Silent Shout: The 10 Best Alt-Pop Albums Of 2015
Silent Shout is our recurring roundup of the latest in alt-pop. It might not be music for the masses, but — to paraphrase *NSYNC — this might be pop.
“Alternative to what?” That’s always the self-satisfied rejoinder any time you slap the “alt” label onto a piece of music, and the answer to that question has never been more nebulous. The underground -> subculture -> mainstream food chain has been condensed down to a feeding frenzy, as chart music becomes increasingly varied and vulturous while “indie”-identifying artists are more inclined to use the tools of pop’s ruling class. We’re witnessing pop as The Blob, as the Ghostbusters II slime.
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That’s why I started this Silent Shout column five months ago — to analyze the increasingly large overlap and feedback loop between literal pop (as in, popular and populist) and the more obscure, eccentric sounds of the indie world, and to highlight the music that’s surfacing as a result of this interplay.
The material operating in the margin between those two realms is consistently thrilling, and that’s evidenced by the 10 albums listed below, which I believe represent the best of the past year of alt-pop. Alternative to what? The very thing we can’t get enough of, the very thing these albums deconstruct and devour: pop.
10. Clarence Clarity — No Now
WHY IT’S ALT: There are songs called “Bloodbarf” and “Porn Mountain.” WHY IT’S POP: Under all the digital slurry and music box melodies, dude’s singing his ass off. WHY IT’S GREAT: No Now has that “choppy radio transmission of a song I’ve heard before” feeling that Ariel Pink has mastered, only instead of coming from some warped AM-wave past, Clarence Clarity’s signal originates from some future pirate radio station in the wake of the Trump War.
9. Le1f — Riot Boi
WHY IT’S ALT: It’s every bit as confrontational, warbly and dystopian as Yeezus. WHY IT’S POP: Le1f’s nonchalant swagger softens things up, turning the bleak into a blast. WHY IT’S GREAT: Riot Boi is a furious, and furiously honest, rap album. But it also finishes with a string of weepy digital ballads. Its flurry of high-energy, scattered productions from the likes of SOPHIE, Lunice and Evian Christ would make for a killer instrumental LP as well. Put simply, Le1f crams way too much musical information in there to be confined to a single genre.
8. SOPHIE — Product
WHY IT’S ALT: “L.O.V.E.” is probably a violation of the Geneva Conventions. WHY IT’S POP: “Lemonade” is safe enough for a McDonald’s ad. WHY IT’S GREAT: Nobody swings from unsettlingly dark to nauseatingly sweet like SOPHIE. Squeaky balloons and popping bubbles float alongside sub-bass and brittle metallic screeches, the industrial and creepy juxtaposed with the melodic and cutesy. This is pop music for the uncanny valley.
7. Abra — Rose
WHY IT’S ALT: She calls herself the Darkwave Duchess. WHY IT’S POP: She readily admits she has no chill when it comes to love. WHY IT’S GREAT: Everything on this self-produced release feels tossed-off, as though Abra knows she doesn’t have to vamp to sell material this good. She sings like she’s bored by her surplus of hooks, she constructs Casio beats so bare they dare you to find a flaw in the composition. Most modern pop hams it up so you’ll come see what the commotion is, but Rose is a beguiling stare from across the room.
6. Neon Indian — Vega Intl. Night School
WHY IT’S ALT: Chillwave is almost forgotten now, and thus so alt. WHY IT’S POP: If it makes you think of season 2 of Miami Vice, it’s pop. WHY IT’S GREAT: For his third album, Neon Indian took new wave’s brightest bits and disco’s burnt-out leftovers and bounced them off each other, resulting in a hectic tap-and-swipe audio collage. Vega Intl. sounds the way the smartphone generation experiences ’80s nostalgia, a condensed stream of references that is at once seamless, scattered and nearly impossible to tear yourself away from.
5. Björk — Vulnicura
WHY IT’S ALT: It’s a self-flagellating examination of a relationship’s disintegration over swollen strings and electronic creaks. WHY IT’S POP: It’s love songs over a wall of sound. WHY IT’S GREAT: When you’re recovering from a breakup, the world feels claustrophobic, and the emotions seem far too intense to endure. That’s how this album feels, tiny in scope and massive in scale. On Vulnicura, Björk plumbs the depths of her heartbreak, dredging up the artifacts from her failed relationship and presenting them in a spacious, indulgent exhibition like some masochistic curator.
4. Autre Ne Veut — Age Of Transparency
WHY IT’S ALT: A jazz-tronica brain WHY IT’S POP: A quiet storm heart WHY IT’S GREAT: Pop music has a tendency to blunt emotions and put them in soft-focus, the same way a Hallmark card does. Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin does the opposite, exposing the frayed edges and bursting seams of the emotional experience. His voice is so impassioned and strained that at times it’s almost an uncomfortable listening experience, and the electro-R&B proceedings are thrown further off-balance by jagged, jarring blasts. This is a man at his breaking point taking pop to its breaking point.
3. FKA twigs —M3LL155X EP
WHY IT’S ALT: Aphex Twin’s impact is real. WHY IT’S POP: Aaliyah’s impact is real. WHY IT’S GREAT: The Best EP of 2015 proved that FKA twigs is even better than everyone thought. Some music in the past year sounded creepier than this, some sounded sexier, but none sounded so creepy and sexy at the same time. It’s a praying mantis about to bite off the head of its mate. No, that’s too played out. It’s an Ex Machina humanoid voguing in the dark. You never quite know what you’re hearing or where the sound is coming from, but you can’t keep yourself from peeking around the corner to find out.
2. Empress Of — Me
WHY IT’S ALT: She’s singing about privilege. WHY IT’S POP: She’s singing about love. WHY IT’S GREAT: Me is, as you might guess, an intensely personal album. But it’s also intensely political, and the way Lorely Rodriguez seesaws between the two worlds on her debut is endlessly surprising. Love songs are muscular dancefloor workouts reflecting the harried nature of actual, real-world love; songs about the male gaze or income inequality take anger and turn it into serrated future-funk. Me might be the catchiest and most danceable album of the year, and it’s definitely the smartest.
1. Grimes — Art Angels
WHY IT’S ALT: So many screams. WHY IT’S POP: So many singalongs. WHY IT’S GREAT: Art Angels is the type of thing that will make pop-averse indie snobs leave with a new appreciation for surface pleasures. It’s the type of album that will introduce MOR provincialists to the wonders of the less accessible hinterlands. It’s an audio Rorschach test: At various points, it’s the most laser-blasted EDM album of the year, the quirkiest DIY album of year, the thrashiest nu-metal album of year, the daintiest dream pop album of the year, and so forth. It’s simultaneously immediate and dense, one person’s reflection of an entire listening culture’s opposing obsessions with pop familiarity and newness/nowness. When alternative art taps directly into the zeitgeist like that, it isn’t remembered as alternative. Art Angels will be remembered as the sound of pop realiti in 2015.