

8) The Boxer Rebellion - Promises

7) Maps - Vicissitude

6) Lanterns On The Lake - Until The Colours Run

5) Savoir Adore - Our Nature

4) The Mary Onettes - Hit The Waves

3) Shout Out Louds - Optica

2) Arcade Fire - Reflektor

1) Pure Bathing Culture - Moon Tides

 

Other mentions:

 

 

Foals - Holy Fire

Keep Shelly In Athens - At Home

Cut Copy - Free Your Mind

Everything Everything - _Arc_

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Suede - Bloodsports

...

 

 

 

2012

10) Beach House - Bloom

9) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

8) Pomegranates - Heaven

7) Keane - Strangeland

6) Efterklang - Piramida

5) Tame Impala - Lonerism

4) The Temper Trap - The Temper Trap

3) The Maccabees - Given To The Wild

2) Fanfarlo - Rooms Filled With Light

1) Wild Nothing - Nocturne

 

Other mentions:

 

 

Sea Wolf - Old World Romance

Of Monsters And Men - My Head Is An Animal

Porcelain Raft - Strange Weekend

Fancy Colors - Near Equator

Keep Shelly In Athens - In Love With Dusk/Our Own Dream

The Lumineers - The Lumineers

...

 

 

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1971 was a damn good year. I'd put Yes' Fragile (which isn't even on your list) as #1.

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2015:

 

 

 

10. Vince Staples - Summertime '06

 

Blowing the promise of his Hell Can Wait EP into an extraordinary double LP, Summertime '06 finds rapper Vince Staples with all the pieces in place. His delivery is still sneering and steady with a slight sway that suggests he's stoned, but like pop gangstas Chief Keef or Future, he can craft a memorable melody out of chopped-up nonsense. Check the infectious "Senorita" for proof, but also check the brilliant "Lift Me Up" for Staples as the elevated rap writer, offering an uncompromising gangsta stance that's both classic ("They follow me while shoppin") and pushing the envelope (Staples tears down a list of fashion labels that don't respect their urban audience). Cali references abound and still the music, most of it from producers No ID and Clams Casino, makes it seem as if the rapper lives in the shadows, not just because it is dark, but also because it is equally attractive and mysterious. Even with the revered duo in fine form, it's producer DJ Dahi who takes first prize, as "Birds & Bees" sounds like a paranoid funk breakdown, thick and brittle enough to accompany lyrics like "I'm a gangsta like my daddy/My mommy called me 'her problem' when she had me/They found another dead body in the alley." Splitting this weighty and rich effort into digestible chunks, the album's physical release comes on two separate discs, making Summertime '06 an artistic triumph wrapped in conceptually fitting package.

 

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9. Björk - Vulnicura

 

Never one to do things timidly, with Vulnicura Björk delivers a breakup album that doesn't just express sadness -- it immerses listeners in the total devastation of heartbreak. Starting with the album cover's wound/vulva imagery, she explores the tightly linked emotional and physical pain the end of a relationship brings with an intensity that has been missing from her music for too long. As expertly as she wedded feelings and concepts on Medúlla, Volta, and especially Biophilia, hearing her sing directly about her emotions is a galvanizing reminder of just how good she is at it. For the first time in a long time, the conceptual framework of a Björk album feels like it's in service of the feelings she needs to express, and as she traces the before, during, and after of a breakup, she links Vulnicura to the most emotionally bare parts of her discography. The clearest connection is to Homogenic's electro-orchestral drama, which she updates on "Stonemilker." The way Björk sings "emotional needs" echoes "Joga"'s "emotional landscapes" and prepares listeners for the state of emergency that she's about to throw her listeners into. On "History of Touches," she inverts the hushed intimacy of Vespertine (the album that celebrated the beginning of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, just as this one chronicles its end) with choppy synth-strings that convey the fractured sensuality of being physically close and emotionally worlds apart. However, Vulnicura's songs are often longer and more deconstructed than either of those albums, and the involvement of co-producers Arca and Haxan Cloak (who also handled most of the mixing) ensures that this is some of Björk's darkest music yet. "Lionsong" brilliantly captures the nauseating anxiety of an uncertain relationship, its warped harmonies and teetering strings evoking a high-stakes game of "he loves me, he loves me not." Even though Björk crawls out of the abyss on the album's final third, which culminates with the relatively hopeful "Quicksand," that agonizing middle section is Vulnicura's crowning achievement and crucible. The ten-minute "Black Lake" allows Björk the space to let everything unravel, and as the strings drone and the beats tower and topple, her straightforward lyrics ("You have nothing to give/Your heart is hollow") perfectly distill the moments of purging and clarity that eventually point the way out of heartache. Here and on "Family," where Haxan Cloak's claustrophobic production makes Björk's anguish (the way she sings "sorrow" contains multitudes) all the more wrenching, the purity of her expression is both highly personal and universal. Vulnicura honors her pain and the necessary path through and away from loss with some of her bravest, most challenging, and most engaging music.

 

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8. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

 

A convincing argument that rock & roll doesn't need reinvention in order to revive itself, Courtney Barnett's full-length debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. falls into a long, storied rock tradition but never feels beholden to it. By almost any measure, Barnett is a traditionalist -- a singer/songwriter supported by a guitar-bass-drum trio, cranking out ballads and squalls of noise. Certainly, those flurries of six-string fury do recall a variety of indie rock from the '90s, an era when there was a surplus of guitar-friendly singer/songwriters, and if Sometimes I Sit does occasionally seem reminiscent of Liz Phair's landmark Exile in Guyville, it also seems to go back even further, sometimes suggesting the twitchy nerves of the former pub rockers who cranked up the volume and sharpened their invective in the wake of punk. So, Barnett might be part of a long line of underground rock troubadours but, as always, what matters is her specificity. Barnett's thick Australian accent carries an unstated pride for her homeland, but her sly twists of phrase, alternately wry and melancholic, give a greater sense of place, time, and character. Offhand observations mingle with understated insights, a nice trick of songwriting that the music cannily mirrors. When called upon, Barnett and her band can be furious -- "An Illustration of Loneliness" and "Kim's Caravan" both work themselves up to a knotty, gnarled head -- but they can also slip into a soothing sadness ("Depreston," "Boxing Day Blues"). Usually, they're punchy but not precise, hammering the hard hooks of "Aqua Profunda!" and "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" into place, giving "Elevator Operator" and "Pedestrian at Best" an urgency that mimics Barnett's cloistered, clever words. There are no frills here but there is a distinct, compelling voice evident in Barnett's songs and music alike. That's what makes Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. so invigorating: it may have roots -- perhaps even some inadvertent ones -- but it's music that lives thoroughly in the moment.

 

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7. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete

 

Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin is the kind of artist you expect to keep evolving, even if exactly how he evolves on each album is unpredictable. That said, he still throws listeners a few curves on Garden of Delete, an album inspired by his adolescence and his 2014 tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Any expectations that this is OPN's "guitar album" are quickly dashed: Lopatin's palette is far wider-ranging, incorporating aspects of his previous albums (as well as a nod to his work as Chuck Person on "ECCOJAMC1") and elements of metal, trance, R&B, and Top 40 pop that, when combined, feel unmistakably like Oneohtrix Point Never. The way he transforms different sounds and eras into something nostalgic yet new has always been one of his greatest strengths. He goes one better on Garden of Delete, imbuing these songs with powerful, wide-ranging emotions. "Animals"' lugubrious melody is mournful to the point of uneasiness, while "No Good"'s deceptively soothing flow and distorted vocoder make it a self-destructing love song. As dense as R Plus Seven was cleanly sculpted, there's a lot to unpack within Garden of Delete, including its title: a phrase that suggests the meticulous task of editing music as well as the union of creation and destruction (and shortens to G.O.D.), it's the perfect mission statement for an album that combines past and present in surprising, and surprisingly organic ways. While "Lift"'s crystalline melody is classic OPN, the vocals that dominate the album add to its personal feel -- even if they're courtesy of the software instrument Chipspeech. Lopatin uses the software to give voice to Ezra, an alien who figured heavily in Garden of Delete's promotional campaign and who lends the album its emotional arc. We first hear his slurred tones on "Intro," but it's "Ezra" that offers a proper introduction to the character as well as the album's scope: the track's rapid shifts between heavily processed alt-metal guitars, stark, glistening synths, dueling vocals, and frenetic arpeggios feel like extraterrestrial mood swings. Shorter songs like "SDFK" and fragmented excursions like "Mutant Standard," which combines a looping melody that morphs from morose to triumphant with vertiginous atmospheres, only add to the feeling that everything on Garden of Delete is teetering on the brink. Lopatin uses his music's porous boundaries brilliantly, whether he's fusing molten R&B with death metal's growls and rapid-fire kick drums on the standout "Sticky Drama," crafting dizzying juxtapositions and edits on "I Bite Through It"'s violent melancholy, or naming one of the album's most beautiful ambient pop moments after the child abuse documentary Child of Rage. These fascinating dualities make Garden of Delete some of Lopatin's most intellectually engaging music as well as some of his funniest, darkest, and most cathartic.

 

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6. Jamie xx - In Colour

 

Compared to Jamie xx's impact on music, it's easy to forget that he hasn't released much on his own. The distinctive yet surprisingly versatile blend of indie, R&B, and dance in his work with the xx, Gil Scott-Heron, and his remixes helped shape the sound of the late 2000s and 2010s, but his solo discography was limited to a handful of singles, many of which appear on his first full-length, In Colour. While one of his best singles, "All Under One Roof Raving," doesn't appear on the album, its balance of the kinetic and the atmospheric -- as well as its reverence for classic U.K. dance music -- is reflected on some of In Colour's brightest highlights. "Gosh" is hard-edged yet radiant, its juddering drum'n'bass rhythms and shouted samples adding heft and movement before swelling synths overtake the track like a sunrise after a long night out. Indeed, for most of the album, Jamie xx uses his considerable gifts for atmosphere to make listeners remember the euphoria of dance music rather than immerse them in it. Despite its brassy flourishes, "Girl"'s filtered house is haunting and aloof instead of driving, while its former B-side "Sleep Sound" fades in and out like a dream. Given his skills as a collaborator, it's not surprising that some of In Colour's best moments occur when he shares the spotlight. While his reunion with xx bandmate Oliver Sim on the implosive "Stranger in a Room" is almost too reminiscent of their previous work, Romy Madley Croft remains one of his most inspiring muses. She gives In Colour's nostalgia more humanity on the beautifully blurred "Seesaw" and "Loud Places," where a sample of Idris Muhammad's joyous "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This" makes the contrast between then and now, and alone and together, all the more poignant. However, the album's most immediate moment belongs to Young Thug and Popcaan. Inspired by a drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn while listening to Hot 97, the summery "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" embraces pop, hip-hop, and dancehall in a way that feels evocative and forward-looking. As it moves from reflective to engaging and back again, In Colour covers the entire spectrum of Jamie xx’s music, delivering flashes of brilliance along the way.

 

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5. Kamasi Washington - The Epic

 

The Epic is saxophonist Kamasi Washington's aptly titled, triple-length, 172-minute debut album for Brainfeeder. He is a veteran of L.A.'s music scene and has played with Gerald Wilson, Harvey Mason,Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar (his horn is prominently featured on To Pimp a Butterfly), to name but a few. Most of his bandmates have played together since high school, and it shows. There are two drummers (including Ronald Bruner), two bassists (including Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner on electric), two keyboardists, trumpet, trombone, and vocals (Patrice Quinn). In various settings, they are supported by a string orchestra and full choir conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Washington composed 13 of these 17 tunes; he also meticulously arranged and produced them. At just over six to nearly 15 minutes, the jams leave room for engaged improvisation. The Epic is based on a concept, though it's unnecessary to grasp in order to enjoy. The music reflects many inspirations -- John Coltrane, Horace Tapscott's Pan-African People's Arkestra, Azar Lawrence's Prestige period, Donald Byrd’s and Eddie Gale’s jazz and choir explorations, Pharaoh Sanders’ pan global experiments, Afro-Latin jazz, spiritual soul, and DJ culture. A formidable soloist (he plays his ass off here), Coltrane is his greatest influence, but his tone is rawer, somewhere between Sanders and Albert Ayler. Disc one's "Change of the Guard" is an overture that commences with confident modal piano, a labyrinthine ensemble head, testifying choir, and bright, expansive solos from piano, trumpet, tenor, and upright bass, creating openness and drama. There's balladic progressivism ("Isabelle"), strident Afro-Latin grooves ("Final Thought"), and Central Avenue roots ("The Next Step"), before it turns toward soulful futurism on "The Rhythm Changes," with vocals from Quinn. Disc two features the carooming electric post-bop of "Miss Understanding" with explosive choir, nasty Rhodes piano, and killer solos by Washington and trumpeter Igmar Thomas. "Re Run" emerges as sun-kissed spiritual jazz with trilling strings and choir before it evolves swinging, with a funky swagger amid popping keys, fleet electric bass, and trombone solos and strident breaks. "The Magnificent 7" contains an obvious cinematic reference with its swirling kinetic strings and airy chorale, but the ground is roaring electric, spiritual jazz-funk courtesy of Thundercat and Brandon Coleman's organ and Rhodes. Disc three features the groove-drenched single "Re Run Home." Its head is straight on; Horace Silver and Harold Land come to mind, but the body spirals and turns left toward South L.A. funk. Traditions are bridged by a sunshiny soul cover of Ray Noble's standard "Cherokee," Terence Blanchard's poignant "Malcolm's Theme" (a gorgeous duet between Quinn and Dwight Trible), and a lithe read of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" before closing with the propulsive, Latin-tinged, funky vanguardism of "The Message." The Epic isn't fusion, retro, or remotely academic. It's 21st century jazz as accessible as it is virtuosic -- feel matters to Washington. Holistic in breadth and deep in vision, it provides a way into this music for many, and challenges the cultural conversation about jazz without compromising or pandering.

 

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4. Floating Points - Elaenia

 

Slight and anticlimactic are terms of dissatisfaction that could be used by certain listeners as a reaction to Elaenia, the first full-length from Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points. Those who have been attentive since the brainiac producer's earliest releases are more likely to hear the 43-minute album as a modest culmination of progressions and refinements traceable throughout what preceded it. Shepherd began in 2009 with swinging post-dubstep/house hybrids. Subsequent releases were pared down, increasingly graceful and organic, typified by "Sais," an austere but emotive threading of Carl Craig-style ambient techno and Lonnie Liston Smith-referencing spiritual jazz. Even before that 2011 track, Shepherd had worked as part of a 16-member unit, dubbed Floating Points Ensemble, which took Craig's cross-genre Innerzone Orchestra and 4hero's chamber soul a few steps farther out, as a platform for vocalist Fatima. Among the roughly four hours of Floating Points material previously released on singles and as EPs, Elaenia is closest to those highlights, though it's almost entirely instrumental, using voices only sparingly in a choral mode. Shepherd plays a variety of keyboards that undulate, twinkle, swarm, and sometimes act merely as shadowy outlines. There are sections when they are delicately layered over one another, sometimes unaccompanied and barely touched, as Shepherd's aim, like that of Mark Hollis circa Mark Hollis, is to make moving music that sounds quiet at any volume, simultaneously exacting yet freely flowing. Shepherd directs his supporting players, including drummers Leo Taylor and Tom Skinner, bassist Susumu Makai (aka Zongamin), and a small string section, through a pensively paced sequence. Some tracks could be called mood pieces but are really too defined and substantive to fit that categorization, while the relatively active and as detailed remainder -- "Silhouettes," "Peroration Six" -- is suited more for foot tapping or awestruck stillness than dancing. Just as the latter seems to be on the brink of explosion, as its currents are whipped into a fever pitch, Shepherd pulls the plug, leaving the album to conclude with ten seconds of stunned silence. Elaenia is fated to become one of those albums that inspires ritualistic listening parties held by small groups of audiophiles. That shouldn't be held against it.

 

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3. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness

 

After drawing on Greek tragedies and MGM musicals for her earlier albums, it would be hard for Julia Holter to find loftier sources of inspiration. On Have You in My Wilderness, she recasts her ambition to a more intimate scale: where her previous album Loud City Song had the heft of a novel, these songs play like a collection of short stories. Indeed, Holter remains as literary as ever; her influences include Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories -- with Holter taking a sultry, Sally Bowles-meets-Nico turn on the torchy "How Long" -- as well as the novella Chance Acquaintances by Colette, whose Gigi begat Loud City Song. Wilderness' bite-sized approach makes it easier to savor the breathtaking beauty of Holter’s music, and fits her meditations on closeness and distance. The "you" and "me" implied in the album title are united, and separated, by unpredictable emotions ("Show me how you make your second face," she urges a lover on "Night Song"). While songs like the charming opener "Feel You," which offers a glimpse of a rainy day in Mexico City with a companion who might not even be real, aren't strictly autobiographical, they feel genuine. Loud City Song started this warming trend, most palpably on the gorgeous, slow-motion deconstruction of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger." A similar tenderness graces Have You in My Wilderness' title track: even as Holter asks "Why do I feel you running away?" she sounds nearer than ever, thanks to producer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill's spotlight on her vocals. The clarity of her voice matches the immediacy of her writing, which manifests itself in remarkably catchy songs like "Everytime Boots"' country-pop, and in some of her most sensuous imagery. She notes how sweet a boxful of oranges smells, and how clear water looks; indeed, water is at the heart of Wilderness, from the flow of its songs to the way its characters are surrounded and isolated by it. "Lucette Stranded on the Island" sounds as beautiful, vast, and dangerous as the sea, with angelic strings, piano, and harmonies giving a deceptive sweetness to its tale of a woman robbed and left to die by her lover. "Sea Calls Me Home" dives into uneasy freedom as Holter cries "I can't swim!" while the harpsichords from the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" compel her deeper into the waves. As always, Holter's adventurous choices are much more than theoretical exercises. The escalating strings and prepared piano ratchet the tension of "Betsy on the Roof" to almost unbearable levels, while "Vasquez"'s spacy jazz fusion is fittingly mercurial as it ponders who the good and bad guys really are. While it's tempting to say Have You in My Wilderness is her most personal music yet, it might be more accurate to say that it's her most approachable: this time, her brilliance demands a lot from her listeners, but also meets them more than halfway.

 

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2. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

 

Nothing truly prepares anyone for the loss of a parent. No matter how aware one may be about the realities of disease and death, no matter what their attitude about their mother or father, experiencing the passing of the person who brought them into this world hits hard and deep, and the survivors are left to come to terms with their pain in their own ways. Sufjan Stevens is a songwriter and a musician, so it should come as no surprise that in the wake of the death of his mother Carrie in 2012, his grief took the form of a collection of songs. But 2015's Carrie & Lowell is not a simple homage to Stevens' mother and stepfather. Stevens had a difficult relationship with his mother that would defy a simple farewell; she left his father when Stevens was just a year old, and she was a random presence throughout much of his childhood. While there's deep and genuine love in Carrie & Lowell, there's also uncertainty, sadness, and brief but jagged bursts of anger; these songs speak of loss and heartache and the difficult push and pull of familial relationships, but they're also full of random memories, both pleasant and troubling, and they leap from reveries of family vacations faded by the passing of decades, to the immediate regrets of what was or wasn't said and done in the aftermath of death. Carrie & Lowell is about memory as much as mourning, and Stevens has drawn these songs in a purposefully elegant manner, with his introspection accompanied by beautiful but homespun melodies, and the arrangements and production only magnifying their dreamlike, whisper-quiet drift that strikes with an emotional force that a louder, more violent approach could not achieve. Carrie & Lowell is a heartfelt expression of love that is devoid of the slightest hint of sentimentality, and with these songs, Stevens strips his emotions bare and allows us all to be the audience for his anger, shame, and sense of loss as he pages through his memories of his family. Carrie & Lowell is the most harrowingly personal work Stevens has offered us to date; it also ranks with his most skillfully crafted albums despite its spartan approach, and it's a sometimes difficult but profoundly moving work. Stevens has offered us some fine albums in the past, but he's never made anything quite like Carrie & Lowell.

 

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1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

 

Becoming an adult ultimately means accepting one's imperfections, unimportance, and mortality, but that doesn't mean we stop striving for the ideal, a search that's so at the center of our very being that our greatest works of art celebrate it, and often amplify it. Anguish and despair rightfully earn more Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Pulitzer Prizes than sweetness and light ever do, but West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar is already on elevated masterwork number two, so expect his version of the sobering truth to sound like a party at points. He's aware, as Bilal sings here, that "Shit don't change 'til you get up and wash your ass," and don't it feel good? The sentiment is universal, but the viewpoint on his second LP is inner-city and African-American, as radio regulars like the Isley Brothers (sampled to perfection during the key track "I"), George Clinton (who helps make "Wesley's Theory" a cross between "Atomic Dog" and Dante's Inferno), and Dr. Dre (who literally phones his appearance in) put the listener in Lamar's era of Compton, just as well as Lou Reed took us to New York and Brecht took us to Weimar Republic Berlin. These G-funky moments are incredibly seductive, which helps usher the listener through the album's 80-minute runtime, plus its constant mutating (Pharrell productions, spoken word, soul power anthems, and sound collages all fly by, with few tracks ending as they began), much of it influenced, and sometimes assisted by, producer Flying Lotus and his frequent collaborator Thundercat. "u" sounds like an MP3 collection deteriorating, while the broken beat of the brilliant "Momma" will challenge the listener's balance, and yet, Lamar is such a prodigiously talented and seductive artist, his wit, wisdom, and wordplay knock all these stray molecules into place. Survivor's guilt, realizing one's destiny, and a Snoop Dogg performance of Doggystyle caliber are woven among it all; plus, highlights offer that Parliament-Funkadelic-styled subversion, as "The Blacker the Berry" ("The sweeter the juice") offers revolutionary slogans and dips for the hip. Free your mind, and your ass will follow, and at the end of this beautiful black berry, there's a miraculous "talk" between Kendrick and the legendary 2Pac, as the brutalist trailblazer mentors this profound populist. To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso's Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

 

2 8 1 4 - 新しい日の誕生

 

 

For a tiny scene that has only existed for a few years, vaporwave has had a surprisingly tumultuous lifespan. Many of its artists, responsible for creating a genre already resistant to narratives, have since disowned it or moved on. Pronouncements of its death go back to 2013. Hong Kong Express's Dream Catalogue emerged last year as a new torchbearer for the contentious scene, and in true vaporwave fashion has racked up over 100 releases since. The Bandcamp label, heavily influenced by Western fantasies of East Asia (a common theme in this scene), touches on all aspects of the genre. There's the imaginary muzak for futuristic worlds, moth-eaten edits of disco and funk, hi-tech and high-concept projects and, sometimes, just plain-old ambient music dressed up in vaporwave aesthetics. The second album from 2 8 1 4—which comprises Hong Kong Express and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者—lands closest to ambient, and is among the more mature and considered albums on Dream Catalogue. Originally released at the beginning of 2015, it's been reissued by Not Not Fun on cassette—essentially taking 新しい日の誕生 (meaning "Birth Of A New Day") out of the digital vaporwave stream and closer to earthy artists like Robedoor and White Poppy. 新しい日の誕生 sets itself apart with a vivid, picturesque scope and wide ambient landscapes. The dominant theme here is drift. Sometimes the duo deal in drone—like on "テレパシー" where they luxuriate in a constant tone for over 10 minutes, savouring every miniscule tonal change and decay across the lengthy runtime. And decay is another prominent aspect that separates 新しい日の誕生 from the pack. Where vaporwave is often resolutely digital and clinical, the duo indulge in Basinski-like looping. Check the way the piano notes shimmer and melt together on incredible opener "恢复." 2 8 1 4 also take what sounds like funky radio jams and strip them down to eerie skeletons. In these moments, 新しい日の誕生 recalls Passed Me By-era Andy Stott with its haunted, slo-mo grooves.

 

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Carly Rae Jepsen - E·MO·TION

 

Carly Rae Jepsen was nearly a victim of her own success. Her breakthrough single "Call Me Maybe" wasn't just big -- it was one of 2012's definitive songs, with a presence so massive that it overshadowed just how good Kiss, the album that housed it, was. After taking time to regroup, Jepsenreturns with E-MO-TION, another set of songs that are better than the average Top 40 hit. While nothing here is as instantly striking as "Call Me Maybe," the album gives the impulsive sweetness of her big hit some perspective. If Kiss was the sound of first love and first heartbreak, then E-MO-TION captures how heady the ups and downs of crushes can be the third or fourth time around. For every head-over-heels declaration like "Run Away with Me," there's a song such as "I Really Like You," a smaller-scale outburst where Jepsen acknowledges "this isn't love." This sophistication extends to the music; where Kiss suggested several potential directions, E-MO-TION presents a more unified front. A-list songwriters and producers including Sia, Devonté Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Shellback, and Greg Kurstin help her focus Kiss' effervescence into a cohesive sound that is somehow even more '80s-influenced. The slap bass and crystalline synths on "All That" turn it into a seemingly long-lost slow jam, while Rechtshaid's unabashedly glossy production on "When I Needed You" reflects how big an impact his work with HAIM had on the 2010s pop landscape. Jepsen gets more adventurous on the album's second half, teaming with Sia to bring newfound drama to "Making the Most of the Night" and with Rostam Batmanglij and Tegan and Sara on "Warm Blood," one of E-MO-TION's most contemporary-sounding tracks. Jepsen said she drew inspiration for the album from Cyndi Lauper and Robyn, both of whom excel at sounding exuberant and yearning at the same time. Like those artists, Jepsen is at her finest when she lets her sparkly facades crumble a little with vulnerable lyrics. The excellent "Your Type" is so deftly self-deprecating and catchy that it could actually be a Robyn song, while the title track and "Boy Problems" capture longing and heartache in ways that feel like they were written for everyone's inner junior high schooler. An even more consistent album than Kiss, E-MO-TION further defines Jepsen as an equally stylish and earnest pop artist.

 

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Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

 

On 2012's Fear Fun, Josh Tillman introduced audiences to Father John Misty, a jaded and erudite, faux-bohemian retro-pop confectioner with a strong surrealist bent and an aptitude for capturing the American zeitgeist via wry couplets concerning the culturally and morally ambiguous wasteland of southern California. That penchant for gutter-highbrow confessionalism still looms large on his second long player, the lyrically and musically bold, and often quite beautiful, I Love You, Honeybear, but the drug-addled, disaffected Laurel Canyon drifter who served as the cruise director on Fear Fun has been replaced by a man trying to come to terms with the discombobulating effects of love, especially as it applies to his nihilistic alter-ego, which is mercilessly stripped of that ego throughout the 11-song set. The newly married Tillman is not incapable of self-effacing satire (witness the exhaustive "Exercises for Listening" instructional pamphlet, which is worth the price of the album alone), but he peppers those bone-wry moments ("I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in," from the dizzying, weepy strings and cavernous percussion-laden title cut) with instances of real soulful brevity ("For love to find us of all people/I'd never thought it'd be so simple," from the exquisite, sparse, heartfelt closer "I Went to the Store One Day") -- the ballsy "Ideal Husband," a frantic laundry list of past digressions, best supports both predilections. Produced with great care once again by Jonathan Wilson, Honeybear has the architecture of its predecessor, but features braver melodic choices, and at a pure pop level, is the far more challenging LP of the two, but it rewards the listener constantly, whether it's delivering the yin and the yang via electro-pop tomfoolery ("True Affection"), '70s soul-pop schmaltz ("When You're Smiling and Astride Me"), or straight-up Randy Newman-inspired socio/political balladry ("Bored in the USA"), the latter of which even manages to incorporate a laugh track. Whether Tillman is maturing into the Father John Misty persona or vice versa is still up for debate, but there's no denying his growth as an artist, and I Love You, Honeybear, despite the occasional double entendre, is as powerful a statement about love in the vacuous, social media-obsessed early 21st century as it is a denouement of the detached hipster charlatan.

 

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Future - DS2

 

Perhaps it was the threat of Young Thug beginning to rise, but whatever the reason, 2015 was the year when Future leapt forward artistically, captivating the mixtape circuit with three releases (56 Nights, Beast Mode, and Monster) that all pushed the envelope. His massive hit "Commas" -- which only appears on the "Deluxe" version of this album -- was more of an expected move coming from a party rapper who's always drenched in Auto-Tune, and often with purple drank in hand. With the release of the album DS2 -- Dirty Sprite 2, named after his hit mixtape -- he becomes a hip-hop version of Lee “Scratch” Perry, a strange and yet in command figure standing at the center of a slick, inventive swirl of music. Strange as in "I ain't got no manners for sluts/I'ma put my thumb in her butt," which he declares during the Xanax-fueled highlight "Stick Talk." Singer Miguel might make that sound smooth, but butt man Future also notes "Started sipping syrup, I've been geeked ever since." Could be true, since hallucinatory seems to be home base for everything here, including the persuasive "Rich $ex," which is Ludacris’ "Pimpin' All Over the World" melting into a Salvador Dali painting. The love of drugs comes from the quest to see something new as "Groupies" declares "Sip on my cup, it's a movie/I pop a perc, it's a movie" before delivering the album's ultimate punch line, "I smoke that ooh-la-la like a Fugee.” "Slave Master" is the album's bad trip, and still a highlight, as slowly dissolving keyboards and a melancholic Future pay homage to the late A$AP Yams, who died of accidental acute mixed drug intoxication, an irony the rapper seems to acknowledge by drifting over words as the song comes to a close. Even so, "I just took a piss and saw codeine comin' out" is the way he rolls, so consider this a Schedule 2 album and lock up the medicine cabinet because Future makes it sound like the gateway to a magical, luminous place.

 

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Rabit - Communion

 

With his first full-length, Houston-based producer Rabit (aka Eric Burton) proves once more why he's a perfect fit for the Tri Angle roster and a circle of friends and collaborators that includes Mumdance, Logos, and the Janus collective. Like many of those artists, he takes grime's violent bleakness to new heights (or should that be depths?) as he shatters its boundaries. Arriving just a few months after the Baptizm EP, Communion's wider scope allows Rabit to address issues of sexuality, gender, and widespread corruption with a charged viewpoint. While it's more challenging for instrumental music to address politics explicitly, a feeling of violation permeates the album. "Advent" begins Communion with a brutal statement of purpose: its beats evoke gunshots, punches and machines run rampant, and the album rarely lets up from there. Rabit's sound design is worthy of a horror movie, balancing lingering dread with gory outbursts. "Flesh Covers the Bone" evokes David Cronenberg-style body horror with its cardiovascular beat and the monitor-like beeps of its synths; "Fetal" stutters and explodes; and the backing vocals on "Artemis" sound like cries for help. Over the course of the album, Rabit establishes himself as perhaps the most futuristic of Tri Angle's terror-makers, or at least the most relentless. On songs such as "Ox" and the harrowing single "Pandemic," the pauses between the slicing, pummeling, squirming textures feel more like Rabit is reloading than catching his breath. To his credit, he includes enough different shades of menace on Communion to avoid monotony. The low-slung bass and sustained beats of "Burnerz" approach conventional club music but are still decidedly unsettling, while the delicacy of "Glass Harp (Interlude)" sounds even more vulnerable placed among the rest of the destruction. A haunting debut, Communion finds Rabit living up to his potential in stark, beautifully ugly and angry ways.

 

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Best Albums of the 1990's

91-99

 

1991 part 1

 

10. Screamedelica- Primal Scream

 

Mixing dance music and acid house, Primal Scream put out one of the most unexpected releases of 1991. Once influenced by a harder rock edge, this British band would put out a 'well planned party' of an album that would not only influence others, but would shape the bands' overall direction for good. 'Loaded' and 'Movin On Up' use balanced samples and rhythms, plus the overall upbeat instrumentation to fit the soundtrack to bars and clubs everywhere, and to bring some life and realism into the scene. For a more unique edge, tracks like the title track and 'Inner Flight' bring some elements of ambience and most importantly, neo-psychedellia.

 

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9. Pearl Jam- Ten

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Grunge music wouldn't be the same if this Seattle band never put out Ten. Pearl Jam's aims were to succeed in the grunge revolution, and there is no better way that this band could do it. A highly acclaimed debut rock album not only produced hits like 'Jeremy' and 'Alive', but also created a more atmospheric and more depthful release than its rivals (Nirvana's Nevermind, Soundgarden's, Badmotorfinger). 'Garden' is a lyrical piece of genius from Eddie Vedder, which displays imaginative images of a heavenly garden, while 'Black' showcases Vedder's strong vocals and overall effect he has on other listeners. Other standouts include 'Once' and 'Oceans'. A fine 1st LP from the band.

 

 

Part 2 coming soon

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Special mention(s) for 2015:

 

 

 

Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

 

 

After a typically busy and fascinating 2014, Drake's 2015 started off much the same way. His chart-topping "album" If You're Reading This It's Too Late started off life as a free mixtape, but his label Cash Money stepped in at the last minute and changed it to a full-priced release. This move came amid reports that Drake was ready to follow his mentor Lil Wayne and leave Cash Money because of money issues. The album's number of references to not getting paid by his label shows that even if the rumors end up being false, Drake was plenty upset with Birdman and his business practices while he was recording this tape. Drake is also mad at women trying to play him for a fool, rappers who diss him, and people who think he's soft. Par for the course for a Drake album lately, but the difference here is that there are no pop singles to balance the claustrophobic rants. There are also no huge radio hooks, and most of the album sounds like it was cooked up (mostly by old mates Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da) during sleepless nights behind drawn blinds, with more dank atmosphere than the coach cabin of a passenger jet after an 18-hour flight. His raps sport the same snappy wordplay as usual, but Drake sounds like he's rapping to himself this time out, trying to work out issues and feelings instead of broadcasting to the world. He occasionally breaks out of the murk to make some noise, like on the strutting "6 God," but mostly he keeps his head down and the mood subdued. It makes for an album that's hard to love right away, but if you stick with it, is a rewarding listen.

 

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FKA Twigs - M3LL155X

 

 

In "Papi Pacify", the video that introduced FKA twigs to the wider world, the British pop star stares into the camera as a man (a lover, it should be said) pries his fingers into her gaping mouth. The hook is a moan: "Mmm, papi pacify." The lyrics are about the tension of desire, but the mise en scene is power. On the cover of her third EP M3LL155X, twigs echoes this gesture, staring at us as her own hand merges into her face. Once again, her gaze is discomfiting and impossible not to return. A glassy-voiced singer refracting melody through diffuse electronic beats, twigs takes the familiar R&B star as her avatar, but her presentation is more complex: her ideas mar beauty and mine power, and exalt sex without exotifying. She develops these ideas further on M3LL155X, a five-song EP accompanied by a 16-minute music video/film that dropped last week, just over a year after the release of twigs' high profile debut,LP1. As a creative package the EP is unimpeachable; a high-concept, intellectually curious project that's evocative, accessible and transgressive enough to satisfy the competing demands of a newly broadened fanbase and her existing audience of Tumblr-educated aesthetes. M3LL155X (pronounced 'Melissa') builds on her previous work, exploring ideas of dominance and submission and drilling down almost completely into the self. Instead of obfuscating her soft voice with layers of effects or singing in that cartoonishly frail and breathy falsetto, twigs prowls confidently over M3LL155X. The opening track "Figure 8" rumbles, shudders, whirrs and clicks like most of LP1, but her voice is clearer than ever. Over modular synth patches and a fluid wheeze of artificial strings on "In Time", she tests her brawniest delivery yet: "Every day, every day, you be testing my sane, you've got a goddamned nerve." When there are vocal effects, they're sinister instead of sweet, as if she's haunted by her own thoughts.

 

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Kelela - Hallucinogen

 

 

Earlier this year, the L.A.-via-D.C. singer Kelela spoke about the challenges of performing electronic music in a live setting. "I feel like I just want my emotions to be at the forefront of my performance, and if anything distracts from that, I’m in trouble," she told The Cut, riffing on the experience of seeing the veteran of digital feelings, Björk, on stage. That kind of resonant tactility also goes a long way when it comes to listening to electronic music, and Kelela’s 2013 release Cut 4 Me indicates that, whether she was aware of it or not, this ability to transpose intimacy to music has been part of her wheelhouse from the start. Her new EP, Hallucinogen, uses the gristle and guts of feeling as a thematic base for exploring new textures in music. Like Cut 4 Me, the sound is like being enveloped in the black-lit silence of the intro to Belly: it’s a sensuous, sensitive, hi-definition approach to R&B. Some of the producers are the same (Kingdom, Nguzungzu's MA) and some are new (Arca, Kendrick and Drake collaborator DJ Dahi), but these partnerships hew to what’s now the Kelela template: soulful songs with unpredictable, assaultive drum patterns, whorls of whimsical synthesizer effects, and so much processing on the vocals that it sounds like you’re listening to a transmission from tomorrow. The deconstructed clatter of FKA twigs —who also worked with Arca—might be from another dimension altogether, but Kelela, whose music feels like there is blood flowing through it, looks to a future with a decidedly human shape.

 

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Lotic - Heterocetera

 

 

There are familiar ideas in J'Kerian Morgan's music, but they're rarely left undamaged. Rather than working within existing genres, Morgan takes templates and smashes them against the wall, letting the resulting splatter form a sort of musical Rorschach pattern. As Lotic, he shares a penchant for destruction with his fellow residents from Janus, a roving Berlin party that emphasizes weirdness and otherness. Initially known for his love of R&B and pop, Lotic's music took a darker turn around the time Janus's monthly event ended, resulting in the tortured 27-minute collage Damsel In Distress. Morgan described the free release as a "cry for help" and a "clean slate," and his debut for Tri Angle follows in its footsteps. Heterocetera is a confrontational EP. Opener "Suspension" is laced with antagonistic tones, as if in listening to it you've triggered an intruder alarm. The title track turns the infamous Masters At Work "ha!" (a ballroom staple) into a cloud that hovers over hissing gaskets and turning gears, while the rat-at-at attack of "Phlegm" is just as erratic. "Slay" and "Underneath," both of which bring to mind fellow Tri Angle newbie Rabit in their use of blank space and reverb, offer a zero-gravity respite, though they're still crunchy and foreboding.

 

 

 

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Nao - February 15

 

 

On her debut EP, 2014’s So Good, London singer-songwriter Nao led with a juicy revelation: the record's first single doubled as our introduction to A.K. Paul, Jai's equally elusive brother. A. K. was revealed to have had a hand in some of his bro’s best tracks, writing and playing on "Jasmine" as well as contributing the unforgettable vocals on the "BTSTU (Edit)" demo. Paul's contribution was an intriguing development, to be sure, but the news of his involvement threatened to overshadow the spectacular talent of Nao in her own right. The Hackney native seemed to emerge fully-formed, with an arresting, lean-muscled falsetto and a spiritual connection with turn-of-the-millennium R&B and soul, the kind of bond you only have with the music of your young teenage years. And while the EP’s introductory collaboration was charming in its Paul-isms—the brothers’ trademark diaphanous, multi-layered synth collage work—the following four tracks were even better, peaking with stunning closer "Adore You", a graceful midtempo glide that felt like an answer to Miguel's instant classic "Adorn". There’s no word yet as to whether either Paul brother is involved with Nao’s second release, the five-track February 15 EP, but the stylistic overlap is still there. All excel at recontextualizing their '90s-leaning influences into something that feels fresh and not too on-the-nose; their old souls are self-evident without devolving into Instagram-filter-retro wedding playlist pastiche à la "Uptown Funk" or "Blurred Lines". There’s a significant distinction between Nao’s work and the Pauls’, though. In the brothers’ collaborations, the visible seams are a part of the appeal, emphasizing the individual parts of the busy, loose patchwork. On February 15, Nao plays with just as many disparate influences—purple-hued funk, smoky neo-soul, muted washes of dubstep and other UK bass permutations, the faint pulse of deep house—but integrates them so seamlessly that the stylistic breadth barely registers.

 

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SOPHIE - Product

 

 

"We can go crazy and go pop," a helium-laden voice chirps on Product, the cheekily named singles collection from SOPHIE (aka producer Samuel Long), which was also sold as platform shoes, sunglasses, and a puffy jacket. It's an apt manifesto for SOPHIE's music, which nods to the subversive fun of PC Music; Long and the collective's mastermind, A.G. Cook, collaborated on "Hey QT," one of PC Music's most prominent artifacts. SOPHIE also shares the collective's flair for combining far-flung styles -- K-pop, J-pop, and Euro-dance along with garage and other harder-edged strains of electronic music -- into an uncanny valley version of pop music full of rapid-fire edits and tweaked singing worthy of a vocaloid pop star. Though Product showcases the similarities between SOPHIE and the rest of the PC Music gang, it also shows how Long stands apart from them. His productions are even wilder, with sound design and effects that fall somewhere between Spike Jones and Aphex Twin: "Hard," which features vocals courtesy of PC Music's GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), wobbles, clanks, and sparkles in ways that suggest traditional Asian music, saccharine MIDI pop, and a malfunctioning android. "L.O.V.E.," one of four previously unreleased tracks, is the most dramatic juxtaposition of sweetness and chaos; pitting dense, piercing synths against snippets of a gleaming melody, it's half horror movie soundtrack, half toy commercial. Long's formidable production skills take center stage on the largely instrumental "Elle" and "MSMSMSMSM," both of which balance avant-garde menace and whimsy in admirable, seemingly improbable ways, but Product is at its best and weirdest when pop vocals and hooks are the main attraction. Fittingly, sweets are never far from SOPHIE's mind or music. "Bipp"'s textures and tempos bend like taffy as the vocals sing the praises of a love that's soft and smooth like whipped cream; "Lemonade"'s tartly chanted verses and fizzy choruses live up to their namesake; and the audacious "Vyzee" commands listeners to "give that spoon a lick." However, Long saves Product's most euphoric confection for last. With a melody that sounds like something left on Paisley Park's cutting-room floor, "Just Like We Never Said Goodbye" gives SOPHIE's exuberance a sophistication that sounds radio-friendly but far from ordinary. Though these songs were released over the course of 18 months, Product holds together remarkably well as it captures SOPHIE's instantly addictive, ever-evolving reimagining of pop music.

 

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Young Thug - Barter 6

 

 

Dubbed a "street release" and not his official debut album, Barter 6 was originally called Tha Carter VI until Lil Wayne voiced his disapproval, seeing as how the cocksure Young Thug saw himself as Weezy's heir apparent. Two of the highlights included here -- the weird "Constantly Hating" and "Knocked Off," which offers "We roll these bitches like they're centipedes" -- feature Lil Wayne's usual collaborator Birdman, but the biggest name to guest on Barter 6 is T.I., who acts as a hardcore rap anchor during the tripped-out "Can't Tell." Thug remains a unique mix of influences, with strains of Wayne, Migos, Lil B, and Future in his style, and yet he can skillfully ride a serene beat on "Numbers" or sound legitimately dangerous on "Check." Producers Wheezy and London on da Track handle most the beats on this freaky and fantastic release.

 

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I put my 2015 list:

1. Keep Shelly In Athens - Now I'm Ready

2. Pinkshinyultrablast - Everything Else Matters

3. Mac DeMarco - Another One

4. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday

5. Rae Morris - Unguarded

6. Pomegranates - Healing Power

7. Everything Everything - Get To Heaven

8. Miami Horror - All Possible Futures

9. Valet - Nature

10. Organoid - Spectral Theory

 

Other mentions:

 

Braids - Deep In The Iris

Foals - What Went Down

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

The Maccabees - Marks To Prove It

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love

Editors - In Dream

Pure Bathing Culture - Pray For Rain

Mark Knopfler - Tracker

36 - Void Dance

Belle And Sebastian - Girls In Peacetime Wants To Dance

Florence & The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock

Jean-Michel Jarre - Electronica 1: The Time Machine

Blur - The Magic Whip

Denai Moore - Elsewhere

 

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2016:

 

 

 

10. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial

 

If you cranked out 11 homemade albums in just four years, you'd probably want to go big once you had the means to make a for-real long-player for a noted indie label. And though 2016's Teens of Denial isn't Car Seat Headrest's first album for Matador Records, this is the first one founder, frontman, and songwriter Will Toledo built from the ground up for the label. Arriving in 2015, Teens of Style was a re-recorded "best-of" that revisited Toledo's earlier material, but Teens of Denial is a grand-scale 70-minute song cycle about a kid named Joe who is wrestling with the traditional dilemmas of late adolescence and early adulthood. Unlike the lion's share of Toledo's work, Teens of Denial was recorded in a professional studio with a real producer (Steve Fisk) and a band (with Ethan Ives on bass and Andrew Katz on drums). Teens of Denial doesn't sound especially slick (quite the opposite), but it feels big and ambitious; Toledo has a story to tell, and if his vocals are often laconic, they fit the material well, as he re-creates the casual eloquence of a high schooler's mumble and shrug. Teens of Denial is that rarity, an album about teenage life that sounds like it could have been created by a 17-year-old, though few would have the intelligence and discipline to get their ideas on tape with this level of skill. Toledo understands that the circumstances of Joe's life might sometimes seem trivial at first glance, but the emotions behind them, and the lessons doled out and learned, are not. There's a real and powerful wit in these songs, but that doesn't mean Toledo doesn't take Joe's travails seriously, and over the course of these 12 songs, he builds an epic out of the simplest materials. Rock history teaches us you can't will a masterpiece into existence, but with Car Seat Headrest's Teens of Denial, Will Toledo has created something like a novel after previously offering us short stories, and it's a piece of rough-hewn brilliance.

 

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9. The Avalanches - Wildflower

 

It’s a music business truism that every sample-heavy instrumental act will eventually work with guest vocalists. As satisfying as it can be to assemble new music from old pieces, every producer, deep down, eventually wants to make their own primary source. Wildflower’s guest vocalists—including Detroit rapper Danny Brown, Biz Markie, rap duo Camp Lo, Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi, David Berman of Silver Jews, Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux/Black Bananas—are what set it apart from the first record. Since I Left You had huge swaths of constantly shifting sound, flowing as one epic suite, and it was often hard to know where one song ended and another began; almost half the songs on Wildflower are clearly set up to showcase a rapper or singer who have written something close to a proper song, so it’s a series of tentpole tracks joined by gorgeous instrumental interludes of the kind only the Avalanches can assemble. At its best, Wildflower feels like an extension of Since I Left You, hewing close to its predecessor in terms of style, sound, approach, and texture—you would never mistake this for an album by anyone else. The Avalanches make music that’s open, welcoming, soft, gentle; the track construction is virtuosic, but it never wants to show off, and the beat-jacking never feels competitive. In addition to the found sounds, the album has a lot of new instrumentation, most of it presented to mix seamlessly with the samples. Film composer Jean-Michel Bernard adds orchestrations to a handful of tracks, upping the quotient of Disneyfied wonder. The general approach to production is classic Avalanches: AM Gold pop with its sweet strings bleeds into delicate disco with beats inspired by early hip-hop unpinning the whole, imbuing it with a kind of bookish innocence common to the world of indie pop. If the turntable-scratched choruses are gone, replaced by live people at a microphone, the sonic universe they exist in has, thankfully, changed very little.

 

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8. Angel Olsen - My Woman

 

Following the acclaimed Burn Your Fire for No Witness and its expanded sound by two-and-a-half years, idiosyncratic singer/songwriter Angel Olsen broadens her palette even more on LP four, My Woman. Now with a long enough discography to note trends, she's made a steady transformation from tormented acoustic crooner to veritable indie rock songstress, if one still capable of the most intimate of deliveries. My Woman has the full range on display, including some electronics and extroversion not heard from her previously, as dictated by a loose story arc that follows the stages of a doomed relationship, all told from a woman's point of view. The album was recorded live to tape with a five-piece backing band at Vox Studios in Los Angeles. In the ambivalent opener, "Intern," our heroine reluctantly decides to have one last go at love, foreshadowing with "Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do/Something in the world will make a fool of you." The song's atmospheric electronics, a first for Olsen, brace listeners for that expanded palette from the opening seconds. A couple of tracks later is the infectious "Shut Up Kiss Me." Also unlike any of her prior material, it's an aggressive retro rocker that captures unbridled passion and lust ("I ain't giving up tonight"). Co-dependency sets in on "Give It Up," and insecurity follows on "Not Gonna Kill You," both full-band, electric-guitar tunes. Arrangements get sparer as the subject matter gets more philosophical and despondent, such as on the artful "Sister," a dusty, nearly eight-minute epic that bargains with the future. Soon, "Those Were the Days" wonders "Will you ever know the same love that I know?" The breathy torch song is devoid of the singer's trademark heart-aching yodel, forgoing past country styling for low-key jazz-rock. In stark contrast to some of the other songs on the record, the closer, "Pops," is a solo piano dirge that bookends the album with its somber opener ("I'll be the thing that lives in the dream when it's gone"). While some tracks will surprise established fans, to say that My Woman is a departure or style swap for Olsen doesn't really take into account the album as a whole. The elements that are new here play out like a means to an end for a songwriter with a tale to tell, one chock-full of raw emotions. The songs stand just fine on their own, too, out of context. So, load up the playlists, but consider giving the album a proper front-to-back play through at least once for old time's sake.

 

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7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

 

Nick Cave is an artist who has never shied away from exploring the darker side of the human experience, often in broadly gothic strokes on his early albums but with a growing degree of nuance and compassion as Cave and his work matured. But a very real and deeply painful tragedy was visited on Cave while he was working on his 16th solo album, Skeleton Tree. His 15-year-old son Arthur Cave died when he fell from a cliff in July 2015, and while the writing and recording was already underway when the youngster suffered his accident, the grief and pain of loss Cave felt is palpable throughout this album. Skeleton Tree is relatively modest in scale -- it runs just 40 minutes, the cover artwork is minimal, and the music lacks the dramatic, grand-scale arrangements of Cave's albums of the 21st century. Nearly all of these songs feature spare, minimal melodies and low-key soundscapes that hover over beds of atonal electronic noise and sculpted static. And while the estimable talents of the Bad Seeds are on display here, on many tracks the final effect feels more like an author reading over ambient backing tracks than the sort of evocative sounds one might expect from Cave and his collaborators. The lyrics appear to reference Cave's personal loss on occasion -- the very first words in the opening track, "Jesus Alone," are "You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field," which could hardly be a mere coincidence -- yet Skeleton Tree doesn't feel like an album about the late Arthur Cave. Instead, Skeleton Tree plays like an act of mourning, a set of songs in which Cave makes his acquaintance with grief and struggles to make sense of the pain and emotional devastation that come with outliving your child. As always, Cave's songs are both literate and emotionally honest, and though this music is genuinely passionate, he avoids histrionics. Skeleton Tree isn't about exorcizing the agony of being robbed of a loved one. Instead, this music honors the dead by making sense of the pain of the survivors, and the harrowing and beautiful "Distant Sky" (a duet with Else Torp) finds a point where these two sides meet and find peace. Even by Cave's dour standards, Skeleton Tree is a tough listen, but it's also a powerful and revealing one, and a singular work from a one-of-a-kind artist.

 

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6. Solange - A Seat at the Table

 

Solange Knowles started writing her third album in New Iberia, Louisiana, a town where her maternal grandparents lived until a Molotov cocktail was thrown into their home. That setting helps explain how A Seat at the Table turned out drastically different from Knowles' previous output. There's no revisitation of beachy retro soul-pop and new wave akin to "Sandcastle Disco" or "Losing You." Nothing has the humor of "Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work" or the bluntness of "Fuck the Industry." There certainly aren't any love songs in the traditional sense. Instead, surrounded by a collaborative throng that includes Raphael Saadiq, Dave Longstreth, and Adam Bainbridge, Knowles composed and produced alleviating pro-black reflections of frustration and anger. They regard persistent dehumanizing burdens dealt to her and other persons of color in a country where many are hostile to the phrase "Black Lives Matter" and the equality-seeking organization of the same name. Remarkably, tender elegance is the mode for much of the album's duration, as heard in the exquisitely unguarded "Cranes in the Sky" and dimly lit left-of-center pop-R&B hybrids "Don't You Wait" and "Don't Wish Me Well." Those songs crave release and reject character assassination and stasis while hinting at inevitable fallout. Their restrained ornamentation and moderate tempos are perfectly suited for Knowles, an undervalued vocalist who never aims to bring the house down yet fills each note with purposeful emotion. When the rhythms bounce and the melodies brighten, as they do during a short second-half stretch, the material remains rooted in profound grief and mystified irritation. In "Borderline," a chugging machine beat and a lilting piano line form the backdrop of a scene where Knowles and her partner tune out the world for the sake of their sanity. Then, after Nia Andrews and Kelly Rowland's half minute of proud harmonic affirmation, along comes "Junie," a squiggling jam on which André 3000 makes like the track's namesake (Ohio Players and Parliament legend Junie Morrison), where Knowles delivers a sharp metaphorical smackdown of a cultural interloper like it's merely an improvised postscript. All of the guests, from Lil Wayne to Kelela, make necessary appearances. The same goes for Knowles' parents and Master P, who are present in the form of short interludes in which they discuss segregation, self-reliance, cultural theft, and black pride. These segues shrewdly fasten a cathartic yet poised album, one that weighs a ton and levitates.

 

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5. Prince of Denmark - 8

 

Like a long film or a thick book, 8 is daunting in a way that's weirdly satisfying. Getting through it takes a whole evening and many trips between the couch and the turntable. It becomes a place you escape to, or get lost in. Many tracks evoke a sense of vastness, pairing up-close drums with melodies and textures that loom in the distance. This is especially true of the second half, which, packaged in white paper sleeves, feels like a hypnotic counterpart to the black-sleeved opening section, where the beats are heavier, the mood more ominous, the whole thing more swiftly calling to mind a rave. But even there, the arrangements are sparing, the big moments few and far between. Extravagant as it is in some respects, 8 is a deeply understated album. For my money, the best way to listen to 8 is with two turntables and a mixer, ghosting from one track to the next in a choose-your-own-adventure that never goes the same way twice. But it also works nicely from front to back, tracing a wide arc from the patient overture ("Intro," "Opening Dance," "Neoclassicdub") through the stormy middle section ("Interlude" to "GS"), taking a side-long ambient break ("Ambient 004," "Peace") before moving on to the eerie landscapes of "Planet Uterus," "Pulsierendes Leben," "8" and "88888888." The closing note, "Untitled," is the kind of techno requiem that could only come from this artist and this label, a drifting arrangement of somber chords and a strobing tom that thumps like a helicopter.

 

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4. David Bowie - Blackstar

 

It's difficult to separate 2016's Blackstar from The Next Day, the album David Bowie released with little warning in 2013. Arriving after a ten-year drought, The Next Day pulsated with the shock of the new -- as Bowie's first album of new material in a decade, how could it not? -- but ultimately it was grounded in history, something its cover made plain in its remix of Heroes artwork. Blackstar occasionally recalls parts of Bowie's past -- two of its key songs, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," were even aired in 2014 as a supporting single for the Nothing Has Changed compilation (both are revamped for this album) -- but Bowie and producer Tony Visconti are unconcerned with weaving winking postmodern tapestries; now that they've shaken free their creative cobwebs, they're ready to explore. Certainly, the luxurious ten-minute sprawl of "Blackstar" -- a two-part suite stitched together by string feints and ominous saxophone -- suggests Bowie isn't encumbered with commercial aspirations, but Blackstar neither alienates nor does it wander into uncharted territory. For all its odd twists, the album proceeds logically, unfolding with stately purpose and sustaining a dark, glassy shimmer. It is music for the dead of night but not moments of desolation; it's created for the moment when today is over but tomorrow has yet to begin. Fittingly, the music itself is suspended in time, sometimes recalling the hard urban gloss of '70s prog -- Bowie's work, yes, but also Roxy Music and, especially, the Scott Walker of Nite Flights -- and sometimes evoking the drum'n'bass dabbling of the '90s incarnation of the Thin White Duke, sounds that can still suggest a coming future, but in the context of this album these flourishes are the foundation of a persistent present. This comfort with the now is the most striking thing about Blackstar: it is the sound of a restless artist feeling utterly at ease not only within his own skin but within his own time. To that end, Bowie recruited saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several of his New York cohorts to provide the instrumentation (and drafted disciple James Murphy to contribute percussion on a pair of cuts), a cast that suggests Blackstar goes a bit farther out than it actually does. Cannily front-loaded with its complicated cuts (songs that were not coincidentally also released as teaser singles), Blackstar starts at the fringe and works its way back toward familiar ground, ending with a trio of pop songs dressed in fancy electronics. These don't erase the heaviness of the opening quartet but such a sequencing suggests Blackstar is difficult when the main pleasure of the record is how utterly at ease it all feels: Bowie's joy in emphasizing the art in art-pop is palpable and its elegant, unhurried march resonates deeply.

 

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3. Frank Ocean - Blonde

 

Boys Don't Cry, the magazine distributed at pop-up locations the day this unlike-titled album was released, featured an essay in which Frank Ocean affably reflected upon his infatuation with cars. Allusions to parallels between vehicular travel and other aspects of life, such as making music, were drawn, his relief in completing the Channel Orange follow-up made apparent. For those who felt the proper debut wasn't forthcoming enough with hooks or traditionally structured songs, this is bound to seem less like a luxurious joyride on a freshly paved motorway than it does an interminable stay in a repair shop waiting lounge. In terms of pop appeal, none of it approaches "Novacane" or "Thinkin Bout You." The focus is more on Ocean, the extensive list of "album contributors" -- possibly a combination of studio collaborators and mere inspirations -- notwithstanding. He's often accompanied by only keyboards or a guitar or two; less than one-third of the tracks include the sound of his voice and that of a beat within the same space. Over the course of an hour, all the sparsely ornamented ruminations can be a bit of a chore to absorb, no matter how much one hangs on each line. The writing talent on display, however, is irrefutable, whether it's a sharp aside, the precision and economy in the chorus of the Beyoncé-backed "Pink + White," or the agony evoked in "Self Control" (with an outro multi-tracked to pull heartstrings). Through references to movement, and events that take place in automobiles and swimming pools, Ocean's words continue to be fueled by his memories of youth and young adulthood in summertime, while recreational pharmaceuticals are a factor more than ever. The lines regarding relationships are acutely descriptive with frequently abrupt transitions from deep to shallow observations. There's a little more playfulness to go along with the wistful heartache, Ocean's perverse sense of humor shows most when he follows his mother's stern anti-drug message with an ebullient vocal-and-organ number that opens with him "gone off tabs." In the closing "Futura Free," one of several cuts where processing distorts his voice the way a fun house mirror deforms a body, there is much weight to him to remarking "Don't let 'em find Pac/He evade the press/He escape the stress," then declaring "I ain't on your schedule." He's clearly bemused with the industry and fan entitlement. An undoubtedly reactive work, this is undiluted and progressive nonetheless.

 

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2. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

 

A cursory glance at A Moon Shaped Pool may suggest a certain measure of indifference on the part of Radiohead. Its 11 songs are sequenced in alphabetical order -- a stunt befitting a Pixies concert or perhaps a Frank Black box set, not a proper album -- and many of these tunes are of an older vintage: the group began work on the opening "Burn the Witch" at the turn of the century, while the closing "True Love Waits" first appeared in concerts way back in 1995. These are the elements of a clearinghouse, but with Radiohead appearances are always deceiving. A Moon Shaped Pool doesn't play like an ill-considered collection of leftovers; it unfurls with understated ease, each silvery song shimmering into the next. The pulse rarely quickens and the arrangements seldom agitate, yet the album never quite feels monochromatic. Sly, dissonant strings grace some cuts, acoustic guitars provide a pastoral counterpoint to an electronic pulse, Thom Yorke's voice floats through the music, often functioning as nothing more than an element of a mix; what he's saying matters not as much as how he murmurs. Such subtle, shifting textures emphasize Radiohead's musicianship, a point underscored when this version of "True Love Waits" is compared to its 2001 incarnation. There, Yorke accompanied himself with a simple acoustic guitar and he seemed earnest and yearning, but here, supported by piano and strings, he sounds weary and weathered, a man who has lost his innocence. What he and Radiohead have gained, however, is some measure of maturity, and with this, their music has deepened. Certainly, sections of A Moon Shaped Pool contain an eerie, disconcerting glimmer, usually attained through power kept in reserve -- nothing stabs as hard as the sawing fanfare of "Burn the Witch," while the winding, intersecting guitars that conclude "Identikit" provide the noisiest element -- yet the album as a whole doesn't feel unsettling. Instead, there's a melancholic comfort to its ebb and flow, a gentle rocking motion that feels comforting; it's a tonic to the cloistered, scattered King of Limbs and even the sleek alienation of Kid A. Radiohead are recognizably the same band that made that pioneering piece of electronica-rock but they're older and wiser on A Moon Shaped Pool, deciding not to push at the borders of their sound but rather settle into the territory they've marked as their own. This may not result in a radical shift in sound but rather a welcome change in tone: for the first time Radiohead feel comfortable in their own skin.

 

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1. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

 

Danny Brown's first Warp release is named after a Joy Division song inspired by writer J.G. Ballard's collection of the same title. "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown," one of the chapters in the Ballard book, would have been just as apt an inscription on an album that looks more like a mid-'80s 12" designed by Neville Brody than anything classified as hip-hop. Old comrade Paul White produces two-thirds of the tracks, lending gnarled, sometimes clanging and blasting rhythms that complement Brown's elevated levels of dread and anxiety and slightly reduced amount of vulgar mischief. Brown spends most of his time looking darkly inward. In that berserk yet lucid high pitch, he raps about being more desperate to score than his clients: "Slice your tomato if you owe us for the lettuce/Runnin' through the D sorta like Jerome Bettis." He depicts himself as a vice-addled, teeth-grinding paranoiac with no soul or hope, and that summarizes only the first three cuts. The outward-looking material is just as biting. In "Today," the track that most exemplifies the album's title, Brown pithily specifies observed struggles and atrocities -- hustling to pay for diapers, the dodging of bullets from murderous civilians and authority, the prison-industrial complex -- as he references OutKast. No such dread is in "Dance in the Water," the album's only true break from the hellscapes. Over the brawling tribal Pulsallama rhythm that it takes to dance to what he has to live through, Brown paraphrases Parliament's "Aqua Boogie" as he outlines a new workout plan -- minus a proposition, one technically clean enough to be applied by youngsters. Guest appearances are kept to a judicious few. Kendrick Lamar provides a verse and the hook on "Really Doe," a knocking Black Milk production that also features Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt. Brown's meeting with Cypress Hill's B-Real is expectedly pinched and faded. Most symbiotic is "From the Ground Up," decaying funk with Kelela in dreamlike Janet Jackson mode. Even with its outside input, Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown at his least diluted, almost unrelentingly grim and completely engrossing.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

ANOHNI - Hopelessness

 

The sweet, beautiful sadness of Anohni's voice (she was previously known as Antony Hegarty) has always been only half the story in her best work. On her recordings with Antony and the Johnsons, the dramatic swell of Anohni's voice was wedded to graceful melodies and lyrics that told deeply emotional, humanistic tales of the struggle for and acceptance of love in a hostile world. Anohni's music so often comprises elegant but passionate stories of the personal made public that her first album after adopting her new name, 2016's Hopelessness, comes as something of a shock. The nuanced, organic musical accompaniment of Anohni's most celebrated work has been replaced with cool, often aggressive electronic soundscapes created by co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. And instead of singing tales of love and desperation, here Anohni moves from the personal to the political, taking on global warming, drone warfare, government intrusion in our lives, violence in all its forms, and her frustrations with Barack Obama's presidency in no uncertain terms. While one could dance to some of these tracks if it were absolutely necessary, the music feels harsh and apocalyptic more often than not. And though Anohni's voice remains strong and passionate, a thread of bitterness runs through most of these performances (not inappropriate, given the themes of the songs). "Crisis" and the title song are two of the few moments here where the warmth and compassion that were Anohni's trademarks are audible, even as they're contrasted with the jagged surfaces of Mohawke and Point Never's music. Hopelessness is a powerful and uncompromising work, but it's also purposefully difficult, and demands the listener accept it entirely on its own terms. This music leaves no doubt that Anohni remains a strikingly talented vocalist and songwriter, but where the warm heart of 2006's I Am a Bird Now reached out to the listener, Hopelessness instead throws up a wall as it launches an assault on an unjust world. Anohni's targets deserve all the fury she unleashes upon them, but that doesn't make this any easier to engage with, even if you agree with what Anohni has to say.

 

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Deakin - Sleep Cycle

 

Deakin (Joshua Dibb) has always been the most elusive member of Animal Collective. While he co-founded the band, he frequently takes extended breaks from group activity, and he's only appeared on roughly half of their albums, with the group's 2009 breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion not being one of them. His debut solo release, Sleep Cycle, took a considerably long time to reach fruition, as he initially began crowdfunding the release in 2009. Ultimately, he ended up donating all of the proceeds to a charity benefiting enslaved Tuareg people in Mali, and the album ended up being self-funded. The result is a long-labored, intensely personal album that ends up coming far closer to earlier iterations of AC than their later, poppier, more crowd-friendly material. This isn't to say that it's a complete return to the sprawling, improvised freak-folk sound of Campfire Songs or Hollinndagain, but it doesn't resemble the sugar rush of albums like Painting With (which Deakin did not contribute to). Most of the album's six songs slowly unfold, layering atmospheric keyboards and guitars into calmly paced circular rhythms, sometimes joined by found sounds including crickets and splashing water. While much of the music isn't overtly ecstatic, the lyrics are certainly positive, expressing the joy of being alive and encouraging the listener to be brave. The album's most energetic song is "Footy," which features crashing drums by Dutch E Germ, wailing vocals, and a much fuller sound than the rest of the album. The album's shorter pieces are vocal-based experiments that sound as if they were recorded in a cave or from the bottom of a well. The short album feels fluid and fragile, but highly focused, letting decades' worth of energy and life experiences elegantly flow through, occasionally building up to a few supremely joyous moments.

 

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Huerco S - For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

 

Up until the release of his second album, Huerco S. (Brian Leeds) had been known for producing off-beat techno filled with skipping loops and smudgy tones. For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) is his full-length venture into ambient music, and it's his most accomplished work to date. The pieces here resemble hollowed-out, slightly bent frames of dance tracks. The loops are somewhat oblong and the rhythms feel like they're dissolving. There are no beats, big melodies, vocals, or ear-catching samples, but the tracks still hold the listener's attention, triggering vague recollections and suggesting what could have been. Not quite as bathed in tape hiss as other Huerco S. recordings, the tracks contain billowing, bubbling, elliptical patterns with subtle alterations, and they often cut off abruptly at the end. "On the Embankment" seems like it could've been a dance track at one point, but here it's stripped down to a flickering, grainy loop. There's a playfulness to tracks like "Marked for Life" and "Cubist Camouflage," and the album sounds curious and inviting rather than clinical and serious. A welcome surprise from the producer, and an immersive, enchanting listen.

 

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Kaytranada - 99.9%

 

Kevin Celestin's stature grew through woozy dancefloor funk remixes that led to DJ gigs, including European dates and opening for fan Madonna in North America. Despite the acclaim, along with admiration from the likes of Janet Jackson and Teedra Moses -- two of the major figures whose material he transformed -- the Port-au-Prince-born Montreal native wanted to be known as an artist in his own right. A low-profile series of digital and vinyl releases dated back to 2010. In late 2014, he graduated to XL as he expanded his production discography for other artists. The dazzling 99.9% follows some of his best work in that nature, including Freddie Gibbs' "Dope House," the Internet's "Girl," and Katy B's "Honey." The album likewise is mostly collaborative, with only four of the 15 cuts created by Celestin alone. During the solo moments, the producer radically flips, with joyous and glistening flair, choice early-'80s R&B from Delegation, and the System-produced Attitude. On "Lite Spots," sampled Gal Costa is whipped into a state of delirium over a beat that alternately whomps and tickles. Separate pairings with BadBadNotGood and Karriem Riggins offer dreamy instrumental highlights. The assortment of vocalists -- rappers, singers, and a few who pull double duty -- naturally results in a diverse set of perspectives, most of which regard love and relationships of short- and long-term natures. Combined with beats seemingly tailored for each voice, the album could have resembled a disorderly production showcase, yet Celestin applies his experience as a deeply knowledgeable selector to stitch it all together with few obvious seams. He excels most at bold modern boogie with spring-loaded drums, zip-and-glide basslines, and radiant keyboards, as laid out for the Internet's Syd and the Foreign Exchange's Phonte. The harder-edged tracks that support Vic Mensa and Paak are likewise accented with sweetening, whether through levitating harmonies or spangly synthesizers. One of the more stupefying instances where Celestin layers dazed and robust sounds is buried toward the end. "Leave Me Alone," surrogate Quadron with bounding low end, brings it home with a giddy vocal from fellow Montreal native Shay Lia.

 

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Skepta - Konnichiwa

 

Out of Skepta's first few proper albums, Konnichiwa was easily the most successful. It reached number two in the grime MC's native U.K. Thanks in part to support from Drake, it even cracked the Billboard 200 in the U.S, an obvious target through the soft, slow, and melodic "Ladies Hit Squad" and a sparse and percussive Pharrell collaboration, "Numbers." When the album was released, three of its singles had already secured Top 40 U.K. placement. Each one of them -- "Man," "Shutdown," "That's Not Me" -- is a lyrically swaggering, rhythmically jagged affirmation of Skepta's grime roots. They're all de-emphasized somewhat by their consecutive second-half appearances. The first half is not without its share of highlights, including the lean, blaring "Crime Riddim," nervy "Corn on the Curb" (featuring Wiley), and taut "Lyrics" (featuring Novelist). Lines aimed at authority, competition, and bottom feeders all shoot clean through.

 

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Special mention(s) for 2016:

 

 

Beyoncé – Lemonade

 

Beyoncé's sixth album loomed once "Formation" and its video were issued ahead of the superstar's Super Bowl 50 half-time performance. Two months and a couple weeks later, it appeared as a culturally seismic visual album. Loaded with layers of meaning and references, and experienced en masse through its televised premiere, Lemonade honored black sisterhood with the presence of Warsan Shire, Serena Williams, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Subsequently given audio-only release, its title comes from a popular proverb given extra personal relevance by Beyoncé's grandmother-in-law, whose citation is heard here during a crucial moment in the sequence. Mrs. Knowles-Carter indeed turns her own lemons into Lemonade. She uses the platform to demand contrition from her adulterous partner, assert her excellence, reflect upon the bonds with the men in her life, and their relationships with other women, and wonders if her trust can be earned back. The cathartic and wounded moments here resonate in a manner matched by few, if any, of Beyoncé's contemporaries. She sometimes eclipses herself in terms of raw emotion, as on the throttling Jack White encounter "Don't Hurt Yourself." At the low-volume end, there's more power in the few seconds she chokes back tears while singing "Come back" -- timed with the backing vocal in Isaac Hayes' version of "Walk on By" -- than there is in most contemporary ballads. Romantic conflict is nothing new for her, but there is a degree of concentration and specificity, and an apparent disregard for appealing to commercial radio that makes Lemonade a distinct addition to her catalog. (Another distinguishing factor is the length of credits which, due to a vast assortment of collaborators and samples, exceeds that of the self-titled album.) Lemonade can also be heard as the dark flipside of Beyoncé. When "Dishes smashed on the counter" is bleakly observed, just before "Pictures snatched out the frame/Bitch, I scratched out your name and face" is delivered with seething wrath, it's hard to not flash back to "Drunk in Love," in which the presumably same couple were revelrous in the same room. After the first three-quarters play out in compelling if somewhat erratic fashion, Lemonade closes with a torrid stretch. "Freedom" is a marching anthem of resilience and preservation, produced by Just Blazewith a glowing guest verse from Kendrick Lamar. The loved-up "All Night" is a tangle of emotions and hints at reconciliation, facilitated by the horns from OutKast's "SpottieOttieDopaliscious." And then, at last, there's the strutting "Formation," simultaneously a tack-on and an ideal finale, where Beyoncédelights in her blackness, femininity, and Southern origin with supreme wordplay.

 

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Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

 

Chance the Rapper's third mixtape, rather perversely titled after an object, considering it was issued only on streaming platforms, is more powerful than most proper albums. Starting with "All We Got," Coloring Book continues where Chance left off on "Ultralight Beam," the uplifted and uplifting gospel-rap Life of Pablo highlight on which he was featured. Modulated Kanye West returns the favor by singing "Music is all we got," but Chance gives thanks for much more than that. He belts "Man my daughter couldn't have a better mother" and "I was baptized like real early/I might give Satan a swirlie," dedicating the track to "the kids of the king of all kings." As in all of what follows, Chance is at his sharpest and most evolved, affably coasting through a sequence of reflections, testimonies, and fond and not-so-fond reminiscences. He's granted productions that include hushed electro-soul, booming hip-hop, live-band contemporary gospel, and even some funky house. The spirited straight man and vulgar joker at once, he often sounds like he's leading a procession, yet he's always at eye level, never moralistic, not too proud to reference his imperfections. His graciousness also hits another level, like when he cedes a two-minute interlude to D.R.A.M. and stays out of the hymnal "How Great" until the three-minute mark, where he follows "my cousin Nicole" and the Chicago Children's Choir with lines like "The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early." Most illuminating is "Angels," a jouncing celebration of life tied together by a quizzical hook over horns and steel drums. When he offers "Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play," he sounds like he couldn't be happier to have adult responsibilities. It's a joy to hear all this zeal from a rapper operating at the top of his game. The notion that his independent commercial ascent is proof of record label obsolescence sells short the artist and his support. Chance's combination of skill, charisma, and quality control is rare. Moreover, few could possibly shepherd a mass choir's worth of clout-reflecting producers, featured vocalists ranging all the way from Kirk Franklin to Lil Yachty, background singers, and an actual choir.

 

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Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom

 

Like Madonna, Charli’s character here exemplifies resistance, blurring the line between virgin and whore, basking in the chaos created. SOPHIE steals the dropped baton from Pettibone and the Lewis Brothers, crafting what are arguably some of SOPHIE’s rawest, most compelling compositions to date, dizzying in disposition, underpinning the chaos that Charli’s character imparts. Together, they evoke a unique sound and vision that is miles ahead of the current pop landscape. Asserting a femininity that is at times coy and at others downright ultra-violent, Vroom Vroom wields a subversive switchblade, at once courting and averting the male gaze in a manner both enticing and righteously terrifying. It should go without saying that this is not the persona Charli evokes in the likes of Billboard 100-topping “Boom Clap,” but rather an entirely different character altogether: Charli’s diabolical twin, a female counterpart to Alex DeLarge, or, more pointedly, the majority of male rappers.

 

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DJ Metatron – 2 the Sky

 

It's hard to exactly pinpoint the EP's focus, but it's certainly a feeling. Glinting pianos fall unevenly from "2 The Sky," as everything else heads in the opposite direction. A gospel singer's uplifting, G-major plea wobbles over synth notes, almost falling out of key. It's the EP's most optimistic and, strangely enough, most vulnerable track. This ambiguity also emerges from 2 The Sky's use of space, which feels especially vast on "As I Get Insane." Its discrete synth swells evoke a technique used by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, who often recorded each individual drum separately. 2 The Sky has a trace of Hannett's approach to haunted atmospheres, but it's nowhere near as clinical. The open-hearted vocal of "2 Bad," for instance, is a consoling counterpoint to "2 The Sky"'s cautious encouragement. First surfacing on DJ Metatron's This Is Not, "2 Bad" teams clacking percussion with sweeping horns and a string of finger-jabbed bleeps. Beyond the fact that it sounds great, the music's sincerity is never in doubt. Plenty of 2 The Sky—its tonal contrasts, the emotions it evokes—is open to interpretation, and that uncertainty gives it an authenticity, which Jake Gyllenhaal's monologue touches on in "The Journey (Skid)." Grasping for the words to describe Donnie Darko, the cult film he starred in 15 years ago, he says: "It forces you, if it does force you at all, to come to your own conclusion about what it's about. It's an individual experience for everyone." That last line is key—as much as 2 The Sky courts faith, it doesn't impose it on you. It doesn't need to.

 

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Frank Ocean - Endless

 

As a piece of filmed entertainment, Endless is painfully dull, and perhaps that’s the point. As we watch Frank build a spiral staircase with his bare hands, the piece offers a sort of anti-promo message that comments on how an album’s release strategy can often diminish the art it’s built to uphold nowadays. Or maybe, you know, it’s just really dull. Either way, the Endless soundtrack is much more exciting—46 minutes of music that plays like a mixtape, sliding from song to song, demo to demo, like scrolling through Frank’s hard drive of unreleased material. It’s an intriguing peek into his process, and it contains some of the rawest vocal takes he’s ever put out—like on the strung-out power ballad “Rushes”—but it lacks the clarity of Blonde.

 

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Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

 

Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape Good Night in the Ghetto initially comes across carefree and effortless, which might seduce you into thinking it was easy to make. The songs are simple, unfussy, and full of space, with a low-key mood meant less for a raucous house party and more for a casual basement hangout. Kamaiyah’s calling-card song, "How Does It Feel," is here, and it’s as wistful and sunny as it was when it came out last year. But now it’s joined by 15 other tracks that hit on the same energy: It feels good to be young, but it’s even better to be smart enough to appreciate how fleeting that feeling is. *Good Night in the Ghetto'*s production is the aural equivalent of watching Too $hort and TLC videos half-asleep through one of Hype Williams’ custom ’90s fish-eye lenses—a blur of reference points from across hip-hop's glitziest decade. Kamaiyah is 20, which means her earliest impressions of that decade’s music would have come around the time the industry was locked into a death spiral and rap was vanishing from the charts. Seen through this filter, it’s easy to see how a video like, say, "Ladies’ Night" would seem like the peak of some lost civilization. But while she carries a brick phone around as a prop for her throwback image, she otherwise she treats the whole back-in-the-day thing lightly, a personal quirk rather than a defining mission.Besides, Bay Area rap has been celebrating the power of silky Anita Baker and Sade keyboard patches for years. These sounds have been recreated so lovingly for so long that they've become a thread snaking through a wide range of music. Kamaiyah is part of a tradition that extends back to early-‘90s hits like Conscious Daughters’ "Something to Ride to (Fonky Expedition)" (she toldPitchfork that Conscious Daughter’s Karryl "Special One" Smith gave her the mixtape title) and continues today: the Trackademicks-produced "Come Back" could easily have been given to fellow East Bay artist J. Stalin, whose music often has the same plush retro-funk feel.

 

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Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered.

 

Issued without advance notice 17 days after Kendrick Lamar's riveting 2016 Grammy Awards performance, untitled unmastered. consists of eight demos that are simply numbered and dated. Apart from segments previewed at the Grammys and late-night television appearances, there was no formal promotion. A postscript, it's (artfully) artless in presentation -- not even basic credits appear on the Army green liner card in the compact disc edition -- yet it's almost as lyrically and musically rich as To Pimp a Butterfly. The dates indicate that the majority of the material was made during the sessions for that album, and the presence of many of its players and vocalists is unmistakable. This was assembled with a high level of care that is immediately evident, its components sequenced to foster an easy listen. Track-to-track flow, however, is about the only aspect of this release that can be called smooth. After an intimate spoken intro from Bilal, the set segues into an urgent judgment-day scenario with squealing strings and a resounding bassline as Lamar confronts mortality and extinction with urgent exasperation. He observes terrifying scenes all the while sensing possible relief ("No more running from world wars," "No more discriminating the poor"). untitled unmastered. offers this and other variations on the connected themes of societal ills, faith, and survival that drove the output it follows, with Lamar at his best when countering proudly materialistic boasts with ever-striking acknowledgments of the odds perilously weighted against his people. Remarkably, this hits its stride in the second half. The stretch involves a rolling, ornamented retro-contemporary production from Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (with vocal assists from Bilal and Cee Lo Green), a stitched suite that is alternately stern and humorously off the cuff (featuring Egypt, five-year-old son of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, as co-producer and vocalist), and a finale of Thundercat-propelled funk. Even while coasting over the latter's breezy and smacking groove, Lamar fills the space with meaning, detailing a confrontation with sharp quips and stinging reprimands. While Lamar referred to these tracks as demos, and not one of them has the pop-soul appeal of "These Walls" or the Black Lives Matter protest-anthem potential of "Alright," untitled unmastered. is no mere offcut dump. It's as vital as anything else its maker has released.

 

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serpentwithfeet – blisters

 

With Josiah Wise's voice and songwriting, blisters would have been memorable no matter who produced it. This much was clear when he performed "flickering" with only a grand piano at the release show for his debut EP last week. The song is mostly just Wise's tragic, tender voice wilting over a few piano chords, and he carried the unplugged version easily. The involvement of British producer The Haxan Cloak, however, is what takes blisters to the next level. "flickering" is devastating enough with the heartbreaking lyrics about lost love, but Bobby Krlic's mournful synths and earth-shaking sub-bass make the feeling that much more physical. Their darkness pairs perfectly. Wise sings of shame, desperation and loss, his weightless voice winding up and down in gospel spirals. "I'm fine with you being a liar," he coos to an imaginary lover on "four ethers," the EP's peak emotional moment. "I'm fine with you being a killer. I'm fine with you being suicidal—no, that shit don't bother me none." Where Wise draws our eyes to a dark side of humanity, Krlic's sound design suggests a similar kind of abyss, one that's impossible to look away from. Wise is classically trained, and "four ethers" foregrounds his orchestral inclinations. The violins, French horns and timpani evoke operatic levels of drama, especially with Krlic's giant noise crescendos that punctuate the story. blisters unites the powers of spirituality and sex. Wise grew up in a God-fearing family, regularly attending a Pentecostal church, and gospel forms the backbone of this record. But it also oozes sex, not just because of suggestive lyrics but because of Wise's voice, which seems to shake and sweat with carnal desire. He makes spirituality and sex feel mutually reenforcing, rather than contradictory (it's been suggested that blisters posits sex as an act of faith). The title track in particular captures that feeling, with celestial harps and a deep, terrestrial bass that sneaks up quietly. It's an unusual pairing, much like Wise and Krlic, and it forms the tension behind a remarkably evocative record.

 

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2017

 

 

 

10. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly's proper and oft-biblical follow-up arrived on Good Friday, 13 months after untitled unmastered., an intermediary release that eclipsed the best work of most contemporary artists. If Kendrick Lamar felt pressure to continue living up to his previous output, there's no evidence on DAMN. He's too occupied tracing the spectrum of his mental states, from "boxin' demons" to "flex on swole," questioning and reveling in his affluence, castigating and celebrating his bloodline, humble enough to relate his vulnerabilities, assured enough to proclaim "Ain't none of y'all fuckin' with the flow." Throughout, he intensely examines most of the seven deadly sins, aware all along that his existence is threatened by anyone who objects to the color of his skin or clothes -- or, in the case of the blind stranger who shoots him during the album's opener, nothing that is apparent. Compared to the maximum-capacity, genre-twisting vastness and winding narratives of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. on the surface seems like a comparatively simple rap album that demands less from the listener. There's relative concision in the track titles and material, and a greater emphasis on commercial sounds -- such as Mike WiLL's lean and piano-laced trap beat for the strong-arming "HUMBLE.," Lamar's first Top Ten pop hit, and a couple productions that are merely functional backdrops lacking distinction. In a way, however, DAMN. is just as lavish and singular as the preceding albums, its quantity and weight of thoughts and connected concepts condensed into a considerably tighter space. It contains some of Lamar's best writing and performances, revealing his evolving complexity and versatility as a soul-baring lyricist and dynamic rapper. Although it's occasionally distorted, stretched, smeared, and reversed to compelling and imagination-fueling effect, his voice is at its most affecting in its many untreated forms. Take "FEAR.," in which he switches between echoing hot-blooded parental threats to enumerating, with a 40-acre stare, various death scenarios. His storytelling hits an astonishing new high on "Duckworth," the album's finale. Over ethereal funk sewn by 9th Wonder, Lamar details a potentially tragic encounter between his father and future Top Dawg CEO Anthony Tiffith -- and the conditions leading to it -- that occurred long before Kung Fu Kenny was known as K. Dot.

 

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9. King Krule – The Ooz

 

Archy Marshall debuted as Zoo Kid when he was an actual kid and released his acclaimed first album -- under the presumably self-bestowed title King Krule -- before he turned 20. Marshall continued work on new material for years but was displeased with it, save for a set of mumbling-in-a-bucket hip-hop blues, A New Place 2 Drown, credited to his off-stage name. The Ooz, the artist's second King Krule album, surfaced -- or is that seeped out? -- five years after the first one. Compared to the debut, the songwriting is more refined and the sounds are more disparate, resulting in a sort of controlled chaos, a scuzzy mix of nervy neo-rockabilly projectiles, howling dirges, and noodling dive-lounge tunes. It's further distinguished with saxophonist Ignacio Salvadores' writhing bleats, continually in support of Marshall's scraggly guitar work and variety of voices, as liable to sound like his slumped natural self as an exaggeration of growling punks like the Clash's Paul Simonon or the Ruts' Malcolm Owen. Clear references are made to Marshall's previous full-lengths, and repeated allusions to water -- as in sinking -- as well as blue as a color and feeling, are likewise threaded throughout. Damp, suffocating city streets are never distant. When Marshall retreats to physical solitude, he can't leave his head -- not even with a prescription, a situation related in a whirling frenzy of insomniac agitation titled, naturally, "Emergency Blimp." Marshall is just as expressive and evocative when he keeps it guttural; "She smoked me whole and blows out Os," over decayed, dispirited bossa nova, passes like a wisp but could be the album's emotional center. Details that seem to provide levity -- "Man this band that's playin', is playing fucking trash" among them -- have a way of heightening the sense of inescapable dread. No matter that feeling, illustrated with one distressed scene after another, filtered through a multitude of inspirations and a few bodily fluids, The Ooz is a completely engrossing work from a one-off.

 

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8. Sampha – Process

 

The categorically elusive Sampha arrived in 2010 with a co-headlined SBTRKT collaboration and a solo EP, then became known more for supporting roles as a songwriter, producer, vocalist, and keyboardist. After he recorded with fellow Brits Lil Silva and Jessie Ware, his commercial presence was magnified by Drake, whose Nothing Was the Same featured him on a couple tracks. Within a few years, Samphahad collected credits on works by a slew of mainstream artists, including Beyoncé, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange, as he assisted comparatively marginal but significant figures like FKA Twigs and Bullion. He also inched toward the completion of Process, an artful and accessible debut full-length. Admirably, the album is without opportunistic reciprocal collaborations, unless one inconspicuous Kanye West co-composition counts. It's largely a solitary and intensely personal effort, co-produced by Rodaidh McDonald, ranging from placid piano ballads to urgent electro-soul. All the narratives, expressed in anguished, repentant, and haunted terms, befit a voice that always sounds as if it's on the brink of choking back tears. Sampha's vocals can be an acquired taste, but they're instantly identifiable and heartfelt. They're all the more compelling when detailing interpersonal ruptures, drawing imagery like "I took the shape of a letter, slipped myself underneath your door," or in a state of agitation, "gasping for air." The album reaches its most stirring point in "Kora Sings," built on an alternately serene and jittery production, over which Sampha sings to his dying mother, trailing off after "You don't know how strong you are." None of it is particularly light. Sampha's exquisite melodies and detailed productions nonetheless make all the references to longing, disturbed sleep, injurious heat, and shattered glass go down easy. "Reverse Faults," sparkling low-profile trap with a dizzying combination of smeared glints and jutting background vocals, might be the best display of Sampha's skill set. Another marvel is the hurtling, breakbeat-propelled "Blood on Me," its last 40 seconds juiced with some of the nastiest synthesized bass since Alexander O'Neal's "Fake." In a way, this all makes the previous output seem merely preliminary.

 

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7. Perfume Genius – No Shape

 

Trauma and its transformative powers have been at the heart of Perfume Genius' music since the beginning, and in its own way, No Shape is no exception. On early albums like Learning, it felt like Mike Hadreas had to fight through the pain to get out his hushed confessions, while the fierce Too Bright brought his anger to the surface. No Shape finds Hadreas moving toward acceptance, allowing his music to bloom and grow. Musically and emotionally, it's a move that's as bold as Too Bright was, even though this album's sound is more incandescent than its predecessor's molten rage. Producer Blake Mills' Technicolor arrangements and sonic tricks help Perfume Genius make good on the subversive lavishness Too Bright promised: "Otherside" begins the album with a tender piano ballad that feels almost predictable -- until it explodes into glittering choruses that are anything but. From there, Hadreas explores different sounds that reflect the need for change after pain, whether it's the luminous "Slip Away," the psychedelic orchestral synth-pop of "Just Like Love," the daring electro of "Go Ahead," or the brilliant Kate Bush homage "Wreath." This newfound flexibility extends to No Shape's expressions of sensuality, which span the slow-burning trip-hop of "Die 4 You," the late-night sultriness of "Run Me Through," and "Sides," where '80s funk and synth-pop influences, strings, and Weyes Blood's ethereal vocals combine in a swooning, complex standout. However, the most compelling proof of Hadreas' transformed state of mind may lie within No Shape's ballads. On songs like "Every Night" and especially the spine-tingling love song to his partner, "Alan," he sings with the gentleness of someone who's healed after being fragile and broken. Though No Shape shows how much his music has expanded since the Learning days, it also proves he hasn't lost any of his ability to connect with listeners. Instead, it reveals him as a sonic adventurer and truth teller who's made some of his most compulsively listenable music.

 

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6. Slowdive – Slowdive

 

When they returned to the stage after two decades, the members of Slowdive had no intention of being a mere shoegaze nostalgia act, playing the old songs to death until there was nobody left save for the custodial crew. They almost instantly made plans to record new music, and after a few years of writing and recording, the 2017 album Slowdive is the result. Taking elements from the music each member has made in the time since the band's demise and wrapping them in modern production techniques while still coating everything in a familiar velvety haze, the album is a worthy addition to their catalog. Slowdive may play it a bit conservative at times, sounding more like a follow-up to the poppy Souvlakithan the experimental Pygmalion, but the bandmembers don't merely rest on their shoegaze bona fides. While the guitars are suitably drowned in FX and let loose to billow like clouds, there are looped samples running through the mix, some of the folky melodies Neil Halstead has been playing on his own come through, Rachel Goswell's vocals show much more power (there are a couple times she really belts it out), and there is the occasional bit of mixing trickery courtesy of the record's mix engineer Chris Coady. It all comes together very well, thanks to both the subtle hooks of the songwriting and the commitment shown by everyone to not just make an album of retreads. There is the occasional moment when the mix seems a little off, most notably on "No Longer Making Time," which sounds like it's using stock GarageBand drum sounds, but mostly the album delivers exactly what a Slowdive fan would want. Lots of songs to dream to (the ethereal, Cocteau Twins-sounding "Don't Know Why," the calming "Sugar for the Pill"), get lost in (the noisy "Go Get It"), and swoon along with (the positively dreamy pop song "Everyone Knows"). The group tosses in some surprises, too, with a couple songs having a bit more energy than vintage Slowdive may have felt comfortable displaying. "Star Roving" sounds like a Ride song dipped in honey; the closing "Falling Ashes" is a piano-led ballad that lasts a long time but never gets boring, feeling like the album's one nod to the sparser, less guitar-driven direction they were heading in when they broke up after Pygmalion.

 

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5. Kelela – Take Me Apart

 

Mixtape seemed like an unnecessarily modest designation for Cut 4 Me, one of the most striking and satisfying releases of 2013. Almost four years to the day, after key appearances on songs by the likes of Kindness, Solange, Danny Brown, and Gorillaz, and the release of a strong EP, Kelela followed it up with this second full-length, what she calls her first album. The distinction suddenly made sense. Like Cut 4 Me, Take Me Apart is predominantly electronic and progressive R&B, one moment as dreamlike and fevered as an intense courtship, then as startling and chilling as a breakup. It's more composed, less pieced together, with mixtape and EP collaborators Jam City, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Arca primary among a comparatively supplemental and mostly new crew of associates. This also comes across more as a work of in-person interaction than one of distanced communication. Nothing is as volcanic as "Bank Head" or as rush-inducing as "Rewind" -- two past gems -- but these hyperballads and zero-gravity jams always stimulate, covering a broader spectrum of emotional states with deeper resonance. Take the tender "Better," where, over lightly shuffling drums, bobbing bass, and finger snaps and handclaps, Kelela accosts her lover, threatening to "amputate" rather than cut off -- knowing it'll hurt her more -- yet confessing "I can't bear the way you look at me when I let you down." In "Take Me Apart" itself, Kelela combines literal expressions of anxious anticipation with multiple water metaphors reinforced with drums that ripple and hurtle to evoke an emotional engulfment. Bedroom commands, incantations, and blissed-out expressions are abundant, as are no-strings propositions like the stomping/snaking highlight "LMK." Although they're all the way in the moment, there's always a looming sense -- due to dissension and concealment referenced elsewhere, compounded by faintly eerie production touches and the persistent element of sorrow in Kelela's silvery voice -- that it'll end in tears.

 

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4. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

 

Following a lengthy hiatus and some apparent soul-searching from bandleader Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes aim for dramatic reinvention on their cerebral third LP, Crack-Up. When they debuted in 2008, they were widely designated as torchbearers of the burgeoning indie folk movement, but there was always an academic element to the Seattle band's work that vaulted them into a class of their own. Their exultant vocal harmonies rose like a misty hybrid of the Beach Boys and Steeleye Span and their complex chamber pop arrangements recalled the autumnal splendor of the Zombies paired with the melodic complexity of early Yes. On the band's long-awaited third effort, it's the latter of those two references that jumps to the fore as they deliver what is easily their most progressive album to date. Named for an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald and bearing references to Spanish painter Francisco Goya, the American Civil War, sociopolitical anxiety, and inner-band strife, Crack-Up is dense and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. At the album's vanguard is "I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar," an ambitious three-part suite in which the familiar strains of Fleet Foxes' trademark wall of harmonies become suddenly hijacked by crudely mumbled interludes and various forms of rhythmic and tonal dissonance. It's a method employed throughout Crack-Up's 11 tracks, which seem to zig and zag through zones of chaos, fellowship, and transcendence as Pecknold the scholar unveils his strange architecture in layers of detail and nuance. That the nearly nine-minute centerpiece, "Third of May/Ōdaigahara," was chosen as the album's lead single says something about the availability of easily digestible material on Crack-Up, and yet its aspirations are the glue that holds it all together. Orchestral, experimental, and more challenging than either of the band's previous releases, it's a natural fit for the Nonesuch label, whose heritage was built on such attributes. For Fleet Foxes, it represents a shift away from their more idyllic early days into a period of artistic growth and sophistication.

 

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3. Lorde – Melodrama

 

Growing up in public has been a rite of passage for pop stars since at least Frank Sinatra but, as with any classic storyline, what matters is the execution. Lorde, the preternaturally talented New Zealand singer/songwriter who became an international sensation at the age of 17, knows how to execute not only songwriting and public narrative but also a melding of the two. Melodrama, arriving nearly four long years after her 2013 debut, picks up the thread left hanging on Pure Heroine, presenting Lorde as a young woman, not a sullen teenager. Tonally and thematically, it's a considerable shift from Pure Heroine, and Melodrama feels different musically too, thanks in part to Lorde's decision to collaborate with Jack Antonoff, the leader of Fun. and Bleachers who has been nearly omnipresent in 2010s pop/rock. Antonoff's steely signatures -- a reliance on retro synths, a sheen so glassy it glares -- are all over the place on Melodrama but Lorde is unquestionably the auteur of the album, not just because the songs tease at autobiography but because of how it builds upon Pure Heroine. Lorde retains her bookish brooding, but Melodrama isn't monochromatic. "Green Light" opens the proceedings with a genuine sense of exuberance and it's an emotion she returns to often, sometimes reveling in its joy, sometimes adding an undercurrent of melancholy. Sadness bubbles to the surface on occasion, as it does on the stark "Liability," and so does Lorde's penchant for blunt literalism -- "Writer in the Dark," where our narrator sings "bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark," thereby suggesting all of her songs are some kind of autobiography -- but these traits don't occupy the heart of the album. Instead, Lorde is embracing all the possibilities the world has to offer but then retreating to the confines of home, so she can process everything she's experienced. This balance between discovery and reflection gives Melodrama a tension, but the addition of genuine, giddy pleasure -- evident on the neon pulse of "Homemade Dynamite" and "Supercut" -- isn't merely a progression for Lorde, it's what gives the album multiple dimensions.

 

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2. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

 

Phil Elverum is so skilled at expressing spirituality and mortality in his work as Mount Eerie that it's convenient to say he's unusually equipped to transform the loss of his wife, musician/writer/visual artist Geneviève Castrée, into something profound and beautiful. However, this is exactly what he doesn't do on A Crow Looked at Me. Arriving less than a year after her death from stage-four pancreatic cancer in July 2016, the album is an instinctive, reflexive reaction to the fact that the woman he loved and the mother of his child is dead. Elverum doesn't aspire to teach anyone else about death or love or coping. Instead, these messages to her and about her, loosely wrapped in music, are a way for him to be with her a little longer, and as he documents their life together and its end, he immerses listeners in his loss. Where Mount Eerie's previous album, Sauna, was fittingly foggy and contemplative, A Crow Looked at Me is grounded in reality. Recorded in Castrée's studio with her instruments, Elverum layers glowing acoustic guitars over a drum machine that hisses like a respirator as his thoughts pour out in forms too raw for verses or choruses as his mood ranges from painfully intimate to funny and, above all, loving. After describing spreading her ashes, Elverum sings "I don't think of that dust as you/You are the sunset." As Mount Eerie and with the Microphones, he's written enough about death in the abstract to make the difference on A Crow Looked at Me palpable. "Death Is Real" opens the album and winds through it like a mantra, with lyrics like "There is nothing to learn/Her absence is a scream" and "Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about before I knew my way around these hospitals" providing a constant reminder.On these songs, Elverum doesn't aim for the heart so much as the gut -- it's physically wrenching hearing him recount how he met Castrée, how he threw out the last of her trash after she died, and -- perhaps most cruelly -- how photographs began replacing his memories of her. His offhanded mentions of anguish ("the room I still don't go into at night") cut much deeper than a showier display of feeling, while his descriptions of his lingering loss ("what was you now borne across waves, evaporating") frequently manage to be harrowing and beautiful at the same time. As A Crow Looked at Me draws to a close, Elverum allows himself a little more distance and artistry, bringing his beloved black metal guitar back on "Sonia Moria" and addressing the final song, "Crow," to his daughter. Sharing his loss on A Crow Looked at Me doesn't diminish its impact at all -- even within Mount Eerie's body of work, this is a remarkably powerful and pure album.

 

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1. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

 

For the third consecutive year, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples issued a standout effort that continued to push creative boundaries while deepening his lyrical prowess. Big Fish Theory followed 2016's excellent Prima Donna EP. Continuing along the path of that set's "Big Time," Theory is a skittish thought piece wrapped around the nucleus of the Chicago footwork sound. Like a collision between the creative energies of DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, and even the brightness of mainstream house from the likes of Disclosure, Theory finds Staples taking steps away from the ominous anxiety of the Clams Casino/Flying Lotus drone of his breakthrough Summertime '06 (produced primarily by No I.D. and DJ Dahi), without sacrificing any intensity or heft. Here, Staples assembled a studio team comprised of L.A. beat music producer Zack Sekoff, electronic duos GTA and Christian Rich, Detroit glitch artist Jimmy Edgar, SOPHIE, Flume, and more. The guest list is equally impressive. Longtime collaborator and tourmate Kilo Kish joins Bon Iver on the standout "Crabs in a Bucket," while Juicy Jjoins Staples on the most traditionally big bass rap burst of the title track. A pair of collaborative team efforts boasts the highest-profile names on Theory, but one sticks the landing better than the other. "Love Can Be…" features Damon Albarn, Kish, and Gorilla Zoe on the GTA-produced track that pops and jitters without ever evolving. Meanwhile, "Yeah Right" is a potent double-team effort that recruits Kendrick Lamar on a booming echo chamber of a number courtesy of SOPHIE and Flume. The latter half of the album is equally unrelenting. "Homage" rides an anxiety-ridden, Radiohead-esque landscape with the help of Kish and Rick Ross, while the twisted "Samo" returns SOPHIE to the fold with A$AP Rocky. "Party People" is a propulsive standout, but it's lead single "BagBak" that remains king on Theory. A "Humble"-sized beast that condenses Prima Donna's ethos into a single song, "BagBak" is a lyrically dense powerhouse that aims a fist directly at the intolerant and troubled state of America in 2017. On an album of thrilling highlights, it's worth the price of admission alone. Big Fish Theory cements Staples' status as one of the most talented and forward-thinking voices in rap in the late 2010s.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

Arca – Arca

 

Self-titled albums often mean an artist is making a definitive statement, and Arca is a prime example: Alejandro Ghersi's third album as Arca is by far his most revealing, putting his voice, and the beauty of his music, at the forefront in a new and often stunning way. Considering how often electronic producers rely on others to provide vocals for their music, it's remarkable that Ghersi not only sings, but sings so well. On "Anoche," his voice is equally powerful and delicate, sweeping across its full range on what sounds like a traditional Venezuelan folk song given a radical electronic arrangement; the juxtaposition of his soaring vocals with crunching beats rivals Ghersi's collaborator Björk at her most affecting. On the stripped-down "Sin Rumbo," which first appeared on the mixtape Entranas, he swings from an impressive falsetto to richer tones that recall Anohni. Elsewhere, Ghersi reaches back to his synth pop project Nuuro, filtering it through Arca's experimental lens on highlights such as "Desafio" and "Reverie," both of which sound like excerpts from a futuristic opera. To make room for his voice, Ghersitrades some of his music's mechanical precision and noise for a more open approach. Where many of his previous releases were claustrophobically packed with ideas, Arca explores the drama of wide-open spaces, letting elements of his music flow and crash into each other on tracks like "Castration," where metallic synths duke it out with a haunting piano melody. Later, he returns to the physical quality of his earlier work: "Saunter"'s strut lives up to its name, but there's a welling sadness in its wobbling synths, as if the track could stumble at any moment. And lest anyone think Ghersi has gotten too soft, "Whip" pairs a wildly ricocheting rhythm with lumbering drones. More often than not, though, Arca's songs are joined -- if not exactly grounded -- by their emotional impact. The melodic melancholy that bubbled under on Xen swells to the surface on the gently beckoning "Fugaces" and "Coraje," which blankets Ghersi's vocals in luminous electronics. The ominous undercurrent of Arca's work is never far away, though. Few things are as terrifying as revealing one's self completely, and Ghersi telegraphs this with "Piel"'s fearsome synths and the dark, lumbering finale, "Child," which plays like the summation -- and roots -- of the album's turbulent emotions. As always, Ghersi pushes his boundaries on Arca, and the vulnerability he displays makes it some of his most exciting and moving music yet.

 

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Ryuichi Sakamoto - async

 

Async is Ryuichi Sakamoto's first solo album since being diagnosed with throat cancer, which put his career on hold for much of 2014 and 2015. After treatment and a full year of recovery, he composed the acclaimed score to Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film The Revenant (which also featured contributions from Raster-Noton co-founder Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner of the National) before working on this album. He cites nature, everyday objects, and sculptures as influences on async, and its pieces incorporate recordings from various outdoor locations as well as museums, including a sound sculpture designed by Harry Bertoia. In addition to Sakamoto's piano playing and electronic processing, async features intimately recorded acoustic instruments (including a shamisen and a singing bowl), guitar/laptop wizardry from Christian Fennesz, and orchestral elements. The album is focused on combining musical as well as non-musical sounds, and it seems to function as scenes from daily life as well as musical compositions. As the album's title suggests, the individual parts of most of the album's pieces move at different rhythms or intervals, making them seem random at first. "Distintegration" is a prime example of this, beginning with John Cage-inspired prepared pianos and adding a steady high-pitched click, before light, immersive synthesizer washes transform the piece from sounding alien to soothing. As academic and non-emotional as all this might seem, Sakamoto still approaches his work from a human perspective, and there's more melody than there might appear on the surface. The album might be sparse, but it isn't hollow. "Solari" is a dark, hazy cloud of drifting melodies and deep organ tones, which are eventually joined by soft chords that sound like echoes of a faded Beach Boys tune. It's a bit eerie and haunting, but at the same time it's calm, familiar, and even comforting. "Stakra" is centered around a cascading synth sequence, which feels light and heavenly, but it's surrounded by deep bass thumps and fragmented glitches. Two tracks feature spoken poems reflecting on life, dreams, and death. "Life, Life" includes David Sylvian's reading of "And This I Dreamt, and This I Dream" by Arseny Tarkovsky, and "fullmoon" features a collage of several voices reciting Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" in different languages. Async is certainly not one of Sakamoto's most accessible albums, but if the listener is willing to devote several listens until it all makes sense, it ends up being quite powerful.

 

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Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer

 

For all the talk of new wave grime artists, Stormzy has long been standing head and shoulders -- literally and figuratively -- above his peers. Whether you agree or not with the term "new wave," it's arguably irrelevant to Michael Omari, who, on his debut album, continues to ascend the sometimes restrictive nature of the genre. The opening tracks feature plenty of the characteristic chest puffing and hostility associated with grime, ticking boxes such as declaring the hard work put in on "First Things First," an Eskibeat homage titled "Cold," and features from heavy-hitters Ghetts and J HUS on "Bad Boys." But as Gang Signs & Prayer unfolds, a lot of the bravado falls away, revealing Omari's inner workings, his roots, and his desire to elevate grime to the next level. "Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 1" is the first sign that this isn't your typical grime album, offering a touch of gospel and a respite to the proceedings. Whereas Omari has turned his hand to slower numbers in the past -- notably on his 2014 EP Dreamers Disease -- here his singing and the accompanying backing piano feel impassioned and organic.The album continues to shift, gradually at first, with harder tracks alternating with R&B or gospel numbers; by the halfway point, "Cigarettes & Kush," mellow vibes dominate the record. The refusal to pack the track list with bangers is the differentiating factor between Stormzy the grime MC and Stormzy the artist, elegantly showcasing that grime doesn't have to play by the rules, and that artists can express themselves outside of boasting and smack talk, acting as ammo for the argument that diversity and creativity are still prevalent in the scene. The guest spots featured in the latter half of the album are perfectly chosen, with appearances from Kehlani, Wretch 32, MNEK, and Raleigh Ritchie, who all act as counterweights to Omari's deeper tones. Conversely, one of the most touching moments doesn't feature any names; instead, "100 Bags" finds Omari sharing an open letter to his mum, apologizing for past actions that wouldn't have made her proud, and promising to look after her as thanks for raising him alone. During the album's final interlude, Omari's phone rings in the booth, and on the other end is old-era MC Crazy Titch. He's calling from prison -- as he's still serving a life sentence for murder -- just to drop his endorsement: it provides a perfect summation of Stormzy the artist, in the process calling out any MCs from his generation who impose boundaries on grime. Directly afterward, Gang Signs & Prayer hits you with Stormzy's breaking track "Shut Up," reminding haters to hush; quite rightly as "Shut Up" is easily one of the biggest grime tracks in recent years. It's a bold move to go against the grain in a genre where adherence to style can equal respect, but Stormzy's ambition exceeds potential judgment from purists. He's more concerned with expressing himself and adapting to survive, so that he can express further for years to come.

 

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SZA – CTRL

 

Solana Rowe's proper debut album, due to its title, invites comparisons to Janet Jackson's 1986 personal and commercial breakout. It's an individual statement, however, one distinct from even the contemporary likes of Kehlani's SweetSexySavage. Placed beside only Z, its three-year-old prelude, Ctrl is the work of a considerably less-inhibited songwriter. Rowe likewise truly fronts these frank songs that wield power as they lament lonesomeness, insecurity, and inertia. She neither projects slight wisps nor obscures herself inside swirling synthesizers, yet she oversells not a single thought. On screen, a slight shrug from her would probably devastate an expectant admirer. In the slow-motion hip-hop soul of "Doves in the Wind," featuring a hectoring verse from fellow TDE artist Kendrick Lamar, Roweschools inapt and inept male behavior, offering intimate counsel and acerbic derision in a uniquely offhanded style. As assured as she is in this mode, she's not too proud to test a partner ("Call me on my bullshit, lie to me and say my booty gettin' bigger even if it ain't"), express personal dissatisfaction ("All alone still, not a thing in my name"), or plainly grieve ("Do you even know I'm alive?"). The production crew here is almost completely different from the one involved on Z, with TDE regular Tyran Donaldson(aka Antydote and Scum) the lone holdover, present on seven tracks. For every overdone trap trick, there's a couple of sly wrinkles, like the thick, chiming groove in "Go Gina," where Rowe brilliantly illustrates a specific kind of fatigue ("Picking up a penny with a press-on is easier than holding you down") and the woozy, decayed synthesizer line in the Travis Scott-assisted single "Love Galore," ideal for a song about rekindling a dead-end affair. This is a marked improvement and an indication of more great work to come.

 

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Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

 

Proclaiming himself as Flower Boy T with that gravelly voice and irascible disposition befitting a proprietor of a rust-belt collision shop, Tyler, The Creator thrives on his paradoxical character and daily life throughout his self-produced fourth solo album. Despite the coarseness of its alternate title, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, this is easily the least vulgar Tyler release. It's also the most radiant one, akin to a modern-day N.E.R.D. album -- marching-band drums, curlicue strings and synthesizers, candy-coated melodies galore -- filled with purpose, lacking in aimless frivolity. This is a major creative advancement, no slapdash repository of provocations and whims. Going by the preceding lead double A-side, the album's essence was impossible to forecast. There was little indication from the pairing of the bare-knuckled blast "Who Dat Boy" with "911/Mr. Lonely," where a longing Tyler, over a supreme dazed groove, sees adoring fans and fast cars -- the latter self-effacingly acknowledged elsewhere as a recurring album theme -- as inadequate fill-ins for one-on-one time. The album contains another hard-hitting track in the form of "I Ain't Got Time!," with the rhymes ranging from routine threats to singular declarations ("Next line will have 'em like 'Whoa'/I been kissing white boys since 2004"), but its makeup is typified more by "911" and the similarly lively "Find Your Wings," off the preceding Cherry Bomb. Even with combination bleacher-stomping/trunk-rattling drums and an F-bomb, "See You Again" is a positively kaleidoscopic love song, tricked out with laser zaps, xylophones, strings, horns, and sugary lines like "I'd give up my bakery to have a piece of your pie." On "Pothole," a low-profile standout, Tylerapproaches driving as a metaphor for life, laments his solitude and vehicular escapism, but then proudly asserts his lone-wolf status over the sheep: "I'd rather drown in a pool by myself than fuck with they fleece." While most of these songs are rife with anxiety and isolation, the open-hearted lyricism and wide-scoped productions, put together by an artist in peak form, make them immensely engrossing. Frank Ocean, Pharrell Williams, Kali Uchis, Syd, and Estelle are among 11 supporting cast members, not one of whom is inessential to the whole.

 

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Special mention(s) for 2017:

 

 

 

Charli XCX – Pop 2

 

Charli XCX’s latest mixtape is a vision of what pop music could be, the sound of an eclectic, hyperreal future where romantic love is fun but fucked and partying is an emotional refuge. Pop 2—the best full-length work of both Charli and PC Music’s respective careers—is the antidote to the overwhelming monotony of the 2017 pop charts. It’s Charli’s second mixtape of 2017, which, calling your project a “mixtape” is a pretty negligible move these days, especially if you’re putting it up for sale. But for Charli, who’s been expressing herself in the format since before it was cool, there’s a meaningful distinction: albums mean compromise; mixtapes mean total creative freedom. As streaming services render organic music discovery obsolete, and as major label A&R decisions feel increasingly like a demented cross-promotional Mad-Lib of someone who has heard approximately four rap songs, Pop 2’s sprawling, thoughtful mass of guests—from Brazilian drag queen/vocalist Pabllo Vittar, to Estonian emcee Tommy Cash, to Hollyweird-via-Cologne pop conceptualist Kim Petras—put me on to no less than five artists I’d never heard of before. Because Pop 2’s not really about Charli XCX, Pop Star Extraordinaire; it’s an uninhibited, anti-algorithm vision of what pop music could be.

 

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Playboi Carti – Playboi Carti

 

Whatever Playboi Carti lacks in substance, he makes up in sheer audacity. For the better part of two years, he kept his fans waiting for a full-length project, held over by a handful of songs, guest verses and previews. “Less is more” is the Atlanta-native’s mantra, and the arrival of his eponymous debut is only further confirmation. Playboi Carti is an exercise in efficiency—more beats, less words in number and variation. It’s an exaggerated take on an old formulathat all but guarantees his tracks will become earworms, which they do. Verses and hooks smash into each other with repetition, as his signature ad-libs command space in a way not even Jim Jones or Young Jeezy could’ve imagined. Here, they aren’t just highlights or devices to advance the song’s conversation; they’re the main attraction. Ad-libs become parts of hooks, outlines of lyrics and, sometimes, simply just are the lyrics. When Carti does rap, his syllables stack on themselves, and the rhymes seem to float between the production rather than on top of it. His punctuated flows discard of conventional song structure to allow his beats to breathe—“Location” becomes a celestial trip, and “No. 9” feels exotic and regal. Showing up for lyricism is a mistake when this is all about atmosphere. Nothing is heavy-handed or contrived. When he slurs “this is not pop, this some rock” nearly 30 times on “Half & Half” or rhymes most of “Other Shit” with the name of the song, it’s simply an economical method of getting from one “Yuh” and “Ooh” to the next. But Carti is tactful in discerning where and when he can get away with letting the instrumental ride and when he needs to rise to the occasion.

 

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2018

 

 

 

10. Thom Yorke – Suspiria (Music for the Luca Guadagnino Film)

 

For Luca Guadagnino's 2018 remake of Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke took the reins to produce an updated soundtrack, adding familiar touches to an appropriately unsettling and tense experience. Yorke's Suspiria feels nostalgic yet strangely futuristic, with creeping synths ("The Jumps," "Klemperer Walks"), ominous atmospherics ("The Inevitable Pull"), and discomforting choral backing ("Sabbath Incantation") amplifying suspense and occasional terror. Though not as scary as "Synthesizer Speaks" or "Voiceless Terror," the sprawling 14-minute instrumental "A Choir of One" is a fine example of Suspiria's power, so unnerving and uncomfortable it's almost unlistenable, making Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' haunted compositions feel warm and welcoming by comparison. These instrumental tracks lurk and tiptoe through the ether, creating a wholly immersive experience. However, the true draw for those more interested in the composer than the film is the fresh batch of Thom Yorke songs. Though not typical of his contributions to Radiohead or his own solo material, Suspiria-Yorke will still sound quite familiar. On "Suspirium" (and "Suspirium Finale"), his delicate falsetto pairs perfectly with a gorgeous piano melody, while the plodding "Has Ended" rides a thrumming rhythm and patient beat, recalling King of Limbs and Amnesiac. "Unmade" is another standout, swirling together icy piano, Yorke's soothing vocals, and a sweeping choir in one of the soundtrack's only purely lovely moments. Altogether, Suspiria is an appropriate accompaniment to the film, generating fear and discomfort as much by what's presented by Yorke as what's left to the imagination.

 

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9. Against All Logic – 2012-2017

 

Electronic boundary-pusher Nicolas Jaar made a name for himself with strange and beautiful albums of collage-like and often very patient sounds. Either under his own name or in collaborative projects like Darkside, Jaar leaned on subtlety and darkly drawn negative space to impart his productions with a uniquely lonely atmosphere. Always active, Jaar was working concurrently on several projects at once, the least visible of which was his semi-anonymous Against All Logic (A.A.L.) moniker. Flying way under the radar of Jaar's enamored critics, the project issued several springy house tracks before 2012-2017, a collection of 11 songs that arrived almost completely unannounced in early 2018. While not totally divorced from the style Jaar became best-known for on his solo albums, A.A.L. tends toward lovingly warped dancefloor scorchers and deals in tones of optimism, romance, joy, and nostalgia, all a far cry from the staid abstractions that Jaar often dips into. Mostly upbeat and energetic, the songs here wander gleefully through delighted vocal samples, sometimes intentionally distorted or deconstructed. Many tracks incorporate hypnotic grooves, as with the fractured, sped-up soul samples that collide with heavy electronic drums on "Know You" or the smoky instrumentation that swims in noise on album-opener "This Old House Is All I Have." "Now You Got Me Hooked" is perhaps the strongest example of Jaar's playful dissection of samples, with a vocal line flitting in and out of long rhythmic passages, the mood of the song melting from sunny yearning to stark minimalism at the whim of the composition. A large section of the album leans more toward a template of traditional house, but filtered through an experimental lens. "I Never Dream" builds on choppy breakbeats and busy vocal samples until the song suddenly arrives at a rolling boil. Over the course of the album's 11 tracks, nods are made to various phases in the development of electronic music. Early-'90s rave, egregiously detuned analog synth melodies à la the giddy experimentalism of Aphex Twin, disco edits, minimal house, and even moments of pre-techno influences are all touched upon as restless and colorful album washes by A.A.L., showing a different side of Jaar's range, but it's easily the most carefree and inviting of his work. No previous knowledge of his catalog is necessary to get happily lost in the blissful layers of 2012-2017.

 

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8. Prime Minister of Doom – Mudshadow Propaganda

 

This is sparse, minimal music full of chord stabs and rhythmic trills, and the simplest explanation for its effectiveness is that Traumprinz is simply better at molding this clay than most of his peers. It lacks the aggression and futurism that characterizes so much of the genre, sticking instead to the kind of smudged, sepia-toned palate more commonly found in underground house. The music is merely foreboding instead of dystopic, a better soundtrack for a spooky forest than a warehouse. He’s an expert at giving you one excellent thing to focus on each track, a sort of proto-hook that keeps things interesting. “Tribal Days II” and “Tribal Days III” (there is no first variant) will make you realize just how anonymous congas usually sound. “Grand Finale” (it’s track six of ten) features a wormy, rotting lead line that threatens to fall apart before it reaches the next note. Closer “The Wai” rides trance-y chords and a vocal sample—“Show me the way”—to a surprisingly euphoric finale. Any of these tracks on a random side of a 12” might not turn heads, but collected they present a kind of inky, moldering sound that is amongst the most absorbing of album-oriented techno.

 

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7. Julia Holter – Aviary

 

During the second half of the 2010s, much of Julia Holter's music revolved around different kinds of confinement that ranged from her soundtrack work to the verse-chorus-verse forms of Have You in My Wilderness. Aviary feels like the natural and opposite reaction to all this structure; at a generous 90 minutes long, it gives her plenty of room to express herself as a composer, songwriter, experimental artist, and indie musician. Inspired in part by a quote from Lebanese-American writer Etel Adnan ("I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds"), Holter's sixth album reflects and responds to the feeling of sensory overload that dominated the late 2010s. The album's length feels like a rebuke of attention spans shortened by constant screen time, and demands listeners engage at a slower, more receptive pace. Fortunately, Aviary is some of Holter's most dazzling, mercurial music, and the liberation she felt making it is audible at every turn. She begins the album with some of its boldest tracks, which use barely controlled chaos as skillfully as she employs careful arrangements. "Turn the Light On" throws open Aviary's doors with a joyful riot of strings, brass, and surprisingly powerful vocals. "Whether" briefly shapes this cacophony into something approaching pop, then Holter tosses listeners another curveball with "Chaitius," a fragmented eight-minute suite that plays like a microcosm of her music at its most challenging and beguiling. Similarly, "Everyday Is an Emergency" -- named after another phrase that guided Aviary's creation -- juxtaposes shrill free jazz that conveys the portable, pocket-sized dread of constant news alerts with caressing pianos that suggest respite is possible, if temporary. Some of the album's most beautiful moments occur when she goes deeper into these moments of serenity. The luminous "Another Dream" and "I Shall Love 2" (the latter of which frames love as an action and borrows from a troubadour song and Alice Coltrane) are all the sweeter compared to Aviary's more frantic tracks. Holter's ability to combine wide-ranging inspirations into strikingly original music remains remarkable. "Underneath the Moon"'s rustling beats sound ancient and futuristic at the same time, while "I Shall Love 1"'s chanted vocals reveal a medieval influence that sounds both authentic and modern. While Aviary's second half gradually settles into contemplative ballads like "Colligere" and attains a wintry stillness on "I Would Rather See," Holter still delights in surprises such as "Les Jeux to You," a brittle meditation on the bubonic plague that she interrupts with a choppy, exuberant outburst. On Aviary, Holter answers the chaos of 21st century life by following her bliss; the result is a constellation of moments that celebrate the fullness of her music and, as always, make for fascinating listening.

 

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6. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

 

Always the standout lyricist from the hyper-stimulated teenage days of the Odd Future crew, Earl Sweatshirt also underwent the most interesting artistic evolution as he transitioned from outlandish MF Doom-modeled flows to darker, more inward-looking work. Fans expecting the intricate, rapid-fire flows and surrealistic wordplay that shone on early collective works and first album Doris were met with the comparatively subdued moodiness of 2015's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, a largely self-produced affair that felt dark and restless. Third album Some Rap Songs takes yet another sharp turn, abandoning everything previously explored and starting over in an opaque, dreamlike world. The production is the star of the show on Some Rap Songs, 15 brief songs made up of jagged samples and scattered, bumpy beats flying by in a lo-fi blur. Earl himself sounds like a friendly ghost haunting these tracks, sometimes dissolving into the beats more than rapping over them. That's not to say his rhymes are any less inspired than before. Instead his always internal perspectives and personal narratives feel even more imbued in the music, looking at depression, the death of his father, loneliness, and the winding path of his youth from a pensive distance. The abstract production complements Earl's truncated reflections perfectly. The confused off-time loop of "Veins" doesn't keep him from finding his way through a precise rhyme scheme where he accesses his strange relationship with fame. Key track "The Mint" occupies a similarly rocky emotional space, observational rhymes about an always crumbling world riding a wistful piano loop, production courtesy of Detroit artist Black Noi$e. "Nowhere2go" exemplifies the role of production here, too, as Earl's lyrics nearly compete for air time with the chopped vocal sample that comprises the beat. The entire album takes on a beautifully muted quality as tape hiss, distortion, and a collage aesthetic contribute to its otherworldly feel. Sonically, Some Rap Songs is in line with the Congos' Lee Perry-produced masterpiece Heart of the Congos, Panda Bear's psychedelic tapestry Person Pitch, or any number of '90s hip-hop cassettes left baking in cars in the summer sun, a little warped when they're played again in the winter, but still holding memories of brighter times. Simultaneously sad, strange, and warmly nostalgic, Some Rap Songs is excitingly listenable and emotionally connected despite its abstruse approach. The album's triumphs are in its fearless risk taking and the insight it allows into the journey of Earl Sweatshirt's constant creative regeneration.

 

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5. Beach House – 7

 

While Beach House's sound has always focused on hypnotic melodies and Victoria Legrand's rich vocals -- and likely always will -- they've found different ways to explore this potent combination on each album. Legrand and Alex Scally delivered some of their most dramatic experiments on 2015's Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, which presented a surprising amount of sides to their music even as they stripped it down to the basics. If possible, they're even more committed to change on their aptly named seventh album. To make 7, Beach House opted to work with Sonic Boominstead of longtime producer Chris Coady; brought their live drummer James Barone into the studio; and recorded songs as soon as they were done writing them instead of waiting to record all of them at once. This creative liberation resonates on every track, whether Scally and Legrand build up the instrumentation or pare it back, touch on their familiar sounds or invent new ones. 7's sequencing spotlights just how wide its range is, juxtaposing songs that sound wildly different, but equally like Beach House. The galactic whoosh of "Dark Spring" -- a key example of Boom's influence -- sounds all the more vast next to "Pay No Mind," the band's warmest, most down-to-earth love song yet. Similarly, "L'Inconnue"'s blissful call-and-response contrasts nicely with the edgy "Drunk in LA," where the beats and synths evoke rain-slicked streets and city lights. Then there are the songs that feel completely new: with its warping synths and enigmatic vibe, "Lemon Glow" gives the Beach Housemystique a sci-fi update, while the sleek "Black Car" incorporates hints of dance and R&B without sounding like the duo is chasing trends. "Dive" is another standout, shifting from rainy-day contemplation to speeding down the road with the windows down in a way that's seamless and exhilarating. Elsewhere, Legrand uses 7's eclectic sounds as an opportunity to experiment with different lyrical perspectives that add depth to the album's dreamy surfaces, as on "Girl of the Year," where its cavernous sweetness echoes its tale of a young woman famous for self-destruction. Throughout 7, Beach House feel more concerned with capturing moments fully rather than conforming to notions of what a cohesive album is. That these songs sound like they came from different albums is ultimately more refreshing than disorienting, and the excitement that courses through each track is palpable. Scally and Legrand could have only made 7 at this point in their career -- not only do they have the skill to change things up, but the wisdom to know how and when to do so.

 

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4. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

 

Considering SOPHIE's influence on electronic and pop music in the 2010s, it's hard to believe that Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides is only her debut album. On the singles she collected on Product, she emphasized her music's whimsical artificiality, using it as candy-coated armor that expressed her queerness and originality in equally affected and affecting ways. On her first proper album, she allows some cracks in that facade, resulting in a fascinating union of shiny surfaces and what lies beneath them. Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides begins with the manifesto "It's Okay to Cry," a single that, upon its October 2017 release, felt and sounded drastically different than her previous music. Instead of the helium-pitched vocals of her early work, it features SOPHIE singing in her own voice for the first time while softly unfolding synths turn her small but profound realization into something epic. While nothing else on the album is quite so vulnerable, or close to conventional pop, "It's Okay to Cry" is the perfect prologue to Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides. Working with pop stars ranging from Charli XCX to Madonna hasn't blunted SOPHIE's edge in the slightest -- if anything, her music is even bolder, particularly on the album's first half. On "Is It Cold in the Water?" and "Infatuation," she embellishes on "It's Okay to Cry"'s widescreen intimacy, transforming deep synth grooves and diva vocals into mutant pop ballads that are all the more gorgeous for their strangeness. She balances these reflective moments with the hard-edged mischief of "Faceshopping," which uses ever-changing lyrics and torquing synths to express how an authentic identity can be created through aesthetic choices, and the raunchy "Ponyboy," which sets the erotic possibilities of those identities to a heaving beat. Despite these radical shifts, SOPHIE is never indecisive as she takes her sounds and concepts to extremes. Where Product felt like a collection of alien pop hits, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insidesabounds with interludes, passages, and major statements that allow her to dig deeper on the album's second half. The dissolution telegraphed by "Not Okay"'s malfunctioning rhythms and vocals morphs into the liminal space of "Pretending," a six-minute dronescape that suggests an idea -- or persona -- coming into being with a mood that teeters between blissful and anxious. The dualities grow even more complex on "Whole New World/Pretend World," a collage of sugary pop, sirens, self-destructing electronics, and clouds of wordless vocals that falls somewhere between a beginning and a warning. Fortunately, SOPHIE takes a moment to celebrate the joys of imagination and reinvention on "Immaterial," a shout-out to misfit boys and girls that sounds like a party with Prince, Basement Jaxx, and Hatsune Miku at the top of the guest list. While SOPHIE's music has never been simple, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides' complexities and transformations make it a remarkable debut album that reveals more with each listen.

 

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3. Pusha T – Daytona

 

The first in a promised cluster of mid-2018 releases from GOOD Music came from label president Pusha T, who followed up the compact King Push with this briefer EP-length set. Designated an album possibly for the strategic sake of preventing the release from being buried on the artist's streaming service profile pages, Daytona nonetheless warrants top billing. Kanye West grants taut, grimace-inducing beats, assisted infrequently by Mike Dean and Andrew Dawson, enabling Pusha to pack each one of the seven tracks with characteristically trenchant and terse rhymes. The lyrical focus is similarly laser-sharp -- primarily assertion of equally high regard in the drug trade and rap game with coded and transparent references to disposable income. Lines aimed at ghostwriter-employing competition appear as nonchalant swats but land like precise knockout blows. Respect paid to a newly freed peer is as vivid: "Angel on my shoulder, 'What should we do?'/Devil on the other, 'What would Meek do?'/Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele/Middle fingers out the Ghost, screamin' 'Makaveli'." Throughout, Pusha's in typically percussive and phonetically advanced form with melodicism evidently eschewed as a potential distraction.

 

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2. Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]

 

Phantom Thread is an unusually controlled and precise film from Paul Thomas Anderson, and it finds its perfect counterpoint in Jonny Greenwood's score. Within the film, Greenwood's work seems sumptuous and lush, reflecting the gorgeousness of Reynolds Woodcock's clothes, but listening to the score in isolation as an album reveals moments of tension and dissonance that do not command attention during the film but certainly affect its perception for the audience. That's the brilliance of Greenwood's music for Phantom Thread: it is rich and gorgeous, elegant because of its exacting nature, an aesthetic that suits the film to a T.

 

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1. DJ Healer – Nothing 2 Loose

 

Faith plays a curious role in this music, especially DJ Healer's Nothing 2 Loose. This album continues in the vein of Traumprinz and DJ Metatron, where religion has been a recurring theme. In 2014, Traumprinz released "I Gave My Life," a deep house track built around a recording of a pastor explaining how he gave up drugs and found Jesus. DJ Metatron takes its name from the "angel of recordings" described in the Torah, and explores in its music a feeling rarely experienced in the secular world: spiritual transcendence. Like those records, Nothing 2 Loose borrows from religion an emotional heavy-handedness that many listeners will find hard to accept. But that feeling, an utterly uncool pureness of sincerity, is essential to this music. Like the character in American Beauty who films the plastic bag drifting in the breeze, DJ Healer is hung up on the pained bliss of the sublime. That character's pivotal line—"sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in"—pretty much sums up much of the vibe of Nothing 2 Loose. The album is pure feels from front to back, its angelic vocoders and heavenly pads evoking pink sunrises and god rays over glittering oceans. Ambience is interspersed with sparing beats, some breaky and uplifting, others trembling and hypnotic. "This is God's creation," a girl intones on a track by that name. "It's absolutely amazing to look at it." Most of the album's vocals are similarly weighty. "2 The Dark," a brooding sequel to DJ Metatron's "2 The Sky," uses fragments of Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," at one point chopping down the line "That was there at my command" to the mournful "That was then." "The Interview" may be the album's most uplifting track, but it draws its intro from something haunting: Whitney Houston's 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, where she was forced to claim that she was neither addicted to drugs nor dying. The album's most intriguing vocal is on the final track, "Protectionspell," an ambient piece centered around a poem that seems to be original, its reader unknown—could this be the artist himself? Either way, it works as a personal statement from him, at times drawing from his own mythology.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

Kali Uchis – Isolation

 

Singer and songwriter Kali Uchis appeared in 2012 as a self-sustaining teenage artist and heightened anticipation for her first album with each successive release and shrewd collaboration. Tyler, The Creator, Gorillaz, Bootsy Collins, and Miguel got the word and sought her out. So did Juanes and Daniel Caesar, whose respective connections with Uchis, "El Ratico" and "Get You," netted Grammy nominations. As Uchis kept operating, she resembled more and more the wholly empowered musical progeny of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, stylistically dynamic across the spectrums of R&B and Latin pop, skillfully mixing flamboyance and sincerity, generous all the while with lingering hooks. Likewise, she displayed a knack for realistic relationship narratives told with wit and finesse. All of these attributes color Isolation, her first LP and debut for major label Virgin EMI. More defined and energized than her previous mixtape and EP, the album enables her to fully exhibit her way with words and melodies, whether she's engaging in tropical gangsterism, avowing self-reliance, aching for a romantic getaway, cutting off a hanger-on, or bemoaning domestic minor sex trafficking. Reciprocal guest appearances are made throughout. Tyler and Bootsy add sympathetic humor to the drifting BadBadNotGood groove "After the Storm," while Gorillaz' Damon Albarn lays out some festive Suicide synth pop for "In My Dreams." Elsewhere, numerous West Coast associates -- Sounwave, Larrance Dopson, DJ Dahi, Om'Mas Keith, and Thundercat among them -- add to the set's prevailing dazed, dreamlike feel. Uchis is never obscured by the productions, coolly expressive while casually threading clever imagery from song to song. Her writing is most vivid in one of the delightfully bent retro-soul numbers, "Feel Like a Fool": "My heart went through a shredder the day I learned about your baby mothers/'Cause you're a grown-ass man, now you should know better/But I still run all my errands in your sweater." For all its entertaining art-pop feats, Isolation is just as remarkable for serious moments like "Killer," in which Uchis reaches a high degree of anguish that only real-life experience can arouse.

 

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Mitski – Be the Cowboy

 

Two years after her 2016 album Puberty 2, a release that led to tours with Lorde and Pixies and moved her out of the smaller clubs as a headliner, Mitski Miyawaki took the unusual step of trying to warn fans via social media and interviews about her next album. Saying that it wasn't going to be as personal, she implied that those who related to her and tracks like "Your Best American Girl" might be disappointed that she was setting aside the perspective of an outsider longing to fit in. Instead, the follow-up, Be the Cowboy, finds her adopting the persona of a married woman who fits in and lives up to expectations but longs to break free. Song titles like "Me and My Husband" and "Washing Machine Heart" hint at what's in store. What hasn't changed is Mitski's intense, impulsive style of songwriting and arranging that, while often catchy, can keep listeners off-balance. (The album was produced by Puberty 2's Patrick Lyland.) Case in point, some of the tracks here are polished with a sparkling synth palette, yet nothing feels slick and easy. Rather, the sheen is conspicuous, seeming to symbolize artifice on songs like the synth poppy "Why Didn't You Stop Me" and the disco-injected "Nobody." As if to underscore the idea of unreliable appearances, the former offers the line "I look for a picture of you to keep in my pocket, but I can't seem to find one where you look like I remember." Right from the overshot volume on the album's opening organ attack, abrasive sounds also put cracks in the surface. Stomping, clapping, and relentless keyboard bleeps permeate the brutal, danceable "Washing Machine Heart," evoking the appliance as well as the wife's frustration ("I'm not wearing my usual lipstick/I thought maybe we would kiss tonight"). Elsewhere, "Me and My Husband" opens unambiguously with a heavy sigh. After passing moments of more raucous rock, atmospheric synths, dance rhythms, irregular percussion, melodic sweetness, and dissonance, Be the Cowboy closes on the tender "Two Slow Dancers," the album longest track at four minutes. Wistful, string-like keyboard tones accompany sentimental lyrics that conclude that the couple has grown apart. In the end, rather than being a disappointment, Be the Cowboy's point of view provides a brilliant twist, one that channels all the unease, unpredictability, and intuitiveness of Mitski's previous work -- even for those who don't take in the lyrics.

 

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Rosalía– El mal querer

 

Latin pop has gone through many permutations and evolutionary changes over the last decade, becoming a new frontier in the creative arts. Rosalía Vila Tobella provides yet another direction on her sophomore full-length, El Mal Querer (The Evil Will). The Catalan-born, Barcelona-based singer, songwriter, actress, and dancer gained a Latin Grammy nomination for her 2017 date, Los Ángeles, an album that offered her own stripped-down take on flamenco and won her fans among the most popular artists in Latin pop -- including J Balvin, who enlisted her as a collaborator on his Top 20 single "Brillo" from Vibras. The captivating quality of her music also attracted the attention of director Pedro Almodóvar, who cast Rosalía in her feature film debut alongside Penelope Cruz in Dolor y Gloria. Wherein her only accompaniment on the earlier date was a guitarist, El Mal Querer reveals a distinctively developed sound of her own that meshes the classic flamenco and copla influences of her heritage with modern urban sounds such as pop, R&B, and reggaeton. Co-produced by the artist and El Guincho, this set is actually her graduate thesis for Barcelona's Catalunya College of Music, where she studied flamenco (they accept one student per year) and music production.The set's first single, "Malamente," is a worldwide smash largely due to its innovative video that has garnered some 50 million views and another 50 million digital streams. It has been nominated for five Latin Grammys, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Urban Fusion/Performance, Best Alternative Song, and Best Short Form Music Video. It weaves a warm, mysterious synth through bass drum loops and Rosalía's flamenco palmas (handclaps) and pitos (finger-snapping), as her dramatic, grainy alto moves against the beat in a melodic hook that engages R&B in an irresistible combination. Second single "Pienso en Tu Mirá" is driven by its percussive elements in a bracing lament that juxtaposes the graininess in her vocal to loops and brittle, skittering beats that push the R&B angle toward copla rather than the reverse. "Bagdad" is a tender, aching exercise in modern Latin soul, as her lucid falsetto winds around the loops and palmas with a cadence that is at once hypnotic and hallucinatory. Third single "De Mi Nombre" adds a sampled requinto as a rhythm instrument, while her ever-so-slightly Auto-Tuned vocal trades on Gypsy flamenco and wiry reggaeton. By contrast, "Maldición" is a wildly experimental number setting a twinned melody (that pairs copla and smoldering indie pop) against a loopy Wurlitzer, skeletal sub-bassline, pitos, samples, and warped, nearly narcotic vocal effects. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its brevity (just over 30 minutes), El Mal Querer is arresting in its tension, passion, and creative ingenuity. There is as much subtlety in both the compositions and production as there is drama, all of it imbued with restless soul via Rosalía's singular voice that marries the folk lineage of flamenco to 21st century styles and sounds, making El Mal Querernot only a provocative and original offering, but a magnificent one as well.

 

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Skee Mask – Compro

 

Initially an anonymous project which was later revealed to be an alias of Munich's Bryan Müller (aka SCNTST), Skee Mask became the breakout star of the Zenker Brothers' Ilian Tape label following a series of widely touted releases which ranged from dub techno to atmospheric breakbeat. Second Skee Mask full-length Compro appeared in 2018, and immediately received praise as one of the best dance albums of the year. Less club-ready than earlier releases, Compro is an immersive home listening experience which draws from IDM, ambient techno, and jungle. The tracks can feel as stark and chilly as the album's blizzard-bound cover art, but Müller's melodic sense imbues his work with warmth and humanity. After a few opening tracks which bring to mind the downtempo glitch of Arovane, Comprohits its stride with the gorgeous "50 Euro to Break Boost." Driven by the type of shuffling, distorted breaks that had become Skee Mask's calling card, and combined with forlorn, downtuned melodies and sparsely applied echo effects, the track feels like an extended solo train trip through the wintry countryside. "Soundboy Ext." is even more devastating, with frantically chopped-up jungle breaks and a heightened sense of drama. "Dial 274" is the most club-tuned track, with steady, strong breakbeats and slightly teasing bits of rave synths toward the end. "Flyby VFR" recalls '90s ambient jungle producers like Wax Doctor, blending intricate broken beats with immensely lush synth washes. Drums and rhythmic explorations remain the focus of Skee Mask's work, but Compro provides much more room for reflection, and is the producer's most affecting work to date.

 

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Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love

 

Yves Tumor’s latest album is a benchmark in experimental music. It is searing and borderless, music that is aware of oppressive confinement, and music with an intoxicating urge to be free. You can ask to be known and you can resist being defined all in the same breath. This is the demand at the center of Yves Tumor’s primal, beautiful, and beseeching new album, Safe in the Hands of Love. At no point in its duration do you have a clear sense of where, exactly, you are. Tumor has been identified as a noise artist but has released ambient tracks and made grooving songs that could pass for R&B and pop. Safe in the Hands of Love embraces it all. Few albums that feel this big wander so freely between genres and fewer still manage to invoke such intense emotions while remaining so inviting. It’s Tumor’s first project since signing to Warp, and it dwarfs everything the artist has released by several orders of magnitude. The leap is so audacious it’s disorienting. Tumor seems to savor invoking disorientation. “A lot of people are confused about my actual whereabouts, but that’s OK,” Tumor once said when asked a simple question: “Where do you live?” But there is no apparent desire to trick anyone: If anything, Tumor’s evasiveness stems from something more like self-preservation. There is implied violence, after all, in the language of definition, in “boxing in” and “pinning down.” Definition can be something that happens to you, a way of robbing you of selfhood. Incipient violence, symbolic and literal, both as a lure and threat, seethes in Tumor’s music. There is palpable menace in the mix—the drum hits on “Economy of Freedom” feel like something already dead hitting the floor. The noise collage of “Hope in Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness)” buzzes at the edges with what sounds like the sampled sounds of carrion flies. When pure moments of beauty arise, like the cello solo in “Recognizing the Enemy,” you almost fear for them. Everywhere on Safe, violence mingles uneasily with delicacy—Tumor’s own voice switches from a wraithlike falsetto to a yell to a menacing chant. All of it feels too close—mixed too close in our headphones, clipping into distortion, but also too close for comfort, the massive sounds looming over the delicate ones. “Have you looked outside? I’m scared for my life,” Tumor pleads on “Noid.” This is music aware of oppressive confinement, and music with an intoxicating urge to be free.

 

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Special mention(s) for 2018:

 

 

 

Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4

 

NTS Radio, a London-based online station that champions underground and experimental music, asked legendary electronic duo Autechre if they were interested in a residency. Autechre had already put together a DJ set for the station in 2016, and they weren't interested in doing another one. Instead, they went through various patches they'd been working on throughout the previous few years, and decided that they had enough material for eight hours' worth of radio sessions. They recorded numerous hours of material and edited them into four sessions, each two hours in length. As with 2016's Elseq 1-5, the result is closer to their live performances than their studio albums. They might start out with certain processes they've used before, but they end up going into radically different directions each time. Many of the individual tracks on NTS Sessions are ten- or 20-minute mini-marathons, and while they could very well be entirely generated by algorithms, there are distinct progressions to them, and they do appear to be pushed and shaped by humans. The first session is perhaps the most beat-heavy, and the one that seems to best represent the duo's abstract sense of funk, producing some of their most exciting material. The second session begins with a solid hour of highly complex, brain-teasing material before spacing out during much of the second half. The third session lets some of the duo's influences seep through in recognizable ways, via Underground Resistance-esque chords or early-'90s hardcore rave bass tones. The fourth disc is an outer-orbit ambient trip, culminating in the jaw-dropping hourlong drone "all end." While an album full of such long-winded, usually non-melodic, alien-sounding experiments might be an endurance test (if not completely impenetrable) to most listeners, Autechrefans live for endeavors like this. When the four sessions were originally aired, they each streamed on a loop for an entire week before the next one was premiered, so the duo's fans had an extended period of time to digest the material as it continually played in the background. By nature, the daunting NTS Sessions is Autechre's most challenging work, but for those who are dedicated, it's also one of their most rewarding.

 

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DJ Healer – Planet Lonely

 

Planet Lonely features nearly three hours of original music. It follows the debut DJ Healer album, Nothing 2 Loose, which landed at the same time as an LP from another Traumprinz project, Prime Minister Of Doom. The mix is the latest in a string of all-originals DJ mixes that the anonymous artist has used in the past to share new music or announce records. It’s tempting to speculate about the man behind all this anonymity. Traumprinz doesn’t DJ—the primary way even popular dance producers generate income—but he does have the capability to simultaneously release two records via a custom website suggests someone with plenty of resources and connections in the European underground dance community. But his shifting aliases and projects do a good job deflecting this curiosity, suggesting not some monolithic genius but rather a producer talented at producing across many styles.

 

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2019

 

 

 

10. Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell!

 

 

With the creation of her Lana Del Rey persona, singer/songwriter Lizzy Grant stitched together the iconography of a fading American dream with soaring but melancholic pop songwriting, becoming an icon unto herself in the process. Her distinctive approach blurred sadness and longing just as it did past and present, drawing on the influence of classic American pop while integrating modernized touches like trap beats and millennial cultural references. With sixth album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey expands her vision with the most daring and vulnerable work of her catalog. One of the first noticeable shifts is how subtle the album's sound is. Where 2017's Lust for Life had its share of huge drums and booming dynamics, many songs here are free of drums completely and tend towards far more solitary atmospheres. A strong classic rock influence comes through on many songs, with the softly building pianos and acoustic guitars on tracks like "Mariners Apartment Complex" or the apocalyptic "The Greatest" sounding like the best of '70s FM radio reworked around Grant's smoldering, exhausted vocals. Even though Stevie Nicks' witchy mystique has long been a reference point for LDR, this particular brand of classic rock -- silky guitar solos, compressed drum fills, and lingering, mournful outros -- is unlike anything she's attempted before. The most exciting aspects of Norman Fucking Rockwell! come in these unexpected moments. A faithful reading of Sublime's "Doin' Time" contorts to fit Grant's moody approach, becoming an extension of her own expression rather than a goofy, ironic cover. Where huge pop hooks met eerie melodrama on previous albums, here both extremities of that formula have grown more understated and direct. "Venice Bitch" is the best example of this. The nine-minute song begins with gentle strings and soft, hopeful melodies but winds into a long, meditative stretch where synth textures and hypnotic repeating vocals bleed into walls of noisy guitars. While much of her older material reveled in its own inconsolable sadness and detached numbness, the lush sonics and intimate narratives of Norman Fucking Rockwell! draw out hope from beneath desolate scenes. The patient flow, risky songwriting choices, and mature character of the album make it the most majestic chapter of Lana Del Rey's continuing saga of love and disillusionment under the California Sun.

 

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9. Bobby Krlic - Midsommar

 

 

On Midsommar, Krlic creates a language of strings that's fluent in classic horror movie tropes, the lushness of mid-20th century orchestral pop and Disney movie soundtracks, and the sudden, wonderfully sickening plunges of The Haxan Cloak and Excavation. The aching tones and brutally thudding percussion of "Gassed" will sound familiar to anyone who's heard those albums, as will the slow-building drones and sinking dread of "Attestupan." Elsewhere, Krlic branches out in entertaining ways: "Hålsingland"'s jump scares don't feel cheap, while "Ritual in Transfigured Time" combines classic, spine-tingling strings with trippy sound effects and the heaviness of Krlic's previous work with fascinating -- and unsettling -- results. Later, on "Hårga, Collapsing," the strings scurry but can't escape the inevitable doom-laden climax. As masterfully as Krlic delivers Midsommar's scares, the moments most unlike his previous music are the most revelatory. "Prophesy" may be only 30 seconds long, but its fairytale harp and spun-sugar strings create a fantasyland of midnight sunshine that's worlds away from Krlic's other music as a composer or the Haxan Cloak. He develops these luminous mirages further on "The Blessing," a track whose radiance evokes Edvard Grieg, and the seductively soothing "The House that Hårga Built," which is strikingly beautiful and strikingly different than anything he's done before. "Fire Temple" -- the first piece Krlic and Aster worked on together -- unites the score's loveliness and menace, layering sorrow, relief, fear, and catharsis in a stunning nine-minute finale.

 

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8. Duster - Duster

 

 

After the release of the career-spanning box set Capsule Losing Contact, which rounded up their surprisingly influential and popular '90s recordings, the San Jose trio Duster could have faded back into the slowcore abyss, satisfied in knowing that their indelible sound had stood the test of time and had spread across a wider audience than ever before. They had other plans, though, and as the set was being readied, they were back in bandmember Clay Parton's garage working on new music. As they used to do, the group recorded live to tape while taking their sweet time to carefully build tracks out of space, fuzz, and restraint. The result is an album that stands on equal footing with their seminal recordings, while adding even more gloomy melody and downcast dynamics. The band resisted any urges to clean up their sound, and instead Duster is their grittiest, most defiantly lo-fi recording. Conjuring magic out of the scraping noise, staticky silence, buried vocals, and muffled drums, they tell stories of isolation, melancholy, and bummer times without resorting to raising their voices or jacking up the tempos. That's not to say they lack intensity; the opening double gut punch of the harshly repetitive "Copernicus Crater" and blown-out, distortion-caked dirge "I'm Lost" is Duster at their most direct and present. It starts the album off with a warning: this isn't some cuddly reunion, it's a serious album that's going to take some chances. The rest of the record delves into similarly guitar-heavy territory on the almost up-tempo "Summer War," tunes in some AM radio tinny shoegaze on "Ghost World," sinks deeply into morosely hooky songcraft on "Hoya Paranoia" and "The Thirteen," dials back the guitars to let space and warmth flood into the sad chord changes ("Chocolate and Mint" and the breathtakingly lovely "Lomo") -- and, perhaps most impressively of all, the trio aren't afraid to fool around with the formula. They display a strong experimental streak throughout the record, especially on the drum machine (over)-driven "Damaged," which sounds like the Aphex Twin playing the Bedhead catalog, and the happily meandering, almost falling apart after every drum beat or guitar strum "Hoya Paranoia." And they abandon tempo altogether on "Go Back," a song built on massive waves of guitar noise, piercing klaxons of guitar, and a yearning, almost naked vocal. These tracks show that Duster didn't get back together just to take a nostalgia trip; they wanted to make new, quietly exciting music that pushes the outer limits of the group's sound in order to reach new destinations. It's still Duster to the core -- as sad, exhilarating, and powerful as ever -- but it's colored by 20 years of life experience and dipped even more deeply in melancholy. At a time when almost every band ever has reunited to make disappointing, derivative music, Duster have come back to make their most sonically challenging and emotionally invested record yet.

 

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7. Barker - Utility

 

 

Prior to 2018, Sam Barker was known for making intricately designed, functional techno as one half of Barker & Baumecker, as well as co-founding Leisure System, the event series and label which expanded the scope of Berghain, booking more experimental acts than the purist techno commonly associated with the Berlin superclub. With his 2018 solo EP Debiasing, Barker introduced a cascading form of techno that reaches towards the euphoria of trance without falling back on any of its clichéd elements -- most outstandingly, doing so without the usage of kick drums. The release was hailed as a fresh evolution of techno, and built up anticipation for a full-length. Utility expands on the unique sound of Debiasing, additionally pushing it in a few other directions. Many of the album's pieces consist of lapping textural waves that glide over a ticking rhythmic frame, with too much of a propulsive force to seem like they're staying in one place but no obvious sense of progression. Still, there's something so spirited about the tracks that it feels like they're transporting you somewhere. Perhaps this is the sound of techno having an out-of-body experience, hovering a few yards above the dancefloor. The album swings between light and dark moods, dipping into haunting dub-techno territory with "Gradients of Bliss" before hinging back towards neo-trance with "Hedonic Treadmill." "Models of Wellbeing" is ecstatic and shimmering, sounding like it could burst at any minute yet retaining a calm demeanor. "Utility" pushes further, beginning with a sunny arpeggio sequence in the vein of Manuel Göttsching's E2-E4 before a hint of EQ'd drum'n'bass breakbeats flicker in. The trip ends on a surprisingly sullen note with "Die-Hards of the Darwinian Order," a clanky nine-minute crawl evoking Boards of Canada at their most bummed out. Barker's work expands the boundaries of techno, breaking free of the grid and touching on some of the most emotionally resonant aspects of the genre, and it's not hard to imagine a new school of electronic musicians taking cues from Utility in the future.

 

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6. (Sandy) Alex G - House of Sugar

 

 

For his third Domino Records release and ninth album in total, lo-fi pop experimenter (Sandy) Alex G(Alex Giannascoli) presents House of Sugar. The multifaceted title is, for one, a reference to the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, which features in the album's closing track. It also refers to the Grimm fairy tale alluded to in "Gretel," and to the short story "The House Made of Sugar" by Silvina Ocampo, a supernatural tale rooted in superstition and deceit. The layered meanings of the title mirror the complex musical design of House of Sugar, Giannascoli's densest and most detail-oriented release to date. While 2017's Rocket saw the songwriter/GarageBand recordist working with an expanded guest list including touring bandmembers for the first time, House of Sugar involved recording collaborations on some songs with his mixer, Jacob Portrait, at Portrait's Brooklyn studio -- Giannascoli's first excursion to an outside studio. In addition to splurging on a new microphone and recording-software upgrade at home, Giannascoli has said that he worked more deliberately on this album, spending more time on fewer songs than ever before. House of Sugar's sound is more vivid and elaborate, as becomes apparent on the experimental opening track, "Walk Away." At over four minutes, it's the longest track on the record and arguably its least coherent; its suffocating, kitchen-sink approach includes rhythmically organized layers of irregular, circular vocals, guitars, booming drums, and much more. If intended to reset ears for increased demands, those demands are soon alleviated with the tuneful, melancholy pop of "Hope" and "Southern Sky." Even a song like "Hope," ultimately an acoustic rhythm guitar tune, holds added textures, however, among them multiple vocal tracks, strings, and spacey organ. House of Sugar gets increasingly otherworldly with the manipulated, child-like voices and ghostly, dissonant effects of "Gretel" and the meticulously trippy "Near." Later, processed, robotic vocals and bagpipe-like harmonic overtones mark the eerie noise experiments of the plodding "Sugar." An entry like "Sugar" is outnumbered by but adds weight to the lighter pop songs on the album, though "light" here is a relative term. As if to bring his audience back to Earth, the album closes with the spare "Crime" and wistful live track "SugarHouse," which ends with the lyrics: "Let 'em bury me in the sand/When our children go digging for answers/I hope they can put me together again." Intimate, theatrical, and strange, House of Sugar is designed to reward repeat listens, but like other (Sandy) Alex G sets, it's immediately affecting.

 

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5. Thom Yorke - ANIMA

 

 

It sounds counterintuitive to say Thom Yorke delivers uneasy music with a sense of ease, yet ANIMAunfurls with a slow, steady confidence that can be called comfortable. Perhaps this relaxed gait is due to how ANIMA finds Yorke treading familiar territory, revisiting the kind of jittery, chilly electronica that has been his solo specialty ever since he snuck out The Eraser in 2006. During the 13 years that separate The Eraser and ANIMA, indie and electronic music underwent several changes, but Yorke and his longtime producer Nigel Godrich aren't especially interested in chasing trends. They're working with a similar tool box that they did in a previous decade, running loops, distorting acoustic instruments, operating faders, and leaning into glitches and skittish rhythms. All these sounds mean ANIMA sounds superficially similar to its predecessors (The Eraser, plus 2014's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes), but Yorke and Godrich are craftsman, offering a different perspective on a familiar subject. That subject is, naturally, a distrust of the modern world and a fear of a creeping dystopia, a paranoia that suits the troubled times of 2019. Perhaps the world has turned to meet Yorke on his old stomping ground, but that's where his light touch comes into play. Where he once seemed consumed with dread, Yorke gently argues for the importance of humanity within a cold, alienated world. When he attempts to articulate this stance in his lyrics, he can be a shade direct -- witness how he rails against "goddamned machinery" on "The Axe" -- but his bluntness is softened by the slow, shifting soundscapes that populate ANIMA. Against all odds, Yorke's eerie electronic shimmer doesn't inspire fear so much as console; in this dark time, it's reassuring to hear a human heart beating the digital clutter.

 

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4. Angel Olsen - All Mirrors

 

 

When Angel Olsen first emerged as a solo artist in the early 2010s, it was with a spare, haunting acoustic lo-fi that put all focus on her vulnerable, idiosyncratic vocal delivery. As she shifted from country-inflected indie folk to a brooding, more volatile garage-rock blend over the course of her next couple albums, even adding synths to the mix on 2017's My Woman, she managed to keep her tormented songs distinctly intimate. She does it again on All Mirrors, even when lavish arrangements and sometimes seismic production make full use of a 14-piece orchestra alongside guitars, synths, and a thundering low end. All Mirrors was co-produced by Olsen and Burn Your Fire for No Witness' John Congleton, who also mixed it, and features string arrangements by Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt. Babbitt also co-wrote some of the music with Olsen. (The lyrics are all Olsen.) Opening track "Lark" sets the stage, developing from a reticent mumble over distant-sounding strings to a yelping, echoing symphonic pop and back again. "Echoing" may be understating it; the song and much of the studio-made album sound like they were recorded in a cathedral, with instruments simmering at a distance before closing in on the singer at opportune moments. Meanwhile, she fills the reverberating expanses with pleas, frustrations, and sad epiphanies on a set of songs concerned with deciding to walk away from toxic relationships, as the track list guides listeners through "Spring," "Summer," and "Endgame." Amid more theatrical entries, "Too Easy" takes on a dreamy, synth-heavy semi-disco ("Any way you want to, honey/Take me, show me how you want me"). Elsewhere, the devastating "Tonight" sounds as if delivered through tears, combining half-exhaled vocals with the elegant Romanticism of its orchestra accompaniment. The album closes on "Chance," a dramatic, cabaret-style offering that executes the lyrics "It's hard to say forever love/Forever is just so far" with a confident if quivering lilt.

 

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3. Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains

 

 

After the Silver Jews ended in 2009, David Berman's retreat from music seemed so final that the mere existence of Purple Mountains is somewhat miraculous -- and even more so because it's one of his finest collections of songs. For this go-round, Berman chose a brilliant band name: Purple Mountainsis traditional but not obvious, familiar but with more than a hint of eternal mystery. While he's always been an eloquent songwriter, now he's also a direct one -- it's as if these songs are making up for lost time as they let listeners know what's been on his mind during the years he was gone. Within the first few seconds of "That's Just the Way I Feel," the hapless honky tonk that begins Purple Mountains, Berman transports his audience back into his world instantly. Just as quickly, it becomes clear that this incarnation of his music isn't as ramshackle as the Silver Jews were, even at their most gussied-up. He's backed by Woods, who ably handle any challenge Berman throws at them, whether it's the ironically mighty brass that soundtracks his lack of faith on the standout "Margaritas at the Mall" or the velvety vibraphone and pedal steel on "Snow Is Falling on Manhattan." These timeless sounds mirror the classic tenor of Purple Mountains' songwriting. Over the years, Berman tried to record an album numerous times (with collaborators ranging from Destroyer's Dan Bejar to his old friend Stephen Malkmus), but reportedly couldn't finish his songs' lyrics. Based on how his simple, carefully chosen words let his wit and poetry ring out on Purple Mountains, it's safe to say that they were worth the wait. As he touches on his losses, Berman blends humor and heartbreak more masterfully -- and quotably -- than ever. "Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go/Some of them were once people I was happy to know," he sings on "All My Happiness Is Gone," a song with a shuffling beat that echoes Silver Jews' "Trains Across the Sea" and synth strings that feel decidedly Purple Mountains. He's even more eloquent on "Darkness and Cold," where he distills the growing distance between him and his estranged wife, Cassie, with lyrics like "the light of my life is going out without a flicker of regret." That song's flip side, "She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger," boasts a country song title so archetypal that it almost didn't need to be fleshed out into an unflinching mix of self-awareness and jealousy with a bitterly strutting bass line and quietly seething pedal steel -- but fortunately, it was. By the same token, Berman knows when to let a simple "she was, she was, she was" speak volumes on "I Loved Being My Mother's Son." Filled with lonely songs that are as warm as a hug from a long-lost friend, Purple Mountains is a potent, poignant reminder of Berman's gifts -- and how much they, and he, will be missed.

 

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2. Weyes Blood - Titanic Rising

 

 

The road that songwriter Natalie Mering and her shapeshifting project Weyes Blood walked was a long and twisting route, leading from weird experimental early days to the high-definition grandeur of fourth album Titanic Rising. Every step of the journey brought Mering's gifts for songcraft into sharper focus, with 2014's achingly beautiful The Innocents losing some of its hush with the soft rock lushness of 2016's Front Row Seat to Earth. That '70s FM radio spirit continues on Titanic Rising, but is expanded with more daring songwriting, larger than life arrangements, and the crystallization of Mering's distinctive take on songcraft. Mering has always been geared toward the big-picture creation of albums more than just writing stand alone tunes. Even her earliest work had a sense of purposeful architecture to the way it flowed between folky dirges and sheets of noise. Here she underscores enormously orchestrated pop songs with eerie experimental ambience, imagining a dreamworld where Joni Mitchell's late-'70s output was produced by Brian Eno. Mitchell's introspective searching is a key reference point for many of these songs, with Mering's self-harmonizing and bounding melodic approach recalling Mitchell on many tracks here. Once album-opener "Lot's Gonna Change" moves from a warped few seconds of synthesizer to its understated piano figure, it embodies the vulnerability and struggle found in so much of the Laurel Canyon songwriting set of the '70s. Co-production from Foxygen member Jonathan Rado might explain the brightly blooming chamber pop arrangements, merging Mering's soaring vocals with orchestral strings and drum fills borrowed directly from the Beatles. This optimistic throwback arrangement is in full force on the infectiously bubbly "Everyday," with lyrics inspecting a confusing relationship over a track as bouncy as a rubber ball. Meringeffortlessly switches gears throughout the album, slipping between the synthy melodrama of "Movies" and the cold coffee blues piano ballad "Something to Believe," as well as making space for acoustic folk numbers, ambient interludes, and chamber pop diversions. Easily her most clear-headed set of songs to date, there's a directness here that sometimes got lost in the layers of earlier albums. She sounds driven and confident, asserting an intense control of the emotional flow of her songs without ever rushing things or letting some of the anxiety she sings about seep into the feel of the album. While all of Weyes Blood's albums leading up to Titanic Rising were good, even great, there's something that sets this one apart. Fantastic songs, meticulously detailed production, and a certain, hard-to-name spark of connection all gel into the near-perfect statement that every part of Mering's strange journey before this led up to.

 

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1. FKA Twigs - Magdalene

 

 

On her early EPs and LP1, FKA twigs' Tahliah Barnett expressed the intersections of love, pain, fragility and strength with remarkable eloquence. While making Magdalene, she embodied them. Not only did she endure the end of a long-term relationship, she had surgery to remove six large uterine fibroids (colorfully described by her as a "fruit bowl of pain"). These events became the heart of her second album, which uses the duality of Mary Magdalene as a lens for its wounded yet resilient feminine energy. An herbalist and confidante of Jesus portrayed as a prostitute in the Bible, Mary Magdalene's gifts were overshadowed by her ties to a great man. Barnett digs into and subverts this relationship on Magdalene, most prominently on "Holy Terrain," a dramatic, erotic duet with Future. While she wonders if she'll ever find a man who can support her the way she's supported men in her past over its trap beats, warping metallic tones, and Bulgarian folk chants, the way she's assisted on the track by A-list co-producers like Skrillex and Jack Antonoff -- as well as by Future's repentant bars -- is a small step in the right direction. On "Mary Magdalene," she draws on both sides of her archetype, bridging women's sensual and healing powers with a heroic dose of independence. As she hones Magdalene's themes, Barnett broadens her music. Handling most of the production herself, she uses her signature bone-rattling beats more sparingly to clear space for melody and, especially, her classically trained voice. There's a dewdrop purity when she sings "Would you make a wish on my love?" on "Sad Day," one of several songs where she evokes Kate Bush's poignant magical realism. On the aching "Mirrored Heart," she stretches to her highest and lowest ranges to encompass the magnitude of her loss. Barnett matches the directness of the album's music with impressively naked -- and often uncomfortable -- emotions. "Apples/cherries/pain" she growls on "Home with You," where her physical and emotional suffering merge in seething distortion and throbbing beats that isolate her from someone dear until she realizes they're lonely together. Inadequacy, whether it's in the eyes of a lover or the world, is a major motif: The beautifully nightmarish "Thousand Eyes" is steeped in anxiety that churns in its spiraling pianos and when Barnett sings "It's gonna be cold out there with all those eyes" in an anguished soprano that could cut glass. Later, she plays with these feelings on "Cellophane," whispering "Why don't I do it for you?" with equal amounts of melodramatic flair and heartbreaking realness. This complexity extends to "Daybed," a slow spin of feelings -- sorrow, weariness, peace -- that are equally soothing and suffocating. At once more delicate and more concentrated than any of her previous work, Magdalene is a testament to the strength and skill it takes to make music this fragile and revealing. Like the dancer she is, Barnett pushes through pain in pursuit of beauty and truth, and the leaps she makes are breathtaking.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

Big Thief - U.F.O.F.

 

 

By the arrival of Big Thief's third album, U.F.O.F. ("UFO friend" per lyrics in the title track), songwriter Adrianne Lenker had established herself as a singular force in indie music, both through two acclaimed albums with her band and with more delicate solo material including 2018's Abysskiss. In the meantime, Big Thief had toured almost constantly between preparing their 2016 debut, Masterpiece, and recording U.F.O.F., all the while becoming more and more tight-knit as a group. Their development is not only evident in differences between 2017's Capacity and 2019's U.F.O.F., but between U.F.O.F.and Abysskiss, as spotlighted on reworked versions of the latter's "From" and "Terminal Paradise." Not merely a fuller arrangement, U.F.O.F.'s "Terminal Paradise" transforms the quietly howling acoustic guitar elegy into a haunted, improvisational song. Without changing the main melody, the band animates lyrics like "See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower" with components including spectral voice samples, rattling sound effects, and fast, sustained strumming. This atmospheric treatment is indicative of a more exploratory album that presents ambient-leaning folk-rock collages that combine voice and noise samples, improvised instruments, and Lenker's naked poetry and brittle vocal performances with structured song. (All bandmembers are credited in the liner notes with "ambience.") The title track's skittering drums, meandering arpeggiated guitars, and humming synths, for instance, create an otherworldly undercurrent for wispily delivered lyrics such as "Like a seed in the wind/She’s taking up root in the sky/See her flickering." Elsewhere, "Orange" is a sparer love song that makes room for lines like "Fragile means that I can hear her flesh/Crying little rivers in her forearm/Fragile is that I mourn her death/As our limbs are twisting in her bedroom." Some of the more remarkable performance choices here include Lenker committing to an eerily low, half-whispered vocal line out of her range on "Betsy," and the screams and guitar distortion on trippy opening track "Contact." Steadily warm and atmospheric despite these more volatile elements, the set also includes the relatively catchy "Century," which has Lenker joined by bandmate Buck Meek on affable vocal harmonies. A foray into artful album rock for the band, U.F.O.F.'s shifts in presentation are subtle and seem wholly organic throughout. It's a record deserving of such an evocative title, which captures its dreamily impressionistic yet unsettling nature.

 

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Caroline Polachek - Pang

 

 

Caroline Polachek named her album Pang after the bursts of adrenaline that jolted her out of sleep. She describes this as an internal thing, the sudden shock of emotion that “pricks you emotionally from the inside.” But it’s corporeal, too; you can’t say the word “pang”—or sing it, as Polachek does on the title track—without a quick release of breath, somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. Pang is Polachek’s first album under her own name (she released 2014’s Arcadia as Ramona Lisa, and 2017’s Drawing the Target Around the Arrow as her initials, CEP) and perhaps not coincidentally, this album centers on her vocals. The music doesn’t depart too far from her work in Chairlift: a little Tango in the Night sophistipop, a little ambient, and a little from the charts. Her usual lyrical themes recur: living unexpected dreams, getting away with something sneaky-fun, tears in public and in oceans. There’s also that familiar tension between the anonymity of the city and the pastoral, even suburban; on “Parachute,” Polachek sings about love as a force pulling her “back to strip malls, highways, and treetops.” The scope of Pang, however, is wider. She produced much of the album with PC Music’s Danny L Harle, and massively tones down his fripperies. At times, there’s a new age or modern classical tinge to the arrangements. Sometimes Pang sounds so sweeping it’s almost symphonic; the first few notes of “The Gate” almost sound like a synthetic orchestra tuning up. It’s a PR cliché to tout artists’ “classical training,” which can mean anything from actual classical training to a semester of voice lessons in college, but in her work, you genuinely can hear it. She’s mentioned writing melodies as wordless stretches of singing—she calls it “applesaucing.” For most of the decade, she’s taken classical voice lessons, specifically in baroque singing. This comes out not just in the soaring, near-operatic vocalizations throughout Pang, but in the crisp way she attacks words and syllables, the controlled vocal leaps, and precise staccato. Even more specifically, Polachek took up opera lessons after hearing the version of Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. The non-traditional recording perhaps inspired her to use her training to non-traditional ends. Melodies that are heavily vocoded or Auto-Tuned often sound a little like a machine-made baroque run. As Polachek put it, “the voice just becomes the ultimate analog synth,” and it’s an effect she goes for a lot: the ornamentation throughout “Insomnia” and “Hey Big Eyes,” the digitally augmented glissando on the “Ocean of Tears” chorus, or the tumble of a vocal run, almost like a guitar solo, from the bridge of “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” The influence also filters into the instrumental at times, most clearly the harpsichord-esque notes that underpin “Hey Big Eyes.”

 

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Clairo - Immunity

 

 

Clairo's five or so years as a rising, teenaged Bandcamp self-releaser turned social media star included viral songs such as "Pretty Girl" and "Flaming Hot Cheetos" as well as collaborations with fellow bedroom pop phenoms Cuco and Jakob Ogawa. On her full-length major-label debut, Immunity, while she maintains a feel largely defined by soft vocals and a woozy atmosphere, she officially leaves the bedroom behind. Co-produced by Vampire Weekend alum Rostam, the album's velvety textures sound constructed rather than preprogrammed, and guest Danielle Haim plays live drums on several tracks. The record's closer even features a children's chorus. It remains a distinctly intimate affair, however, as established on opener "Alewife." Ethereal, choral-like synths and a sentimental piano chord progression set the tone before a pit-a-pat drum rhythm accompanies Clairo as she recounts a night in her early teens when a friend stopped her from attempting suicide. A song concerned with gratitude more than brooding, its pillow-soft vocal delivery translates to tracks throughout the album, even the alt-'90s-inspired "Bags" and low-key dance-rock of "Sofia." On the latter song, she ventures into melisma, while the spacious ballad "Closer to You" experiments with the Auto-Tune and the muffled drums of slow-jam territory. Acknowledging these stylistic variances and subtle production touches, Immunity is nothing if not consistent in providing Clairo's confessional lyrics and seemingly thematically detached vocals with a cushiony-soft landing. What she loses here in charm, she makes up for in lyrical depth and an enveloping sense of comfort, if drowsy melodies tend to waft by rather than stick around.

 

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Jenny Hval - The Practice of Love

 

 

With each of her albums, Jenny Hval uses different facets of pop music to express her intricate concepts. To explore love as an action rather than a passive state of being, on The Practice of Love, she borrows the sound of '90s trance as a backdrop for her musings. It's an unlikely but ultimately inspired combination: The washy synths, wide-open spaces, and hypnotic yet energetic beats of trance music let Hval's ideas flow in a remarkably engaging way while also harking back to the floaty sounds of Innocence Is Kinky. The very smoothness of The Practice of Love's music demands that her audience listen closely as Hval suggests that maintaining connection, whether through the senses or through questions, may be the key to being an attentive friend, lover, or artist. Sometimes, she mulls over these concepts on her own, as on "High Alice," a blissful union of her searching nature, sexuality, and commitment to creativity, and on the serenely complex "Ashes to Ashes," a song about a dream of another song that describes the fleeting nature of life, its joys, and its sorrows. More often, though, Hvalenlists a select group of collaborators to help her look inward and reach outward on The Practice of Love. The soothing yet commanding intonations of Vivian Wang, a classically trained pianist (and former TV presenter) on "Lions" gives the song the feel of a guided meditation that takes mindfulness to a new level when she asks, "Where is God?" Throughout the album, Hval and company reflect on the seemingly natural order of things, in particular motherhood -- or the lack of it. "Accident," a poignant dialogue between two childless women featuring Australian musician Laura Jean, sends its existential questions hurtling through space via the most cosmic side of trance music. On the album's title track, Hval makes the layers she's working with more literal as she juxtaposes Wang's reading of a monologue Hval wrote for the film Something Must Happen with a conversation between herself and Jean; as their thoughts on love, death, and family collide and combine, it makes for fascinating -- if complicated -- listening. By contrast, Hval, Wang, Jean, and Félicia Atkinson join forces on "Six Red Cannas," a rapturous celebration of female creativity that reconnects it to elemental forces. The way that Hvalcombines the different perspectives that form relationships and communities with the ritualistic, repetitive nature of dance music makes The Practice of Love feel like a rave exploring the nature of love, existence, and time. It may be her subtlest, most approachable album yet; though its ideas are just as complex and provocative as those of Blood Bitch or Apocalypse, Girl, there's something welcoming about it that engages the hearts and minds of her listeners fully.

 

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Loraine James - For You and I

 

 

Loraine James' first Hyperdub release is an homage to her London upbringing, as well as an exploration of her own identity, specifically as a queer black woman residing in the city. The cover art shows her standing in front of her childhood flat while holding up an old Polaroid photo of the same building. Reflecting the multiculturalism of the city, her music is influenced by numerous genres and styles, but it rarely feels like she's dipping into any of them for train spotters' sake. Her music is the sound of spontaneous expression beyond any perceived limitations. Opener "Glitch Bitch" is a motivational club track frayed with skips and stutters, nearly crashing into itself by the end. "Dark as Fuck" is the album's most abrasive, confrontational moment, with rapper Le3 Black spitting out venomous rhymes over disorienting synths and explosive, mutated grime beats. James expresses the anxiety of displaying affection with her partner in public on tracks like "So Scared," which starts out with chattering beats before exploding into gloriously messy, overloaded Amen breaks. "Sensual" is a bit more relaxed, with its pillowy chords and ethereal vocals, but there's still a restlessness to the ever-shifting beats. The jittery tempo of "For You and I" is the closest James comes to approximating footwork, but the layers of floating echo and ghostly voices elevate it to an entirely different realm. Tracks like "Scraping My Feet" nail the balance of advanced beats and gorgeous, stirring melodies present in IDM at its best. The entire album is refreshingly devoid of any lingering notion of fitting in or following any rules or trends. James' vision is hers alone, and it's a powerful one.

 

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Special mention(s) for 2019:

 

 

Burial - Tunes 2011 to 2019

 

 

Burial's first two full-lengths, particularly the 2007 masterpiece Untrue, cast an enormous shadow over the music of the 2010s, as countless producers tried to emulate the rain-soaked atmospheres and heavy emotions of the elusive South Londoner's tracks. While he didn't release a proper third album during the decade (nor did he express any intention of doing so), he pushed his sound further with a series of sporadically issued singles and EPs, and remained one of the most vital artists of the era. Tunes 2011-2019 gathers two-and-a-half hours' worth of his material from this time period, excluding 2017's club-friendly "Rodent," collaborations with the likes of Four Tet and Massive Attack, a few scattered compilation cuts, and all of his non-Hyperdub releases. Instead of organizing the tracks chronologically, he groups them by mood, creating an alternate timeline through this portion of his catalog. Releases like the revelatory Rival Dealer and Kindred are perfectly formed mini-suites in their own right, but this collection places them as pieces of a larger narrative. The set materializes out of the ether with wispy ambient sketches "State Forest" and "Beachfires," before moving on to more pulsating tracks like the quietly devastating "Young Death." After that, it progresses to mind-bending epics like the action-packed "Rival Dealer" and life-affirming "Come Down to Us," filled with sharp twists and turns, as well as enormous amounts of vinyl static and storm clouds. Even comparatively straightforward tunes like "Claustro" and "Loner" are cloaked in shadows and filled with a much greater sense of fear and restlessness than the garage and house tracks they take inspiration from. All of these pieces have aged incredibly well since they originally appeared, and in some cases they're actually more engaging in retrospect -- they're so packed with details that even obsessive fans might have missed something before.

 

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The Caretaker - Everywhere at the end of time

 

 

Borne of fascination with the haunted hotel ballroom of The Shining, Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker project had long used manipulated and repeated phrases of early recordings to probe concepts of memory and mortality, but Everywhere at the end of time was a more systematic attempt to auralize the process of decay, disruption, and disintegration associated with a particular neurocognitive disorder, encapsulated in the premise that his Jack Torrance-channeling alter ego was stricken with dementia. Beginning in 2016 and released as 6 albums over the course of the following 3 years, these installments began with slightly altered — slowed down, reverb drenched, but fairly wistful and mellifluous — fragments of lighter-than-air ballroom pop, drifting in and out with a feeling of reverie. Smatterings of record-surface noise accented these songs in ways connoting nostalgia. By the end of the series, though, the signal-to-noise ratio completely tipped, with anything resembling more natural instrumental timbres mostly buried under layers of rumbling and crackling bass that were disorienting and ominous. This was the sonic simulation of the self dissipating into oblivion. The total experience was the deep subjective horror of losing oneself, an encounter with the abject, and the result was one of the most ambitious conceptual sound works of the 2010s

 

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Jai Paul - Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)

 

 

An ability to control the uncontrollable is part of what made Jai Paul’s music so mesmerizing in the first place. On the couple of songs he properly released before the leak, “BTSTU (Edit)” and “jasmine (demo),” he bent pop music to his off-kilter will. Both tracks, which also appear on Bait Ones, are at once propulsive and elusive, like quicksand pumping out of a speaker cone, with Paul’s mumbling falsetto self-consciously buried in the mix (in the recent note, he mentioned, “It will always be a little painful for me to listen to myself.”) Here was a guy in his early 20s spiking his obsessions with J Dilla, Michael Jackson, and D’Angelo with uncanny pauses, flyby instrument breaks, and laser zaps—a meticulous introvert whose slippery sound was soon being sampled by Drake and Beyoncé. Throughout Bait Ones, Paul sounds like he’s battling his own tentativeness, as he oscillates between indecision and bravado. Like his hero D’Angelo, who sang about his own notoriously measured creative pace on Voodoo’s “The Line,” Paul could be commiserating with impatient fans with lines here like, “This ain’t no quick ting, I won’t lie/It’s gonna take time.” On “Zion Wolf Theme,” he offers up a host of questions about his own fate without any definitive answers. “Can I make you fall in love with me?” he asks over a syncopated, sinister beat that would make prime-era Timbaland envious, perhaps addressing a potentially adoring public. Given the internet drama—and police investigation—surrounding the leak, along with Paul’s subsequent vanishing act, another couplet in the same song now feels tragically prescient: “In the company of thieves/Will I stay or will I leave?” Elsewhere, though, there are moments where Paul sounds exuberant, like he’s vanquishing his anxious demons one gargantuan synth riff at a time. If “jasmine (demo)” is a slurry drunk dial of a love song, “Genevieve” is its effervescent counterpart. Paul woos back an ex with confidence over a peacocking production jam-packed with cowbell, sci-fi blips, and orgasmic moans (it’s also the only song on Bait Ones with a notable addition compared to the leaked version, in the form of a pleading, minute-long outro). “100,000” is similarly preening, with Paul proclaiming his dominance over any and all competition while copping to the hard work he put in to attain that dominance; in his note, he mentioned that he had been working on the Bait Ones material for six years leading up to the 2013 leak. His conflicted attitude—hesitant but resolute—is stated best on the hook to “BTSTU (demo),” his first-ever release and the last song here, where he deadpans, “I know I’ve been gone a long time/But I’m back and I want what is mine.”

 

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Kelela & Asmara - Aquaphoria

 

 

Aquaphoria is a tasteful and enchanting selection of deep listening music. It has its finger on the pulse of abstract electronic styles over the last few decades, pulling from Japanese new age, classic names like Aphex Twin and Biosphere, and innovators in today's ambient scene such as Visible Cloaks, Jonny Nash and Suzanne Kraft. No matter who made each track, though, it shares a quality of perfume. There are dreamy textures, soulful instruments and slow, vaporous transitions. Aquaphoria radiates a sense of beauty as quiet as it is powerful. The mix starts off pure and serene, with glittering nature sounds on Takashi Kokubo's "01" and hypnotic, finger-plucked melodies on Susumu Yokota's "Hagoromo." Over time, though, bluer moods emerge. Aphex Twin's "Untitled," with its slowly rising and falling chords, begins to cast a hint of solitude. Soon after, on Kareem Lotfy's "FR3SH," a gorgeous but sorrowful ambient track for PAN, the feeling has swollen into heartache. Aquaphoria continues its emotional journey like a feather in the wind. In its final moments, the mood is gorgeous and reflective, washed over by the sound of the ocean crashing to the shore. The sense of narrative is convincing on its own, but Kelela's extra vocals are what make this mix truly spellbinding. Her singing floats through the music as freely as water through a net, always enhancing the original with more soul, more beauty, more intimacy and more elegance. Sometimes her voice is just an improvised melody or texture. Other times it forms dreamy lyrics about love and loss. There are a few moments when the interplay between Kelela and the original is so natural that it could make an entirely new song. On Jonny Nash & Suzanne Kraft's "Beluga's Song," from a 2017 album on Melody As Truth, the singer's voice enters a delicate dance with piano parts. Marc Cary's "Rhodes Ahead Intro," from a 1999 jazz LP with house and drum & bass tracks, becomes a savory piece of intergalactic soul.

 

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Various Artists - 環境音楽 Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990

 

 

Light in the Attic's Kankyō Ongaku compilation documents ambient, new age, and minimal music produced in Japan between 1980 and 1990, specifically focusing on "environmental music," created to soundtrack daily living, shopping, relaxation, and even the usage of specific products. The acutely detailed liner notes trace the roots of this musical phenomenon, mentioning Japanese traditions such as toki no kane (temple bells) as well as Erik Satie's furniture music and of course Brian Eno's ambient music. Taking the concept literally, the release includes pieces composed for specific environments, such as Yoshio Ojima's "Glass Chattering" (from a collection of works designed to be played inside a building in Tokyo called the Spiral) or Haruomi Hosono's "Original BGM" (commissioned by the Muji department store as background music). Additionally, Takashi Kokubo's supremely tranquil "A Dream Sails Out to Sea - Scene 3" comes from a promotional LP that was included with the purchase of a Sanyo air conditioning unit, designed to help convey a beach-like atmosphere. A few pieces utilize rushing water and other natural sounds, while others incorporate traditional Japanese instruments, particularly Toshi Tsuchitori's "Ishiura," made from the bell-like tones of sanukaito stones. Masashi Kitamura & Phonogenix's "Variation - III" mixes gently lapping waves with sporadic percussive hits and softly murmuring ambient synths. Fusion keyboard legend Jun Fukamachi's "Breathing New Life" perfectly mixes traditional percussive rhythms with contemporary electronics, producing a mood fit for a domestic environment (surprisingly, it was actually composed for a fashion show). Of the more purely electronic pieces, Inoyama Land's sparkling, joyful "Apple Star" is perhaps the most effortlessly pleasing, while Takashi Toyoda's unbelievable "Snow" is much spacier and more haunting. Yellow Magic Orchestra is represented by BGM deep cut "Loom," a surreal experimental soundscape that begins by sounding like a spaceship lifting off, then seemingly having a revelation while drifting out in space doing absolutely nothing -- all with a strange electronic dripping sound in the background. Both as a listening and reading experience, the entire collection is fascinating and eye-opening, and far more than just pleasant, unassuming musical wallpaper. It's also somewhat overwhelming in a sense, simply because there's far more music from this era to discover, and this release barely scratches the surface.

 

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