Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Dance and Electronic
Published Dec 12, 20122012 was a fantastic year for your body and your mind. Move your feet and stroke your chin to our dance and electronic album picks, below.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Dance and Electronic:
When you drive into Montreal, one of the first things that you might notice is the crumbling state of the city's road infrastructure. A sprawling mess of expressways, overpasses, ramps, and tunnels — most of which were hastily built before Expo '67 and the 1976 Olympics — where chunks of concrete are missing and continue to fall today. For his latest album, Exercises, Montreal musician Mike Silver (aka CFCF) drew on the city's Brutalist architecture, '70s Canadiana, and the work of American composer Philip Glass for inspiration. While that might sound like the recipe for a pretentious disaster on paper, Silver pulls it off, creating a collection of minimalist, piano-based songs that are fully-realized. A far cry from his Italo disco-influenced 2009 debut, Continent, or his upbeat remixes for the likes of HEALTH and Sally Shapiro, the eight tracks here (given numbers rather than names) are more melancholic and reflective. There's no telling where Silver might go from here, but if Exercises is any indication, he's got plenty of good ideas to test out.
13. Ricardo Donoso
Assimilating the Shadow
While Ricardo Donoso turned heads with last year's Progress Chance, he upped his game substantially in 2012 via the mind-expanding Assimilating the Shadow. The double LP is not only grand in size but also in ambition, spinning some heady Jungian theory into a mass of slow-weaving electronic epics that touch on everything from house, minimalist techno and club music to more atmospheric, '80s-influenced synth sounds. The resulting hybrid is complex, to say the least, with Donoso laying down some seriously mathy and intricate rhythm patterns. However, the record is hardly a frantic mess, but rather a painstakingly slaved-over slab of slicked-out electro bliss, playing out in a manner exceptionally cool, calm and collected. In some ways, the record is a detached piece of work, but that's also part of the charm, as it comes out sounding fascinatingly alien and on a plain of its own. As a package, Assimilating the Shadow is a true thinking fan's kind of electronic album in more ways than one.
12. Four Tet
That Four Tet's latest recording will appear in year-end lists is sort of expected; Kieran Hebden doesn't really make bad albums. Yet Pink wasn't intended to be an album: Hebden's been releasing vinyl singles since early 2011, and when he realized he had enough for a full-length, he added his two latest songs to the mix, and released it digitally. But although the singles signalled nothing beyond the individual, two-song twelve-inches that they were, a theme emerged amongst songs like "Lion" and "Pinnacles": they were danceable. Hebden has long been fascinated by cyclical samples, but in lieu of the found sounds and musical clatter of his 2003 breakthrough, Rounds (and, less so, of his 2010 full-length There is Love in You), are stronger bass lines, deeper drum frequencies, and faster 4/4 rhythms. That's not to say that Pink is monotonous, because it isn't: Hebden balances his embrace of the dance-floor with slower, more ponderous soundscapes and his trademark, chime-inflected, sample-laden ditties. So, is it a proper album or just a great collection of songs? Does it really matter?
11. Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland
Black Is Beautiful
In 2010, a mysterious act using the name Hype Williams emerged with an album ridiculously called Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, And Start Gettin' Reel. One thing was clear: it wasn't the big-time hip-hop video director. Little was known about them other than their names were allegedly Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland. Two years later, as their profile was rising, the moniker was dropped without reason, and then the two released their finest album yet, perhaps to avoid any legal ramifications. It was a smart move, because Black is Beautiful is an album that got people talking. Releasing it through Kode9's Hyperdub label, few questions were answered after hearing the woozy, unsettling, fragmented art, as Blunt calls it. In fact, they gave us even more to ask. Opting for song numbers instead of titles, an album cover that deceptively reads "EBONY" and no coherency from track to track, it's puzzling, nuanced and addictive. Opening with a cough emulating Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf" then erupting into free jazz drumming, they pull out a cover of Donnie & Joe Emerson's "Baby" as straight as Ariel Pink's, also of this year. Interludes follow, interspersed between Eastern European synth-pop, rumbling, disembodied dub, and what sounds like an attempt at jittery drum & bass. If they weren't so shifty and surreptitious, we probably wouldn't care. But knowing so little makes these pathological liars such a temptation. Never have I wanted to know so little about an artist.
South Africa meets South London was the tag line of this September release and Sebenza is an exciting album that will rank among Hyperdub's best ever. What connects it to the label's earlier output of some of the most forward-thinking dubstep of the day is its swinging hustle. Few rhythms are straightforward; they are constantly accelerating and slowing down. Sebenza's bass presence also dances about. It may wobble a bit but it's just another part of the energetic sound design that strongly features an 8-bit vocabulary to suggest retro-futurism. There's a bit of the house sound that's making South Africa currently famous, but mostly it's about London style broken beats and UK garage debris with a helping of bounce-y rhythms from South USA to extend the southern metaphor of the tag line. On the face of it the lyrics are a surreal yet utterly practical Esperanto of computer-related terminology, Zulu, pop culture references, and dissociative swag speak. But in delivery, most often by primary vocalist Okmallumkoolkat, there is amazing enthusiasm and dextrous wordplay. Even after spending months with this always surprising and satisfying album, I find it difficult put together linear narratives for each song. The juxtaposition of local, foreign and sonic impressionism of the vocals is always absorbing. LV's is a future you want to live in, one which is, for a change, not hyper-dystopian. Just hyper-dubbed.
To get a sense of just how big TNGHT have gotten in one year, one need look no further than size of the shows they're playing. Montreal's Lunice and Glasgow's Hudson Mohawke debuted their project in an Austin garage for a word-of-mouth late night set during SXSW in March. Fast forward to last month, when they played two sold-out shows in Toronto and New York, the latter featuring an appearance from Kanye West, who came out during their live remix of the rapper's "Theraflu (Way Too Cold)." Both producers have experienced some solo success (Lunice teamed up with Diplo to remix Deerhoof's "Helicopter" in 2010, while HudMo helped produce Kanye's "Mercy," one of the biggest songs of the year), but when they combined forces, there was no stopping their bass-heavy assault on dance floors worldwide. While music critics and fans were divided on what to call their self-titled debut EP: Is it hip-hop? Electronic? Trap? — one notable description from Twitter: "TNGHT is the Daft Punk of the hood" — the one thing everybody could agree on is that it's the sound bodies are going to be moving to in the future.
8. Holy Other
What's hypothetically holding Held, the debut album from Holy Other, back from placing higher on this list (and many others like this), may be the fact that, overall, it sounds too damn much like Burial. And how can we even be certain that Holy Other and Burial aren't actually the same person? Until the day comes where we can unmask the Mancunian (?) producer, Holy Other's debut full-length can only be judged by its core material, which just happens to be a masterful blend of R&B-tinged samples, abstract pacing and dark wave schematics. Perhaps most compellingly, what makes Held such an improvement over With U (last year's paint-by-numbers EP) happens to be Holy Other's penchant for sounding less-focused and less-equipped, which after one full journey through Held, is just the effect Holy Other seems to be shooting for. Allowing rhythms to melt and smear, like lipstick on a widowed grunge-heiresses's face, Holy Other allow songs like "Tense Past" and "In Difference" to adopt a much moodier and intimate feel. On the title track, subterranean bass hums deteriorate while melodies breath in-and-out in an uneven manner, giving an imperfect sheen that contrasts the click-and-pop underpinnings that define artists like Burial's sound. What makes Held such an exciting venture remains the fact that there's no craft, no plot, no angle, just music built upon and around seismic sentiment and unconscious ambience. Albums like Held allow you to understand why the term dubstep was appropriated by cock-rockers like Skrillex. It's all just music designed to fuck with your emotions.
7. Crystal Castles
It's too bad the conversation about electronic Toronto duo Crystal Castles tends to concern their characters rather than their music, because, well, they make very, very good music. Ethan Kath and Alice Glass have matured with each of their releases: Crystal Castles was a bratty, hyperactive record defined as much by a fuck-all attitude as its abrasive textures and glitchy beats; II was a more pensive, sophisticated record of yearning melodies and fewer beats per minute, punctuated still by the occasional bouts of rage-induced noise; (III), by far their most measured and thoughtful album to date, is still a dance record, but a prevailing sadness permeates the proceedings. The production on elegant, sombre tracks like "Wrath of God" and "Sad Eyes" bury Alice Glass's vocals under waves of melancholy synths, reflecting her feeling of powerlessness in a world where, as she asserted, "victims don't get justice and corruption prevails." That the cover depicts a Yemeni man tear-gassed during anti-government riots being held by his mother, and the tracks bear names like "Plague," "Sad Eyes," "Violent Youth," and "Child I Will Hurt You" only go further to establish that Crystal Castles have more on their minds these days than posturing, slack-shouldered and blasé in their leather and denim. But who cares how they look? They've never sounded better.
6. John Talabot
fIN feels like it has been out for years even though it was released only in February, because I have listened to it so many times since. I ordered fIN on vinyl immediately after hearing some of the tracks online, and I know it will continue to be on heavy rotation in my modest record collection for years to come. It's a record to be listened to until the grooves are so scratched it cannot be played any longer, not a tradable record that I hope will one day be a "collector's item." Talabot's melodic take on disco-inspired house music is not the most technically brilliant electronic music out there, but if that's what you are seeking as a listener I think you have missed the point of music altogether. Talabot's melodies and sample selection on the album are as beautiful to the closed-minded indie rock fan as they are to the hardcore techno purist; there is an undeniable positivity to the Talabot sound on fIN that brings different types of people together. While music press often gets caught up in useless artistic snobbery, it's albums like fIN that remind us that music is a tool to bring people together, not to divide them.
Philip de Vries
Nearly eight months after its release, R.I.P. (Darren Cunningham's third full-length under his Actress moniker), confoundingly remains a slumbering monster. Despite the fact that Cunningham's sophomore album, 2010's Splazsh, was released at a time when dubstep was still making waves, the well-received effort failed to reach the same level of attention that contemporaries like How to Dress Well or Flying Lotus managed. It just might be the fact that, at its core, R.I.P. is a difficult album to love; there are no fashionable R&B samples, no blog-worthy guest vocalists... hell, there are no vocals. There are barely even beats to be found. So, what makes R.I.P. such a rewarding listen? It's simply one of the best traditionally-constructed electronic LPs to be released this decade. Tracks like the airy "Ascending" and the grotty "Tree of Knowledge" ultimately become meditative and absorbing for the same reason the music of Joe Meek, Wendy Carlos or Derrick May did — synthesizers and drum machines make pretty damn interesting sounds. In that manner, R.I.P. is actually quite McLuhan-esque in its delivery; "Marble Plexus" is purely a performance piece, relying on its alien melody, rather than pure volume or implied groove, to move you through several slightly off-kilter movements. By the title alone, one could have speculated that the skeletal, barren material on R.I.P. was some form of artistic suicide, but death is way too unsophisticated a concept for Actress to even entertain.
4. Laurel Halo
Brooklyn's musical alchemist demonstrates mastery of a vital skill set that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries: she's an accomplished singer-songwriter. Rare is the electronic artist whose tracks still carry impact when stripped down to piano and voice. By using an exploratory approach to shaping sound textures as accompaniment for inventively structured chord sequences that support her indomitably catchy, frequently haunting and rhythmically precise melodies, Laurel Halo constructs music that appeals to listeners more interested in a cerebral headphone experience than the intentionally mind-numbing repetitiveness of dance music. Sublimely grafting thematic intent into the sonic DNA of every facet of the music, Quarantine is designed with the solitary experience in mind. There's a deliberate sense of isolation in the way Halo hones in on minute frequencies to create the icy and alien, yet soft and tender synth patches that weave in cascading mathematical arpeggios behind an angelic voice that's often manipulated to emphasize communication breakdown. Underneath it all, her fuzzy, skittering tribal beats bubble and churn like an active volcano of emotions distending a veneer of cold detachment. Among the therapeutic caress of this album's 12 stunning tracks, "Thaw" stands out as a masterstroke of song craft as emotionally evocative of a warm, primal, alien loneliness as the most potent amalgamations of melody and experimentation achieved by pop-centric abstract electronic tourists like Radiohead and Björk. Halo is a resident of this world though, utilizing vital tools from pop, classical and world music to humanize the chilly mechanizations of sequence-based composition, and creating one of the most distinct musical statements of the year in the process.
Scott A. Gray
It was surprising to learn that "Ye Ye," the first single from Dan Snaith's dance floor-oriented side project, Daphni, charted on CBC Radio 3 this summer. That a categorically techno track could live, and rise, amongst a compendium of decidedly guitar-based rock, folk and pop tunes felt both life-affirming and unsound. It's hard to imagine a pure laine house or techno producer getting similar mainstream attention. Whether it's the Caribou thing, or because the commercial success of EDM has ears open to primarily electronic sounds, Jiaolong, the full-length by Daphni, is a mighty record, deserving of the attention. Snaith, a trained mathematician, is known for the structure he applies to relatively freewheeling compositions. And though Jiaolong feels less rigorous and more roiling than his Caribou stuff, there's a sense that Snaith's algorithmically mastered spontaneity is at work here in full force. In the hands of a lesser artist, this scrupulousness would feel too academic, but Daphni is a project dedicated to exploration. Flares of reworked Afrobeat and tweaky synth patterns collide with the inherent groove and clean lines of Detroit techno and minimal; some logical verve is all it takes to arrive at a brilliant conclusion. Daphni is Snaith tackling the problem of the dance floor and finding a new, inspired solution.
2. Andy Stott
Manchester's Andy Stott has been on a prolific tear, releasing countless 12-inches and remixes for the last seven years under his own name, after previously using the alias Andrea. But 2012 was a giant leap forward for the producer. Following up two critically acclaimed EPs in 2011 — Passed Me By and We Stay Together — Stott finally put together his second full-length, a successor to 2006's Merciless. Surprising many with a slower, more focused direction, partially influenced by fatherhood, Stott seems to have aligned himself with the UK's bass music movement on Luxury Problems. Another development was his choice to add vocals, a suggestion made by his long-time label, Modern Love. Despite having access to any number of singers, he chose his former piano teacher, a trained opera singer named Alison Skidmore, with whom he had kept in touch. The vocals add an ethereal, R&B texture to the monochromatic and haunting production that pushes throbbing sub-bass, best realized on the Massive Attack-feel of the title track. It's cohesive yet varied: "Lost and Found" grinds beats and bass like an industrial machine at work, "Expecting" is cold and steely with clanking chains offsetting the booming pulse, whereas "Leaving" is disembodied vocals akin to Liz Fraser drifting over ambient synths, and "Up the Box" is straight-up jungle that feels less out of place each time you hear it. Luxury Problems is an immersive, intense and jaw-droppingly beautiful album to lose yourself in.
1. Flying Lotus
Until The Quiet Comes
How does Flying Lotus follow up a career-defining album? He releases another one. Two years after making his name with the jittery, jazz-infused Cosmogramma, the perfectionistic Los Angeles producer returned with the freer-flowing, more texture-oriented Until The Quiet Comes. But though Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, admits he agonized over the album's production, often spending hours ensuring a snare hit or bass thrum sounded precisely the way he envisioned it, Until the Quiet Comes sounds positively spontaneous and organic. By scaling instrumentation back, Ellison allows the listener to better hear his ear for arrangement, letting space play a more substantial part than it did on anything he'd done previously. That space provides a theme and point of cohesion for Quiet, but the album is ultimately defined by its sonic variety: "Until The Colours Come" revels in its own intricate details, all synth burbles, skittering woodblocks, and chimes; "Sultan's Request" throbs warmly under a glitchy melody, culminating in a head-nodding bass bob; "Me Yesterday//Corded" basks in a sunny sonic glow propelled gently by grooving drums. Until the Quiet Comes demonstrates Flying Lotus's crossover appeal, attracting fans from across the hip-hop, jazz, and electronic genre spectrums, but not because he's somehow diluted his music or "sold out"; more likely, to paraphrase Ellison speaking to Exclaim! earlier this year, "They hear something familiar; the searching, the seeking sound. They hear me trying to understand my life through music. Maybe that's what it is."