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The best music of the year so far

Surprise Kendrick drops, new age revivalism, and Bowie's parting gift: we look at some of the best albums and mixtapes of the past three months

Three months into the year and there’s already been plenty of incredible music. On the pop front, we’ve somehow ended up with new music from Kanye, Rihanna, and Beyoncé in quick sucession, as well as a brand new single from FKA twigs. Meanwhile we've had some insanely inventive new mixtapes, mixes, EPs, and even some top-notch albums in the worlds of underground rap, club, and experimental music. We’ve rounded up some of our favourite long-players from across the spectrum that have come out over the past three months.

DJ DODGER STADIUM — STAND UP AND SPEAK

Los Angeles production duo DJDS (formerly DJ Dodger Stadium) released their debut album Friend of Mine in 2014, transposing the melancholy-tinged ecstasy of early house records to a contemporary sound design. Their follow-up, Stand Up And Seek, is just as ecstatic, but there’s barely any hint of sadness anymore. The sound is warmer, using more live instrumentation, and their vocalists (recruited locally via Craigslist) bring a gentle humanity to the album. It’s spiritually uplifting — which is maybe why Kanye West invited them to help produce his gospel-tinged The Life of Pablo.

KAMAIYAH — A GOOD NIGHT IN THE GHETTO

On her mixtape A Good Night In The Ghetto, 20-year-old Oakland rapper Kamaiyah delivers straightforward and honest raps over beats that sound like hazy, weed-addled memories of 90s hip hop and R&B tropes. Kamaiyah is an approachable character, rapping about sex without making it sexualised, and telling stories about getting too high to drive. It doesn’t go particularly hard (though that’s not to say there are no party jams), but nor does it have it: instead it trades in positive energy.

KANYE WEST – THE LIFE OF PABLO

Though it generated the most headlines for its creator's Twitter habits, its haphazard release schedule, and its constant tracklist/lineup changes, The Life of Pablo was, at the end of the day, a very good album. As well as featuring some of Kanye’s most immediately gratifying music for ages (“Fade”, “No More Parties In L.A.”, “Real Friends”, etc.), the album retains Kanye’s penchant for wrapping legitimately weird ideas in otherwise accessible forms — see opening track “Ultralight Beam”, where a million different elements all play off individually before coming back around on themselves. As usual, Kanye’s rapping is terrible, but that’s kind of forgivable given the sheer multitude of ideas on display.

THE RANGE — POTENTIAL

All of the samples on The Range’s new album were found on YouTube — not from flipping the latest pop banger or viral sensation, but through digging up the sort of videos with under 200 views that you stumble across on weird late night ‘related videos’ binges. In The Range’s hands, these amateur performances are far more honest and heartfelt than you’d get with a typical rap feature or studio session. The music on Potential traverses similar ground to electronic artists like Boards of Canada or Luke Abbott, but it’s the album’s emotional quality that feels unique.

DAVID BOWIE — BLACKSTAR

One of the reasons David Bowie’s death felt so shocking and sudden when compared to the death’s of other high profile rock stars was that he seemed to have just struck a new creative energy with Blackstar, released just a few days after his death. Where 2013’s The Next Day, released after a decade-long disappearance, was a fairly straight-up rock record (though certainly a very good one), Blackstar was far more inventive and unconventional listen — which makes the loss of its creator even more severe. What remains is the music, and tracks like final send-off “I Can’t Give Everything Away” rank amongst Bowie’s finest.

KENDRICK LAMAR — UNTITLEDUNMASTERED

Dropped online one night with little warning and little fanfare, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled, unmastered isn’t so much a new album as it is a set of offcuts recorded between his 2013 debut and the sessions of last year’s To Pimp A Butterfly. The major take home: if this is the sort of thing Kendrick is happy to cut, how good will the stuff he puts out next be? The rapper tackles race, politics, and religion on the album, but it feels a little looser than it did on Butterfly — more of a musical statement than a political one.

ANA CAPRIX — M6 ULTRA

Last year, South London-based producer Ana Caprix released For Seven Nights This Island Is Ours, a lush collection of dance tracks that flipped tropical trance music on its head. Follow-up M6 Ultra is an ode to the road, swapping the fictional white beaches of For Seven Nights… in favour of a sound that’s more urban and more melancholic. The release sets Dido sample flips against e-pianos and synthesized strings — it all sounds pretty plastic and fake on the surface, but it’s also intensely sincere in its emotion.

ANNA MEREDITH — VARMINTS

Scottish composer Anna Meredith has operated in the world of classical music for years, but she's always embraced new ideas, be it making music for MRI scanners or work using the human body as percussion. Where these commissions seem fairly novel, her debut album Varmints is a far more straightforward and individual effort, featuring TNGHT-esque horns-and-bass tracks (“Nautlius”), bright art pop songs (“Taken”), and engrossing Under The Skin-styled ambient passages (“Honeyed Words”).

CFCF – ON VACATION

New age is certainly not the coolest style of music, but it’s been undergoing a major comeback over the past 12 months. Chalk it up to yoga or the clean eating movement, but a lot of artists are revisiting its relaxing, spiritual sounds — notably, Matthewdavid’s Leaving Records have been issuing a series of modern new age records, having helped spearhead the revival with their reissues of Laraaji’s ambient albums. CFCF’s On Vacation is probably the finest example of contemporary new age, full of Latin guitars, Fairlight synths, loungey pianos, and genteel percussion. It’s completely earnest and genuinely wonderful.

THE 1975 — I LIKE IT WHEN YOU SLEEP, FOR YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL YET SO UNAWARE OF IT

The biggest surprise of the year so far is that The 1975 aren’t actually the drab alt-rock band they’d been pretending to be: get past its moronic title and I like it when you sleep… is a sonically ambitious pop record. The tight hooks, acrobatic lyrics, and unconventional production techniques have a blueprint in Scritt Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85, right down to its philosophical references (Guy Debord rather than Scritti’s beloved Jacques Derrida). It’s far from perfect — it’s way too long and it drags in the middle — but its scope puts a lot of so-called ‘alternative’ music to shame.