Top 10 Electronic Albums of 2015

Treble staff

Electronic music is in a constant state of flux. It has to be; where technology advances, so does the music that employs it. But with each year that Treble runs a list of the best electronic albums of the year, inevitably they end up falling into two different camps: Artfully danceable electronic pop or darker, more sinister abstractions. This year, those worlds seemed to cross, with the more avant garde producers growing more danceable and accessible, and the pop artists retreating into sinister realms. It’s been interesting to watch the growing shadow loom over electronic music in 2015, and some of it we didn’t even get around to addressing on this list: Lakker, Blanck Mass, Levon Vincent, Arca. But these 10 albums, loaded with samples, synths and beats, defined a year of idiosyncratic electronics. Plug in, turn up and get moving to our Top 10 Electronic Albums of 2015.


top 10 electronic albums of 201510. HEALTHDeath Magic
(Loma Vista)

If New York proto-industrial act Suicide were practitioners of, well, death magic, and decided to psychically cross the U.S. and possess a handful of so-called noise-rockers from L.A., HEALTH and their third album might be the result. Death Magic is chock full of Jake Duzsik’s plaintive melodies over a lot of brightly keyboarded, darkly drummed synth-pop. That might sound like formula, and damned if some of this doesn’t sound like Depeche Mode, but in the hands of studio wizards like The Haxan Cloak (Björk) and Andrew Dawson (Kanye West) it takes on an atmospheric, of-the-moment quality. There’s a three-song stretch near the end of the album—”New Coke,” “L.A. Looks,” “Hurt Yourself”—that hops from dour noise to navel-gazing anti-pop to abstract balladry. I reckon that means there’s a vein of substance in them there Hollywood hills. – AB


top 10 electronic albums of 2015 Grimes Art Angels9. GrimesArt Angels
(4AD/Eerie Organization)

I was initially surprised by this album’s snappy, clear production, but now consider it a huge leap forward from Claire Boucher’s past curiosity-inducing musical fog. You get to hear more convincing evidence that Grimes is a sonic doppelganger for the J-pop and K-pop girl groups with bubblegum videos beamed into every serious Asian shopping district and all expatriate Chinatowns. Every vocal feels like forbidden enticement, even when the lyrics simultaneously kiss off Rihanna and Pitchfork (“California”) or when the music ventures into her version of guitar-driven dance-pop (“Pin”). Make no mistake that I want Boucher to politick and empower far into the future, but I have to be honest: Cuts like “SCREAM” and “Kill V. Maim” simply tweak my red-blooded American male bits, her filtered and flanged voice tossed into the sky like an anime cheerleader moonlighting as a space soldier. – AB


top 10 electronic albums of 2015 Chvrches Every Open Eye8. ChvrchesEvery Open Eye
(Glassnote)

Lauren Mayberry shared an anecdote with NME this year about how someone told her that they thought Chvrches were in fact an emo band in disguise, and her response confirmed it: “You’re not wrong!” If you changed the arrangements on the band’s new album Every Open Eye so that they were played on big, distorted guitars instead of booming, laser-beam synths, then that might very well be the case. But maybe it’s better to split the difference and say that Chvrches, like Jimmy Eat World or Brand New, are simply experts at making emotionally charged pop music. Every Open Eye is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, The Bones of What You Believe, and if it’s not a huge leap for the band, that’s really not a bad thing. The Glasgow trio already nailed a towering synth-pop sound once, and here they’re simply showing just how many more of those hook-laden, endlessly satisfying songs are left in the quiver. What’s mostly changed here is Mayberry’s vocal performance, which sounds stronger than ever, and most definitely convey a lot of all-caps FEELINGS. If you’re going to pour your heart out in a pop song, it’s better to sing it loud enough for the people in the cheap seats to hear it rather than to mumble it so low that the front row can’t understand it. What’s the use of catharsis if you can’t hear it reverberate? – JT


top 10 electronic albums of 2015 Battles La Di Da Di7. BattlesLa Di Da Di
(Warp)

The New York post-rock act has always had a quirky electronic bent, from inviting goth godhead Gary Numan to wail over a pointillist jam to being remixed to nirvana by Four Tet. The trio’s third album puts that digital influence into stark relief—the stuttering loops, triggers, synth runs and filters that turned stuff like “Atlas” into big hits fill all recorded space here. Battles get their mad scientist on, managing to perform sonic alchemy (like the guitars turned into horns in “Dot Com” and “Tricentennial”) and hopscotch between time signatures and feelings within songs (“The Yabba,” “Luu Le”) without feeling forced or confusing. It’s as if the band laid bits and pieces of infectious grooves end to end and stitched them together, expecting to reach the moon. – AB


Oneohtrix Point Never G.O.D.6. Oneohtrix Point NeverGarden of Delete
(Warp)

Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete was preceded by a deep-web wild goose chase about some alien that Daniel Lopatin uses as a protagonist of sorts on what amounts to both his darkest and most accessible album to date. That alien, Ezra, may or may not pop out of people’s chests or have a taste for Reese’s pieces, though as a theoretical muse he’s a humdinger. Garden of Delete carries a lot of familiar Lopatin tropes—ambience interrupted by brief periods of hyperactivity, synthetic voices treated with pitch-shifting effects, concepts too abstract to fully understand in the context of the album—but the most important characteristic here is the strength of its compositions. “Ezra,” named for Lopatin’s extraterrestrial character, features some gorgeous use of guitar, which is a rare component in a Oneohtrix song. “Sticky Drama” juxtaposes synthetic voice melodies against buzzsaw synthesizers, and “I Bite Through It” is akin to ambient M83 gone industrial. Garden of Delete is, indeed, alien. It’s also yet another masterful performance by an artist whose delightfully weird-ass vision knows no bounds. – JT


Bjork Vulnicura5. BjörkVulnicura
(One Little Indian)

Hearing Björk with a broken heart triggers a sort of cognitive dissonance that rarely happens with other artists. She’s human, vulnerable and breakable like the rest of us. But she’s also godlike, larger than life, more legend than person. Each of her albums tends to feel like a step further into the future, her embrace of new sounds and new technologies giving her the reputation of someone that perpetually chases the cutting edge. What makes Vulnicura such a revelatory piece of music is that it’s so insular and human. Featuring production contributions from The Haxan Cloak and Arca, the album could have easily veered into a more avant garde direction. But this isn’t their album, it’s Björk’s, and she guides the album through veins and arteries while anchoring it with an overwhelming gravitas. Written and recorded after her divorce from filmmaker Matthew Barney, Vulnicura explores scars and wounds like they were an exotic landscape, each drip and scrape rendered with poetic detail. It’s only when she takes a moment to retract into straightforward moments of clarity (“Did I love you too much?”) that this foreign and fascinating topography fully takes shape and comes into tear-jerking focus. – JT


Shamir Ratchet4. ShamirRatchet
(XL Recordings)

“Call it Off” and “On the Regular” were everywhere in 2015, and with good reason. Shamir’s first LP is one of Las Vegas’ surest bets in a long time, propelled by a countertenor suggesting the groundbreaking androgynous sound of Anohni knotted into playfully aggressive music and lyrics from the Azealia Banks school of house rap. He seems impossibly young to be bringing together autobiography (“Vegas”), modern dancefloor rumble (“Hot Mess”), twists on period genres (the updated swing of “In for the Kill”), and torchy R&B (“Darker”) with such skill and maturity. Shamir wants to be all things to all people, and is threatening to pull it off. If this be the future of pop, then play on, player. Play on. – AB


best albums of 2015 so far Soft Moon3. The Soft MoonDeeper
(Captured Tracks)

Every song title on The Soft Moon’s third album Deeper is just one word. On the surface it could appear like a laundry list of vague working titles for studio tracks that never really got fleshed out: “Try,” “Wasting,” “Without.” Fans of Luis Vasquez & Co.’s industrial-darkwave machine should understand by now that the band is expert at creating volumes from seemingly minimal ideas, and though the tracklist seems to say very little, each word is a window into a richly fleshed-out exploration of mood and texture. “Wrong” bubbles and bristles with robotic vocal refrains and vague menace. “Feel” grooves with angst and emotion. “Deeper” expands an already thick and noxious sound into a polyrhythmic dark ritual that beckons the flames to lick ever higher. And “Black”—well, was there ever such a perfect name for a seeping dirge of industrial evil? For years Vasquez has been hinting at his own ability to grow into a Trent Reznor role of his own, creating mini-symphonies of darkness from simple sources. Here he succeeds wildly, in mood, in songwriting, even in its pristine packaging, providing darkwave a new dancefloor masterpiece.  – JT


top 10 electronic albums of 2015 Jamie xx2. Jamie xxIn Colour
(Young Turks/XL)

There are only a handful of moments on Jamie xx’s debut album In Colour that make any effort whatsoever to remind the listener that yes, Jamie is in fact in a band called The xx. One of them is “Seesaw,” a moody, lowercase big beat number featuring bandmate Romy Madley-Croft. The other is the hushed, beatless lullaby “Stranger in a Room,” featuring his other bandmate, Oliver Sim. The rest of the album is a multi-hued, high-speed travelogue through every electronic subgenre imaginable. Jamie tackles dubstep like drunk Burial on the gleefully pulsing “Gosh,” eases into Modern Love-style dark dub techno on “Hold Tight,” dances in tropical moonlight with soul and dancehall on “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times,” and teams up once again with Madley-Croft on what sounds a lot like the best smash single that wasn’t this year, “Loud Places.” No two tracks are quite alike here, but each one carries with it the sophistication and joy of an artist that understands darkness without allowing his art to succumb to it. If you were to tell me that the dance album of the year were to be released by the keyboardist in a mopey dream pop band, I probably would have had my doubts. But here we are. – JT


Holly Herndon Platform1. Holly HerndonPlatform
(4AD)

It feels natural that Holly Herndon left her native Tennessee to find her creative voice in Berlin, because Platform suggests streams of releases from Germany’s most forward-thinking dance labels—!K7, Kompakt, Shitkatapult, Bpitch Control—playing simultaneously. Now a Bay Area conceptual artist focusing on sound programming, Herndon has long been inspired by the ebb and flow of society’s comfort level with technology. Platform was built using recordings of her voice and everyday occurrences, including her interactions with common software and social media environments (yes, even the tapping of her own keyboard). The results have multiple entry points and emergency exits; put on repeat, it’s the MP3 equivalent of an Escher painting or 3D chess. Maybe the dancefloor backbone of “Interference” pulls you in, maybe it’s the singer-songwriter vocal qualities in “Morning Sun.” The clatter and shift of tracks like “DAO” could just as easily pique your curiosity as scare you off of Herndon’s black-diamond ski slope. Her work here is prickly, dizzying, and difficult, with the jittery PC music feel of Oneohtrix Point Never and the constant thematic intrusions and sample sources favored by Matthew Herbert. Still, it’s beautifully constructed, and in a sea of 4/4 four-to-the-floor mindlessness a little challenge can be a wonderful thing. – AB

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View Comment (1)
  • A lil’ soft with soooo much good new music having come out this year…Rabit / Lotic / Arca / The Sprawl / Rustie / Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm-Buhl / Laurel Halo / Jlin / M.E.S.H / RP Boo / Jam City / Helena Hauff….

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