Best Electronic Album of 2016
Ital Tek - Hollowed
I’ve been an Ital Tek fan since his debut, cYCLICAL. That was back when dubstep was the stuff of articles in Wire Magazine, before the wub-wub-wub stereotypes set in. Ital Tek’s dubstep and dance music experimentations never quite fit on the dance floor, though, referencing the club rather than stepping foot in one. But Hollowed finds Ital Tek starting off closer to ambient and drone music, bringing those dance music touch points in as echoes of echoes of the club. The constant remains Ital Tek’s thick, encompassing synth lines, the kind that just envelop you like a fog. There was little doubt that this would be my electronic album of the year once it dropped.
The Rest of the Best
Perturbator - The Uncanny Valley
The black metal guitarist turned cyberpunk synthwave electronic producer, Perturbator is best known by gamers for his contributions to the two Hotline Miami soundtracks. One of the leading names in the synthwave movement that is happening largely on Bandcamp, Peturbator brings a stronger sense of melody to his retro-terror. Drawing strongly from John Carpenter, classic 8-bit video games, Akira, and Vangelis, Perturbator is like a dark neon-soaked version of the ‘80s cranked up to 11. This kind of music could very easily veer off into hopeless cheesiness, but Perturbator’s compositions are a class above the army of bedroom producers also pushing material out onto the Internet.
Tim Hecker - Love Streams
Hecker’s last album, the brilliant Virgins, was a haunting delight. Love Streams goes in another direction, less malevolent and more alien. Love Streams’ hazy, quivering tones create music that feels out of reach, a mix of traditional instruments and unrecognizable sounds, including voices from the Icelandic Choir Ensemble which present like unrecognizable alien voices lost behind the maelstrom. The album title confuses, sounding either naively romantic or vaguely lewd, but both fit in the sense that the album brings life forms to mind, and not the trajectories of celestial bodies or the artifice of digital machinery.
Autechre - elseq 1-5
Four hours of new Autechre! This digital-only surprise release is best described as a marathon. For those unaware, Autechre’s live shows are not of the “push-play-button” variety. Rather, they are real-time improvisational performances, new music strung together on the fly. Last year, they dropped a 9 hour set of live recordings as AE_LIVE. On elseq, the duo takes that improv approach into the studio, where they have considerably more toys to play with than in a live setting. What we get is something different from most Autechre studio releases, particularly the early ones upon which the band built its reputation. Pieces are abstract, blurring the line between music and sound design. Oftentimes, a repeating beat is about all that is immediately identifiably “musical”, a sort of life-line which pulls the listener through a kaleidoscope of sound. Repetition will go from relentless in one track to absent in another. It’s often bewildering, and impossible to pin down in easy description.
Loscil - Momument Builders
This one just give me chills. Loscil has put out a lot of good albums, and on this one, he pulls inspiration from the Philip Glass soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. It’s not dark ambient like a Lustmord album, but it’s also not whimsical or pensive like a lot of ambient music. It’s vaguely (and sometimes not-so-vaguely) foreboding. PopMatters called it “the sonic equivalent of the scenery in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”, and that’s a pretty good description. It evokes empty, decaying urban areas under a perpetually gray sky.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS
Much like the Tim Hecker album, this is a very “organic electronic” album, incorporating woodwinds and other acoustic instruments, as well as human voices, over her primary instrument of a vintage late ‘60s modular synth (Buchla 100) that evokes that retro-futurism of that era. It’s lush, meditative, and disorienting, like the soundtrack to landing on a rich, hospitable landscape on an alien planet.
Eluvium - False Readings On
Ambient music in the true Brian Eno sense, False Readings On is pretty, but also unsettling. Pieces will fade in with the kind of gentle sonic washes that would be at home on schmaltzy new wave albums with pictures of soft beach tides on their covers, but Matthew Cooper will then play against that by layering sounds and counter-melodies that disrupt and invoke subtle feelings of anxiety.
Venetian Snares - Traditional Synthesizer Music
Aaron Funk sets aside his laptop software synths, and builds a wall. A wall of modular synth modules, that is. Unlike his often-bonkers (and often- brilliant) past work, Funk composed and recorded this album live entirely on modular synthesizer equipment, with no overdubbing or editing. The abrasiveness of typical VS albums is largely absent. Instead, Funk’s tendencies towards abruptness and off-kilter rhythms is restrained, peeking through rather than dominating. In making a less challenging album, though, Funk has made one of the most captivating Venetian Snares releases yet.
Datach'i - System
This album came to be in large part because of the Venetian Snares album above. Aaron Funk and Joseph Fraioli were friends in the past, who reconnected over their recent shared interest in modular synths. Fraioli had been posting videos of his setup on his Vimeo channel, which led to Funk pestering him into putting Fraioli into putting together an album to release on Funk’s TimeSig label. It’s the first work Fraioli has released under the Datach'i moniker in a decade. Like Funk’s Venetian Snares album, this Datach'i release is a much less experimental album than previous releases. Instead, it’s finely crafted
S U R V I V E - RR7349
S U R V I V E is a wonderful ‘80s synth extravaganza. The Austin-based group features four synthesizer players, two of whom were responsible for the renowned Stranger Things season 1 soundtrack.
Whereas the Perturbator album is very dark and aggressive, S U R V I V E is more dramatic film score. Giorgio Moroder’s “Tony’s Theme” from Scarface would make a good reference point. S U R V I V E (I already hate typing those spaces) pulls from other synth acts of the era, like Vangelis and (late-‘70s/early-'80s) Tangerine Dream.
Forma - Physicalist
Slot this one right next to the S U R V I V E album, because that retro ‘80s synthesizer ambient soundscapes theme continues here. While S U R V I V E brings sparse, airy beats, Forma plows forward with driving kosmische beats straight out of Neu! or Kraftwerk… at least for the first half of the album. By the second half of the album, the beats start to show up less often,
Boobs of Doom - (((WHITE NOISE)))
Boobs of Doom sits at the corner of doom metal and electronic drone / dark ambient.
Best Electronic EPs
Arca - Entrañas
I’m calling this an EP, but in reality it’s a single 25 minute track, released only on SoundCloud and the file downloading site Mediafire. It’s supposed to represent 14 tracks, but as a single music file without many clearly distinguishable breaks, mapping them out is somewhat futile. Like last year’s brilliant album Mutant, it’s hard to adequately describe
Aphex Twin - Cheetah
This is honestly one of my favorite Aphex releases. I feel like post-hiatus Aphex is killing it. On this one, Richard D. James takes the notorious Cheetah MS800 synth (infamous for both its “unique” tone and being so incomprehensible to program that all but a few simply gave up), and coaxes rich sounds from it, in the form of some rather subdued but detailed tracks that beg for headphone listening. Those looking for that high-tempo complexity RDJ is known for won’t find it here, but rather this one goes out to the fans of his brilliant Selected Ambient Works 1985-1992 debut.
Lorn - Vessel
This was a quiet, down-low album release on Lorn’s Bandcamp page. I only heard of it because of the Headphone Commute review (and if you’re not familiar with HC, they review electronic/experimental/modern classical, and only write about things they like, so any “review” posted is also a recommendation). It is dense and dystopic, best illustrated by the animated video for the track Anvil. Available for pay-what-you-want on Lorn’s Bandcamp page
Kettel - Wingtip
I’ve been a fan of Kettel since the first Myam James album. Before this one, his most recent work was the soundtrack to the co-op PC game Ibb and Obb. Like that game, Kettel’s work on Wingtip is bright and cheerfully melodic. It’s not a hard hitting or particularly forward thinking album, rather, it is a throwback to those ‘90s days of melodic, tuneful IDM. It made a great soundtrack to my Cities: Skyline sessions.
Kassem Mosse - Disclosure
This one didn’t seem to get much attention outside of a Pitchfork review, despite his full length debut a couple years ago (Workshop 19) earning a lot of praise. Maybe because this album sees Kassem Mosse moving far away from those minimal techno, club beat roots. In its place are a sequence of abstract tracks, which alternate between beatless ambient pieces and mid-tempo beat tracks that hint at his previous work, but glitched and corrupted.
Brad Fiedel - The Terminator (reissue)
This soundtrack to the 1984 film has been out of print for about 20 years, and its previous releases were of poor quality and cut up sequentially. Recently, Fiedel regained creative control of the material, and with the help of Milan Records, has remastered and sequenced the material into its first true release.
Zomby - Ultra
There’s too many artists with this sort of name. Last year synthwave/space-rock duo Zombi with-an-I released a great album, and played Psycho poolside this year. This year, Zomby with-a-Y, the mask-wearing UK electronic producer, released his best album in a while. It’s grimy and inhospitable, playing at times like the soundtrack to a dim seedy club before making sharp right turns with inexplicable tempo changes that would immediately derail any foolish attempts at dancing to it.
Also honorable mentions:
Rival Consoles - Night Melody
Clark - The Last Panthers
Jubilee - After Hours
Steve Hauschildt - Strands
The Field - Follower
The Range - Potential
John Carpenter - Lost Themes II
Throughout John Carpenter’s long career, one thing he hasn’t done is release standalone albums. That is, until his debut last year, Lost Themes. This year, he returns with Lost Themes II, a continued collaboration with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies (son of Kinks guitarist Dave Davies). Carpenter’s timing is interesting, given how many artists lately have taken strong inspiration from the styles he defined as composer for the scores of his films. Lost Themes