WE HAVE been saying this for a while now: If you want to hear the sound of the future, listen to today’s EPs. The EP, more relevant today than ever, continues to be the format of choice in which groundbreaking upstarts—from the proven FKA twigs to the no-fucks-giver Danny L Harle—break rules and toy with the boundaries of popular music.
Artists like Mac DeMarco and Robyn also made a case for the EP as a svelte “mini-album”. In an environment where the modern listener’s music consumption resembles No-Face in Spirited Away, the EP format is also used as a tool for established acts to provide LP-quality releases between album cycles—and with increasing frequency. In fact, the EP format may become even more prevalent among popular artists in the future. (Always ahead of their time, Radiohead flirted with the idea of never releasing an album again and focussing instead on EPs... six years ago.) We hope that day never comes, of course—we still love our LPs around these parts—but it isn’t difficult to see the allure of the compact and efficient format.
This year, probably more than any other, gave way to some really great R&B releases. Indeed, four of our five favorite EPs on this list work within the R&B idiom without really sounding like any R&B music we’ve ever heard.
Below, we dig into our top five Extended Plays of 2015. But first: ten honorable mentions.
Annie, Endless Vacation, Aphex Twin, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2, Danny L Harle, Broken Flowers, Earl Sweatshirt, Solace, G.L.O.S.S., Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit, Iglooghost, Chinese Nü Yr, Metá Metá, Metá Metá, Nicolaas Jaar, Nymphs II/III, Thundercat, The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Death to New Years.
05 Mac DeMarco, Another One
Our first glimpse of Mac DeMarco’s Another One was a hazy home video for the title track, featuring DeMarco doing an off-putting impression of Michael Jackson in front of the waves of Far Rockaway, Queens, where the artist calls home. Even though the song’s a bummer, lamenting about unrequited love, it’s got a chill, summery feel to it that suggests Mac’s not too stressed about the whole deal anyway. Yeah, the dude’s heartbroken, but it only makes sense that DeMarco would approach heartbreak in such a laid-back fashion.
Clocking in at only 24 minutes long, Another One is a delightful series of ditties Mac seemed to come up with on a summer afternoon. (Which is kind of what he did—Another One was written and recorded in just a few weeks.) The “mini-LP” offers a series of love-related woes—the soft desperation in “No Other Heart”, when a girl’s “heart belongs to another”…the defeat in “Just to Put Me Down”, when a girl’s “picking me up just to put me down.” They’re simple, they’re sappy, they’re sad. But even a lovesick Mac is still Mac DeMarco, and he seems to respond to these losses and letdowns with a shrug and a gap-toothed grin. — Katie Steen
04 Petite Noir, The King of Anxiety
Released 8 months before Petite Noir’s full-length debut, The King Of Anxiety EP still plays like a rough draft, a painting in progress—a thrilling new sound in the early stages of its development. Fusing furious drum machines, electronic synths, and afro-pop guitars, it’s five blurry songs of brooding melodies and rhythms...with one perfect masterpiece mixed in. “Chess” is the fullest expression of Petite Noir’s unique musical sensibility, a magical slow-burn deconstructing a fragile relationship from two perspectives. As a statement from a new artist, it shows off not just an extraordinary vocal range (he’s singing in two registers), but a deep emotional range, too (lighthearted humor mixed in with heavy sadness). It’s the only track that made its way from this EP to the full album—but the feeling of all 5 songs came along with it, growing into something even more beautiful, unusual and complete. — Adam Offitzer
03 Kelela, Hallucinogen
In terms of subject matter, the themes on Kelela’s Hallucinogen aren’t game-changing, but the sound on her EP is a revelation. The project embodies the best aspects of modern R&B and it takes them to extraterrestrial heights.
Kelela is certainly aided by a splendid team of producers (Arca, Boots, Kingdom, DJ Dahi) but they all bend to fit to her vision, not vice versa. Taming an eclectic maverick like Arca is no small feat, but on the seething and somber “A Message”, Kelela finds a perfect harmony, stretching synth chords to their breaking point but imbuing them with genuine human emotion.
Arca’s Mutant was praised for bending the rules of electronic composition to create one-of-a-kind, out-of-this world soundscapes, and Kelela’s Hallucinogen is similarly groundbreaking, taking everything you like about contemporary R&B, but bringing it just outside your comfort zone and left-of-center enough to make you hang on every single beat. — Grant Rindner
02 FKA twigs, M3LL155X
Instead of opting for more of the tried and true from LP1, FKA twigs went a little bolder on M3LL155X—pronounced “Melissa”—with a concept EP that expanded, by a few significant degrees, on the big things: her production, her vocal techniques, and the way she communicated her themes. What carried over is more compact and focused. Her aptitude for creating uneasy, submissive portraits returned but with a more skewering purpose of giving the lie to manipulative, domineering relationships. She still sings in a frail but steely falsetto, but she also incorporates whispers, guttural groans and varied cadences, such as when she spits acidic lines on “In Time”. There are still outer space synths, but there are also chaotic drum tornadoes that pepper everything with dissonance. M3LL155X is at its best and most interesting when its discomforting, despite the pretty ambient synth sheen. Those elements feel barely there, like sheer fabric, when undercut by the unsettling or the eerie elements that come out of the shadows: the grinding noise of an unidentifiable percussion, or vocal effects that disintegrate FKA twigs into digital dust. It’s designed to take a lot out of you, but not with big, obvious blows, but instead many, tiny pricks that bleed. — Justin Pansacola
01 Nao, February 15
In a year overrun with quirky R&B, Nao set herself apart with February 15, a five track masterpiece that showcased her considerable vocal talents as well as a new and exciting direction for music. “Bad Blood”—with its triumphant thump and Max Martin-level earworm chorus—might be the best single track she released this year, but February 15 is a standout for its cohesion.
On the surface there isn’t much in common with a heart-on-a-sleeve spacey love song like “It’s You” and the Jai Paul-influenced electro funk of “Inhale Exhale”, but they work because of the record’s meticulous sequencing and because Nao has the talent and presence to thrive on a variety of soundscapes. Her lyrics come out in haunting, breathy gasps, but there’s an underlying confidence that is intoxicating.
The U.K. upstart is helped by dense, dank production from artists like Royce Wood Junior and Kwes, who provide instrumentals that are moody and ethereal but perfectly radio-ready. The chugging slap bass of “Golden”, and the echoing percussion of “Apple Cherry” create emotive backgrounds for Nao’s gorgeous voice.
Throughout her brief career Nao has put her music front and center, consistently eschewing the spotlight while letting her songs do the talking, and with the quality of her output its easy to see why. If she continues to put out music at this high a level she may find herself a superstar whether she likes it or not. — Grant Rindner