Above & Beyond at Bill Graham Civic Center, San Francisco, in 2015. Photo credit: Drew Ressler/rukes.com.
The best-albums-of-the-year list is as traditional to a music blog around the new year as the ball-drop is to New York City. But it’s a bit of a different exercise in the EDM world, since albums are not a native format for electronic music. EDM as we know it sprouted in the underground, where the album-driven format of the traditional music industry was shunned in favor of sample-heavy, one-off tracks from bedroom producers. It’s only in recent years as EDM has gone fully mainstream that electronic artists have adopted the album as a way of packaging their work. That has led to a new kind of dynamic in the music world: whereas once albums were seen as the baseline for musical legitimacy, now they have become a badge of honor among electronic artists. A producer with an album can say that they dedicated themselves to a long-term project instead of just a string of singles. They can also use the format to show off a deeper artistic vision than they would be able to exhibit through one-off songs.
Consider, for example, two of the artists on the list below. Although Skrillex almost single-handedly lit the EDM explosion in America, it wasn’t until last year that he completed an album. Similarly, Madeon has been a big name in the scene since 2011, and even produced hits for Lady Gaga before finally releasing a debut album this year. Nobody questioned the credibility of either of these artists before they released their first LPs, but now that they have, their brand and carries extra weight and legitimacy.
Interestingly, 2015 seems to mark the first year where you can find electronic artists introducing themselves to the scene through an LP instead of through one-off productions. A prime example of this is another artist on this list, Jayeson Andel, whose album Urban Monks is a stunner of a work, although he has yet to achieve any kind of serious name recognition. This speaks to the increasing dominance of the independent dance music labels, some of whom have now become powerful enough to finance artists in the more traditional way of bankrolling a first LP before profiting off of their later success either as producers or DJs.
Because the role of the album is different in dance music, I actually think the criteria for what makes a good album have been raised. It’s no longer enough just to throw a bunch of cool songs together in one bundle. Nero did that this year with Between II Worlds, and the result is an ultimately forgettable collection of decent standalone tunes, and a significant step down from their whopper of a debut album, Welcome Reality. If producers who take the time to craft full albums want to be seen as true artists, then we need to judge them according to the rules of the art form. And this blogger is more than happy to do the judging.
So, which albums killed it in 2015? I’ve put together a list of my five favorite albums from this year, in no particular order. To make it on this list, each album had to fulfill three basic criteria: Is the album a significant artistic achievement? Does the collection form a coherent whole? And, overall, is the album worth spending some time with (i.e., would I recommend it to non-fans)?
The following albums answer those questions with yes, yes, and hell yes. I hope you’ll give them a spin, support these great artists, both newcomers and well-known heavyweights, and appreciate what they brought to the table in 2015.
Having now built up an empire around the Group Therapy
name from their last record (#ABGT for short), the pressure was on Above & Beyond
to deliver something as punchy, polished, and memorable for their next studio album – and that they did. 2015’s We Are All We Need
is full of arena-sized tunes designed for maximum singalong potential. With knockout favorites like the (almost) title track, “We’re All We Need,” the dark and delicious “Sticky Fingers,” and the radio-friendly “Blue Sky Action,” We Are All We Need
stocks the pantry with plenty of treats for fans to savor for years to come. This album was certainly the highlight of the year in the trance and progressive corner of the scene, but also grabbed some mainstream attention with a grammy nomination. I also want to point out that this album is a whopper, clocking in at over 1 hour and 11 minutes long. If you’re going to charge fans a hefty amount for an album, I like to be sure what I’m buying has some value to it, and the prolific British trio have definitely packed in the tunes on this one.
Listen to We Are All We Need on Spotify.
This album shares the title of “Most anticipated album of 2015” with We Are All We Need. But unlike A&B, who took their record in a safe and conservative direction, Skrillex and Diplo dropped into the scene like a grenade, introducing wild new timbres and beats that set the EDM world – and mainstream radio – on fire. From the juicy, hollow snares of “Take Ü There” and “Mind” to the sampled and re-sampled horns of “Febreeze” and “To Ü” and especially to the modulated flute-like lead sound of “Where are Ü Now,” the sounds, beats, and textures here are fresh, firey, and a little frightening all at once.
This is of course what Skrillex is best at, and it’s in no small part thanks to his passion for weird, challenging, forward-thinking sounds that the music in our scene continues to diversify and push forward to new and exciting frontiers. When I heard that the OWSLA head and his good friend Diplo, a.k.a. captain of the Mad Decent juggernaut, were teaming up for a music project, I set my expectations high, and I was thrilled to see the breakthrough success these two achieved with this album.
Of course, this epic pairing also smashed taboos by inviting the much-reviled teen hearthrob Justin Bieber to collab with them on the unexpected song of the summer, “Where are Ü Now.” And that song? That song went platinum and also earned this trio a grammy nom. While the song had plenty of detractors, their criticisms seemed to boil down to “It’s Justin Bieber!” I applaud all of the artists involved for ignoring the haters and taking on real musical and social challenges. While it may not have been my favorite music of the year, it’s undeniable that Skrillex & Diplo Present Jack Ü was the defining album of 2015.
Listen to Skrillex & Diplo Present Jack Ü on Soundcloud.
Adventure is the long overdue debut album from French electro house wunderkind Madeon, a.k.a. Hugo Leclercq. When he burst onto the scene with his legendary live “Pop Culture” mashup video in 2011, it was clear that Madeon was special. Since then, he’s a distinct style that fuses elements of house, electro, disco, and funk to create something bouncy and irresistibly danceable. Adventure is the synthesis of that sound and a manifesto of his signature style. Which means, basically, that it’s great as you’d expect.
Before releasing Adventure, Madeon was able to attain stratospheric levels of fame despite having a very short discography. Singles from him have been as welcome as they have been infrequent. So it was with all the fervor of a Thanksgiving dinner guest that I dug into the cornucopia of music Hugo released this year. Happily, Adventure is not only an excellent compilation of some of the best music we already knew (“You’re On,” “The City,” “Finale”), but introduced plenty of other versatile songs to flesh out his repertoire and discography.
I can’t mention this album without talking about the next-level live show that Madeon gave us along with it. If you haven’t seen the Adventure Tour (now the Pixel Empire Tour), do yourself a favor and buy a ticket immediately. The Adventure Tour is hands down the best show I saw in 2015 and you won’t regret going to see it.
Listen to Adventure on Spotify.
This one is so fresh out of the oven you can still hear it crackling. Jaytech’s second album, Awakening, is a solid step up from 2012’s Multiverse, with an altogether more progressive, energizing, and visionary sound. Awakening is a concept album built around the question of what music will sound like in the future. This is a difficult concept to tackle directly (in fact, I’d say Jack Ü’s album is the most wholly futuristic – that is, the weirdest – album released this year). So Jaytech attacks it in a practical way by using a futuristic musical vocabulary to articulate his vision of the world to come. This means that he actually digs back in time to find sounds that promised an exciting future – specifically, back to around 2012, when complextro and dubstep were new and cool and decidedly futuristic. It’s a strategy that works: the outcome is a project that sounds familiar and modern but hints at a world more technological and overwhelming than our own.
The sparky vibe of this album is energized by dubstep-inspired growling basses that add some oomph behind Jaytech’s hopeful melodies, peppered through with complextro accents that recall the glory days of Porter Robinson and Wolfgang Gartner. Many of the track titles imply movement or a journey, which hints at the unique strength that Jaytech brings to full effect on this album, which is that his songs build and climax: each one is a mini arc within a larger story (like, say, books of the Odyssey).
The dubstep undercurrent culminates in the slow and heartfelt “My Heart Goes Out.” As for the complextro flavors, “Future Story” makes heavy use of sidechaining for some solidly pumping synth lines like the best progressive house songs of the early 2010s. The vocalized guitar riffs of “Odyssey” recall Jaytech’s older track “Pyramid.” “Yugen” and “Darkscape” would not be out of place on a Final Fantasy soundtrack. “Awakening” is probably the closest thing to “classic” Jaytech, with some vocals in the background recalling sonic themes used throughout Multiverse.
Two things make this album an improvement on Multiverse. The first is the switch from bouncy reese basses to growly dubstep basses. They add a real grit and energy to the music that propels it forward into the future. Second, while Multiverse certainly had a coherent sound, it was an incestuous aesthetic that trapped itself within the walls of that record, like a too-exclusive niche genre room off to the side of the big room. Some tracks there could serve double duty as singles, but most of them are sort of blah and not really worth listening to outside of the album. Awakening successfully walks that fine line of building a collection that can be enjoyed piece by piece, song by song, but whose beauty is enhanced by enjoying the album as a whole.
If you are looking for a record to give you an optimistic start to the new year, this is the album you want to check out. (And by the way – if you love Jaytech as much as I do, consider signing up to become a patron of his monthly radio show on Patreon for early access to his mixes and other exclusives.)
Listen to Awakening on Spotify.
Jayeson Andel is certainly one of the breakout artists of 2015. When he started getting airplay in support of this album, I couldn’t believe someone with such a lush, soulful, and polished sound wasn’t already standing out among the legions of copycat progressive house songs saturating the progressive podcast circuit today. His debut work Urban Monks is a richly textured record full of deep grooves and delicious trip hop beats. This is straight up groove porn, with bass lines as luscious as a Kardashian booty.
Despite being an instrumental album, the crunching, squelching melodies riding on top of every song nevertheless seem to communicate with all the emotion of a seasoned vocalist. The twitchy, otherworldly electric soundscape of “Follow the Firefly Lanterns” got a well deserved round of heavy airplay on a bunch of podcasts this year, and is a great song to start with if you’ve never heard of this guy before.
With notes of Pretty Lights and Jaytech, Andel’s sound is familiar enough and yet altogether unique and supremely confident. From the childlike optimism suffusing the the opening track, “We’ll Build it Here,” to the reflective arpeggios of the closer, “Awe (Part II),” Urban Monks is brimming with emotion and verdant with sonic scenery, and is worth a deep exploration.
Listen to Urban Monks on Soundcloud.
Matt Lange, Ephemera
This is a dark, beautiful, and expertly crafted album. I love the consistent feel of the whole thing, and to be sure it’s great to just press play, sit back, and listen to it. That being said, there are a few standout tracks here – most notably “My Love Aside” and the haunting “Inside My Head.”
Listen to Ephemera on Soundcloud.
Consistent hitmaker Arty released his first album this year, and considering the relative diversity of sounds in his extensive back catalog, I was surprised at how well it came together. Full of his melodic, piano-driven tunes, and reinforced by the work of many talented vocalists, this Avicii-flavored album is definitely a delight for the melodic-minded.
Listen to Glorious on Spotify.