Year in Review
Top Albums of 2015
by Joshua P. Ferguson
Looking back at our best albums of 2014, there are some interesting threads that run from there to here. Jazz music and futuristic turns at it held strong. Leftfield ambiance and Balearic vibes are as ever, well represented. And in 2015, there's also the welcome addition of a handful of artists working almost exclusively along the house and techno spectrum who turned out full-length albums with ample dance-floor moments that work just as well—or even better—as a long-play listen.
With a string or remixes and a handful of excellent singles (which we've since gone and picked up), Leipzig's Martin Enke significantly upped the profile of his Lake People project this year with this LP for Munich's Permanent Vacation. Reviewing the record back in February, we had this to say: "Across Enke's full length debut Purposely Uncertain Field, there always exists a certain meditative spaciness and a distinct lack of overdramatic flourish. There are those of the Larry Heard school of deep house who might argue for a bit more jazz and soul than comes through in the output here, but to me this embodies "deep," and given the word itself that makes sense."
Kamasi Washington The Epic — Brainfeeder
In a list so dominated by electronic musicians and synthesized compositions, Kamasi Washington's inclusion here makes him an outlier. But in some ways, the outlier status is where he thrives. A classically trained sax man from LA, Washington is the most "traditional" artist to call Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label home. He showed up on the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly from hip-hop upstart Kendrick Lamar. And he shot to the forefront of the jazz world releasing a triple-disc debut album that immediately places him alongside greats like Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra. Washington's sound is a mix of spiritual jazz and gospel soul. That's not what's revolutionary about it. To hear it done this well and this authentically in 2015, on the other hand, that is enough to single-handedly rekindle our love of true jazz—a thing much of the music we listen to and love is permanently indebted to.
We might have missed Remember the Life is Beautiful altogether if it weren't for a well-penned review from Pitchfork's resident electronic-music critic Philip Sherburne. The Tokyo-based DJ and producer Gonno has released a handful of memorable tracks on International Feel, a label we follow closely. Reacquainting ourselves with him on Mule Musiq sister-label Endless Flight meant getting swept up in hypnotic rhythms awash in warm tones and emotional melodies all over again. In a past life, Gonno leaned heavily on techno and there are remnants here in his accomplished drum programming, thick basslines and acid flourishes, but the mood here is far from rugged. This is meditative dance music, Balearic in its sensibility but with a backbone to it that keeps it from ever going soft.
If you've been following our 2015 coverage than you already know 2 8 1 4 and its contributions to vaporwave had a big impact on us this year. Made up of Hong Kong Express and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者, the duo runs singular vaporwave imprint Dream Catalogue. There, as we wrote in our year-end think piece on vaporwave, 2 8 1 4 and their music, they curate sounds that "juxtapose nostalgia, romanticism and humor with uncertainty, bleak futurism and a strong affinity for the surreal and the dream-like." While that conveys a sense of the inspiration, the music itself gives you a sense of real emotional weight through mostly ambient compositions that are part chill-out, part Balearic, part New Age and wholly fascinating.
Canada's CFCF had a big year in 2015. With two records, July's Radiance and Submission and this one released on 1080p a short while later. Between the two, he stepped outside the "night bus" micro-genre—one he helped define—and, in a sense, doubled down on it. The Colours of Life embodies much what has come to signify "night bus," namely moody midtempo electronic music, but here the mood is a decidedly brighter one. Its 12 tracks share the same tempo, a cool 96 bpms, and the album is mixed as one long track featuring names like "Our World," "Rain Dance," "Tropical Realities" and "Imagination." Each floats along with padded drums, reverb guitar and a healthy Balearic influence. If CFCF started "night bus," The Colours of Life sees him taking it through till morning. We're happy to go along for the ride.
Dave DK Val Maira — Kompakt
Cracking into our top five for 2015, Dave DK was an artist we really wanted to profile in some way this year. While it wasn't in the cards, this didn't stop us from spending a lot of time with Val Maira, his first LP for Cologne's seminal Kompakt Records. Digging into Dave DK's back catalog, this record represents a slight shift for the producer. First glimpsed in his 2014 12" for Pampa Records "Woolloomooloo"—which we featured on our Universe Purse mix—the shift was from boilerplate deep tech-house to a sound that signaled a more singular artistic statement. This new sound is more crisp, emotive and moving, not unlike the work of Dialogue Inc fave Robag Wruhme. It's a style that is infinitely more satisfying and made for one of the most listenable dance-music long players this year.
Given the well-documented diversity of Floating Points' tastes, this was a record we should have seen coming. And yet, Elaenia caught us completely by surprise. Echoing our No. 1 record from last year, Trialogue by Wesseltoft, Schwarz and Berglund, Floating Points' debut perfectly captures his modern jazz sentiment. The West London influences are there in the rolling drums and Cinematic Orchestra-esque scope, but for all our comparisons there's nothing derivative here. "Silhouettes (I, II & III)" is an epic turn of barking Rhodes, shuffling jazz-dance rhythms and a masterful use of the space between the notes. And that last quality is one that carries on throughout the record. There are so many quiet, delicate moments here that are completely at odds with the dance floors where Floating Points cut his teeth. The title track is a beatless meditation, "Thin Air" is simultaneously minimalist and hyperactive, and then closing track "Peroration Six" tosses and turns with gurgling guitar and an army of malcontent saxophones swelling to a fever pitch that drops you back into that space Floating Points uses so expertly. It's enough to make you start the record right back from the top (which we often did).
If Floating Points was a surprise, the inclusion of Jamie xx here was all but a foregone conclusion. His debut In Colour was well set-up thanks to songs we already know well, tracks like "Girl" and "Sleep Sound." Then there was the epic send up to its release that teased us with monumental music moments from 2015, namely "Gosh," "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" and one of our—SPOILER ALERT—top five songs of the year, "Loud Places." And while none of the album's other tracks tops these undeniably stand-out moments (sorry RA), songs like "Seesaw" with its delicate retro breakbeat, "Obvs" with Jamie's signature steel drum, and "The Rest is Noise" with its jubilant Gospel stomp, are the glue that made In Colour a formidable record in 2015 (and more than a collection of singles). Beyond that, this album became an experience. There were the pointless point-counterpoint articles dissecting Jamie, Tame Impala and what it means to be both artist and DJ. There was a raucous Boiler Room set. There was an epic triple-vinyl release that made the record itself a collector's piece. And to tie it up for us personally, there was the live tour—complete with massive disco ball—that tricked fans of the record into dancing to wildly eclectic sets that ran from UK bass to garage to throwback disco and back again.
It seems like every year our Top Tracks round-up features a track from the Innervisions camp in our top five. So imagine how we felt when Âme's Frank Weidemann and the Acid's Ry X turned "Howling"—a top pick from 2012—into a full-on artist project. Ok, so Sacred Ground came out on Ninja Tune sister-label Counter Records, but the Innervisions sentiment runs deep across the entire record. There's the clatter and stomp of opener "Signs," the indie-esque "Stole the Night," the meditative and deep "Ex Machina," and those are all in the first half of the record alone. This is no ordinary collection of vocal house tracks. In fact, typing that seems almost offensively off the mark. Interviewing Weidemann this summer, he had this to say of the project: "We come from totally different backgrounds but we are still interested in the same music and we are on the same ‘life level,’ if you know what I mean. I’m also curious what comes out when somebody interprets a Fela Kuti song and makes a folk song out of it and me doing a techno song out of it. It’s interesting which directions it leads us and then brings us back together." The songwriting method on Sacred Ground was loose and largely improvisational, the influences run the gamut and yet, the result captures such a specific mood. You can't help but get sucked into Howling's world, a place—like the album's name suggests—that is quite a special one.
Full confession: We didn't really know who SCNTST was prior to this album. A friend tweeted about Puffer, the German producer's sophomore album, we decided to press play on a free stream (see below) and we've probably pressed play another 30+ times since then. By his own admission, a lot of SCNTST's productions err toward the harder techno end of the spectrum, which also makes him a good fit for his main outlet, Boys Noize Records. But every minute of Puffer is wildly diverse, eclectic and much harder to paint into any convenient genre box. It begins in shimmering beatlessness, evolves into deeply dubby techno, takes a left turn into airy trip-hop, toys with sunny house rhythms, retreats in on itself for a handful of tracks and continues to spiral in this way right to the end. This may seem like too much to try and package up and deliver as a cohesive statement, but the young producer rides the waves of his myriad ideas like a pro.
The programming of the album deserves a lot of credit for this. So do the compositions themselves. A song like "Sers," our sunny house entry, echoes into infinity at its conclusion, paving the way for "Ice," a staticky, ambient interlude. Later, the weightless "Hendy" fills the same role but moving in reverse to set the stage for the driving dub techno of "Generated." Then there's a track like "Kristall Edition (Fusion mix)," our favorite on the record, that brings it all together in a swirl of jangling atmospherics, a crystalline chime melody and the faintest hint of a hybrid footwork-trap beat. Puffer is an album that could easily have derailed itself, bloated from too many ideas. Instead, understated songs flow from one to the next with a gracefulness that made it the most enjoyable single listen of the year—an unexpected discovery that gave way to another and another and another until it landed right here as our favorite album of 2015.