best-electronic-albums-2017

The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2017

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

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20. Vitalic – Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. “Levitation” is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten’s vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to “Hans Is Driving” to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of “Don’t Leave Me Now” by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. – Alan Ranta

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19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that’s frequently deployed to get Antwood’s point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned “Disable Ad Blocker”, which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream’s early ’80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. “I’m Loving It”, we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there’s a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. – Mike Schiller

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18. Bonobo – Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous “Break Apart” and the more percussive “Surface”. However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental “Second Sun” floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate “Grains” shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as “Outlier” and “Kerala” perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on “Bambro Koyo Ganda” he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. – Paul Carr

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17. Kiasmos – Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. – Paul Carr

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16. Ellen Allien – Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien’s seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017’s Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early ’90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. – Alan Ranta

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15. Actress – AZD (Ninja Tune)

Much of AZD has a sleeker, more futuristic surface than Actress’ usual fare. Beginning with “Nimbus” and ending with “Visa”, the album is bookended by what amounts to electronic gibberish, an incoherent stream of bleeps and pings like an old-fashioned conceptualization of robot dialogue. This retro-futurism marks “X22RME” as well, which recalls the ’90s heyday of IDM almost to the point of imitation. The album may be at its best when it evokes the textures of industrial decay so often characteristic of Actress’ music. Even then, though, AZD sounds more like science fiction than present realities. The complex standout “Dancing in the Smoke” melds hissing noise, laser-like synths, and clattering percussion as if to suggest an alternate history where the machines of the future are imminently dissolving into dust and ruin. – Andrew Dorsett

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14. Visionist – Value (Big Dada)

Visionist is keen to use his work to continue to analyze and evaluate himself through the process of making music. To the end, the music on Value sees him artfully balancing the contrasting feelings of strength and vulnerability. Often, the music is almost unbearably intense, even traumatic but that is adroitly counterbalanced by beautiful ambient passages as if mirroring his conflicting emotional state. In that way, it feels like a very personal album. However, this is still a more outwardly looking album than Safe, as he also explores broader issues such as the meaning of self, of gender and our self-preservation. Value is not an easy album to listen to and nor should it be. It is a deep and involving work with Visionist exploring his self-worth as an artist and how the process of making music can both give him strength and leave him vulnerable. A bold, ambitious album that once again finds Visionist truly worthy of his forward-thinking moniker. – Paul Carr

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13. Bicep – Bicep (Ninja Tune)

It has undeniably been Bicep’s year. Huge critical acclaim, a Mixmag front cover and a phenomenal BBC Radio 1 essential mix has seen the pair make the step up from DJs and producers to serious electronic artists in their own right. The Belfast born duos’ mix of old skool house, trance, techno and big beat has been carefully refined and distilled to leave a stunning set of dance tunes. From their top 20 UK chart placing, it has clearly resonated with a wider audience looking for something fresh, new and exciting but also reassuringly familiar. There’s the ’90s trance of “Rain”, the knotty tech house of “Spring” and the classic house of “Glue”, each song intricately layered but given the space to hit home with maximum effect. Then there is the cherry on the cake in the form of “Aura”, a colossal, dancefloor ripping, hip shaking, head bobbing storm of beats and groove. It’s a rich and rewarding album that deserves to be adored by all fans of electronic music. – Paul Carr

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12. Mount Kimbie – Love What Survives (Warp)

James Blake features again on this — Mount Kimbie’s third, and arguably best, album — his distinctive vocals providing a haunting exeunt on the piano-driven “How We Got By”. It’s one of the albums many highlights, admittedly — as is the urgent and raucous “Blue Train Lines” featuring London sensation King Krule, who’s had a great year himself — but Love What Survives is far more than a showcase of friends in high places. It feels like a document of optimism and beauty amid the the awkward and the dissolute. In many ways, it’s a letter from the heart of Britain in 2017 — fractured, divided, but still able surprise and delight when necessary. Ultimately, Love What Survives is a work that owes more to the collision of styles and ideas that is Broken Social Scene than it does to Benga and to grimy London dubstep clubs. It’s just the latest piece in an ever expanding body of evidence that suggests that Mount Kimbie are among the best in the biz right now. What’s still to come, we must wait and see. – John Burns

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11. Chino Amobi – PARADISO (NON/UNO NYC)

The first click on Chino Amobi’s label NON’s Bandcamp page greets the viewer with a blinding tomato red, eyes struggling to adjust to a shade almost too bright for its depth. It’s easy enough to click around after that, but there’s a constant adjustment at play each time a new page loads. Such is the experience of Amobi’s debut full-length PARADISO, released on NON and experimental vanguard UNO NYC. The Dante-indebted title hints at bliss, but PARADISO reveals its true depths with hellish churning and purgatorial contemplation as foils for the music’s ultimate reward. – Brian Duricy

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10. Siriusmo – Comic (Monkeytown)

German eclectic Moritz Friedrich (a.k.a. Siriusmo) came back in a big way with Comic. His sophomore effort, 2013’s Enthusiast, came off sounding far less enthusiastic than his rip-roaring 2011 debut, Mosaik. It took a step towards safer, more streamlined territory. Thankfully, Comic veers off in the opposite direction, seizing the flair for dancefloor drama and absurdist humor that made Mosaik such a promising introduction, enhanced by years of added experience in the art of dropping science that takes his craft to an unprecedented new level. Voluminously vibrant and tastefully varied, Comic is an uplifting trip that injects a deeply addictive wiggle into every single kick. It’ll be quite a trick for him to top this one. – Alan Ranta

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9. Lapalux – Ruinism (Ninja Tune)

On this follow-up to 2015’s Lustmore, Essex based experimental artist Lapalux, radically altered his way of working. To satisfy his artistic need to do something entirely different, he carefully layered sounds and instruments by recording synths and drums and then tearing the recordings apart by re-sampling, re-pitching, warping and combining them. In effect, he was ‘ruining’ his original compositions before seeing what could be recovered from the broken pieces that remained. For Lapalux this is what is meant by the term he coined to describe this process, ‘Ruinism’. With Ruinism, Lapalux has succeeded in achieving something genuinely unique. It’s not a case of him throwing the pieces in the air to see where they fall as every track is still clearly painstakingly put together. Rather, it has freed himself from his expectations and his routine to achieve an unexpected purpose. – Paul Carr

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8. Call Super – Arpo (Houndstooth)

On second album Arpo, Call Super continues to carve his own leftfield niche by taking in the finer points of grime, house, trance and dubstep to create his own experimental aural climate, perfect for the early morning clubber. As on debut album Suzi Ecto he expertly winds together lingering synths, crisp, clean metallic beats with sophisticated clarinet and sax on tracks such as “Arpo Sunk” and “Out to Rust”. Elsewhere, on the more urgent “OK Werkmeister” the driving beats chase and corral the various sounds and noises he adeptly melds together. Standout “I Look Like I Look in a Tinfoil Mirror”, sees him employing spluttering, edgy synths and digital sounds that gradually fuse into a sprawling blur of a heady house-track. On every track, each glitchy sound and fragmented beat has been meticulously pieced together, almost as if to demonstrate how opposites attract. It’s that nuanced understanding of texture, of deconstruction and reconstruction that marks this out as one of the year’s stand out albums. – Paul Carr

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7. Four Tet – New Energy (Text)

Kieran Hebden’s, AKA Four Tet, musical approach seems to work increasingly outside of the mainstream, with new releases being dropped on a whim rather than according to any release strategy. As with previous release Morning/Evening, New Energy took even his most ardent follower by surprise. Arriving with little fanfare, the album is easily one of his best and most enjoyable releases since There Is Love in You. It’s distinguishably a Four Tet album with an innate ability to lay his fingers upon your soul with the simplest of melodies as on superb first single “Two Thousand and Seventeen”. Elsewhere, there are the recognizable Four Tet traits like the stretched female vocals on “Daughter”, the expansive synth washes of “You Are Loved” and the fidgety keyboards of “Scientists” but New Energy also finds him stretching his musical muscles. There’s the trancey “SW9 9SL”, the more ambient “Melodies” and the gorgeous “Lush” with each layer so precisely and cleanly arranged. Four Tet continues to march to the beat of his own drum and New Energy proves that it would be wise to keep up. – Paul Carr

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6. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid (Western Vinyl)

In recent years, there has been an uptick in musicians (Arca, Amnesia Scanner, 0PN, et al.) who attempt to alienate the voice from the body and reabsorb it into technology, articulating the estrangement of the post-internet self from its corporeal contract. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does the opposite, welcoming technology in to an organic host. It’s tempting to see The Kid, which has a song called “A Kid”, as an inverse optimistic telling of Kid A, but to do so would be to divorce the latter from its distinct setting.

Though genre-defying, The Kid is ambient in that it’s fully absorbed in analogue Buchla fauna, a mostly placid and lucidly rendered soundscape of harmonious alien neon hues occasionally broken up by orchestral intrusions by the Stargaze Ensemble or moment of Holly Herndon-esque digital fracturing. A professor of mine once described new age music as a genre of music with no tension, but this new-age-rooted recording with a weird pop heart is full of it. What it lacks is friction, the cynical, matured kind that makes the world of Kid A that we live in such an anxious distant shiver of the formative one we get to gaze into on The Kid.

That’s not to say that The Kid is puerile and naïve; take the ecumenical transcendentalism within the album’s breaking point, its final track “To Feel Your Best”. “I’m gonna wake up one day and you won’t exactly be there / Even though I know it’s all perspective,” Smith says in dour and hesitant acceptance of finality of consciousness. It’s rare to hear such reverence for the universal expressed in such a bold and experimental yet accessible form. This is lightning in a bottle. – Timothy Gabriele

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5. Arca – Arca (XL)

Entrañas was the warning shot. After two studio albums happy to clearly delineate songs from one another, the mixtape returned Arca to the distributive practice of nominal titles with indiscernible breaks. Closing track “Sin Rumbo” and then-loosie “Urchin” pointed towards a synthesis of mixtape Arca with album Arca, and on his self-titled third album, the promise was more than delivered. While his career to this point was built upon metamorphosing common musical sounds into unrecognizable fanfare, he placed his voice front and center and showed that while it can be traditionally beautiful and haunting (“Anoche”), there was little reason not to warp it into its own unique bombast (“Reverie”). Arca sticks in your head like an amazing dream or a life-altering nightmare, and there’s no reason why the same thing can’t be both. – Brian Duricy

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4. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder)

Following a couple of cassettes and his 2015 debut EP on Brainfeeder, Irish producer Seamus Malliagh stretched his youthful creativity out over his first full-length, Neō Wax Bloom. Believe it or not, this imaginative, manic creation is a concept album about a pair of monstrous eyeballs that crash-land on a misty, mysterious planet, and how that affects the lifecycle of the indigenous creatures. It’s an idea so heady that many albums would be crushed under its weight, but Malliagh’s manic pieces hold it all up as he taps a vein of Harajuku IDM (think Boxcutter or Squarepusher producing a Takako Minekawa album). Rarely a melodic fragment is repeated for any length amidst the stereo-dream cornucopia of curiously crafted sound, forcing listeners to constantly find their footing, yet, as if drifting along on a divine cloud, one never fears of being dropped. – Alan Ranta

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3. Forest Swords – Compassion (Ninja Tune)

As the year has gone on, Forest Sword’s follow up to 2013’s Engravings has increasingly served as the perfect soundtrack for the precarious times in which we find ourselves. The confusion and trepidation of “Panic”, the foreboding “War it” and the rumbling “Higher Flood” are as unsettled and perilous sounding as their titles would suggest. Although the music perfectly replicates the anxieties of modern life, it is constructed in a way as not to sound too willfully dystopian. Preferring instead to be open to interpretation, as it straddles the line between hope and hopelessness, beautifully illustrated, on the aptly titled “Knife Edge”. Musically, the album is bursting with ideas as Forest Swords uses characteristic choral chanting, Middle Eastern sounding rhythms and expansive synths to create a unique atmospheric sonic soundscape. Few albums have sounded so fittingly of the moment. – Paul Carr

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2. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)

In this age of virality, producer tags can become their own draws to a song. The most famous of which are the many tags of Metro Boomin, but the most accurate belongs to midwestern footwork impresario Jlin; it’s, simply, the always-tucked-in “Sounds of Jlin.” Existing on a plane akin to DJ Rashad in the Upside Down, Black Origami pushes past the excellent debut of Dark Energy into territory whose chief inspiration seems to be not industrial music, but the literal sounds of industry. Black Origami clangs and cracks and plays with your favorite onomatopoeias to present what can only be described as the sounds of Jlin. – Brian Duricy

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1. Fever Ray – Plunge (Mute/Rabid)

On an episode of SoundCloud’s Next Wave documentary series, a member of the collective Room 4 Resistance began the doc by speaking of the communal freedom of the dance floor, but not without acknowledging the continued lack of minority representation in the scene. That electronic music can be a source of warmth and political action all the same is not new, but this past year has (perhaps uncoincidentally) seen a greater focus on utilizing the music for greater statements of purpose. One of the most important of these documents is Karin Dreijer’s second album as Fever Ray, Plunge. The instrumentation is as forward-moving as Dreijer’s work in the Knife and Fever Ray’s self-titled debut, but here the lyrics – even the seemingly most benign ones – reflect powerful double meanings as catalysts for change; “We waited for so long / We waited far too long” she notes over production not unlike fellow Swede Yung Lean’s 2017 album Stranger. The wait, its underlying conclusion implies, is coming to an end. – Brian Duricy

The 40 Best Songs from the 20 Best Electronic Albums

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