Dance & Electronic 2011: 20 Best Albums
Published Dec 01, 2011Listen to our Best of 2011: Dance & Electronic playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. James Blake
2. Nicolas Jaar
4. Oneohtrix Point Never
6. Amon Tobin
7. The Field
8. Little Dragon
9. Gang Gang Dance
10. Africa Hitech
11. Katy B
12. Hudson Mohawke
13. Junior Boys
15. Babe Rainbow
16. Ford & Lopatin
17. Jamie Woon
18. Miracle Fortress
19. Azari & III
20. Toddla T
1. James Blake (Atlas)
For those familiar with his EPs of 2009 and 2010, such as the superb Kelis-sampling CMYK, James Blake's debut album came as something of a shock. The wonk and bass had been pushed into the background to allow room for a new Blake as a talented singer-songwriter. Blake's bass-laden cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love," originally released as a one-track single in 2010, seemed like a playful aberration at the time but was in fact a portent of things to come. While tracks such as "The Wilhelm Scream" were more traditional, elsewhere on the album, opener "Unluck" for example, his work retains that left-field blend of IDM, R&B and dubstep that made his early work so unique. The end result is surprisingly emotive, with Blake's dulcet tones accentuated with subtle, or not, use of vocoder and a confessional nature to the lyrics that at times verges on the uncomfortable. James Blake made the most of 2011, becoming the poster-boy for the post-dubstep crossover into the mainstream. The challenge for Blake going forward is to sustain this interest while pushing his hybrid sound further forward. Given his superb live act, which successfully manages the transition from solo project to a three-piece band the cards are stacked in his favour.
2. Nicolas Jaar Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
Over the course of 2011 this album gained momentum despite being swamped upon release by the hype surrounding not-dissimilar James Blake's debut. Somewhat after the fact I like the directness of Jaar's songs as opposed to the less continuous grooves of Blake's album, though both are super creative in their own ways. This album has so much love to give. Revisiting Space Is Only Noise many months later reveals quite a few more layers to the delicate sonic constructions I so loved. Now, however, I'm drawn to out and out jams like the doomy title track and the electronically warped R&B of "Problems With the Sun." I'm no longer sure whether I'd classify this as a the perfect example of a downtempo album; songs have terrific momentum and don't hang on one rhythm when there's always someplace new to go. Jaar has continued on an upward trajectory this year, even receiving NPR's stamp of approval for his excellent new EP Don't Break My Love. I hope Jaar gets a larger proportion of year-end love than he did at the year's beginning.
3. SBTRKT (Young Turks)
While bass music continued to splinter into dozens of sub-genres, 2011 saw dubstep break through to the mainstream, at least in terms of name recognition ― most people are still a little hazy on what exactly the term means. So while purists argued about the music's parameters, London DJ and producer Aaron Jerome dropped his self-titled debut, blending elements from across a broad spectrum of both past and current underground dance. Some producers are quick to show off their technical skills, but Jerome kept it simple, delivering a single amalgamated sound that forms the basis of one of the most easily enjoyable dance records of the year. That Drake remix (and appearance at one of Jerome's Toronto shows) certainly went a long way to breaking SBTRKT to a wider audience, but high profile collabs are meaningless if there's nothing behind them. The track in question, "Wildfire," was already the album's standout single before Drizzy ever got his hands on it, with Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano delivering a fantastic vocal performance overtop Jerome's subtle wobble. But it's frequent vocal collaborator Sampha, who pops up on a number of the album's tracks, who really shines. Jerome has rightfully been praised as a producer who's able to mould his own sound to his collaborators. With the smooth-piped singer at the mic, Jerome creates funky, futuristic R&B in a year when David Guetta's house sound has all but killed the genre in the mainstream.
4. Oneohtrix Point Never Replica (Software)
Still riding high on his 2010 successes, Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin kept himself busy throughout 2011. He began the year by launching his new label, Software Records, which eventually released his mutant pop project Ford & Lopatin. That was quickly followed by a collaborative record with electronic music pioneer David Borden and a few other up-and-coming outsider electronic musicians, including James Ferraro and Laurel Halo. Despite that hectic schedule, he's saved his best work for last. Lopatin re-invented the entire sound-world he had carved out with the multiple kosmische-inspired releases leading up to last year's Returnal and came out with an otherworldly full-length that defies the easy descriptors given to his previous works. While utilizing samples from a specific source, in his case, TV commercials, is nothing new in electronic composition (see also: Matmos, Herbert or Akufen), it's Lopatin's keen ear on repurposing this ephemera into a work of art that encompasses both avant-garde and pop music that make Replica such a unique and compelling record. He has tapped into his generation's long-lost pop culture psyche, cut it into ribbons and re-arranged the pieces into an intricate web of hypnotic loops. From the repeated sips of pleasure in "Sleep Dealer" to the video game-like swipes of "Child Soldier," Replica continuously evokes a barrage of memories buried deep in the listener's mind. Replica marks a new and unexpected phase in the trajectory of Oneohtrix Point Never, one that pushes him past all the easy categorizations and into a new realm with few peers.
Mark E. Rich
5. Rustie Glass Swords (Warp)
In Glasgow, Rustie and his LuckyMe crew played a key role mid-decade, transforming clubs out of the apathy of commercial trance and into street styles like glitch and crunk. Now in 2011 the artist born Russell Whyte's debut album Glass Swords is a polished and deviant coalition of psychedelic electro guitars, early '90s rave, and clean cutting-edge pop music with bass. "Surph" builds up using high-energy synths plus expressive handclap samples before moving into heartfelt vocals (of fellow UK-based producer Nightwave) tweaked to the umpteenth degree. Notice transformation from the highly digitized into her naturally stunning R&B vox. The great thing about this track is its positivity and good feeling ― something Glass Swords is bringing on a whole. "Ultra Thizz" kicks off with a blast of videogame gunfire and hopeful dreams of great things to come brought by rascally vocals. The track is brilliantly grounded in bright electro. And Rustie adds some kind of electronic electric guitar riffs to offset the gunfire. This song makes perfect sense among music of the present day while sounding like nothing you've heard before. "City Star" begins in sparkling night vision, like the background music for a night sky picture, before tearing into some heavy electricity-fuelled hip-hop beats. Musically, Glass Swords packs in-your-face and highly concentrated punches that are equal parts futuristic and fairytale. Declaring yesterday's sci-fi future into today, Rustie's debut LP plays like the soundtrack to 2011's revved-up digital days.
6. Amon Tobin Isam (Ninja Tune)
Prior to the release of ISAM you could be forgiven for thinking that Amon Tobin's best work was behind him. A soundtrack, some remixes and a collaboration as Two Fingers aside, the only album proper Tobin had released in almost a decade was the somewhat underwhelming Foley Room, a departure for Tobin in that it was comprised of field recordings as opposed to vinyl sampling. A few years on and Tobin has perfected this new method, even going as far to develop his own keyboard-like controller, the Wraith Tone, and coupled it with much more focussed songwriting. The album featured some of Tobin's best production and some amazing sound work, including a beat that appears to be constructed from a sample of Tobin biting an apple and even some vocals, surprisingly sung by Tobin himself but manipulated so as to be unrecognisable. With harder beats and more dynamism, ISAM is the proof we were waiting for that Tobin is not mired in the Ninja Tune-led jazz breaks scene that he made his name in. Tobin took the album on tour along with an innovative, and expensive, live show that consisted of a gigantic stage-set of white cubes ― it was sized to pack down snugly into the largest shipping container available and went on tour to very limited venues ― and incorporating the motion-sensing Kinect software and the latest mapping techniques, this was next-level shit.
7. The Field Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
Call it a case of Stockholm syndrome. On his third LP, the aptly named Looping State of Mind, Swedish wunderkind Axel Willner has once again figured out how to capture listeners' heads and hearts, forcing them to fall madly in love with the mesmerizing and magnetic rhythms of the Field. This side of Brian Eno, few musicians possess the ability to craft gorgeous, engrossing and gracious pieces while utilizing such a limited number of musical notes. Of course, songs like "It's Up There" and "Burned Out" reveal new dimensions to Willner's canon, incorporating live-off-the-floor feedback and vocals snippets. But it's the way the Field continue to sound so controlled but at the same time unhindered that keeps critics and fans infatuated. Much of this can be attributed to the Field's 2009 tour as a live band, where Axel learned how to rock-out with his vox out, prodding him to rearrange his sound for amplifiers and monitors. Overall, Willner has kept the motherboard untouched on Looping State of Mind, building pulsating and breathing techno out of unidentified micro-samples, but it's the subtle little changes in tempo, mood and pitch that make songs like "Is This Power" and "Looping State of Mind" so engrossing. Looping State of Mind is the sound of a musician evolving, slowly and in seven to 11 minute increments.
8. Little Dragon Ritual Union (Peacefrog)
Swedish electronic quartet Little Dragon's third album Ritual Union marked an important turning point for the group, reversing the lack of critical attention that their first two records had unjustifiably met. Ahead of Ritual Union's release the group were better known as your favourite artist's favourite artist for their collaborations with everyone from the Gorillaz to Raphael Saadiq, but Ritual Union's sonic audacity and independence strongly demonstrates they don't always need help from their friends. With the beguiling presence of vocalist Yukimi Nagano as their emotional anchor, the group eschews exploiting their rising profile by favouring the experimental over the palatable, wilfully meshing shades of minimalist electronic pop, house, chillwave and soul into a formidable foil for Yagano's poetic and increasingly revealing lyrics.
Del F. Cowie
9. Gang Gang Dance Eye Contact (4AD)
It takes a self-assured band to begin an album with three-and-a-half minutes of swirling ambiance, only to follow it with eight more minutes of the same song, but the 11-minute "Glass Jar" somehow seems utterly appropriate after Gang Gang Dance's 2008 breakthrough, the delightfully childlike Saint Dymphna. Where that album frolicked in the pasture in which a younger Animal Collective once grazed, Eye Contact takes a more measured, sonically-sophisticated approach to song construction. Yes, the songs are longer ― with the exception of the album's interludes, only one song clocks in at under five minutes ― but while Gang Gang Dance have expanded their scope, they've also focused their attention to detail. Tracks like the mesmerizing "Adult Goth" are so because their hypnotic quality is undiluted by the off-the-cuff musical meanderings that marked their previous work. Instead, the Manhattanites happily allow their tracks to find their groove, giving them five minutes or more to slither effortlessly from one musical movement to another, as on the sinuous "MindKilla," and on album-closer "Thru And Thru." Where Gang Gang Dance will go from here is anyone's guess, but the response Eye Contact received this year should tell the band that their current muse is worth following; it certainly hasn't misled them thus far. (4AD)
10. Africa Hitech 93 Million Miles (Warp)
It's a descriptive name and Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek more than deliver on it. In a year that the second coming of dubstep produced so many bro-like sounds, 93 Million Miles delivered both hard and smooth beats. There's no mistaking the pulse of this music ― if you want to dance, here's a case where the syncopations are as important as bedrock 808 sounds. Some three decades plus after their invention, these synthetic rhythms have the feel of folk sounds that have been around for centuries. The stuff you might fear from such a project is largely absent ― that is, piles of pounding, multitracked hand percussion, majestic voices calling out the spirits and grand pronouncements of "we are all one." Instead Spacek's versatile voice croons subtly and a very deft and restrained soul mood pervades everything, especially in the beatific album closer "Don't Fight It." At the other end of the spectrum, "Out In The Streets" absolutely lacerates Damian Marley and Ini Kamoze and its footwork style rhythm is serious dance floor business. The complex polyrhythms of Future Africa reveal traces of the South, East and West parts of the continent's rhythmic languages but reconfigured into android rhythms.
11. Katy B On A Mission (Rinse)
It's tempting to wonder why Katy B isn't more famous yet ― mind-boggling actually ― but then you're reassured because you can keep the British rave princess to yourself, just a little longer. It'll come though. Katy's not only got a beautiful voice, girly and strong, but she's a gifted songwriter who captures the vivid details of a night out from the perspective of a girl who lives in the dance. Take lead single "Katy on a Mission," produced by Rinse FM honcho Geeneus and dubstep scion Benga: "But he doesn't, he blocks my way/I try to push past but he wants to play/So I sip his drink as I hold his gaze." It's less the tightly-wound, manic elevation of "the club" as the apex of all life, and more about the dynamics of what goes when you're out with your friends ― doesn't matter where ― drinking, dancing and flirting. Katy, winsome over a scraping, stuttering dubstep beat, manages to be playful and feminine without resorting to bland clichés about "look how much fun we're having!!" She's a product of the underground, working with some of the UK's best DJs and producers within dubstep, funky, house and two-step, but beyond that she has a preternatural gift for pop and is destined for big things.
12. Hudson Mohawke Satin Panthers (Warp)
This year, if you were lucky enough to hear both Rustie's Glass Swords and Satin Panthers, the brainy/brawny EP from fellow Glaswegian Hudson Mohawke, you could very well draw the conclusion that the Scots have never heard of electronic music prior to the arrival of J Dilla. After a bit of a false start with his 2009 debut, Butter, Ross Birchard (aka Hudson Mohawke) makes a (very brief) statement with Satin Panthers, 20-odd minutes of thickly-processed instrumental electro/R&B/hip-hop hybrids that demonstrates his uncanny sense of fortitude and control. Utilizing timing and space while still crafting claustrophobic beats, Hudson Mohawk strives to take instrumental hip-hop down the same wide avenues Miles Davis took bebop. If you discount (the equally enthralling) opener "Octan," which is basically two minutes of shimmering synth and the bat-shit, melody-free "Cbat," Satin Panthers contains only three proper full-length jams. "Thunder Bay" rides a snippet vocal sample through metrical peaks and valleys through rocky terrain and over glistening lakes, while "All Your Love" closest resembles dubstep, keeping the pace above 140 bpms before "Thank You" brings it all home with triumphant drumline rhythms and perfectly-timed accents. Satin Panther is further proof that those Glasgow lads, when it comes to electronic music, are either 20 years behind or ridiculously ahead of their time. Or both.
13. Junior Boys It's All True (Domino)
There's something quite unsettling about this mysterious fourth album by Junior Boys, who've crafted their most pop-oriented effort. Jeremy Greenspan has professed his love of electronic music before, particularly in its readiness to embrace futurism conceptually by conjuring sounds and tones from the latest, most advanced synthesizers and music technology. On one hand, those same principals are readily evident on It's All True, but it's never mechanical; the songs here are really led by impassioned verses and choruses that bleed with feeling. As they shift seamlessly from exuberant pop to mid-tempo, pulsing songs, the electronic music-based duo hit some emotional nerves because, however subtle, these are songs about relationships, about love, and raw, dynamic interplay. They could be computer ballads, emanating from a flash forward that are predicated in a "now" that is unsettled and on the cusp of some cataclysmic shift in consciousness. A hypnotic head trip, It's All True is surreal, romantic, and sharply executed.
14. Zomby Dedication (4AD)
Miles away in concept and execution from 2008's rave-breaks love letter Where Were U in 92?, Zomby's second proper album delivered a producer hell-bent on making a sharp left turn with every release. And given the massive output of post-dubstep bass music that came available in 2011, those kinds of surprises were hard to find elsewhere. Maturity isn't really a term that gets applied to this type of music very much, but Dedication is through and through a mature record, mellow in tempo and attuned to its own subtle emotional core. Zomby is not afraid of the conspicuous brevity of each of his 15 tracks, and when absorbed outside a complete album listen, many of Dedication's parts can feel like interludes. But this is, in part, the brilliance of Zomby's method; his approach risks pushing aside the shuffling playlist tendencies of most music consumption, and instead insisting on the rewards of an entire album-listening experience. Taken as it demands, Dedication builds and recedes in waves of synths, bass, and samples, using the previous two decades of dance music as a goodies bag ripe for pilfering.
15. Babe Rainbow Endless Path (Warp)
Vancouver producer Cameron Reed turned a lot of ears with last year's skittery Shaved EP, finding a home on electronic powerhouse Warp Records. That short shot of apocalyptic minimalism and his steady flow of chopped and screwed mixes caused many to throw in Reed with the witch house set. But this follow-up proves the Reed's ambition and scope go beyond genre excursions. Electronic musicians often use the EP format to showcase new directions they might take, and Endless Path certainly follows that narrative. Lacking the doom-laden claustrophobia of its predecessor, Endless Path offers an expansive set of tunes that basically abandon the sound of Shaved. Where it deviates though is in its sheer variety; no one song sounds like the next, yet the six tracks still feel like part of a whole. The EP mixes ambient soundscapes, hip-hop beats and haunting echo, to create six cinematic pieces, each veering off in its own murky direction. "Greed" offers the sole audible vocal, thanks to G-Side MC Yung Clova and along with "Set Loose," a track originally envisioned for rapper Lil B, offers a glimpse at Reed as a Clams Casino-esque hip-hop producer, his beats floating off into the ether. It's a rather remarkable feat for someone who only started dabbling with electronic music a few years ago.
16. Ford & Lopatin Channel Pressure (Software)
The year began with a major hitch for Joel Ford and Daniel Lopatin, the "futuristic production team" known musically as Games. After releasing their blogger-approved That We Play EP last year, the duo were forced to change their name to avoid a lawsuit from the rapper Game's label, Interscope. Going simply with Ford & Lopatin, the two had a pretty smooth transition with the name change, which coincided with the announcement of their Software label, an imprint of Mexican Summer. Everything then fell into place for the release of Channel Pressure, their highly ambitious debut full-length. To fully express their love for '80s electronic music, the duo recorded the album at none other than the studio of a true icon from that decade: Jan Hammer. By accident, they built "an imaginary soundtrack for the adventure of Joey Rogers, a kid who gets brainwashed by a gigantic television." Sure, the concept sounds pretentious and unapproachable, but Ford & Lopatin were symmetrical with their presentation, combining the slick and savvy pop songs of yesterday with inventive arrangements from tomorrow. In many ways, the components involved shouldn't crystallize, but the fact that it all does impeccably, without ever losing the thrill, says a lot about what they can do in a studio. Few artists experienced a better year than these two, and considering that can be said without the mention of their own successful solo acts ― Ford's Airbird and Lopatin's Oneohtrix Point Never ― speaks loudly for their triumph.
17. Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting (Polydor)
According to the UK press, Jamie Woon's Mirrorwriting's gestation was a long time in coming and listening to this auspicious debut does little to dissuade that notion. Woon is an obvious studio rat as the album is littered with layered and disembodied vocal effects, a penchant for found sound and two a.m. downtempo after-party beats anchored by omnipresent yet wobbly cavernous bass lines. All of this underlines his prowess as a sonic arranger and the influence of occasional collaborator dubstep purveyor Burial. But there's more to Woon than his perfectionist studio tendencies. Peel away all the production tricks, Woon is an accomplished singer/songwriter in the traditional sense of the word and pens accessible songs despite the experimentation. Despite the reams of reverb, his soulful croon unashamedly conveys Woon's own internal wracking over the minutiae of love and life on standouts like "Spiral" where his shiny taut guitar work is a compelling contrast to the all-enveloping ambience that pervades the record. While it might have been unfortunate that Woon's work eventually arrived coinciding with the fanfare being accorded to the like-minded genre-dabbling of James Blake et. al, Mirrorwriting confirms Woon's work was time well spent.
Del F. Cowie
18. Miracle Fortress Was I The Wave? (Secret City)
If you told a Miracle Fortress fan a few years back that Graham Van Pelt would be reinventing himself as a beat-loving electro-pop artist, they would have likely stared at you in shock and disbelief. But that's exactly what happened with this year's Was I the Wave? Taking a sharp left turn from 2007's indie rock-styled Five Roses, the Montreal songwriter pulled a full-on metamorphosis with its follow-up, and the move ― along with that excruciatingly long wait ― was well worth it. Combing ear-grasping melodies with melancholic, dance-ready instrumental backdrops, Van Pelt took his project to new heights with Was I the Wave?, not only proving lightning can strike twice, but that game-changing gambles are well worth it when they pay off so nicely. Sure, our "bedroom club" term may not have taken off in 2011, but we stand by our definition of Miracle Fortress's newfound inner sound. Rarely has electronic music come across as personal and from the heart as it does on Was I the Wave?
19. Azari & III (Turbo)
Trend-setting modern music makers Azari & III solidify their popularity on an international scale with their self-titled debut. Released on Tiga's Turbo Recordings and Loose Lips Records, the admired Toronto based quartet combine the best of nostalgic '80s dance with '90s Chicago house to create infectious, artsy and emotionally driven lyrical anthems. With seven new tracks, including their previously released singles, the album opens with "Into the Night," originally available on Scion A/V; this '80s inspired diva club track is propelled forward by quivering synths and magnetic vocal harmonies. "Reckless (With Your Love)" has already become a contemporary retro house staple since coming out in November 2009 on Permanent Vacation. This chartbusting single combines '90s piano simulations with lush synth chords and optimistic vocals based on overcoming alienating matters of the heart. Devoid of lyrics, "Indigo" is a slow building Detroit-inspired track with heavy breathed moans, murmuring harmonies, piano riffs and wavering high-hats for the ultimate balanced groove. "Hungry (For the Power)" was Azari & III's first successful break-through anthem that reacts against the status quo and desire for attention. "Manic" closes this spectacular release with looping Prince-like hums, gurgling lasers and catchy vocal hooks about mental instabilities. Formed in 2008, Azari & III have skilfully referenced dance music from our past and redefined themselves as cutting-edge house revivalists of the future.
20. Toddla T Watch Me Dance (Ninja Tune)
Guest vocalists on every track, a high-octane run from beginning to end, a mash-up of dominant urban styles from the British music scene: an album like Toddla T's Watch Me Dance shouldn't work in 2011, but that's precisely its appeal and its infectious listenability. Musically, we live in times of rapidly evolving subgenres, of underground movements all digging deeper into the stylistic unknown. When an album comes along that resists being defined along this trajectory, helmed by a young producer who chooses instead to take the most popular elements of all those underground rumblings and push them up toward an unsuspecting mainstream, the kneejerk reaction is to slag him for being out of touch. After all, this is the formula that Basement Jaxx and the Chemical Brothers used in their '90s heyday, before electronic music splintered so vastly that it became impossible to absorb all its myriad parts. But what people forget is just how challenging it is to make an album of this nature. On Watch Me Dance, Toddla T places and balances his collaborators, takes an accurate pulse of a wide range of urban music forms, actually uses all those styles and voice in different ways, and still creates a seamless whole that is just plain entertaining to listen to many times over. For these reasons, Watch Me Dance succeeds in ways no one even tries anymore.