The Best Electronic Albums of 2009
We have no idea where the hell electronic music is going in the next decade, but if you can't find something in the wide stew of sonics out there to get excited about, check your pulse. You're probably dead.
In 2009, electronic music was 20 years beyond England's second summer of love in 1989, the year when waves of four-on-the-floor reverberated from Manchester to the moon and set in motion a long arc of momentum that can now be said to be completely decentralized. If you're having troubling chasing the concordant memes of electronic music in 2009, you're not alone. Even an obsessive with no distracting family, social, or economic preoccupations would have a hard time keeping up.
Back in the acid house moment, it would be easy for Luddite rockists to chide "I don't listen to techno, because it all sounds the same." Now, you'd be hard pressed to find any cogency amidst the variety of synthetic noises out there. Sure, there will always be pasty-faced demagogues rallying around guitar dinosaurs (U2) and new-school fogies (Jack White), but more people are listening to electronic sounds now than ever before.
The radio has been completely electro-fied, the most it has been since the 1980s, for better or worse. And while the current crop may slightly evoke the aforementioned decade, there's also a touch of catching up with 2002's 1982-grave-robbing schemas. Shakira's DFA-like synthpop single, Owl City's blatant Postal Service rip-off, Lady Gaga's Super Bowl-scale reimagining of electroclash, Electrik Red's proselytizing of Sugababes into depraved sex kittens, and Christina Aguilera's plans to work with Ladytron all point to a pop present that could be interpreted as a zeitgeist with either a paucity of ideas or a knack for reformulating alternative notions of pop buried by the postmodern age's information surplus. With the continued reign of Auto-Tune, pop music exposes melisma for the mechanical concoction it is, democratizing American Idol pick-a-note-ism for robots. Still, the promise of technological fusion in pop seemed to have been squandered in 2009 by stoopid-ly gigantic T.I.-style power chords that resembled bland Darude clubism rather than any kind of real vanguard as imagined in the halcyon days of Timbaland and the Neptunes (both of whom continue to desecrate their legacy by staying active). Similarly disappointing, grime moved out of the pirate stations onto the main dial in the UK, but #1 hits by Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder found those two adapting to the charts rather having their radical energies welcomed by the mainstream.
The broad topographical field known as "indie" was also littered in electronic sounds, boasting a diversity as vast as Animal Collective, Passion Pit, Fever Ray, Junior Boys, Fuck Buttons, the XX, and so on. The one "new" sound to emerge out of electronic indie pop was a barrage of warbled, sun-baked cassette patches and bubblegum resuscitations of unconscious sound from the junk food television of hipster youth (Ducktails, anyone?), a TV Carnage DVD mashed in a blender and purposefully retracted from the sheen of today's digital eternal sound. In other words, a less bookish and less calculated hauntology for a younger generation. Once, this may have just been called lo-fi, but the ubiquity of cheap laptop software would seem to indicate that all the line noise is a deliberate choice. Dubbed "hypnagogic pop" via an article in The Wire by David Keenan, the broad umbrella of sounds came to include those disenchanted with the noise scene (namely the Skaters) and those just fascinated by the morose sadness of a rearview lens (Memory Tapes/Memory Cassette/Weird Tapes, Neon Indian, Delorean). Impressively, the hypnagogic pop stars were able to find possibility rather than stasis in ancient putrid lite FM and new age -- no small feat. Ironically, this all came about at the moment Black Moth Super Rainbow hooked up with a major producer (and, apparently, Ariel Pink too), but they seemed to survive the split alright, as their inclusion on the list below illustrates.
Though Weird Tapes did find a fine way to incorporate a Legend of Zelda sample, those subconscious sources of electronic influence -- buzzy chiptune sounds -- found a more comfortable home in the overlapping worlds of dubstep and wonky. Joker's Purple Wow Sound mix seemed to give as good a name as any to the sound, and it was all over releases this year, juxtaposing the brown-note-anticipating low end with high-pitched Nintendo freakouts. There was still all manner of epileptic shudders and fuck-shit-uppery wobble in dubstep (Caspa, Broken Note, Cookie Monsta, et al.), but the genre's horizon continued to shrink further in the distance as new bodies stretched the sound every which way. The year of Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo" was still owned by singles, but a selection of versatile interests also tried their hands at the long player, either as album-length statements (Martyn, Starkey, FaltyDL, 2562) or collections of previous works (Shackelton, RSD).
Planet Mu's dubstep at times got so mercurial that it sounded like intelligent dance music with emphasis on the "dance" rather than the "intelligent" (ditto Redshape's techno on The Dance Paradox). However, the most unexpected fusion was that of dubstep and funky house, now garnering the preliminary tag of "funkstep". Singles under this tag by Donaeo, Cooly G, Kode 9, and Geeneus were more upbeat and R&B-inflected than dubstep, but seemed to share the warbly genre's crooked gait.
The past continued to be reanimated in the form of reissues in 2009. Kraftwerk, pioneers of just about all that followed, finally got around to the remaster they'd been promising since 2004, but lesser-knowns from the hardcore continuum (Shut Up and Dance, Terror Danjah, El-B, Bizzy B, Roll Deep) were also celebrated, sometimes for the first time on CD (just like the Beatles!). Some stellar house mixes also saw double-disc action with Pépé Bradock's Confiote De Bits and DJ Koze's Reincarnations spinning on repeat for many who couldn't resist their insistence. Hyperdub celebrated five years with a high profile double-CD, Kompakt marked a decade with little fanfare, and Warp turned 20 with a canonical box set objet d'art, which, at this point, is pretty much what you'd expect from Steve Beckett and company.
Last year's year-end retrospectives saw much proclamation of the death of minimalism, and while it has quieted down a bit (pun intended), with the exception of a few notables releases on Echospace, Modern Love, and the like, not much has come along to take its place (least of all some kind of maximalism). Deep house (Moodymann, Black Jazz Consortium) continued to get deep, electro had a few surprise knockouts (Harmonic 313, Linkwood, DJ Hell), several noteworthy supergroups synergized their talents (Moritz von Oswald Trio, Lindstrom and Prins Thomas, Moderat), and big ballers pumped out adequate though hardly compulsory releases (Basement Jaxx, Röyksopp, Simian Mobile Disco). On the fringes, hauntology seemed to split its time between Broadcast-related projects (Broadcast and the Focus Group, Roj, Seeland), Raster-Noton (SND, Alva Noto) and Miasmah (Kreng, Elegi) upped their games, and there was a wealth of intriguing entries into the arcane (Tim Hecker, Vladislav Delay, Somfay, Syntheme) and otherwise unclassifiable (Spoonbill, Matias Aguayo's latest).
To cut a long story short, we have no idea where the hell electronic music is going in the next decade, but if you can't find something in the wide stew of sonics out there to get excited about, check your pulse. You're probably dead.
So here’s what we could distill to a list of ten selections. Post your lists and our omissions in the comments box below.
Album: White Clouds Drift on and On
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US Release Date: 2009-06-23
UK Release Date: 2009-06-23
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List number: 10
Brock Van Wey unapologetically daubed his impressionist ambient soundscapes in a surfeit of colors long thought extinct in the world of electronic music. Somewhere between the ethereality of an early 4AD record and a starburst version of Bowery Electric’s Beat (without, of course, the beat), White Clouds Drift on and On is a mix both gentle and restless. The whirlwind of emotions composed by Van Wey (also known as Bvdub) are direct and open, rather than retracted and masked, a rare quality, especially along the Echospace axis from which it emerged. Van Wey’s embrace of melodrama feels less a plea for emotion than a bellowing cry from inside, a Douglas Sirk Technicolor envisioning of affectation as a formulation of style exercises. Perhaps to legitimate matters in the dubtronic community, Stephen Hitchell’s Intrusion remixes the entire album in reverse order on disc two, but it’s obvious that Van Wey opened a door for Hitchell as much as Hitchell did for Van Wey. The sensory panorama of the Intrusion "shapes" on disc two are easily as lovely and viscerally stirring as Van Wey’s, but with more of a skeletal rhythmic structure and echo-plated aura. Overall, it’s the best either have yet offered. Timothy Gabriele
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US Release Date: 2009-11-10
UK Release Date: 2009-10-19
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List number: 9
While some of the loveliest, most seductive dubstep (and related) sounds materialized in small doses during 2009 -- Cyrus's "Space Cadet", Mount Kimbie's "Maybes", and Burial's "Fostercare", for example -- 2562's Unbalance stuns in long player format. Re-engaging Brit 2-step is omnipresent of late, and just as he did on 2008's debut LP Aerial, Dave "2562" Huismans blends dub and techno tendencies for most of Unbalance, but it's a warmer trip this time. "Lost" is positively mesmerizing -- the clacking and clopping beats slow to half-pace, while bells, stuttering keyboard tones and vocal samples are weaved around rubbery, subtle bass prods. It's easy to head back to the record primarily for temperate moments like these -- they're everywhere -- but if you peek back only for the glitzy organ swathes and slick programming in "Love in Outer Space", you'd miss out on uneasy trips like "Who Are You Fooling?", where ambient techno is thankfully still very much on Huismans' agenda. Dominic Umile
Album: Ambivalence Avenue
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US Release Date: 2009-06-23
UK Release Date: 2009-06-22
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List number: 8
On a tree-lined street in Central London, Bibio’s Stephen Wilkinson greets the day, clad in late-summer gear and gazing optimistically at a point in the distance. He looks as if the world is his oyster. Not six months after Vignetting the Compost took us around the same lovely fields he’d been roaming for half a decade, Bibio moved to Warp and unleashed his experiment, a dizzying show of genre-play less notable for its actual music than for the impact it had on everyone who’d already written him off. All of a sudden, Wilkinson wasn’t just exploring his guitar’s sonic possibilities, but the ways in which he could use it to participate in a dazzling musical tradition. He played blue-eyed soul, futuristic urban pop, amped-up versions of his own thatched folk and amazingly good instrumental hip-hop like he had everything to gain, and with mystifying confidence. So assured was he, in fact, that he let his voice fly high and adopt the protean role of his guitar, after years of withholding it. And just as quickly, Bibio found himself with an audience of people as giddy about his music as he was. The prevailing feeling on Ambivalence Avenue isn’t ambivalence at all, which implies dispassion. It’s the excitement of a highly creative artist who didn’t want to choose, who saw his options, said "no regrets", and ran as hard as he could after all of them. Mike Newmark
Album: Take My Breath Away
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US Release Date: 2009-03-03
UK Release Date: 2009-03-09
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List number: 7
Hear that on "Besides"? That’s the sound of 1,000 tech conventions and car commercials launching. It’s optimistic, yet oddly sterile. The same could be said of Gui Boratto’s music, sparkly techno that soundtracks a beautiful sunny day as seen through the large window from a cleanroom. The cover art for Take My Breath Away -- easily one of the best cover images of the year -- depicts such a scenario, as respirator-equipped children appear oddly unfazed in a meadow which, upon closer inspection, is artificial. Like a Pixar film, however (and equally as arresting and ultimately uplifting), Boratto wrests unlikely strides of emotion from his germ-free origins, whether it’s the life-passing-by observations of "No Turning Back", or the cool gusts of percussive noise on "Opus 17". Boratto got his start in the advertising world, which isn’t at all surprising, considering the carefully crafted moods of Take My Breath Away. However, like a great pop artist, Boratto’s skill is in his ability to metamorphose these frames of reference into something else, something truly unique. David Abravanel