Holly Herndon, "Platform" (4AD Records). The San Francisco-based Herndon is a singular artist whose productions blend layers of electronically manipulated voice with beats, noise, sibilant textures and filtered sound to create eardrum-tickling joy. On her second album she manages to sound both futuristic and steeped in history. In her work on "Platform" are echoes of voice-and-sample experimenters from decades past, including Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Nobukazu Takemura and Bjork. But Herndon explores elsewhere.
"Morning Sun" delivers frenetic patterns of vocal samples that jump across the frequency range, offering both bass tones, mid-range melodies and high-end treble washes. It's a mesmerizing listen from an artist who studied composition at Mills College and who has made much of her music on a laptop. "Unequal" sounds like it was forged in an abandoned warehouse, not on a hard drive. It thumps menacingly. Thunder crashes, whispers drift through like drizzle. And amid the beauty, Herndon chants as though she's exploring what a digital liturgy might sound like.
Shamir, "Ratchet" (XL). Any artist who samples Texas post-punk band Scratch Acid is worth a listen. The upstart Las Vegas producer and singer Shamir does so on "Darker," which opens with a menacing string-section melody and Scratch Acid drummer Rey Washam's wicked roll. From there, the song pares back into a soft ballad, one that relies on little more than a two-note bass line of the original.
Shamir's debut album "Ratchet" is hardly a post-punk record, though. Rather, it's a left-field polyglot dance collection that draws from a variety of influences: new-era R&B, '80s synth pop, Chicago house music, Paisley Park-style psychedelic funk and more. With his androgynous voice and gender-bending way with lyrics, Shamir's marriage of club-pop and dance music is striking, if hardly revolutionary on the surface. But the devil-may-care ease with which he plays with his sexuality and dances through the drama pushes the record into the sublime.
Van Hunt, "The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets" (Godless Hotspot). One of funk music's great modern mysteries is why the inventive singer, producer and instrumentalist Van Hunt isn't listed amid names like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and D'Angelo as artists reinvigorating deep soul, funk and Afro-centricism. Since his rise in the late-'90s as part of the Atlanta R&B and soul production community surrounding producer Dallas Austin, the Grammy-winning artist has released a handful of hard, thoughtful records that draw on the instrumental vibe of live '70s funk and soul without sounding the least bit "retro." His newest, "The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets," is his first in four years.
Hinting at the sounds of Sly & the Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic and the groovy Midwest funk scene centered on Westbound Records, the artist is both a protester and a romancer on "The Fun Rises." Rich with echoed effects and a rolling momentum that hits heavy on the first beat, the 14 tracks showcase an inspired artist who has yet to make a commercial impact equal to his skills. "She Stays With Me" mixes a dirty bass line, cheap-synth melodies and a humming rhythm. "Old Hat" rides on low-pitched bass drum tones, a deep rhythm guitar, hand clap rhythms and Van Hunt's whisper-sung vocalizations.