2011: Top 10 EDM Albums Of The Year
Pretty interesting year for electronic music. More and more producers are determined to completely crush all the barriers between genres, which can only be a good thing. Unfortunately, there was a lack of 'essential' and 'worthwile in 5 years time' albums this year, and abundance of 'just interesting' and 'good' ones. That's why it was harder than ever to choose only 10, but I think I managed to do it without a feeling of guilt which usually follows after you realize that some of the really cool ones have fallen off. Regardless, here are 5 closest contenders that just didn't make it (in no order):
Anthony Rother - The Machine Room
Biosphere - N-Plants
Dave Monolith - Welcome
Kangding Ray - OR
Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
And finally, here's the real thing:
10. The Black Dog - Liber Dogma
Label: Soma Quality Recordings
Review: It's somewhat interesting that even though The Black Dog is one of the most established and respected techno acts, they never really engaged in straight up dancefloor stuff. Even their early days on their own, short-lived Black Dog Productions label were characterized by experiments and their own, unique approach to sounds coming from the other side of the pond. So it's amusing that after more than 20 years in the business and 3 mostly atmospheric, even ambient albums in the last 3 years, they decided to seemingly take a step back and release a pure dancefloor material. But it is The Black Dog after all and if there's one thing they taught us during their almost spotless career, it's no matter what direction they take and how prolific they are, they always take their music serisously and relesase high standard products. If you'd try to separate the tracks here or give them a different order, the whole thing wouldn't sound as interesting. Fluidity and perfect sequencing is what holds this album together. The sound itself is inspired equally by Berghain, Birmingham and their early output, though this time they're able to utilize new technology to the max to achieve the desired effect. And that effect surely shines the most on the dark, dirty dancefloors in the small hours of the night.
Highlights: Feeder Rub Out, Hype Knot 7, Single Light Focus
09. Alva Noto - Univrs
Style: IDM, Glitch, Experimental
Review: After well-received and acclaimed Unitxt, Alva Noto once again revisits his own, unique world of rhythmic chaos. Palette of sound is quite similar to what Noto has been doing on its predecessor - again we have angular beats dictating the pace and energy of the expansive digital vortex of various raw glitches, bleeps, whirs and other tones of variegated frequencies floating over them and complementing cold and sterile, mostly dark background soundscapes. Noto is not shy of using the shrillest and the most gruelling sounds to accomplish the desired intensity of material. So this album sounds even more agressive and harder on the ears than Unitxt. But while Unitxt was rather linear, Univrs disrupts the monotonicity and breaks away from designated path, charting the unacquainted territory times and times again, while still maintaining the focus. And while it may sound bizarre, some of the funk secretly crept in among the sinister passages, resulting in danciest record od Carsten Nicolai to date. Huge accomplishment for an overall third and first solo album from this guy this year.
Highlights: Uni Iso, Uni Acronym, Uni Syc
08. Kuedo - Severant
Label: Planet Mu
Style: Dubstep, Techno, Ambient
Review: Every year a certain number of albums appear that try their best to revisit the techno futurism of the 80s without leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Most of them fail miserably, but there's always that one that leaves you thinking: why the hell someone didn't manage to do this kind of thing in this way before, when it's pretty obvious to everyone that the futuristic atmosphere of the 80s has been ripped off since the 80s ended. Last year that title deservedly went to Oriol's debut, and this year we got a new fix from his label peer Kuedo, freshly out of his former, highly acclaimed dubstep act Vex'd. But while Night And Day was utterly dubstep-free, Severant just couldn't escape from his maker's fruitful past. So this record is not just a nostalgic reinterpretation of Detroit's magical sounds, it's an improvement and a step forward in a familiar, but not yet fully explored direction. Imagine flaring melodies of Vangelis interconnected with Tangerine Dream's deep and dark soundscapes, interfered with Kuedo's style of percussion programming (that draws inspiration from Plastikman and his high frequency oscillating snares and hats that create that signature helicopter sound of his) and nervous footwork beats and basslines. Night (driving) music couldn't be a better label for this kind of sound.
Highlights: Salt Lake Cuts, Onset (Escapism), Flight Path
07. Modeselektor - Monkeytown
Label: Monkeytown Records
Style: Dubstep, Techno, Hip Hop, Experimental
Review: If there's one thing Modeselektor guarantees you with each new release, it's versatility. This kind od agile genre shifting could be very demanding even for the most competent acts out there and made their albums incoherent and inconsistent, but Modeselektor pulls it off with ease and confidence, sprinkled with a little wit and humour. UK bass movement is still the main inspiration and foundation for most of the tracks, but the spectrum of influences has never been wider: from berlin techno, dub, glitch, hip hop, IDM and synth pop to styles so indeterminable that it feels they literally made it up on the spot. The list of guest vocalists is even bigger, which makes this album the most vocal oriented work of theirs to date. Especially interesting is Modeselektor's processing and manipulation of those vocals - sometimes they are chopped up and just skitter out there in the background subtly enriching the whole thing and sometimes they are the driving force behind the track and it feels like they have a power to shape the rest of the track structure the way they want to. From glossy dancefloor material to introspective emotion inducing songs - this album has it all.
Highlights: Green Light Go, This, Berlin
06. Sandwell District - Sandwell District
Label: Sandwell District
Review: Mysterious techno collective, that recalls Underground Resistance - only without the militant attitude, delievers the first (and the last, it seems (from their declaration of 31st december)) offering in an album format. While the previous work of constitutional members was nothing short of amazing, album format (especially in techno) is sometimes an insurmountable challenge even for the greatest artists. And at first, it seems like they fell into the common trap of nonversatility and lack of changes in tempo, mood and atmosphere. But upon multiple listens and a closer inspection it becames clear that we have early "artificial intelligence" techno, updated and adapted for a new generation, on our hands. Shifting rhythm patterns, long ambient passages and overall mysterious and eerie atmosphere certainly invoke music of B12/Kirk Degiorgio/Stasis and company. Add that to mastered repetitiveness of Monolake and vast, and at first imperceptible artillery of little details such as subtle perforating sounds, buzzing stabs, menacing howls, creaking doors, ghostly whispers and crackles hidden deep under the thunder of rolling beats, metallic percussion and layers of haze and echo combined from time to time with spatial woodblock sounds, and you're getting, despite its high usefulness on the dancefloor, the finest "haunted industrial hall" listening techno experience ever.
Highlights: Track 3, Track 1, Track 4
05. Andy Stott - Passed Me By / We Stay Together
Label: Modern Love
Style: Techno, Ambient, Dubstep
Review: Since the dawn of the music itself people have been talking about underground. But here's a record that sounds literally underground - like the music is being played under the ground, buried deep under the layers upon layers of dirt, clay and rocks which equal dense ambience, tape hiss and murky synths blurring the rhythmic elements from fully shining on thìs piece of work. Actually two pieces, since both discs appeared separately in an EP form earlier this year. But it's more than evident to everyone (mostly to Modern Love which decided to bundle up the two and release it as a 2xCD album) that these two share common concepts, moods and overall atmosphere. And what unique atmoshere that is. Seems like Demdike Stare (colleagues both label and sound-wise) kickstarted a whole new wave so fresh and powerful that impelled Andy Stott, among others, to rethink the meaning of his existance in the world of electronic music, move away from pretty standard dub techno to a new, uncharted territory where lazy, rolling muffled beats and dark, somber surroundings combined with previously mentioned effects meet to altogether create an earth shattering and frightening monster from deep down below.
Highlights: Passed Me By, North To South, We Stay Together (Part One)
04. Plaid - Scintilli
Label: Warp Records
Review: Plaid have been anything but passive for the most part of the last decade, which is more than evident from two soundtrack albums, collaboration album with visual artist Bob Jaroc and a couple of one-off singles and compilation appearances they did during that time. However, last original artist album happened way back in 2003, and last really great one 2 years earlier, which in combination with almost 3 year old announcements of a new album and subsequent delays created really high expectations from both hardcore fans and casual listeners. And they surprisingly succeeded to meet them. Scintilli travels back to Double Figure and borrows the finest and most interesting melodic and rhythmic elements, wraps them around a string of bell, chime and ring-like sounds and camouflages and enhances the whole thing with modern day production and sound design. All of this doesn't mean Plaid simply just modernized their characteristic style for the new generation. On the contrary. They are more versatile than ever and explore everything from rolling techno, wistful and melancholic underwater dubstep, guitar and synth driven hyperballads and even toy around with uninterrupting (digitally synthesized) angelic vocals (which are especially effective on the album closer), all while resolutely retaining that sparkly and playful Plaid feel.
Highlights: At Last, Sömnl, Tender Hooks
03. Phoenecia - Demissions
Style: IDM, Experimental, Ambient
Review: It's rare and certainly refreshing in this day and age to encounter an album so chaotic, that it leaves you confused even after you come back to it couple of times. That just means one thing: artist is walking uncharted territory and doing abstract kind of things you haven't yet heard and learned to like. Actually it would be wrong to say that the music featured here arose from the thin air, it surely draws huge inspiration from both Phoenecia's 10 years old debut Brownout and Autechre's Untilted period, but the sheer technical level of novelty and innovation here is simply unprecedented in the last 5 years. Phoenecia works with advanced rhythmical programming and uses granular synthesis and electroacoustics to create monstruos cataclysmic beats that tear up the holes in sinister and desolate soundscapes. Fast pulsating rhythms coupled with skittering percussion and acoustic tones infiltrating from time to time periodically give their place to calmful environments soaked in darkness and despair, but soon take the power back and run their own game again. It feels like the human killing robots have gone to sleep and humanity is finally safe, but soon enough they wake up again, and the story continues, more brutal and severe than before. If this album has to be summed up in three words, those words would be: impeccable sound design.
Highlights: Livelihoods, Gesundheit, Two-Part Invention For Bodhran & Computer
02. Marow - + - 0 (Plus Minus Null)
Label: Mille Plateaux
Style: Minimal Techno, Ambient
Review: It's difficult to say exactly why an essentially minimal techno album works so well in this case, when there's more than enough evidence from all this years that that's usually not the case. But there's something between the lines, something subtle and unexplainable that makes this album stand out even from the bunch of similarly themed albums from heavyweights such as Gas and Yagya. Similarly to Yagya's debut, this album also teleports you orbiting around an unknown peaceful planet of crystal-like architecture where one day it's snowing, and the other day the sky is crystal clear and perfect for daydreaming. It feels like you could listen to this piece of ethereal beauty forever, since the slight track variations keep the whole listening experience fresh and interesting, but at the same time don't get in the way of the main concept and themes it explores. It's almost impossible these days to find this kind of fluid, soft and mellow music that will not sound cheesy and worn out. Be careful though, there are two versions of this album out there, and the better one released on Mille Plateaux features longer versions of key tracks.
Highlights: E.coli (Long Version), Eis (Long Version), Schweif
01. Machinedrum - Room(s)
Label: Planet Mu
Style: Dubstep, Footwork, Juke
Review: It's quite strange these days for a producer to stay under the radar for almost 10 years, and then suddenly explode like he just started producing and is still amazed with all these new sounds and possibilities. But that's exactly what happened with Travis Stewart this year. Instead of opting to (and perfecting) a certain style of bass club music popular these days, he decided to take all of them and throw them into a big post-dubstep melting pot. The end result could have very well ended up disastrous, but it seems like Travis possesses that certain factor which divides people who have an ability to do this kind od experiments efficiently from average tryhards (also obvious from the other album he did this year with the fellow Braille as Sepalcure). Whether you haven't heard about styles such as footwork and juke, or you have but think they sound awful, don't worry. Machinedrum knows what he's doing and effortlessly blends frentic percussion and dynamic low bass characteristic for the genres with atmospheric dubstep synths and pads, post-dubstep hiss and cracles in the vein of Mount Kimbie and Matthewdavid, and Burial-esque vocal snippets. Rich production ensures dense atmosphere and loads of details, from distant high frequency snares to scattering muffled drums and overall lo-fi aesthetic coupled with granular texture gives it a special charm.
Highlights: Lay Me Down, U Don't Survive, She Died There