Best Electronic Albums of 2021
Image by Cornelia Schneider-Frank from Pixabay

The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2021

The best electronic albums of the year feature many diverse approaches from electropop to IDM and ambient to footwork with artists pushing the music forward.

5. Ground – Ozunu [ChillMountain Records]

Ground - Ozunu

Ground’s newest LP, Ozunu, is inspired by the fairytales and folklore of Osaka. And while the music still bears his signature organic imprint, the result is a little more chopped-and-screwed. Ozunu is an album of knackered grooves, murky pads, and corroded synthesizers. It’s a soupy cauldron of acid house jams that almost all top six minutes but, stunningly, never feel too drawn-out. In this way, Ozunu is a definite step forward for Ground, whose past work (especially on Vod-Nizm) sometimes meandered into overly lengthy runtimes.

The magic of Ozunu is that there is so much going on in every track, but it never sounds overstuffed. Like the trippy album art, which Singapore-based artist Reza Hasni created, the LP is overwhelmingly colorful but never too colorful for its own good. Ozunu is that rare thing: an infinitely-layered, lavishly overdubbed house record that does not have a single misplaced flourish. Parker Desautell

4. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises [Luaka Bop]

floating points promises

pace is the place on Promises, a sublime collaboration between producer Sam Shepherd, known as Floating Points, and tenor sax legend and Coltrane collaborator Pharoah Sanders. Featuring exquisite work by the London Symphony Orchestra, the continuous nine-movement suite is a testament to the power of sonic subtlety and negative space. Sanders plays a truly cosmic horn, beaming through the electronic galaxy Shepherd crafts with such delicacy.

The piece morphs over time in astounding ways, a starry synth motif the backbone holding languid, open moments together with heated string sections and layers of keys. Sanders’s breath and vocables are warm and human; Shepherd and the Orchestra create a cool galaxy dotted with white-hot twinkling. Adding to the sense of space, each member of the Orchestra was recorded with strict social distancing protocols, individual microphones picking up each musician. Intimate and expansive, Promises is a new world of sound at once personal and transcendent. – Adriane Pontecorvo

3. Jana Rush – Painful Enlightenment [Planet Mu]

Jana Rush - Painful Enlightenment

What Painful Enlightenment, the second LP from long-time house DJ and footwork experimentalist Jana Rush has in common with her debut, 2017’s Pariah, is the tendency to seemingly craft tracks where tempos circle each other, occasionally colliding. She is deft at dropping a slower melody – a jazzy piano tinkle, for example – in a caldron with twitchy BPMs, making the listener unsettled, wobbly. The results are disorienting and slippery, at once calming and migraine-inducing.

There’s something more personal about her work in general and this release in particular. That’s likely to do with how she used Painful Enlightenment to address her issues with depression. Nowhere on the album is this more evident than on the nine-minute “Suicidal Ideation”. A repeated yelp occurs over the sounds of metal being crunched or sewer creatures coming to life. The beat is a stuttered jitter seemingly designed to induce discomfort. It takes a while to settle in, but when it does, with help from a piano line and a deep, bassoon-like see-sawing of notes, it becomes its own sound world, expecting nothing less than immersion from listeners. – Bruce Miller

2. Loraine James – Reflection [Hyperdub]

Loraine James - Reflection

Reflection wholly obliterates any qualms about the genre’s potential for emotional austerity. Loraine James recorded the album in lockdown-littered 2020, and across the course of its vibrantly alive 11 tracks, her soul soars across space and time, sifting through memories and yearning for a better world. The album shifts its compositional tone and emotional axis with the skill of a master craftswoman, moving between melancholic longing, seductive romanticism, and hopeful optimism with deft, controlled ease. 

The tracks that are most IDM-ish, such as the angular “Let’s Go” and the lengthy head-scrambler “Change”, show that James can produce works of cerebral, mechanical genius. Yet what’s so brilliant about Reflection is that James chooses to forge her own identity, embracing drill, R&B, and numerous other sounds to create a work that’s as rife with emotion and observations as it is technical virtuosity. It’s a complete package – a work of seductive, heartfelt brilliance by an artist at the absolute peak of her powers. — Tom Morgan

1. The Bug – Fire [Ninja Tune]

The Bug - Fire

The Bug‘s Fire is his latest full-length to be released under the moniker and might be his most incendiary synthesis of stomach-quaking bass, savage rhythms, and captivating MC collaborations. Fire’s tone is, aptly, one of pure, scorching heat. Its cover depicts a sheet of flames, which makes for a potent parallel in a summer defined by news of wildfires and heat waves decimating countries across the world. Along with the climate crisis, Fire also comments on our planet’s increasingly volatile socio-political climate. If London Zoo and Angels & Devils each spoke to their own urban psychogeographies, then Fire reflects the urban landscape of the last 18 months – a place that has become defined by broiling tension and explosive anger.

The menacing tone of Fire’s MC’s guest appearances reflects this mentality. Each of the album’s 14 tracks features a guest appearance, all of which brim with energy, intensity, and righteous fury. Highlights include Moor Mother’s scarily tense work on “Vexed”, Flowdan’s effortless and elastic flow on the apocalyptic “Pressure”, and Manga Saint Hilare’s charismatic grime bars on the sharp, IDM-esque “Bang”. The ever-present MCs create a sense of unity amidst the carnage, creating a melange of voices that speak of their own experiences and aggressions. That gives the album a moral bent, as though collaboration has the power to extinguish a world up in flames.

Fire is Martin’s finest Bug album. It distills both the project’s and his philosophy down to its simplest, purest form. In the process, it says something profound and provides a viscerally entertaining masterclass in bass-driven electronica. It’s as though his lifelong search for material soundscapes has led him here, to this point in time where the urgent and incendiary tone of the current socio-political landscape syncs up wholly with his vision of the potentialities of music. Fire is an album for a world on fire, a soundsystem at the end of the world. – Tom Morgan