We’re inundated with so much music now that, more and more, great collections of songs go unnoticed — especially when music critics go into hyperdrive during list-making season. So here’s the best music that SPIN slept on these past few months, including two of the great rhymers who still rhyme for the sake of riddlin’, a sax machine who woke up feeling like a pop star, an anti-folkie who’s matured into something like a regular folkie, and a post-rock duo overdue for, well, their due.
Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman, Lice EP (Self-Released)
Homeboy Sandman is one of the best rappers of his generation, so it sucks that he and the logorrheic Aesop Rock only surprise-released this excellent, five-song comeback in the tail-end of 2015. On Rock’s best record since his way-long-ago 2001 breakthrough Labor Days, he promises to “eat a whole food web” and echoes Pusha T when he warns rappers to cool it with the woe-is-me (rhymes with “diplomacy”). And on Sandman’s best record since, um, 2014, he brags about being “absent from the message boards” and strings together “primordial,” “audio,” “Casio,” and “pistachio.” Over the tricky organ loop and antsy drums of “Katz,” the pair drop wisdom like “Cats had better not fart when their girl is the big spoon.” And on “Get a Dog” they sample none other than Linkin Park. — DAN WEISS
Kid Ink, Summer in the Winter (RCA)
Other than his Hail Mary pass of a feature on Fifth Harmony’s irresistible smash, “Worth It,” turning Kid Ink’s 2015 musical output into anything worth salvaging would’ve taken a Christmas miracle. Behold, on December 25, he dropped one. On Summer in the Winter, the indispensable DJ Mustard swept in and bound Ink’s basic rhymes to squelching synths and G-funk-lite melodies that complement the 29-year-old rapper’s nasally vocals. Highlights like the raunchy “Bunny Ranch” and the twinkling Fetty Wap duet “Promise” show an artist (Mustard) and his moldable clay (Ink) working in tandem to churn out the kitschy, nonstop fun Ink has long promised but only just delivered — under the tree, that is. — BRENNAN CARLEY
El Ten Eleven, Fast Forward (Fake)
Long-undervalued post-rock duo El Ten Eleven may not have amassed the same level of adulation as some of their more well-known contemporaries (Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky), but the Los Angeles pair — a.k.a. drummer Tim Fogarty and six-string bass player Kristian Dunn — can be counted upon to expertly churn out cerebral orchestrations that emote beautifully. On their sixth venture together, the two musicians explore the connection between parent and child as catalyzed by the recent loss of Fogarty’s father: The jaunty “Point Breeze” and the shimmering “Scott Township” both reference areas in Pittsburgh where Fogarty and his dad would visit when he was young. Their plan is grand, as far as Big Themes go, but they’re capable of living up to the task. Fast Forward not only showcases El Ten Eleven’s technical abilities, but also their sharp ear for layering grand loops and melodies that once again prove words aren’t the only way to communicate. — RACHEL BRODSKY
Laurel Halo, In Situ (Honest Jon’s)
In 2012, Laurel Halo’s debut album Quarantine was one of the strongest and most original electronic gifts of a young decade, layering her self-harmonized voice into odd chorales that occasionally had the temerity to harass men back (“Making eye contact / You’re mad because I will not leave you alone”). But for presumably personal reasons, she’s declined to sing on any release since, which have played as dry runs for getting her production up to snuff. So her best album-length-EP since Quarantine remains instrumental, but now skitters jazzily, with “Situation” dropping da bass early on and “Nebenwirkungen” finding a blissful, musique concrète oasis between the Knife and Matrixxman. The closing “Focus I” actually employs a jazz organist, in case you thought I was being impressionistic. — D.W.
Though Fleur East didn’t win the U.K. X-Factor season she appeared on, triumphing on music competitions has never been key — just ask Miranda Lambert. Hunkering down with the care of Simon Cowell’s record label, East took a year to properly synthesize her neo-funk influences with help from frequent One Direction collaborator Julian Bunetta, “Levels” architect Ian Kirkpatrick, and others. The 28-year-old former lounge singer confidently wields the horn-heavy “Sax,” the DJ Kool-sampling “Baby Don’t Dance,” and the mascara-blasted “Tears Will Dry.” The gap between her U.K. and U.S. success continues to slim. — B.C.
Jeffrey Lewis and Les Bolts, Manhattan (Rough Trade)
After having formed an alliance with 77-year-old counterculture icon Peter Stampfel for a few great collaborative records, anti-folk vanguard Jeffrey Lewis is now 40 himself and many of his new songs concern the circle of life, and how to circumvent its dismaying patterns. On Manhattan, one of his strongest outings ever, he humanizes “Scowling Crackhead Ian” as “my fellow human being” to describe a guy who grew up within blocks of him, referring to them both as “last tribesmen on the banished land.” The fast garage-punk of “Sad Screaming Old Man” beckons a snoring neighbor to “Stop this torture, old man / And please don’t be myself from the future.” And, most cuttingly, “Support Tours” catalogs the bittersweet moment when a touring musician transitions from opener to main draw, and starts ripping off the smaller acts. — D.W.
Philadelphia recluse Balam Acab’s breathtaking breakthrough, 2011’s Wonder/Wander, might be the loveliest release in the nearly six-year history of notoriously amelodic label Tri Angle. Its long-awaited yet surprise follow-up, CHILD DEATH, digs even deeper into the eddies of limpid natural sounds — trickling water, untethered voices, and chimes clinking together as if made of glass — that he scattered throughout his debut. CHILD DEATH is tied as closely to the delicate, introspective meanderings of Baths as its predecessor was to See Birds’ eerie R&B. Those mountain streams flow here, too, between the synth stabs of recently resuscitated trance music on “ANDIWILLTELLU” and, as you might expect, on album closer “UNDERWATER FOREVER” amidst a curtain of bird calls. And, to nicely sandwich his career between the end of last year and beginning of this one, Balam Acab let loose an early mixtape from 2009. So go ahead and curl up in your down comforter and watch the snow fall forever. — HARLEY BROWN
Lord RAJA, PARA (Ghostly International)
The “Intro” to cacophonous audiophile Lord RAJA’s free album for Adult Swim, PARA, is both exactly what its name suggests and a galaxy of far, far-flung musical touchstones. Bouncing between drum’n’bass breaks, SAWII-reminiscent upwellings of background sounds, and the disintegrating FM textures of Radiohead’s most technophobic era, the three-minute track dismantles expectations for PARA. The amorphously minute-and-a-half “Footwork” is about as far away from the quick-stepping Chicago genre as you can get, while strung-out vocal samples slice through the djembe poundings of “Butterfly on a Jet.” It might be one of the jazziest stream-of-consciousness ever put to tape. — H.B.