Music

The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2015

Electronic music is one of the broadest reaching genres by design, and 2015 showcased that spectacularly well with a bevy of albums still heavily represented on playlists today.

It's been a year of quiet successes for electronic fans. Unlike previous years when artists like Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, and Flying Lotus so clearly reigned supreme, 2015 was a year which saw independent hitmakers (Jamie xx) and experimental favorites (Arca) run up against underground upstarts (DJ Paypal) and classic acts making modest resurgences (the Orb, Squarepusher, the Chemical Brothers) without any undeniable, year-defining, best of the best records.

Electronic music is one of the broadest reaching genres by design, and 2015 showcases that as well as any other year on record. House and drum 'n' bass continue to press their influence on mainstream pop and hip-hop while up-and-coming regional styles like footwork are starting get due recognition in the press; world music sounds and rhythms also continue to find their way into the grooves of Western electronic while retro styles like downtempo and lounge house celebrate minor revivals. The only thing electronic music lacked in 2015, after all, was an unassailable star.

In the end, that might be for the best. Electronic music is unquestionably moving forward on every conceivable front, and it's always been a genre that welcomed and even celebrated anonymity, individuality, and the power of an underground movement. 2015's lack of an agreed-upon luminary only calls more attention to the genre's breadth, scope, and the dynamism that's been with it since the beginning. That's a powerful way to start off the second half of a decade that has and will no doubt continue to see more widening of horizons than ever before. -- Colin Fitzgerald

20. Jamie xx - In Colour (Young Turks)

In Colour is a lot of things. It's Jamie xx's first proper follow-up to 2011's We're New Here remix album, which reshaped Gil-Scott Heron's album to interesting effects. It's also Jamie Smith's solo debut album and, finally, his first official departure from the xx's sonic palette. Strangely, none of this feels dramatic. In Colour is meant to depict the last six years of the English producer's career. It's a mixture of rave, balearic beats and soul music, making up a nicely cohesive conjuncture. It's, above all, introspective music that could have only been conceived inside the inner workings of a solitary mind. It feels deeply personal, just like the technicolor illusion we've been expecting him to release since that eventful 2009 album, the xx's debut xx. -- Danilo Bortoli

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19. Squarepusher - Damogen Furies (Warp)

For electronic fans, Squarepusher albums have become events in and of themselves despite never being so conventional as to reveal the state of the genre at any given point and never being so experimental as to qualify as a subversion of or a reaction to a specific sound. In the case of Damogen Furies, Tom Jenkinson lands squarely in the middle of the two approaches, leveraging searing synthesizer melodies and his signature brash, hyperactive drum patterns to create one of his most aggressive, bitter, and outright confident records -- at least in recent memory.

It's also one of his most cohesive and condensed in its madness, like sending a buzzsaw through modern drum 'n' bass and IDM that recalls old sounds as much as it draws from the new. Even as Squarepusher's latter-day output continues to divide fans, Damogen Furies hits some surprising highs for a legacy artist of Jenkinson's stature, and it shows how fearless he still is two decades removed from his high-profile beginnings. -- Colin Fitzgerald

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18. Rizzla - Iron Cages (Fade to Mind)

Add Rizzla to the growing list of essential names in Foley Grime to watch. His highly anticipated debut EP arrives on Night Slugs' sister label Fade to Mind a good four years into his career. He has not exactly been quiet during his tenure, dropping tons of mixes, downloads, and remixes onto the world of dance music. He soon became known for his massive skills with hybridity and fusion, spawning new genres with each new offering, be they soca-driven industrial hip-hop or trance-guided moombahton club constructions or what have you. He was also part of the queer collective #KUNQ, along with other vanguard artists like False Witness, Battyjack, and blk.adonis" and performed explosive DJ sets at the late, wild graveyard trap sets of GHE20G0TH1K parties.

Rhythm may be the principal foreground on these five tracks, and the Caribbean-cum-Brooklyn percussive assembly ranks amongst the finest in the Night Slugs/Fade to Mind cannon, but the warped and alien sounds melded along the syncopated curvature of the beats are what give the tracks real vitality. Sirens wail, urban voices breathlessly grunt, stringy synths wobble into the ether, and glass breaks briefly and shifts swiftly back into place. -- Timothy Gabriele

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17. DJ Paypal - Sold Out (Brainfeeder)

Sold Out, DJ Paypal's newest joint, is most compelling because of its cheeky flip of footwork's ethos. Paypal's Teklife compatriots make a living pushing out footwork and juke with a stony expression -- to them (and to many others), the style isn't fun and games. It reflects life's sobriety, whether in the form of DJ Spinn's spartan, mechanical breakbeats, or the late DJ Rashad's smoother soul-influenced oeuvre. Classically, footwork has taken itself very seriously, something befitting its origins in Chicago dance battles -- music, as dance, as a way of life.

DJ Paypal, on the other hand, professes no such pretensions. The notoriously camera-shy producer -- he generally performs with a T-shirt over his head, and has given very few publicly-available interviews -- nevertheless reframes footwork as a more joyful, less sober experience. There's a certain brand of liveliness and merriment on Sold Out which flies in the face of conventional juke and yet it still feels faithful to the style, kind of like a parallel to Todd Terje's disco or Jamie xx's jungle. It's bold and brash, but it still feels like a natural extension of the now-global footwork scene. -- Will Rivitz

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16. Hot Sugar - God's Hand (Break World)

Nick Koenig had been on the scene for a few years, his Hot Sugar project appearing with the self-released Muscle Milk EP in 2011 and gaining critical traction with the Ninja Tune-released mini-album Moon Money in 2012, but God's Hand represented his first true full-length, and it was a resoundingly triumphant debut. Utilizing a creative approach similar to that employed by Amon Tobin post-2007, something Koenig calls "associative music", God's Hand is a cerebral, trip-hop-tinged studio creation that absorbs all manner of commonplace sounds and shapes them into vibrant sources of melody and rhythm.

Yet, given its quirky foundation, like morphing samples of a man shoveling snow or webcam audio of fans blowing bubbles and crushing cans into timbres akin to pianos, strings, and 808s, the mood throughout has a palpable gravity, its bubbling textures evoking Tipper in psychedelic downtempo mode underscored by wistful emotional resonance. You don't need to know the diegetic origins of the sounds to be in awe of their distinctive visceral effect; Koenig imbued God's Hand with intrinsic childlike wonder. -- Alan Ranta

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15. The Orb - Moonbuilding 2703 AD (Kompakt)

Unlike a lot of classic electronic artists now pushing into the modern era, the Orb seem content to retain their vintage sounds and traditional approaches for the next century, but when the results are as satisfying as the duo's latest four-track opus Moonbuilding 2703 AD, it would seem crazy to seek any kind of an update. The record is bursting with slowly morphing compositions that swim through rich dub textures, house grooves, and ambient soundscapes in waves perfectly paced as either low-key dancefloor fodder or the soundtrack to late-night solitude. It's a record out of time, recalling both the early years of ambient house which the Orb memorably contributed to as well as turn-of-the-century downtempo, but its serene mood and effortless structural current give it its own identity. Even with the rapidly evolving culture of electronic music, Moonbuilding 2703 AD proves there's still room for a classically styled dance record. -- Colin Fitzgerald

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14. Scuba - Claustrophobia (Hotflush)

In the three year break after Personality, it seems that Scuba has been brushing up on his Aphex Twin and other such electronic artists who use their compositional powers for evil. The song titles are neat clues ("Needle Phobia", "PCP"), but nothing cuts down to the bone quite like the music itself. Scuba's steely version of industrial dance relies heavily on thudding kick drums, sinister hi-hats, and drawn out builds that are the sonic equivalent of a jump scare. There are no cheap tricks here either; Scuba keeps the tension at a simmering heat even on the marathon songs, with album highlight "Black on Black" stretching for nine minutes of feverous dance. Claustrophobia will make your ass shake, but it will also instill a creeping horror from every pulsing note. -- Nathan Stevens

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13. Jaga Jazzist - Starfire (Ninja Tune)

It didn't seem as though Norwegian experimental jazz collective Jaga Jazzist would ever be able to top the overwhelming brilliance of their 2010 album One-Armed Bandit, but they managed to achieve this by taking a step sideways. Rather than chasing the dragon of meticulous composition that was all over One-Armed Bandit and their 2013 live album with the Britten Sinfonia, they ramped up the synthetic angle on Starfire. Instead of playing everything live off the floor with the whole band, composer Lars Horntveth moved to Los Angeles, where he was visited sparingly by his partners in crime, making Starfire the creation of studio wizardry, and they successfully ran with the concept. There are only five tracks on this album, but there is a staggering amount of substance packed into each composition, sprawling and unfurling like time-lapse footage of the entire history of LA compressed into mere ten-minute pieces. Few, if any, albums made in 2015 attempted this level of craftsmanship. -- Alan Ranta

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12. Steve Hauschildt - Where All Is Fled (Kranky)

Much like his other comrades on the venerable Kranky Records, Steve Hauschildt's mutations on electronic music are plaintive, captivating, and massive. Despite a surface level simplicity, Hauschildt makes sure that each song evolves into a deep dive: meditative, but never tranquil, as the edges of his synthesizers hint at nightmares and disturbing revelations just as easily as they conjure up deep breathing exercises. In his titles and compositions, Hauschildt paints in watercolors, from the inky-blackness of deep-sea trenches to the shimmering calmness of the surface. Either way, Where All Is Fled is unfathomable and utterly hypnotizing. -- Nathan Stevens

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11. Rone - Creatures (Infiné)

Whereas so many electronic albums are just as easily digestible as singles, the third studio album by France's Erwan Castex unfurls purposefully like an epic novel; each chapter builds on the last towards an overall catharsis that taps deep into the human psyche for those that let it in. For Creatures, Castex attempted a more organic approach to his otherworldly sound, while jacking up the guest list to include such impressive names as Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, Canadian lo-fi pop singer Sea Oleena, the National's Bryce Dessner, and Frànçois Marry of Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains fame.

Placing the string-laden haunted amusement park feel of the Gaspar Claus-assisted "Freaks" and the ambient breakbeat of the Echaskech-esque "Memory" together would be quite a contrast, but in the contextual flow of the album, everything comes in its own time, at its own pace, skittering ambiance building to dramatic swells. It's an album with which to sink in and drift away. You simply have to let it happen. -- Alan Ranta

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10. Max Richter - Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon)

In multiple interviews this year, crafty composer Max Richter proclaimed that the "low end is [his] religion". That point may not have been crystal clear in his reworking of Vivaldi, or his famed The Blue Notebooks, but in the restful folds of Sleep the low end is Richter's bedrock. From the low electronic hums that lift and cocoon the album, Richter weaves strings, pianos, and languid voices into a dream-like tapestry. That's, of course, the point after all. All the beautiful repetition is meant to lull the listener into rest (or at the least, relaxation). But, even with all the gorgeous layers atop the album, that gentle hum is always there, nudging listeners into a restful, wonderful sleep. -- Nathan Stevens

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9. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete (Warp)

The influence of Oneohtrix Point Never, aka vaporwave godfather Daniel Lopatin, is difficult overstate. Amidst a decade of music often described (though somewhat inadequately) as progressive electronic, Garden of Delete stands out as one of Lopatin's finest records, a famously polarizing body of work. Some will recoil at the dated synths and hairpin excursions; others will find them irresistible.

This album could provide an excellent starting point for those willing to take the plunge. It's a striking union of compositional complexity and wonderfully simple hooks, proving an expressly maximalist direction for the artist. It's crushingly heavy yet intensely purifying as if you commissioned Tim Hecker to create a work using only air horns and unlimited digital processing.

Highlights include "Sticky Drama", with its blissful, pitched-up vocal line, and the closer, "No Good", which could strip parts off the International Space Station. Garden of Delete is guaranteed to leave you asking, "What the hell is that sound?" once every few seconds, and in the best way possible. -- A Noah Harrison

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8. Lapalux - Lustmore (Brainfeeder)

One thing that's been largely pushed to the background in the sudden mainstream supremacy of electronic music in the modern decade is the soulful outer reaches of the downtempo genre, usually regarded now as a dated remnant of the worldwide commercial surge of electronic music in the late 1990s. Lapalux's second album is a postmodern restoration of the style that clings to modern trappings of hybrid electronic sounds taken from hip-hop beat music, Flying Lotus-inspired jazz and funk, and -- quietly -- IDM. This manifests itself in a dizzying, late-night squall of deep modern grooves and retro soul more emotionally affecting than cerebral, but Lustmore's rich layers of grimy sounds nonetheless mark an evolution of chillout music that the mainstream has thus far neglected to integrate into its own. With albums like Lustmore, it's only a matter of time. -- Colin Fitzgerald

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7. Holly Herndon - Platform (RVNGIntl.)

Holly Herndon's third record proves itself a lovely display of the dichotomy between intimacy and alienation in the Digital Age. As a work of sousveillance (subversive self-surveillance), the album utilizes a breadth of sonic vocabulary—hard drive whir recorded with a contact mic, for instance—showcasing the ever-pervasive ways we may monitor ourselves. Platform also marks Herndon's first forays as a vocalist, often as chopped up gasps, croaks, and mews. The album, despite its serendipitous peaks, is stunningly inconsistent, lacking any narrative through-line.

While "Morning Sun," initiated by the iPhone unlock sound and the lyric "Wake up, gotta wake up," is an impeccable pop tune, the unmusical, ASMR-inspired "Lonely at the Top feat. Claire Tolan", with its breathy come-ons, achieves a level of awkward rarely seen in music. Still, tracks like "Chorus" and "Home", with their colossal, clunking grooves, more than redeem Herndon as a meticulous yet frustrating composer. It's fair to say if you're unfamiliar with her work, you've never heard anything like it: EDM-streaked sound collage, at once robotic and deeply personal. -- A Noah Harrison

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6. Étienne de Crécy - Super Discount 3 (Pixadelic/A+LSO/Sony Music)

He's an intriguing character, that Étienne de Crécy. A major player in France's house music scene, he released the first installment in the Super Discount series almost 20 years ago, a collaborative 1996 album that helped establish the world-renowned French touch. Part two came out in 2004, which left an 11-year gap until Super Discount 3, but this record picks up where he left off without skipping a beat. Given the lengths of those gaps, you might expect the record to sound dreadfully overworked, but Étienne made a point of using new synths and hurrying the music's creation to keep the vibe feeling innocent and youthful.

Furthermore, while he continued to work with Alex Gopher and Julien Delfaud from the second record, new collaborative partners in Madeline Follin (Cults), Baxter Dury, Pos and Dave of De La Soul, and Kilo Kish inject incalculable character into the festivities. The overall effect was a deep, disco-fied, dancefloor-worshipping spectacle that reps the old school but never gets old. -- Alan Ranta

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5. Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl - We Are Not the First (Rvng Intl.)

Behind the heftily named Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl is one of many aliases of an elusive nu-jazz producer and a host of musicians and collaborators. Hieroglyphic leads his troops on a spiritual and spacey mission through the world of free improvisation. The ensemble includes members like 91-year-old Sun Ra Arkestra multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Marshall Allen, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog's guitarist Shahzad Ismaily, and Liturgy/Zs power drummer Greg Fox. All make visible contributions, continually shuffling through moods and styles.

"Apes and Ages" contains spoken word over a squawking flock of horns and the driving, house-y "Cybernetics is an Old Science" sounds like your friend whose life's coming apart at the seems but who maintains the illusion of keeping it together. The record concludes with the dazzling, 20-minute opus and the title track, combining the best parts of Ornette Coleman and Animal Collective. Though We Are Not the First often sounds like 1970s-era krautrock and Canterbury scene -- the stratospheric croons of "Civilization that is Dying" recall in Gilli Smith's work with Gong -- its production is very cutting edge. A week of recording sessions and countless hours of mixing give way to an epic Afro-Futurist journey in an unshaken upholding of the holy cool. -- A Noah Harrison

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4. Jlin - Dark Energy (Planet Mu)

For many music fans this year, Chicago producer Jlin's Dark Energy was their first exposure to a modern, underground style of dance music from the city that first gave birth to house: footwork. A singular and decidedly unique effort, the record isn't exactly representative of conventional footwork, which has been around for years in one form or another, but it may nonetheless be the style's first nationally recognized success.

Dark Energy delivers exactly what the name signifies: ominous, relentless, and vigorously dynamic electronic music, a sound that's modern with enough minimalist flavor to call back to retro techno and house characterized by repetitive vocal samples and sharp blasts of clicky drums. As an introduction to a very specific regional sound, it may seem odd that Dark Energy feels both on the cutting edge and timeless, but the album is simply too restless to keep in a box. It is, after all, not only a new hallmark of footwork music but also a distinct evolution away from it. -- Colin Fitzgerald

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3. Floating Points - Elaenia (Luaka Bop)

DJ and neuroscientist (no, really) Sam Shepherd (Floating Points) has always made music for the brain. Indeed, his closest peers might be from Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder record label, with Shepherd consistently working with the same themes of genre-bending and playfulness. Here, Shepherd (with a full band in tow) leaps from sterling idea to sterling idea, crafting an album that can trace influences from Mingus, Aphex Twin, and Vangelis, while still managing to make sense. Skittish opener "Nespole" shows off Shepherd's mastery of layering sounds, "Argente" has one of 2015's most thrilling builds, and album centerpiece "Silhouettes (I, II, II)" earns its nearly 11-minute run time with a breathtaking firework display of violins, nimble drumming, and bouncing keyboards. With an absurd amount of grace, Shepherd has made a burbling, charming, and beautiful record, one of 2015's true delights. -- Nathan Stevens

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2. Arca - Mutant (Mute)

Rather than capitalize on the breakthrough that Xen represented for him with a more streamlined answer, this follow-up has Arca throwing everything -- glitch, IDM, dubstep, industrial, techno, ambient, noise and world music -- into an experimental microcosm of a record, an electronic hothouse where every conceivable touchstone coexists in an awkward, ugly but ultimately breathtaking harmony. Its bustling, condensed epics refuse to present a single, easily digestible vision of the world, yet in so doing they end up revealing this world in all its beautifully chaotic truth.

His second album is a maelstrom of unresolved differences and pluralities, yet in accentuating these differences and pluralities rather than forcing them to compromise with each other, he's crafted a record to get lost in, to lose your mind in, and to recast it in more enlightened form all over again. Truly, the Venezuelan's brand of inchoate, diversified electronica is music for a globalized world, for an Earth in which ancient traditions sit alongside the often devastating power of new technologies, and in which human potential could be realized to an unprecedented extent if only we were inclined to use such technology humanely. Maybe we'll never reach such a stage on the level of politics and economics, but at the very least, Arca has shown us how it can be reached on the level of art. -- Simon Chandler

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1. Dawn Richard - Blackheart (Our Dawn)

The middle act to a "heart" trilogy following Goldenheart, Blackheart is most definitely The Empire Strikes Back, full of darkness and despair and following its initial muse with both excitement and innovation. It's one of those "throes of fame" LPs, but if like many of us you find that whole conceit dull prima facie just try throwing this record on without emerging slack-jawed in awe.

After a brief but moving intro, the listener is cast into "Calypso" (not a retro inculcation of whimsical Belafonte-isms but an ode to the mythical Greek nymph), a track as eclectic and outre as anything Oneohtrix Point Never or Arca could dream up. This from a former reality TV star/ Dirty Money sideliner/ TMZ fodder is impressive enough a feat, but the album just gets better from there, the first 25 minutes or so an untouchable song suite culminating in a seven-minute mutant opus about Adderall whose refrain, the heart of the album, proclaims "She was living like she was dying soon."

Key here is the producer Scott Bruzenak of Noisecastle III who infuses the mix with jungle percussion, electro, steel drums, loads of vocal manipulation, and every weird pop trick in the galaxy without every diffusing its streamlined pop heart. Here, Richard's careful use space and setting allows the production to truly complement as well as complicate so that melisma itself is not carrying the weight of the entire song. Which is not to see that it couldn't. By the time she gets to the more familiar EDM uplift of "Phoenix", she's earned the self-empowering maxims she preaches. With Blackheart, she has created a singularity. -- Timothy Gabriele

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* * *

This article originally published on 21 December 2015.



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