The Best Electronic Music of 2011

[21 December 2011]

By David Abravanel, Timothy Gabriele, Mike Newmark, Alan Ranta, and Dominic Umile


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Siriusmo

Mosaik

(Monkeytown)

10

Siriusmo
Mosaik

Germany’s Moritz Friedrich waited over ten years to drop his debut album as Siriusmo. He apparently lacks confidence in his skills as an auditory artist, preferring to focus on graffiti and illustrations rather than performing live. Well, if his debut is anything to go by, his humility is unwarranted. This 17-track work of ADD dance music is clearly one of the year’s most complete albums of pure fun. It’s consistently dancefloor friendly, yet dedicated to no one genre or scene. Living up to the album title, slices of dubstep, IDM, and breaks can be heard alternating throughout Mosaik, as can a lot of French qualities, with many tracks spiritually borrowing from the likes of Mr. Oizo, Daft Punk, and Justice. Certainly, “High Together” is one of the most memorable intro album tracks of the year, starting with poor electronic vocal melodies punctuated by dwindling applause and eventual booing before launching into proper banging electro. And it all goes up from there. Alan Ranta

 


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The Advisory Circle

As the Crow Flies

(Ghost Box)

9

The Advisory Circle
As the Crow Flies

Dedicated to the memory of Trish Keenan of Broadcast, the sophomore album from Jon Brooks as the Advisory Circle practically screams “Don’t panic!” Cloaked in the paranoia of old British PSAs and the creative limitations of vintage synths, As the Crow Flies sounds as if it could have been released in the early ‘80s as a horror or post-apocalyptic action film soundtrack. Yet, this is not a mere throwback record replicating classic electronic library music. Brooks demonstrates a distinct spark of creativity, employing more high-fidelity organic sounds at various points, expanding the aural palate, and redefining his own universe, while his arrangements have significantly deeper layers than his debut. Shades of Kraftwerk, Jean-Jacques Perrey, and Jean Michel Jarre can be heard throughout the track listing. Rather than merely looking backwards, the album sounds as if it’s breaking new ground. That makes it just as interesting and enjoyable to hear as the originators themselves. Alan Ranta

 


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Plaid

Scintili

(Warp)

8

Plaid
Scintili

London duo Andy Turner and Ed Handley chose the best possible way to celebrate their 20th year signed to the legendary Warp Records—by releasing their most distinguished album to date. On the whole, Scintilli exists beyond all genre classifications except the frowned-upon IDM. It is devoted to nothing except immaculately crafted sound, proof that the Plaid aesthetic has been honed to a sweet science. Utilizing a bizarre range of time signatures, beat patterns, and BPMs, the album always sounds fresh, moving between more referential dance numbers with ethereal vocals and moody warped bass tracks to serene ambient explorations. The offbeat nature of these forms may be somewhat discombobulating on a first listen, yet one cannot deride the perfect balance of their production. This is an electronic music album made for the appreciation of other electronic musicians and certain geeks who fancy themselves audiophiles. Apparently, there are enough of these people in the UK to get this up to #167 on the charts. Good show. Alan Ranta

 


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Amon Tobin

ISAM

(Ninja Tune)

7

Amon Tobin
ISAM

Who says it’s all about sound alone? Over the past five or so years, we’ve seen a number of electronic musicians deliver ground-breaking live shows, each with an aesthetic that embodies the artist, from Daft Punk’s neon pyramid to Plastikman’s stark LED cage. For Amon Tobin’s incredible ISAM live show, it was all about geometry—a blocky, 3D set played with audience perspectives, replete with mind-bending visuals to match Tobin’s exquisitely crafted bits and pieces. ISAM was clearly made to be bigger than just another record, and in touring behind it, Tobin has advanced himself to a new level.

But what about sound—what about the record? Certainly, ISAM is an impressive testament to Tobin’s technical prowess. He’s advanced leaps and bounds in skill since his days looping jazzy breaks as Cujo, something which he alludes to in an introductory kiss-off to his ISAM commentary. That said, as an album, ISAM is easy to admire and harder to love—at least at first. “Journeyman” comes close to the soulful satisfaction of previous Tobin staples like “Slowly” and “Back From Space”, but generally, this is an album that demands patience, attention, and preferably a nice sound system. Odes to resynthesis like “Piece of Paper” or “Mass & Spring” are candy for a great set of headphones, but you aren’t going to truly fall for them without repeated listens. On the bright side, ISAM’s density ensures that each active listen reveals something new. David Abravanel

 


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Deadbeat

Drawn and Quartered

(BLKRTZ)

6

Deadbeat
Drawn and Quartered

Though it’s bad form to single out a genre, dub techno painted itself into a pretty tight corner from the start. There are only so many ten-minute exercises in tape-delayed synths that one can hear before it starts to blend together in a bassy haze. Veteran producer Deadbeat, aka Scott Monteith, sidesteps these concerns by embracing his role as a storyteller. Each of the five tracks on Drawn and Quartered is a journey, often with ambient build-up beginnings that evolve into gradually layered beats. Nothing is rushed, nor does it ever feel overly repetitive, a difficult pitfall to avoid in dub techno.

Sometimes things are cyclical, as on “First Quarter”, which emerges from drone to a spacey dub soup, before drowning again. Other times, as on the meta-track that encompasses the end of “Third Quarter (The Vampire of Mumbai)” and the beginning of “Fourth Quarter (Cala’s House)”, it’s a transitory section that keeps the narrative of the album flowing.

Like many of 2011’s best releases, Drawn and Quartered’s sounds are lushly spaced—just what plugin/IRs are these guys using, anyway? The drums and wide-panned synth delays of “Second Quarter” accumulate into a warm and inviting bed of a track, and the mix always feels full and inclusive without being overwhelming. In a year full of genre-crossovers and daring moves, Drawn and Quartered isn’t setting any new standards. Rather, it’s a watermark release from an experienced musician at the top of his game. David Abravanel

BLKRTZ001 preview mix by deadbeat

5 - 2


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Surgeon

Breaking the Frame

(Dynamic Tension)

5

Surgeon
Breaking the Frame

Though Surgeon’s last full-length album was released in 2001, he continued to make massively influential tunes with Regis as British Murder Boys until 2005. Still, the six years since those last releases have seemed like a lifetime in terms of the proliferation of the kind of deep bass music, drone techno, and industrial-tinged house Surgeon’s Anthony Child was instrumental in popularizing. Not one to resist a chance to polarize, Surgeon sounds little like his old self throughout most of Breaking the Frame.  The centerpieces of the album are the adjoined edifice of “Radiance” and “Presence”, each competing with Surgeon’s peak moments while representing complete breaks from his earlier work. “Radiance” shifts in small circles, never quite able to keep up with the centrifugal force of its peripheral parts. What makes it truly, well, radiate, though is the track’s dynamism, which stands in contrast to the even-leveled disquiet of the hollow drone tune “Power of Doubt” and the loose limbed silicone prog dazzle of “Remover of Darkness” preceding the song. Breaking the Frame is an album composed of individual songs, but ones that think in album-length terms. Just as the shifting volume of “Radiance” awes in the context of the absence of such before its arrival, “Presence” captures a flood of lush reverberating harp whose consonant bounty is even more powerful when following a taut volley of rhythmically tense and melodically sparse antecedents. Despite a title that suggests deconstruction, Surgeon’s album sonically portrays the act of creation, erecting a frame that’s both unique and intriguing in the world of 2011 techno and in the impressive catalogue of Surgeon himself. Timothy Gabriele

 


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Machinedrum

Room(s)

(Planet Mu)

4

Machinedrum
Rooms

Twenty-eight-year-old Travis Stewart has been releasing wonderful music since he was a high school senior, but he has yet to gain full mainstream acceptance in the electronic community. It’s a shame, but if I had to guess, it is because he is, for the most part, a chameleon, assuming the characteristics of better-known artists instead of going Magellan-style into unexplored waters. (One big exception is Now You Know, which predated Prefuse 73’s career by several months.) Room(s) doesn’t change that; it’s a fairly faithful rendering of the funky side of dubstep, which peaked around 2009 and has been declining in ubiquity ever since. But the record confirms a number of truths about Stewart and Machinedrum, his flagship project. It continues to demonstrate that he is a superior musician, working harder and utilizing greater skill than nearly all of his peers. More importantly, however, it shows that he is a perfectionist, who plays endlessly with sounds until they pulse and glow with pleasure. And, perhaps more than any album to his name, it reveals that his “imitations” are often far better than the blueprints that inspire him. Room(s) may be as derivative as all hell, but it matters not a wink. This is Machinedrum at his most soulful and ecstatic, and the songs reflect his labor of love. And though it may be too soon to say, I’ll say it anyway: Room(s) feels like the last great pure dubstep record—at least until the genre’s next revival—containing all the attitude and emotion of the style at its best.

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Mike Newmark

 


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Tycho

Dive

(Ghostly International)

3

Tycho
Dive

Much to the dismay of the “instant gratification” advocates among us, examining Dive for any sort of immediacy is pointless. Illustrator and musician Scott “Tycho” Hansen was drafting the initial concepts for this instrumental, psychedelic fusion of live sessions and electronics for years, and it shows. Several pre-album singles emerged while the San Francisco artist collaborated with a drummer and bass player, expanding the scope of the heady outcome: a ten-track statement that captivates in spades, defying shorthand descriptors at every stroke.

Early techno and experimentalism in ambient sound underscore Dive, and although Scott Hansen might occasionally generate visual ideas by mining late ‘60s and early ‘70s album covers, magazines, and film promotion materials, inspiration at the recording level also comes from the era’s ambling progressive rock. Tracks like “Melanine” simmer slowly—they’re filled out with stringy keyboard lines, but they’re rooted in folky guitar, where Hansen begins to develop most of his pieces. “Daydream” and the pristine, Avalanches-esque “Coastal Brake” were also both sketched in guitar, but heavy processing and multicolored aural flourishes unwind here and for the duration, yielding playback that’s refreshingly reluctant on returns. Dominic Umile

  Tycho - Hours [Dive LP - Nov. 2011] by Tycho 

 


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Perc

Wicker & Steel

(Perc Trax)

2

Perc
Wicker & Steel

Soaked in gray like the post-punk daubed hues of the Blackest Ever Black releases, Perc’s Wicker & Steel is album that doesn’t just luxuriate in the austerity of dread; it wields a knife behind its back and occasionally gets violent with its brutalist cuts. In a year fraught with riots, street occupations, joblessness, despair, austerity, and an increasingly cozy relationship between the apparatuses of state and business, Perc made an album that sounded like rage depersonified, clangorous meddling produced by shadows without bodies, bodies without organs. “My Head Is Slowly Exploding” opens with factory pounding morphed to sound like rounds being fired and shells being reloaded, but its target and its assailant are absent and vacant respectively, withdrawn from the record and smudged beyond recognition.  The “Wicker” of Wicker & Steel is an allusion to The Wicker Man, while the steel resounds throughout the album in an industrial cacophony. Combining the two with such a gutted aesthetic suggests a correlation between the Ancient Methods of vestigial religious tradition and the involuntary reflexes of unsustainable capitalism—like the two are both dead relics walking the earth as if ghosts, creating a wasteland as they spread. This is not to discredit the album’s more thoughtful moments like the volatile ambiance of “You Saw Me” or the unsettling field recordings of “Pre-Steel”, but Perc’s album is one whose content seemed to shore up at the appropriate moment in history, providing a proper soundtrack to a world in turmoil, looking to the failed past and getting ready to “Start Chopping”.

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Timothy Gabriele

  Perc - My Head Is Slowly Exploding by Perc

1 and extra recommendations...


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Andy Stott

Passed Me By

(Modern Love)

1

Andy Stott
Passed Me By

Arguably the most alluring and atmospheric electronic album of 2011, and inarguably a masterpiece of dub techno intensity, Passed Me By fulfills all the promise of Andy Stott’s excellent 12-inches for the Modern Love label while smashing his legacy to pieces. Originally an above-average minimal techno musician in the steely, workmanlike style of mentor Claro Intelecto, Stott not only subverts the familiar dub palette, he achieves Jeff Mills’ highest honor by giving us something we’ve never heard before. The sound of Passed Me By is, to put it mildly, remarkable. Unremittingly dark, suffused with pressure and blackened in soot, it makes you feel as if you’ve been pitched down a well 1000-feet deep and are hearing the music from inside. Samples pop suddenly out of the darkness only to furl back on themselves and leave you to remember them. Yet Stott isn’t just creating sounds—he’s creating songs, each one haunting, confusing, and brilliant. In the reimagined lap-dance of “New Ground”, in the simultaneous serenity and paranoia of “Dark Details”, in the impossible blue depths of “Passed Me By”, not an inch of room is wasted, not a note is out of place, and every track presents itself as a vital piece of a monstrous whole. Records this good are one in a million. Blink and you’ll miss it, but if you don’t, it will suck you in, pulling you ever downward until all that remains is the thump-thump-thump of the kick drum, shaking you to your very bones. Mike Newmark

 

Additional Staff Selections

David Abravanel
Best EP: Raoul Sinier, The Melting Man
Best Single: Machinedrum, “Sacred Frequency”
Best Mix: FACT, Mix 276: SND
Best Reissue: Plastikman, Arkives

Timothy Gabriele
Best EP: Deadboy, Here
Best Single: Slava, “Dreaming Tiger”
Best Mix: MNML SSGS present Dash Forward Bravely
Best Reissue: Bruce Gilbert, This Way / The Shivering Man

Mike Newmark
Best EP: Ayshay, Warn-U
Best Single: Hackman, “Agree to Disagree”
Best Mix: Gold Panda, DJ-Kicks
Best Reissue: Boo Williams, Home Town Chicago

Alan Ranta
Best EP: Venetian Snares, Cubist Reggae
Best Single: Björk, “Crystalline”
Best Mix: Ghostly International, SMM: Context
Best Reissue: Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum

Dominic Umile
Best EP: Braille, A Meaning
Best Single: Holy Other, “Yr Love”
Best DJ Mix: Mala, XLR8R Podcast 200

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Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/152130-the-best-electronic-music-of-2011/