15 – 11
10 – 6
5 – 1
In 2013, electronic music embraced innovation and throwback sounds alike, with new acts emerging and old favorites making triumphant returns. But above all, it was a year when the cream of the crop did what they do best and left no one wanting for more.
20. Akkord – Akkord (Houndstooth)
Akkord is the culmination and almost the logical conclusion to the journey the pair of Manchester-based producers Indigo and Snykro have undertaken so far. Initially birthed as an anonymous collective, partly due to the fact they didn’t want any of their previous music to influence the way that people took in their new project, their first eponymous white-labelled releases have fast become collector-edition releases. Their debut EP for Houndstooth Navigate was a sub-destroying depth charge of muscular, minimal, breaks-y bass music.
The debut album from the once shadowy Akkord is an oceanic trench of techno influenced, dub-flecked UK bass music that revels in its mastery of sound, design, precision beats, and deep, deep, DEEP bass. From strange 0161 phone numbers, through to distinct flyer packs, and more, the promo campaign surrounding the release of their debut album was actually less interesting than the music it was pushing.
Hard, dark, and cold are all apt words to throw at this release. Supplanting colour and melody for monochrome, greyscale atmospheric backdrops and grime influenced bass tones, Akkord has created an otherworldly experience that combines the attitude of early era dubstep with the relentless, inhuman, pinpoint precision of techno. – Al Kennedy
19. Congo Natty – Jungle Revolution (Big Dada)
Positive change rarely comes from the top. It comes as a result of pressure from social movements, by the people organizing, and from that push, leadership tends to emerge. As such, it was telling in a year which saw drum and bass start to make a comeback in the wake of dubstep’s oversaturation, seeing the ’90s rave style pop up on releases by Machinedrum, Mark Pritchard, Om Unit, Zomby, and other big names, that the king of jungle returned to claim his thrown. Having helped birth jungle and grime under the names Rebel MC, Congo Natty, and so many more, the spiritual musings of vocalist Mikail Tafari have always been delivered over a melting pot of urban influences, all of which comes together in a distinctively UK form. Mixed by experimental dub great Adrian Sherwood, Jungle Revolution sees Congo Natty pound all the buzzwords and expected themes of jungle politics into the listener’s skull over a swath of reggae-tinged, high-BPM bass tunes, pulling vocal contributions from a veritable who’s who of the scene’s past and present as well as guitar from Skip McDonald (Sugarhill Band), which are peppered throughout the album. The revolution is here. – Alan Ranta
18. Múm – Smilewound (Morr)
Like all truly great musical collectives, Múm mutate and rearrange their sound throughout the years. Most of the elements that make records like Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Okay and Finally We Are No One stone cold classics are present on Smilewound, but in a somewhat different form. The contemporary classical elements are there, the glitchy yet pretty electronic beats are there, and the abstract, ambient lushness is there, but all of these elements are rearranged on Smilewound, making it sound both familiar and totally new. On Smilewound, Múm bring on a range of friends and guest musicians, giving this record a particularly eclectic quality, while also retaining a distinctive, cohesive feeling throughout. Múm has always sounded like a creaky wooden ship, or a wind battered Icelandic barn deep in the West Fjords, or an early morning Reykjavik flea market held in the depths of winter darkness, or going swimming in the summertime. There is no getting around the fact that Múm will always bring me back into the atmosphere of their Icelandic homeland; Smilewound reminds me, lest I forget, that I will always wish to return there. – Benjamin Hedge Olson
17. The Black Dog – Tranklements (Dust Science)
There may be no song title more direct and self-referential as Tranklements‘ “Atavistic Resurgence” in the Black Dog’s entire catalogue. In addition to bringing back the sound of British IDM circa 1992, the group is in the midst of a surprising renaissance, which began in the late 2000s long after the original trio had been left for dead. Tranklements finds Ken Downie, Martin Dust, and Richard Dust doing what they do best: serving up a steady diet of solid British techno while pitching a few curveballs to keep things fresh. Most tracks pair interstellar keyboard melodies with simple but effective drum programming, while several interludes create oblique, intriguing bridges between them. That’s the celebrated Black Dog style, of course, but the group shines even when they don’t sound particularly like themselves; the introverted, dub-laden “Cult Mentality” pumps and pulsates like Fluxion’s most danceable cuts and “Hymn for SoYo” is a sticky, metallic love letter to Dial Records. Thumbing its nose at the new generation of electronic artists who trip over their shoelaces chasing the latest trend, the Black Dog continually reminds us that an assiduous dedication to craftsmanship is usually more than enough. Mike Newmark
16. House of Black Lanterns – Kill the Lights (Houndstooth)
The 2006 debut album from Dylan Richards (formerly known as King Cannibal) was an unexpected treat. Having gone to ground after a series of label disputes with Ninja Tune over the future of his King Cannibal project, Richards moved to Germany and refined his brutal sound, distilling down everything that was good about his previous projects, re-contextualizing the results into a more techno leaning framework, and birthing the subdued menace that is House of Black Lanterns in the process.
Juggling footwork, techno and UK bass with aplomb, Kill the Lights is a fantastic exploration of mood and atmosphere that is able to exist on both the dancefloor at peak time and in an armchair late at night. The mastery of sound design is second to none. Bursts of Vangelis-esque synth work combine with dread infused harmonies and deep, chest constricting bass to devastating effect. It’s not an in-yer-face affair like King Cannibal was, but that is what growing and evolution is all about. It is subtle and pleasing whilst still retaining the dark memes and tropes that gave Mr Richards his time in the spotlight to start with. Al Kennedy
15. Front Line Assembly – Echogenetic (Metropolis)
The only thing consistent about Front Line Assembly‘s records is the quality of their production. As a veteran behind the digital audio workstation, Bill Leeb and his various collaborators have created soundscapes ranging from stomping techno bangers like “Plasticity” to the cinematic sci-fi soundscapes of Hard Wired to the rich, beautiful lullabies of his side project, Delerium. More impressive still, he released the soundtrack in 2012 for a video game called “AirMech”, the popularity of which will in all likelihood outlast the game. It was the first time we heard his experiments in borrowing from the palette of recent trends in electronic music, including dubstep pacing and wobbling liquid bass lines, which show that the band is as cognizant of their developing scene and as relevant now as they ever were.
Echogenetic seems to bring together the experience of all his previous records into an extremely rich album. “Killing Grounds” is a nod to the dance floorfriendly industrial floor fillers of the ’90s, while “Ghosts” draws on beautiful melodies reminiscent of the emotional robots of Tactical Neural Implant‘s “Remorse”. Even “Blood”, which begins otherworldly and alienating in its distant nature, unleashes a melodic chorus which is touching and reflective. The press for the record also noted the fact that it was an intentional attempt to create all the aggression of previous records, while retaining a puritanical approach to industrial electronica. There are no sampled metal guitars to be found. What results is as pleasing to the ears as it is the heart. – Darryl G. Wright
14. Matmos – The Marriage of True Minds (Thrill Jockey)
M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel (Ph.D.) are weirdos. In their quest to push the boundaries of the album under the name of Matmos, they have done everything from exclusively using the sounds of surgery to using no mics at all. They’re so unusual that it can be difficult to separate this Baltimore duo’s concepts from their creations. Where do their experiments begin and end, when the whole world seems to be their lab? True to form, their first album since 2008, The Marriage of True Minds, is based on parapsychological experiments, whereby Drew Daniel attempted to telepathically transmit the album’s concept to a sensory deprived test subject, and whatever they mused and hummed became the aural and lyrical basis of the record. Hence, the melodies tend to be fragmented and the lyrics absurd, but it works. Schmidt and Daniel are foremost experts on scavenging disparate elements, and forging them into something staggeringly original and often humorous. Matmos never lets its music become burdened by its concept. Heady though its creation may be, The Marriage of True Minds is easy to get into, its far-out sound collages (“Ross Transcript”), all the cutlery, sirens, and nature sounds, tethered by beat-driven moments (“Teen Paranormal Romance”, “Very Large Green Triangles”). With this record, Matmos shows precisely how to use its experimental inclinations to enhance musical creativity, where so much contemporary experimental music succeeds as an experiment and fails as music. – Alan Ranta
13. Morris Cowan – Six Degrees (Wigflex)
Having rolled with Nottingham’s Wigflex crew since 2006, Morris Cowan (aka Adam Taylor) is no slouch. This year’s fantastic release, Six Degrees, confirms this point in fine style. Having released his debut album Circa on Traum’s minimal leaning Zaubernuss sub-label — a vivid exploration of tech-house and techno — Taylor returned home to Wigflex to release his “prog rock made on computers” master class, Six Degrees.
A concept album exploring the idea of six degrees of separation, Taylor’s music dips and dives, starts and stops, and pushes and pulls the listener in different directions, with hints of rubbery acid, gloopy analogue leads, and pads hinting at the producer’s extremely keen and natural ear for harmony. It’s an album that deftly juggles and juxtaposes organic tones with the synthetic.
Emotionally speaking, there is a lot to take in. The mixes are dense but focused, allowing for repeated listens, with new nuggets of gold revealing themselves, depending on the mood you are in at the time. It is this ability to render a blank canvas for each listen that sets Cowan apart from the rest of the electronica brigade. He allows you to feel whatever you want: nothing is too implicit, nothing is forced. His sounds can either jar you to the core or soothe a sore heart. Six Degrees is an enthralling piece of work that is extremely well executed from start to finish. – Al Kennedy
12. Skinny Puppy – Weapon (Metropolis)
War, terror, gun violence, and mass shootings have all dominated the media and the public awareness, particularly in the United States and Canada throughout 2013. It seems a fitting time for a band that once prided itself on unsettling, challenging, and eerie industrial music to arise from its slumber and reveal a new album that would exploit the very pronounced social fears that are dominating the public consciousness. Weapon, however, turns out to be so much more than just that. Tracks like “wornin'” actually reveal an unexpected emotional side, a welcome maturity that had never been revealed by the band before. “saLvo” and “paragUn” double down on the electro-pop aesthetic, making this one of the most accessible industrial albums Skinny Puppy has ever done. The latter features an unusually musical chorus which manages to be aggressive and groovy at the same time.
With a catalogue as consistent as Skinny Puppy’s, this album could have been just more of the same. It was entirely possible for them to succeed in just reproducing more of what they’ve always done well. Instead, they have taken us by surprise and pulled off a refreshing update to their sound without compromising its original appeal. For an album which deals with themes like gun violence and crime, Weapon is surprisingly full of life. – Darryl G. Wright
11. µ-Ziq – Chewed Corners (Planet Mu)
Mike Paradinas’ music under his µ-Ziq alias has always had a clean, sharp, almost surgical quality to it. During µ-Ziq’s late ’90s golden era, Paradinas crafted records that were at turns as brightly euphoric as a child’s just-unwrapped Christmas toy, and as coldly melancholic as an underpopulated space station. Since that time, Paradinas has explored other musical avenues and emotional color palettes, but rarely with the distinctiveness and glee of records like Lunatic Harness and Royal Astronomy. Chewed Corners returns to the unique, seamless, hyper-modern sound that µ-Ziq perfected in the late ’90s, while also updating and expanding on that sound. Chewed Corners makes you feel like you are lost in a Stanley Kubrick movie, but without the violence, alienation, and despair. Powerful, primary colors leap out at the listener, drawing sharp lines and building vast edifices in her mind. Although Chewed Corners is not a casual listen, with the entire record, including the “rediffusion” mix at the end, clocking in at close to two hours, this record never feels boring or off point. Chewed Corners truly sounds like the new µ-Ziq record, and nothing else out there can give that to you. – Benjamin Hedge Olson
10. Manix – Living in the Past (Reinforced)
Living in the Past isn’t a reissue, but you’d forgiven for making that mistake. With the likes of Machinedrum and DJ Rashad looking back to tropes from classic early to mid-’90s jungle records, it only seems fair that Marc Clair, one of the originators as part of 4Hero, resurrect his solo alias Manix. Living in the Past follows a vintage break/chords/diva samples template and could easily have come out in 1995, and is best enjoyed without concerns for whether an artist must update his sound. When the results are as elated as “One More Time”, who cares? – David Abravanel
9. Letherette – Letherette (Ninja Tune)
Letherette‘s several EPs and remixes for Bibio and Machinedrum suggested that the duo was poised for a full-length record, but it didn’t materialize until years later, in 2013. More streamlined and realized than almost all of their output, their debut album is a small treasure (and a whole lot better than Bibio’s Silver Wilkinson), wrapping up B-boy attitude and starry-eyed whimsy in a refreshingly modest package. Letherette figured out how to sequence the tracks for a more complete experience, weaving deftly between full-body workouts and sensual exhalations. And, somewhat amazingly, it’s a back-loaded record, from the ramp-up of “Boosted” into “Space Cuts” — where, by the final stretch, the song is gliding on the strength of its own energy — and down again into the post-rock swirl of “Hard Martha” and “Say the Sun”. As a standalone track, however, “Restless” claims the trophy, with its confident beat, an addictive little stop-start hook and a brilliantly understated turn by vocalist Natasha Kmeto. If the lads of Letherette were at all anxious about the possibility of failing expectations, they shouldn’t be; this is a record that fulfills the promise of their early work and points to even greater achievements ahead. – Mike Newmark
8. Autechre – Exai (Warp)
Autechre‘s Sean Booth and Rob Brown make music like they’re from another planet, a different one from you, me, Bieber, and so on. Eleven full albums and a ton of EPs into their crazy long career, they continue to provide few reference points and challenge us to interpret beauty differently. Exai is beautiful — almost painfully so — though, as with all Autechre records, it demands a certain fearlessness on the part of the listener. Booth and Brown never met a piece of sonic shrapnel they couldn’t throw into the pot, but the beats have coalesced into something resembling the familiar (dub, hip-hop) and the synths are as deep and fleshy as they were on Amber. Tracks like “Deco Loc” and “Jatavee C” combine found-object musique concrète with an almost groovy sensibility, while “Bladelores” is searching and thick with emotion like few Autechre tracks in history. Even synthetic beasts like “Fleure” and “Recks On” are oddly approachable, in a Tri Repetae kind of way. Exai sounds particularly exquisite on a good pair of headphones, and the more you listen to it, the deeper you’re apt to sink into Autechre’s singular landscape as if it’s the very ground you walk on and the air you breathe. – Mike Newmark
7. Ben Lukas Boysen – Gravity (Ad Noiseam)
2013 was a year of many things dark, with labels like Blackest Ever Black and Modern Love coming through with strong releases. An appropriate time, then, for Hecq’s Ben Lukas Boysen to revert to his birth name for a fittingly personal and emotional listen. Drawing from Boysen’s experience in film soundtracking, Gravity‘s pained synths and collapsing live drums play counter to vulnerable pianos and bare atmospheres. Forgive the pun, but things are definitely heavy. – David Abravanel
6. Comaduster – Hollow Worlds (Tympanik Audio)
It’s an odd thing that drum ‘n’ bass and industrial electronic rarely seem to overlap, considering that the features of both can be somewhat complementary if the focus is dark or angry sounding music. It almost takes someone who’s thinking outside of the box and outside of the genres to even attempt something so bold, and yet that’s exactly what one audio engineer named Real Cardinal did in his spare time. When he wasn’t helping Canada’s Bioware with building soundtracks for their epic, award-winning video games, he was building an impossibly great debut album, which doesn’t stop at those influences but adds in elements of glitch, rock, ambient melody and emo vocals.
“Winter Eyes” features the distorted furious bass of the best dubstep tracks, the stuttering hard-hitting percussion patterns of electronic rock, and haunting syrupy vocals which wash over it all like a tide. “The Send Off” and title track “Hollow Worlds” show an uncanny understanding of pop melody and structure for an artist who’s acclaim so far has been behind the scenes. It’s not surprising that his skills in the arena of video games translate over so well to industrial music. It’s also impossible not to notice the similarities in the depth and weight of his sounds to artists like Front Line Assembly, who he’s recently been asked to remix a track for. That shows that we have a lot to look forward to. For now, Hollow Worlds remains one of the most innovative and appealing electronic releases of 2013 and it’s a crime that it seemed to go so unsung by the music press. – Darryl G. Wright
5. Machinedrum – Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
Vapor City is Travis Stewart’s ninth album as Machinedrum, but the breakthrough success of 2011’s Room(s) has it feeling like sophomore territory. Bypassing the weight of expectations, Vapor City fills its lofty/murky premise (an imagined city, complete with physical sketches in the liner notes) with raver ghosts that suggest heartache and Stewart’s acknowledged rediscovery of classic jungle records. By the time the sample clusters disperse for a singular “L-O-V-E” in “Center Your Love”, one feels the whole burg come together. – David Abravanel
4. The Field – Cupid’s Head (Kompakt)
Following his 2007 breakthrough, From Here We Go Sublime, the Field‘s Axel Willner has been in the unenviable position of following up a debut that, for many listeners, was a new flavor. Minus the shock of the new, Willner has done admirably well for himself, but Cupid’s Head is perhaps his strongest offering yet. Willner seems more comfortable than ever merging the incessant structures of Sublime with more diverse equipment, resulting in lush gut-punches like the pleading “No. No…” and the cloudy trance-tinged “Black Sea”. Play it loud, preferably with headphones. – David Abravanel
3. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
Boards of Canada‘s triumphant return was mysterious but hardly quiet, featuring a cryptic ARG that involved codes embedded in records, ad spots, and websites. With electronic nostalgia at an all-time high in 2013, Boards of Canada proved themselves as continuing contenders. There’s no real new tricks on Tomorrow’s Harvest — just the same decaying VHS, scrambled voices, and numbers station samples that made us fall in love with Boards of Canada in the first place. – David Abravanel
2. Jon Hopkins – Immunity (Domino)
You can’t rush perfection. Jon Hopkins is one of the most in-demand producers around these days — just ask Coldplay, King Creosote or Brian Eno. Given his constant collaborations and keen eye for detail, Immunity was just his fourth solo album since 2001. Where so many vaporwave/cloudrap/meme artists churn out 15 albums of shallow noise a year just to surf the click waves, Hopkins recalls a time when craftsmanship, taking no shortcuts in making something meant to last, was a source of pride for producers. Immunity is immaculately produced, indeed, yet it resonates with emotional depth (“Abandon Window”) and creative execution (“Breathe This Air”). Although the tempo gets pushed up at times (“Collider”, “Open Eye Signal”), the album never feel hurried. It feels completely controlled, even when Hopkins lets his glitch flag fly (“Form by Firelight”) and the bass distorts (“Collider”). Its clash of intense intricacy and droning ambience gives it a TARDIS effect — it’s bigger on the inside! Immunity is the perfect album to test any sound system and give headphone listeners a head rush. The Mercury Prize got it right when they nominated this record. – Alan Ranta
1. Tim Hecker – Virgins (Kranky)
Listening to Tim Hecker‘s 2013 offering Virgins makes me feel like I am sitting by myself on some lonely, seagull infested pier while a heavy fog bank rolls in. There are boats here and there, but no fisherman to be seen, and no people in general. It is just you, the seagulls, and that dense half-menacing/half-beautiful wall of nothingness drifting irrevocably towards you out of the ocean. Before you know it, the fog is all around you, and you realize the fog is possessed by John Carpenter or Stephen King-like demons, with rolling piano lines and bells and the distorted voices of drowned fisherman. Words like “ambient” or “experimental” will probably be used a great deal when people describe Virgins, but these terms do not really do much to convey the wafting, enveloping sense of wonder I feel when I listen to this music. Virgins creates its own misty bubble of reality; one that drifts, and moans, and sinks beneath the waves. I have been retreating into the hypnotic, gorgeous fog bank that is Virgins more and more lately; one of these days I might not re-emerge. – Benjamin Hedge Olson