I liked the idea of last year's review of music so much that I went and wrote down everything that I bought (and a bunch of things that I listened to otherwise this year). A handful of things were released this year, but only narrowly a majority: I discovered a lot of stuff from years past that I liked! Anyway, let's do it:
- January 7th: Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (released March 2015).
Hip-hop. Came via Josh Keller’s recommendation. This is a super complex album that I totally didn’t give the attention it deserves this year. It has been on my to-listen list all year; it requires a lot of attention to really pick out the points that Lamar is trying to make, and I just didn’t feel good about listening to it in the background while I was at work. I gave it a go on a bike ride, but vocals are hard to pick out over wind noise…
Excuses, excuses. I didn’t manage to listen to it. And, in part, it’s music that threatens my worldview, and so it’s hard to listen to sometimes! But if you think hip-hop and rap is meaningless noise, you should probably put down what you’re doing and listen to How Much A Dollar Cost (maybe have a copy of the lyrics in front of you).
- January 10th: Mr.Kitty - Time (released October 2014).
Dark and synthy and gothy. Often dancey, if you like dancing to dark things; also often good background music, especially for physical exercise. I think it is pretty unabashedly cheesy. All that said, I’ve listened to it a bunch. Basically anything on there is representatively good, but perhaps listen to Hollow? Recommend for gothy sorts of people.
- January 10th: New Order - Music Complete (released September 2015).
Synthpop. New wave. Highly recommend.
Oh my goodness it’s a new New Order album! You might remember New Order from their 1983 song Blue Monday, or perhaps True Faith from ’86. Their sound has evolved a little since, and I really like it. The mix feels spacious and clean, and every instrument plays a part. I love the sharp acoustic percussion in there contrasting synths, and the clean vocals, and … okay, I love everything about this album, because not only is it technically excellent, it’s musically excellent, too. The first track, Restless is one of my favorites. But you should just buy the whole album and listen to it all the way through.
- February 7th: Gareth Emery - Electric For Life 2015 (released December 2015).
EDM. Compilation album. I think I listened all the way through the mix a few times, but I found it to be pretty fatiguing, I think; it has that loud-EDM-over-and-over property to it, and the levels are bouncing off the limiter. But there are a bunch of good tracks on it, and so if you wanted to see what Gareth’s view of EDM was two years ago, well, you could do worse — and it has some shining moments in there, especially when it gets trancier.
- March 24th: Information Society - Orders Of Magnitude (released March 11th).
Synthpop. Cover album. Recommend if you know any of the songs on it.
So InSoc have been around basically forever, and have produced some things that you might have heard before (or probably should have heard, anyway, if you like synthpop) — maybe the most prominent was 1988’s What’s On Your Mind. InSoc’s sound has evolved over time, too, and they’ve gone to cover a wide range of … weird stuff … in this album, ranging from Sesame Street and Winnie the Pooh to Sisters of Mercy. I picked up the album after they did a great live show at DNA. A great track on it is their cover of Dominion / Mother Russia, but if you really want to know what you’re in for, we all live in a Capital I.
- April 1st: Gareth Emery - 100 Reasons To Live (released April 1st).
EDM. Artist album. Recommend for fans of Gareth Emery; others can skip, probably.
So 2014 had Gareth Emery’s previous artist album, Drive, which is a great album. The thing that gets me about 100RTL, though, is that I really want to love it, but it just feels… unfinished. There are a couple of good tracks on it, but it feels almost like Gareth phoned it in for a bunch of it. For instance, I really want to love Lost; it feels like it should be an amazing track from the beginning, until you realize that it’s actually a 2 minute song that he hit copy and paste on the song structure of to get the other two and a half minutes of. (You should listen to it anyway, to hear what could have been.) And all this would be okay if he hadn’t done a collab with Ashley Wallbridge three tracks earlier that was basically a callout of EDM low-effort-producer culture. But anyway, if you want a great track on the album, it’s probably Hands; Lost maybe is more representative, though.
- April 9th: Mat Zo - Self Assemble (released March 25th).
Electronica. Almost atmospheric sometimes. Almost funk sometimes! Recommend if you can take the weirdness.
Here’s another example of comparing an album against its predecessor. 2013 had Damage Control, which was a really good album (and if you don’t have that, you should buy it and listen to it from cover to cover). Self Assemble feels like an entirely different concept; often, much darker, and more experimental, but no worse. Damage Control was very accessible, I think, whereas Self Assemble… isn’t. But here’s the thing: if you can get past the surface layer of it, it’s really good. It’s one of two albums that I’ve listened to this year that I feel takes you on a journey; a handful of tracks (especially late in the album) had an almost jaw-dropping quality of “did he just do that?”. But maybe the most accessible thing from it before it goes deep is The Enemy, ft. Sinead Egan.
- April 20th: Chicane - The Sum Of Its Parts (released January 2015).
Trance. Recommend for people who really like this kind of thing and want a little more of it.
This is a good album. It is not a great album. It is not a world-changing album. But it is a good album. I bought it because I had listened to Behind the Sun, which I talk more about way below. If you like Chicane’s brand of trance, you will like this album, anyway; maybe also if you listened to Solarstone’s Pure and want more like that. Photograph’s synths sound very VNV-ish, which was surprising on the first listen, but maybe One Thousand Suns is the standout track.
- May 5th: Ayria - Feed Her To The Wolves (released October 2015).
#EBMnotEDM. Dancey! Recommend for synthpop people.
I recommend the EP here because I think the rest of the album, Paper Dolls, probably doesn’t live up to the EP. But the EP has two pretty infectious tracks that will get you dancing, at least, if you like to dance to that kind of thing. Standout track: Underneath the Water.
- May 23rd: John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (released February 1965).
Free jazz. Recommend.
A Love Supreme is not an accessible album. It took me multiple listens, even as someone who nominally likes jazz, to really start to “get it”. I don’t listen to it all the time. But I bought this album when I was talking to James after I had listened to Behind the Sun, and we were going through “what is the album of each genre that you would save if you could save only one”, and he nominated this, and I think he’s probably right. The whole thing is one half hour long piece in four movements, so I can’t give you just one standout track, but if all goes well, you’ll walk away for the next hour mumbling the mantra, “a love supreme… a love supreme…”.
- June 6th: Above & Beyond - Acoustic II (released June 3rd).
Jazz covers of EDM.
Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring. Yes? Hello? Oh, hello, Above & Beyond. Are you also phoning it in on this album? Oh, okay, well, that’ll be that. I guess if you loved Acoustic I, you could do worse than to pick up Acoustic II. But mostly I think it’s another badly-mastered-by-an-EDM-producer acoustic album with levels compressed hard enough that all the dynamic range is gone, and vocals that don’t have any punch to them. I would see this in concert unhesitatingly, but as is, I think I listened to to it once or something. I want to like the concept but I wish the implementation were any good. Anyway, go listen to Black Room Boy (or if you want something less representative, but maybe better, Another Chance), and then go and listen to Tri-State again wistfully (and be glad you’re not listening to their most recent single, A.I., which I won’t even link).
- June 30th: Pentatonix - PTX Vol. III (released September 2014).
A cappella. Recommend.
I heard some of it in-seat on United. Pentatonix are really talented, as you perhaps know; this album is no exception, and has a bunch of great songs on it. Listen to On My Way Home, and enjoy the amazing vocal talent there (and great production). Wonder why a cappella groups have to release more Christmas albums than LPs. Then buy the album.
- July 11th: Ferry Corsten - >hello>world (released February 26th).
So the secret about this album is that not actually an LP, but actually a series of three EPs released together. It has a bunch of singles, but there’s nothing really coherent about it. (Compare, for instance, one of Ferry’s artist albums, L.E.F. — which is great, by the way — or to a lesser extent, Wknd.) I think my take on it is that there’s nothing really bad about it, but I also remember listening to it once and not having any reason to listen to it again — in part because I tend to consume music as whole albums, rather than as singles. Go listen to L.E.F. if you want older Ferry Corsten, which is what I usually do; this goes pretty hard down the EDM side of things (most of the album kind of sounds the same to me…). Representative is probably Heart’s Beating Faster.
- August 24th: The Midnight - Days of Thunder (released February 13th).
Synthwave. Retrowave. 80’s-alike. Recommend.
I originally heard WeMoveForward on Chicane’s guest mix for Above & Beyond’s radio show, Group Therapy, and I think it was pretty clearly the best part of the mix. Nostalgic vocals over uplifting synths kind of sets a tone for the album, and I love everything about it. It gets back and forth between uplifting synths and a little more of a hard-driving beat; in general, I find production quality to be pretty good, too. The only thing I wish about this album is that it were longer. Standout track: WeMoveForward.
- August 26th: Animals as Leaders - Animals As Leaders (released April 2009).
Progressive metal. Djent. Hard jazz. Recommend (at least, to people who like that kind of thing).
What do you get when prog metal gets heavier and becomes accessible only to a select few, displacing more readily accessible rock? Djentrification! Okay, that was a bad pun, but when my manager (!) recommended this to me, and I popped up a video on YouTube, and the first comment was *wanks in 24/16*, then I figured that I’d enjoy it — and I do. It’s all instrumental; themes pop up now and again throughout the album. It’s hard for any one track to stand out in my mind, for that reason. If you like this genre, you should get this album; if you don’t like, say, Symphony X or Dream Theater or Rush or something, then you’ll probably find this to be relatively inaccessible. Take a listen to On Impulse for a taster of what this album is about.
- September 9th: Assemblage 23 - Endure (Deluxe Edition) (released September 9th).
#EBMnotEDM. Futurepop. Synthpop. Recommend for EBM people.
You might have heard that Assemblage 23 was coming out with a new album, and you might have said to yourself, “gee, you know, I really wish that there were another Assemblage 23 album, but I’m worried that ‘Endure’ is too uplifting of an album title”. Well, good news: this is absolutely a new Assemblage 23 album! The sounds are all basically as you expect. The contents are just as heavy-handed as usual (this is not an album where you are struggling to decipher what the lyricist is talking about, to be sure). But you don’t buy an A23 album looking for something different: you buy it looking for more of the same, but different. You’ll get that on Endure, and as a result, it’s been in decent rotation on my playlists recently, with a bunch of relatively infectious tunes that all happen to be mostly in my vocal range. So if you want more A23, go buy it. Representative are some soaring arpeggios in Afterglow.
- September 23rd: Delerium - Mythologie (released September 23rd).
Swirly. Synthy. Slightly recommend, maybe for Delerium fans.
I was super excited about this album coming along, but for whatever reason, this hasn’t gotten a huge amount of airplay from me this year. I’ve listened to it on a few bike rides, and I think I’ve also listened to it at work every once and again, too. But for some reason, nothing on it really sticks out in my head. There are some solid Delerium sounds in here, and I think it’s a well-produced album, but… there’s just nothing really memorable, and certainly nothing that has stuck with me enough that I’m walking around singing it. It certainly doesn’t have the staying power that, say, Holoscenic (Conjure One, who is half of Delerium) does; that album came out last year and I still listen to it regularly and love it. Now, all that said, for a slightly more pop-like tune on this album that might be more memorable, perhaps you might want to listen to Stay, with an enjoyable combination of vocals and percussion in the chorus?
- November 1st: Project Pitchfork - Look Up, I'm Down There (released October 28th).
EBM. Cookie monster vocals.
I bought this with high hopes, because I recently discovered and really liked their track Rain. And… well, there’s nothing on it that I really like. The vocals are not as expressive as I’ve heard from them before, and I didn’t really find anything melodically interesting, either. On the other hand, two tracks from this album made Ed Klein (DJ Joe Radio, at Death Guild)’s “best of 2016” list. I guess I should go listen to it again somewhat more critically at some point, but in the mean time, I give you Open With Caution, which I think sounds pretty close to the rest of the album.
- November 9th: Covenant - The Blinding Dark (released November 4th).
This is another challenging album. I think I probably give it higher marks than Look Up, I’m Down There, because this is trying to be something totally different, really. But it’s a challenging enough album that I didn’t really listen to it, much, either. I think you probably want to listen to Sound Mirrors (which, by the way, was the single from it) for that driving EBM sound that you’re used to from Covenant. But unlike Look Up, I look forward to giving this album another shot.
- December 28th: Ari Mason - Creatures (released March 25th).
Dark, synthy, and swirly. Darkwave, synthpop. Recommend.
Think “Ayria meets TR/ST”, maybe. (In fact, Ari Mason did a cover of TR/ST’s Dressed For Space before she recorded this album.) One thing that I really like about this album is that all of the instruments have their place; warm pads and bouncing pumping synths make for soundscapes that get stuck in your head, with a voice that almost blends into the soundscape as much as anything else. A variety of modalities is reminiscent of what I liked about Iris’s most recent album. Influences from other acts in the general genre are pretty clear; Empires, for instance, seems to be have percussion influenced by Mr.Kitty, and Heaven’s Gate sounds undeniably rhythmically familiar but I can’t put my finger on where. Anyway, I think it’s pretty clear that she is still developing as an artist, and if this is anything to go by, I really look forward to whatever she does next. I could go on about a bunch of tracks on this album, but everyone should listen to Beasts Tonight (and maybe Sleep Still); caution for marginally work-safe cover art.
That’s the list of things that I bought this year. The “extra credit” list is almost as long, though:
- Chicane - Behind the Sun (2000).
Drop what you are doing, and listen to this album.
I think this album basically defines the genre to which it belongs. This album is trance; if I had to pick one album to “save” in maybe all of electronic music, this would probably be it. It has classic tracks that you might know, like “Saltwater”, but don’t listen to this one track at a time. Listen to it as an entire album in a go; it is a masterful journey from high to low and back again, from amazing uplifting track to deep down and back up again.
If I have to pick one representative thing, it’s probably Autumn Tactics. But that doesn’t excuse you from listening to the entire thing.
- Conjure One - well, basically everything else he’s done. Seriously, still getting a huge amount of airplay from me. Try his self-titled, too.
- The Crüxshadows - Helios. Solid single.
- Yo-Yo Ma, et al - Appalachian Journey. I’ve had this album for a while, but I’ve been listening to it some more this year. Folk, blues. Fantastic album.
- Phutureprimitive - Cryogenic Dreams. Psytrance-like. Infectuous track; I bought the album in 2017.
- The new Animals as Leaders album. They released something new this year, but I haven’t listened to any of it yet. Probably I should just buy it.
- A State of Trance Yearmix 2016. I didn’t buy it this year. I had a listen briefly when Jeff was streaming it by Google Play Music. I’m pretty sure it’s not worth buying. I really didn’t like how it was mastered. But, you know, there was one this year, so.
- Ari Mason - Dressed For Space (TR/ST cover). If you like the original, you’ll like this.
- TR/ST - Slug. TR/ST unreleased single. If you like TR/ST, you’ll really like it. It makes me wonder when his next album will come along. I want more.
- Project Pitchfork - Rain. I really enjoyed this track (dark and gothy). The melody was infectious. I never got around to figuring out if there was an album with more like it.
- Within Temptation - Sinéad (VNV Nation remix). VNV remixes the wackiest stuff! Ronan played this at his DJ set. It is everything you expected it to be. Bonus points: the vocalist, Sharon den Adel, provided vocals for In and Out of Love on Armin van Buuren’s album, Intense.
- Phantogram - Three. Recommended by knightofstarz. Had a listen in the car and need to buy it.
- Podcast: Chicane presents Sun:Sets. Electronica; a weekly podcast by Chicane that I find to be generally pretty well-mixed and with interesting and provocative tracks that I often wouldn’t have listened to anywhere else.
A bunch of live music came through this year, too. I went to see:
- Information Society at DNA Lounge. This was a good show! The openers were also really good — Anthony Jones’s band is very good live. InSoc puts on a hell of a show, anyway, with an enjoyable stage presence. They’ve been doing this approximately forever, and they have it dialed. If you like their music, see them when they come around. (Pictures from my phone.)
- Assemblage 23 at DNA Lounge (above). A23 puts on an energetic show. He has a live backing band for some pieces, but it feels a lot like industrial karaoke. All that said, there’s no reason not to see him if he comes around to you, but you’re not missing all that much. (Pictures and video from my phone.)
- TR/ST at Mezzanine. I’d never been to Mezzanine before; the feeling I got was “Ruby Skye, but bigger”. I didn’t know any of the crowd, which surprised me; it turns out that people other than Death Guild attendees like TR/ST. (I didn’t enjoy the crowd, or the opener DJ.) He was touring along with Cold Cave, and luckily, he was first on, since I had to teach the next morning. But he had a full acoustic drumset and someone on keys I think as well, and lights and strobes and and and… it was totally amazing, and felt like live music. There might have been some prerecorded backing, but not much; standing eight or nine rows back from the stage, the percussionist whaling on the drums made it an almost concussive experience. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it in electronic music. It made the two hours of bad openers and awful crowd worth it, which is saying something. If you have the chance, see TR/ST live, no questions asked. (Pictures and video from my phone.)
- Ronan Harris’s DJ set at Codeword. I got to see the beginning of Ronan’s set (I think I had to teach the next day here, too). He started off with one VNV track to announce his presence, and then got straight into the business of losing the audience by playing a 3am dark trance set for 15 minutes or so, and then brought them all back with his remix of Sinéad. Then I had to leave, and I was very sad about this. I think this opportunity does not come up too often.
- VNV Nation Compendium Tour at Regency Ballroom. I don’t generally love the Regency as a venue, but the Compendium tour was pretty special, celebrating 20 years (!) of their work. Ronan has an incredible stage presence and engages with the audience throughout, encouraging singalong after singalong. It was, I think, a three hour set, with a pee break in the middle, with music from all generations of VNV. If you like VNV, you should see VNV at least once when they come around. Then go spending the rest of your year singing the synth hook to Perpetual. (A bunch of pictures and video from my phone.)
- Two shows I didn’t go to, but I did listen to the webcast of: Conjure One at DNA Lounge (above), and Ayria at DNA Lounge (above). Both were okay, but not great — probably worth going to to support the artist, but maybe not because of the unique show that they put on. I had conflicts both nights, sadly. One thing that I was pleasantly surprised by was DJ Sage’s set opening for Conjure One: I really enjoyed the Pati Yang track, Higher Perception, and the Massive Attack track, The Spoils.
Finally, people other than me have ideas on good stuff. You might want to look at:
So what did I miss?
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