That holds true across each of the albums you'll see below. From candy-coloured synth pop, alien noise and electronic jazz to intergalactic techno, soul-bearing ballads and melted-in-the-microwave grime, this year's albums list might be our most varied yet. But what ties these records together is having something to say—and saying it in a way you couldn't imagine anyone else saying it.
- 20. "Beefdes"
Safe In Harbour
Ricardo Villalobos has always had an experimental streak, and no one brings it out like Max Loderbauer. After remixing ECM and flirting with hip-hop on Perlon, the duo plumbed the depths of their shared aesthetic with Safe In Harbour, a beautifully surreal album of sideways rhythms and impossibly tactile sounds. Oblique as it is, Safe In Harbour is clearly the work of two old friends doing what they love, locked into a groove that's theirs alone.
- 19. "Let Me In"
Louis Carnell never quite fit the definition of grime, and his debut album was where his music shed the genre's confines and became something brand new. It's the Visionist sound stripped down to its skivvies, made with translucent synths and disembodied voices that were left to float in the void. Safe, which was written to trace the arc of a panic attack, is rarely aggressive; instead, Carnell focuses on the intriguing and the unsettling, making for one of the most bewitching LPs to come from the grime diaspora.
- 18. "Augmented"
Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us just how exhilarating techno can be. This year that outsider was San Francisco's Charles McCloud Duff, a chameleonic producer who's tried his hand at just about every type of electronic music there is. Homesick, his first album as Matrixxman, was like a window into an icy future, yet it still felt strangely familiar. Simultaneously hot and cold, bleak and uplifting, the album created for itself a unique sonic space.
- 17. "TSV WB"
- Zenker Brothers
Ilian Tape has been releasing excellent techno for nearly a decade, but its magnum opus didn't arrive until February this year. Much like the label itself, Dario and Marco Zenker's Immersion combines booming breakbeats and dense atmospherics in a way that sounds like almost nothing else out there. From the rattling dystopia of "Cornel 21" to the euphoric drive of "TSV WB," this was two techno artists at their very best.
- 16. "Outside In"
It's not every year that a perfect analogue house LP comes along. Linkwood's Expressions fit the bill with its insular world of jazzy chords, Chicago-style basslines and drifting synths. A record for headphone isolationists, pro DJs and synth nerds alike, it was seven years in the making—Nick Moore cites "life" as the reason for the delay. On Expressions, he channelled the full range of human experience through his keyboards and drum machines, which is probably what made it so damn good.
- 15. "Ride"
- Gaussian Curve
Music From Memory
"It was almost like we weren't involved," Jonny Nash told Juno Plus. "It just slipped out." He was talking about Clouds, the impossibly understated album that he, Marco Sterk (AKA Young Marco) and the Venetian artist Gigi Masin recorded on a whim in Amsterdam. Odd as that may sound, it rings true. The unintentional quality he's describing is exactly what makes this 38-minute LP—a weightless haze of piano, keyboards and guitar—so addictive.
- 14. "Refugio"
- Anthony Naples
Body Pill proves you can say a lot with a little. It clocks in at under 30 minutes, but feels as epic as any album on this list. Chalk it up to the New York artist's production style, as sumptuous and assured as it's ever been. His compositions are short, but the mixes are widescreen, making for a sound considerably more cinematic than the rough-hewn dance music Brooklyn is known for these days.
- 13. "La Basse et les Shakers"
- Domenique Dumont
Comme Ça conjures images of an exquisite summer evening, one you watch unfurl with a cocktail in your hand. It felt specifically designed to soundtrack the moments leading up to sunset, the playful upbeat pop of the first half giving way to the languid tones of the album's B-side. Domenique Dumont arrived on Antinote as a total unknown—he hasn't put out another record before or since Comme Ça—but his first release was pure musical escapism.
- Oneohtrix Point Never
Garden Of Delete
Garden Of Delete was an overstuffed monster of an album that merged Daniel Lopatin's new age synthesis with pop, grunge and a backstory about an acne-prone alien named Ezra. In a world where Lopatin lugs his gear into arenas to open for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, the line between truth and fiction, highbrow and lowbrow, already feels pretty blurry. Garden Of Delete revealed Lopatin as a synth auteur as likely to take the piss as he is to set the controls for the heart of the sun.
- 11. "Sora Ni Mau Maboshi"
Utakata No Hibi
Until recently, the only place you were likely to find a copy of Mariah's 1983 album Utakata No Hibi was on the record shelf of a well-connected digger. Chances of a reissue had always seemed remote—licensing music from major labels in Japan is notoriously tricky—but this year Palto Flats successfully navigated the red tape. A jaw-dropping musical collision of Japanese folk and new wave coated in '80s studio gloss, Utakata No Hibi was 2015's most enchanting archival release.
- 10. "The World"
Rush Hour Recordings
You want to root for Hun Choi. He's a killer DJ, a staple of Rush Hour and an all-around nice guy. His reputation might have gotten Hunch Music, his long-in-the-works first album, in your headphones, but the music spoke for itself. Unmistakably house but uniquely introspective, psychedelic and nuanced, Hunee's masterwork takes what's been great about his productions and levels things up massively. Coupled with his high-ranking debut in our DJ poll, it began an exciting new chapter in an already exemplary career.
- 9. "Nondo Original Mix"
- DJ Sotofett
Drippin' For A Tripp (Tripp-A-Dubb-Mix)
Honest Jon's Records
DJ Sotofett occupies a musical universe entirely his own, one that's eclectic, sun-dappled and just a bit demented. In 2015 we received the most thorough tour of this galaxy yet with Drippin' For A Tripp (Tripp-A-Dubb-Mix), his debut full-length on Honest Jon's. Ambient, Balearic, tribal and groovy, loaded with bird calls, guitars and cosmic interludes—even back in January this was obviously one of the year's best records.
The Hydrangeas Whisper
Calling Maurice Fulton's latest long-player "wildly eclectic" feels like an understatement. In the first half alone, the enigmatic producer dishes out hazy ambience, sumptuous guitar licks, straight-up techno and off-the-cuff disco. As the album careens to a close, he smashes these incongruous styles together within single tracks. The Hydrangeas Whisper is an album of profound contrast and endless whiplash, but it's lovingly delivered, admirably bold and party-guaranteed—so good it hurts, in other words.
- 7. "Sea Calls Me Home"
- Julia Holter
Have You In My Wilderness
If 2013's Loud City Song was the sound of Julia Holter emerging from her shell after a period of artful bedroom experimentation, Have You In My Wilderness saw the California musician in full bloom. Her voice, which took centre stage on this album, shone amid elegant orchestral arrangements. Songs like "Feel You" and "Sea Calls Me Home" were her catchiest to date, but they retained the intimacy that made Holter such an intriguing artist to begin with.
- 6. "Renee Sleeping"
- Suzanne Kraft
Talk From Home
Melody As Truth
In the interview that accompanied this year's excellent RA podcast, Diego Herrera admitted that he recorded Talk From Home, his second LP as Suzanne Kraft, "surprisingly fast." You'd never guess that from listening to the album, which coasts between soothing guitar riffs and languorous melodies with all the urgency of a summer's day in the Balearics. From the tender licks of "Flatiron" to the title track's precise, gorgeous synths, it's a record steeped in emotion that hits all the right notes.
One Little Indian
On Vulnicura, her best album in years, Björk took the stalest of subjects—the breakup—and created something revelatory. Through nine direct and hauntingly beautiful songs, the record explored and exposed her breakup with long-term partner Matthew Barney. Simple, timeworn laments—"My soul torn apart"—found a fresh resonance and, at times, were excruciating to absorb, Björk's voice placed nakedly front and centre. In the back, Arca and The Haxan Cloak helped shape the stately, string-washed arrangements, the arena for Björk's sorrow and redemption.
- 4. "I Met You On BC Ferries"
Much Less Normal
It's been out in one form or another for 18 months and we still can't get enough of it—LNRDCROY's debut album is the epitome of a slow-burner. Even its most upbeat tunes unfurl gradually, letting you savour every vintage drum sound and slouching synth lead. Much Less Normal sleepwalks from pensive ambient to gentle techno. Its perfectly laid-back approach to dance music makes it a definitive document of the burgeoning Vancouver sound.
- 3. "Guantanamo"
Nothing sounded like Jlin's Dark Energy in 2015. The Gary, Indiana, native may have built her debut album around the whiplash 808 ethos of footwork, but she ravaged its decade-old frame, busting open the cracks, wedging in foreign objects and electrifying its extremities. What came from her process could be called monstrous, violent or thrilling—see "Guantanamo" or "Infrared (Bagua)" for two particularly good examples. But beneath the chaos, there was also an elegant precision to Jlin's sound. Those Mortal Kombat samples were no coincidence: Dark Energy was indeed a flawless victory.
- 2. "Anti-Corporate Music"
- Levon Vincent
Few producers bare their souls the way Levon Vincent does. His music has an air of catharsis—this is him presenting to the world some complex and even painful part of himself. Never was this truer than on his debut album, a quadruple-vinyl opus that's in turns lush and drab, beautiful and haunting, humble and grandiose. While its tracklist invoked his departed cat, his own tattoos and the addicts on Berlin's streets, its grey melodies and scuffed-up beats expressed murkier, wordless truths.
The qualities that at first made Floating Points' Elaenia slightly underwhelming are the same qualities that have eventually made it our album of the year. We'd always known Sam Shepherd as an artist of subtle gestures. While always musically rich, his club tracks—from 2009's "Vacuum Boogie" to 2014's "Nuits Sonores"—often crept up on you, revealing their full force on a lubricated dance floor with a good soundsystem. He'd also produced plenty of delicate downtempo cuts, played a large studio role in Fatima's gorgeous soul record Yellow Memories, and led the Floating Points Ensemble, a 16-piece group who made stirring but understated expressions. Still, something about Elaenia felt slight, alluringly out of reach.
But slowly, over time, the album revealed itself. At first, it was through little moments. Perhaps it was the tender vocal harmony and strings washing over "Silhouettes (I, II & III)." The interplay between electronic and acoustic instruments on "For Mamish." Or when the filter uncurled on "Argenté," the track coalescing into a dazzling synthesiser ballad. What initially seemed unremarkable became extraordinary. The utterly distinctive Floating Points vocabulary had been recast as a beautiful new language. Jazz-fusion, ambient, classical, house—half a lifetime of influences had merged as a 43-minute masterwork. As Elaenia opened up, so, too, did Shepherd, telling us the extraordinary lengths he goes to in all aspects of his music. The album was apparently completed across five years, as Shepherd refined his craft and clarified his vision. From the perspective of both artist and listener, it appears that time was the key to Elaenia.
This poll is decided by the votes of RA staff members and current contributors.
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The year in review
RA's best films of 2018
We round up some of our favourite films of the past year.
RA's best longform of 2018
Enjoy some of our best in-depth journalism from the past 12 months.
Reflections On 2018
Artists, promoters, bookers and label heads talk about their year in electronic music.
2018's Best Mixes
We round up our favourite mixes from 2018.
2018's Best Tracks
RA staff pick their favourite tracks from the last 12 months.