Now into their 18th year of making records, UK synthpoppers Hot Chip show no sign of flagging on Freakout/Release as they build on an enviable catalog of open-hearted floor fillers and finely crafted pop-dance tunes. On their eighth album, they harness a newfound band dynamic and improvisational spirit gained from their live shows and a new studio while drawing on a period of pandemic-induced anxiety that’s seemingly left a trail of good people damaged and traumatized. Freakout/Release’s 11 multi-stylistic songs are admirably adventurous in their preoccupation with troubled states of being.
“Down” is wonderfully funky, soulful, and urgent, with vocalist Alexis Taylor ramping up the intensity in the role of a paranoid lover. The title track is an aggressive rock/dance hybrid, while “Broken” is a heartfelt ballad possessed of a divine melody, a delicate vocal, and a big chorus of chiming synth chords. Added to this is “Hard to Be Funky”, on which Joe Goddard frets (always the fretting) about aging, grooving, and loving over a noirish groove before the straight-ahead house outing that is “Time”. You can forgive Hot Chip for the occasional daft lyric concerning Andre the Giant, Samuel Beckett, and carpools when you have tunes like this. – Adam Mason
Ibibio Sound Machine
Hot Chip-produced Electricity sees Ibibio Sound Machine launch their signature London-meets-Lagos electrofunk further into the future than ever before. Sharp, polished beats and grooves make for a lively set of synthpop tracks, though never at the expense of classic musicianship. Eno Williams’ vocals are as strong as ever, and the album is packed full of horns, bass, guitar, and drums; percussionists Afla Sackey and Joseph Omoako add additional texture.
Thankfully, the group hasn’t forsaken their flair for the vintage; “Wanna See Your Face Again” is a definite 1990s club throwback, while “Truth No Lie” recalls disco’s finest moments. Electricity, though, is not only past and present but future funk. “Protection from Evil” and “Electricity” sizzle at the start; “Freedom” is a glittering finale full of love and hope. In between, the band simmers, shimmers, and bursts. In a career already notable for frequently changing direction, Electricity is the band’s sleekest and most gripping work to date. – Adriane Pontecorvo
The Last Goodbye
(Ninja Tune/Foreign Family Collective)
Nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, The Last Goodbye is a strong return for ODESZA after several years of side projects. It’s a vast, expansive album that touches upon various emotions and moods. Despite the diversity of the material, themes, and sounds, The Last Goodbye is a cohesive project. The best of it engages with the album’s guest vocalists injecting melancholy and emotion.
The Last Goodbye’s first single, the title track, is a prime example of the duo’s brilliance. Structuring the tune around a sample of the Bettye LaVette classic “Let Me Down Easy”, ODESZA heighten the anguish and pain in LaVette’s performance by isolating the impassioned chorus and lacing studio effects and reverb, giving the vocals a gospel-like fervency. Recasting the soul legend as an indie-dance diva is a stroke of genius. From the fiery power of Bettye LaVette to the ethereal charms of the angelic Charlie Houston, “Wide Awake” is a driving club banger that speeds through at a breakneck pace (yet is miraculously emotional and poignant.) The true genius of The Last Goodbye is that it brings humanity and empathy, a warmness to a genre that can be chilly in its high-tech artifice. — Peter Piatkowski
Already in late 2022, some people want to declare that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, moving past a nearly three-year cycle of disease, sadness, and misery that has affected the entire planet. Yet for those who contracted COVID, lost a loved one to the disease, or have been cursed with the “long” version of it, the effects of the pandemic never left. Perhaps the global trauma we experienced is best reflected in the two albums released by Brooklyn artist Robert Ouyang Rusli, under their OHYUNG moniker, in the year’s first half.
Their first record, GODLESS, was formed of screaming beats, caterwaul synths, and the kind of anger that makes tracks like “FUCK ELON MUSK” feel all the more palpable all these months later. The other album, imagine naked!, is borne out of OHYUNG’s first attempt at creating an ambient album, capturing the discovery and serenity many obtained in forced isolation. Clocking in just under two hours, imagine naked! is a nakedly raw emotional experience, using Rusli’s tools as someone who worked in film scores to capture a variety of moods: uncertainty, serenity, and release.
Using a plethora of textures and instruments, imagine naked! runs a gamut of feelings, at times unwavering and uncertain and, at other moments, fully blissed out. It’s a bold move to open your record with a 15-minute opus and even bolder to close with a 37-minute one (longer than some of the other albums on this list, mind you), but the genius of imagine naked! lies in how it moves through its movements without censorship: every composition is given exactly how long it needs to breathe and leave its impact.
OHYUNG was already an accomplished musician before imagine naked! came out, which is partly why their first attempt at an ambient album is not the work of an amateur. However, it’s imbued with the power and spirit of someone discovering how best to weaponize their craft, laying out an emotional map of their soul, and finding harmony and resonance within all those who listen. imagine naked! isn’t just an incredible plunge into the best ambient music has to offer: it’s one of the year’s best albums, regardless of genre—a masterwork. — Evan Sawdey
Outside the Ride
Out on Hyperdub, Okzharp’s Outside the Ride opens with a churning undercurrent while a three-note synth pattern builds and harmonizes with itself. Titled “Incline Disconnect”, the song has a titular ascent as syncopated rhythms stack on top of each other, and a twinkling synth pattern floats above. Most of the arrangements on the album create suspense and anxiety, intensity, and worried anticipation expecting a dramatic climax–maybe a drop. But this restlessness doesn’t usually culminate into something subsuming, surprising, or resolute; instead, the design succeeds at creating a stagnant ominous mood, something like that of the neon-filled dystopian atmosphere in the original Bladerunner. The future Okzharp dreams up with his production feels depressingly bleak.
Outside the Ride is a mesmerizing collection of songs–electronic music with dense layers and complex rhythms that evoke a moody, futuristic world. Incomplete as they may sometime feel, they are still places you’d like to visit in your imagination. — Brandon Miller
(Friends of Friends Music)
Produced over the pandemic years, Home sees Perera Elsewhere evolving beyond the doom-folk that made her well-known. Toning down the doom-folk angle, Perera grounds the sound of her third album closer in line with the vibe of her DJ sets, aiming for more rise than fall in the mix. Where her earlier doom put silver linings on grey clouds, there’s more meat in these gym mats, equally as cerebral with a touch more cushion. She appears freer on this album, unburdened by expectation, able to simply be and create.
Of course, she can’t help being a little creepy on Home. It’s in the foundation. Perera Elsewhere’s vocals on the opening track, “Delete”, have a certain buzzing quality, seemingly recorded through a ribbon mic threaded with the wings of corpse flies. Her voice is perfect for a digital reimagining of classic trip-hop, enhancing any murky cyberpunk-noir feel, so it is wonderful that she still goes there.
With its booming, distorted subbase rumble settling ominously under haunting vocal and piano melodies, “Stranger” sounds like doom incarnate. This largely instrumental track has such a malevolent presence, a haunting atmosphere as thick and creepy as fog in the Stephen King sense. — Alan Ranta
“Abject pop.” That’s what Alyssa Midcalf, recording under the name Primer, calls her music. Buoyant beats mixed with lyrics that confront life’s harsh realities – it’s not exactly a new approach in pop music, but some certainly do it better than others. Midcalf, who released her first Primer album – Novelty – in 2019, crafted a gauzy, occasionally impenetrable sound on that debut. Now, with Incubator, the sound is a bit more approachable but still layered enough to sound fresh with each new listen.
One of Incubator’s finest moments is “Hypercube”, arguably the gleaming centerpiece of Incubator. Opening with percussive cacophony and a propulsive synth sequence, a lightning-fast tempo carries the song along as a dizzying array of sonic treats are thrown around as if Midcalf and Prebish are going for broke – tossing all manner of riffs, hooks, and keyboard squalls at the wall (as Midcalf sings “Let it go, let it go”). Fortunately, it all sticks, particularly the odd but oddly satisfying ambient segment that closes out the song. — Chris Ingalls
For Daryl Groetsch, his use of the synthesizer goes far beyond his dozens of releases under the moniker of Pulse Emitter. This year, he began releasing “pure ambient space music” (the description courtesy of his website) under his name. He also does freelance instructional videos for Korg synthesizers, has participated in a variety of collaborations with other musicians, and released a pair of albums of dungeon synth music as Endless Fog. His synth work takes on various forms and casts a wide net. His latest Pulse Emitter release, Dusk, continues exploring what’s possible with the synthesizer.
Groetsch’s works as Pulse Emitter have spanned a variety of subgenres, including melodic synth music, organic ambient, relaxation, microtonal, and noise/drone. Dusk seems to encompass most, if not all, of these; it works well as a sampler of Pulse Emitter styles. A common thread throughout the album is a keen sense of melody, as arpeggios and melodic lines cross over each other, creating a lushness that washes over the listener. — Chris Ingalls
PVA — BLUSH
Like Working Men’s Club, South London electronic band PVA root their sound in post-punk with funky, pounding beats, but an element of gothic rock creeps in that informs Ella Harris’ mesmerizing vocals. Add a bunch of kinetic, industrial textures, and PVA cook up an exciting debut album with BLUSH. That industrial urge sits from and center on the opener “Untethered”, which thrills with its shrieking synths and stabbing beats. The mix of sounds that PVA concoct is startlingly unique, and they absolutely nail their aesthetic on their first record. Pulsing energy rides through each track. On “Bunker”, Josh Baxter sings of “the faces staring that show up at night” as the song feels like a fever dream with the roiling synths and trippy lines. From front to back, BLUSH is thoroughly exciting and original. — Sarah Zupko