As somebody who nit-picks the purpose of year-end lists, I have one basic question to ask here: What is an "electronic album?" (Do non-electronic albums even exist in the digitally saturated year of our Internet overlords, 2015?) As somebody writing an intro to such a list, it might not be quite a propos to question its very parameters, but I do so with purpose: to try to define what NPR Music *might* mean by "electronic."
Without being too bombastic about it, we are using the term to outline the role of rhythm and dance in contemporary culture — and to present a list that reflects the depth and diversity of practitioners looking to do the same. These are albums and artists that utilize the widely available music-making tools to instigate motion in the oldest continuous crowd gatherings this side of organized religious services. Globally. Dance music is the oldest folk music, and "electronic," in its many permutations, is the new lyre/drum/barrelhouse piano. There is no best, but these are the albums that moved us in 2015. Gather round. —Piotr Orlov
RUSSELL E.L. BUTLER
God Is Change
Since its debut release in 2012, North England's Opal Tapes has become invaluable to the global community, identifying techno-minded artists ready to take a next creative step and then granting them a platform to do so. In 2015, Oakland's Russell Ellington Langston Butler took that step, and American techno traditionalists got themselves a great tough album. God Is Change shifts no stylistic paradigms — its fierce hardware beats are at home in UR's Detroit, Tresor's Berlin, and the district of Sandwell— but it does gloriously uphold a kind of gospel that best not disappear.
God Is Change is available now on Opal Tapes.
Captain of None
It is undeniably true that calling Cécile Schott's music "electronic" is splitting hairs, made as it is with centuries-old acoustic instruments which are then fed into mixing equipment and manipulated into fantastic, dubby creations. These are folk songs, at times reimagined as melodic gamelan-like mantras, at others as minimalist percussion pieces (I really hope Steve Reich hears "This Hammer Breaks"). It is a wondrous concoction, simultaneously ancient and modern, brought together by technology and the ear of a woman who unites epochs.
Captain Of None is available now on Thrill Jockey.
The intersection of physical and digital identity is exceedingly fertile soil for postmodern artists, but few till this heady terrain with the unearthly grace of Montreal composer Kara-Lis Coverdale. Aftertouches is a bumper crop of ambient classical pieces that explore the symbiosis of musician and Macbook without a hint of the paranoia that often haunts our depictions of empowered computers. Pianos, organs and flutes shed their timbral existence and join forces with virtual instruments to form an ethereal orchestra tasked with ushering in the singularity. Turn on, plug in, bliss out.
Aftertouches is available now on Sacred Phrases.
The year of Caitlyn Jenner's transition and Ta-nehisi Coates' truths also bore a fiery electronic album forged in part by both civil rights narratives. Elysia Crampton, a transgender mestiza of Bolivian descent, packs the four tracks on American Drift full of sound and theory, bestowing sonic agency to a personal story rooted in her country's homophobic, transphobic and racist inclinations. This all-encompassing tapestry of crunk, cumbia and huayño is one of the most riveting headphone experiences of 2015.
American Drift is available now on Blueberry Records.
Drippin' For A Tripp
The producers behind obscurant Norwegian dance collective Sex Tags Mania are global leaders when it comes to smooth analog vibes, and that global strain of underground dance music didn't get any better this year than Drippin' For A Tripp. The mysterious maestro spent more than two years assembling this double-LP of outsider house, an understandable timeline considering the chill nature of these tracks, which incorporate elements of reggae, dub, batucada and West African music. An essential reminder that not all those who wander are lost.
Drippin' For A Tripp is available now on Honest Jon's.
If 2015 is "The Year Cosmic Jazz Broke," Elaenia is Exhibit 1b (for 1a, see Kamasi's The Epic). FloPo (a.k.a.our Manc-in-London, Plastic People disciple Sam Shepherd) made a synthesizer-heavy, instrumental fantasia that — when it doesn't float on still waters — opens up like an album of global psychedelia, containing deep pockets of massive, steam-rolling groove. It's built on the idea of improvisation, but made out of string, brass and voice charts that are propelled by Susumu Mukai's monster bass. In the headphones or in the hip-bones, it is an album that stops only be design.
Elaenia is available now on Luaka Bop.
Before Kieran Hebden evolved into one of the most influential British producers — hell, musicians — of the 21st century, he was the grandson of Indian immigrants. That tidbit of personal history rarely, if ever, filtered into his Four Tet productions on Domino and his own Text label, but when his grandmother passed away in two years ago, Hebden decided to reconnect with his subcontinent roots. After spending time with his grandfather's Indian record collection, he gradually assembled two transcendental 20-minute kick-drum ragas (starring the voice of Bollywood legend Lata Mangeshkar) and dropped the record with no advance notice on the first day of summer. His ba would have loved it.
Morning/Evening is available now on Text Records.
Though the dance-music world is as splintered as the rest of the pop universe — maybe more so — it is fair to say that Hun Choi's long-awaited debut album served as a consensus for traditionalists in search of (relatively) new heroes. Not only because it's full of meaty bass-lines and deep house-music motions, but because Choi effortlessly places pieces of current music into a grander historical context, something many producers labor to do but rarely achieve. So amidst the Detroit techno notions are natural excursions towards Sun Ra's astral-planes, Arthur Russell's baroque naturalism, and operatic cut-ups. Think of Hunch Music as a successful attempt at living history.
Hunch Music is available now on Rush Hour Music.
Eighteen year-old Nidia Minaj isn't simply a supremely talented producer of beats that straddle cultures as diverse as batucada, kuduro, dembow, jungle and techno, nor just a phenomenal graduate of the globally minded conversation taking place in Lisbon's club scene. She is one of future Europe's faces, a woman of African descent moving from one city to another (she lives in Bordeaux now), whose tool of communication and personal assertion is a portable computer. And that machine kills fascist tendencies: Danger is only 18-minutes long, but it is relentless in its rhythmic ideas and notions of musical abstraction.
Danger is available now on Príncipe.
Safe In Harbour
Six years ago, techno auteur Ricardo Villalobos and frequent collaborator Max Loderbauer were given the keys to the ECM vault and told to reimagine what they found there for the remix album Re:ECM. The experience had a lasting effect on the German duo, who have since drifted farther and farther from dance's rigid infrastructure toward a zero-gravity playground where rhythms roam free. On Safe In Harbour, Vilod dive headfirst down that rabbit hole for an hi-fi experience unlike any other this year.
Safe In Harbour is available now on Perlon.