The Best Electronic Music of 2012

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Top Electronic EPs of 2012

10. Two Fingers – Stunt Rhythms (Big Dada)

A few years back, Two Fingers was founded as a collaboration between Amon Tobin and his old buddy Joe “Doubleclick” Chapman. But where the duo’s eponymous 2009 debut was stifled by trite club hip-hop and grime vocals, obscuring the magnitude of their main stage instrumentals, the follow-up is a far more pared down affair. Framed more so as a Tobin solo album,
Stunt Rhythms is entirely instrumental, which allows the focus to be on Tobin’s trademark elusive technical studio prowess, albeit channeled into more nightclub friendly forms than heard on his increasingly elaborate eponymous releases. Though it exists far outside the normalized dubstep EDM that has consolidated the popular notion of bass music, Stunt Rhythms worships lower frequencies, with skittering percussion and sophisticated processing creating anticipation of the eventual drops that hit like a ton of bricks and don’t overstay their welcome. Still, while this album pushes the sonic boundaries of arena-sized electro and Timbaland hip-hop production, it thankfully avoids commonplace verse-chorus-verse structures in most instances, offering a way out of the club towards something more thoughtful, rather than retreading the path back into the tasteless soup of market-tested homogeneity. Simply put, Stunt Rhythms is worthy of academic investigation and dance floor dissection alike. – Alan Ranta

9. Shackleton – Music for the Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs (Woe to the Septic Heart!)

If there was any doubt in 2011, 2012 solidified it: “dubstep” is the new “techno”, a term that once belonged to a roughly definable genre, now used as a catch-all for popular electronic music of the day, with multiple factions arguing over what makes it “real”. Outside of this argument are a few souls who, while clearly using dub and bass as springboards, have reached far outside what used to be the experimental end of the dubstep spectrum. As someone who was once a defining artist of said experimental dubstep end, Shackleton went further than ever this year.

The compiled
Drawbar Organ EPs provides the more accessible and familiar half of this set. Relying on melodic fragments from the titular organs, these tracks pit high harmonics against rolling bass lines and deep atmospheric steam. As usual, the loose percussion is obviously sequenced in a way that’s been Shackleton’s signature. Track sequencing tells a story here — the early dread dub of tracks like “Seven Present Tenses” and “Touched” give way to more colorful affairs like the flutes of “Katyusha” or kalimba phrases of “Wish You Better”. These tracks work separately and as a whole, an enjoyable and engaging listen that provides what we’ve come to expect from Shackleton — in striking context to the other half of this release.

A one-hour track broken up into five parts and featuring menacing narration of a dystopian future,
Music for the Quiet Hour is, in part, Shackleton crossing over to prog. I’d be lying if I said I took it all seriously, or never questioned whether Shackleton was reaching beyond his grasp. But as a whole, Music for the Quiet Hour is an engrossing headphone listen, analogous to reading a philosophical cyberpunk novel in one late-night sitting. Shackleton’s trademark imperfections dot the landscape: loops are roughly truncated, phrases of cringingly simple melodies are endlessly repeated, and the drums are either so loose, they’re stiff or so stiff ,they’re loose. (I still can’t decide.) That’s to the extent that drums to appear, which is mostly as window dressing: there’s little here by the way of an anchoring beat, certainly nothing as cohesive as the (still rather abstract) beat excursions on last year’s Pinch & Shackleton collaboration. Bass is still a dominant element, however, and it’s the blanket that keeps you going through. Minimal and rough, Music for the Quiet Hour is a gutsy, starkly (perhaps embarrassingly) honest summit of Shackleton’s career in exploding the elements of… let’s just go back to calling it bass music. – David Abravanel

8. Carter Tutti Void – Transverse (Mute)

Live electronic albums are often not the stuff of year-end superlatives. That’s because they usually fall into one of two categories: either a vanity project for superstar DJs or an academic workout whose thesis is far more intriguing than the music itself.
Transverse is an unlikely success story in that it’s a capture of a one-time performance at Mute’s Short Circuit Festival in May 2011 between a newer talent (Nik Void of the crushing postpunk unit Factory Floor) and set of aging experimental artists recently undergoing a revival of sorts in the form of reissues and reconsiderations (Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, CTI, and Carter-Tutti). Something was in the air during this truly sublime performance, though, because Carter, Tutti, and Void created something very special in the form of these four pieces (five, if you include the bonus version of V4 on the CD version).

The songs themselves are less surrogate experiments than detached limbs from the same mutant body. Though each of them progresses and shifts in fundamentally unique ways and is capped by a brief round of applause, the pieces on the whole never reset to zero, but rather absorb and filter through the atmospheres of the surrounding tracks to build and retreat. Tension mounts and then never settles, leaving its residue in the proceeding dirge, creating an unsettling Mobius strip of an album that feels both circular and unidirectional at once. In continuation of the chug and churn of Throbbing Gristle pieces like “Dead on Arrival” or “Don’t Do as You’re Told, Do as You Think”,
Transverse has a steady gait, a modernized one that would not seem out of place on the dancefloor next to a Sandwell District pounder.

Yet, there’s none of the guided drive of techno here. This is exploratory psychogeographic navigation that’s volatile yet constrained, a trip through nightmares with the windows rolled up. One can hear the trio holding back as chaos permeates around the locked groove of the four-to-the-floor. Shades of dub spatiality serve to heighten the estrangement effect of all this controlled displacement. Guitars sound like machines and synths feedback like guitars all while each ephemeral new sound shudders and dissipates before the ear gets a chance to process its affect. This is why Transverse is such a great live album. It represents not just a “you should have been there” moment, but a performance so strong that it refuses to be confined to a single listening experience. Indeed, you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again. – Timothy Gabriele

7. Willits + Sakamoto – Ancient Future (Ghostly International)

Ocean Fire (2007, 12k), the last collaboration between Christopher Willits and Ryuichi Sakamoto, was assembled from a day-long in-person studio session, Ancient Future was born from a longer, and long-distance, collaboration. Just as two friends might be more inclined to speak in complete sentences over the phone, the interplay between the two collaborators on Ancient Future feels more like a deep and gentle conversation. “Abandoned Silence” sets the tone, as Willits envelopes Sakamoto’s piano phrases with glistening sustained reverb and slowly bent, ringing guitar tones. The final couple minutes of “Silence” venture in a gorgeous climactic drone, a melding of the two dominant instrumental parts that carries over into “I Don’t Want to Understand” and pops up again at the finish of the stunning closer, “Conclusion”.

There’s a progression from track to track, but
Ancient Future is far from a clear concept album. Willits and Sakamoto are more into letting the listener meet the subtleties halfway — an aching piano chord collapses here, a guitar lick folds in on itself there. The liquid nature of the album also stems from the natural discussion being had on record between the two collaborators; as Mike Newmark noted in his review, Sakamoto has remained a startlingly humble collaborator for all his legendary pedigree. It’s to his credit that the piano here is warm, slow, and gorgeous, without feeling boring or impatient. On the other side, Willits’ guitar licks favor long sustained tones that wrap around the other sounds — it’s only on occasion that the guitar attack is as striking as that of the piano.

Ancient Future works best as one long, fluid journey. Not surprisingly, the album was recorded, assembled and edited within one large digital audio workstation session file. While there are certainly different sessions, everything remains thematically linked, with the start-to-finish experience being the most engaging, a beautiful and rewarding abstract narrative. – David Abravanel

6. Monolake – Ghosts (Imbalance Computer Music)

Robert Henke is something of a mad sound scientist. In his attempt to push the limits of human hearing as his alter ego Monolake, he produced
Ghosts entirely in 96kHz. To this aim, he recorded samples outside the range of human hearing (above 20 kHz), then transposing them down to our level. Though he apparently didn’t come across the “hidden signals” he was hoping to find, this expansive desire does frame the boundaries of Henke’s aesthetic. Indeed, if there are boundaries, he is compelled to find what exists on the other side and report his findings. Hidden signals or not, Ghosts incorporates the sounds of common household items, utilizing a myriad of glassy and metallic timbres along side cold, futuristic bass and washes of noise. Space is a major theme of the album, in a positional sense. The interplay of reverbs and dynamics, how the sounds relate to each other in Henke’s masterfully crafted space, places as much weight on the decay of sounds as their attack. In effect, the composition of the sounds imbues them with an alien, otherworldly feel, part of an unnaturally precise synthetic environment that nevertheless feels real. To be sure, Ghosts is not a whimsical retro-futuristic escapade of which so much contemporary techno trends are. It sounds like the future, a provocatively ominous future. – Alan Ranta

5. Pye Corner Audio – The Black Mill Tapes Volume 3: All Pathways Open (Pye Corner Audio Transcription Services)

An obvious fiction, the Pye Corner Audio backstory claims that the group are more service industry technicians than musicians, their work consisting of transcribing a vast archive of lost tapes from 1970 onwards. Granting themselves this time period gives the project license to sound as out of time or out of place as possible, concentrating on the brand of lost futurism that has defined the hauntology project in electronic music. This served them well for two delightfully moody short albums of reanimated video nasty soundtracks in 2011, both of which were served up in a choice reissue by Type Records earlier this year. Their third album completes the trilogy and may also be the band’s best. Said noted comics author and novelist Warren Ellis, “It’s not as immediately pretty as its predecessors, but I’ve found it’s richer and more rewarding.” Divided, like its predecessors, between “Transmissions”, “Themes”, and “Electronic Rhythms”, Volume 3: All Pathways Open consists far more of the latter and forgoes much of the ambient work to generate a rudimentary dance pulse to suture its transcriptions together. “Inside the Wave” is John Carpenter as composer undergoing a Kafka-esque transformation into Drexciya, while “Electronic Rhythm Number One” paces itself somewhere chronologically and aesthetically between E2-E4 and Model 500. Yet, these hybridizations don’t amount to mere mimicry or genre exercises. Pye Corner Audio’s sonic indebtedness to soundtrack work allows the conceptual framework of the project to succeed; each piece sounds like a recovered artifact serving some occult functional purpose less knowable than the worlds of diegesis and dance. – Timothy Gabriele

4. Mouse on Mars – Parastrophics (Monkeytown)

Five years since its last release — six if you don’t count Tromatic Reflexxions, the collaboration with Mark E. Smith as Von Südenfed — you’d be forgiven for thinking Mouse on Mars was running dry on ideas. The chaotic Parastrophics, however, suggests a different story: this is the sound of someone gasping for life after emerging from a nearly drowning. It’s full of life, erratic and often hard to follow, and certainly an album that won’t soon leave you.

While most acts cull an album track listing from a larger pool of music, it sounds on Parastrophics as though Mouse on Mars had 100 tracks ready, and simply chopped up the parts into 13 pastiches. How else to explain the rush of , which moves from a noisy steam bath to hip-hop gibberish to tropical slide guitar, all within a scant three minutes? Or look at “Polaroyced”, a single that can barely stand to repeat itself from bar to bar. It’s said that some albums reward active listening, but Parastrophics outright demands it — if you snooze, you lose the plot entirely and may just need to retrace your steps to the beginning of a track.

More than the sum of its schizophrenic parts, Parastrophics presents a stylistic retrospective of Mouse on Mars’ eclectic oeuvre. It’s a great reminder to revisit the back catalog of the same group who created such diverse works as the kraut-ambient Vulvaland (1994, Too Pure), the arena-glitch Radical Connector (2004, Thrill Jockey), and all the ambient-industrial-jungle-warped acoustic soundscapes in between.

As for the road ahead? Bucking the lengthy creative process, Mouse on Mars has already released another album, Wow (Monkeytown), and successfully obtained crowdfunding for WretchUp, a cross-platform, open source effects app. They’re above water again, with a lot more kicking to do. – David Abravanel

3. Black Moth Super Rainbow – Cobra Juicy (Rad Cult)

Black Moth Super Rainbow is one of those groups designed to be sneered at from certain corners. The band is too indebted to its central conceits of Garbage Pail Kids-style pseudonyms, all-vocoder vocals, and warbly junk analogue synth trash to be taken seriously by the indie set; too coy to be properly psychedelic; and too tied to a crude pattern of songwriting to garner anything but shrugs in the hands of the electronic and EDM denizens. In the hands of Dinosaur Jr., a line like “Fucked up when I’m livin’ without you” from Cobra Juicy‘s “Spraypaint” would sound like the work of some slack motherfuckers. In the arms of Ye or Drake, it would border on depressive narcissism. From BMSR though, it’s, like many of its cuts, sickly sweet and touching, if a bit unsettling. Their crude lexicon, like their instrumental vernacular, is a product of the limits of its universe. And unless you accept that BMSR is a group founded on limitations, you will never gain entry into their genius. These limitations are also why every album by the band seems like it’s a slight variation and a minor improvement on the last.

Cobra Juicy does make a few pointed strides, however. The gnarly licks of “Windshield Smasher” and the Survivor-esque jabs of the anthemic “Hairspray Heart” veer ever-close to power-pop, while on the latter Tobacco’s vocals are punctuated rather than contained in ellipsis for perhaps the first time. A silent partner in the birth pangs of the synthier parts of chillwave, BMSR have retraced steps on “Like a Sundae” and the thin alt-country twang of “Psychic Love Damage”, proving they can do damaged takes on MOR as well as fellow godfather Ariel Pink. Cleverly, the group avoids pastiche though by refusing to wink an eye as they remain in character. Of course, there’s still melting clocks abound in this uchronic wasteland, dripping like ice cream splatting on the concrete on a day where the heat stroke causes demon visions to arise from the cartoon backdrop of the Good Humor van. Unlike past jaunts like Dandelion Gum, though, where the occasional violence of noise exposed those bitter demons of their nature for what they were, Cobra Juicy‘s evil is perhaps more pernicious since it is warm and inviting from the drop of the needle to the end. – Timothy Gabriele

2. Orbital – Wonky (ACP)

Orbital produced some of the most emotionally resonant and influential rave music of all-time between 1989-2004. Pretty much everything released by brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll in that period made the UK charts, and they even landed three albums in the Top 10. However, facing creative burn-out, they split up and did their own thing for a while. Then, after a twentieth anniversary reunion gig begat a tour, they decided that, rather than attempt to live off their incomparable legacy, they would produce a new album. Wonky would prove to be more than a mere vanity comeback release aimed purely at profiting from the nostalgia of aging ravers. Based more on what the Hartnolls wanted to play live than what they thought would be cool in the studio, this album is a thoroughly fun-filled effort that exudes reinvigorated passion. The duo themselves admit that their last couple albums in the early noughties could have been edited down into one good album, yet Wonky slays from start to finish. Driven by their eclectic selection of vintage synthesizers as channeled through contemporary software into propulsive beats and exhilarating melodies, the album taps into the PLUR optimism of their youth while coming from a more natural, mature place. As such, Wonky was more of a move forward than a comeback. – Alan Ranta

1. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

With Luxury Problems, Andy Stott’s music took a bit of a shower and met a friend. Like previous efforts, themes of isolation and melancholy still permeate the sound (not to mention the track titles), but things are clearer this time around. Where 2011’s Passed Me By smothered the problems at its core with a smudged and filtered industrial thud, Luxury Problems borrows from jungle’s smirking moods. While tracks like “Sleepless” and “Hatch the Plan” sound like lamentations, the second half of the record reaches downright optimistic levels. Closer “Leaving” in particular, absent of the oppressive kick drums that have become Stott’s trademark, feels like a refreshing shoulder stretch.

Aside from a less squashed sound, Alison Skidmore’s vocals are the other major new addition to Stott’s sound here. A longtime friend and piano teacher of Stott’s, Skidmore contributes fragile melodic counterparts to the washed-out percussive clang. Often, hers is a voice that struggles to compete with the bassier elements, or dissolves into a phoneme stew, as on opener “Numb”. Again, it’s the aforementioned “Leaving” that provides a real revelation — for all the beauty coming from her now-dominant vocals, Skidmore sounds like a more world-weary Kirsty Hawkshaw, making the track a kind of “Halcyon + On + On” for the kind of sad bastard journalists who eat up this grey stuff. The nostalgia doesn’t end there — “Up the Box” even features a clear (and slowed down) Amen break.

Stott isn’t the only person to put the decayed corpse of rave memories on clear display (Scuba went full-force in that direction), but he’s done it in a way that feels startlingly natural. Like watching grey fade to white, Luxury Problems is a brilliant listen in how it leads the listener on a progression to new territory that feels neither forced nor gimmicky. Stott’s continued growth has been extremely rewarding, and for that, it was an easy choice to put him at #1 for the second year in a row. – David Abravanel

Top Electronic EPs of 2012 (in no particular order)

Burial – Kindred (Hyperdub)

As many times as Burial’s aesthetic has been aped, nobody possesses the quiet grace, artful poise, or alchemical presence of this low-profile loner, who on this EP stretches his sound to new narrative depths while tweaking the formula ever so gently. – Timothy Gabriele

Burial Hex – Eschatology II (Brave Mysteries)

Kind enough to stream his very limited edition life’s work on Bandcamp, Clay Ruby aka Burial Hex’s best work of 2012 is hard to pin down, but it’d probably be this one, part two of the “Precession of Nightfall” series of cassettes that’s alternately shambolic and sinister or aching and haunting, depending on where you catch it. – Timothy Gabriele

JETS – JETS (Leisure System)

Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum present a set of tracks that merges the hypersexual R&B leanings of the former with the hyperactive drum skips of the latter. It’s an exciting an urgent affair — the sound of two artists pushing each other in the right directions. – David Abravanel

Matmos – The Ganzfeld (Thrill Jockey)

The first recorded output from Matmos’ years-in-the-making research into telepathy foregoes addressing the validity of ESP. Instead, these tense tracks suggest the very human confusion over the paranormal. – David Abravanel

Sensate Focus – 10 / 5 / 3.33333 / 2.5 (Sensate Focus)

Mark Fell reaches the ideal point between challenge and reward in his continued output of defiantly digital music. Running on snippets of house vocals and minor-chord stabs, this is (excuse the pun) as focused as Fell has ever been. – David Abravanel

Spoonbill – Astro Archipelago (Omelette)

Australian womp-glad tickler Spoonbill reminded us why he’s one of the funkiest producers alive with Astro Archipelago, containing three of the quirkiest tracks you could ever hope to hear at a chill stage. – Alan Ranta

Tara King th. – Uncolored Past (Petrol Chips)

Helping to fill the sizable gap left behind by Broadcast, Parisian quartet Tara King th. released two parts to their Uncolored Past EP series in 2012, with part one summarizing their cinematic, haunting, baroque psych pop to perfection on the circular “Hole of Birds” and the minimal title track. – Alan Ranta

Tipper – Shatter Box (Tippermusic)

After Tipper took his sound downtempo with 2010’s Broken Soul Jamboree, he’s been picking up speed with EPs and singles ever since, peaking 2012 with the inconceivably meticulous yet groovy glitch of Shatter Box. – Alan Ranta

Traxman – Heat (Sewage Tapes)

While the glorious LP from the footwerk icon was a near miss from this list, the free EP he dropped this summer is just as good, a seizure-ready fit of jitter rhythm and hypnotic bleeping tones, an economically tight avant-garde mix in a musical world of surplus. Timothy Gabriele