The RA staff highlight our favourite full-lengths of the year.
Befitting a world that isn't getting any less complicated, many of this year's best albums challenged us to think beyond genre and find our own way through the music. Whether that took the form of an otherworldly artistic statement or a cache of on-point dance floor material, it challenged us to resist the allure of the skip button and spend an hour or so getting inside the mind (or studio) of someone else. Digging into any of these 20 long-players, you couldn't find yourself in better hands.
Blackest Ever Black's flagship act continued to dissolve the boundaries between post-punk, post-rock and techno with their debut album. Expanding the promise of their EPs into a noir universe, the tracks weren't so much driven by a beat as a primordial thrust. The laboured heave lent every track a creeping unease, stalking through dark caverns with only the echo of its own footsteps to light the way. Mixing electronic buzz with beautifully rendered acoustic soundscapes, Raime internalized the music of groups like Swans into something sympathetic to techno but in no way a slave to it—and made a bewitching record in the process.
2012 was a year of unease, and few albums sounded more queasy than Laurel Halo's Quarantine. The US producer used her voice and a host of synths to chilling effect on 12 pieces that bear closer approximation to "compositions" than "tracks." While the electronics made it all come together, the standout instrument was Halo's vocals, which seem to emerge from every corner of the stereo spectrum. (Often at the same time.) And while the subjects—"Airsick," "Carcass," "Tumor"—were grim, their bewitching presentation kept us coming back for more.
You usually have an idea of what you're getting into with a Smallville record before you ever drop the needle. The long overdue debut full-length from the two intrepid Germans who started the deep house empire, Salty Days is a little different. The LP happily carries the Smallville torch, sure—delicately fluffed melodies, gently hugging basslines and soft pitter-patter drums are all well-represented—but also an audacious directness. The gently jacking piano house of "Move With Your Vision" and other streaks of colour go a long way in making a comforting and familiar sound captivating all over again.
For a minute there it seemed like Ricardo Villalobos might have been done with club music. Working with Max Loderbauer, his experimental side went from strength to strength, but his 4/4 productions often felt like clicky afterthoughts, spewed forth from his blinking modular system and shipped off without much concern. That changed with Dependent And Happy, his most inspired record in years. Beauty and emotion had returned to his palette, and suddenly his abstract improvisations were once again full of life. Teeming with surreal imagery from beginning to end, it's one of those albums that seems too lush with detail to ever grow old.
When Italians Do It Better torch-bearer Johnny Jewel posted a remastered version of the label's seminal compilation After Dark to his SoundCloud page, it offered a potent reminder of the label's charms. His band Chromatics' fifth studio album, Kill for Love, shows that "charm" is just the tip of the iceberg. Dusty and threadbare, Jewel's sound design maintains a vintage feel. But the ambitious and emotionally arresting music of Kill for Love is what sets it apart from the legions of vapid throwbacks it shares shelf space with.
Among techno heads, was there a debut album more welcomed than Juan Mendez's in 2012? We highly doubt it. The Los Angeles resident has been exporting his immaculate sounds from the Sandwell District camp for over five years, cementing his name as one of the genre's most exciting and consistent figures. Though it only clocks in at just over half-an-hour, Negative Fascination is about as immersive as it comes, with a logical but rapid transition from brooding ambient, to dystopian electronics and the unashamedly dance floor-focused. Its seven tracks traverse the throwback melancholia of "Moral Divide (Endless)" and the brutalism of "The Strange Attractor"—this is purist techno at its finest.
No squelching arpeggios, no bombastic intrusions, no gurning: Recondite's acid is all pillows, sunsets and fuzzy hallucinations. Which isn't to say On Acid is placid. A false sense of security pervades this highlight of Acid Test's particularly strong year, with exquisite 303 ripples hesitating like a deep breath before a plunge into frozen waters. Peaking with the alternately contemplative and wild-eyed "Harbinger," Recondite has crafted the rare album that is equally meaningful on a confused dance floor and a melancholy morning-after.
A classic formula for creativity is to combine the cerebral and the visceral, to mix high-brow art with something more immediate. Intentionally or not, that's exactly what Lee Gamble did with Diversions 1994-1996, a record born of the moment he turned his back on avant-garde computer music and rediscovered his collection of jungle records. By stringing together the spacey bits of jungle tunes that often come before the drop, the UK artist created something so utterly engrossing that it overshadowed his excellent debut album, Dutch Tvashar Plumes. At just 27 minutes long, and with just one drum beat, Diversions is still one of the richest albums of the year.
With Visions, Grimes cut through the fog of her earlier work, and the result was the year's strangest bona fide pop hit. The Canadian's pixielike voice—part elf, part alien—captured the imaginations of all kinds of audiences, even playing for Richie Hawtin in Ibiza this year. It's easy to see why her fanbase became so broad: Visions is chock full of killer indie dance jams ("Oblivion"), but also tender introspection ("Skin") and bizarre experiments with pitch-shifting ("Eight"); music this uncompromising isn't usually this much fun.
In many ways, Classical Curves successfully embodies Night Slugs' manifesto to create modular, yet grounded club tracks. The Ms Muzik Channel videos preceding the album gave listeners the opportunity to enter into a voyeuristic view of Jam City's glossy and robotic alternate realm where his ideas take form. The contents of the album's artwork, a dimly-lit corporate lobby unsettled by a crashed motorbike and a satin sheet, are mirrored by the individual tracks: perplexing by themselves, but making perfect sense in context—each track shining alone but cohering together formidably as you glide through the Zone.
Sam Barker and Andreas Baumecker love hardware. But you'd hardly guess that from the sound of Transsektoral, an album stacked with hi-fi sonics crafted with an array of hard-to-find equipment. While Ostgut Ton is famous for being the primary exponent of the so-called "Berghain sound," most of the 11 tracks on here are a far cry from anything on the label that's come before them. Glossy, warm and melodic, the duo's debut full-length draws upon influences from UK bass and electro, techno and house, all coming together into one cohesive selection of tracks.
There are few artists that could manage placement on a list like this almost 20 years into their career, but minimal pioneer Robert Hood isn't just any producer. It wouldn't be accurate to say that it's innovation that brought Motor here, but rather a simple knack for injecting emotion into the most skeletal of techno frameworks. Inspired by the documentary Requiem For Detroit, this concept album is a wonderful mix between the not-so club ready and peaktime burners, from the haunting melodies of opener "The Exodus," to the winding "Drive (The Age of Automation)."
Based on sheer probability, you might assume that The Killer would be crap. Because really, how good can this guy's strike rate be? Since 2008, Rene Pawlowitz, who is arguably Berlin's best producer, has been putting out one album every two years as Shed, plus another ten or so singles per year under an ever-increasing array of pseudonyms. The kicker is that pretty much all of it is exceptional. So surely he has to trip up sooner or later? Well, not yet—The Killer is, somehow, just as beautifully crafted and stylistically unhinged as anything this guy has put out to date. In other words, it's not just a clever name.
Bristol producer Vessel, having previously released a handful of well-received 12-inches, dropped Order of Noise at the tail end of a year that further cemented his hometown's international reputation as a center of avant-garde electronic music. Enchanting, spooky and blissful, Vessel's Tri Angle full-length transmitted emotion like few others, without falling back on any obvious tropes. Each of the dubby broken-beat textures present were are as sophisticated as they were introspective, and, when combined, represented the emergence of one of the UK's most exciting new talents.
With Music for the Quiet Hour, Sam Shackleton reconciled the oppressive head music of Skull Disco with the claustrophobic physicality of past collaborations with Pinch. Shackleton's productions were always hermetic, a tangle of strife and hand drums, and the spatial imagination throughout these post-apocalyptic transmissions retain a suffocating impact if you're willing to submit. As on "Death Is Not Final," MC Vengeance Tenfold's clipped ramblings refuse to act as a reassuring guide through the twitchy murk. As he sighs "I agree we should put them outside the walls" on the album's 20+ minute peak, the targets are irrelevant: Shackleton himself blasts through on what feels like an apotheosis of all his previous funereal psychedelia.
He may have a PhD in Mathematics, but there's little science behind Dan Snaith's deepening voyage to the sweat-drenched core of clubland this year. Hints of a burgeoning passion for dance music first surfaced on 2010's Swim, recorded under his Caribou moniker. Snaith gave it full rein on JIAOLONG, delivering nine thrilling, spontaneous workouts, many specifically fashioned for his DJ sets—something the Canadian's thrown himself into with increasing regularity. Snaith's reputation as a musical polymath was vividly apparent in his integration of UK bass music, footwork and even Shangaan electro, but JIAOLONG's building blocks were raw, energetic house and techno.
Moving away from the horrifying bass abyss of 2011's Passed Me By, Andy Stott returned this year with the paradoxically airy-yet-heavy Luxury Problems. Immediately noticeable was his use of crystalline vocal clips, fragmented recordings of his former piano teacher Alison Skidmore. In a display of mixing mastery, Stott worked Skidmore's nostalgic voice into the thudding grooves that together defined the album. Along with Shackleton, Stott is one of two artists that were present on last year's list as well; the delightfully stunned critical reception for such different albums is a true testament to his studio prowess and versatility.
John Talabot's early work always gave you a feeling he'd make sense as an album artist. His predisposition for sunny melodies and slow burning chug seemed equally to suit downtime as party-time. However, it's unlikely even his most enthusiastic fans could have predicted just how perfectly he'd nail his debut full-length. Blending disco shimmer, melancholic house and indie song craft, fIN won hearts and minds from all corners of the musical landscape. All too often electronic LPs feel like an anonymous gaggle of club singles. fIN is the exact opposite. It's a house music album that demands to be listened to in its entirety.
With every album, Darren Cunningham takes it a little bit further. Splazsh, our fourth favorite LP from 2010, showed him plunging weirder, murkier depths than any of his records up to that point. Two years later, RIP makes Splazsh look conventional. This time he's coloring way outside the lines, boiling down his odd productions into abstract little vignettes, many of which drift in and out with no real beginning, middle or end. There are morsels of familiarity—hi-hats, chugging beats, a ghostly voice here and there—but its oddest moments are often its best.
Who would have thought the year's most exhilarating release would barely break a whisper? Or that music that never moves faster than an easy shuffle could leave you drenched in sweat? Voices from the Lake, a collaboration between Italian techno guru Donato Dozzy and his close associate (and preferred mastering engineer) Neel, moves in mysterious ways, but its effects are undeniable. Light as its touch may be, it grabbed us like no other album released this year.
Coaxing us in with a cool breeze and a hint of a beat, Dozzy and Neel's masterpiece offered beleaguered techno fiends a musical refuge—an old-growth forest of sound for contemplation, exploration, transcendence, maybe even dancing. (If the latter wasn't immediately apparent on headphones, it was when the duo stretched these shamanic grooves out into the wee hours during live sets over the course of the year.) Where so much music in 2012 came off like an argument, Voices from the Lake lived outside of time and invited listeners to do the same. It's a sanctuary we returned to all year, and it's doubtful we'll be padlocking the gate anytime soon.