A look at this year's Top 20 Albums will tell you that the long player is more important than ever in dance music. Last year our list was dominated by indie, electronic, experimental hip-hop, drone, etc.—in other words, sounds distinctly unrelated to nightclubs. This year the trend is reversed, and the majority of our list comes from house, techno and bass artists whose usual task is making people dance (though of course a few curveballs make it in as well). Some take the opportunity to try something a little different (like singing), others burrow further into their signature sound. All of them use the format to show a level of depth that wouldn't be possible on a mix or an EP.
Naturally, there are a lot of great records that didn't make the cut. Sandwell District's Feed Forward
, tobias.'s Leaning Over Backwards
, Bruno Pronsato's Lovers Do
, Kangding Ray's OR
, Cosmin TRG's Simulat
—these are just some of the albums that got countless plays at RA HQ and around the world but didn't get enough votes for the top 20. Chalk that up to 2011's glut of exceptional LPs. Nonetheless, what you'll find below are without a doubt 20 of the finest electronic albums to come out this year, as voted in by our staff.
John Maus, an art school grad working toward a PhD in political philosophy, takes an academic approach to pop music, which he considers a "major language" that's wrongly "dismissed by some people as merely reducible to the mechanisms of capital." On We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
, Maus finally mastered the cornerstone of pop: the catchy tune. It's impossible to tell if he's serious or not—he looks and sounds like Ian Curtis doing Karaoke, and has a couple of lines about Jackie Chan in there—but this tension gives his music a strange allure. Is "Hey Moon" a pop ballad or a parody of one? Does it matter?
The problem with Instra:mental? They release too much good music. "Problem" is the wrong word, but such has been the standard of Alex Green and Damon Kirkham's output these past couple of years it's become tough to ruminate on each new offering in isolation, fully appreciating the true extent of its merits. They've spoilt us, basically—and none more so than on their debut album, Resolution 653
. Barely pausing for a fag break across its 13 tracks, the pair coaxed jaw-clenching amounts of warmth and grit out of their machines, coming off like the natural heirs to Drexciya's electro throne.
"Black Square" has a beat, a billowing synth, and then at almost exactly 20 seconds, it tugs you deeply inside with a quietly strummed guitar. Come inside. Stay awhile. That same mentality cuts through nearly all of BNJMN's work: The producer's melodies were compared time and time again to early IDM practitioners while his beats grouped him somewhere in the nebulous UK bass camp. It wasn't rocket science, of course, but most great albums aren't: Black Square
hit hard because of its deft combination of the known and unknown.
"Hatred of Music," "Studio Suicide," "Analog Paralysis"—it's clear from the track titles of Ravedeath, 1972
that Tim Hecker thinks of music as an art form under siege. "In my mind, there's some connection between the computerized engineering that led to the codification of MP3s and music's denigration as an object and thus a viable means of economic survival," he told Pitchfork this year
. Heady as that may sound, it made for an utterly engrossing ambient album. An amalgamation of digital overdubs and live recordings from an Icelandic church, Ravedeath
is an elegy for music itself—a sad and beautiful piece of work, and probably Hecker's best.
16. The Weeknd
- House Of Balloons [Self-Released]
When House Of Balloons
ghosted on to the internet as a freely downloadable mixtape back in March it almost immediately felt year-defining. That's not to say 2011 was necessarily the year of R&B (unless you count sampling the stuff and messing with the pitch). But from its format, to its artwork, to the way it crossed disparate scenes and sections of the media, 21-year-old Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye's ode to sex, drugs and daybreak was a unifying force. That he all but equalled House Of Balloons
five months later with Thursday
would suggest a longevity beyond hipster fetishism.
It wasn't much of a concept album, but in mining the mysterious duo's previously-released white labels and adding a few new tracks, Through the Green
further strengthened Running Back's growing reputation. Plying loopy, ecstatic cuts like "Gin Nation" and "Love In Cambodgia," it proved that disco (of the edit variety) isn't quite ready to die a second time. Not while the pair continue with their masterful restorations, anyway. As they told RA last year, "We love it when you discover something new in a song you already know. If the edit is just meant to 'fix the beat' or just extend it, then it's not our cup of tea."
You had to feel for James Blake. As he prepared to release his self-titled debut album in February of this year it seemed as though the world was waiting, baited breath, for a masterpiece. Couple this with a fresh proposition—"I did make dubstep, but now I do songs"—and James Blake
was set for polarization from the outset. That's how it played out, but even the most ardent critic of Blake's offering couldn't fail to notice that the young Londoner had cultivated an overall aesthetic that was truly his own. Those on the other side of the fence basked in 11 delicately crafted pieces that confirmed his place among the most talented newcomers in recent memory.
For a straightforward collection of deep house, Steffi's full-length debut was incredibly divisive
. Some thought it too closely mimicked its predecessors, while the rest didn't seem to care; its refined simplicity was enough to win them over. Whatever your take, no one could deny the impact of "Yours," the album's biggest hit. Pairing Virginia's vocals with taut, jarring synths, it turned dance floors everywhere into refrain-shouting sweat pits. At Panorama Bar, Steffi's home base, it was a veritable anthem. To varying degrees, the other eight tracks followed suit. With its powerful basslines and gleaming hooks so well executed, Yours & Mine
reiterated that hearts can still be won sans stylistic trailblazing.
Until last month, hardly anyone knew about Moomin, a Berlin-based artist with just a few 12-inches on the underground labels White and Aim. That all changed with The Story About You
, a breakthrough LP that revealed him to be one of house music's finest new artists. The album follows Smallville's usual blueprint of ruminative deep house, but does so in a more well-rounded way than ever before. For every daydreamy melody, there's a rumbling bassline; for every somber piano, there's a snappy drum pattern. This balance of oomph and fragility is common in deep house today, but no one nails it as perfectly as Moomin does here.
Without diving too deep into the technicalities, Andy Stott's Passed Me By
was the sound of side-chain compression. You'll recognize patent uses of this ducking/pumping effect from "One More Time" and "Call On Me." The difference here was that instead of processing his dynamics for maximum club clout, Stott utilized the technique to induce hypnosis. "Knackered house
" was how the man himself described it. What that meant was leaden lo-fi chords, stodgy but affecting samples, and an uneasy sense you were about to fall over at a 100 stumbles per minute.
Pinch & Shackleton
is the sound of two artists traveling back in time, eager to explore ideas left by the wayside in dubstep's race to bigger, slower and, ultimately, dumber. It's no surprise that Pinch and Shackleton—guys basically there from the very beginning—would make such an album. (And it's hardly a shock that Honest Jon's would be the ones to help bring them together.) The resumes speak for themselves. What's most heartening, though, is how odd it all sounds. It's as if they wanted to make sure to release something that, quite simply, didn't sound like anything else. It's too bad more artists don't have the same aim.
Weight, both literal and psychic, is the biggest change you'll hear on Oneohtrix Point Never's newest album. Recording in a proper studio for the first time, the experimentalist's Replica
has the sort of bass unimagined and largely unneeded on Returnal
. Also gone were the clean, easy emotions, replaced by uncomfortable and slightly sinister sleights of hand. This maturing didn't mean we were left without something to hold onto, though: Replica
is still the sound of an artist that knows how to make you feel like you've been betrayed in the octagon. This time around, we just weren't sure by whom.
"Umm... yeah.... they're personal," laughed Kuedo when asked earlier this year
's Martin Clark about the origins of the track titles on Severant
. Of course they were. Jamie Teasdale's synth-stricken Planet Mu album was a far cry from the dubstep he made alongside Roly Porter as Vex'd. It lathered on the nostalgia amid beats so widescreen they belonged on a billboard from Blade Runner
. Like Clams Casino, though, when Kuedo blew everything up to grandiose proportions, he found himself speaking more intimately than ever before.
"I'm so wet that her pussy get mad at me." Leave it to Clams Casino to hear a line like that and think it might work over samples of Imogen Heap. The New Jersey artist's process seems to go something like this: take a pop ballad, cut it up until it sounds like shoegaze, then set it to a hip-hop beat. This style makes a deliciously weird counterpoint to rhymes by Lil B or Soulja Boy, but as we learn on Instrumentals
, it works even better on its own. Hazy, emotional and rich with detail, the rhythms that make up this free "mixtape" are without a doubt some of the most inspired productions of the year.
Omar-S teaming up
with Scion early in 2011 might've been the strangest collaboration of the year. Later on, however, the Detroit DJ/producer reminded us of his DIY streak in both form and content with It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It
. The album—which somehow featured the most controversial cover art
of the year—was, quite simply, chock full of FXHE bangers, including one of 2011's anthems in "Here's Your Trance, Now Dance." Trance, you say? Yep. It's just one more thing that only Omar-S can do: Make that most vilified of genres not only palatable but welcome.
You can hear the melancholy immediately in Dedication
: Whereas gun shots in UK bass usually serve as exclamation marks, "Witch Hunt"'s sounded like lamentations. Followed up by the downcast "Natalia's Song," and even the track's that should have served as the ebullient counterpoints—"Black Orchid," "Mozaik"—began to make you feel pretty worried for the masked producer. There's a cliché that out of sadness comes some of an artist's finest work. That was true of Dedication
, which saw Zomby putting together a group of miniatures that finally cohered into something much larger, an album that left you wondering far more often than it did dancing.
Sun Ra seemed to be in the air in 2011: Mike Huckaby edited the experimental jazz musician for Rush Hour, and Morphosis figured out how to transfer his vision into a 4/4 framework on What Have We Learned
. Like the cosmic philosopher he so admires, Morphosis' music is all about opening up the third eye and finding out what happens when trance states are achieved. See his live sets, and you'll know exactly what that can mean. He's the rare artist for whom an hour feels far too short. And while the same goes for Learned
, it was the finest encapsulation of his work thus far, showing just a sliver of how much techno still has to say.
There was nothing terribly novel about Roman Flügel's Fatty Folders
, an album by an electronic veteran issued by one of house music's most established labels, Dial. Instead, it was the perfection of something long in the making: Flügel's versatile take on techno. From the melodic deep house of "How to Spread Lies" to the cosmic effervescence of the aptly titled "Krautus," the only common thread in this album is Flügel's impossibly elegant production technique––something that could just as easily be said of his career overall.
was 2011's greatest feat of assimilation. You could reasonably have concluded that Travis Stewart's ninth full-length as Machinedrum was a distillation of almost every contemporary club genre, or equally, as RA's Andrew Ryce put it
, "a pop album at heart." In either case, it had few analogues, though Stewart's melding of complex rhythm structures with undeniable hooks brought to mind (in spirit at least) the best of LA's Flying Lotus. Six months after Room(s)
's release and with its drums fully lodged in your psyche, what's evident is that Stewart successfully executed that most difficult of moods in the dance album format—pure, unbridled joy.
I made most of Space Is Only Noise at 5 PM, right after I came home from school, probably the most boring time of the day. Or during the summer, when I had nothing to do all day. Just having a nice meal in the morning, maybe reading a nice book and then making some music. It's music that I made from the ages from 17 – 20, so it spans a lot of different time. It wasn't like I sat down for two months and wrote it: it was a three year process.
Balance Her in Between Your Eyes
For a while I thought I was going to write my thesis on Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, because I really fell in love with his ideas of time. So I curated the album with those thoughts in mind. But then the album became way too ethereal and I was not OK with that. I wanted it to be grounded in something much dirtier and more disgusting. I wanted it to have something bad inside of it, maybe something evil. When I made the track "Space Is Only Noise If You Can See" the album became more complete. I knew that it needed something like that.
I had a deadline with Circus Company of a Thursday, I think, and on that Wednesday night I wrote "Balance Her In Between Your Eyes," which is one of my favorite songs off the album. I wrote it with my computer speakers because my other speakers weren't working. But I guess what I realized this year is that the writing of the album wasn't the writing of the songs. It was the three months I took to turn it into some sort of weird bastard DJ set of the songs I really like. That's something I realized lately more than ever: Just how much of a DJ set I actually saw it as.
- Nicolas Jaar