Is there anything wrong with nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake? No, but if an artist can use nostalgia for inspiration and then move beyond its boundaries, that is often even better. James Hinton, the Brooklynite who creates electronic music under the moniker The Range, seems to know this, consciously or not. His fourth album, Mercury, might be his most nostalgic to date. Yet it is also his boldest and most fully realized.
As Hinton freely admits, the sound of Mercury harks back to the first golden age of electronic dance music in the mid-to-late 1990s. That was at a time when the likes of Orbital, Aphex Twin, and Future Sound of London ruled the airways in clubs and bedrooms and often made their way onto mainstream radio.
Mercury’s influences are apparent from the first track, “Bicameral”. Some moody synth tones waft up, and then a trebly, period-specific beat kicks in. The clipped, metallic snare, tambourine, and dubby bassline seem like a direct homage to Future Sound of London’s iconic “Papua New Guinea”. From there, the track takes on a life of its own, but it’s an unmistakable statement about where the album’s roots lie. — John Bergstrom
The joy of being a Rival Consoles fan is not knowing what direction Ryan Lee West will take his project next. After some notable boundary-pushing albums at the start of the 2020s, Now Is marks a return to form for his distinct brand of ambient techno, and it sounds like he missed making this kind of music. At times claustrophobic (like on the echoing “Frontiers”), at times exceptionally rendered (like during the waves of cascading synths that make up “Running”), Now Is is an album that feels born out of a particular post-lockdown headspace, grappling with darkness but never succumbing to sadness.
There are a lot of elements at play in Now Is, but the beauty of West’s compositions is that they never lean too hard into a particular trope. Closer “Quiet Home”, for example, feels like it’s going to be a meditative closer, but well-placed orchestral plucks and some surprising hushed roars of feedback help elevate it to be more than a mere keyboard ballad. Now Is feels effortless in its execution, but only because West has been honing his craft for the past decade-and-a-half, utilizing all his genre experiments to help create a gorgeous return to form. Even if he’s taken some time away from ambient techno, Now Is makes it feel like he never truly left. — Evan Sawdey
Ross From Friends
Ross From Friends returned in 2022 with his best album yet in Tread, a poppier and more dance floor directed effort than his debut LP, Family Portrait. “The Daisy” is a stunning opening with a warm, dubstep feel married to exceptionally soulful vocals and music. Like many tracks this year, it features a hazy nostalgia that welcomes burned-out, stressed people with a loving hug, while sounding original and forward-looking. The artist has expanded his range with a more personal and inviting approach on Tread, which feels like an immersive sound world.
“Love Divide” comes front loaded right after with a continuation of “The Daisy’s” approach as the overall vibe mellows things out, while drawing the listener in deep. “A Brand New Start” features some really sweet, orchestral soul, interspersed with glitches and rough cuts that roughen the sweetness and make the overall music more emotionally complex. Ross From Friends has grown exponentially since his early work and Tread possesses a sophistication and maturity that points to a brilliant future for the producer. — Sarah Zupko
In what is one of the year’s best dance records, Röyksopp – Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland – flex its creative muscles with Profound Mysteries. It’s an innovative and genre-testing project that saw the duo create some fine dance music that was married to some arresting visuals with the accompanying musical clips. Berge and Brundtland maintain that their outfit had released its last ‘traditional’ LP in 2014 and instead saw Profound Mysteries as conceptual art. What Profound Mysteries does is to question the rules of pop music, especially in how we conceptualize pop records, important questions to ask as the music industry continues to change exponentially.
It would be easy for a record like Profound Mysteries to collapse under the lofty and heightened ambitions of the duo – but thankfully, it’s a brilliant, transcendent album that benefits from contributions from dance heroines like Pixx, Astrid S, Alison Goldfrapp, and Susanne Sundfør, as well as a slate of tunes that pay homage to 1980s New Romantic, synthpop and New Wave, and disco. — Peter Piatkowski
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Let’s Turn It Into Sound
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new work, Let’s Turn It Into Sound, is built on the idea that music can express our ineffable inner worlds. “‘Let’s turn it into sound’ is about taking feelings that aren’t able to be expressed through words … and turning it into sound,” says Smith. However, there are lyrics here. She delivers her words in highly charged and processed vocals that stick out of the mix and have turned the non-representational quality of her abstract music into something more explicit than the mission statement suggests.
Five of the ten tracks here have lyrics, often tame expressions of love and hope (“I love the love we share / I still deeply care for your special thoughts on all I do”), but that’s the point. These words have been manipulated beyond recognition, and without a lyrics sheet, most are near intelligible. Let’s Turn It Into Sound is about using music to express ourselves without relying on clunky words; it just so happens that using some clunky words is imperative to the process. To know what’s there, you must know what’s not there. — Jay Honeycomb
The music of Misha Sultan resists easy contextualization. The composer and sound engineer grew up smack-dab in the heart of Siberia, where he and his brothers began making music as kids. Yet Misha’s sound world does not conjure up the desolate winter hellscape that so many Westerners picture when they think of Siberia (and indeed, the real Siberia is far more diverse than that). His music is rich and teeming with life, full of bubbling synths, gorgeous reed passages, and many all-natural field recordings.
Misha’s latest album, Roots, is a collection of songs recorded between 2015 and 2022. It arrives during a rather dark time in the artist’s life—while making it, Russia invaded Ukraine, and Misha was forced to flee his home country. Now is as good a time as ever to dig deep into the multi-instrumentalist’s sonic universe. Against a backdrop of tragedy and exile, Roots showcases all the things that Misha does well. — Parker Desautell
Luke Pretty, the 25-year-old Canadian musician better known as Tennyson, has proven time and time again that pop music can be danceable, full of hooks, and also intelligent and sophisticated. With his earlier EPs – including Like This, Different Water, and Telescope – Tennyson crafted tracks that combined complex beats with playful, jittery melodies, like an Orange Milk Records artist aiming for pop stardom. This kind of blueprint served him well through these short-form releases. However, with Rot, Tennyson has unleashed a full-length debut that takes the best instincts of those earlier EPs and combines it into a rich, multi-layered masterpiece.
Contradictions abound on Rot – the skeletal, four-on-the-floor funk of “Iron”, for example, lives comfortably alongside the anthemic rock-tilted balladry of the anthemic closer, “Figure Eights”, but taken as a whole, the album falls into place with remarkable skill and consistency. Creating pop/funk masterpieces you can dance to and admire from a songwriting perspective can be very hard to come by. But it seems like Tennyson can do that stuff in his sleep. — Chris Ingalls
(In My Room)
Anders Trentemøller has steadily moved away from the clubs he frequented. His music, too, has moved away from minimalist techno and dubby electronics and into new wave areas while relying more and more on non-electronic instrumentation. However, Trentemøller still operates in the back alley gutters of his beloved early 1980s. In the noirish “All Cats Are Grey”, the sounds shine brightly. Memoria, his seventh album, is another worthy visionary testament to the Trentemøller canon.
It’s a highly conceptual affair and multi-layered like a Neil Gaiman graphic novel. The atmosphere is Blade Runner-dense, and it’s a challenging listen, but we expect nothing less from the artist. Memoria kick’s off with an impressive quartet of mostly vocal-driven songs. “Veil of White” and “No More Kissing in the Rain” make the first structuring pillars with their 1980s the Cure Faith-era chorus guitar and My Bloody Valentine-like vocals. Trentemøller has us reined in from the start, and we jump right into that strange car without hesitation. We know it will probably hurt sometime during the ride, but it will be worth it. — Jesper Nøddeskov
TSHA is one of the best young producers at the moment and her debut, Capricorn Sun, was hotly anticipated this year. The record is awash in warm electronic music of many stripes, but based around the dance floor. “The Light” is gloriously soulful with a hook you’ll remember for a long time married to some joyful keyboards and steel drum sounds. “OnlyL” feature’s NIMMO’s angelic and soaring vocals alongside some of the catchiest electropop of the year. Its pop sense is mixed with groovy beats that recall the best of Rudimental. Just call it electrosoul.
Following this pop high, TSHA ventures into African sounds by pairing with Oumou Sangaré for the dreamy and mellower “Water”. The synths glitter with rapid rhythms in the later sections as the track builds to a delicious crescendo. Other highlights include the singles, “Power” and “Running”. “Power” rolls to a banging rhythm with steel drum flourishes and encouraging calls to “come on”. This one packs the club to the rafters, as does “Running” with its wistful nostalgia.
TSHA’s sound and aesthetic are thoroughly her own and she draws from an exceptionally wide palate to craft her music. This is the brightest, emotional groove-fest of the year, and a truly astounding debut. It’s my number one album of the year in any genre. — Sarah Zupko
Working Men’s Club
The best way to describe Yorkshire synthpoppers Working Men’s Club is that they sound as if Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark merged into one, with a bit of New Order‘s electronic rock thrown in for good measure. Their sophomore album, Fear Fear, plays like a post-punk electro ride with slabs of electrofunk pushing compelling rhythms and driving everything forward. Syd Minsky-Sargeant delivers his vocal lines in a deadpan manner riding across all manner of beats.
On “Fear Fear and elsewhere, Working Men’s Club tap into this era’s many anxieties with soaring synths, skittering beats, and some truly tremendous bass lines underlying the claustrophobic atmosphere. “Ploys” employs more upbeat synths and a bubbling melody with heavy funk bass but speaks to a feeling of disconnection: “When we talk of the times / We talk in the past tense.” This may not be happy music, but your body will never stop moving as you are drawn into Working Men’s Club’s somewhat nostalgic sound world. — Sarah Zupko