The Best Electronic Music of 2010
As per usual, electronic music in 2010 was rhizomatic, but it was curiously unnamed. We're getting no help from the artists themselves, who seem gleefully unconcerned with staying in one spot very long.
As per usual, electronic music in 2010 was rhizomatic, but it was curiously unnamed. For all the music's perversely exclusive adoption of subgenres and elite jargon, many electronic sounds in 2010 remained in the margins, using the lexicon of its predecessors to define what they were. In what world is Actress dubstep or the Night Slugs crew Funky/Grime/wot-ever u call it? It seems that the glut, as described in last year's rendition of this column, has coagulated so densely that criticism is having a hard time keeping up. We're getting no help from the artists themselves, who seem gleefully unconcerned with staying in one spot very long.
All of this makes for a multiverse (to borrow Ginz's term for his umbrella of labels) that's hard to contain in summary. If it weren't for television and the mainstream press' aching conservatism, the entire underground and overground would be electronic in 2010, with miscegenation bleeding in from all sides. On the radio dial, the flirtation with Jersey Shore trance-pop and Gaga-style electroclash still dominated, but there was also Nicki Minaj naming a song after Massive Attack, Kanye West sampling Aphex Twin, Britney Spears collaborating with Rusko, Christina Aguilera working with Ladytron, Drake concocting productions so weird they could have come out on Olde English Spelling Bee records, and an HP commercial boasting its free beats program as its main selling point (with a house-music-composing Dr. Dre masked like Madvillian to boot). On the British charts, which have always been uniquely more kind to electronics, grime MCs were all over the charts, though the likes of Wiley, Tinie Tempah, Skepta, Roll Deep, and Dizzee Rascal (who scored his fourth #1 single) seemed to be abandoning hyperkinetic grit and innovative production schemas for a more accessible hip-hop (hip-house?) template. A decade after its inception, dubstep even provided a presence on the charts with Katy B's crossover success and the power duo of Skream and Benga's Magnetic Man likewise delineating a more palpable version of a formerly abstruse underground form.
Meanwhile, indie music seemed littered with blips and bloops, chillwave, and hypnagogic pop's lingering electro-reverb still resonating over from 2009. Not Not Fun's neo(n) psych and Olde English Spelling Bee's art-pop led the pack, but those in the know could find underground cassettes that stretched from here to the moon. Whether you could digest their bizarre takes on pop or not, Laurel Halo, Matrix Metals, Hype Williams, Autre Ne Veut, et al. offered releases that sounded like nothing that had come before, the spirit of recession-priced experimentation proving itself to be alive and well in basements around the nation. Yet, much of the scattered discourse revolved around witch house, a genre of power-chords, Screwed vocals, spooky ambience, and artist monikers comprised of un-Googlable wingdings. The scene was assembled around the 20 Jazz Funk Greats affiliated Tri Angle records, who notably released brilliant EPs from Balam Acab and oOoOO. Most controversial, however, were the compressed-to-fuck threesome Salem, whose debut full-length was alternately lauded as genre-in-the-making brilliance and lamented as lazily tossed together misogynist trash. Post-pop and witch house came together in Tri Angle's Let Me Shine for You compilation, an un-ironic collection of remix and cover versions of Lindsay Lohan songs that's actually really, really good.
Witch house's pitched-down vocals were a gimmick that had been advanced long before DJ Screw in the form Juke, a Chicago based hip-hop and house hybrid that underwent a 2010 revival via a series of reissues, as well new footwurking joints by the likes of DJ Nate on Planet Mu. Its influence was soon "perculating" through trend-setting singles by Addison Groove and Ramadanman.
It's hard to believe that in 2010 there is a genre that has escaped retrospection, but in fact there were actually two. The first half of the year witnessed the emergence of two compilations, Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Vol 1 and The Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 1, accrued by the heads of the Wierd and Minimal Wave labels respectively, which brought back DIY minimal synth music in a big way. Though the movement really began at the opening of the decade, it rose to public prominence this year, thanks to the aforementioned collections and the online celebration of a series of newer artists like White Car, Cosmetics, Automelodi, and Xeno and Oaklander. Arguably, Factory Floor's persistent post-punk pulsations fit somewhere in this canon too.
With witch house and minimal wave, electronic music appeared to be moving in a darker direction, though Philip Sherburne noted how this had been trending for a while. Certainly, minimalist releases by the likes of Milton Bradley, Ancient Methods, Raime, Demdike Stare, and the Sandwell District label made the concept of austerity less like a sleek pose and more like the type of dystopian concept that Europeans would riot over. At the opposite end of the spectrum, crystalline and glistening kosmische and proto-new age proved somewhat impossibly to have more staying power than originally imagined, the loose genre being buttressed by strong releases from Emeralds, Arp, Oneohtrix Point Never, The Psychic Stewardess, and Stellar Om Source.
In the liminal space between dance and electronic listening music were albums by Shed and Actress, which both took sojourns in various genres that purposefully defied the gamebooks of all of them, thereby dividing listeners and critics alike. Then there were those who worked to eat away the borders of dubstep, textural ambient, and R&B (Kyle Hall, James Blake, Mount Kimbie), providing a warped mirror into the past that read the singing voice as a degenerated ideal, a depleted spirit that could only be accessed via quasi-magical means in these rough times.
Elsewhere, the foot-stomping beat was not yet dead. Caribou and Four Tet put out their clubbiest albums yet. Dial Records, at ten years, were as strong as ever with two showings on our top ten below, while Ostgut Ton made it to five with some solid outings as well, including a full length by Berghain's resident DJ Marcel Dettmann. In addition to the old standbys, there were bigger-than-big tracks by new labels, particularly Numbers (Deadboy's "If U Want Me"), Safe & Sound (Funkystepz feat. Lily McKenzie's "For U") and Night Slugs (Girl Unit's "Wut").
On the international front, 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat proved that a Bollywood composer invented acid house a decade before it swept the UK. Elsewhere, South African new wave on the Honest Jon's disc Shangaan Electro provided yet another entry route to dubstep, particularly through LV's singles for Hyperdub. Hyperdub otherwise stayed away from the style, its full lengths instead consisting of a 16-bit concept album (Ikonika), a grime long-player (Terror Danjah), and an overcast synth-pop disc (Darkstar). Pariah's variegated Safehouses EP was a good, though certainly incomplete, sampler of what else was going on in the genre. It certainly didn't factor in Lone's breakbeat anthems or Scuba's ambient excursions or any number of other bricolage interpolations, but it'd be hard to look at the entirety of the scene directly in one vision without getting dizzy. That YouTube footage showed student protestors at the Millbank demonstrations banging their heads to dubstep proves that the genre still carries sonic and political potential as we head forward into the '10s, even as dubstep godmother Mary Ann Hobbs resigned in September to teach.
Overall, it was a pretty weird year. D-Bridge and Instra:Mental made a return for drum 'n' bass palpable, Altered Natives made UK Funky sound dangerous, Squarepusher tried to be Daft Punk, Aphex Twin played with Die Antwoord, Oval returned after nine years with 70 mostly brief tracks, and the legendary London nightclub Fabric appeared to close before being bought up by the owners of the legendary nightclub Fabric. Ninja Tune turned 20 and invited literally everyone to celebrate. Both the Technics 1200 and the Sony Cassette Walkman went out of circulation. Seefeel returned. The Orb collaborated with David Gilmour, which seemed like the culmination of a career. Brian Eno put out an album of Warp, which seemed to give further validation to each of them, Eno in terms of relevance and Warp in terms of prominence. Online, there was music to be heard everywhere, many of the best mixes being available absolutely free at websites like FACT, Resident Advisor, XLR8R, Mnml Ssgs, Little White Earbuds, and individual artist pages.
Crucial chunks of Tresor's back catalogue finally got reissued, as did Virgo's seminal self-titled release (the group even reunited). One of the best electronic rereleases though was Optimo's unearthing of a 30-year-old Chris Carter cassette called The Space Between, which was rightly praised by many for its contemporary sound. Carter is perhaps best known for his work with industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, who unfortunately lost one of their founding members in late November. Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson's influence, not only in Throbbing Gristle but particularly through his long-running project Coil, is immeasurable in the electronic community, particularly in as dark a year for music as 2010.
And then, of course, there's the myriad other things one column just can not encompass, particularly those albums, like our number one, that stood alone. There will certainly never be justice done to those who are too seldom heard to make these kinds of lists or whose intensity of vision will only be known in the years to come. In an attempt to make up for this, we've included a brief list of selections 11 through 20, as well as a collection of our individual contributors' favorite singles, EPs, mixes, and reissues from 2010. Please check out as many of these as you can and let us know who we've blindly forgotten. Timothy Gabriele
Album: Glass Eights
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US Release: 2010-10-12
UK Release: 2010-10-11
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List Number: 10
The decade-old Hamburg-based Dial Records has consistently mesmerized throughout its tenure without changing too much of its primary aesthetic. Thus, explicating how this tendency persists with the rollover of each new release becomes a laborious and somewhat clunky task. One often feels obliged to simply blurt out the vacuous rhetorical "It's a Dial Record, okay?" and leave it at that. American-born German resident John Roberts certainly made a Dial Record, full of disinterred samples, fireplace vinyl crackle, subdued beats, and murky atmospherics. Dance is only adjacent to the album's thematic concerns -- it comes off too slow, internal, and melancholy to match the club acuity of his previous singles for the label. Piano melody is central here, downturned and occasionally fraught, while caked in ethereal overtones -- like Burial played by Debussy. Roberts's acuity with the instrument (and it's unclear when he's messing with found sound and when he's pressing the ivory himself) proves him a tunesmith with an ear sensitive to the fragility of one who walks alone. After the community of the club, there's always the journey back, the inured assurance that utopia can only be ever temporary. And here’s the 2010 album for that walk. Timothy Gabriele
Album: Black Noise
Label: Rough Trade
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US release: 2010-09-02
UK release: 2010-08-02
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List number: 9
Pantha du Prince
Those of us who are familiar with the house and techno production work of Hendrik "Pantha du Prince" Weber won't find the overall presentation of Black Noise to be much of a surprise. Micro clicks and lively but understated melodies are rampant on Weber's third full-length, flourishing on beds of undulating percussive pulses. With Swiss Alps-sourced field recordings woven into its perpetually ringing tracks, Weber's follow-up to the somewhat quiet, elegant deep house of This Bliss is nothing short of a masterstroke of sound manipulation and design. While pinging guitar string harmonics are often an afterthought in the recording studios occupied by shaggy, unwashed youth, they're magnified and subsequently rendered as enormous building blocks of Black Noise, synched up with a wealth of pattering synths that mimic miles of miniature vibraphones on "Welt Am Draht" and "Abglanz". Outside of a Panda Bear guest spot, which is smeared with delay effects and paired with ample atmospheric nuances, Weber's Black Noise is wordless and grey, a haunting, lights-down set that's nearly impossible to shake from memory. Dominic Umile
Album: Full Circle
Label: Ghostly International/Moodgadget
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US Release Date: 2010-11-09
UK Release Date: 2010-11-22
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List Number: 8
It seems like forever since Dabrye's last album came out, but Brooklyn prodigy Zach Saginaw kept Ghostly International's refreshing hip-hop sensibilities alive with his debut album. Full Circle is more than your average instrumental hip-hop album. Following two equally glorious EPs, his debut bears the fruits of an epic aural adventure, collecting and reconstituting four years' worth of field recordings into some of the most lush and vibrant digital atmospheres of recent memory, roughly themed around his Japanese grandmother's escape from a United States internment camp.
While the timbres explored by Saginaw present all the diversity of contemporary life, the album does not come off like an electroacoustic exercise. Each track is underpinned by compressed, funky grooves guaranteed to draw hands in the air and add an extra blanket to a nice chill out. Though the subject matter is rather tragic, showing an instance of complete democratic failure, this album, and its predecessors, will bring a smile to your face. Alan Ranta
Album: Broken Soul Jamboree
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US Release Date: 2010-11-15
UK Release Date: Import
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List number: 7
Broken Soul Jamboree
Few producers in the new millennium have managed to define for themselves such a unique, refreshing, and recognizable sound as Dave Tipper. Over the past decade, the London producer has crafted 5.1 surround sound downtempo and raunchy nu-breaks so funky he dislocated his own spine. Just like all the albums before it, Broken Soul Jamboree is his best yet. Aesthetically following 2003's Surrounded, this album saw Dave slowing down the BPM a touch to focus on more world music sounds, percolating atmospheres, and deceptive rhythms, including several 3/4 beats. For example, "Brocken Spectre" has fairly ambiguous pulse, colored by sounds that are all over the map from Indian to field recordings and pure synthesis. Yet, Tipper's eagle-eyed attention to all the intricacies of processing ties the whole piece together flawlessly. Where most albums are happy to tell a few stories or paint some pictures for you, Tipper creates whole new worlds with Broken Soul Jamboree. In the right frame of mind, this album can be a life-changing experience. This is pure sound. Alan Ranta