The 10 Best Electronic Albums of 2007
As electronic music's edges bleed out all over the genre map, some sounds have been resurrected, others minimally revised, but the sum total shows a genre that, diffuse identity or not, continues to exert its pull on rock, pop, and the dancefloor.
The year 2006 was notable for a spate of indie-oriented electronic releases -- the Knife, Matthew Herbert, Hot Chip, Junior Boys -- that casually repackaged soul, house, or techno into easily-digestible pop song forms. And after the dust settled on indie anthems, "We Share Our Mother's Health" and "In the Morning", 2007 looked like it was going to be a quiet year. But while there was a relative dearth of those more pop-oriented electronic releases, this year has had its share of genre-shaking events.
Call it a year that re-sparked our interest in the dancefloor. A series of commercial-minded electro albums made the leap from the dance community to the mainstream with surprising ease. That they have been buoyed by Internet buzz is par for the course, these days -- 2002's dance-punk is 2007's 'blog house', it seems. You'll recognize a few of these acts on our final list, but in addition those, Digitalism's Idealism, Simian Mobile Disco's Attack Decay Sustain Release, and Muscles' Guns Babes Lemonade all oriented themselves towards a wider audience with shorter song lengths, verse-chorus structures and the buzzing electro basslines. Each fits slightly uncomfortably in the general "electro" category, but rather scoops out a characteristic sound (and some memorable anthems) from similar equipment. This may be the format for dance music's revival over the next few years: bright flashes of interest in microgenres brought into bigger influence through the collective bargaining power of the Internet. Because there's no doubt that music websites have played a large role in these records' success this year.
But we learned this year that you'll be judged on more than just that catchy single. Klaxons' Myths of the Near Future was an anemic version of the wild irresponsibility their first singles promised. The mixing on the record flattened the group's sound, and mid-tempo tracks like "Golden Skans" revealed the group's essentially paint-by-numbers approach. If you liked early Klaxons, though, at least there's Shy Child. The keytar/drums duo New York's sophomore album, Noise Won't Stop, featured a contribution from Spank Rock and a neat Rapture-meets-Test Icicles vibe. And if the glut of Ed Banger and Kitsune's new French school of dirty electro left us all feeling a bit, well, sordid, acts like Kavinsky and SebastiAn proved that, when done right, heavy metal-electro can be a hulking, guilty release.
Some old stalwarts re-upped notably in 2007. The Chemical Brothers divided critical opinion -- some touting a complete return to form, others seeing a continued downward spiral -- with We Are the Night. Whatever you think of the album as a whole, the cheeky "The Salmon Dance" is worthy of mention -- it brings a burst of much-appreciated levity to a genre that can be, at times, too serious about the path to that ecstatic peak. Fennesz and Sakamoto's new work Cendre paired beautifully-worked minimal drone with sparse piano melodies. This Spartan setup nevertheless produced an album of stately magnificence, whose serenity (as on the sublime "Trace") belied a complex interaction between the acoustic and electronic elements. And recently, Felix da Housecat's Virgo Blaktro & The Movie Disco bounced with customarily assured electro melodies. Venetian Snares' My Downfall followed the masterpiece Rossz Csillag Alatt Szuletett with similarly romantic orchestral breakcore that was dark and overwhelming.
But despite these, some of the biggest stars keep us in anticipation for next year. Portishead's first new album in ten years has us holding our breath. And Daft Punk whet the world's appetite for a forthcoming fourth album in ways hitherto unknown. Buoyed back onto the dancefloor by Kanye West's prescient use of "Harder Better Faster Stronger" as the backbone to his massive first single from Graduation, Daft Punk put in a solid year of touring and also released Alive 2007, a live recording of one of their Paris shows. Featuring slung-together, re-edited versions of their own songs, it captures the sound, at least, of the live show, if not its spectacle.
Meanwhile, electronic music bled out at the edges -- as it has done for many years -- into the work of rock musicians and singer-songwriters. Panda Bear's excellent Person Pitch (you'll no doubt hear about it in PopMatters' main list) builds off the gears of electronica -- computer-generated rearrangements of vocal melody, drum-machine loops, excursions into reeling brightfield atmosphere. That the whole thing sounds so warm, so organic, might be the album's greatest triumph. In a similar vein, Dan Snaith, as Caribou, couldn't quite leave behind his IDM past. This year's Andorra was a gloriously compelling tribute to '60s pop, enlarged and deepened with a computer's tools. And Matthew Dear melded odd moments of disco or Johnny Cash-style country balladry into eerie, compelling soundscapes on Asa Breed. At the other end of the spectrum, we had a band like New York's Battles. They put out two stellar releases this year -- the debut full-length Mirrored, and the follow-up Tonto EP. And sure enough, between the muscular rock riffs, a complex dialogue emerged between man and computer. I'm not sure who won that one -- but we certainly left enriched by the results.
Minimal techno had a banner year, again. So much music was released that it's almost impossible to keep up with it all. We gravitated towards some of the bigger, more obviously crafted releases, and in this, the big labels helped us more than ever. Kompakt capped a great year with Total 8, another rock-solid reminder of why this label is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of global influence. Thomas Fehlmann's latest, Honigpumpe, showcased minimal's warmer side -- if you've ever felt slightly alienated by the genre's ascetic sound, take a listen. Fehlmann creates warm layers of feeling without barraging you with overstatement. And Kompakt's recent Pop Ambient 2008, too, collects another group of stunningly beautiful tracks that blend the boundaries between minimal techno and atmospheric beats. However, to the audible sigh of the genre's expectant fans, the Superpitcher/Michael Mayer collaboration Supermayer baffled as much as it rewarded, mixing minimal pop with minimal levity, with fairly minimal results.
!K7 released a couple of notable DJ Kicks mixes from Booka Shade and Hot Chip, both of which worked in the way of the best mixes: surprising the listener with unexpected directions while remaining an accurate representation of the respective artists' particular viewpoints. Get Physical joined the party with a solid retrospective of their five-year anniversary. And Fabric also corralled a number of high profile names into creating varied but uniformly enjoyable contributions to their Fabric and Fabriclive series. Ricardo Villalobos rewrote the rules for mix CDs with Fabric 36 -- he combined new and remixed versions of only his music to create a seamless, self-referential, and monumental opus. James Murphy & Tim Mahoney's Fabriclive 36, unsurprisingly, reminded us of disco's roots and its continued relevance. And Ewan Pearson's Fabric 35 showcased again that erudite Brit's impeccable taste.
In the face of minimal's continued asceticism, a surprisingly warm and accessible subgenre re-emerged large in 2007 -- Italodisco. This music has always had an open, all-inclusive tonality that's refreshingly optimistic. So it's no surprise that the cream of the crop made for some of the most downright fun music to be produced this year. Roisin Murphy, veering away from the quirky brilliance Matthew Herbert lent her debut, gave us an impeccably crafted pop disco record in Overpowered -- from the tortuous synth arpeggios of the opening title track, Murphy strongly proclaims, "I'm back on the floor".
But it took a new artist to show us Italo's potential for ripe emotion. Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance was disco, alright, but it was strangely forlorn -- all wintry atmospheres and covered, introspective sentiment. Kathy Diamond took some of these elements right back into the realm of pop, with the dark grooves of her debut LP, Miss Diamond to You. The album deserves a bigger release on a record label with some resources to push it -- it could be a hit. Meanwhile, the Swedish grandmother of sass, Robyn, showed Britney how it's supposed to be done. Again. The only slightly-reworked Robyn, her fourth album, got a UK release in 2007, two years after its Swedish debut. Has it even officially been released in the US yet? Either way, it's still a much purer example of bubblegum electro-pop than anything US pop starlets have put their name to this year.
Speaking of reissues, they otherwise seemed rather thin on the ground this year. The exception is Fennesz, whose Endless Summer and Hotel Paral.lel both got the reissue treatment and reminded us why his sonic experiments combining acoustics and ambient noise were at first such a major development. Monolake's overlooked 1999 album Interstate was re-released in remastered form this year. The album demonstrated how deep the roots of minimal go; its expansive track lengths and slowly-changing synth patterns were strangely familiar to today's fans of the genre. Vladislav Delay got a reissue of his debut LP, but it was cleaned up from the vinyl version so much that it seems a remnant of hindsight rather than an accurate portrayal of the artist as he was at the time. And Herbert's 100 lbs reissue at the beginning of the year only served to emphasize how far and how much more sophisticated that artist has since become.
On the outer edges, the Scandinavians held up their reputation as avant-garde standard-bearers. As usual, the Norwegians -- on Rune Grammofon, primarily -- continued to make strange, challenging electronic/jazz improvisations. Supersilent's 8, the quartet's first album in five years, saw the group of talented musicians mining a wider range of emotion than the raw aggression of their early work. In Denmark, Efterklang were making electronica-infused minimal (in the classical music sense) compositions that managed to skirt both pop and indie rock but never settled for easy harmonic formulae. The result, on their mini-album Under Giant Trees and the follow-up Parades, was occasionally stunning in its serene beauty. But remember, just because it's experimental doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. Prinzhorn Dance School put out an album that was not electronic, but not much of else either -- deflating the hype built up off the group's signing with DFA.
The mash-up genre, despite a few fits and starts, more or less died a natural death in 2007. The Hood Internet gave us a multitude of indie hits crossed with popular raps, but after a while, the novelty wore off. Instead, mini-mixes became the mode of choice for the ADD indie kids with a flitting interest in electronica and hip-hop. Notable entrants include Cousin Cole & Pocketknife's "Flagrant Fowl MiniMegaMix" that careened from Cat Power to "Black Betty" to a hypnotic re-interpretation of Joanna Newsom, Black Ghosts' neat techno-flavored "30 Min Mix", and Bang Gang DJs' hyperkinetic (and disposable) "Light Sound Dance Teaser". Their double album, which plays like an extended version of the teaser (surprise!) is fun, but not even the most enthusiastic nu-ravers will remember it next year.
Whether this hyperkinetic, multi-referential style of dance music will last is still an open question. Still, as the poles of popular and cerebral electronica drift further apart, it may require a unifying force as disruptive as, say, dance-punk to bring it back together. 2008 -- the return of trance? Anyone? Let's hope not. In the meantime, here are my picks for the top albums of the year. (The same disclaimer as Tim's from last year applies -- I'm sorry if I overlooked your favorite album! Hit us up and maybe we can rectify it in our Slipped Discs feature early in 2008).
Thanks to Tim O'Neil and Nate Dorr for their input on this feature.
10. Gui Boratto - Chromophobia [Kompakt]
Gui Boratto went and made a masterpiece of craft right off the bat. His debut album on Kompakt has quickly become a minimal classic, all carefully interlinked, layered sound and obsessed-over technique. The album's title is a purposeful misnomer -- rather than being monochromatic, Boratto's music is multihued in the extreme, pulsing with trance-inspired synth lines over steady 4/4 beats. Yes, it has its anthemic moments -- after you hear "Beautiful Life's" optimism once, you don't forget it. That's the only song with vocals on Chromophobia, because, for the most part, you don't need vocals to appreciate the warm atmospheres and shifting rhythms of this complex electronica.
By turns light/airy and insistent/clinical, Boratto opens our eyes to possibilities in minimal techno that had only been hinted at by artists like Thomas Fehlmann. Reviews of this album tended to skip context and concentrate firmly on the power of the music -- there's a reason for that. No matter how closely you followed techno's twists and turns this year, Boratto immediately jumped out.
9. New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom [Modular]
It's often impossible for young groups to follow the outlandish success of a debut single or two with an album that matches its early promise (we need to look no further than Klaxons for an example of that). But this year New Young Pony Club kept impressing and impressing again with song after song. Fantastic Playroom doesn't need showy displays of skill to convince us of its merits -- it's all there in simple, early '80s-homage-laden pop songs of alarming likeability.
Singer Tahita Bulmer has the disaffected, flat vocal styling that came to embody downtown dance-rock this year -- a tone of ironic boredom, which is only revealed as a put-on when Bulmer allows us (on some of the album's mellower numbers) a glimpse at her softer, more pop-focused side. Even if you don't know you know them, you probably recognize the three big singles "Ice Cream", "Get Lucky" and "The Bomb". But three good songs doesn't get you into the top ten albums of the year. Fantastic Playroom is much more than that. Sexy and fun, the album was the best in its genre this year -- and a triumph for pop on the dancefloor.
8. Amon Tobin - Foley Room [Ninja Tune]
The true successor to 2000's landmark Supermodified, Foley Room marked the return to top form of Brazilian drum'n'bass legend Amon Tobin. The album combines live instrumentation (with such luminaries of the modern classical scene as Kronos Quartet) and field recordings to weave a complex fabric of surging sound. Capitalizing on suspension and release is Tobin's forte, and here he builds layers of tension, holding back a drum break for what seems like an eternity before blasting you with a fierce wall of sound. Drums are everything -- they rattle, creak, and crash in indecipherable rhythms, becoming much more than a device for timekeeping.
But more than this, Foley Room succeeds in making each of the isolated elements of Tobin's hectic sound shine brightly, precisely when he wants them to come out. What I mean is, this hyper-contrasted sound is always employed in the service of the song, and never becomes an exercise in pastiche. It's a lot more difficult to accomplish than it sounds.
7. Various Artists - After Dark [Italians Do Better]
The definitive collection of new Italodisco shows us the genre's full potential. Italo's been around, in various forms, for many years, of course -- but it was this collection, in large part, that catalyzed its re-emergence in 2007. There are a few essential covers -- Glass Candy's reworking of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" and Mirage's swirling cover of Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" (both from the early '80s) stand out. But the majority of the work on After Dark feels both new and timeless in the best way. Think lots of brass accents, perpetual major tonalities, and plenty of twisting synth arpeggios. Texas outfit Farah's two contributions are especially good -- one has a chanted section in Persian (yes), and one simple synth arpeggios like a blissed-out the Knife.
But don't think of this collection as one of those "important albums" that should be acknowledged but never listened to. This is some incredibly enjoyable music. You could call it 'cruisy', in the sense of cruising in your '69 Alfa Romeo Spider up the cliffs off Amalfi. The thing of it is, Italo's buoyancy can be quite delicate. This may be what makes it so addictive -- these songs have an ambivalent, hidden heart.
6. Dan Deacon - Spiderman of the Rings - Carpark
Baltimore's ascendancy to the top of electronica's must-visit list is due to an unlikely figure. Pasty, balding, and with taped up tortoiseshell glasses strapped to his face, Dan Deacon is an odd sight in the middle of a heaving mass of adulatory revelers. But the sight was a common one at venues across the country this year, and more than a few people took notice (when you hear the epic "Wham City", it's hard not to). Determined to coerce his audience into having fun, Deacon would shed clothes, plant himself in the middle of the floor, and work up a sweaty storm of snappy electro-fuzz. And everyone who saw him live had an absolute blast.
Spiderman of the Rings brings the elements of Deacon's live sound into greater focus, revealing a mash of synth arpeggios, distorted fuzz and expertly-deployed percussion accents. The overall effect is one of abandon and euphoria, but don't for a moment think that this music is casually tossed off. The guy's got an MFA in electro-acoustic composition, but instead of retreating into beard-stroking academia, he's chosen to use his powers to create something we can all appreciate, and which makes for a mighty fun listen, too. Let's all sing together: "Gonna get my pants suit on, gonna get my face face on…"
5. M.I.A. - Kala [Interscope]
For those who thought she could never top her astonishing debut, M.I.A. had something to say this year. Kala is a masterful display of appropriation and interpretation, corralling source material from India to the Aussie Outback into a party album that's in turns ferocious, elated, and fist-pumpingly independent. It's all informed by a generous spirit of inclusion for the sounds of the countries where she traveled while making the record. The masterstroke -- live, at least -- may be her "cover" of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" (she combines it with a hulking bass line ripped from New Order's "Blue Monday"). It's called "$20" and it's incredible.
Throughout, M.I.A.'s raps are mainly a foil for the more interesting beats that underlay them, but there are enough moments of wit or bravado to keep us well entertained. Whoever thought we'd be singing along so loudly to a chorus where a gunshot and a cash register provide the punch line? Her epilepsy-inducing MySpace page and outrageous outfits combined to create this unique presence on the dance music scene. It's been a great year for M.I.A.
4. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver [Capitol]
LCD Soundsystem's second album took its time creeping up on me. Maybe it was that the fullness of the record's individual songs lost something of their impact when placed next to each other. There's so much packed into Sound of Silver that it can be difficult to process. But when you get round to it, so many of the songs on this album capture something essential -- about the early 30s ennui of faded dreams and lucid drug memories; or the disgust over US cultural hegemony and its domestic effects; or the nostalgia of lost friendship. It's all expertly rendered in music that bounces and jitters towards elation, never quite allowing itself to open fully. You don't have to be "innocuous", one of the hip New York kids to connect with that. The sound of the album is spacious and full, enriched by live instrumentation and analog recording techniques, and it warmly welcomes the listener. For the chance to experience the sweet elation of "All My Friends" again, I, for one, will gladly stay on James Murphy's mailing list.
3. Justice - † - Vice
The reason why Justice's debut LP, ††, became such a force in electronic music in 2007 wasn't just because it extended the fuzzed-out bass funk of early single "Waters of Nazareth". Sure, you could lump much of their debut into a broad 'heavy metal disco' category, but you'd be missing the cheeky delight the Parisian duo takes in bright disco celebration. Besides, if you did that, you'd miss "D.A.N.C.E." -- truly one of the songs of the year. When listened to right through, the album plays almost light, and this contributes to the charm of the myriad fused influences. † is remarkably assured for a debut: its melodies ping with carefully-plotted arrangements; its beats groan as if they're about to be crushed by giant speakers; its bass grooves with fierce independence. Don't take all the religious iconography and the faux-solemn orchestral introductions too seriously -- Justice certainly don't. † occasionally knocks you flat, but mostly it's just there to fuel one heck of a dance party. It's time to have some fun.
2. The Field - From Here We Go Sublime [Kompakt]
The sound of the year is a shockingly loud, rising R2D2 squiggle that comes six and a half minutes into "The Deal", one of the best tracks on the year's best electronic album. From Here We Go Sublime is the debut LP from Swedish techno producer Axel Willner. It's astonishing enough that this is a debut, but the quality of this material was so unexpected you might have mistaken the sound of a thousand critics' and fans' jaws hitting the floor back in March for an earthquake. It turns out that in the nine months that followed, nothing topped it.
1. Burial - Untrue [Hyperdub]
Burial doesn't want you to listen to his sophomore album -- he's said this, in interviews. It's meant to be an underground album for an underground audience who understands its context and referents. The strange irony of it is, Untrue is the most full and emotionally accessible dubstep album since Burial's debut. The elusive London artist refuses to reveal any biographical information or discuss his music with the press, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Lucky that this weird, rickety music has the legs to carry all the scrutiny.
Untrue improves on Burial in important ways -- dark and brooding, it creates an oppressive, complete world from start to finish. Maybe it's this consistency that attracts a wider fanbase than the insular world of dubstep -- even for the rest of us, Burial's music is both enveloping and alienating. Faltering vocal snippets reveal a hint of soul, but are cut off often before they're even really understandable. The schizophrenic beats shatter halfway through a bar. But everything here is so coherently conceived that once you enter Burial's murky world, you won't want to leave.