I’m pleased to report that I found quite a few enjoyable new releases this year.
It’s hard to have a ‘definitive’ outlook as there remains so much for me to catch up with, but here are the highlights from what I’ve heard so far.
(To keep things from getting redundant here, my 2018 halfway list’s honorable mentions won’t be featured here. Read that list here if you’re curious about them.)
Top 8 Albums
8. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi
ambient techno / progressive electronic / ambient
Hauschildt is known for his role in the defunct drone/ambient group Emeralds. I’m yet to ‘get’ the appeal of Emeralds, but I’ve enjoyed a great deal of songs from Steve’s solo career, which veered away from his droney roots into more melodic territory. Dissolvi is more transparent/airy in texture than his last few albums, and often less inconsistent. This is great knowing how one of my main issues with his other albums was the lack of consistency. There’s a mild techno element here through the subtle use of rhythms, which gives the songs an interesting aquatic pulse.
Dissolvi may be my favorite album of his besides the popular Tragedy And Geometry from 2011. While some songs loop or repeat too much, most of them have plenty of evolving layers to keep this a fluid and hypnotizing listen. This is most apparent on the 7-minute “Alienself”, which goes on about 1-1.5 minutes too long but also contains some of Dissolvi’s most impressive textures and atmosphere. Also notable is the title song, by far the most rhythmic and tense but retaining some needed subtlety through soft synth hums. A promising step up.
7. Tess Roby – Beacon
art pop / gothic / synth pop / dream pop
Balancing folksy vocals, synths and Durutti-like guitar, Tess Roby is like a lost 4AD/This Mortal Coil collaborator. It’s not the most surprising she’s on Italians Do It Better, but at the same time it’s a bit different from what I expect from the label. These songs are moody and elusive, with a semi-gothic tone save for one or two more tender moments like “Ballad 5”. They drift along subtly, but not without shifts in tone or instrumentation. At eight songs long it ends pretty quick but at the same time this keeps it digestible and interesting. My favorite has to be the sinister folk/synth combination of “Borders”.
6. Noname – Room 25
jazz rap / hip hop / neo-soul
Noname is someone I’ve been meaning to listen to for some time now. And my first thought, of course, is ‘why didn’t I listen to this sooner?’ Room 25 is full of blissful jazz groove, even subtler in execution than the likes of Nujabes and Digable Planets (check this out if you like either one). The excellent live band she assembled for the album enhances this effect with it’s free-flowing style, one that tends to disobey common verse-chorus structure. The smooth keyboards (piano, e-piano) and Noname’s own unique delivery are sure to lull you into a peaceful daze.
I do think Noname tends to mutter a little too much, which can obscure the lyrics, but she has a great flow that blends in very well with the music. She includes plenty of guests and sung sections for these songs, but they don’t disrupt the album’s flow. They’re fitting and natural rather than thrown-in. One great example of this is the way “no name” begins with one brief rap verse before 2.5 whole minutes of singing. If someone else tried that, it could’ve wound up boring, but this may be the loveliest moment on an already rich album. ‘Your life is your life / Don’t let it pass you by’, the voices repeat over strings and piano until it (and thus the album) ends. I’ll be very interested in Noname’s next move.
5. Music House/Various – Scandi Disco
electro-disco / synth pop / electropop / synthwave
‘If you’re bored of the sheer quantity of 80s retro music out there, maybe don’t listen to this. But if you’re like me and love this music enough to still give the continuous new releases a chance, I recommend this recent library album. I enjoyed almost every song on this one, a bit surprising seeing how there’s no hype at all surrounding it. I found it only because I was looking through other, older releases by this label, Music House, and this happened to be their most recent album. Everything about this album is shiny, stylish and fun with plenty of energy and melody. The production is impressive as expected from a stock music label, and while it has a prominent modern polish they tap into the huge potential and legacy of electro-disco very well.’
4. Reni Jusis – Ćma
dance-pop / electropop
If you’ve followed me for long enough you may know I’ve become a big fan of this semi-obscure Polish singer/producer. However, her ’16 album BANG! was a let-down. It hopped on all of the worst mid-10’s mechanical bass-drop trends I hoped she would evade. I sighed and moved on. But that’s when a single (“Tyyyle Milosci”) popped up in May. A GOOD one, too, a reflective ballad-like song lacking BANG!’s pitfalls. A great surprise, but I didn’t know what to expect from an album. The following press release claims the album is Reni’s return to dance music after the ‘experiment’ of BANG!…
And like I hoped, the album is much more uptempo than BANG!. Shimmering pop anthems, hypnotic melodies, and of course, the abundant synths are all here. All kinds of pleasant textures pop up, forming some great transitions and grooves. Even in more ‘experimental’ moments (e.g. “Ćma”’s dizzy end cool-down; tracks #6 and #9) there’s the kind of spacey atmospheric touches that popped up in her 2000’s heyday. It would’ve been fine if she didn’t bring that part back. I thought it was too much to ask for – but there it is!
Ćma has plenty of flaws. A few songs are inconsistent, the huge repetition lowers replay value, and her delivery gets bombastic at times. Many areas would benefit from some tweaking. But I finished Ćma feeling relieved. She did come through with some jams, and she revived the sound she does best. It’s a big step up from BANG!, and for that I’m grateful. I recommend this to anyone looking for good modern electro-pop this year.
3. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
art pop / psychedelic pop
As I wrote in the 2018 halfway list:
’While I did find the previous U.S. Girls album Half Free a bit inconsistent, In A Poem Unlimited feels like a step up. There were only about 2 or 3 tracks that I didn’t enjoy here. The album has a warm semi-70s feel thanks to the band put together for it. There’s also a sense of eclecticism that’s executed better than on a lot of other albums with similar ambitions. The voice of Meg Remy, the one true ‘member’ of U.S. Girls, can be quite twangy and takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s somewhat grown on me since then, and it got some time to shine here. This is most often when she does a kind of nervous falsetto like in two of my favorites, “Rosebud” and “L-Over”. While the many styles that Remy explores here aren’t much new (70s funk, jazzy rock, general quivering psych weirdness, a bit of synth pop), the variation of it all and the will to experiment helps keep things interesting, and most of them evade the boring cliches that tend to pop up in so much music lately.’
½. Suiyoubi No Campanella – Galapagos
j-pop / electronic / art pop / downtempo
Cult J-pop group Suiyobi no Campanella released this ‘EP’ in June, though I don’t get why it’s considered an EP, since it’s the length of an album. It did receive some deserved acclaim upon release but since then, I’ve heard little about it – seems it didn’t stick. I’m wondering if the promotion as a mere ‘EP’ is part of it – were they wanting to keep a lower profile for this? If so, why, when it’s this elaborate?
The first thing I noticed was how much these songs morph and change, often in unexpected ways. “Bamboo Princess” sets the scene. It begins wistful and hushed but soon evolves into a thrilling chorus of strings and horns. The song also seems to reference an ancient Japanese folk tale. “Matryoshka” relaxed mallet groove mutates and evolves many times through it’s duration. Despite all this, the last two songs calm things down. “A Cat Called Yellow” is a gorgeous end to the album that sounds like both a farewell and a lullaby, covered in this blanket of thoughtful ambience.
Matching the creative song structures is a wide-ranging palette of sounds. There’s percussion, sampling, aquatic keyboards, mallets, clean guitar, synth bells, some kind of keening violin (“Bamboo Princess”) and even hang (a recent creation similar to the steel drum). It’s cold and tropical all at once. Listening is like dipping into the water at a beach resort, watching all these colors blur into the water.
Galapagos has some of the most impressive production I’ve heard all year. These are more tapestries than songs, and I mean that in the best way possible. This album is an ideal summer-evening mood piece. It may be winter now, but you should listen to it ASAP anyway.
½. Fishdoll – Noonsense
wonky / dream pop / electronic / downtempo
‘Fishdoll, an exciting new artist from China, manages to recall everything I miss about electronic music of the earlier 10′s. First I thought of ‘wonky’ producers like FlyLo and Teebs who had such interesting and creative taste in electronic production and samples. Take a gander at the amazing operatic vocal/harp sample that ends “Beijing Well” or the spacey fluttering chords on most of the songs, for example. Secondly, Fishdoll adds subtle effects to her own voice that say, Grimes or Washed Out became popular for, creating a similar kind of airy surrealism.
It doesn’t do enough justice to Fishdoll to make so many comparisons, though, since this album really does feel unique. Which is exactly why it’s one of my favorites of the year – it’s an electronic artist doing something unique and doing it well.
I’m looking forward to Fishdoll’s next musical move, and I’m convinced Noonsense deserves more than a bit of Bandcamp popularity, which seems to be all it got upon release.’
Since writing this in the first halfway list, I was also asked to write a brief review of Noonsense for the Rateyourmusic front page in October, which you can find here.
Top 5 EPs
5. Barker – Debiasing
minimal techno [?]
A lot of the hype around this one deemed it ‘techno without the drums’. Sounded like a nice idea on paper, but I didn’t expect Barker to pull it off this well. I guess I’m too used to the tedious repetition so many techno producers tend to throw into their creations. But while these songs may lean a bit on the minimal side, their steady evolution help keep this EP sounding interesting at very least. Barker also puts a lot of emphasis on my favorite part of techno, which is all the hypnotic synths and chords and effects.
Every song revolves around thoughtful-sounding arpeggios, graceful in a way. “When Prophecy Fails” and “How Hard I’ve Tried” are almost shy – they sound like the sensitive core of a giant mechanical structure. Overall this is one of the better examples of techno I’ve come across for sure. I recommend this if you’re like me and looking for techno that’s not so grounded in repetition+bass drum overkill.
4. Ravyn Lenae – Crush
contemporary R&B / pop / neo-soul
A brief but warm and breezy EP from an up-and-coming R&B vocalist, who happens to be hardly any older than me. My very obvious favorite is the dynamic and catchy single “Sticky”, but the other songs keep up that song’s pleasant retro soul style and with such a short length it’s very digestible. I’ll be interested to hear her next project.
3. D A V I I C I – W sercu pozostaje tylko to co wypalone ogniem
synth pop / hypnagogic pop
‘His sound is similar to that of Adonis listed below – a kind of lo-fi trippy synth pop, but it makes sense since they’re on the same label. This EP is a bit more ghostly and empty, though – D A V I I C I puts his voice through what sounds like autotune to a very weird, bordering-on-creepy effect. This is most noticeable on the songs “Skruszone serce“ and “Czas przez pryzmat“ which are also my favorites of the bunch. I have to say that while I like the idea of ‘hypnagogic pop’, it’s often bored or disappointed me; D A V I I C I and Adonis, though, have impressed me to an extent I didn’t expect.’
2. Elysia Crampton – Elysia Crampton
latin electronic / huayno / folktronica / experimental
I’m not familiar with Elysia Crampton’s previous work but judging from this I’ll have to change that. This EP has a wild mixture of layers and styles thrown in, ensuring that it never gets boring. There’s complex percussion, fuzzy distortion, a varied choice of samples, the occasional regular synth (“Orion Song”) and, oddly enough, a bit of airhorn.
These are windy, intense sounds, anchored by the kind of frenzied rhythms that suggest a journey on horseback. “Orion Song” is my favorite for combining this with simpler but still majestic synth patterns and a surprisingly peaceful outro. It ends quick at six tracks but it’s obvious from the get-go she packed a lot of creativity into this EP. It has an ear for adventure that I love to hear in electronic music.
1. Adonis – Wiosenna Ofensywa Nie Trwa Dłużej Niż Do Letnich Wakacji
synth pop / hypnagogic pop
‘I only came across Adonis through Bandcamp recommendations and he’s still a bit of a mystery to me [Update: though he did thank me for including this on the halfway list in a Tumblr message!]. This is in part because all the info and lyrics are Polish. But I’m glad I found this EP, since I enjoyed every one of these five songs – while I’ve been blasting the incredible title track all June. In a similar situation to Scandi Disco, it may not be very new, since it’s pretty much a collage of ‘alt 80s’ sounds, but if you love the sort of music that entails (e.g. synth pop/shoegaze/dream pop) like I do, I certainly recommend it.’
Ariana Grande – Sweetener
pop / contemporary R&B / pop soul
Angelique Kidjo – Remain In Light
‘I was very intrigued when I learned Angelique Kidjo from Benin was to revamp the entire Remain In Light album by Talking Heads. According to her interview in LA Times, she heard “Once In A Lifetime” long ago and recognized the African influence in it’s sound, which is what eventually led to this cover album. Although part of me wishes some covers were a bit closer to the originals than they are, most of the interpretations are still very interesting and enjoyable with an excellent sense of energy and rhythm.’
Empress Of – Us
synth pop / electropop
George Clanton – Slide
synth pop / chillwave
Lena Raine – Celeste
video game music / electronic / chiptune / downtempo
I forgot to mention this game OST in my halfway list somehow, but it’s worthy of honorable mention at very least. It has a distinct style that reminds me a bit of the BGM you hear in Steven Universe – very colorful and spacey at the same time as varied; sometimes relaxed, other times epic. 8-bit bleeps and more modern synths blend with the twinkle of piano often. The best example of this mixture, to my memory, is the bright and productive “First Steps”. With so many songs it’s hard to evaluate how well it works as an album, but it’s more understandable for a game soundtrack as I figure some of these sound better in context. Whether it works that way or just misses the mark, there’s no doubt this is an impressive piece of work.
Pastel Ghost – Ethereality
synth pop / dream pop / gothic
Pastel Ghost doesn’t tend to explore new ground with her songs. It’s not surprising and I don’t think she needs to do that all the time, per se. The issue here is more that those same cliches are even older now than they were in 2015. Read: excess 808 hi-hats, your usual stompy goth-club bass patterns…
But I realize this was more of a grower for me than Abyss. While the vocals and rhythms were disappointing, the synths only got better. Here, PS does a great job of layering distinctive timbres together and forming rich textures and harmonies out of them. I love those twinkling aquatic tones in songs like “Tears” and “Underwater” in particular. She hasn’t lost the more distinct part of her sound that first drew me to Abyss, evolving it all at once, which is what matters most in the end.
While Abyss was all about being spooky and sinister, Ethereality is murky and bittersweet. You could say the ‘pastel’ caught up with the ‘ghost’ (ba-dum-tish!)… It’s not a huge change but it takes you elsewhere, like the depths of an ocean rather than a gloomy forest. Songs like “Emotion” and “Possession” just wash over you like a waterfall thanks to the production – there’s a crystal-clear quality to it that makes this an easy listen even in the lesser moments.
Ethereality, right down to the silly title, could be less predictable, especially in 2018 after there’s so many others doing this sort of thing. A lot of the vocals are too breathy and twee, moreso than before. But it’s hard for me to ignore the skills on display. Her ear for melodies, synths, etc. continue to distinguish her from the pack and I continue to enjoy her take on this music.