2015 bounced to bass from Britain, shangaan electro and gqom from South Africa, footwork from Chicago and Japan, house from Hamburg and pretty much any groove that Jack Ü felt like pursuing. Here's the year's best in electronics and beats.
On the glitchy, minimalist Platform, Holly Herndon turns her laptop into an instrument instead of just a tool, sampling the everyday clicks and whirrs that have become complacent noises for frequent computer users, juxtaposing them against sounds created by her own voice. With Herndon and her machine dueling across 10 tracks, the album turns familiar sounds into something a little dystopian and wildly entrancing, exploring humankind's complicated relationship with technology. "Lonely at the Top" stands out as one of the album's greatest triumphs, using the pleasure phenomenon of ASMR as if it were its own beat. B.S.
This intense German producer ("I want to destroy society," she told FACT magazine earlier this year) teaches a master class in techno assemblage on a debut album that whizzes and bangs. Vintage-signifying synth and drum-machine sounds plus a blocky, patterned approach to programming peer back to the Eighties/Nineties early age of techno, when machines with a sense of menace went on the march. But the deliriously spiraling beats and shape-shifting approach at play in tracks that change every few bars sound markedly futuristic too. Dance music's past and present duking it out in a fight for the ages. A. Battaglia
Seth Troxler takes his time on his offering to the long-running DJ-Kicks mix series, opening with doe-eyed folk and melancholy piano plus a slurry of a DJ Koze track before getting into anything really rhythmic. The slow cook makes for deep flavor and the beats start to bubble up with Cobblestone Jazz, Ricardo Villalobos and an astounding early section with an evocation of African guitar wiggling between tracks by T&T Music Factory and Hauke Freer. Anybody in need of knowledge of what a good DJ can do to make connections would do well to study those 10 minutes and all that follows, with big-room euphoria via Butch, spacious space disco by Session Victim, deep-house from Kerri Chandler and more. A. Battaglia
The polar opposite of Jlin's lush footwork symphonies comes this clinical take on the music's feverish rhythms from the Kansai region of Japan. The polyrhythmic pulse is familiar, but the sounds are completely alienating, harsh and unforgiving. Released on American cassette label Orange Milk, Fulltono's lo-fi pachinko blips, cardiograph bumps, 8-bit twerk and synthetic percussion are as trance-inducing as they are epileptic. C.W.
Howard and Guy Lawrence, known professionally as Disclosure, reemerged from the afterglow of their successful debut Settle with an even more confident sophomore LP. They showcased that they're more than just hitmakers, developing past the inescapable "Latch" to create languid, hypnotic and mature house music that recalls the genre's Chicago roots. The album's most successful element is how it marries its production with the talented roster of guest vocalists, hitting a high note on "Magnets," the dizzyingly sexy single featuring Lorde, which contains a strong contender for one of the year's best lyrics: "Pretty girls don't know the things that I know." B.S.
Throughout his career, Maurice Fulton has undercut clichés in so many dance music genres that one recognizes his handiwork more by its playfulness and pliancy than by any particular sound. He's done deep house with a dash of salsa as Stress, mixed electroclash with no wave when he worked with his wife as Mu and did psychedelic alien jazz as Syclops. For his fourth record as Boof, he does all of the above with a few new flavors thrown in. There's banging minimal techno ("Solar Eclipse on a Friday Morning"), one-man uptown funk ("Birgit Boogie"), Balearic bounce ("Intro to It's Sunny S Outside"), even some "Take Five" jazz – an eclectic mix that's all the unmistakable work of Fulton. A. Beta
Following up last year's excellent Adhesive EP, Rhode Island's distortion-crazed techno outsider drops seven pieces that sound like early-Nineties Miami bass run through Mudhoney's pedal chain. While the cassette underground has no current drought of noise-punk expats and mysterious weirdos making lo-fi scuzzbeat, Container stands out by grooving as hard as anything on Mad Decent with little more gear than an MC-909 drum machine/sequencer, two delay pedals and a 4-track. With sizzle and squeal, LP is like the home-grown, American basement-show version the Bug's Pressure. C.W.
South African artist Nozinja works in the hyperlocal style of music known as shangaan electro – a mélange of various traditional sounds set to purely electronic beats and contemporary dance flourishes. His first Warp album is a collection of relentlessly uptempo, major key outings that, while a unique document of an under-explored scene, actually don't sound too far off from the label's other experimental music stars. Songs like "Baby Do U Feel Me," for instance, with cartoonish, pitched-up vocals and IDM-ish skittering can sound like Autechre and Aphex Twin in a giddy mood. Others, meanwhile, flit through call-and-response vocals and near-house tempos. A.C.
West Germany-via-South Korea house producer Hun Choi had some buzz around the 12-inch singles he released in 2009 and 2010. But eventually he was burnt-out, had stalled work on an album and even contemplated putting his productions aside for good. Thankfully, a move to Amsterdam inspired him to chuck the house music rulebook while working on his accomplished debut album Hunch Music. Like the title suggests, the album took intuitive and exploratory routes rather than well-trod ones. While rooted in house music's incessant meter, Choi was playful with his productions, flashing glints of acid, techno, even cosmic jazz (check the Sun Ra sample on "The World"). The overall effect is psychedelic, expansive and proof that more producers should follow their hunches. A. Beta
Four Tet's latest LP is divided into the two 20-minute tracks named in the title. Both should be applauded for their brevity. "Morning Side" is a built around a sample of Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar, but as synths expand out, her voice is patiently cut, looped and reversed until its edges melt. "Evening Side," more a companion than a counterpart, sounds like a lucid dream in the international terminal of a Brian Eno-programmed airport, but these sounds are too immersive to qualify as ambient: Under decent headphones, electronic chimes arrive from the subtlest of angles and sustained rushes calmly pan in both directions. N.M.
For the past 13 years, the only way you could properly hear New York (now Berlin-based) house producer Levon Vincent was in a darkened club or a vinyl single – none of his music was available digitally in any legal capacity. But this past January, he posted a link to "Anti-Corporate Music," an instant underground anthem and a gauntlet thrown down. While techno and deep house churned on as a multi-billion dollar bacchanal, Vincent holed up and made a dance record as uncompromising as a punk record. Given away digitally or spread across four slabs of wax, Levon Vincent's debut was abrasive and warm in equal measure. He named songs after his departed cat as well as the junkies along Hermann Strasse. Built for sketchy industrial spaces rather than superclubs, it was a record less interested in raising the roof and more about shaking I-beams loose. A. Beta
U.K.-based egghead producer Floating Points – compatriot of Four Tet, Caribou and others of a similarly cerebral sort – went the route of the progressive cosmic-jazz epic for his proper debut LP. Delicate synth squiggles and ambient washes of sound set the template, and from there Elaenia mindfully builds in expansive new directions, with lots of electric-piano vibes that could have worked well on fusion records from the Seventies. Measured against the kind of club tracks that Floating Points has made in the past, the full-length debut plays more like a soundtrack for a headphone head-trip – with just a little space to flail around when the percussion amps up. A. Battaglia
One of the year's most thrilling dance microgenres is bubbling up from Durban, South Africa; uploaded by teenagers at a furious pace, bursting like acid raindrops from cellphone speakers or booming from taxi cabs, promptly embraced by dankness aficionados in London. The bleak yet undeniably funky sound of gqom mixes the country's home-brewed electro-pop, dubcentric bass, a grayed-out color palate, dystopic synths and a low bitrate as a matter of necessity from the not especially great internet service in South Africa. The first officially released compilation of the stuff, Gqom Oh!: The Sound Of Durban, doesn't come out until January, so right now the best long listen is this 10-song mix of Rudeboyz tracks for Dazed and Confused Magazine. It includes 2013's defining "Mitsubishi Song," a haunting tune somewhere between a talking drum solo and Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." C.W.
Two decades after their brash manifesto Exit Planet Dust, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are still tossing breakbeat matériel at dance music's obsession with the "sound of the future." On the sampledelic vets' eighth album, they sublimely conjure the inevitable disorientation — bliss and dread, glee and regret — that results from such an obsession. Opener "Sometimes I Feel So Deserted" voices the craving for connection that haunts every fizzy EDM blackout track, while the Chems' pitch-drunk, dystopian bangers (especially "Reflexion") give the mirror ball a shadowy hue. The album's nuanced, sinuous moments of disquiet (featuring St. Vincent's Annie Clark and Cate Le Bon), plus the meditative, skywriting synth hymn "Radiate," and Beck's aching drift ("It's getting away from me," he muses on "Wide Open"), showcase their sound's open-ended reach. Echoes detonates the block, but it also catches acute feelings. C.A.
This year, the highly experimental, Venezuela-born, London-based producer Arca came even closer to the surface, as co-producer or co-writer of nine tracks on Björk's Vulnicura. His own sophomore studio album, Mutant, came clanging with an uncompromisingly bleak sound. It's a soundtrack to post-technological, post-capitalist collapse, full of rattling, crashing, irregular drums; the odd far-away, anguished, muffled shriek; and occasional atmospheric blankets of mournful synth. Hopeful-sounding moments are almost nonexistent – without an intelligible word, this collection captures some of the paranoia and anxiety of life in these fearful times. A.C.
"We do all dress in black," Jamie Smith said of his group, the xx, earlier this year. "But we're actually quite fun people." Hence In Colour, a windows-down solo debut in which the obviousness of the title belies the subtlety of the music. This is a record of quiet epiphanies – the bass drop (really more of a bass ascend) two minutes into "Gosh," the fleeting A.M. infatuation in "Stranger in a Room" – and uncanny arrangements. "Obvs" leads with looping steel pan, then restarts around a dreamy melody repeated via woodblock – a sonic Ruben's vase that feels like Art of Noise's "Moments in Love." These tracks never sit still – they ripple. And though there are instances when an image begins to steady in the reflection, the producer never lets them last, tossing pebble after pebble from a DJ booth somewhere in the shadows. N.M.
Garden of Delete, Daniel Lopatin's seventh album as Oneohtrix Point Never, is his grunge album, his exploration of contemporary pop music, his ode to tourmates Nine Inch Nails, his musing on teen angst, his black metal album and his most autobiographical record to date. It is all of the above, but Lopatin approaches his subject matter like John Carpenter's the Thing would: crawl inside, devour it whole and burst forth to reveal a horribly mutated simulacrum of the original. But like any good sci-fi horror film or coming-of-age story, Lopatin succeeds by perfectly capturing the dread and pathos of realizing that the monstrous resides within. A. Beta
The purported first producer of the ascending Chicago footwork sound did more than just keep his legacy in check on these signal-scrambling tracks made for dancers whose gravity is a little different than most. The beats come in clusters that are either stuttered and slow or snappy and faster than seems reasonable. Manic repetition in the vocal loops and abstracted samples add to the madness until a sort of trance state takes over and makes chaos surprisingly soothing in the end. Plus, he pays tribute to Kenny Loggins – twice! A. Battaglia
Footwork's exhilarating frenzy — now gourmet grist for international DJ aesthetes — emerged from the reality of chaotic, fleeting African-American life on Chicago's South Side; death lingered in its scampering, dislocated rhythms. Hailing from Gary, Indiana, a depleted black-majority industrial heap less than an hour removed from Chicago, Jlin constructs footwork tracks like a clinician re-engineering the genre to address a wider, oppressed world (one song is titled "Guantanamo"). Her spectacular debut moves as if under surveillance, deftly programmed to evade capture via triplet rolls, palpitating synths, finger snaps, hand claps, and flickering percussive clicks. Ominous voices — Samara from the The Ring, Joan Crawford from Mommie Dearest — crop up to intensify a mood. Simon Reynolds once wrote of the "eroticization of anxiety" to describe drum and bass subgenre "neurofunk"; Jlin sparks that erotic anxiety into political fire. C.A.
Skrillex and Diplo have achieved total saturation — not to mention their first legit Top Ten hit. Their collaborative Jack Ü yielded festival and radio banger after banger, reviving careers of their associates and silencing naysayers. For those who thought Diplo might be too big for dance-world britches, or had pegged Skrillex as only a purveyor of wubs, here was an album that flitted between low-end fun, more mature sounds and pure unadulterated pop. Sure, "Febreze," featuring 2 Chainz featured the kind of festival-main-stage bass grinds and buzzes that one might expect, but it worked as a visceral, gut-churning mix of pop, reggae and hip-hop. Things get sexier and slinkier on other tracks with vocal contributions from AlunaGeorge and Kiesza. And then, of course, there's "Where Are Ü Now" – the garage-inflected, R&B-coated outing featuring, yes, Justin Bieber, that had grumpy non-Beliebers ready to accept the puckish pop star. A.C.