Seeing that music is largely a hobby of mine, I have the considerable luxury of not feeling obligated to review every new release, nor even listen to each one outside of my own pace. I also spend the majority of my days listening to all the musics so I hear a decent range in a year's time.I also read a lot of year-end lists and thus tried to approach my own, the first I've actually bothered to write down, as both joining in some existing discussions while attempting to ignite wholly new ones. Sometimes this means including a couple albums that while not officially released this year, only became available to me this year for the first time and remain on regular rotation in my apartment. Please note that every song included here could easily have been on my best tracks list. But seeing how some publications simply use their singles list to double down on their favorite albums, I'm not trying to be about that life. Instead, I'm just gonna try and share with you the albums I genuinely loved this year. Crazy, I know.
Demdike Stare - Wonderland (Modern Love) - Who saw this coming? I mean, sure, the duo of Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty have been stepping out from underneath their occult fog since 2012's Testpressings series started (all seven of which are collected on this album's CD version, which is actually a solid case for getting the CD if you don't have the 12's). Unlike the Test series, Wonderland isn't a stylistic grab bag, though it stays varied enough over its nine tracks to never once get dull. "Hardnoise," the hyper-melodic coda to the album's first third, has gotten a lot of attention as it provides something of an early release to the album's initial trio of primarily noise-and-percussion-based compositions. From there, things get a bit more formalist in the ragga rush-up "Blue" before descending into the deepest reaches of the bass bins on the mutant dancehall of album standout "FullEdge (eMpTy-40 Mix)." The album's final third sees a gradual adopting of melody that culminates in the structural annihilation of genre that is album closer "Overstaying." Basically, this record is a head fuck-and-a-half and as straightforward as it first appears, with Demdike music is never so simple, something they've demonstrated in spades through their DDS record label, which was responsible for two more of my favorite records.
Equiknoxx - Bird Power Sound (DDS) - OK, this list might be "in no particular order" to give each selection an equal chance in the sun, but let me be totally honest: No record hit that special sweet spot with me as has this Demdike-released compilation of outrè dancehall tracks dating back years. The production duo possesses such a degree of stylistic breadth and level of studio mastery that I've used the "it's like if Missy, N.E.R.D., and Timbaland were born in Kingston instead of Virgina Beach" line so much I'm even tired of it. But when you hear that N.E.R.D. harpsichord sound over the duo's cavernous bass and fluid beats, well, I for one was hopelessly in love with the idea and sound of a genre of music getting super weird. And seeing that this album hits as hard as anything that label bosses Demdike Stare have produced, I'm beyond eager to see where this duo turns next. Big ups to Demdike and Jon K for giving this the wide release it deserves.
Shinichi Atobe - World (DDS) - Is Atobe's World release an LP, mini-LP, or EP? Seeing that an answer to that largely rhetorical question would do nothing to sway my opinion of this six-song suite makes it beyond the point. But I mention that because unlike last year's surprise return of Atobe-produced techno tracks and electronic experiments on his DDS-sponsored debut full-length, The Butterfly Effect, which outside of its magisterial title track was an utter snooze, World features solid filler and even more deadly killer, Featuring abstract, but engaging ambient-beat constructions at the album's opening and middle-point, the other four tracks on display show what made Atobe's Chain Reaction 12" so legendary: melodic, textured, and evoking an all-too-familiar feeling while still remaining utterly otherworldly. The piano loop on "World 1" alone has made this record a go-to early morning palette cleanser since its release. Here's hoping next year brings us the definitive Shinichi Atobe full-length.
Jonathan Fitoussi - Imaginary Lines (Further Records) - Despite cult horror movies and TV shows like It Follows and Mr. Robot having championed the sounds of Berlin School artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze alongside John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's continued resurgence in popularity, you'd think America had never heard a synthesizer before considering the bloated hype surrounding the Stranger Things soundtrack. Following that sensation, Berlin School-aping synthesist Steve Hauschildt's fourth studio album arrived with a seemingly outsized amount of interest compared to his previous releases and has been making a surprising number of year-end lists. I find this vexing when compared to the virtual silence surrounding the fantastic Further Records release of Jonathan Fitoussi's Imaginary Lines, an album whose hauntingly beautiful melodies have lulled me to sleep more tthan any other record this year. Comprised of six tracks that all sound as if he is using the same set-up, Fitoussi's record has a consistency to it that feels more dependable than predictable. Circular me;pdoes and measured arpeggiations unspool alongside one another as elements ranging in degrees of drama and purpose come in and out of focus (the Robert Mangold piece on the cover gives the listener a very good idea of what to expect from the music). Some tracks know exactly where they are going, others just get there at their own pace. Imaginary Lines is the perfect album for anxious chillers, feeling at once panoramic and claustrophobic, focused yet hypnagogic. A must for anyone who also may have slept on that ace Event Cloak record from last year (both are available to stream on Bandcamp, just saying....)
Pangaea - In Drum Play (Hessle Audio) - General bitching aside about the increased corporatization of "underground scenes," I'm not mad at the year in dance music as a number of artists I've followed for a while finally turned in albums that embraced their weaknesses in addition to their strengths to craft at-times uneven, at-other-times brilliant records (lookin' at you Kassem Mosse, good job guy!) There were some disappointments of course. As much as I wanted to love NHK'koyexen's full-length debut on Diagonal, I've just heard far more varied and deep material from him on all three Dance Classics albums on PAN. In the case of Pangaea's official full-length debut In Drum Play, here's a producer who has previously plumbed the depths of UKG, grime, broken beat, and other UK bass forms to perennially produce some of the more ambitious yet accessible dance tracks of the past decade. And over the course of In Drum Play's ten tracks, Hessle Audio co-founder Kevin McAuley is fearless in his willingness to fuse the history of UK's hardcore continuum to a decidedly techno-focused album, a fruitful symbiosis that reaches its apotheosis on the tumbling drums and rave-up melodies of "Skips Desk." And unlike fellow countryman and purveyor of FWD bass sound Kowton's debut album Utility, which seemingly evacuated his genre-diverse history as a producer in favor of an unimaginative rumination on techno, McAuley is far from pious in his take on techno with even the turn-up track that is "Rotor Soap" revealing elements of the producer's past dabblings. Elsewhere, like on the 2008-facing "Bulb in Zinc," McAuley is almost gleeful to ditch the current techno trends in favor of a classic bass wobble and herky-jerky drum programming. Overall, Pangaea seems unrushed compared to his underwhelming 2x12 from 2012, which he makes clear very early on with the downbeat arpeggiations of "Mutual Exchange." For all the futuristic and post-humanized rhetoric of 21st-century techno, this is one of the more oddly organic techno albums outside of Actress' similarly wide-ranging yet ostensibly techno-focused Hazyville. Now, I'm not saying it's on that level exactly, but as album standout "More is More to Burn" makes clear over the course of its blinding six minutes, even the most straightforward 4x4 pulse is augmented by what sounds like indigenous chants, adding an uncanny humanity to McAuley's production palette. Simply put, In Drum Play is an album with a lot to say in a relatively short period of time, rewarding the repeat listener with an endless trove of left-turns and production trends of days past.
Matt Karmil - Idle033 (Idle Hands) - I was watching He Got Gami recently and found myself struck by a line spoken by Ned Beatty's prison warden character early on in the film: "As my father always told me, it's the quiet ones you have to watch." Well, it certainly appears that way with producer Matt Karmil who has been stoically releasing functional dance records at a steady clip on a number of notable techno and house labels including Studio Barnhus and BIS, which makes the drily-titled Idle033 all the more of a surprise. Sporting a rather non-distinct op-art cover, the monochromatic circles within circles becomes an all-too-apt visual metaphor for the album's ripple-like sequencing, stitching together an innumerable array of samples to create an album that is actually what so many albums attempt to be: cinematic. It's also aggressively nostalgic, taking the listener on a moody, beat-focused odyssey through most of the major dance forms, including sour hip-hop, groggy house, and alien UKG, all topped off with a healthy vibe of overcast Bristolian production tricks that make the Stockholm-based producer a perfect fit for the city's Idle Hands label. The first of two albums released by Karmil in 2016, Idle033 is strangely reminiscent of Jan Jelinek's Loop-finding-jazz-records in its hermetic and sepia-toned sound, with Karmil aggressively altering his sample sources to fit into his overarching vision. As the singular broken beat rhythm-melody of penultimate track "Nu" shows, Karmil is a dance producer who is turning out be a bit of a weirdo in a genre that desperately needs more like him.
Young Thug - Jeffery (300 Entertainment) - OK, I'll be the first to admit that it is lame as hell that there is only one rap album on this list. But, when it comes down to it, at this moment in time, Jeffery was the only full-length that was diverse and weird enough to have me entranced long after I stopped staring at that dress (which, damn, that move alone was more inspired than anything I heard on Pablo...not that I was really waiting for the lighting-in-a-bottle magic of Yeezus to strike again). Having made one of my favorite albums of last year with the understated Barter 6 (and the year before it with Tha Tour Pt. 1), Jeffery's opening sound of clinking ice in a double cup sets an I'm-game-for-anything tone, which is soon made good upon as Thugger lunges into the first verse of "Wyclef Jean," intent on somehow taking his voice and wit to all-new heights. And nowhere does he get higher than on the controlled flip-out that is "Harambe," Thugger delivering a career-high performance as his voice threatens to strain under the sheer intensity with which he declares "I'm on a perky pill!" While the album's hero-derived titles might indicate another strange iteration in how Thugger pays tribute to his inspirations--Weezy's Thugger-hating daughter be damned--it instead gives the artist a chance to inhabit the ghosts of countless egos and vocal tics, all underwritten by the album's second-fiddle production. For while there are no jaw-dropping beats like "Checks" or "Halftime" on Jeffery, Thugger seems to have ascended to a plane of vocal mastery where this doesn't really matter anymore. If only Björk could still say that.
Hieroglyphic Being - The Disco's of Imohtep (Technicolour) - As the past couple of years has seen Jamal Moss's profile finally gaining serious traction, it only felt right that he release the album he's always threatened to make: a beautiful mess of machine funk that never overstays its welcome. Commencing with a sweeping and multi-tiered melody, Moss soon adds plenty of bass and drums to the mix while exercising a constraint that leaves the listener wanting more at the end of each track rather than getting fatigued as some of his releases are prone to embarking upon extended galactic walkabouts. Imhotep shows a side of the artist that I personally had never really encountered: one inclined to brevity, having mastered the art of the Costanza and ending every song on a high note. While others might counter that this was a neutering of such a wild and unpredictable machine magician, for me this was the full-length statement I didn't realize I had been waiting for eight years.
Lorenzo Senni - Rave Voyeur (Warp) - For an artist who has restricted himself to a single keyboard and genre to reach new extremes of emotional minimalism over the course of two riveting albums, Rave Voyeur shows Senni rediscovering the pure joy inherent in commercial trance music. By drawing upon the sonic maximalism of PC Music and the en vogue rhythmic patterns of dancehall, Senni managed to engineer thirty pulse-pounding minutes of Dionysian bliss that is endlessly shifting in mode and style while maintaining a perma-smile of a surface. While rave fetishism is really a trend that needs to die in 2017 so that we may cease to stop looking backward, Senni seemed to go from being a solo piano player to the conductor of a rave symphony, borrowing liberally from the past while updating his sound for the present. If his past two albums saw Senni engaging in nostalgia as a means to aesthetic innovation, he's now seemingly become consumed by that very spirit of the movement he was once a student of, no longer bound by any academic sense of restraint and instead free to indulge his own emotionality.
Mood Hut - Disco Mantras (Mood Hut) Did anyone else really even notice this album when it came out? I mean, outside of the several hundred heads who swooped the vinyl up the second it became available? Because for a label everyone has seemingly been talking about for the past few years, the reception this album seemed to get bordered on the deafening. And with its seven tracks ambling by at a brisk thirty-three minutes, it's a hard album to nail down and get a proper listen out of. But once you do, it's all over. Whether it's the motorik-meets-new age dub of "Hymn to a Whale Walker" or "Meteor Connection"'s footworking saxophone, hybridity is at the heart of this album as the round robin-like selection of producers each go balls-out in a uniquely understated manner that warrants endless listening. The words "breezy," "care-free," and any other words that mean "neo-Balearic" in everything but name get thrown around a lot with these guys, and while the through-line is there to be traced, the producers on this compilation do not seem particularly interested in chasing an already-discovered sound or style, but rather utilizing discarded and overlooked elements from music history to construct truly novel dance music that would sound beamed from another period in history if it wasn't for the omnivorous nature of the productions on hand that reflect the fact that these producers are largely internet babies. Either way, the music makers on this compilation sound way more interested in just making live-sounding dance tracks that can soundtrack ripping bongs or sipping brews on the beach than being the label du jour, and this album went along way in establishing that fact.
Calimex Mental Implant Corp. - El Saber del Arpavor (Nightwind) - Despite being in the game for nearly twenty years, Danny Wolfers is still most widely known for his Legowelt output, which tends to focus on the interdimensional intersection of house, techno, and electro. However, for years Wolfers has also released a bevy of additional material on his Strange Life Records imprint--scroll down page to near the bottom to stream mthe full Strange Life Discography--that has ranged from the avant-ambient of Smackos to the imaginary soundtracks of Phalangius to the electro oddities of The Psychic Stewardess. Having shuttered Strange Life Records a few years back, Wolfers soon founded another outlet for his weirder endeavors in Nightwind Records, each release adorned with colored marker-drawn sketch of Wolfers' imaginary sci-fi noir mystery (see the cover and track titles for this year's UFOCUS release.) Released late last year but only becoming available stateside this past summer (or that's when I was able to get it!), Calimex Mental Implant Corp.'s El Saber del Arpavor album finds Wolfers in high-melodic mode alongside heavily experimenting with different tempos and beats than we usually expect with Legowelt. As a result, we get such bangers as the zig-zagging synth lines of "Jean Luc Picard's Cucumber Station" alongside "Carnival of Souls"'s bubbly house and the driving electro-hop of "El Heladero Del Espacio" and "A Wolf in the Desert." In short, this is the most fun and intriguing album Wolfers has released in years, and that is truly saying something.
The Head Technician - Zones (Ecstatic) - As much as I love Martin Jenkins of Pye Corner Audio fame, his musical formula of John Carpenter-derived machine funk mixed with an Eldritch was starting to feel a little staid the past couple of years. So Jenkins went and changed it up a bit, focusing on a more acidic and pounding sound that appeared to dull the melodic edges that makes his music so hypnotically engaging, as evidenced by last year's somewhat dull Prowler. As evidenced by the far more evocative title of Zones, the mood is considerably varied despite Jenkins largely adhering to a bass-driven 4x4 rhythmic framework. This time around, when the TB-303 rears its distinctive sound, its working in partnership with the producer's own brand of melodic cross-stitching to create a cosmic brand of slow house that one can easily envision Daniel Baldelli heavily embracing as tracks like "Zones" and "Divergent" patiently unfold until the full melodic bloom isn't often visible until the track's end, leaving the listener often wanting more. After all, Jenkins has always succeeded most at the art of weaving a sonic narrative and on standout-track "The Future," he weaves a brief novella that looks to the stars for guidance, only to get happily lost in the void.
Convextion - 2845 (a.r.t.less) - The last (and only) album Convextion, née Gerard Hanson, wrote came out over ten years ago now and still stands as an absolute pillar of 21st century techno as Convextion was bathed in Detroit mood and Basic Channel dub mechanics and left to bake under the Dallas sun. So when, much like the retro sci-fi spaceship that adorns its cover, 2845 seemingly fell from the sky in September and opened up with the sauntering 18-minute schaeffle-not-schaeffle opener of "New Horizon," it was made very clear that out patience would be rewarded. And was it ever. "Horizon" ends up being a bit of a red herring because while his sound palette hasn't changed too explicitly in the last decade, his deep respect for dance music's past is somehow more pronounced this time around. Tracks like "Saline Moon" call to mind the celestial bop of "Hi-Tech Jazz" while the aptly-named "Sea and Satellite" resembles a celestial tidal pool as its thick chords ebb and flow freely. Despite being responsible for some of the most coveted 12's and 7's in techno and electro (as E.R.P.), Hammill now just might be establishing himself as the techno album artist of our time (well, one of the them.)
Bookworms - Xenophobe - (BANK Records) - Outsider house, be damned. Perhaps it's the albatross of that weirdly maligned style of house that has kept Xenophobe off most year-end lists or the fact that it's a deceptively deep listen. Despite being cobbled together from seven years of recordings, Xenophobe's spot-on title belies a steady journey from extroverted dance jams to introverted electronic studies. Having developed a sound that calls to mind the the gradual loss of lucidity, be it through narcotics or the hypnosis being spun by producer Nick Dawson. He focuses on his different strengths on each of the album's seven tracks and turns in one of the year's most engaging dance albums as a result. Kicking off with the Moodymann-on-quaaludes disco engine of "U More," Dawson gets almost giddy by the time he gets to the bizarre and infectious bell melody on "You Say So." Nestled at the center of the album is the eighteen-minute hypnotherapy session that is "STE-027" before the album turns po-faced and dour, ending on the beatless title track that feels passively antagonistic. While it's perhaps not the most satisfying ending to an otherwise transfixing album, Xenophobe is a testament to Dawson's unwillingness to be caged in by expectations, intent on doing his own damn thang, which is becoming harder and harder to find.
Huerco S. - For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (Probito) - Huerco S. has been one of the more nuanced producers in electronic music for a while, as under the vapor cloud lies an extensive repertoire of ideas and styles. On For Those of You Who Have Never, the dance music producer applies a DJ's ear to ambient music to deliver a report on the state of its health as a genre, with the results showing this aging genre to have the open-minded mentality and physicality of a first-year college student. Opening with "A Sea of Love"'s cloud-like patches of serotonin boosts, the mood quickly turns pensive as the writhing melody on "Lifeblood (Naive Melody") utilizes angst as a means to achieve beatitude. In interviews surrounding For Those's release, the producer nodded to a number of 90s electronic producers whose work stretched the boundaries of what we consider ambient to be, such as Dettinger's elastic ambient stylings. Markus Popp's Oval is clearly a heavy influence on "Hear Me Out" and "On the Embankment"'s percussive skips and melodic stutters. And the starburst melody that serves as a stunning coda on "Kraanvogel" recalls the baroque-lite harmonies of Stephen Mathieu's and Ekkehard Ehlers' "New Year's Eve." The album finishes even stronger than it started with the closing couplet of "Promises of Fertility"'s gamelan-like harmonic plodding and "The Sacred Dance," which plays like a music box granted AI.
Omar-S - The Best! (FXHE) - You wanna know why Omar-S can call his fourth studio album The Best! and not raise an eyebrow amongst heads in the know? Because for the past decade-plus, Alex O. Smith has released a stunning number of records with the quality control being of an almost unbelievable level. And he knows it, cranking out EP after EP of deceptively simplistic tech-house drone strikes that never cease to level a dance floor. As he's increasingly embraced the album format, last seen with the economical yet emotive productions featured on Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself, he's also refined his sonic quality as immediately seen in the solitary piano loop and pulsating bass underpinning "Time Mo 1 (Norm Talley Mix)." Perhaps more out-of-the-ordinary is the flute-gone-wild let loose all over the percussive keys and unrelenting house beat of "Chama Piru's" or "Ah' Revolution"'s afro-beatnik soul, which is further vivified by Amp Fiddler's electric vocals. That seven of the album's eleven tracks features assistance from someone other than Omar-S makes this a far more varied affair than Thank You as Omar's minimal soul is amplified to new ends on tracks like "Buggin Out" and the Bugs in the Bass Bin jazz-house of "Heard Chew Single," making this a more uneven but even more rewarding Omar-S album.
Beatrice Dillon & Rupert Clervaux- Two Changes (Parelax) - Having quietly and quickly emerged as one of the most promising sonic innovators coming out of the UK, Beatrice Dillon built upon her almost academic brand of almost-techno by re-teaming with frequent collaborator Rupert Clervaux following last year's engaging yet slightly staid Studies I-XVII for Samplers and Percussion. Two Changes sees the two moving from short- to long-form composition with two fifteen-minute-plus side-long excursions into spiritual jazz-informed techno. And while this isn't the throw-your-hands-up type of spiritual, but the close-your-eyes-and-go-somewhere else brand of cosmic slop, the surgical cuts and edits made by Dillon and Clervaux call to mind the precise tape splicing of Teo Maceo's work with Miles Davis on Big Fun and On the Corner, but with a teutonic coldness that's oddly warming. While I did not make it to the gym as much I would have liked this year, my times there were often spent listening to this record as both productions warm up gradually before setting off on a number of different grooves, uniting the competing parts in the mix. With Dillon's most recent single "Can I Change Her Mind" showing off her comprehensive rhythmic knowledge when trapped in the grid, Two Changes offers listeners the chance to see one of our generation's more exciting techno producers let loose, if even only in the slightest.
Daniel Schmidt And The Berkeley Gamelan – In My Arms, Many Flowers (Recital) - This album was just recently sent to me from a dear friend who I believe included this in his year-end list, and upon even my first listen, I knew it was going on mine as well. Having my own personal history with gamelan as both a fan and player, I knew what Schmidt is doing is pushing forward a timeless tradition in the most tasteful and respectful way imaginable. With the John Adams, ladies and gentlemyn, commissioning opening piece "And the Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn," Schmidt employs a digital sampler borrowed from Pauline Oliveiros (RIP) somewhere between 1978 and 1982 when these pieces were first composed, played, and recorded. Containing the sounds of a string quartet, the sampler ends up fusing itself perfectly to the gamelan that Schmidt himself literally built, creating a nebular foundation for the minimalist gamelan parts to rest upon. The title track, which follows "Dawn" sticks to a similar, but distinct template with Schmidt employing the bowed sounds of a rehab to stitch together the disparate elements on hand. Schmidt has revealed himself to be a mighty composer of the sublime, as this recording appears to be just the tip of an iceberg of a potential legacy that is now starting to come into scope. In My Arms, Many Flowers is a quartet of compositions pairing a very possible future with an equally assured accounting of the past, as Schmidt is almost taking inventory of this indigenous tradition in a way that feels honorary rather than hoary.
Carl Stone - Electronic Music from the Seventies and the Eighties (Unseen World) - Seeing that this mega long-awaited retrospective of Stone's seminal work and techniques was already the inspiration for an exhaustive meditation, let me provide an addendum. This will likely not be a record you find yourself playing on the regs, be it soundtracking dinner parties or rocking a party (well, actually....) That said, if you have even an ounce of passion for music, especially of the electronic variety, you'll at some point want to understand how sampling techniques and the types of digital manipulation often associated with hip-hop were tangentially pioneered by some guy in 1970s and 80s Los Angeles. In fact, upon spending some serious time with this essential compilation, you'll probably start to see and feel Stone's influence in so many facets of contemporary electronic music, from laptop-based performances to fun with time stretching to the endless layering of tracks upon each other. Of course, this compilation isn't without its moments of pure bliss and these come in the form of the sonic poem "Shing Kee" as well as micro-sampled collages like "Dong Il Jang" and "Shibucho," as well as a pair of Buchla 200 drone pieces dating back to Stone's days at CalArts. Personally, what's most important is that after nearly twenty-five years, Stone has begun to receive the recognition as well as the historical understanding that has long eluded him for reasons beyond my comprehension, and a whole new generation will begin to gain access to one of the most important living catalogs in electronic music history.
GAS - Box (Kompakt 1997/1998/1999/2000/2016) - Man, September was an exciting month this year for music nerds as I placed my preorders for both the Carl Stone and Jonathan Fitoussi records (which became year-end favorites) just as news I had been waiting for years to hear finally broke: Wolfgang Voigt, founder of Kompakt Records and composer of some of the all-time greatest ambient techno under his GAS alias would be releasing the "definitive" box set of the project's recorded output. Occluding the Modern EP and self-titled first album, listeners were treated to ten vinyl platters of Voigt's unique brand of forest techno, music inspired equally by his abiding love for nature and classical music as it was his passion for acid and electronic music. While some, myself included, were disappointed by the "definitive" collection of Gas material missing one-third of the catalog, Voigt eventually explained in interviews that Zauberberg, Königsforst, Pop, and the Oktember EP were all composed using classical music as the primary sample sources, which were then cut up, looped, and bathed in vinyl crackle, reverb, and atmosphere to create a series of albums that are beloved by music fans of all stripes. Additionally, the versions contained within the aptly-titled Box are the unedited and remastered versions, many of which have never been released at the length their creator originally intended as entire sides are taken up single fifteen-minute excursions into the deepest recesses of Germanic flora and fauna. Oh, and how do these remastered and extended versions sound? Not being someone who knows a lot about sonics or mastering, I will admit that I let go an astonished and Keanu Reeves-indebted "Whoa." the second the opening notes of Zauberberg hit the speaker. Entitled griping aside, this release felt like the universe giving me a hug, so thanks, universe.
Michal Turtle - Phantoms of Dreamland (Music from Memory) - In 1982 at the age of twenty-two, Michal Turtle first set up his four-track home studio in the living room of his parent's home in South London. Between 1983 and 1985, he would work with a wide variety of musicians of all sorts to create the material that would become the album Music From My Living Room as well as work on an album that would never fully be realized. Following on their successful 12 of two of Turtle's electro-acoustic constructions, Music from Memory compiled this double LP set containing additional material recording during the Living Room sessions on top of a number of other songs that are just now seeing the light of days. Most likely influenced by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Turtle was an adept sampler but at the same time was eager to keep the humanity in music that was becoming increasingly electronically-generated. The fifteen tracks collected on Phantoms of Dreamland track the global sonic travels that Turtle was crafting from the comfort of his living room, sometimes touching on gold in sample collages like "Village Voice," proto-experimental dance music like "Spooky Boogie," and the global funk of "Zoote Pointe." A good friend of mine recently questioned the sudden rise in popularity for the Music from Memory label as they are collectors not afraid to indulge in a bit of cheese. But as I see it, composers like Turtle, Roberto Musci, and Luc Marianni were creating music that was both an artistic outlet for them alongside being functional, used sometimes for dance performances or plays. What's remarkable is that the solo home experiments of a twenty-three year-old South London chap are as wide-ranging and sonically adventurous as they so clearly are.
Various - Sky Girl: Compiled by Julian Dechery and DJ Sundae (Efficient Space) - As springtime naïveté gave way to summer sorrow this year, the Sky Girl comp became something of a necessary distraction for me and other music nerds: a compilation in concept rather than a historical snapshot, as its selection of private press and record collectors obscurities from the 60s through the 90s was held together by an idea rather than a scene or sonics. Assembled by the estimable pair of DJ Sundae and Julian Dechery, this was a collection of songs meant to piece together a sonic portrait of the titular "sky girl," an imaginary musical creation with impossibly good taste and a lifetime of songs lived and loved. While it has been no surprise to see this on seemingly every year-end list I care about, I'm still so moved by the songs themselves to recommend this record to basically anyone who remotely likes music as I've seen this album melt the hearts of every person it encounters. Whether it be the 90s art rock of Linda Smith's "I So Like Spring," the creepy-yet-catchy "Daddy's Little Girl" by Warfield Spillers, the minimal wave of Karen Marks and Angel, or the proto-Stereolab orchestral pop of Nora Guthrie's "Home Before Dark," these varied yet interlocking parts are assembled in such an immediately understandable way as to create the year's most viscerally affective album.
Terrence Dixon - From the Far Future (Tresor 2000/2016) - Does any Detroit producer use swing in his or her drum programming quite like Terrence Dixon? Having released a stunning follow-up to this album in 2012 entitled From the Far Future Pt. 2 that utilized a far more organic-sounding palette alongside drum machine programming that sounded almost more at home within hard bop than techno. Little did I realize that for as accessible as Pt. 2 was, the first From the Far Future released on the legendary Tresor label at the turn of the millennium is a far more slippery and lithe album, as if Dixon's machines were playing themselves. Dixon's command over writing a leg-sweeping bass line is immense, his melodic lines scurrying hither and thither like minions attempting to complete their master's impossible task. From the charging opening track "Running Time," Dixon is off charging through his distant future work, the title evoking a Detroit from another time but one in which the anxiety caused by living in a "One Bedroom Apartment" is palpable. In the end, Dixon is essentially writing a sci-fi novel with sound, treating melodies like rods of liquid metal that are as pliable as they are essential to holding up his sonic edifices. Plus, the reissue comes with a 7" containing two previously unreleased songs that are as challenging as they are breathtaking.
Gemini - Imagine-A-Nation - (Relief/Anotherday 1997/2016) - You might not know it by reading the electronic music media, but Gemini have been undergoing a gentle resurgence over the past few years with Chiwax and now Anotherday releasing three of Spencer Kincy's four LPs alongside a number of key 12's. And while Ron Trent will be getting a much-publicized 6xLP retrospective courtesy of Rush Hour in 2017, it's in listening to this reissue of Imagine-a-Nation that one begins to appreciate the degree to which Gemini has been overlooked by an industry happy to capitalize on the many under-appreciated Chicago producers that released on labels like Relief, Prescription, and Dance Mania. What sets Imagine and much of Kincy's work apart is how contemporary it sounds. The best comparison I can make is by way of the similarly sample-based work of Anthony "Shake" Shakir, who also received a long overdue reconsideration courtesy of Rush Hours a few years back. Originally released on Cajual sub label Relief in 1997 alongside two other Gemini LPs and four EPs that year, the ten tracks on hand here highlight some of Kincy's greatest strengths, from the floor-filling disco chug of "Don't Look Back" to the political poltergeists and spectral sonics that haunt "Falling Leaves" and "How Can I Chill?" But it was in experiencing the gospel house euphoria of "Stand Up" that I found myself consulting Daft Punk's "Teachers" list and noting Kincy's conspicuous absence when his is a sound that clearly animates that group's most joyful tracks. At least this long-player has aged way better than Random Access Memories.
Elysia Crampton - The Light That You Gave Me to See You (Self-Released/Total Stasis 2013/2016) - Having released the vexing and dense Demon City album with the assistance of a host of collaborators, finally getting a vinyl pressing of the charged album that was most people's first introduction to Crampton's pop cultural bricollage felt perfectly timed. Crampton's albums tend to take a minute or two to really sink in and while I continue to wrestle with last year's American Drift and Demon City, this album first released under the E+E banner hit home in a way it had always threatened to. As impressive as Crampton's ear for smashing together seemingly irreconcilable styles and sounds is, the sheer emotionality of this album is overwhelming. As the album goes from rapid fire beats and samples to the full-on piano balladry of "Sword" and head first into a brutalizing block party, a piercing sincerity shines throughout as Crampton not only carries a deep reverence for both bachata rhythms and Lil Jon's immortal "Hey!" but is able to assemble these different materials in a way that surpasses their original context to create something I wasn't quite expecting: music.
Woo - Awaawaa (Palto Flats) - With collectors still wrapping their heads around last year's Mariah reissue, Palto Flats gave us little time to catch our breath when they released this new album of archival material from the brother duo of Mark and Clive Ives, recorded between 1975-82. Like the Marianni album, the Ives brothers raided their personal archives to uncover sixteen short but magical tracks, expertly sequenced as a suite to create a new album in its own right that lines up with the brothers' other recording released during that period. Having heard a number of Woo reissues in the past few years on labels like Yoga and Emotional Rescue, Awaawaa somehow has managed to stand on its own amongst an imposing catalog as the duo weave together a number of styles, genres, and ideas synthesized from both electronic and acoustic instruments, often hitting upon moments of fleeting brilliance like the astral electro-pop of "Mobile Phone," the guitar and vocoder dub of "Awaawaa," and "Robots Dancing"'s arpeggiated synths and electric guitar. Like a number of other records on this list recorded during this period, Awaawaa s a testament to the power that time, isolation, equipment, and endless creativity commands.
Paki-Visnadi - Imaginary Choreography (Antinote 2015) - Despite totally passing me by last year, I spent way too much time with this album to not include it in this list and plus, the Paris-based Antinote has quickly become one of the most exciting labels to watch since first popping up on my radar with the haunted electro of Leonardo Martelli last year and then blowing me away with this obscure and precious find. As its title implies, this was music composed in the mid 1980s by the Italian duo of Paki Zennaro and Gianni Visnadi using synthesizers, drum machines, and guitar to create gently rhythmic library music that could serve as practice music for dance schools. While their tapes never broke through to the academy, fifteen-minute opener "Migration" is a breakthrough in its own right, a nonlinear, amorphous blob of a composition featuring a plinking melody over a loosely-formed beat that on its own made this record a personal essential. The cascading rhythms return on "Parallel Waves" as a tidal melody struggles to work its way to the surface while the B-side picks things up with the nervous arpeggiations of "In a Dark Run." Before closing out on the quaint "Mollusk Dance," the record reaches its high mark with the arching melodies of "Waterlight" that dangle over a barely-there beat. Admittedly, this music isn't for everyone, but for a collection of functional music, Imaginary Choreography olds remarkable depths that beg repeated listens.
Luc Marianni and Jacques Jeangerard - Numeralogique: Between Light and Sound Waves (DDD 2014) - Having discovered a deep love for 70s and 80s experimental acoustic-electronic music this year, I was still not expecting to discover an artist who would completely upend my hard-earned 'understanding' of electronic music from that period. Having trained at the GRM as a student, in the 1970s Luc Marianni was a radio host in France who was a massive supporter of the French rock underground, eventually joining the critically-lauded group Rock Critics, which also featured members of Magma. On his own, he was also a consummate sonic tinkerer and thus this recording is a studio construction of sorts with Marianni and Jeangerard using Marianni's improvisations from 1975 to 1976 to construct four seventeen-minute-plus suites over the course of four sides of vinyl. The pieces oscillate between electronic noise, abstract melodies and phantom beats, and fully-realized guitar anthems that poke through the sonic ether like a stringed sword. In a year when Music from Memory actively challenged many music fans' conceptions of electronic music pioneers of the 70s and 80s as well as lent a considerable degree of respectability to a type of music some less-forgiving listeners would consider to be cheese, Marianni continues to make music and release old recordings, even having a radio show on Rinse.FM in France. Truly one of the most special and unexcpected finds I made all year as, like the Daniel Schmidt album felt on first listen, this was music I had unknowingly been waiting years to hear.
Roberto Musci - Tower of Silence (Music from Memory) - With Marianni being trained in sampling at the GRM in addition to indulging in his own home experiments and Michal Turtle importing global ideas into his parents' living room, the work of Roberto Musci utilized techniques that both artists used to far greater commercial success and attention as his music was used to soundtrack countless films, shows, and dance performances. And by pushing the "imaginary soundtrack" element of Musci's work to the forefront for a moment, we arrive at a composer who clearly had been popping that zeitgeist wheelie when it counted most as "world music" attended the rise of globalism. Spending 1974 to 1985 traveling around the world making field recordings and collecting instruments in Africa, India, and through Asia, Musci worked with fellow musician and composer Giovanni Venosta in addition to on his own in his Italian studio were he would pair the field recording and instruments with electronic sounds and equipment. A more accomplished composer than Turtle, Musci's music is at once worldly and mystical as he was able to transmute the aural material he collected into compositions and songs that incorporated traditions and styles from around the world into a new type of music that was equally functional as background music while engaging enough with contemporary trends and the general narrative of electronic music for collectors to lose their shit over both album and label. And by never losing sight of the organic feeling granted by actual instruments while cultivating a global ear for a growing global society, Tower of Silence stands as a pillar of DIY acoustic-electric music and places Musci firmly in the lineage of avant-garde-inclned library music composers such as Basil Kirchin or Bruno Spoerri.
Various - Gqom-Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol. 1 (Gqom-Oh!) - Being beholden to trends within dance music tends to be a sign of a person who's playing short when they should be thinking long. And yet, as dance music itself is inherently looking-forward, every year we're left with new (to us) genres, ideas, and equipment, some of which will enter the canon of electronic music while others will be quickly forgotten. As four-to-the-floor music becomes increasingly polyrhythmic, swung, and syncopated, Gqom has emerged as a genre out of Durban, South Africa that seems to synthesize so many of the trends and ideas from the past decade of electronic music; the bass weight of dubstep, the sparse and ominous soundscapes of grime, and the rhythmic structures of Kwaito and tribal house are all boiled down to a heady reduction that is sour, sticky, and infectious. The Sound of Durban Vol. 1 offered vinyl nerds with their first real chance to get a serious overview of this young and vibrant scene's hottest players, though both Menchess and DJ Lag are conspicuously absent. Regardless, over its twelve tracks listeners are both acquainted with the basic tropes of the genre and gradually overtaken by them as the sparse bass hits and ever-present pads and drones merge with pan flutes, chants, and other familiar sounds to form a murky and decidedly FWD mixture that sounds like a soundtrack to a dystopic future that might be far closer than we'd like to admit. Oh, and 100 bonus points for having a cover that makes me giggle every time I pull for it.
Autechre - Amber/Tri Repetae (Warp 1994/1995) - This fall ended up feeling like an extended masterclass in upper-tier 90 IDM and Warp's first vinyl pressing of the first three Autechre albums almost felt obligatory when first announced as I totally bought them on autopilot. After all, I never really cottoned to Confeld as a teenager and it was only downhill from there at the time into quasi-academic esoterica. But having had my perception of the duo altered four years ago by that ace Lego Feet reissue, I was curious to hear what in retrospect was a far more innocent approach to making music before they became the poster boys of Max/MSP overindulgence. And in making my way through Incunabula for the first time, I definitely wondered where the sense of wonder and spontaneity had gone. And that I got to Amber. And then Tri Repetae. The former a doctoral thesis of sorts in 90s ambient beat music and the latter a post-doctoral heightening of the more industrial and rhythmic impulses that had always been present. Taken together, the two albums show two sides of the same esoteric manuscript that now serves as a blueprint for a twenty-five-year exercise in pushing the rhythm and sound envelope.
Albums That Helped Make 2016 Better
Whether it was hearing certain classics for the first times, rediscovering past favorites, or finally comprehending long-vexing albums in my collection, here is a supplemental list of albums that were on constant rotation in my apartment and on my iPhone. Frankly, many of these would have been on my previous years' lists had I actually written them down, so consider this a partial accounting for the past few years of listening to music old and new.
SND - tplay 1.5, newtables, travelog reissues (SND 2014)
Mark Fell - Senteille Objectif Actualité (Editions Mego 2012)
UFOCUS - Guidance for the Puzzled (Nightwind Recordings 2016)
Occult Oriented Crime - Just a Clown on Crack (Dekmantel 2016)
Oneohtrix Point Never - Zones Without People (Arbor 2009)
Moiré - Shelter (Werk Discs 2014)
Zomby - Where Were U in '92? (Werk Discs 2008)
DJ Earl - Open Your Eyes (Teklife 2016)
Taso - New Start (Teklife 2016)
Jordan De La Sierra - Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose (Numero Group 2014)
Iasos - Celestial Soul Portrait (Numero Group 2014)
Huerco S. - Colonial Patterns (Software 2013)
Grant - The Acrobat - (The Lauren Bacall 2015)
Porter Ricks : Technoo Animal - Symbiotics (Force Inc. 1999)
Ellen Fullman- The Long String Instrument (Superior Viaduct 1985/2015)
Fingers Inc. - Another Side (Jack Trax/Alleviated 1988/2015)
LHF - For the Thrown (Keysound 2015)
Various - Dance Mania: Ghetto Madness (Strut 2014)
Digable Planets - Blowout Comb (Pendulum/Modern Classics 1994/2014)
Ekoplekz - Unfidelity (Planet Mu 2014)
RP Boo - Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints (Planet Mu 2015)
Mark Ernestus Featuring Djery Djery and Mbene Diatta Seck - "Mbeuguel Dafa Nekh" (Ndagga 2015)
Ghostface Killah - Fishscale (Def Jam 2006)
Raekown - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II (FatBeats 2009)
Dettinger - Intershop (Kompakt 1999/2015)
Dettinger - Oasis (Kompakt 2000)
Holger Czukay - Movies (Harvest 1979)
Silk Road Assassins - Reflection Spaces (Planet Mu 2016)
Steve Hauschildt - Strands (Kranky 2016)
Patten - Estoile Nanant (Warp 2014)
Vito Ricci - I Was Crossing a Bridge (Music from Memory 2015)
Kassem Mosse - Disclosure (Honest Jons 2016)
Kassem Mosse - Workshop 19 (Workshop 2014)
MM/KM - MM/KM (The Trilogy Tapes 2012)
The Stranger - Watching Empires in Decay (Modern Love 2013)
The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (History Always Favors the Winners 2011/2016)
Thomas Fehlmann - Gute Luft OST (Kompakt 2010)
DJ Nigga Fox - Noite e Dia (Príncipe 2015)
DJ Nervoso - DJ Nervoso (Príncipe 2016
DJ Marfox - Chapa Quenta (Príncipe 2016)
DJ Marfox - Revolucão (NON Worldwide/Boomkat 2015/2016)
DJ Katapila - Trotro (Awesome Tapes from Africa 2016)
Ata Kak - (Awesome Tapes from Africa 2015)
Francis Bebey - African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad Records 2014)
Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (Universal 2007)
Leon Lowman - Liquid Diamonds (Music from Memory 2013)
The Human League - The Dignity of Labor Pts. 1-4 (Jem 1979)
Martin Rev - Martin Rev (Superior Viaduct 1980/2013)
Stellar Om Source - Joy One Mile (RVNG 2013)
Mikael Seifu - Zelalem (RVNG 2016)
Cooly G - Playin Me (Hyperdub 2012)
STL - Symbiotik Chunk (Something 2016)
Lino Capra Vaccina - Antico Adagio (Die Schachtel 1978/2014)
Loren Norell - Point of Arrival (Forced Nostalgia 1986/2012)
Charlatan - Local Agent (Umor Rex 2014)
Craig Leon - Nommos (Tacoma/Superior Viaduct 1981/2012)
Lubomyr Melnyk - Three Solo Pieces (Unseen Worlds 2013)
Bruno Spoerri/Massonix - Hommage Au Fromagge/Hollingsville (Disposable Music 2013)
Syclops - A Blink of an Eye (Running Back 2013)
Hunee - Hunch Music (Rush Hour 2015)
Various - Soichi Terada Presents Sounds from the Far East (Rush Hour 2015)
Various - Tomorrow's Achievements: Parry Music Library 1976-1986 (Public Information 2012)
Various - Happy Machine: Standard Music Library 1970-2010 (Public Information 2013)
Austin Cesear - West Side (Public Information 2014)
Ata Kak - Obaa Sim (Awesome Tapes from Africa 2014)
William Onyeabor - Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop 2013)
Out Hud - Let Us Never Speak of It Again (Kranky 2005)
Afrikan Sciences - Circuitous (PAN 2014)
Spectre - Ruff Kutz (Wordandsound/PAN 1998/2015)
Various - Richard Sen Presents This Ain't Chicago: The UNderground of UK House & Acid 1987-1991 (Strut 2012)
Surgeon - Basictonalvocabulary (Tresor 1997)
Charles Cohen - Music for Dance and Theatre (Morphine 2013)
Various - I'm Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-1970 (Light in the Attic 2014)
Lego Feet - Lego Feet (Skam 1991/2012)
Temporal Marauder - Makes You Feel (Spectrum Spools 2011)
Raglani - Real Colors of the Physical World (Editions Mego 2012)
Unicorn Hard-On - Wet Hair (Spectrum Spools 2013)
The Automatics Group - Summer Mixt (Entr'acte/Death of Rave 2011/2015)
DJ Koze - Amygdala (Pampa 2013)
The House in the Woods - Bucolica (Self-Released 2013)
Fluxion - Vibrant Forms (Chain Reaction/Type 1999/2013)
Porter Ricks - Biokinetics (Chain Reaction/Type 1996/2011)
Broadcast - Berberian Sound Studio OST (Warp 2012)
More Zurkonic Music Writings
More Zurkonic Music Writings