This is an absolutely gorgeous record. Vocally, Grossi switches seamlessly between, well, a normal-pitched singer and an angelic choirboy to stunning effect. Musically, there are strands of M83 (when he was good still…) and you could loosely categorise this as dream-pop, but Grossi draws from so many different genres (check out the r‘n’b stylings on ‘Playing House’) that it stands completely apart from the competition. The use of his harp adds a whole new layer of dreaminess to the mix and sits in nice contrast to the electronic beats underlying his work. Stunning, stunning, stunning.
Africa HiTech - 93 Million Miles
I find 93 Million Miles a bit underwhelming. It’s quite rhythm-heavy but the rhythms generally sit in a muddy patch between the hypnotic effect of minimal techno and the juicy complexity of ‘IDM’. I thoroughly enjoyed my first half a dozen listens, don’t’ get me wrong, but I haven’t felt inspired to revisit it much since. ‘Our Luv’ is the standout track which harks back to Pritchard’s beset work as Harmonic 313, and I think the reason it stands out is because it packs in more emotion than the rest of the album combined. Perhaps I’m listening to this in the wrong context - I’m sure it’s all a lot more captivating at 1am on the dance floor. Enjoyable, but not essential listening.
Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Summvs
Whenever I’ve listened to this I’ve enjoyed it. There’s something wonderfully delicate about Sakamoto’s ethereal piano flourishes and Alva Noto’s sparse rhythms. This is an album to be listened to at night, even more so than previous releases by these two. In this album, though, Sakamoto’s piano is pushed more to the front, and I think as a result I find I can’t really remember much of the music - none of it really stands out. The duo’s masterpiece, ‘Insen’, was most breathtaking and hypnotic at the points where the two musicians collided, when Alva Noto would take the piano and break it down into microscopic pieces. Here the piano is cleaner and consequently less memorable. Still, it is worth repeated listens and I’m perhaps doing it a disservice by comparing it too much with Insen. It’s better than what most artists are producing.
Banjo Or Freakout - Banjo Or Freakout
This album of hazy dream-pop has had be coming back for more at regular intervals. A good reference point is Deerhunter during their cheerier moments, often eschewing traditional song structure and taking cues from ambient music as much as rock. Like Deerhunter, this remains utterly fresh after many listens. The highlight for me is ‘Idiot Rain’ with its dreamy falling arpeggios and languid 6/8 beat setting the scene for a captivating final section. The music ebbs and flows throughout, changing pace and tone, yet always with the same satisfyingly hazy aesthetic.
Biosphere - N-Plants
My listening stats speak volumes about my love of Biosphere’s work, and so I was very excited by N-Plants. Too excited perhaps, because I found the album somewhat underwhelming. It’s good music, and I’d be pretty pleased were it from pretty much anyone else, but the normal arctic iciness of his music has gone, and that’s part of what made works like ‘Substrata’ so engaging. There are pretty melodies, and a surprising Boards Of Canada-esque moment on the standout ‘Genkai’ which make this worth a listen, but if you’re new to the great man, start elsewhere.
Blanck Mass - Blanck Mass
Lot’s of euphoric drones and twinkling synths here, firmly situated in the Emeralds/Fennesz school of melodic fuzziness. It’s nice enough but most of it simply soaks over me and I find my mind drifting elsewhere. That is, apart from the sonic maelstrom of penultimate track ‘What You Know’, which adds a bit of much needed bite to the proceedings, gradually mutating over an encapsulating 13 minutes. This is a strong contender for track of the year and marks Blanck Mass as one to watch.
Daniel Thomas Freeman - The Beauty Of Doubting Yourself
This is a truly epic ambient masterpiece, never more so than on the crushing drones of the 22 minute long 'Staring Into Black Water', slowly and majesticly mutating throughout as other elements rise and fall. For me, great ambient music is often defiend by its floating quality, but this is more like being at the bottom of the ocean, completely enveloped by the beautiful sounds. Unlike Eno's concept of ambient music, this draws the listener in and holds them rapt for its long duration, which is the only drawback to the album: it is a sprawling epic, so you need to set aside enough time to really appreciate its intricacies. That though, is perhaps the best complaint you could have about an album.
The Decemberists[/aritst] - The King Is Dead
Confirming them yet again as one of the greatest bands of the past 10 years, ‘The King Is Dead’ is another triumph of Americana from The Decemberists. Less theatrical than their previous releases (although still more so than most bands), Colin Meloy’s vocals still tell wonderful stories and I doubt this year will produce more poetic lyrics than the gorgeous and melancholy ‘June Hymn’. There are dark moments and uplifting ones and there’s no doubt you’ve been taken on a journey by the end of the album.
Dolphins Into the Future - ...On Sea-Faring Isolation
Bit weird - not really feeling this one…
Dominik Eulberg - Diorama
On ‘Diorama‘, Dominik Eulberg sounds like he is channelling the collective spirits of mid and late 90s Warp/Planet Mu techno artists, and I mean this in the best way possible. This is a varied album, with some wonderfully lush melodic techno (‘Der Tanz der Gluehwuermchen’), nostalgic IDM (‘Aeronaut’), and hypnotic minimalism (‘Islandmuschel 400’). Essential for any fan of electronic music.
Dreissk - The Finding
Post-rock meets electronica, a bit like Bitcrush, but not as awesome.
Dro Carey - Journey with the Heavy
This sounds like a bizarre mash up of early Black Dog, Machine Drum, and Mount Kimbie, and the results are outstanding. I feel like I could listen to this anywhere at any time. Lush melodies are perfect for daytime while the beats and bass could grace a bus journey at night. Highlight for me has to be 'Brite Lotion', which is absurdly funky. A very exciting debut release.
Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys
The opening track 'The Birds' made me very excited for the rest of the album, which then gradually declined into pretty unmemorable mediocrity. Bit of a shame really, as when played live the music was incredible. Stadium rock designed for the stadium rather than the headphones.
Eleven Tigers - 111
Eleven Tigers's debut album last year is an early contender for album of the decade, so I was pretty excited about his sophomore effort. He set himself the challenge of creating an album in 111 days (hence the title), and it kinda feels like exactly that. There are lots of great ideas, but a complete lack of cohesion, sort of like Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma had the potential to be (but thankfully avoided). ET's debut flowed absolutely seemlessly through 15 tracks of dense beats and textures. 111 hops haphazzardly from one idea to the next and it all feels very rough around the edges, which is fine for lo-fi rock, but not in the world of intricate techno. Flashes of brilliance, but it could have been so much more...
Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care. Take Care
The melodies are pretty enough, but when I get to the end I can't really remember what happened. If you like EITS, you'll like this, but I doubt you'll love it.
The Field - Looping State of Mind
The Field confirms himself here as one of the vital techno artists of his generation with another utterly hypnotic album. Like Gas, he finds loops that you want to go on forever. The title track is the apex of the album, both in terms of position and in terms of being, well, a simply terrific achievement. Ten minutes of absorbing euphoric synths, with the occasional minor chord thrown in to give the music an edge. Trance music should always sound like this.
Forma - Forma
Layers upon layers of warm, fuzzy synths swirling around in a melancholy, yet uplifting way. Forma sounds like a softer Emeralds, and while this is hardly innovative, it does the whole 'hypnagogic pop' thing very well (this is what I wanted Oneohtrix Point Never to sound like this year...). One of the year's best efforts.
Hype Williams - One Nation
Hazy, downtempo RnB meets Boards Of Canada meets 'hypnagogic pop', Hype Williams occupy a sonic space which is ultimately completely their own.Perhaps it is the languid beats, maybe the grainy textures, but the music sounds incredibly nonchalant, drifting along at its own pace, motifs coming and going as they please. The rough-around-the-edges feel is part of the appeal, but at times I wish there was more of the precision-programming of my IDM heroes. Only sometimes though; for the most part this is excellent.
Lamb - 5
Lamb are one of my all-time favourite groups, and I'm not sure I'll ever understand why they aren't talked about in the same breath as Portishead and Massive Attack, aside from the fact that they shouldn't be talked about in the same breath, because they are so much more awesome. Opening track 'Another Language' sums up why I love them - breakbeats that any aspiring IDM producer should take a moment to check out, and Lou Rhodes's haunting vocals are as beautiful as ever. 'Build A Fire' takes their sound in a whole new direction, and from start to finish they barely put a foot wrong. Great comeback from a great band.
Lil B. - I'm Gay
This is a really good hip-hop record. Lil B's rapping is languid as ever and the production is as good as it gets. Rap purists may disagree, but for me a great backing track is as important as the rapping itself, and Lil B and his collaborators have both parts of the formula in plentiful supply. 'Game' is possibly the highlight, although the feel good vibe of 'Get It While It's Good' is pretty darn infectious. By Lil B's standards, this is a very cohesive release, but that's not a criticism - it makes it a much easier listen than the madness (and genius) of '6 Kiss'.
Machine Drum - Room(s)
Machine Drum has crafted one of the albums of the year, lifting freely from everything that is hip in the electronic world and combining with footwork undertones to create an exhilirating opus. Being Machine Drum, the attention to detail is faultless. Like Prefuse 73, he succeeds in blurring the distinction between rhythm and melody. The album centres around the surprisingly anthemic 'Gbye', with ingenious use of vocal samples harking back to his earliest work. If something as niche as electronica could have a zeitgeist, this would have captured it.
Natalie Beridze - Forgetfulness
Combining breakbeats, ambient and techno with pop sensibilities, ‘Forgetfulness’ is an album which really does transcend genres. Beridze is clearly a very talented producer who succeeds in making highly accessible music with enough depth and complexity to remain engaging after multiple listens. Blessed with a lovely breathy voice, her vocals are top-notch and this is one of the year’s best.
Neon Indian - Era Extrana
I am a sucker for hazy textures (massive fan of Fennesz) and catchy choruses (who doesn’t love Ash as much as I do??) and Neon Indian has these in abundance. There is something very satisfying about this package of joyful chillwave nonsense. ‘Hex Girlfriend’, in particular, is intoxicatingly brilliant, ‘Polish Girlfriend’ and ‘Halogen’ are wonderfully uplifting, and who could fall out of love (a pun!) with the 80s synths and vocals on ‘Fallout’, the best song New Order never made?? Buy this, and then hate yourself for loving it.
Radiohead - The King of Limbs
I love Radiohead, and this is an excellent album that makes me love them more. ‘Codex’ is one of the best things they’ve ever done, with Thom Yorke’s vocals as haunting as they’ve ever been and the piano drowning in reverb. Much has been written about the drums and bass and these are perhaps best displayed on the pulsating ‘Little By Little’. The album varies nicely in pace and tone, and my only complaint is that I want more of it!
Raekwon - Shaolin vs. Wu-tang
This isn't 100% effective, but it's mainly very solid. Raekwon, as always, is awe-inspiring, and the better moments are predictably when he teams up with Ghostface. Even if you aren't a Wu-Tang fan, 'Snake Pond' is a must-listen as Raekwon gets into story-mode and delivers one of the smoothest raps you will ever come across. Generally doesn't touch the heights of the recent OB4CL2, but still a worthy addition to his back-catalogue.
Talib Kweli - Gutter Rainbows
'Gutter Rainbows' is an excellently constructed hip-hop album, with a good balance between political-edged tracks ('Cold Rain', the title track), raps about friends and family ('Friends and Family'), and Raekwon-esque story-telling ('Tater Tot'). Kweli's rhymes are a cut above almost every other MC out there, and the production is top-notch throughout. Didn't mop up all the plaudits, but I'm not sure why - my hip-hop album of the year.
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
Tim Hecker is one of my all-time favourite artists, and Ravedeath has been mopping up the plaudits on all my favourite review sites, but for some reason I just don't get all the fuss about this album. I can't put my finger on what's missing, but it just doesn't hold me rapt with attention like the rest of his work.
Tycho - Dive
Chilled breakbeats, lush melodies that are sometimes melancholy and at other times uplifting, lots of reverb, a bit of guitar to complement the warm synths. Think 'The Campfire Headphase' but sometimes at a higher tempo. This never pretends to push the boundaries, it is a tried and tested formula, and the result is one of the year's most instantly gratifying and yet also one of its most enduring albums.
Winterlight - Hope Dies Last
Where Tycho succeeded in creating engaging, dreamy electronica, Winterlight have mostly failed. 'Hope Dies Last' is like an n5md cariacature (sp?). The best releases on that label (e.g. Bitcrush's 'In Distance') tear apart the (silly) accusation that electronic music lacks emotion. Winterlight, conversely, use every emotive cliche in the book to create something which (apart from the ethereal vocals on the first track) manages to be utterly bland. The warm harmonies on the surface are pleasant enough for a few listens, but once you're accustomed to the veneer there's no depth to keep the listener engaged.