The Best Electronic Music of 2012

David Abravanel, Timothy Gabriele, Alan Ranta
Abstract vector digital background. Image via Shutterstock.

2012 was another year of innovation and diversity in electronic music, but with the same artist as last year at the top of the heap after all was said and done.

Artist: Two Fingers

Album: Stunt Rhythms

Label: Big Dada

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Two Fingers
Stunt Rhythms

A few years back, Two Fingers was founded as a collaboration between Amon Tobin and his old buddy Joe "Doubleclick" Chapman. But where the duo's eponymous 2009 debut was stifled by trite club hip-hop and grime vocals, obscuring the magnitude of their main stage instrumentals, the follow-up is a far more pared down affair. Framed more so as a Tobin solo album, Stunt Rhythms is entirely instrumental, which allows the focus to be on Tobin's trademark elusive technical studio prowess, albeit channeled into more nightclub friendly forms than heard on his increasingly elaborate eponymous releases. Though it exists far outside the normalized dubstep EDM that has consolidated the popular notion of bass music, Stunt Rhythms worships lower frequencies, with skittering percussion and sophisticated processing creating anticipation of the eventual drops that hit like a ton of bricks and don't overstay their welcome. Still, while this album pushes the sonic boundaries of arena-sized electro and Timbaland hip-hop production, it thankfully avoids commonplace verse-chorus-verse structures in most instances, offering a way out of the club towards something more thoughtful, rather than retreading the path back into the tasteless soup of market-tested homogeneity. Simply put, Stunt Rhythms is worthy of academic investigation and dance floor dissection alike. Alan Ranta


Artist: Shackleton

Album: Music for the Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs

Label: Woe To The Septic Heart!

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Music for the Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs

If there was any doubt in 2011, 2012 solidified it: "dubstep" is the new "techno", a term that once belonged to a roughly definable genre, now used as a catch-all for popular electronic music of the day, with multiple factions arguing over what makes it "real". Outside of this argument are a few souls who, while clearly using dub and bass as springboards, have reached far outside what used to be the experimental end of the dubstep spectrum. As someone who was once a defining artist of said experimental dubstep end, Shackleton went further than ever this year.

The compiled Drawbar Organ EPs provides the more accessible and familiar half of this set. Relying on melodic fragments from the titular organs, these tracks pit high harmonics against rolling bass lines and deep atmospheric steam. As usual, the loose percussion is obviously sequenced in a way that’s been Shackleton’s signature. Track sequencing tells a story here -- the early dread dub of tracks like "Seven Present Tenses" and "Touched" give way to more colorful affairs like the flutes of "Katyusha" or kalimba phrases of "Wish You Better". These tracks work separately and as a whole, an enjoyable and engaging listen that provides what we’ve come to expect from Shackleton -- in striking context to the other half of this release.

A one-hour track broken up into five parts and featuring menacing narration of a dystopian future, Music for the Quiet Hour is, in part, Shackleton crossing over to prog. I’d be lying if I said I took it all seriously, or never questioned whether Shackleton was reaching beyond his grasp. But as a whole, Music for the Quiet Hour is an engrossing headphone listen, analogous to reading a philosophical cyberpunk novel in one late-night sitting. Shackleton’s trademark imperfections dot the landscape: loops are roughly truncated, phrases of cringingly simple melodies are endlessly repeated, and the drums are either so loose, they’re stiff or so stiff ,they’re loose. (I still can’t decide.) That’s to the extent that drums to appear, which is mostly as window dressing: there’s little here by the way of an anchoring beat, certainly nothing as cohesive as the (still rather abstract) beat excursions on last year’s Pinch & Shackleton collaboration. Bass is still a dominant element, however, and it’s the blanket that keeps you going through. Minimal and rough, Music for the Quiet Hour is a gutsy, starkly (perhaps embarrassingly) honest summit of Shackleton’s career in exploding the elements of... let’s just go back to calling it bass music. David Abravanel


Artist: Carter Tutti Void

Album: Transverse

Label: Mute

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List Number: 8

Carter Tutti Void

Live electronic albums are often not the stuff of year-end superlatives. That’s because they usually fall into one of two categories: either a vanity project for superstar DJs or an academic workout whose thesis is far more intriguing than the music itself. Transverse is an unlikely success story in that it’s a capture of a one-time performance at Mute’s Short Circuit Festival in May 2011 between a newer talent (Nik Void of the crushing postpunk unit Factory Floor) and set of aging experimental artists recently undergoing a revival of sorts in the form of reissues and reconsiderations (Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, CTI, and Carter-Tutti). Something was in the air during this truly sublime performance, though, because Carter, Tutti, and Void created something very special in the form of these four pieces (five, if you include the bonus version of V4 on the CD version).

The songs themselves are less surrogate experiments than detached limbs from the same mutant body. Though each of them progresses and shifts in fundamentally unique ways and is capped by a brief round of applause, the pieces on the whole never reset to zero, but rather absorb and filter through the atmospheres of the surrounding tracks to build and retreat. Tension mounts and then never settles, leaving its residue in the proceeding dirge, creating an unsettling Mobius strip of an album that feels both circular and unidirectional at once. In continuation of the chug and churn of Throbbing Gristle pieces like "Dead on Arrival" or "Don’t Do as You’re Told, Do as You Think", Transverse has a steady gait, a modernized one that would not seem out of place on the dancefloor next to a Sandwell District pounder. Yet, there’s none of the guided drive of techno here. This is exploratory psychogeographic navigation that’s volatile yet constrained, a trip through nightmares with the windows rolled up. One can hear the trio holding back as chaos permeates around the locked groove of the four-to-the-floor. Shades of dub spatiality serve to heighten the estrangement effect of all this controlled displacement. Guitars sound like machines and synths feedback like guitars all while each ephemeral new sound shudders and dissipates before the ear gets a chance to process its affect. This is why Transverse is such a great live album. It represents not just a "you should have been there" moment, but a performance so strong that it refuses to be confined to a single listening experience. Indeed, you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again. Timothy Gabriele


Artist: Willits + Sakamoto

Album: Ancient Future

Label: Ghostly International

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Willits + Sakamoto
Ancient Future

While Ocean Fire (2007, 12k), the last collaboration between Christopher Willits and Ryuichi Sakamoto, was assembled from a day-long in-person studio session, Ancient Future was born from a longer, and long-distance, collaboration. Just as two friends might be more inclined to speak in complete sentences over the phone, the interplay between the two collaborators on Ancient Future feels more like a deep and gentle conversation. "Abandoned Silence" sets the tone, as Willits envelopes Sakamoto’s piano phrases with glistening sustained reverb and slowly bent, ringing guitar tones. The final couple minutes of "Silence" venture in a gorgeous climactic drone, a melding of the two dominant instrumental parts that carries over into "I Don’t Want to Understand" and pops up again at the finish of the stunning closer, "Conclusion".

There’s a progression from track to track, but Ancient Future is far from a clear concept album. Willits and Sakamoto are more into letting the listener meet the subtleties halfway -- an aching piano chord collapses here, a guitar lick folds in on itself there. The liquid nature of the album also stems from the natural discussion being had on record between the two collaborators; as Mike Newmark noted in his review, Sakamoto has remained a startlingly humble collaborator for all his legendary pedigree. It’s to his credit that the piano here is warm, slow, and gorgeous, without feeling boring or impatient. On the other side, Willits’ guitar licks favor long sustained tones that wrap around the other sounds -- it’s only on occasion that the guitar attack is as striking as that of the piano.

Ancient Future works best as one long, fluid journey. Not surprisingly, the album was recorded, assembled and edited within one large digital audio workstation session file. While there are certainly different sessions, everything remains thematically linked, with the start-to-finish experience being the most engaging, a beautiful and rewarding abstract narrative. David Abravanel


Artist: Monolake

Album: Ghosts

Label: Imbalance Computer Music

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Robert Henke is something of a mad sound scientist. In his attempt to push the limits of human hearing as his alter ego Monolake, he produced Ghosts entirely in 96kHz. To this aim, he recorded samples outside the range of human hearing (above 20 kHz), then transposing them down to our level. Though he apparently didn't come across the "hidden signals" he was hoping to find, this expansive desire does frame the boundaries of Henke's aesthetic. Indeed, if there are boundaries, he is compelled to find what exists on the other side and report his findings. Hidden signals or not, Ghosts incorporates the sounds of common household items, utilizing a myriad of glassy and metallic timbres along side cold, futuristic bass and washes of noise. Space is a major theme of the album, in a positional sense. The interplay of reverbs and dynamics, how the sounds relate to each other in Henke's masterfully crafted space, places as much weight on the decay of sounds as their attack. In effect, the composition of the sounds imbues them with an alien, otherworldly feel, part of an unnaturally precise synthetic environment that nevertheless feels real. To be sure, Ghosts is not a whimsical retro-futuristic escapade of which so much contemporary techno trends are. It sounds like the future, a provocatively ominous future. Alan Ranta

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