It’s not easy to look into the future, nor to see clearly into the past. With that in mind, who’s up for a year-end look back at how the future sounded this year? Let’s run it down: ten of the heaviest, scariest, deepest, grooviest and most interesting releases from 2014 that soundtracked an imagined tomorrow — whether it’s the morning after, the long road ahead, the dystopian doomscape, the electronic afterlife or however far your inner eye can see. Here we boldly go…
10. Nao – “So Good”
The kind of soul, or pop, or soulful pop, that Nao owned in her several releases this year was hers from the start, with the assurance on display here that she’d found her lane. The kind of frame-rattling, Quincy-Jones-caught-in-a-swamp production that she inhabits on “So Good” may be the sound of things to come, but she did just as well with jittery, twinkly mash notes (“Adore You”) and straight-up shakers (“Take Control of You”) that the bar for all-around pop stars can be seen to have raised.
9. Toby Gale – The Good of the Night
From the side-scrolling sunrise of opener “Floodlite” it’s clear that Toby Gale is working in an untouchable, nostalgic realm, one familiar to anyone who took turns on a single controller in the pre-3D-modeling days of home entertainment. The EP bends its source material in ways that belie its 20-minute runtime—noodly jazz butts up against the sound effects from Final Fantasy menus, thrumming bass undercuts loping, coin-collecting synths If a bright-lit future, a Blade Runner or a Neuromancer, isn’t for you, travel by way of The Good of the Night to something more palatable—a bright-lit past.
8. Protect-U – Free USA
The freakazoid boogie that stutters, tumbles, slides, and otherwise finds a way to go about its funky business at some wonky angle throughout Free USA is the strange and wonderful sound of body-movin’ music at home in your head. Not that it’s music about dancing—though there are contemplative, distant moments, such as the galactic, Oneotrixian echo chamber of “Dit Floss.” It’s a vanguard album in the unthinkably fragmented dance underworld, a wide-ranging, sonically raw and emotionally vivid work with a heavy heart and a heavy thump.
7. Arca – Xen
After closing out 2013 on a thousand watchlists for his credits on Yeezus and a bracing fugue-state of a mixtape, Arca fucked around and outdid himself with his first full-length. He talked with FADER about his life and his creative process, and the animating spirit behind both, of dissolution and reinvention, of “jumping off a cliff” and rebuilding from what’s left. The many moving parts and glittering shards that make up his album give gorgeous and unsettling voice to that image. Some accused him of being a button-pusher, an experimentalist without a heart—but to listen to a track like “Lonely Thugg,” which twists and inverts a sighing vocal to heartbreaking and horrific extremes, is to find that heart in pieces on the ground.
6. Maxo – “Honeybell”
Maxo makes too many things (video game soundtracks, remixes out the wazoo) for me to call him any one kind of producer, but this track, which I must have listened to at least once a day since it came out, is a blast that touches (I think) all the bases. It’s fun, it’s out-there, it’s turnt, it’s dorky, it’s cute, it’s just tough enough—it plays like a workout, a party, a daydream. In the year that Hatsune Miku performed on David Letterman, it’s got my vote for best vocal synth moment, credit due to Rena Raine for the seeming dozens of sugar-rushing, head-in-the-clouds melodies. Like a lot of Internet pop, it goes in a lot of directions, but there’s no denying that it pushes forward.
5. Sophie – “Lemonade” / “Hard”
Sour and sweet, maybe positive and negative, definitely not soft and hard—it’s tough to say what coins are flipped from one side of this single to the other. The models of playground equipment serving as artwork hint at a physicality that the track themselves support, from the uncomfortable bubbling at the start of “Lemonade” to the balloon-handling squelches in “Hard” to the undeniable heft of both beats; the uniform CAD shadows the structures cast hint at their mass-production, their extrusion from the same plastic molds. The sound is hefty in the same way, the chants of “I get so hard” and the monolithic helium chorus that’s “got something to tell you” playing standard tropes with such a straight face that it shocks. If Sophie had turned out to be a program, a supercomputer, HAL with spangly vocal presets and trap templates, it would have made too much sense.
4. Jack J – “Something (On My Mind)”
The wafting groove of this track is as vague as its title, a deliberately undeliberate sashay through ten minutes of foggy headspace that sounds like a polite but baffled meeting between two strangers without a language in common. The combination of low-key propulsion and a will to hang back, to read the room, to not get too feisty, is what makes this missive from Vancouver’s mysterious Mood Hut so enchanting. It’s a body moving in space with something on its mind, the sound of floating outside yourself when you’re not sure how you look in motion. The most withdrawn sax playing ever put to tape only cements it–think less Clarence Clemons, more lonely alleyway.
3. Objekt – Flatland
In a year that saw a release from the actual Aphex Twin, Flatland gets my vote for most exhilarating work in his lineage. The tape swirl of its cover aptly communicates its twisty suspension of a thousand different points: pumping techno, plodding bass-scapes, twisted quasi-funk. Throughout it all, Objekt’s gearhead bonafides (he worked at Native Instruments, and his tips for other producers are fascinating reading even for armchair selectors) surpass any head-over-heart snobbery—from the opening waves of breaking glass and lowering synths, the only metaphors that come to mind are biological, and all you can do is feel it. It’s a masterwork of worldbuilding, an imaginative dip into too many underground electronic scenes to count.
2. Holly Herndon – “Home”
Sure, the future’s super fun, there are bright lights, there are brand-new, shiny noises—but it also grows from this world, the present, where you’re seen wherever you are, where you can’t help but communicate your choices and your tastes to some demonstrably less-than-benevolent overseers. Making curious, inspiring art out of that kind of fear will never not be necessary, and Holly Herndon’s work with the design collective Metahaven (“Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?”) is an exhilarating exploration of our era’s particular terror. Her thousand-yard stare, first blocked by a camera, then frighteningly immediate, pleads to know who’s watching—“Why was I assigned to you?”—and why. Governmental seals, SIGINT icons, and emojis rain down indistinguishably, a distracting slurry that menaces and placates at once. Don’t trust any future that doesn’t frighten you.
1. Tielsie – “Palette”
Let this stand for all the bonkers stuff that PC Music put out this year, the euphoric challenges to taste (“Hey QT”), the bewildering challenges to comprehensibility (Lipgloss Twins’ “Wannabe”). Let that whirlwind of excitable, unmanageable emotion funnel into this track, where a hardstyle kick and a blissed-out sprawling coda not only coexist but fuse into a song, where a garish vocal sample insisting that you “get it” gives way to a screaming, how-high-can-you-go synth wash, a searing extreme where you might as well admit that, for three minutes or so, your mind is in another’s hands, in another place entirely. What says future like admitting that listening is a kind of virtual reality—that music is something to be understood inside—that it’s a form of personal computing?