It seems foolish to try and do justice to 2020 in a paragraph – a year of such huge upheaval, disprution, loss, and in many cases…extended periods of boredom and inactivity. So what better way to reflect than by looking back at the records that have provided the soundtrack to the year? For one reason or another, these ten records are the ones that have been on heaviest rotation, providing escapism, relaxation, or just a reminder that whatever shit’s going on in the world, we’ve always got music.
Fennesz – Agora (2019)
The aural equivalent of a day on a deserted sandy beach, Agora was a much needed breath of fresh air and suggestion of big open skies, in a year in which we’ve all been confined and constrained indoors. Fennesz conjures a sense of limitless expanse and panoramic views by building layers of perpetual drones and textures soft as sunlight. Much like a magnificent sunrise, or a rainbow arcing over the sky, the effect is both overwhelming and deeply relaxing.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (2011)
Using retro synths and samples seemingly scoured from a decades-old library of stock files, Daniel Lopatin creates 10 distinct and internally coherent little micro-worlds. Like the Pop Art pioneer of replication Andy Warhol, Lopatin dredges the shallow end of pop culture for his source material. The flat sounding pianos, robotic oohs and ahs, and choral synth pads are reminiscent of ads on commercial radio, or the sounds of early home computers, such as the dings and alerts of Windows 3.1. Interwoven with nostalgia-inducing atmospherics, these simple elements are repeated over and over until they take on a mystical mantric quality.
Barker – Utility (2019)
Sam Barker’s brand of airy, melodic techno is sometimes referred to as ‘Big Room Ambient’. His tracks do convey a sense of vast space, as well as the latent energy you need to unite the dancefloor of the ‘main room’ of a club. But somehow Barker pulls this off without using techno’s trademark pumping kick drum. So anyone looking for the pulsing throb of 4/4 techno may be disappointed; and at times, listening to Utility can feel like an exercise in anticipation. The melodic build ups and bottomless production induce a palpable sense of suppressed energy and the feeling that something huge is about to happen. But any frustration is more than made up for by just how lush this record sounds. Barker utilises a beautifully coherent sound palette of chimes, bells and twinkling textures; everything is coated in the same clean metallic sheen, it feels as though it’s all coming out of one giant instrument.
Deepchord – Auratones (2019)
In a year when more than ever music has acted like a balm, a cushion against the outside world, or offered an escape from it, Deepchord has been the artist I’ve spent the most hours listening to. Auratones is like taking a journey on a deep aquatic submarine; everything is muffled, cocooned as you are from the external environment, with the omnipresent scudding bass drum and shimmering synth lines rolling endlessly on like the ocean, but hinting at something much deeper.
Deepchord presents Echospace – The Coldest Season (2007)
In a sense, the variant of dub techno that Rod Modell is now surely the undisputed master of has changed little from the pulsing beat that Basic Channel set in motion back in the early 90s. And why tamper with something that was perfectly designed in the first place? To be fair, although the elements remain the same – bass throb, crackly textures and ghostly synths – an album like The Coldest Season shows just how far Deepchord, in this case Rod Modell and Steve Hitchell, have taken this form of music from the dancefloors of raves where it originated.
Like the wild snow-covered landscapes that inspired it, The Coldest Season is beautiful and sparse. Long and winding passages of spectral icy crackle and hiss, like being lost in a white-out blizzard, are tethered here and there by the unmistakable throb of dub techno. It being ‘dub’ you’d think it would be inherently warm, but Modell and Hitchell pull off something magical and profound with this album. It’s hard to do it justice in words, or convey how such seemingly simple elements can combine to make such deep, moving music. This album deserves your time, go deep and get pulled into the blizzard.
Actress – Ghettoville (2014)
Ghettoville is Darren Cunningham’s darkest, dankest and most challenging album. Most of the releases on this list offer protection from the real world, either in the form of smoothing the hard edges of reality, or providing an escape into imagined alternative worlds. But Ghettoville hints at a world even darker than our own, where mutant freaks roam the landscape feeding off radiation-ravaged carcasses…or something. Anyway, here Actress follows some of his lines of experimentation to their logical conclusion, hitting bedrock at the bottom of his well of inspiration. Tracks like Street Corp go to Autechre-like lengths of challenging the very concept of music. While others like Rims and Time are so meagre, you feel like you could be listening to the ‘Human Music’ from Rick and Morty. Whether we are all living inside a giant simulation remains to be seen but for now I’m happy to suspend any sense of disbelief and leave Actress in charge of the radio dial.
Fennesz – Black Sea (2008)
Yet another album that evokes the outdoors, and specifically the intersection of sea and land, Black Sea is an album of contrasts. Washes of guitar-generated distortion and huge ambient pads are peppered with crackly digital noise and clicks of static as Fennesz uses his signature sound to take you from soothing lull to deafening climax and back again. The occasional interspersion of unadorned acoustic guitar adds a level of romanticism and human warmth to an album that feels like watching clouds drift overhead on a warm summer’s day.
Psychic – Darkside (2013)
I doubt anyone ever wondered what the result woud be if Dire Straits, The Bee Gees and Ricardo Villalobos got together for an extended jamming session. And for sure, on paper the combination of 1970s soft-rock guitar and meticulously arranged minimal house shouldn’t work – but on Psychic, Darkside have found a sweetspot that no one new existed. Darkside being the collaboration of prodigiously talented Chilean-born electronic musician, Nicolas Jarr and multi-instrumentalist and fellow graduate of Brown University, Dave Harrington. Psychic is psychedelic, funky and – much like Pink Floyd’s magnum opus which presumably inspired the duo – reveals endless layers of detail on each repeated listen.
Ekoplekz – Reflekzionz (2015)
This collection of melancholy melodies, rumbling beats and old-school production finds Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards in a reflective mood. Like a book of faded old photographs, this album is full of ghosts and echoes. And although it shines a blurry mirror on some seminal 90s electronic albums, Reflekzionz has its own distinctive style; an uncategorisable stew of dub, industrial and ambient.
Future Sound of London – Archived 8 (2015)
I’ve not listened to every release in FSOL’s Archives series, but if this is anything to go by then it’s safe to say any electronic artist would kill for an archive of this calibre. Archives 8 plays like a tour of every high-point of 1990s electronic music in just under an hour… or the soundtrack to some post-apocalyptic tribal rave. Either way, this particular glimpse of the archive shows Future Sound of London committed to building immersive musical worlds on every track, and reaffirming their place as Godlike geniuses of electronic music.