Electronic Year in Review 2004

Electronic Year in Review 2004
1. JUNIOR BOYS
Last Exit (Domino)
Jeremy Greenspan may sing sad, sad songs, but the mastermind behind Hamilton electro duo Junior Boys is quite chipper. And why not? The story so far: boy puts tracks up on internet, criterati in the blogosphere eat them up, band signs record deal. So while Greenspan croons forlornly over sleek, cool blips and bleeps on their rapturously received debut Last Exit, he's pretty pleased — if a bit surprised — that his little record that could has turned out to be one of the best-reviewed albums of the year.

"For us, this is our very first experience," Greenspan says of himself and JBs collaborator Matt Didemus. "So it's hard to say, ‘Wow, this is so unexpected and unusual' because we had no expectations at all!"

In fact, everything about the Junior Boys is a bit unexpected. Greenspan thought he was making UK garage-style tracks when his love for the old school of songwriting (think Gershwin and Cole Porter) reared its head and swerved the Boys' music in an entirely different direction. The result is synth-pop that's anything but retro — its fresh New Order-meets-Timbaland sound heralded a noisy entrance onto a scene that often tends to look back instead of forward.

It's been a year of new experiences for the guy who's most comfortable writing and producing at home in his Hamilton studio — as we chat via cell phone, Greenspan's walking through a crowded Seattle market while on tour with Mouse on Mars. He's just been told that the Junior Boys have nabbed the top spot on the dance chart in American college radio mag CMJ. "And I'm going around saying, ‘Well, what's CMJ?'" he says, laughing at his own obliviousness. "Every day, it's a bombardment of surreal news that I don't know how to process. I don't know if it translates into selling records — I've never made a penny off the Junior Boys. So maybe if I were to get a cheque or something, I'd be going, ‘Wow, I actually make money doing this?' Then maybe it would register." Tabassum Siddiqui

2. SIXTOO
Chewing on Glass and Other Miracle Cures (Ninja Tune)
Shrugging off the albatross of past hip-hop associations and engaging his love of krautrock, Sixtoo presents a serious, dense and pensive album that seems like an ode to the ebb and flow of worry. Continuing to build his rep as a meticulous producer, he layers fuzzed-out drums, driving guitars, light waves of psychedelia and underplayed feedback for a surprisingly spacious effect. Crisply rock at times, uncertainly hip-hop at others, Chewing is a serious piece of craft. Melissa Wheeler

3. ULRICH SCNAUSS
A Strangely Isolated Place (Domino)
Berliner Ulrich Schnauss makes a perfect case for the new breed of beat-driven dream pop with his second album. Nicking multi-layered production and armies of effects pedals from Slowdive and Cocteau Twins, Schnauss snuck in some vivid down-tempo beats to create a sublime soundtrack for the perfect daydream or a pleasant come down. Cam Lindsay

4. JAKE FAIRLEY
Touch Not the Cat (Paperbag)
Toronto laptop-techno expat takes off for Germany, quitting his electro-punk outfit the Uncut in the process — but dude doesn't abandon the rock. Instead, Fairley picks up the mic and drops this schaffel gem, filling his oddly-titled full-length with pummelling off-kilter beats, ridiculously fuzzy guitar-mocking synths and enough sleaze to give Dr. Seuss the clap. Joshua Ostroff

5. LALI PUNA
Faking the Books (Morr)
A beacon in the cliché-ridden indie-tronic field, Lali Puna's latest was a post-rocking head-nodder whisked into the ether by Valerie Trebeljahr's whispered incantations. While guitars figured prominently here, computers were never far out of reach of producer Mario Thaler, who took liberties with Trebeljahr's voice at every turn, sprinkling her chopped utterances over analog squiggles and clipped percussive accents to consistently blissful ends. Martin Turenne

6. WAGON CHRIST
Sorry I Make You Lush (Ninja Tune)
With several nods to classic break-beats and even your mum's ballroom tunes, this is Luke Vibert's most consistent and beautiful record in recent years. Ranging from full-on electric dance party anthems such as "The Funnies" to the hauntingly beautiful vocals that drive "Shadows," Vibert manages to make hundreds of audio elements work in perfect unison. Noel Dix

7. AIR
Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks)
After abandoning their breezy electro-lounge pop with the dark and poorly-received 10,000 Hz Legend and the uncalled-for City Reading, Talkie Walkie didn't try to retrace the brilliance of their debut. Playing all of the instruments and singing all of the vocals themselves, Air pushed their gift for romantic, spaced-out synthetic soul even further ahead of everyone else. Cam Lindsay

8. OCTET
Cash & Carry Songs (Plain)
This French duo dropped out of thin air with this incredibly varied and exciting debut. Cut'n'pasted electro-pop, contemplative free-form instrumentals, rump-shaking bump n' grinds — Cash & Carry Songs has a bit of everything for the bass-loving adventurer, and nary a moment goes to waste. Kevin Hainey

9. SQUAREPUSHER
Ultravisitor (Warp)
Just when you thought Tom Jenkinson was content to pour milk all over his hard-drive for breakfast every morning, he picked up his bass, brushed up on his jazz licks and strutted into this artist-defining excursion of exquisite self-indulgence with head held high. The results are one of the warmest and most intimate electronic albums ever recorded. Kevin Hainey

10. MOUSE ON MARS
Radical Connector (Thrill Jockey)
Mouse on Mars go pop? Sure, if you consider androids singing over acid bass lines and tech-house disco
throwdowns to be pop music. German duo Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner certainly suggest that we should, offering up skittish beats and textured yet melodic vocals on their most accessible album to date. Intelligent dance music, indeed. Tabassum Siddiqui

Pop Goes the Beat
Two years after Eminem gloated that "nobody listens to techno" and a half-decade past rave's mainstream heyday, the post-millennial electronic music scene has retreated back down into the underground. But instead of sulking with navel-pointed periscopes, producers remodelled themselves as singer-songwriters and went pop. This was portended by the electroclash blip as well as last year's song-oriented efforts from Manitoba and Postal Service, the latter of which spent the past year selling 400,000 records to become Sub Pop's second-biggest act after Nirvana. Of course, purists consider Postal Service an anomaly, not dissimilar from indie rock's recent synth fetish — but the question of credibility became moot in '04 when highly respected experimental producers joined the pop onslaught. Junior Boys' crystalline beats and soft laments broke hearts, while Swayzak channelled Depeche Mode and minimalist Matthew Dear sang all over his Backstroke EP and spoke proudly of "my pop-based mentality." Germany's Superpitcher injected emotion into micro-house on "The Long Way" and Mouse on Mars' "Wipe That Sound," from their first all-vocal album, proved a glitch-funk smash.

Meanwhile, techno got it on with stadium glam in the woozy schaffel movement, led by respected labels like Germany's Kompakt and Toronto's own Jake Fairley, whose album dropped his distorted vocals atop brain-meltingly buzzy dance tracks that could not have rocked any harder had he picked up a guitar. Appealing to an audience less beholden to drug-fuelled all-nighters, producers switched from "tracks" to "songs" after realising they could use the architectural aesthetics of pop music without unseemly compromises to snag a seat at the popular table. Let the rappers and teen tarts run the cafeteria, the freqs are just fine singing and dancing out by the portables. Joshua Ostroff