As we sit here writing this post and listen to Arca’s newest track release, “Urchin”, we’re sort of frightened. For us this isn’t a new feeling when listening to the London-based gender neutral producer’s music in the night, but it is one that we welcome. Arca reminds us that there is beauty in ambiguity and darkness—the feelings many of their tracks leave us with.
After a critically acclaimed EP release with Mutant, we were really happy to see that they’d released another track so soon. After listening to “Urchin” we understand why this one came separately from the epic EP, however. This track embodies an industrially ambient density unlike any of their tracks from the unleashed Mutant, and that was made apparent upon the first listen. Retaining their quintessential qualities of stop-motion aesthetic synths, Arca creates an unprecedented low-end depth in this new track. Please keep releasing like wildfire. We can’t get enough.
When evaluating lists like this, it’s always important to remember the subjectivity in music. The songs here are not just what I would say are the “best” of 2015 or even necessarily my favorites, but the ones I had the most attachment to for one reason or another. Music is the closest thing we have to time travel in that it can evoke emotions unlike any other and effortlessly bring us back to moments long forgotten. This compilations of songs serves almost as a walk through memory lane, and choosing just 15 tracks to represent my 2015 proved to be a daunting task. Alas, I was able to finally narrow down my choices, so I hope you all enjoy my picks even if you don’t fully agree with them (which let’s be honest, you won’t). Finally, if you are curious about what didn’t make the cut, I’m going to shamelessly plug this massive Spotify playlist I compiled that includes pretty much all of my favorites from 2015.
’Kendrick Lamar – These Walls ft. Bilal, Anna Wise, Thundercat’
There’s no question that To Pimp A Butterfly is a classic album, so choosing just one standout single was definitely a challenge, but “These Walls” proves to be equally thought provoking as it is groovy.
Featuring two of the most remarkable talents I discovered in 2015, “No Less” makes for one of the smoothest listens of the year, accomplished through a superb blend of dulcet vocals and acoustic guitar work.
2015 was quite the year in the world of music. While much of this writer’s work comes within some corner of dance music, many of my favorites this year fell somewhere between the worlds of electronic-pop and every different iteration of indie one could come up with. We finally got those largely anticipated LP’s from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Tame Impala, Disclosure, Grimes & more (heck even New Order made a resurgence), but we were knocked off balance by more than a few surprises as well. While many critics and blogs were busy championing those aforementioned artists & albums; tunes from Lower Dens, Calvin Love, Thundercat, Youth Lagoon, Kurt Vile, Motorama, Mas Ysa, GEMS, Autre Ne Veut, and loads more quietly stirred their fair share of competition into the pot. While whittling down to just 15 songs (plus even more ‘Honorable Mentions’ at the bottom) was perhaps one of the more painstaking things you could put a (semi) serious music journalist through, it was an enriching undertaking and hopefully I managed to dig up a few tunes you may have missed in 2015 to your end-of-the-year lists. Enjoy, and let’s hope 2016 offers just as many amazing highs.
15.) Gilligan Moss – “Stasis”
One of the more exciting producers to grab our attention in 2015, Brooklyn via Chicago producer & sound artist Gilligan Moss released one of the most neglectfully under-reviewed entries into this year’s list of album contenders, the excellent, genre-skirting EP Ceremonial. It was tough to choose just one single, but we arrived on the EP’s closing tune:”Stasis”. Hopping out of the gates with a rolling arpeggiated synth, clicky percussion and a light dose of grand piano, “Stasis” chases down a synth-pop prognosis and smashes it to bits with hints of a sensible psych influence and club-first house foundation. Gilligan Moss treats the tune’s vocal just as craftily as his instrumentation, cutting and looping effortlessly through hazy and delicate incantations that sound somewhere between Sean Ryder’s most indulgent bellows and the Macintosh computer SimpleText application used on OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier”. Just beautiful stuff to our Ninja ears really. For a real taste of Moss’ range, don’t skip on the rest of Moss’ Ceremonial either, to get a much clearer grasp on why he’s been targeted as one of our ‘ones to watch in 2016′ list.
Coming in with one of the most criminally underrated albums this year, Escape From Evil, and hailing from one of the more overlooked indie scenes in Baltimore (see: Future Islands, Beach House), Lower Dens also quietly dropped one of the most beautiful singles of the year in “Ondine”. At first glance, “Ondine” appears to be a sugary-sweet pop ditty, as its syncopated drum-machine cadence, light & glittery synths, and cherry guitar layering set the perfect backdrop for Jana Hunter’s aching lyrics to unfold on. But, when she repeats the song’s devastating vocal hook -“I will treat you better” then bellows the most painful iteration of “Hold On” we’ve ever heard- you just can’t help but to fall like a broken feather into its center. Hold on for a minute while we go cry.
“Annie” was the alt-pop posterchild of 2015. With its asymmetrically bent synth stabs and Palomo’s breathy incantations, it’s the kind of breezy, faux-dub/tropical pop synthesis that acts like Tears For Fears and Duran Duran concocted to mass pop stardom in the early 80’s. “Annie” fluidly bends a kind of electronic instrumentation that soothes the most vicious of new-wave revivalists with the kind of forward thinking, pop experimentalism that seems to excite those *ahem* droves of snooty music writers as well. If you missed it, back in October Ninja Dom put together an incredible review of Neon Indian’s 2015 return to the LP formatVEGA INT’l Night School, which does much more justice to each track than this writer ever could.
2015 was a huge year for Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalist John Jagos, and this was the single that started it all. “Wake” sputters out a balmy, smooth vocal wrapped around his usual brand of off-kilter, hand-keyed electronic pop structuring for a feel that is simultaneously familiar, unique and addictive. “Wake” leans ever so slightly toward a corner of yacht-rock that would make Bill Hader & Fred Armisen’s Documentary Now! fictional supergroup ‘The Blue-Jean Committee’ tip their hats, but the ambient tones utilized here wash over its listener like an enveloping fog to create a soundscape that touches upon numerous aural aesthetics. “Wake”, was an entrancing and utterly lovely tune combining a number of things we love about Jagos’ Brothertiger project and a welcome peak into his excellent 2015 Out Of Touch LP.
Long time staples of every indie-writer-in-the-know’s list of genre pushing acts, Deerhunter’s follow up to 2013’s Monomania, Fading Frontier, delivered more than a few bright spots. On “Living My Life”, Deerhunter delivers a special kind of syrupy pop creaminess –which hasn’t been the most affixed comparison to their experimental pop catalog. Encased in a gauzy, droning splash of guitar and precisely sourced electronics, “Living My Life” wields the kind of majesty that so many critics demand of their most high-minded musicians; especially of Bradford Cox. Quite simply, it’s a sad song that feels happy, and an incredible single entry into one of the decade’s most impressive libraries.
10.) DIIV – “Bent” (Roi’s Song)
From the reverby, amorphous guitar chords to its paced drumming; “Bent” lets its listener settle in warmly before Zachary Cole Smith’s icy vocals penetrate its sonic terrain. On this record, Smith’s cadence is an achy one, rising and falling like the sleeping chest of whoever you’re sharing your bed with, but without nearly as many affectations as were in play on their debut long-player Oshin. But his incantations aren’t distant either, coming across as intimately as a shared conversation over a pillow case, while Devin Ruben Perez’s bassline plucks along heartily enough to subtly captivate its listener without delineating from the rest of the tune’s lovely instrumentation. We’re chomping at the bit for the release of 2016’s Is The Is Are and this was one of the biggest reasons why.
“Gosh” (and pretty much all of Jamie xx’s amazing 2015 LP In Colour) is a musical study in perspective. What starts under a fully magnified scope focused on heavy bass and a simple vocal hook, gradually pans further and further out, flipping from a microscopic gaze to a telescopic overview, until its almighty, high-pitched synth crescendo clobbers through a soup of chopped and sampled percussion to shatter everything apart, simultaneously opening even more space for In Colour to rebuild with a sort of Big Bang cyclicality. There’s just so much at play within this one 3 minute sonic trek, it’s overwhelming. With two solo albums and two albums with The xx under his belt, yung Jamie has quickly become the genre-pushing “it-boy” amongst both the underground dance heads and indie nostalgists all at once. And it’s tunes like this which help solidify his place in the spotlight.
8.) Roosevelt – “Night Moves”
Roosevelt has long felt like an act waiting for that one crossover hit before spilling over into mainstream consciousness. While we’ve been waiting pretty patiently for another full body of work after 2013’s phenomenal Elliot EP, we were luckily held over by “Night Moves” as a single which popped up unannounced on Greco-Roman Records’ Soundcloud earlier this year. On “Night Moves”, all of Roosevelt’s sonic elements for which we’ve grown to love are still there; the warm and suffuse melodies, the soothing psychedelia and the streamlined pop structures, but this time around they’ve wrapped themselves much more closely than ever to the realm of dance music. Carefully layed out acid synth -which leans into Phuture’s 1987 vision more than his tastemaking contemporaries might stray towards- worms its way throughout a thick sea of pop mutations, while a steady four-four kick never relinquishes its hold on the entire track. We could go on for hours about the finely tuned single that was “Night Moves”, but we’ll just let you listen instead.
Idaho seems like quite the unlikely place for genre-pushing experimentalist pop acts to flourish, yet here we are almost in 2016 and Youth Lagoon finds themselves sitting in the heart of Boise, churning out some of this writer’s favorite music of the young decade. After 2013’s incredible Wondrous Bughouse, we’d been patiently waiting for a follow-up, and Youth Lagoon returned as sharp as ever in 2015 with Savage Hills Ballroom. The album’s second single, “Highway Patrol Stun Gun,” was inspired by one of the absolute worst media themes this year: increasing reports of police violence. About the tune, band mastermind Trevor Powers stated: “With all the police brutality in the media, it seemed like every single day there was some element of chaos—but in different forms. It just got so bad. I feel like we live in this shitstorm now where there’s so many corrupt people in high places, people getting away with all this shit. So, I sat down and I decided to just write whatever came to my mind. Living in Idaho, it’s easy to feel isolated from all of these events, and that was sort of my way of dealing with it.” “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” features notable characteristics of previous Youth Lagoon work, like Powers’ ambling, innocent tenor, but also diverges; incorporating a much wider variety of instrumentation coupled with an acute sense of careful production. While we grew just as tired of the repeated police brutality headlines, we’re just happy that Powers chose to deal with the aforementioned “shitstorm” with such a great tune.
6.) Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin”
A simple, fingerpicked indie-folk guitar loop dominates most of Kurt Vile’s beautiful b’lieve i’m goin down opener “Pretty Pimpin”, but it’s in the rolling opus’ lyrical details where it all blossoms into something much more. A most basic encounter with his reflection in the bathroom mirror sends him into a daze: “Who’s that stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink?” he quips, trying to “recognize” and come to grips with “the man in the mirror”. Vile’s Slick Rick level of storytelling is on full display on “Pretty Pimpin” and cracks the door wide open for by far one of the brightest LP entries to 2015. Clearly Vile’s time since leaving THe War On Drugs has done the dazed superstar a world of good.
5.) Mac DeMarco – “The Way You’d Love Her”
In just two-and-a-half minutes, “The Way You’d Love Her” displays just about everything we love about Canadian indie-maestro. Perhaps there is none better at dragging a wave of sarcastic ribbing through the wide-eyed, hopeful, heartfelt ballad than Mac DeMarco. On “The Way You’d Love Her”, Demarco’s faintly mumbled reverberations take center stage as with much of his most stirring work; hypnotizing and drawing its listener into the romance – until he gives a little yelp and breaks the mood with a classically Demarco, pitch-controlled, indie-surf guitar solo to wrap things up. How could you not just swoon to this one?
Perhaps the most exciting and perplexing artistic entry into this writer’s constantly expanding list of new groundbreaking acts, Thomas Arsenault’s Mas Ysa project shot straight into our hearts with a bullet this year; especially behind power-single “Look Up”. Hurtling drums and cascades of synth propel “Look Up” forward throughout its quick duration, but the most welcoming addition to Mas Ysa’s sonic toolbox, and one we think pulled him from art-house-hipster’s iPods into more mainstream territory, was an acoustic guitar that plays like it was lifted straight from Ben Gibbard’s The Photo Album stem collection. “Look Up”‘s end result wonderfully displays a compelling growth in Mas Ysa’s craft, and one that’s got us beyond excited for what 2016 brings from Mas Ysa.
How one unique kid from North Las Vegas managed to take the entire indie-pop world by storm will always be beyond me. Shamir Bailey never had an army of press or publicicsts behind him; rather the wunderkind producer/singer/songwriter let his debut LP Ratchet and its gorgeous slices of tuneage speak for him instead. Hell, it wasn’t even until at least four months after Ratchet‘s release that it was even available on torrent clients. Now, in 2015 that, ninjas, is called flying under the radar. But, it was largely the radio success of lead single “On The Regular” which pushed Shamir from a cooped up bedroom artist to ‘Late Show’ darling. “On The Regular” was the hyper addictive blend of Warehouse era Chicago house swing, 80’s synths that lean in on you like the arm of someone on a NY subway, pop structuring and of course Shamir’s delicate refrain; which all resulted into our favorite purely pop cut of the year.
2.) Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
The sea-change from the deepest throws of psych-rock displayed on Innerspeaker and Lonerism presents itself immediately on Currents’ opener “Let It Happen”- a tune we’re sure you’re familiar with. Right off the bat, Tame Impala diehards may have noticed an immediate structural change as an analog four-four snare and kickdrum pattern takes center stage with next to nothing in the realm of those scuzzy and heavy guitars we’ve grown accustomed from Kevin Parker’s baby. That is of course, until six minutes in, you’re clobbered by a loopy and simple four-chord guitar progression which only really enhances this track’s ambient minutiae. But it’s the entire build and movement that seals its listener into Currents from this one single. There’s more nuanced hi-pass drum filtering put into “Let It Happen” than most bands would dream of utilizing in their entire careers, save for cdance producers (which after “Elephant” isn’t too surprising really) signaling Tame Impala’s careful and precise attention to not only their lead single, but the album as a whole. “Let It Happen” simultaneously cracks open Currents like a punch in the gut, while giving the long-player the necessary room it needs to breathe and evolve as an entire movement. Quite honestly, it may be this writer’s favorite opening to any album within the annals of time, and if you it, be sure to check out another one of Ninja Dom’s insightful and captivating LP reviews for Currents here.
On “Them Changes”, the six-string Brainfeeder bass virtuoso known as Thundercat has strayed from the post-breakup day-to-day struggle thematically found frequently on his last LP Apocalypse, and this time glumly arrived at full-blown devastation. The tune is a warning shot of sorts, as “Nobody Move/There’s Blood On The Floor” forms the first line and only digs further into the overwhelming finality and acceptance of heartbreak similar to a cop stumbling across a murder scene. While lyrically, “Them Changes” is a morbidly morose view into Thundercat’s expansive headspace, musically, he’s built one of the richest soundscapes of any 3:00 minute single in history. It’s got emotional turmoil sung in a masculine yet delicate falsetto, and it’s got a heaping spoonful of noodly, six-string bass funk. Two worlds have never collided so beautifully. It’s only fitting that Thundercat’s most notable Brainfeeder cohorts Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington make appearances -albeit in small doses- on his biggest, perhaps even career-defining single. No one wanted to miss out on the fun of “Them Changes” in 2015.
Honorable Mentions:Tame Impala – “Disciples”, “The Less I Know The Better”, “Eventually”, “‘Cause I’m a Man”; Tobias Jesso Jr. – “Hollywood”; Chromatics – “Shadow”; NITE-FUNK (Nite Jewel & Dâm-Funk) – Can U Read Me; Disclosure – “Nocturnal”; Tundran – “Kimono”; Drake – “Know Yourself”, “Hotline Bling”; Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood”; Beach House – “Sparks”; Tanlines – “Pieces”; The Arcs – “Put A Flower In Your Pocket”; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – “S.O.B.”; U.S. Girls – “Window Shades”; – Best Coast – “Feeling Ok”; YACHT – “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler”; A Sunny Day In Glasgow – “Days & More Nights”; Motorama – “Heavy Wave”, “Impractical Advice”; Kelela – “Rewind”; Favored Nations – “I Can See You”; Calvin Love – “Automaton”; Viet Cong – “Silhouettes”, “Continental Shelf”; Autre Ne Veut – “Panic Room”; GEMS – “Living As a Ghost”
Which witch house wins? Balam Acab’s witch house wins. Balam Acab, otherwise known as Alec Koone, caught our attention a long time ago with his work, and a few days ago he released a new EP—Child Death. Aside from the real cute name, Child Death shows us not one side, but many sides of the Ithaca-based producer. The 5 track release takes the listener on an electronic journey that’s both light and dark at times, but mostly dark. It’s like the soundtrack for that really messed up version of Hansel and Gretel. Fun, right?
The second track off of Child Death, “Spent Lives,” caught our attention here at TMN the most. This mini-journey just takes you everywhere. It starts out with sci-fi spacey sounds, placing you in a twinkling landscape that speaks in chrome. Then Alec brings us into a darker place that seems more apropos given the EP’s name, and we’re sucked into a wormhole of echoing vocals, screeching samples, and deep and haunting bass tones. We actually find it to be very similar to Arca’s works, and that’s a big compliment. We think as subgenres of electronic get more and more exposure, witch house will be one that everyone knows. And when that happens, Balam Acab will be at the forefront right up there with oOoOO and Holy Other. And rightfully so.
Anxiety grips us all at some point, and we’re lucky enough to have an endless stream of music to help ease our worries. Searching for a calm haven can be difficult, but the gentle atmosphere of Himalia‘s newest project, Ghosts, manufactures a universe inundated with brooding, yet soothing components that tenderly circulate throughout your consciousness.
Layer after layer of reverb soaked synths cascade across each track, beckoning for something intangible. There’s a delicate gravity within every instrumental that shatters the hectic world around you as listen, and, as everything begins to slow down, a feeling of ease permeates your mind. It’s here that Himalia excels. With time essentially frozen, the music is its own entity. Ghosts is sixteen minutes of authentic bliss, and luckily for us, the EP is a free download. Close your eyes and find your peace of mind in an incessantly shifting world with Himalia’s newest effort right now. We all need a break, so get a perfect start with the ethereal tunes below.
Austin-based producer Spencer Stephenson, known by the moniker Botany, stepped out onto the electronic scene in a big way with his new LP Dimming Awe, The Light Is Raw. Demonstrating a significant command of the frequency spectrum, Stephenson has once again created a work that effortlessly combines ambient, hip-hop and psych in a landscape that transports the listener to a place of heightened auditory perception upon the first listen. Stephenson’s artistic interest in paying homage to all the freaks (aka frequencies) is hugely seen in this LP’s own “Bad CGI”, a track that will get you vibing all around.
Opening with a drone-y vocal sample that will come back to haunt you later on in the song, the track has an experimental low end pulse that fittingly follows, setting the driving bass rhythm for the rest of the track. The intro flows seamlessly into a funkier tune as the bass line comes in along with the highs of ambient flutter effects that fill the background of the track. It soon becomes apparent that this is one you can get down to. The transition from a chanty bass track to the track that could easily be dropped at a club is impeccable, and I think that’s what attracts us to Botany’s work the most. Check out the rest of his stuff for a groove-ridden train ride across his Texas-made bridge between the experimental and beats that anyone can feel.
A hero’s power would be nothing without the juxtaposition of a darker force. In much the same way, the team over at Heroic have launched the perfect antithesis to their current label with the recent launch of Villain Recordings. With the idea to establish a polar opposite spectrum of sound, this newly birthed collective enables an entirely new breed of artist to be showcased whose musical tendencies lean towards the dark and mysterious.
Leading the charge for the villainous conquest is Slovenian producer Whynnel, giving us a taste of the label’s sinister side with the grungy beats of ‘Mitzdi’. The brooding atmosphere is a potent presence throughout this intensely edgy experience, and yet beneath it all lies undertones that are refreshingly chill. Nevertheless, the imagery of abandoned factories shrouded in darkness will form an inescapable labyrinth in the listener’s mind for the full four minute journey.
Though completely contrasting from a stylistic point of view, one factor that connects the two entities is a mission statement to unearth new talent and create new legacies in the scene. If this debut release is anything to go by, the bad guys will definitely be a force to be reckoned with!