A Closer Listen’s Best Electronic Albums of the Decade

While the mainstream charts reflect a love for steady beats, the underground features an industry rife with reinvention.  Few of the artists below have hits, but in a perfect world, they would.  Their music has influenced film scores, commercials and even pop artists; yet for the most part they remain underneath the radar.  There is excitement in these grooves: the sound of something new.  Even the oldest albums on our chart sound as if they could have been made today ~ or even tomorrow. From comfortable pads to dangerous drums, they run the breadth of electronic timbres: always engaging, amazingly fresh.

And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Electronic Albums of 2010-19!

Andy Stott ~ Faith in Strangers (Modern Love, 2014)
Andy Stott is one of the few true specialists in contemporary electronic music, and Faith In Strangers remains his strongest thesis to date: a raw/refined, black/white (sometimes gray) excursion into the twilight corners of club music. But before the clipping synthesizers and iPhone-demo 808s entrance us with their paradoxical elegance, Stott invites listeners with a slow-burning fog horn. “Time Away” cleanses before the “violence” and “damage” ensue, where blips and ticks offer us “no surrender” from the thumping onslaught. Of course, Stott discreetly pulls the strings to take us back to that place of original serenity, but through the therapeutic vessel of a booming party, where Alison Skidmore’s featherweight voice distantly sings “someone’s had enough”. The record is occasionally as mysteriously bleak as its cover, but more importantly, it creates a world full of deliriously thumping heartbeats in a sea of dazzled bodies.  (Josh Hughes)

 

Atom™ ~ Atom™ programmiert den Scheiß aus sich raus (Rather Interesting, 2011)
Let’s consider household names in post-techno electronic music. Aphex Twin? Squarepusher? μ-Ziq? Autechre? In my household, Uwe Schmidt gets first mention. The title of this release, translating as “Atom™ programs the shit out of himself.”, is an apt description of his long, industrious career so far. With a staggering range of aliases and collaborative projects, Schmidt spans IDM, future jazz, ambient, various Latin styles, and a few micro-genres of his own invention. On this standout record, a ten-minute minimal techno joint rubs shoulders with funky, light-hearted electro. The squelchy acid sounds of Schmidt’s heyday are collapsed and reconstructed in a restless, twitchy polychrome.  (Samuel Rogers)

 

Autechre ~ Elseq 1-5 (Warp Records, 2016)
The five albums of elseq lurk very nearly to the heart of the decade, a strange growth within, a black hole slightly off the center of the galaxy. One more step in the long self-deconstruction of electronic music, elseq’s computational, mathematical fixations border on the occult, with Autechre fulfilling the role of mechanical revealers of infinitesimal half-truths. One of them is that these albums are almost modular: just like they were put together, the listener can assemble their way through four hours of non-linear music as he/she/they sees fit. Each track is a sigil, an experiment in unthought connections, and when they all come together they seem also to fade immediately away. Listen closely, because they’ll soon disappear, but when you look back at the decade, there will be something strange, something eerie that seems about to dislocate the consistency of ten years’ music. Before Autechre lies, still, a lonely path. (David Murrieta Flores)

Caterina Barbieri ~ Ecstatic Computation (Editions Mego, 2019)
While lists usually benefit from hindsight, it is with enthusiasm that I think a recent release like Ecstatic Computation earned its place among the decade’s greatest. Surrounded by other extremely interesting approaches to the exploration of the very programming of electronic music, Barbieri’s album stands out for its historically-minded conceptual simplicity and its consequent clarity. The synthesizer joins the algorithm and the most human of instruments – the voice – in the assembly of a machine for extreme feeling, a surrealist object that destabilizes the separations between its elements. In a decade of automatic immersion into the everyday discipline of instrumental reason (the actual black mirror before our eyes), the transparent intent of a cybernetic psychedelia that accounts for a lot of the developments in past electronic music seems, if anything, fresh, relevant, even potentially subversive – an inspiration for the decade to come. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

The Field ~ Looping State of Mind (Kompakt, 2011)
On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much progression to The Field’s Looping State of Mind, but listen closer and one will discover a record of infinite depth. These loops burrow into the brain. Samples are tweaked just enough to add to the experience rather than invade it. Due to the nature of the loop, it’s a repetitive album, but that’s a positive and not a negative; an exercise in hypnosis.  (James Catchpole)

 

Forest Swords ~ Engravings (Tri-Angle, 2013)
Built on splintered vocal samples and reverb laden guitar, Forest Sword’s 2014 debut LP still sounds untouchable and void of clear reference. Dub and Eastern folk music might work as acceptable entry points, but the mystical world-building on Engravings stands as one of the decade’s bolder standalone monuments. Producer Matthew Barnes constructs song structures as curvilinear and seamless as post-rock outfits like Mogwai, but with the sampling notoriety of cratediggers like DJ Shadow. Yet almost all of the precisely stitched multimedia fabric is Barnes’ own genesis; the wordless choirs and various stringed instruments mostly started with his voice and his hands, which furthers the album’s watery impenetrability. Each patchwork composition slowly twists into soothing transcendence, often at the feet of something that feels unequivocally ancient and only recently unearthed. Engravings exists in its own microcosm, nourishing itself with thick, distant sounds that that hope to escape the confines of time.  (Josh Hughes)

 

Jilk ~ Joy in the End (Project Mooncircle, 2017)
Joy in the End is a purposeful mood-lifter, aware of the current social climate yet existing as a positive reaction.  The ingredients include playful electronics, ping-pong balls, military drums, toy box chimes and ebullient horns: reminders of our childhood innocence and adult ideals.  When a voice repeats the words “Everything is going to be okay,” we realize how much we need such affirmation, and how much an impact such words can have, even from a musician we’ve never met.  Will there be joy in the end?  Why not believe so?  The world is still a beautiful place.  (Richard Allen)

 

Julia Holter ~ Ekstasis (RVNG Int., 2012)
A little background: when we started A Closer Listen, we knew it would centre on instrumental music, and we added ‘experimental’ into the mix because, we reasoned, what happens if a great album is released that we want to cover, but it’s primarily vocal? Six months into our existence, we have a case in point: Ekstasis, Julia Holter’s second album, arrives and we flip our collective wig. It is, almost, a classic pop album, full of sumptuous melodies, engaging hooks, and deft shifts of mood. There’s a stunning sequence in the middle of the album: the mournful “Boy In The Moon”, drenched in atmospherics, the wonky baroque of “Für Felix”, and the statuesque electro-pop of “Goddess Eyes II”. Pleasingly, Julia Holter has gone on to delve further into off-kilter pop and push the experimental side of her music with her subsequent albums, but this is where it started for us, so it will always have a special place in our hearts. The real question is: why aren’t all pop albums this engaging? (Jeremy Bye)

 

Mentallo & the Fixer ~ Music from the Eather (Alfa Matrix, 2012)
My very first reviewing gig was with the print magazine IndustrialnatioN.  Every month I received a package of cassettes and CDs from California, with a strong whiff of incense.  I’d type up my reviews and mail them in; and soon I’d receive another.  Technologies and formats have changed, but my love for the genre remains.  The problem: most modern industrial music continues to rehash the tropes of the originators.  Not so Mentallo & the Fixer, one of the longest lasting acts in the industry, although now the work of one brother instead of two.  Music from the Eather is a triple disc extravaganza that features some of the most complex, inventive programming fans will ever hear.  One might call this opus The Last Great Industrial Album, but we always hope there will be more.  (Richard Allen)

 

Serph ~ Heartstrings (Noble, 2011)
‘A male Tokyoite’ is all we are told about the retiring and prolific composer-producer Serph from his official bio ~ yet from such a reclusive character emerges such a charismatic fusion of dance and jazz music. His third full release of many more across this decade, 2011’s Heartstrings was my first discovery (while record shopping in Tokyo, fittingly) so will always be my fondest. It is a record of catchy, elongated melodies on horns, flutes, synths and strings stretching out over restless polyrhythms and glitchy guitar lines. The orchestral hits in opener “luck” cavort sedately with increasingly exuberant drums before transposing abruptly (a device later repeated) into a brazenly digitized version; later, the glitch-infused freneticism of “leaf” is heart-racing stuff, taking us soaring like many of these tracks over the neon lights of Akihabara. We are offered calmer moments in the final third but, even as the tempo drops, a ride will still be pinged, a throb will still pulse or a shaker shaken to deliver a groove that never stops. Heartstrings is that rare record among my favourites: one that evokes pure joy. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Best of Decade Lists: Part II – Avant Music News

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