The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2020
Electronic music is a huge tent with many diverse approaches, and it's more international than ever with producers around the globe pushing music forward. The year's best albums featured returns from established talents, as well as ground-breaking newcomers.
20. Lee Jones - Down Into Light [Independent]
If One Grain saw Jones tinkering with a more subdued approach, Down Into Light takes things a step further. This new LP, his first full-length since Electronic Frank, is lighter, more buoyant, and more refined than anything in his catalogue. It's beat-driven, most of the time, but not exactly danceable. The grooves here are slow, meticulous, and more for drifting off to than stomping your feet to. The songs are minimalist, but they're anything but simple; on the surface, they may appear simple, but it's the little things going on under the surface—distant static-crackle, muted bass drums, an occasional brass section—that make all the difference.
Nowhere is this attention to detail more evident than on "Sundance", the fourth track. It's quite possibly the finest in Lee Jones' whole discography. On the surface, the song is driven by shakers, a classic house beat, and a relatively simple piano melody. In the background, however, rich, fat synths hover in and out of earshot, and a gorgeous clarinet pops in here and there, often lingering on the same note for long stretches of time. These features add both depth and dexterity. They make the track feel warmer, more intimate, but also more limber and playful. -- Parker Desautell
19. TENGGER - Nomad [Beyond Beyond Is Beyond]
The title Nomad may be a little too on the nose. The South Korean/Japanese couple that makes up the core members of TENGGER -- Itta on vocals and harmonium and Marqido on synthesizers -- take their musical cues from annual pilgrimages to exotic locales, translating their observations into lush, unique soundscapes. It's part electronic and part environmental, new age without all the desultory navel-gazing that goes along with that term, and wholly intoxicating. Combining synthetic sounds with those reminiscent of nature can be a tough trick to pull off convincingly. Fortunately, this is an area TENGGER knows all too well, and as a result, there are few if any missteps throughout the album's 36-minute run time.
Bliss is all over Nomad. The ten-minute closer "Flow" begins with the sound of lush chords chugging away as vocals come in and out and float over the layers of synths. The omnipresent flow of water makes another appearance. Ever so slowly, sounds build upon sounds, but it never seems overbearing. It's swaddling, enveloping. Nomad is music to get lost within. -- Chris Ingalls
18. Die Wilde Jagd - Haut [Bureau B]
To enter the mind of German electronic musician, Sebastian Lee Philipp is to venture into a lush techno-jungle, a dark space pulsing and throbbing with life. Nowhere is this more in evidence than Haut, the third album from Philipp's project Die Wilde Jagd. Sparse rhythms bloom into complex worlds of sound, a cacophony of creatively adapted noise and samples which assume a harmonious, rhythmic consistency merging the natural with the electronic.
The impenetrable, leafy undergrowth of this aural jungle hums with cleansing winds and buzzing cicadas. Tymbal organs and wing flicks sing to the beats, clicks, and scratches of a deeply rooted, naturalistic techno. Life here accords with harmony all of its own, and the attentive listener inevitably finds themselves in sync with this world of lush soundscapes. Haut is a concept album; a soundscape best listened to in its entirety, allowing songs to merge into each other. -- Rhea Rollmann
17. Squarepusher - Be Up a Hello [Warp]
Tom Jenkinson consistently released albums under the Squarepusher moniker throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and much of it is very good and builds naturally on the stylistic signatures of his 1990s output. It's unfair to deem Be Up a Hello a return to form, since Squarepusher's M.O. is a sound in constant flux (see: Hello Everything). In many ways, this is a throwback record sure to be enjoyed by deep-2000s techno purists, with gnarled four-to-the-floor crankers like "Nervelevers" and "Terminal Slam" deserving strobe-blasted warehouses and cheeky-but-glowing write-ups in Muzik.
Album highlight "Vortrack" is a ghostly breakbeat barrage crammed with hi-hats and dripping slippery acid squelch. Nightmarish synths reverberate within the maelstrom, offsetting gut-hook percussion stabs with puffs and billows of minor-key distress. The uninitiated may only hear chaos. Whereas electronic heads will discern a technically remarkable sound designer upending cities and regurgitating the architecture into jagged shards of stylized wreckage.
A perpetual experimentalist, Jenkinson consistently delivers electronic albums jam-packed with ideas and vibrant tone color, of which Be Up a Hello slots in as yet another example of the creative colossus that is Squarepusher. This record feels especially important, though, because it asserts that what some would consider an outmoded sound palette can still be mined for fresh ideas, that IDM in its golden-age variety has yet to reach its zenith. -- Kyle Cochrun
16. Pantha Du Prince - Conference of Trees [Modern Recordings]
On Conference of Trees, Pantha Du Prince has taken the electronic elements of his sound and rooted them in nature. It's a bold project that benefits from the creator's focused vision as he invites the listener to piece together imagined conversations between trees. It encourages us to engage with our own experiences and memories as well as further our appreciation of forests and woodlands. It also serves as a stark warning that our forests need to be protected at all costs. When we destroy a forest, we are not felling individual trees; we are forcibly dismantling whole communities.
Lead single "Plus in Tacet" immediately transports the listener into the heart of the forest. As xylophone and gliding strings entwine with a throbbing beat, it evokes the awe-inspiring majesty of nature. Album closer, "Lichtung" (meaning glade or clearing in English), is a meditative, expansive piece. Pantha Du Prince uses the natural ebb and flow of the organic instrumentation to amplify the silence. -- Paul Carr
15. Drab City - Good Songs for Bad People [Bella Union]
Bella Union's latest great hopes, Drab City, offer a glamorously disheveled form of creepy art-pop from the union of early 2000s witch-house pioneer, oOoOO, aka San Franciscan Chris Dexter Greenspan, and the Berlin-based Bosnian-Muslim producer Asia aka Islamiq Grrrls. With their enticing debut album, Good Songs for Bad People, the duo have honed a woozy late-night style that plugs into a mind-melting synthesis of dream-pop, trip-hop, dub, jazz, doo-wop, and soundtrack vibes. Their glitchy songs of violence and paranoia radiate a deranged elegance that's both succinct and off-kilter.
The duo employ an array of blissed-out ingredients: jazzy, David Axelrod-meets-Barry Adamson arrangements, quivering flutes, spy flick guitars, mellotron strings, smeary synth textures, rumbling bass, low-slung hip-hop beats, and mellifluous vocals. The ominous music on the band's bleak debut positions them as eager heirs to the sonic lift-off Broadcast's laser-guided radiophonics and the spectral breakbeats of Portishead's torch song future blues. -- Michael Sumsion
14. Actress - Karma & Desire [Ninja Tune]
The music of Darren Cunningham—aka Actress—has always placed a special emphasis on texture. It's full of clicks, glitches, static-crackle, and synthesizers so corroded they sound like they've been run through a feed chopper. His last major-label LP, AZD (not counting this year's self-released 88), was centered around the concept of chrome, and nearly every sound bore some association to it. On his latest album, Karma & Desire, the main theme seems to be the human voice itself.
Here, the human voice functions more like an instrument than an addendum to the music itself. That is especially evident on tracks like "VVY", where Sampha's vocals are little more than indecipherable murmurs gliding sleepily around the main piano lead. On "Angels Pharmacy", Zsela sings "destiny is stuck in heaven blowing nitro" in a half-whispered, spoken-word delivery that, coupled with all the steamy, emission-like synths, makes it seem as if the song really is blowing nitro. The repetition of "in heaven" continues onto the next track, "Remembrance", and goes on for so long that it begins to sound like gibberish. This is probably the point. Karma & Desire is not interested in the voice as an object of lyricism or lingual clarity but as a tool of hypnosis or religious cadence. The focus is on the raw texture of the voice itself, not what it says. -- Parker Desautell
13. Amnesia Scanner - Tearless [PAN]
So immersed in the center of experimental electronic music and audiovisual art, it was exciting to think about where Amnesia Scanner would refocus their conceptual lens onto after the turn of the decade. Intriguingly, their latest 2020 full-length Tearless hones their typically obscure modes into their most precise concept yet. That is, the 10-track album aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene. It offers limited, ambiguous answers through words, as expected, but it powerfully speaks about our divisive world through artistic and aural choices. Its globally connected featured artists bring together the voices of climatic hotspots, from Europe, South America, to the United States. And, its experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore mimics the popular chaos that bombards the dominant consciousness. Tearless is, as Amnesia Scanner told, "a breakup album with the planet".
More precisely, the album is a breakup with the planet under the dominant rule. Along with the globally connected voices of Lalita, LYZZA, and Code Orange, Amnesia Scanner builds anthems of anger that transform into inspiration for resistance. Just remember, as Oracle assures on the closer "AS U Will Be Fine", "If we can help you lose your mind / You will be fine, You will be fine." Then, perhaps, we must lose our dominant mind to reimagine the failing Anthropocene. -- Hans Kim
12. The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? [Thrill Jockey]
The Soft Pink Truth's Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? comes a bit out of nowhere and is surely the most impactful release Drew Daniel has ever made, Matmos included. Daniel's evolution goes beyond the introduction of thematic weight into his craft; he realized the entire aesthetic had to change to meet the new demands. Where once existed comical 4/4 dance beats is now subtlety in pace. Big DFA Records-style drumming is replaced by percussion that is always carefully-considered before being used. Brazen vocal samples are cast aside for an angelic chorus of Colin Self, Angel Deradoorian, and Jana Hunter throughout the album. The danger in throwing out your old clothes, so to speak, is that your new clothes might not fit right. Instead, the new garb of spiritual ambient techno illuminates Daniel's artistic style to its fullest extent.
The album came about as Daniels questioned what type of music felt right for this moment. The Trump presidency has startled many into self-reflection and activism, and this has come through often in protest music. The associative emotion with protest music is what Daniels pondered on, and he went against rage – not all together but just from his viewpoint as a white male. Shall We Go on Sinning then becomes an album of anti-rage – not necessarily peace but a recognition of turmoil and finding solace in what is still left to find joy in: community and music. May it keep going on. -- Andrew Cox
11. Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans [Text]
While Sixteen Oceans at first appears accessible to the point of being a little bit bland and formulaic as if Four Tet is leaning into his modus operandi, repeated and sustained attention reveals that there is a subtlety here, belying the initial immediacy of some of the music. The first two tracks, "School" and "Baby" come out of the traps with some straight-ahead dancefloor tropes before we transition to something more meditative with the rather nominatively determined "Harpsichord", which glides into "Teenage Birdsong". This appears to be where we get the first sign of something slightly tired and belated, as the fluted melody feels somewhat trite and facile, perhaps exposing the possibility that Kieran Hebden's previously richly upholstered bag of tricks might, after all, be getting a little bit threadbare.
However, the following "Romantics" offers what seems to be a blend of the two preceding tracks, offering pizzicato and simple melody over a simple and subdued beat. It synthesizes the ambience of "Harpsichord" and the pop sensibility of "Teenage Birdsong", as if he is showing us his workings and the possibilities of musical intertextuality within a mini-suite of three songs. What first appeared obvious and facile and, frankly, kind of disappointing, suddenly seems to be more interesting and mysterious, as if we have been seduced by the trap of aural immediacy when what lies beneath is as textured and sophisticated, while also just as accessible, as you might expect based on Hebden's previous output. -- Rod Waterman
10. DJ Python - Mas Amable [Incensio]
We generally use terms like "airy", "lush", and "ethereal" to describe music that is ambient and beat-less. Enter DJ Python—aka Bryan Piniero—whose music is often described in such terms despite going heavy on the groove. In Python's world, few sounds come to us cleanly or sharply; instead, they come bathed in a sleek, vaporous, watery tone, everything smudged and saturated at the corners. Nowhere is this more evident than on Mas Amable, his latest LP for the Incensio label. It's his first full-length since 2017's Dulce Compañia, where he first perfected his unique, downtempo style of "deep reggaeton".
On Mas Amable, everything plods along in a liquid haze. Each song slowly mutates into the next, and each sound seems to become something unlike itself. The album is essentially driven by one groove, but that groove takes so many odd twists and turns that by the end, it's barely recognizable. Yet these twists and turns occur so gradually, and with such microtonal precision, that the effect is literally hypnotic: you feel like you couldn't possibly be listening to the same beat, but you are. The whole thing is one long, loopy, continuous dream, drifting but never arriving, sedating but never dulling. -- Parker Desautell
9. Rival Consoles - Articulation [Erased Tapes]
"I love that something on paper can appear rigid and calculated," says Ryan Lee West, aka Rival Consoles, "but then take on new meaning based on the context that surrounds it, or how it changes over time." West is referring to his new approach to composition, which resulted in Articulation, his first album since Persona in 2018. While writing the album, West drew structures, shapes, and patterns by hand to find new ways of thinking about music. Without the aid of a trusty computer, new sounds and musical patterns emerged.
The result is something that may not be an enormous departure from his previous works, but there are changes apparent in the finished product. Articulation is an intensely fluid album. There is a constant feeling of forward motion, but small detours and unique approaches to audio samples make this an album that fascinates by not sticking to the same old techno tropes. -- Chris Ingalls
8. Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply [New Amsterdam/Nonesuch]
If you've ever had the experience where an artist's statement ends up being more tantalizing than the work it describes, Tristan Perich's Drift Multiply flips the script on that experience. In this case, the music on Drift Multiply outshines the inspiration suggested by Perich. Perich is certainly a thoughtful artist working with a fertile concept. But knowing about this music's building blocks before listening imposes something of a distraction here, as it primes the listener to expect a highly left-brained experience borne of the New York-based composer's fascination with numbers and code. The surprisingly fluid Drift Multiply eludes any stereotypes you might have based on how the music was constructed. And, for the most part, the album falls about as far from synthetic-sounding as music gets.
Fans of film scores, minimalism, avant-garde composition, ambient electronic music, and drone should all find much to sink their teeth into here. Perich certainly isn't the first to integrate those forms. His method of assembling them into a unified system—his distinct physics of sound where an individual violin line can both blur into the background and stand out simultaneously—would certainly have been impressive enough. Perhaps Perich's ultimate feat is the way he's come up with a long, drawn-out piece of music that's this inviting despite itself. As cerebral as Perich's approach seems to be (he has, for example, released printouts of binary code with his music in the past), Drift Multiply requires zero thinking or analysis to enjoy. Listen attentively, though, and it becomes apparent that this album is a game-changer on multiple fronts. -- Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
7. Nicolas Bougaïeff - The Upward Spiral [Mute]
"I leverage every single aspect of every musical tradition I've learned and borrow bits and bobs," explains Nicolas Bougaïeff about his latest album, The Upward Spiral. "That's a process I've been doing ever since I started embracing composition as my vocation about 20 years ago." Although his musical endeavors seem firmly embedded in industrial techno (for now), Bougaïeff -- who grew up playing violin and saxophone before feeling the pull of synthesizers and programming -- clearly enjoys playing around with the genre and pushing it past what's expected. There's a complexity at work that's a bit startling and exceptionally refreshing.
Even the title, The Upward Spiral, has an unconventionally positive spin. It's an indication that the nine tracks contained herein are assembled and executed in an unexpected fashion. While the album title seems to be a bit of a playful jab at the 1994 Nine Inch Nails classic, the name of the opening track – "Embrace Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" – goes a step further by turning Dante on its head. Fortunately, it's not all witty titular wordplay. That track, a thumping salvo of groaning, low-end synth rumbles and aggressive, off-kilter beats, is relentless, but it continually evolves with its smartly shifting sound design. -- Chris Ingalls
6. Nahash - Flowers of the Revolution [SVBKVLT]
There's no more fitting time for Flowers of the Revolution, the unabashedly political debut album from Nahash. The most impressive thing about Flowers of the Revolution, however, is that it manages to be so unabashedly political despite being almost devoid of vocals. The politics come through in the struggle of contrasting elements—the natural against the modular, the tribal against the industrial, the human against the machine.
Politics aside, Flowers of the Revolution is an album that really and truly bops. These songs have loose, kinetic energy that puts Nahash at the fore of young producers going today. There's a feeling of controlled chaos here, of different voices and sounds struggling for control of the music, different grooves threatening to break out over other grooves. At a time when so many different voices are struggling for control and authoritarian regimes are threatening to quash those voices, Flowers of the Revolution feels like the album we all needed. -- Parker Desautell
5. Ghetto Kumbé - Ghetto Kumbé [ZZK Records]
"We created an African tribe look from the future. A psychedelic African tribe from the 21st century," says Edgardo Garces (aka Guajiro), in regard to Ghetto Kumbé's aesthetic. This is evident from the Afrofuturistic album art on the group's debut LP. It's also evident in their music, in its mishmash of traditional African rhythms and popular Latin house beats. There's something raw, primal, and earthy in Ghetto Kumbé's music, with its hand drums, wood flutes, and call-and-response vocals. But it's also full of funky bass, Caribbean grooves, and hi-fi electronic production, lending it an Afrofuturism aura.
Ghetto Kumbé's chemistry, virtuosity, and songcraft just keep getting better. However, what sets them apart is their ability to mix the traditional and modern so seamlessly in their music. One minute you're on a Colombian dance floor, and the next, you're singing along with the tribes of West Africa. Ghetto Kumbé's fusion of roots music with bass-driven dance bangers may have its parallels — the world of Afro-futurism stretches far and wide these days — but their execution is unmatched. -- Parker Desautell
4. CS + Kreme - Snoopy [The Trilogy Tapes]
The magic of CS + Kreme's music is that it is both sleepy and unsettling at once. It's sedating, but it's a little too sinister for drifting off to. On Snoopy, their full-length debut, the Melbourne duo of Sam Kermel and Conrad Standish take this approach to its logical conclusion. This is an album too occultic and otherworldly to fit anywhere in the modern world of soulless electronica. The whole thing is full of blunted beats, sleazy 808 bass, and grooves that will put you in an absolute trance. At times it's outright medieval, like on "Faun House," with its hellish pipe organ and creepily-plucked harpsichord. But it's also deeply romantic, like on "Time Is a Bozo", with its slow-motion vocal chants and majestic brass section. If fusions of electronic music with classical instruments is your thing, then you can't go wrong with Snoopy. It's music for the netherworld, and it's unlike anything you'll hear all year. -- Parker Desautell
3. Beatrice Dillon - Workaround [PAN]
Every click and cut is pasted in the right place on Beatrice Dillon's wonderful Workaround. The drums are so sharp they sound like they've been individually sterilized, reverb is completely absent, and melodies are tiny swimming fish rather than hooks. Yet somehow, all these sounds generate a terrific sense of motion—not the linear propulsion of great dance music, but a tactile 3D quality, as if the music is expanding and contracting before our eyes.
Dillon composed the album at 150 BPM, a tricky tempo not commonly used in electronic music, and then let her collaborators improvise at will over them. Most hotshot producers putting out their debut would dial up big names, but Dillon is more interested in introducing her audiences to new ones, like Senegalese griot Kadialy Kouyaté or jazz pedal steel player Jonny Lam. The sound of Kouyaté's kora or Kuljit Bhamra's tabla brings bright splashes into this monochrome world, making this the rare electronic album as joyful as it is pinpoint precise. -- Daniel Bromfield
2. Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song [Smalltown Supersound]
The Welsh electronic auteur Kelly Lee Owens came of age on her on-point and emphatic second long-player, a trippily euphoric record which adroitly joined the dots between club-ready pop bangers, chilly synths, and meditative introspection. From the creepy, Boards of Canada-like haze of her take on Radiohead's "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" through to the Steve Reich gone Aphex Twin head-banging of "Jeanette" and the strings- festooned and angelic lullaby that is "Wake-Up", Inner Song seeks to transport the listener to a mental space of serenity, healing, and acceptance. The punchy "Melt!" provides the record's purest dancefloor moment, whilst the mournful ambient ballad, "Corner of My Sky", is decorated by John Cale's distinctive pipes. Inner Song proved important in 2020 because it signifies its creator's growing assurance as both singer and producer, breathing new life into electronic pop whilst alchemizing promise into weighty and refined artistry. -- Michael Sumsion
1. Ital Tek - Outland [Planet Mu]
While Ital Tek's Bodied was written in snatched moments during periods working on other projects, the writing of new album Outland took place in self-imposed seclusion as he grappled with the joy and heightened anxiety of becoming a new parent. As such, Outland is a much more restless and jittery album, born from sleepless nights and overwhelming emotional fluctuations. While it broadly exists in a similarly rich and vividly constructed world as Bodied, the tracks on Outland see Ital Tek navigate much more extreme and unpredictable sonic terrain.
By delving deeper into the world he so distinctly rendered on Bodied, Ital Tek has made his most accessible album to date without compromising his unique musical vision. It's an album of contrast and tension as tracks veer between extremes as if constantly searching for some kind of indefinable resolution. Ambitious and profound while remaining compelling unpredictable, it's a constantly shape-shifting, all-encompassing musical experience. Outland is, quite simply, a masterpiece. -- Paul Carr