best-electronic-albums-of-2016

The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2016

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2016 highlights that as well as any other year on record.

Artist: Julianna Barwick

Album: Will

Label: Dead Oceans

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Julianna Barwick
Will

Technology permits musicians to their physical limitations. Since Pierre Henry and Edgard Varese infused tape loops into symphonic music, horrifying the academics who viewed electronic equipment as devilish as the flatted fifth. Turntabilism made looping an art and the prevailing tool that changed the way modern music is composed and understood. Like Liz Harris’ project Grouper, Julianna Barwick’s Will takes the art of the loop to supernal heights. Will plays like a score to diary that never will be filmed. Her cherubic choral creations on “Same” coil around tender places of the heart, whereas “Big Hollow” sings emptiness into the heart’s four chambers.

Tense and terse moments marked by minimal arrangements thicken the atmosphere with more dread and less joy. When “Heading Home” begins with percussive block piano chords, it foreshadows little of its intent. And therein lies Will‘s charm: it blends feelings that should cancel each other out when they surface together. — Stephan Wyatt

 

Artist: Mr. Oizo

Album: All Wet

Label: Ed Banger

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Mr. Oizo
All Wet

I almost wrote off French producer/director Quentin Dupieux (a.k.a. Mr. Oizo) several years ago. He and his muppety character Flat Eric made an indelible impression on me in the late ’90s, with his unbelievably fat and funky sound carved entirely from analog equipment, hence the title of his 1999 debut album, Analog Worms Attack. Then he kicked his gear to the curb, and went all in on his computer, subsequently issuing a bizarre streak of releases that ranged from challenging to “unlistenable” (the latter of which was the opinion of a former label). There have been hint of genius in his madness scattered here and there, but all the pieces came together on his sixth full-length, All Wet. This album has all the shredded beat mania one expects from Oizo, but it’s peppered with indisputable evidence that he has hit his pop stride. Compare the awful, awkward crap he made with Uffie to his channeling of such eclectic singers and producers as Charli XCX, Boys Noize, Siruismo, Peaches, and Skrillex into this, one of the most fun and freewheeling albums of the year, and it’s clear how far he has come. — Alan Ranta

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Artist: Tobacco

Album: Sweatbox Dynasty

Label: Ghostly International

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Tobacco
Sweatbox Dynasty

Superb to chill out to, yet psyched-up enough to keep the party going, Thomas Fec hit the sweet spot with Sweatbox Dynasty. The mainstay of synth-psych band Black Moth Super Rainbow underwent a period of rediscovery leading up to his fourth solo album as Tobacco. He didn’t plug anything in for a year after 2014’s Ultima II Massage, until he could ignore the inspired itch of his creativity no longer, but he decided to go backwards to go forwards. As in the beginning, he recorded Sweatbox Dynasty in pieces, laying down individual tracks and effects to tape, before running the results through a sampler. This builds in a kind of character, the unpredictability of imperfect machines smothered with a blanket of tape hiss, smoothing over the more jarring flights of experimental fancy still embedded in his bad acid trip sound. In taking a small step back, Rec has taken a big leap forward towards mastery of psychedelic synthesis and surreal vocodery, and he was damn close to perfection to begin with. — Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Patten

Album: Psi

Label: Warp

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Patten
Psi

Greek letters signify for many their days in school, be it studying the classics or engaging with mathematical formulas, but whatever the association, it’s certainly heady stuff. Electronic music, too, has its own reputation for being a genre concerned as much with the epistemic impact of its sound as the aesthetics of it. But right from the start, Patten’s latest album presents itself as a warped take on the stellar sound cultivated by Future Brown and its members; this is not, however, the only road they take, as synthy ambience pops up, as well, indicating an ability to find range within a singular feel. Wherever they draw their influences from, Psi nods towards a world unto itself. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Katie Gately

Album: Color

Label: Tri Angle

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Katie Gately
Color

Tri Angle has consistently shown itself to be one of the most forward-thinking labels in music, and especially so when you consider that their ethos has always at least tangentially related to what we know as “pop”. So despite the excellent and one-note doom of Brood Ma’s Daze, they also managed to release Katie Gately’s full-length debut Color, whose brightness and creative jubilance practically jumped out of whatever listening device you prefer. After a string of progressive pop pieces whose lengths varied greatly, Gately trimmed down her work just enough to prove that at even nine minutes, you can make every second essential. Color is full of surprises but is packaged in such a way that you can enjoy it mindlessly or intensely and still be rewarded. — Brian Duricy

15 – 11

Artist: The Range

Album: Potential

Label: Domino

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The Range
Potential

Electronic music, just in its name, suggests a coldness, a distance from humanity. That’s what makes The Range’s album Potential so special, in that he actually reached out to everybody sampled on the album, no matter how difficult to track down. The companion short documentary, Superimpose, is well worth a watch, and the interviews with each artist adds to the raw beauty of how James Hinton incorporated them into the songs. And, you know, the songs. Twinkling and pulsating synths back a synthesis of electronic styles that repurpose pop samples into something akin to the popular club music of our time. It’s a hell of an achievement, and the humanity shown makes it that much better. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Album: EARS

Label: Western Vinyl

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
EARS

Orcas Island artist Helen Loggie composed sketches of the indigenous vegetation and landscape exclusive to the tiny islands in Washington state. Trees slumped over like time-worn people, snow-peaked mountainous backdrops, and water imposing its will on tiny landforms. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — also a native daughter of Orcas Island — crafts music on EARS with the same visual emphasis when Loggie captured nature’s cycles. Smith begins the track “Wetlands” with a collection of found sounds and samples mimicking the noise nature models for us before an odd time signature and looped vocals appear like softened ululations. Modular synth sounds from her coveted Buchia 100 create an organic ebb and flow of rhythms and sounds on “Rare Things Grow”. Sax in colors and shapes in place of musical notations cover the collection of primal clicks and water-filled sounds.

Appreciation for nature is exemplified through constant experimentation. “Arthropoda” is an invertebrate track, lacking the typical spine found in its composition. It creeps and crawls amidst the wooshing and warped fusion of looped vocals and bleated textures. Likewise, Smith’s jazz-influenced “Stratus” reveal her penchant for dynamics, beginning with atonal sax patterns while the same diminutive melodies disappear as discreetly as a sunset. EARS starts with flight and ends contemplating the perpetual change that happens whether we notice it or not. — Stephan Wyatt

 

Artist: Brood Ma

Album: Daze

Label: Tri Angle

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Brood Ma
Daze

Like the best releases from Arca, Brood Ma’s Tri Angle debut Daze eschews conventional song boundaries for a piece-length feeling — “piece-length” because, at 27 minutes spread across 13 songs, this is more akin to a quick jaunt into the apocalypse than an album’s ethos. But what a trip it is, squeezing the dystopic juices out of whatever instruments he could get his hands on, from a submerged bass (“Thorium Mox”) to zipping synths right after (“Molten Brownian Motion”). It’s an exhausting listen, and don’t let the light peeking out on the cover fool you, Daze is all about a dive into the darkness. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Mark Pritchard

Album: Under the Sun

Label: Warp

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Mark Pritchard
Under the Sun

With music released under so many guises, it might be surprising to learn that this is Mark Pritchard’s first ‘proper’ solo album and one that sees him take cues from throughout his career. The glacial rhythms of Global Communication, the hip-hop influenced beats of Harmonic 313 and the more straightforward song structures of Troubleman are all present and correct. However, this sounds like nothing he has done before, sounding genuinely fresh and contemporary. The palette cleansing “?” provides a mournful and sombre ambient opening before giving way to a rolling, psychedelic track featuring suitably trippy vocals from Bibio. “Infrared” is a jarring, krautrock influenced gem and it soon becomes apparent in just three songs that this is going to be a journey unlike any Pritchard has produced before. Tracks spit and cackle, loop and thrum, lounge and hang, offering no clue as to which style he is going to explore next. The headline grabbing Thom Yorke collaboration “Beautiful People” is simply stunning while the hypnotic rhythm and the hair-raising spoken word narration of Bean’s on “The Blinds Cage” provides another undoubted highlight. From motoric Krautrock beats to haunting balladry to delicate, dreamy ambience, this has something for everyone. Under the Sun finds Mark Pritchard comfortable in his own identity and producing, arguably, the finest album of his varied career. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: Jay Daniel

Album: Broken Knowz

Label: Ninja Tune / Technicolour

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Jay Daniel
Broken Knowz

Broken Knowz sees Jay Daniel cast off the shadow of the Detroit techno scene and strike out on his own. When recording the album, Daniel looked to redefine his sound and in doing so picked up his drumsticks and retired to his Mother’s basement. The result is a very human album with a clear identity that challenges the norms of the techno genre. “Last of the Dogons”, “Paradise Valley” and “Nikki” see him build a percussive base allowing keyboard riffs and synth flourishes to fizzle and burst. From there Daniel explores the freedom of using live drums as he mixes them with programmed beats, culminating in the epic “Knowledge of Selfie” which serves as the album’s centerpiece. Daniels has a clear, unique vision for himself as an artist. Not hamstrung by expectation or adherence to one particular genre. This is an enigmatic artist doing it on his terms. — Paul Carr

10 – 6

Artist: Nicolas Jaar

Album: Sirens

Label: Other People

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Nicolas Jaar
Sirens

Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens proves that the personal is always political. While largely an impressionistic and meditative lyrically, with only glancing implications to actual events that have occurred, the album still undoubtedly feels political. Why? In its subtly subversive way, Jaar challenges our notion of melodic electronic music in the myriad of sounds he mines in his second full-length album. He flits between ambient textures, Suicide-inspired synth rock, techno, and, finally, doo-wop balladry. It’s an uncanny album. Like his debut, Space Is Only Noise, Sirens conjures many sonic and emotional associations, pulling you into its orbit, making each choice, no matter how abstract, somehow feel intuitive. While Jaar’s work in the past could sometimes feel like a mapping of his own, brilliant introspection, Sirens feels more outwardly expressive. Its sound mirrors the turbulent world in which it was created. By channeling the painful history of his home country Chile’s struggle with the dictator Augusto Pinochet (specifically in the centerpiece “No”) and transmuting it to America’s unfortunate political climate, Jaar has created an unsettling and beautiful work about history repeating itself. — Tanner Smith

 

Artist: Tim Hecker

Album: Love Streams

Label: 4AD

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Tim Hecker
Love Streams

Tim Hecker’s eighth album, Love Streams begins with a bit of a feign — collaborator Kara Lis-Coverdale’s keyboards start its first thirty seconds, a nod to his previous album Virgins. But once this subsides into euphonic winds, the real aesthetic of the album takes shape. With Love Streams, Hecker eases you in with titles that state exactly what they sound like (the feathery “Music of the Air” and the choral warpings of “Castrati Stack”) and some that hint at humor (“Up Red Bull Creek”) that could only come from working in somewhere remote, away from the daily effects of mass-market late capitalism. But above all else, the album title reveals the sound’s greatest secret: that it’s the result of a peerless collective of musicians under the guise of the best ambient artist working today who have channeled the feelings of love in all their terrifying, euphoric might, into a completely fluid experience. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Illum Sphere

Album: Glass

Label: Ninja Tune

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Illum Sphere
Glass

The follow up to 2014’s Ghosts of Then and Now saw DJ and producer Ryan Hunn (aka Illum Sphere) make a concerted effort to mix things up. The result is a self-assured album that sees him straddle the path between experimental ambience and offbeat house. It’s a winning combination as he manages to create something so enthrallingly idiosyncratic, that it is impossible not to be seduced by its charms. Hunn cleverly uses beats as a launchpad for sonic experimentation that allows him to create wondrous collages of sound such as on “Fall Into Water” and “Fuel the Fire”. These trackshighlight the push and pull of the ambient and house sides to Hunn’s work with beats and melodies allowed to drift before being tugged back in. He also shows faith in his instincts to explore his more idiosyncratic side on tracks such as “Oracle”. Both of these strands to his work come together and culminate in the epic “Thousand Yard Stare”. It’s the perfect juxtaposition between the icy synth lines and warm, familiar percussion that make this album so captivating. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: S U R V I V E

Album: RR7349

Label: Relapse

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S U R V I V E
RR7349

Yeah, yeah… Everybody loved Stranger Things, and a large part of what made it successful was its throwback synthtastic soundtrack. It was easily one of the most buzzed and marketed TV series of the year. What wasn’t covered quite as much was that the two guys responsible for that score, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, have been producing in a quartet with Adam Jones and Mark Donica for under the name of S U R V I V E for the last half a dozen years or so. Seizing their moment, they chose 2016 to unleash their most sophisticated and strangest thing yet. Their first effort for Relapse, hence its catalogue-based name, RR7349 is pure bliss for anyone who appreciates classic sci-fi and horror soundtracks from the ’70s and ’80s in the vein of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Goblin, or the inventive spirit of Radiophonic library music. This is woozy crackle and haunted vibe of vintage equipment and homemade toys, parsed into cinematic, progressive kosmische and trippy synthpop jams that evoke the childhood sound of generations, without merely dredging up the past. — Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Autechre

Album: elseq 1-5

Label: Warp

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Autechre
elseq 1-5

From 1992-1994, Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series branded certain artists (including Richard D. James/Polygon Window and Autechre) as fodder for cerebral, rather than physical, musical listening activity. The message of the branding was that this is electronic music but not dance music. In recent years, James’ Aphex Twin project has reemerged to some of the best reviews of his career with proper new releases in the form of LPs and EPs, as well as a Soundcloud dump of more than 150 tracks. Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown), which has released albums of new music more consistently than Aphex Twin, unleashed a project in 2016 that synthesized all these approaches to music distribution and further established the incredible vitality of Warp artists that have been making music for 30 years and continuing to innovate.

elseq 1-5 is an album in five parts, or a series of five LPs, with no physical release. Though the five parts together make up a massive playlist of digital music, the sequencing, style, and artwork of the individual installments make each one an essential component of the Autechre discography. Thus anyone hoping for a new Autechre album in 2016 encountered five such albums all at once. And none of it is “disposable information”.

I hear Autechre in shapes, so perhaps the most illustrative analogy I can provide for installments 1-5 together is the image of the V-shaped equalizer. elseq 1 pushes some upper limits of confrontational dynamics, with opening track “feed1” playing like a moat that must be crossed in order to reach the castle. By comparison, the next track “c16 deep tread” is downright conventional Bounce Music. The physicality of elseq 1-5 subverts the original idea of Artificial Intelligence and Warp pushing its version of easy chair-listening. But the collection is never wearying, as tracks like 2‘s “chimer 1-5-1” make room for the ghost of an ambient past, here reconfigured within whatever the name is for electro sent via wormhole.

The third (middle) installment is the easiest to digest, as it includes the set’s most continuous drone (“eastre”) and most casual beat (“TBM2”). elseq 4 intertwines melodies and ambient style with polyrhythm (“foldfree casual”) and closes with a restless number (“7th slip”) that adds another variation to the ways sounds in this collection fight one another for space. elseq 5 closes the set on a high with a bona fide dance track (“freulaeux”) and “oneum,” which sets the listener up for a drop that never arrives, but does finally provide fades to break the high tension. Despite its more than four-hour running time and bounty of sounds, elseq 1-5 ends with a sense that the grid for Autechre’s game is getting bigger, resetting for the next match. — Thomas Britt

5 – 1

Artist: Venetian Snares

Album: Traditional Synthesizer Music

Label: Planet Mu

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Venetian Snares
Traditional Synthesizer Music

No one else makes music like Winnipeg’s Aaron Funk, not by a long shot. Yet, even though his vast breakcore catalogue as Venetian Snares and his acid techno work as Last Step is so distinctive, he always finds new ways to express himself within his peculiar confines. His two-dozenth album or so, Traditional Synthesizer Music tore down all the walls, literally and figuratively. Funk remade his studio after he accidentally spawned a psychic null zone making “10th Circle of Winnipeg” from 2014’s My Love Is a Bulldozer, and Traditional Synthesizer Music reflects his subsequent reinvestment in modular synthesis. His patchwork set-ups were also taken apart between each piece, after they were recorded live, which injected new levels of spontaneity and humanity into his productions, unreal fractal forms of unsettling melodies in uneven time signatures at insane BPMs. The result was his best and most complete album since 2005’s ground breaking, genre making Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, as proven by Traditional Synthesizer Music landing on a couple of Billboard charts. — Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Ash Koosha

Album: I AKA I

Label: Ninja Tune

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Ash Koosha
I AKA I

Ash Koosha’s latest offering, I AKA I, is partly inspired by his ability to group sound with colors. The trait, called synesthesia, is a somewhat rare condition where experiencing sensory input in one sense will trigger a reaction in another simultaneously. For non-synesthetes, the concept might be difficult to grasp. However, Koosha is intent on letting listeners partake in the phenomenon themselves. Since he’s able to effectively “see” sound, he plays around with the shape of the music, as if it’s a physical form that can be “broken down, liquefied, rescaled or spatially positioned”. These are the tools Koosha uses to express the album’s focus on “transformations in psychology and technological advancements”. It might sound like a lot to fit into one album, but according to Koosha, it all leads back to the same thing: humanity. — Chad Miller

 

Artist: Pantha du Prince

Album: The Triad

Label: Rough Trade

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Pantha du Prince
The Triad

In a year defined by both human coldness and destructive heat, when the politics became downright cynical and regressive, the warm and welcoming cocoon of Pantha du Prince’s music provided a welcome respite. Opening with what it perhaps the most beautiful song of this year, “The Winter Hymn”, this sublime album features a set of ten songs that create an immersive and warm experience enveloped by the heavenly chimes, ethereal vocals, gentle beats, and celestial warmth. “The Winter Hymn” is what I imagine hearing while bathing in the heat of outdoor Icelandic spa waters. These are truly some of the most beautiful sounds this year, and they are utterly transportive. Pantha du Prince creative leader Hendrik Weber has hinted that this may very well be that last Pantha du Prince project, so relax and enjoy this flight into a stunningly gorgeous world that just might convince you that we will all muddle through somehow. — Sarah Zupko

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Artist: Underworld

Album: Barbara Barabara, We Face a Shining Future

Label: Universal

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Underworld
Barbara Barabara, We Face a Shining Future

Underworld’s opening song “I Exhale” brings the Trans-Cardiff Express, Kraftwerk-worshipping duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith to the surface in perfect daylight. Inspired by remastering their prized late ‘80s and ‘90s catalog, Hyde brings his Mark E. Smith spoken-word stylings with bleak lyrics for an uncertain future over Underworld’s vintage electroclash beat. The irony in the title reveals itself on “If Rah” and “Ova Nova”: they appeal to the brightened optimism and sanguine comforts technology brings while underscoring the dread of humanity being replaced by AI and automation.

And we have to also thank director Danny Boyle for his deep appreciation for the band’s notorious role it played on his Trainspotting soundtrack. Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future reminds those initially drawn to electronic music’s allure through tracks like “Nylon Strung” that fuse house and techno with a touch of melody — the kind of repetitive theme acting as an anthem you wish could last longer than the night it fills. — Stephan Wyatt

 

Artist: Ital Tek

Album: Hollowed

Label: Planet Mu

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Ital Tek
Hollowed

Ital Tek has made a nearly perfect album, wherein each note and beat contains an intimate history of Alan Myson’s decade-long artistic development. From Hollowed’s pensive opening track, “A Delicate Balance”, to “Vacuum I’s” understated pads and lithe rhythms, the latter the equivalent to a person’s heart beating at the pace of a panic attack, Myson’s compositions descend into the abyss without fearing the endless fall. Darkened textures and mixed samples of hellish discord tie together the theme of vast emptiness. And how that emptiness translates into something acoustic instrumentation often fails to do, Ital Tek creates future beat’s version of the Cure’s Pornography.

Hollowed demonstrates the humanity of electronic music, particularly in a time when critics of EDM and dubstep have declared both genres dead. The term “terminus” possesses a dispassionate connotation: an extreme end. For Mayson, what ends with Hollowed is the journey to discover the shadows within himself. Likewise, the track “Terminus” gracefully embraces that very darkness. No other album made by an electronic composer this year delves this deeply into places people fear to face. — Stephan Wyatt

20. Julianna Barwick – Will (Dead Oceans)

Technology permits musicians to their physical limitations. Since Pierre Henry and Edgard Varese infused tape loops into symphonic music, horrifying the academics who viewed electronic equipment as devilish as the flatted fifth. Turntabilism made looping an art and the prevailing tool that changed the way modern music is composed and understood. Like Liz Harris’ project Grouper, Julianna Barwick’s Will takes the art of the loop to supernal heights. Will plays like a score to diary that never will be filmed. Her cherubic choral creations on “Same” coil around tender places of the heart, whereas “Big Hollow” sings emptiness into the heart’s four chambers.

Tense and terse moments marked by minimal arrangements thicken the atmosphere with more dread and less joy. When “Heading Home” begins with percussive block piano chords, it foreshadows little of its intent. And therein lies Will‘s charm: it blends feelings that should cancel each other out when they surface together. — Stephan Wyatt

19. Mr. Oizo – All Wet (Ed Banger)

I almost wrote off French producer/director Quentin Dupieux (a.k.a. Mr. Oizo) several years ago. He and his muppety character Flat Eric made an indelible impression on me in the late ’90s, with his unbelievably fat and funky sound carved entirely from analog equipment, hence the title of his 1999 debut album, Analog Worms Attack. Then he kicked his gear to the curb, and went all in on his computer, subsequently issuing a bizarre streak of releases that ranged from challenging to “unlistenable” (the latter of which was the opinion of a former label). There have been hint of genius in his madness scattered here and there, but all the pieces came together on his sixth full-length, All Wet. This album has all the shredded beat mania one expects from Oizo, but it’s peppered with indisputable evidence that he has hit his pop stride. Compare the awful, awkward crap he made with Uffie to his channeling of such eclectic singers and producers as Charli XCX, Boys Noize, Siruismo, Peaches, and Skrillex into this, one of the most fun and freewheeling albums of the year, and it’s clear how far he has come. — Alan Ranta

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18. Tobacco – Sweatbox Dynasty (Ghostly International)

Superb to chill out to, yet psyched-up enough to keep the party going, Thomas Fec hit the sweet spot with Sweatbox Dynasty. The mainstay of synth-psych band Black Moth Super Rainbow underwent a period of rediscovery leading up to his fourth solo album as Tobacco. He didn’t plug anything in for a year after 2014’s Ultima II Massage, until he could ignore the inspired itch of his creativity no longer, but he decided to go backwards to go forwards. As in the beginning, he recorded Sweatbox Dynasty in pieces, laying down individual tracks and effects to tape, before running the results through a sampler. This builds in a kind of character, the unpredictability of imperfect machines smothered with a blanket of tape hiss, smoothing over the more jarring flights of experimental fancy still embedded in his bad acid trip sound. In taking a small step back, Rec has taken a big leap forward towards mastery of psychedelic synthesis and surreal vocodery, and he was damn close to perfection to begin with. — Alan Ranta

17. Patten – Psi (Warp)

Greek letters signify for many their days in school, be it studying the classics or engaging with mathematical formulas, but whatever the association, it’s certainly heady stuff. Electronic music, too, has its own reputation for being a genre concerned as much with the epistemic impact of its sound as the aesthetics of it. But right from the start, Patten’s latest album presents itself as a warped take on the stellar sound cultivated by Future Brown and its members; this is not, however, the only road they take, as synthy ambience pops up, as well, indicating an ability to find range within a singular feel. Wherever they draw their influences from, Psi nods towards a world unto itself. — Brian Duricy

16. Katie Gately – Color (Tri-Angle)

Tri-Angle has consistently shown itself to be one of the most forward-thinking labels in music, and especially so when you consider that their ethos has always at least tangentially related to what we know as “pop”. So despite the excellent and one-note doom of Brood Ma’s Daze, they also managed to release Katie Gately’s full-length debut Color, whose brightness and creative jubilance practically jumped out of whatever listening device you prefer. After a string of progressive pop pieces whose lengths varied greatly, Gately trimmed down her work just enough to prove that at even nine minutes, you can make every second essential. Color is full of surprises but is packaged in such a way that you can enjoy it mindlessly or intensely and still be rewarded. — Brian Duricy


15. The Range – Potential (Domino)

Electronic music, just in its name, suggests a coldness, a distance from humanity. That’s what makes The Range’s album Potential so special, in that he actually reached out to everybody sampled on the album, no matter how difficult to track down. The companion short documentary, Superimpose, is well worth a watch, and the interviews with each artist adds to the raw beauty of how James Hinton incorporated them into the songs. And, you know, the songs. Twinkling and pulsating synths back a synthesis of electronic styles that repurpose pop samples into something akin to the popular club music of our time. It’s a hell of an achievement, and the humanity shown makes it that much better. — Brian Duricy

14. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS (Western Vinyl)

Orcas Island artist Helen Loggie composed sketches of the indigenous vegetation and landscape exclusive to the tiny islands in Washington state. Trees slumped over like time-worn people, snow-peaked mountainous backdrops, and water imposing its will on tiny landforms. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — also a native daughter of Orcas Island — crafts music on EARS with the same visual emphasis when Loggie captured nature’s cycles. Smith begins the track “Wetlands” with a collection of found sounds and samples mimicking the noise nature models for us before an odd time signature and looped vocals appear like softened ululations. Modular synth sounds from her coveted Buchia 100 create an organic ebb and flow of rhythms and sounds on “Rare Things Grow”. Sax in colors and shapes in place of musical notations cover the collection of primal clicks and water-filled sounds.

Appreciation for nature is exemplified through constant experimentation. “Arthropoda” is an invertebrate track, lacking the typical spine found in its composition. It creeps and crawls amidst the wooshing and warped fusion of looped vocals and bleated textures. Likewise, Smith’s jazz-influenced “Stratus” reveal her penchant for dynamics, beginning with atonal sax patterns while the same diminutive melodies disappear as discreetly as a sunset. EARS starts with flight and ends contemplating the perpetual change that happens whether we notice it or not. — Stephan Wyatt

13. Brood Ma – Daze (Tri-Angle)

Like the best releases from Arca, Brood Ma’s Tri-Angle debut Daze eschews conventional song boundaries for a piece-length feeling — “piece-length” because, at 27 minutes spread across 13 songs, this is more akin to a quick jaunt into the apocalypse than an album’s ethos. But what a trip it is, squeezing the dystopic juices out of whatever instruments he could get his hands on, from a submerged bass (“Thorium Mox”) to zipping synths right after (“Molten Brownian Motion”). It’s an exhausting listen, and don’t let the light peeking out on the cover fool you, Daze is all about a dive into the darkness. — Brian Duricy


12. Mark Pritchard – Under the Sun (Warp)

With music released under so many guises, it might be surprising to learn that this is Mark Pritchard’s first ‘proper’ solo album and one that sees him take cues from throughout his career. The glacial rhythms of Global Communication, the hip-hop influenced beats of Harmonic 313 and the more straightforward song structures of Troubleman are all present and correct. However, this sounds like nothing he has done before, sounding genuinely fresh and contemporary. The palette cleansing “?” provides a mournful and sombre ambient opening before giving way to a rolling, psychedelic track featuring suitably trippy vocals from Bibio. “Infrared” is a jarring, krautrock influenced gem and it soon becomes apparent in just three songs that this is going to be a journey unlike any Pritchard has produced before. Tracks spit and cackle, loop and thrum, lounge and hang, offering no clue as to which style he is going to explore next. The headline grabbing Thom Yorke collaboration “Beautiful People” is simply stunning while the hypnotic rhythm and the hair-raising spoken word narration of Bean’s on “The Blinds Cage” provides another undoubted highlight. From motoric Krautrock beats to haunting balladry to delicate, dreamy ambience, this has something for everyone. Under the Sun finds Mark Pritchard comfortable in his own identity and producing, arguably, the finest album of his varied career. — Paul Carr

11. Jay Daniel – Broken Knowz (Ninja Tune/Technicolour)

Broken Knowz sees Jay Daniel cast off the shadow of the Detroit techno scene and strike out on his own. When recording the album, Daniel looked to redefine his sound and in doing so picked up his drumsticks and retired to his Mother’s basement. The result is a very human album with a clear identity that challenges the norms of the techno genre. “Last of the Dogons”, “Paradise Valley” and “Nikki” see him build a percussive base allowing keyboard riffs and synth flourishes to fizzle and burst. From there Daniel explores the freedom of using live drums as he mixes them with programmed beats, culminating in the epic “Knowledge of Selfie” which serves as the album’s centerpiece. Daniels has a clear, unique vision for himself as an artist. Not hamstrung by expectation or adherence to one particular genre. This is an enigmatic artist doing it on his terms. — Paul Carr


10. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens proves that the personal is always political. While largely an impressionistic and meditative lyrically, with only glancing implications to actual events that have occurred, the album still undoubtedly feels political. Why? In its subtly subversive way, Jaar challenges our notion of melodic electronic music in the myriad of sounds he mines in his second full-length album. He flits between ambient textures, Suicide-inspired synth rock, techno, and, finally, doo-wop balladry. It’s an uncanny album. Like his debut, Space Is Only Noise, Sirens conjures many sonic and emotional associations, pulling you into its orbit, making each choice, no matter how abstract, somehow feel intuitive. While Jaar’s work in the past could sometimes feel like a mapping of his own, brilliant introspection, Sirens feels more outwardly expressive. Its sound mirrors the turbulent world in which it was created. By channeling the painful history of his home country Chile’s struggle with the dictator Augusto Pinochet (specifically in the centerpiece “No”) and transmuting it to America’s unfortunate political climate, Jaar has created an unsettling and beautiful work about history repeating itself. — Tanner Smith

9. Tim Hecker – Love Streams (4AD)

Tim Hecker’s eighth album, Love Streams begins with a bit of a feign — collaborator Kara Lis-Coverdale’s keyboards start its first thirty seconds, a nod to his previous album Virgins. But once this subsides into euphonic winds, the real aesthetic of the album takes shape. With Love Streams, Hecker eases you in with titles that state exactly what they sound like (the feathery “Music of the Air” and the choral warpings of “Castrati Stack”) and some that hint at humor (“Up Red Bull Creek”) that could only come from working in somewhere remote, away from the daily effects of mass-market late capitalism. But above all else, the album title reveals the sound’s greatest secret: that it’s the result of a peerless collective of musicians under the guise of the best ambient artist working today who have channeled the feelings of love in all their terrifying, euphoric might, into a completely fluid experience. — Brian Duricy

8. Illum Sphere – Glass (Ninja Tune)

The follow up to 2014’s Ghosts of Then and Now saw DJ and producer Ryan Hunn (aka Illum Sphere) make a concerted effort to mix things up. The result is a self-assured album that sees him straddle the path between experimental ambience and offbeat house. It’s a winning combination as he manages to create something so enthrallingly idiosyncratic, that it is impossible not to be seduced by its charms. Hunn cleverly uses beats as a launchpad for sonic experimentation that allows him to create wondrous collages of sound such as on “Fall Into Water” and “Fuel the Fire”. These tracks highlight the push and pull of the ambient and house sides to Hunn’s work with beats and melodies allowed to drift before being tugged back in. He also shows faith in his instincts to explore his more idiosyncratic side on tracks such as “Oracle”. Both of these strands to his work come together and culminate in the epic “Thousand Yard Stare”. It’s the perfect juxtaposition between the icy synth lines and warm, familiar percussion that make this album so captivating. — Paul Carr

7. S U R V I V E – RR7349 (Relapse)

Yeah, yeah… Everybody loved Stranger Things, and a large part of what made it successful was its throwback synthtastic soundtrack. It was easily one of the most buzzed and marketed TV series of the year. What wasn’t covered quite as much was that the two guys responsible for that score, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, have been producing in a quartet with Adam Jones and Mark Donica for under the name of S U R V I V E for the last half a dozen years or so. Seizing their moment, they chose 2016 to unleash their most sophisticated and strangest thing yet. Their first effort for Relapse, hence its catalogue-based name, RR7349 is pure bliss for anyone who appreciates classic sci-fi and horror soundtracks from the ’70s and ’80s in the vein of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Goblin, or the inventive spirit of Radiophonic library music. This is woozy crackle and haunted vibe of vintage equipment and homemade toys, parsed into cinematic, progressive kosmische and trippy synthpop jams that evoke the childhood sound of generations, without merely dredging up the past. — Alan Ranta

6. Autechre – elseq 1-5 (Warp)

From 1992-1994, Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series branded certain artists (including Richard D. James/Polygon Window and Autechre) as fodder for cerebral, rather than physical, musical listening activity. The message of the branding was that this is electronic music but not dance music. In recent years, James’ Aphex Twin project has reemerged to some of the best reviews of his career with proper new releases in the form of LPs and EPs, as well as a Soundcloud dump of more than 150 tracks. Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown), which has released albums of new music more consistently than Aphex Twin, unleashed a project in 2016 that synthesized all these approaches to music distribution and further established the incredible vitality of Warp artists that have been making music for 30 years and continuing to innovate.

elseq 1-5 is an album in five parts, or a series of five LPs, with no physical release. Though the five parts together make up a massive playlist of digital music, the sequencing, style, and artwork of the individual installments make each one an essential component of the Autechre discography. Thus anyone hoping for a new Autechre album in 2016 encountered five such albums all at once. And none of it is “disposable information”.

I hear Autechre in shapes, so perhaps the most illustrative analogy I can provide for installments 1-5 together is the image of the V-shaped equalizer. elseq 1 pushes some upper limits of confrontational dynamics, with opening track “feed1” playing like a moat that must be crossed in order to reach the castle. By comparison, the next track “c16 deep tread” is downright conventional Bounce Music. The physicality of elseq 1-5 subverts the original idea of Artificial Intelligence and Warp pushing its version of easy chair-listening. But the collection is never wearying, as tracks like 2‘s “chimer 1-5-1” make room for the ghost of an ambient past, here reconfigured within whatever the name is for electro sent via wormhole.

The third (middle) installment is the easiest to digest, as it includes the set’s most continuous drone (“eastre”) and most casual beat (“TBM2”). elseq 4 intertwines melodies and ambient style with polyrhythm (“foldfree casual”) and closes with a restless number (“7th slip”) that adds another variation to the ways sounds in this collection fight one another for space. elseq 5 closes the set on a high with a bona fide dance track (“freulaeux”) and “oneum,” which sets the listener up for a drop that never arrives, but does finally provide fades to break the high tension. Despite its more than four-hour running time and bounty of sounds, elseq 1-5 ends with a sense that the grid for Autechre’s game is getting bigger, resetting for the next match. — Thomas Britt


5. Venetian Snares – Traditional Synthesizer Music (Planet Mu)

No one else makes music like Winnipeg’s Aaron Funk, not by a long shot. Yet, even though his vast breakcore catalogue as Venetian Snares and his acid techno work as Last Step is so distinctive, he always finds new ways to express himself within his peculiar confines. His two-dozenth album or so, Traditional Synthesizer Music tore down all the walls, literally and figuratively. Funk remade his studio after he accidentally spawned a psychic null zone making “10th Circle of Winnipeg” from 2014’s My Love Is a Bulldozer, and Traditional Synthesizer Music reflects his subsequent reinvestment in modular synthesis. His patchwork set-ups were also taken apart between each piece, after they were recorded live, which injected new levels of spontaneity and humanity into his productions, unreal fractal forms of unsettling melodies in uneven time signatures at insane BPMs. The result was his best and most complete album since 2005’s ground breaking, genre making Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, as proven by Traditional Synthesizer Music landing on a couple of Billboard charts. — Alan Ranta

4. Ash Koosha – I AKA I (Ninja Tune)

Ash Koosha’s latest offering, I AKA I, is partly inspired by his ability to group sound with colors. The trait, called synesthesia, is a somewhat rare condition where experiencing sensory input in one sense will trigger a reaction in another simultaneously. For non-synesthetes, the concept might be difficult to grasp. However, Koosha is intent on letting listeners partake in the phenomenon themselves. Since he’s able to effectively “see” sound, he plays around with the shape of the music, as if it’s a physical form that can be “broken down, liquefied, rescaled or spatially positioned”. These are the tools Koosha uses to express the album’s focus on “transformations in psychology and technological advancements”. It might sound like a lot to fit into one album, but according to Koosha, it all leads back to the same thing: humanity. — Chad Miller

3. Pantha du Prince – The Triad (Rough Trade)

In a year defined by both human coldness and destructive heat, when the politics became downright cynical and regressive, the warm and welcoming cocoon of Pantha du Prince’s music provided a welcome respite. Opening with what it perhaps the most beautiful song of this year, “The Winter Hymn”, this sublime album features a set of ten songs that create an immersive and warm experience enveloped by the heavenly chimes, ethereal vocals, gentle beats, and celestial warmth. “The Winter Hymn” is what I imagine hearing while bathing in the heat of outdoor Icelandic spa waters. These are truly some of the most beautiful sounds this year, and they are utterly transportive. Pantha du Prince creative leader Hendrik Weber has hinted that this may very well be that last Pantha du Prince project, so relax and enjoy this flight into a stunningly gorgeous world that just might convince you that we will all muddle through somehow. — Sarah Zupko

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2. Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future (Universal)

Underworld’s opening song “I Exhale” brings the Trans-Cardiff Express, Kraftwerk-worshipping duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith to the surface in perfect daylight. Inspired by remastering their prized late ’80s and ’90s catalog, Hyde brings his Mark E. Smith spoken-word stylings with bleak lyrics for an uncertain future over Underworld’s vintage electroclash beat. The irony in the title reveals itself on “If Rah” and “Ova Nova”: they appeal to the brightened optimism and sanguine comforts technology brings while underscoring the dread of humanity being replaced by AI and automation.

And we have to also thank director Danny Boyle for his deep appreciation for the band’s notorious role it played on his Trainspotting soundtrack. Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future reminds those initially drawn to electronic music’s allure through tracks like “Nylon Strung” that fuse house and techno with a touch of melody — the kind of repetitive theme acting as an anthem you wish could last longer than the night it fills. — Stephan Wyatt

1. Ital Tek – Hollowed (Planet Mu)

Ital Tek has made a nearly perfect album, wherein each note and beat contains an intimate history of Alan Myson’s decade-long artistic development. From Hollowed’s pensive opening track, “A Delicate Balance”, to “Vacuum I’s” understated pads and lithe rhythms, the latter the equivalent to a person’s heart beating at the pace of a panic attack, Myson’s compositions descend into the abyss without fearing the endless fall. Darkened textures and mixed samples of hellish discord tie together the theme of vast emptiness. And how that emptiness translates into something acoustic instrumentation often fails to do, Ital Tek creates future beat’s version of the Cure’s Pornography.

Hollowed demonstrates the humanity of electronic music, particularly in a time when critics of EDM and dubstep have declared both genres dead. The term “terminus” possesses a dispassionate connotation: an extreme end. For Mayson, what ends with Hollowed is the journey to discover the shadows within himself. Likewise, the track “Terminus” gracefully embraces that very darkness. No other album made by an electronic composer this year delves this deeply into places people fear to face. — Stephan Wyatt

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