1. Akufen My Way (Force Inc.)
This year, Montreal's pop culture sampling man-wonder Akufen, born Marc Leclair, captured our ears, feet and hearts with his stunning debut album. Constructed from hundreds of hours worth of radio bits Leclair recorded and routed through, My Way is a true tour de force, an aural example of passion and patience.
Released in May to immediate acclaim, adoration, and actual sales, My Way captivated lovers of techno, house, and experimental sounds alike. It's funky, playful, poetic and above all, musical, clearly illustrating Akufen's growth as a producer and thinker. Advertising, talk radio, milliseconds of familiar Top 40 moments it's all here, sampled, shaken and stirred into an incredible whole.
"Every morning, I listen to the radio; it's an endless source of sound," Leclair says. "It's part of my lifestyle and very organic, with the sweep that you have between stations. It's not like television. Television is more like a package deal that's shoved down people's throats; everything is stimulated with TV so there's no more place for working. I think that radio is much more interesting and optimistic. It offers much more of a place to imagine."
Imagine Akufen does, and always has. From a childhood spent absorbed in the meeting place between his parent's record collection and a double cassette deck, to a promising career as a visual artist, Leclair has long been lost in possibilities.
"I like to pay attention to the little details in everyday life," he says. "The more subtle sounds attract me rather than the most evident and up-front. I've always managed to find a source of sound somewhere at some point."
The theme has been constant from Marc's teenage years, when he would de-construct then fabricate anew with sources like noises from the woods or glasses filled with water. Though his parents placed him in a music school at a young age, Leclair rejected the notion of formal composition. "I was more into aesthetic and architecture, the building of music."
This is Akufen's truth to this day, where tape decks, piano, guitars and synths have given way to sequencers and samplers. At one with his computer, Leclair claims to chop his sound sources randomly "I let the sequencer roll and add the bits, one at a time, and see if it works" gleefully building grooves along the way. His keen ears and hyper-creative brain are well paired with his instrument of choice.
"I've been using samplers all my life. I started working with analogue synthesisers, but it was never my forté I was never into tweaking knobs and so on. It's very, very technical. I'm much more of an artist than a technician; I'd rather talk about an art movement.
"For years," he continues, "sampling had a really bad reputation due to things like house music where people were literally robbing hooks from the 70s and 80s and just adding a beat over it. This is not writing music. The sampler is more like an instrument, and that's what I want to teach people. It can be used in such an artistic way. To me, it's the best instrument to illustrate your dreams because you can find your sources anywhere."
Radio became a specific source for Akufen only three years ago, as he began to "clumsily" explore the potential on releases for labels like Background, Trapez and Perlon. These EPs foreshadowed his potential, but My Way, released on Germany's Force Inc., sealed the deal. It has since become the label's biggest success, both critically and commercially, taking Leclair out of his day job and into clubs across Europe, the UK, Japan and, most recently, South America.
As Leclair himself shines brightly, it's clear that his sense of humour has lured listeners as much as his strong melodies. Akufen is out to make us grin not gawk, dance not debate.
"As a music consumer, I was getting really bored with what was happening," Marc says. "I decided one day that I'd had enough of that whole seriousness, with people sitting in front of their laptop just moving their mouse, with audiences contemplating these people and not dancing. I thought it was time to let loose a bit, party, and shake your butt.
"The point is to remove the discrimination out of the music that whole sectarian attitude, like techno music is for people with a brain and house music is for bimbos with a butt.' I don't know how long it's going to last, but for the time being, I'm getting a really good response not only from the listeners and record buyers, but also from the minimal techno community."
It appears that the accolades and approval have only just begun. Though he's had precious little time at home, Akufen has managed to build up his studio and turn out remixes for the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Craig David. Mixes for Yello and International Pony are in the works, as is a new EP for Pole's ~scape label, and a new album for Force Inc. in 2003. January will see the launch of Akufen's own Risqué, a twelve-inch driven label with a heavy concentration on Canadian talent. Where future projects are concerned, Leclair's goals are clear.
"I want to push the boundaries of my musical language much further. I don't want to just rely too much on a formula that works. Obviously, it's working right now, but I don't want to get to a point where it's going to be too easy or predictable. When it becomes too predictable, I hate it. Tomorrow morning, I could wake up and decide to do something completely different. When the heart and the good intention is there, you'll always have people who will follow you and what you do."
2. Jazzanova In Between (JCR/Fusion III)
Jazzanova's long-awaited album could have been one of their trademark hyper-samba remix workouts. Fortunately, they took on a wide range of song forms and pulled it all off with style. From carefully constructed instrumentals to R&B to funky percussion workouts, this album realised its many ambitions. In Between showed that there was much more going on with their brand of jazz than just some Fender Rhodes noodling and a reverbed ride cymbal. This album set a new benchmark in artwork design, too. David Dacks
3. The Cinematic Orchestra Every Day (Ninja Tune)
J. Swinscoe brought his orchestra to wondrous levels when it came to lay down Cinematic's second effort, creating a lush soundtrack of epic proportions. A mere seven tracks are stretched into overtime, but not a minute is wasted. Every Day lulls you into a trance-like state with stunning beauty. Creating tunes to accommodate both songstress Fontella Bass and the lyrical bombing of Roots Manuva is not an easy task, but Cinematic pulls it all off in grand style with hypnotic beats, electronics and harp. A gorgeous effort from start to finish. Noel Dix
4. Ladytron Light & Magic (Emperor Norton)
With all the elements of early 80s new wave and electronic synth-pop, Light & Magic updates a sound that hasn't seen this much attention in almost two decades. The keyboards are blippy and fuzzy, with vocals that could easily be those of some futuristic fembot. As much as the retro rhythms and analog sounds pay homage, the undeniable pop structure of the songs here is what makes this identifiably current. They're absurdly catchy and although the programming could be called minimal, it is not without character. It is clear and refined without getting cluttered amongst heaviness or noise. Coreen Wolanski
5. Boards of Canada Geogaddi (Warp)
It took four long years for them to follow-up, but different unlike its predecessor, Music Has The Right To Children, Geogaddi has a more sinister feel. Their offspring are still sample heavy features, and the fascination with nature is still intact (including an extraordinary sample of a young Leslie Nielson talking about dandelions), but the music has become a more complex chill-out, with exotic instrumentation and mind controlling forces at work. They're the nu-psychedelicists of electronic music, with the ability to either mellow you out or make you very uneasy. It's potent and mind-blowing, light years ahead of any of their contemporaries. That is, if they have any. Cam Lindsay
6. Felix da Housecat Kittenz and Thee Glitz. (Emperor Norton)
More than most any other record in the so-called "electro-clash" cannon Felix Da Housecat's latest artist album made the 80s cool again. With a Cheshire cat's sense of mischief, the long-acclaimed Chicago house DJ leapt back into the retro-electro playground he tentatively explored as Elektrikboy back in 1999, this time bringing Miss Kittin along to French kiss on the Ferris wheel. It's easy to forget how good the glam-mocking Kittenz and Thee Glitz is, given that so many lesser "artists" have ridden this album's bandwagon into the fashion pages. But nearly a year later, Miss Kittin's Euro-deadpan maintains its slightly sinister sheen on undeniable classics like the dance floor masher "Silver Screen (Shower Scene)" while the production remains on-point throughout. Many of Felix's fellow revivalists mess up by not making their beats throb hard enough, abuse their synth privileges or substitute irony for ideas, but Kittenz side-steps each error, infusing techno attitude and house vibes to create a coldly passionate, and unnervingly contemporary, rump-shaker. Joshua Ostroff
7. Chemical Brothers Come With Us (Astralwerks)
As the first electronic act to cross over into the "rock" mainstream, the Chemical Brothers have maintained an accessibly underground techno-based sound that is not afraid of euphoria. Rummaging through their galaxy-sized imaginations, the duo return with Come With Us, a beautiful record full of gentle guitar plucking, epic synth symphonies, spectral horns, dirty bass lines, African percussion, unpredictable beats and Beth Orton. But most striking, their expansive psychedelic sound is built almost entirely on an emotion rarely found in music these days sheer, unadulterated joy. Ed Simmons and Tom Rowlands don't care that trance is dead, they don't care that club land is in retreat, they don't care that they're not even cool anymore. They see far beyond the next trend, past the paranoia, into a utopian future that can sometimes be glimpsed on a good night out dancing and, well, they wanna take you with them. Lead on, my brothers, lead on. Joshua Ostroff
8. Moonstarr Dupont (Public Transit)
While 4 Hero, I. G. Culture and the other West Londoners dominate the broken beat scene, Moonstarr is making sure that the rhythms really sound damaged. Raw samples of jazz, bossa and funk are cut, rippled and stuttered throughout the first half of Dupont, and though the editing never reaches the ridiculous frenzy of Squarepusher, it's tight enough to get people on the floor and moving. Part of the appeal has to do with Moon's obvious affections for late 80s hip-hop and hardcore jungle, bringing a rare balance of the soulful and the experimental to his beat collages. The second half of the disc is much more digital, but just as funky, with its freestyle keys and Moog-ish tweaks. The remix of "Working Man's Hustle" by 4 Hero (under the Nu era alias) may be Moonstarr's greatest compliment, but its studio-savvy sounds don't necessarily fit in with Dupont's bedroom mix. In fact, its West London motifs sound conventional compared to this distinctively Torontonian production. Prasad Bidaye
9. Timo Maas Loud (Kinetic)
Crafted for the funk and thunder of a big room sound system, Loud weaves Timo Maas's signature wet percussive sound between squelchy breaks, languid trip-hop, chunky acid house, slinky dub and raunchy techno. While the occasional downbeat number provides ambient counters to the big beat drive, Loud is primarily designed for the dance floor high, rocking out in a fervour of rolling bass lines, heated techno stomp, and the occasional guitar hook. Arguably the most mainstream thing in Maas's discography, Loud is still one of the best mixes of floor-shakingly good dance rhythms around, making it both an ultra-groovy crowd pleaser and a first class electronic adventure. Romina Wendell
10. Amon Tobin Out From Out Where (Ninja Tune)
By creating timeless adventures in sound that never get stale, Tobin has a knack for making his next record sound as brilliant and fresh as his last. Everything you expect is here: hauntingly beautiful cuts that are nearly terrifying as he laces chilling vocal samples through mutated beats. But he tries something new too, with the use of a mysterious MC sample sliced, Prefuse 73 style, in "Verbal," making you sit up and take notice early on. But it's still the slow-paced numbers, with their echoing beats and goose-bump-producing strings, that really makes your ears twitch. Noel Dix