For one reason or another (mainly fatherhood) I didn’t listen to as much new music as last year. And much of what I did listen to was played either as an accompaniment to WFH, or during quiet moments sat with a very young baby between 5 and 7am. Neither of which are conducive to really cranking the volume up and letting an album rip. Anyway, this list is just my opinion and essentially a snapshot of my year. There’s not a huge amount of logic behind the ordering, though it gets a little more refined nearer the top. Let me know what I missed, what you liked and hopefully there’s something new for you to discover…
25: Huerco S – Plonk
The fact this album sits in the murky intersection between ambient and minimal made it a WFH staple for me at the beginning of the year. Though that doesn’t feel like the most engaging way of listening to music, coming back to it now I’ve found that by the power of osmosis I’d absorbed much more than I thought. In a similar vein to Actress, the tracks recorded by Brian Leeds under his Huerco S alias are sketched in the faintest of lines and overlaid with subtle changes in light and shade. The music doesn’t seem to evolve so much as proliferate; drifting around the room like a cloud of mist. Though less arresting than 2016’s masterful ‘For those who have never…’, Plonk is a further development of his sound and is full of beautifully tactile sounds that seem to exist outside of time. Lovely stuff.
24: Ryan James Ford – Rules are meant to be Broken
The rules remain largely intact on this chunky EP of straight-up stripped down techno from Canada’s Ryan James Ford. A bracing hit of pulsing kick drums and deranged synths that only briefly lets up. This kind of thing used to be my bread and butter, but without the need for a bracing aural palette cleanser on the morning commute, less so now. Most of my music consumption has been sedentary this year and I would’ve liked to have given this more spins, if only to feel the old muscle memory creak into action when that BPM kicks in.
23: Of Montreal – Freewave Lucifer f<ckf^ckf>ck
You wouldn’t think the enforced social isolation of the pandemic would present any issues for auteur and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes, who has a tendency of sacking all their bandmates and regularly redefining Of Montreal’s new sound from the ground up.
But even for an artist who might get stuck in their own head more than most, Freewave Lucifer is a particularly claustrophobic record. Described best by the first track’s opening line “Welcome to the sensory overload chamber”, it’s a dense collage of popping electronics, largely impenetrable lyrics and freewheeling restlessness.
Not to say there aren’t the odd moments of off-kilter pop brilliance. For example, Nightsift is a slice of dark electro-pop containing of all things for an Of Montreal track, a chunky drop. And while the lyrics are almost Dadaist in their randomness, there’s still the odd hilariously Barnesque line to be found… “when people ask my gender, I just tell them I’m brunette’.
At 7 songs and 34 minutes, Freewave Lucifer feels a little thin as an album. And I doubt it’ll go down as a standout work among Barnes’ extensive and impressive canon, nor would I recommend it as a sensible starting point for anyone looking to explore Of Montreal’s music. Despite all that, it’s an entertaining and unpredictable listen, and a sign that Barnes’ restless musical exploration is far from over, though the dense arrangements and EDM-sounding electronics don’t play to Barnes’ strengths, and I just hope he finds his way onto more familiar territory again soon.
22: Actress – Dummy Corporation
Up next on this fairly randomly ordered list is an EP from the mysterious bucket-hatted man of electronic music, Darren Cunningham, aka Actress.
New Actress material this year was an unexpected treat as far as I was concerned. Dummy Corporation sees Darren Cunningham taking more of a longform approach for a change, with two of the tracks on this 5-track EP spanning a combined length of nearly half an hour.
Dream is a pretty straight up techno warmer, complete with muted diva vocal sample, pulsing bass and throbbing kick. The 18 minute title track is a deep dark dive into nocturnal murk, reminiscent of some of Richie Hawtin’s experiments as Plastikman. It made the perfect soundtrack to a 6am walk to the station, through freezing fog and deserted back alleys, although the music was spooky enough to make me look over my shoulder on more than one occasion.
The EP includes shortened ‘edits’ of two tracks, Dream and Fragments of a Butterfly’s Face, which seems kinda pointless on a digital release and means there’s not actually as much new music here as first seems…but they’re there if you want ‘em.
Hopefully this teaser of a release is a sign there’s a new full-length on the way for next year. Either way, this is sufficient for anyone wanting their fix of dank electronic vibes in the meantime. Actress’ unmistakable sonic fingerprints are all over this – lo-fi production, vintage bleeps and blurbs – deceptively simple but with an uncanny way of burrowing into the hindbrain.
21: Junior Boys – Waiting Game
The Canadian duo’s 2004 album, Last Exit, has always been a perennial favourite of mine. One of those rare debuts where everything just seems to align perfectly. Jeremy Greenspan alternating between cocktail lounge croon and almost imperceptible breathy whispers, over minimal r’n’b production and glacial techno pads. I never really managed to get into any of their albums since but happening upon this brand new release by chance it seemed worth a listen.
Despite forays into more bombastic synth-pop in the interim, it seems the duo has come full circle in the last 18 years. Much of the aesthetic of Last Exit remains intact; Greenspan’s voice is as soft as ever, and at times the arrangements here are so sparse as to be almost sub-perceptual.
The only downside is that Waiting Game feels a bit lacking as an album, which is a shame as there are some beautiful tracks here. ‘Must be all the Wrong Things’ introduces proceedings very gradually with drones that build tentatively, and a bass-tone that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Men I Trust’s last album, oozing slick 1980s sumptuousness. ‘Night Walk’ then sashays in, like a lounge singer appearing from behind clouds of dry ice and cigarette smoke, but just as we get comfortable with the vibe, the track suddenly ends – so abruptly I had to get up and check the recording hadn’t skipped.
This happens again when the excellent ‘Thinking About you Calms me Down’ – which is crying out for a Carl Craig reworking along the lines of ‘Like a Child’, is suddenly cut short by a burst of noise – as if Junior Boys don’t want us to get too comfortable.
Despite its slenderness, Waiting Game is a lush album composed of the same qualities that make Last Exit such an enduring and alluring record. And listening to it again while writing this, I’m enjoying it more than ever. So maybe it’s time to dig into the rest of the boys’ back catalogue.
20: Kelly Lee Owens – LP8
The fact that Kelly Lee Owens’ third album is entitled LP8 is perhaps the least perplexing thing about this record. A self-conscious, serious and single-minded piece of work from an artist who was recently winning plaudits left and right for her crossover success, Inner Song, an accessible and diverse album with a broad enough vision to include a Radiohead cover, a collaboration with John Cale and a handful of vocal-led tracks, that seemed to cement Owens as something of a techno popstar.
If she’s trying to shrug off that mantle and upturn expectations with LP8 then she’s succeeded. It’s an album of sheer surfaces and monolithic compositions driven by Owens’ voice, layered and looped, by sparse piano notes and juddering percussion that rather than a drum machine sounds like it was produced by metal beams collapsing down a lift shaft.
I always think fair play to any artist who tries something completely different to what they’ve done before and resists any attempt to be pigeon-holed. Sometimes it results in a work of genius (Radiohead’s Kid A), sometimes utter failure (Moby’s Animal Rights), most of the time – as is the case with LP8 – the results are hit and miss.
The track ‘Anadlu’ for example, is poised and elegant; Owens intones the Welsh word for “breathe’ over gigantic pads and a tectonic metronome in a gradually expanding piece that evolves into a guided meditation. Elsewhere, the contrasting forces Owens tries to unite become less than the sum of their parts, and the monologues delivered straight down the camera fall flat. Indeed the combination of piercing hisses, along with lyrics that feel cribbed from the back of a student bar toilet door is enough to make the closing track, Sonic 8 almost unlistenable.
LP8 is a challenging and ambitious album from a talented artist, with results that are by turns beautiful and confounding.
19: Gabor Lazar – Boundary Object
Formidable electronics from the Hungarian producer. The eight tracks on Boundary Object were ‘performed’ live (using the customisable software application, Max) and released as is – a unique document of a creative process. I haven’t spent as much time with this one as I’d have liked, as it’s a record that demands your full attention. Futuristic, funky, unpredictable, lush, confusing…but also cool as fuck. I don’t know if androids dream of electric sheep but when they go raving it’s to Gabor Lazar.
18: Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – Topical Dancer
At its best, the record is a much-needed yanking up to date of the ideals which birthed ‘dance music’ and rave culture – equality, freedom of expression, harmony, unity. Ideals which soon became hackneyed cliches, in the hands of producers looking to cash in by sticking a diva sample singing about “universal love” or some such, over a generic beat and calling it a banger. At a time when a new generation is confronting questions of identity and equality, and redefining gender and sexuality on their own terms, these ideals have never felt more in need of reassessing and protecting.
17: Bonobo – Fragments
The British producer Simon Green, better known by his longstanding Bonobo alias, is one of those few artists who successfully executed the transition from bedroom beatsmith to big-ticket draw. Thanks to Bonobo’s skilfulness as a producer and arranger, the vistas afforded by Fragments are lush and richly detailed enough to lose oneself in, with energy levels pitched perfectly in the sweet spot between chilled and energising, so you can let the music take you up or down depending on mood.
16: Blue Spectre – Silver Screen
Silver Screen – as the name suggests – is a cinematic affair, incorporating visual influences from the Golden Age of Hollywood, classic Westerns, film noir and new-wave. It’s an exciting debut from a band clearly enamoured with some of the lesser celebrated sounds of vintage rock and adept enough to shape them for their own spooky purposes.
15: Eels – Extreme Witchcraft
Eel’s 14th album (by my count) sees him reunited with producer John Parrish for the first time since 2001’s Souljacker, and there is plenty of that record’s distorted gritty sound in effect here. While not as idiosyncratic as his seminal early albums, and not as confessional as some of his more recent work, Extreme Witchcraft is still unmistakably Eels. It might not be the most groundbreaking album of the year but proof that E’s ability to effortlessly turn out catchy offbeat pop songs is undiminished.
14: King Buffalo – Regenerator
I don’t listen to this kind of music very often but sometimes it just hits the spot. There’s something about this brand of heavy psychedelic stoner rock that feels like the non-electronic equivalent of progressive trance. Sure, it’s infused with a leather bracelet-wearing new-agey joss-stick scent of naffness, but damn it sounds good when you’re high (or even when you’re not).
The band are a tight unit and masters of their chosen domain; playing this record loud is like taking a ride in a luxury sports car (I imagine) – each element perfectly compliments every other to create a sense of smooth and effortless power.
The lyrical content is unashamedly fantastical, all lone warriors making fated journeys across the surface of alien worlds. True to this ideal, King Buffalo manage to make each track feel like its own mini-epic, without ever letting things drag, with the effect that Regenerator punches above its weight, sounding heftier than it’s 43 minute length, and the band sounding heavier than merely a trio.
13: Brian Jonestown Massacre – Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees
Anton Newcombe’s always been a prolific artist. Even throughout the chaos and excesses of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s many incarnations, breakdowns and reformings of the 90s, a lack of ideas or recorded output emanating from their creative mastermind was never an issue, although quality control might’ve suffered at times.
Those heady days have long passed now, though Newcombe’s creativity remains undiminished, directing operations from his studio in Berlin with a roving cast of guest musicians and past BJM alumni. It felt like for much of the 2010’s he was putting out practically an album a year; keeping up with all these along with his other side projects is a full time job so I tend to only dip in and out.
FDGT finds the band ploughing the same furrow they’ve been in for a while now: groove-heavy psyche propelled along by motorik rhythms, thick layers of fuzzy guitars and a fullness of production that some of their influences could only dream of. Ironically now Anton is sober, he’s creating music that would be far more mind-bending under the influence of narcotics than his riotous early output. The 22nd BJM album (by some counts) finds Newcombe in a gregarious frame of mind lyrically – there’s quite a few tracks that bear the hallmarks of having been written during the pandemic, with exhortations to stay positive, come together, throw off the shackles etc.
I initially found it underwhelming, but having given the album a proper airing at a decent volume, I think that might just have been a symptom of not playing it loud enough. There’s something about the high end and the filtering on a lot of the vocals here that just ends up sounding tinny on a pair of earbuds
So yeah…Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees is a decent record, with an appealing sound, but I can’t help wondering if it’s too much to expect a few more surprises from an artist as gifted as Newcombe and his coterie? Whatever…with a discography this extensive, there’s always something new to discover.
12: Ariel Zetina – Cyclorama
Ariel Zetina draws on her Belizean heritage and identity as a trans woman to create a swirling kaleidoscope of restless techno. Currently based in Chicago and nominated this year for DJ Mag’s Breakthrough DJ Award, in creating Cyclorama Zetina combines global influences on a record that feels like a bottled distillation of the queer underground rave scene in which she operates. Ideal if you need something to put a spring in your step for this first grey and wet week of the year.
11: µ-Ziq – Magic Pony Ride
It can’t be easy for an artist like Mike Paradinas, who’s consistently been near the cutting edge of electronic music for the last three decades – whether through his own releases under multiple aliases, or the output of his influential Planet Mu label – to endlessly evolve his sound. To sound innovative and fresh but recognisably µ-Ziq enough to please his fans.
So it is that last year’s Scurlage sounded like something of a greatest hits, in particular covering his early period – the pairing of harsh industrial percussion and a sense of melody drawn from the early electro and synth-pop pioneers. Coming hot on the heels, Magic Pony Ride feels like a canter through µ-Ziq’s late 90s/early 00s purple patch – and the golden age of this kind of music in general – all squiggly breakbeats and melodies that are by turns wistful and playful and melancholic.
For anyone familiar with the artist or this genre, there’s not much here you haven’t heard before. But as far as I’m concerned that’s no bad thing – sometimes you just wanna hear someone doing what they do, really well. A joyful, creative record, bursting with energy.
Rest of the list to follow…