XLR8R’s Best of 2016: Releases
We run through our top albums and EPs of the year.
XLR8R’s Best of 2016: Releases
We run through our top albums and EPs of the year.
In this internet society, the one-hit-wonder is presented with the ultimate platform for international success. Sure, there’s plenty to be said in favor of those unforgettable tunes—the sort you can’t (and maybe don’t want to) shake from your mind for days. To really win over our hearts though, there should be some more substance. The full release, whether that be a dancefloor-oriented 12”, a lengthy and complex full-length, or something in between, paints more of a picture of an artist’s skills. They are something that you can grow attached to and spend all your time with; here are some of those releases that we kept coming back to in 2016.
In the opening track on Grant’s Cranks, as voice states: “Dance music is not just dance music anymore—it’s for the head now. You can sit down and listen to a lot of good creative albums that have a lot more thought out than your usual ‘let’s go out and dance and have some fun’.”
Aside from its textural and aesthetic qualities, the throwback vocal preempts the album’s mission and its old-school flavor perfectly. Although made up primarily of rolling house cuts, the album finds a way to stay fresh, interesting, and undeniably head-nodding across its 11 tracks—at home or in the club; a near-faultless house music album.
Luke Slater‘s 2016 return to Ostgut Ton was his most elegant and sophisticated release to date—and that is saying a lot given the expanse of his enviable discography. While staying rooted to Slater’s purist techno values, Arc Angel saw him explore more musical frontiers by focusing on melody more so than ever before. As Ben Murphy said in our review, it sounds like “every bar is painstakingly arranged, expertly lit and masterfully colored,” resulting in a 96-minute long-player that remains fit for home listening without losing touch with the dancefloor.
There was a lot of hope and anticipation around Nicolas Jaar’s new album long before he began sharing detailsvia his social media channels in August. Was he in the studio? When was it going to arrive? What was it going to sound like?
The New York-based artist has been a sort of mystical figure since his debut LP in 2011; though he’s released a steady stream of material, he’s kept much out of the public eye, avoiding press and accepting only a handful of DJ bookings—before Sirens was announced in September, followed by a series of international live gigs, and a few rare interviews with the man himself. And Sirens did not disappoint; in fact, the Chilean-American’s apparent embrace of his more experimental whims perhaps resulted his most majestic work to date.
“A brilliant, well-realized combination of styles,” wrote Ben Murphy of our review of Kaytranada’s 99%. This 15-track album features guest contributions from many of rap’s brightest names and blurred the line between hip-hop and house in a refined and mature manner. All in all, it was a rich affirmation of the Canadian’s maturity and studio talents—not to say that this was in any serious doubt at the time.
Gilles Aiken’s Desert Sky alias doesn’t appear more than once a year—but when it does, the work is normally nothing short of superb. And his debut LP, Gaia, was no exception: a beautiful concoction of intricate and left-of-centre sounds work together to create a wholly absorbing long-player—one that will transport you to an entirely new dimension if you just close your eyes and let the music in. An album that is much more than the sum of its parts, and one of the very highest quality.
Under The Sun is, arguably, Australian-based UK artist Mark Pritchard’s most consistent and exquisite solo release to date. From the melancholic beauty of opening cut, “?,” to the otherworldly “Beautiful People”—which also featured as one of this year’s best tracks—and the tripped-out title track, Pritchard’s singular world has never sounded so impressive. Add in guest spots from Bibio, Thom Yorke, Linda Perhacs, and Beans—as well as an equally otherworldly artwork for its cover—and you have one of the year’s best albums.
New York-based Brian Leeds (a.k.a. Huerco S), a graduate of our Bubblin’ Up series, turned a corner with the atmospheric ambiance of For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have). Proibito promised a record that would be “monolithic and stark but extremely warm, intensely personal, and for everyone in every which way,” and that was what we got. Each listen through the album reveals another beautiful intricacy—a strangely optimistic journey.
Yussef Kamaal is the pairing of Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams (a.k.a. Henry Wu), a project birthed from a one-off live session to perform Williams’ solo material for Boiler Room. Following a string of highly acclaimed shows across London, the duo set out to record their debut album, Black Focus, a 10-track fusion of improvised jazz that focused on the interplay between Dayes’ drumming and Williams’ keys. Channeling the energy of their live shows, Dayes and Williams crafted a naturally flowing album that had most of XLR8R‘s staff speechless.
It’s hard to consider Atrocity Exhibition a hip-hop album. Although it was rooted in the genre and touched on familiar tropes, it was also so much more. Heavily influenced by grime, post-punk, psychedelia, and everything in between, the album, as Ben Murphy stated in his review, “isn’t a happy listen, but it’s an electrifying, deep record that is as musically adventurous as rap gets in 2016.” Brown excels when he is trying something new and different, and on Atrocity Exhibition, he grabbed hold of his wildest ideas and strangled them into something almost unrecognizable; as a result, Atrocity Exhibition stands as one of the year’s most forward-thinking pieces of music.
When Radiohead deleted most of the content from their online presence, we knew something big was on its way—enter A Moon Shaped Pool, the UK band’s ninth studio album. Arriving at the time Thom Yorke ended his 23-year relationship with Rachel Owen, and with the world in turmoil in more ways than one, A Moon Shaped Pool offered us both a transparent look into the band and a doomsday warning for our species. Bookended by tracks that had been familiar to fans but the band hadn’t been able to record properly over the years—a handful of the tracks had been around in one form or another for over two decades—the album also entertained rumors of the band’s end.
If it is, what a way to go out.
Tooth found Raime’s Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead departing from their blacker-than-black, shadowy sound palette to more dystopic, Blade Runner-esque soundtrack pastures—and what a turn it was. There weren’t many albums this year that maintained such tension, cohesion, and progression throughout; on Tooth, Andrews and Halstead managed to pull this off with an assured confidence that oozed style and innovation. Almost unrecognizable guitar lines twist and turn over piercing synths, neck-snapping drums, and ominous sub-bass in an outstanding genre-less fusion.
Streaming just one track from nonkeen’s second album of 2016 does not paint an accurate picture of what this release is all about. Admittedly, it took us some time to begin to appreciate the artistry behind it, but then the progressive jazz soundscapes began to resonate deeply one evening after a busy weekend on the road. It’s a beautifully produced long-player; and after several listens in a relaxed environment it has a hypnotic effect and becomes an essential for those who appreciate experimental jazz or, indeed, any of Nils Frahm’s earlier works.
After many years trickling out tunes, Ewan Smith’s debut album finally arrived in 2016. Landing on Aus, the release came with a heartfelt subtext: There Is No Right Time was written in the months after he upped sticks to Berlin, weighed down by a breakup and the ensuing hardship from the loneliness of the move. With standout cuts like “Be Good To Me, Poly” or “10405 (Alice)” we all felt like we were there with Smith. An emotive album throughout, Smith tells a compelling tale, as well as showing off his capability to bounce between genres—hip-hop, breaks and downtempo stuff.
A decade and a half on from their unforgettable debut full-length, In Fine Style, London’s Horsepower Productions proved with Crooks, Crime and Corruption that they could still kick it. With only the final few tracks really engaging in the dubstep sound that the group are most typically remembered for, their latest album drew on all of their collective influences, and some. Awash with downbeat house, stripped-back breaks, and 4/4 rhythms, it proved that the imagination is still there.
Hard Wax owner Mark Ernestus has taken a venture into African music in recent years, the result being Ndagga Rhythm Force, a project in which the Basic Channel man fuses his dub and techno past with the traditional sounds of Senegal. Yermande captures the ensemble in full effect: packed with polythymic mbalax drumming and tribal chanting, the tracks can feel both forboding and funky, all with the quality control of a man who’s done it all.
Gerard Hanson, an old favorite of electro and techno heads across the globe, emphatically proved that he is still one of the best out there this year. Releasing as E.R.P. on SolarOne Music and Craig Richards’ Tuppence, as well as bringing back Convextion on Acido, he was unusually prolific throughout 2016. Hanson’s most impressive work was undoubtedly 2845. With its unceremonious arrival and total lack of PR, the seven-track album was both a surprise and a delight. The contents of the album matched its spaceship emblazoned artwork—futuristic, out of this world music, always with a touch of depth and class.
Unknown To The Unknown kingpin DJ Haus returned to the Rinse stables in the latter half of this year with his second album for the London label. Artificial Intelligence is all about nostalgia: each of its ten cuts harks back to some facet of old-school rave culture, from the anthemic “Feels So Good” to the more serious “Open Your Mind.” Every track bangs. Where his earlier Burnin’ Up LP on Rinse was all UK garage and ghetto style flavors, this feels like a more mature effort. The Haus revolution continues.
The only release to arrive this year on Marco Shuttle’s Eerie was a label debut from Serena Butler. Gynoids Dryads Swim Alone is all about techno with feeling. With two floor-fillers, the spooky “You Have Penetrated Me” and the emotional chimes of “Bhells,” every one of the EP’s four tracks does something a little different.
Sued co-founder SVN and Sweden’s Porn Sword Tobacco collaborative releases have quickly earned a buy-on-sight status. Recordings 1-4 was certainly the most curious yet: the minimalist packaging, the untitled tracks, and the indistinct label details had us guessing. Across a plush two-disc pack, the pair constructed four of the most addictive lo-fi house jams that we heard in 2016. Fans should also check out the recent Recording 2 for more spaced-out loveliness.
Kajsa Blom’s debut EP under club-night-turned-label Janus succeeds in translating the eclecticism of her DJ sets into a thoroughly enjoyable 20-minute offering. For its concise length, Furiosa isn’t short on aural stimulus. The dizzying soundscape of droning choral chants, jarring industrial noises, and lightspeed percussion are structured rhythmically by numerous fragmented club tropes that range from reggaeton to hardstyle. Blom nonetheless triumphs in reining in the chaotic whirlwind of global influences and nonmusical sounds into a fully cohesive piece of music, further shaping Janus’ captivating universe in tandem with past releases from fellow residents M.E.S.H. and Lotic.
The debut EP from Josiah Wise manages to craft a sound that feels both strikingly candid and distinctly removed from familiarity. Perhaps this effect is created through haunting lyrics that begin to resemble vaguely recognizable R&B ballads before diverging into depictions of blackened leaves, swarming flies, and widening stomach cavities. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of layering Wise’s uniquely piercing melisma with symphonic instrumentals scored by The Haxan Cloak. Regardless, Blisters masterfully fuses the life-giving powers of soul, gospel, and R&B with the visions of a singularly gifted storyteller to fashion a world of otherworldly beauty and unease.
Chapa Quente illustrates that the Lisbon sound forged by Marlon Silva and other Principe Discos contributors—loosely comprised of Brazillian Batucada, Angolan Kuduro, and a number of other Afro-Portuguese musics—effectively possesses no stylistic boundaries. The Portuguese phenom displays the full range of his production chops here, moving effortlessly between the blazing polyrhythmic complexity of ‘Unsound’ and the restrained danceability of ‘Tarraxo Everyday.’ Compounded with instrumentation that marries raw, unprocessed drum machine sounds with lively flutes and marimbas, Silva’s finished product wields what could be the most idiosyncratic aesthetic of the year.
On Daze, James B Stringer’s first full-length since 2013’s P o p u l o u s, the UK producer twists the dense rhythms and demented melodic sensibility of past work into something far more assaulting. Between the rapid-fire percussion of ‘Thorium Mox’ and the walls of grating metallic noise present in ‘NRG Jynx,’ Stringer’s latest poses a particularly challenging listen. Such unrestrained abrasion is balanced by a distinctive cinematic quality, exemplified by the ominous progression of ‘Social Re-entry’ and the swelling synth conclusion of ‘Molten Brownian Motion.’ In conjunction, the whole thing plays like the score to a thriller based simultaneously in a war zone and the deep web, a powerful collection of tracks that bode well for both Stringer and Tri Angle.
In Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker’s first full-length return since 2012’s Elemental, the duo flesh out their own brand of mutilated breakbeat and dub techno while sharpening their ability to create mesmerizing ambiance. Wonderland undoubtedly works within plenty of familiar territory: longform tracks like ‘Hardnoise’ hark back to the sound collage of their Weight of Culture mix cassette, while the mangled jungle of ‘Sourcer’ will be immediately recognizable to those acquainted with various entries from their Testpressing series. Still, Whittaker and Canty manage once again to find new oddities, create unique textures, and evoke unexpected atmospheres within their realm of dusty hardware and warped rave tapes.
Berlin’s Onur Ozer has done a good job of moving with the times. His minimal clad big room gigs with Cocoon feel like a distant memory, while he now sits at the forefront of the new sound, alongside the likes of Nicolas Lutz and Binh. With his recent EP on the latter’s Time Passages, he proved that his skills lie not only behind the decks, but also in the studio. The four-tracker brought together weird-out electro, techno and even one fairly functional tech-house tune, in an expertly assembled package.
Aphex Twin Cheetah (Warp)
What end of year list would be complete without an entry from Richard D. James? With Cheetah, he pulled out a typically attention-grabbing prelude to its release via a cheeky flyering campaign and a zany video promo; however, the EP’s arrival saw James in a relatively straight mode. Its seven fairly similar, slow-tempo tracks were all put together with the Cheetah MS800 and don’t really sound anything like his previous works. Some doubted its imagination, but it was still a slice of effortless sounding Aphex magic.
There’s a feeling that some may have missed the magic in Andy Stott’s latest LP; criticism wasn’t as uncommon as with much of his earlier work—how did it compare to Faith in Strangers and Luxury Problems? Nonetheless, Too Many Voices was as soothing and beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Stott; an exquisite album and cerebral exploration that continues to grow on you the more it touches the turntable.
Hessle Audio’s sound is inherently British. Drawing influences from everything the United Kingdom is renowned for—be it grime, bass or garage— the Hessle Audio contingent has managed to harness what works and have refined it for coming up to a decade. This year, we witnessed Pangaea presenting his first full-length on the label. In Drum Play spreads itself over 10 tracks and manages to wink and nod at all recesses of what built club culture in England—and it also managed to encapsulate every facet as to why we love Hessle Audio.