ACL 2020 ~ Top Ten Electronic

One of 2020’s greatest ironies was a surge in dance music ~ while clubs were being shuttered across the globe.  The surge reflected the desire to dance, and people didn’t stop dancing, happily demonstrated by Berlin’s drive-in raves.  Others danced at home, using whatever was at hand to generate music: turntable, Pelaton or iPhone.  Conversely, one of 2021’s greatest pleasures will be the ability to hear some of these tunes played out for the first time, and to see which endure.  Until then, we may be imitating Billy Idol (“Dancing With Myself”) or dancing with friends or partners in our living rooms and yards.

But the electronic genre isn’t all about dancing, or even beats.  Some timbres are rough, others smooth.  Many wield national flavors, underlining heritage; others attempt to bring the world together.  While no single descriptor applies to all these releases, the electronic umbrella is wide and welcoming.  And now, A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Electronic Releases of 2020!

Ben Chatwin ~ The Hum (Village Green)
Taking inspiration from the noises that fly around the planet on frequencies humans can’t detect naturally, Ben Chatwin amplifies the previously unheard on The Hum. The result is a dense, multi-layered work that balances the crunch of white noise with the grace of a beautifully arranged string quartet. There’s a lot to pick up within the grooves here, depending when and where you listen, and on what equipment. Secrets are revealed at every turn, which for a mysterious phenomenon seems only apt, but you don’t necessarily need to know the background to appreciate the music, which is arguably Chatwin’s finest work to date. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Jilk ~ Endless Rushing Waves of the Same (Self-Released)\
Like most artists, Jilk had their plans for 2020 upended by COVID-19. The new album, which was all set for release, has been delayed. So, with a unanticipated chunk of time on their hands, they created. They wrote, they recorded, they swapped files, they mixed… and the result was Endless Rushing Waves of the Same, a slice of unexpected joy amid isolation, frustration and despair. They describe it is music for “sitting, with your family, your pets and your plants.” That is an option but as the year progressed this EP took on its own identity – listening to the soaring strings and birdsong of the title track takes us back to early morning walks in the summer months. It is, in a very real sense, what you make it – and that is treasure indeed. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Luis Pestana ~ Rosa Pano (Orange Milk)
Pestana’s debut (!) is without a doubt one of the most unique releases of the year. Presented as an invented, personal form of folklore, it builds upon an imaginative cross between sacred and secular music. Thus, there’s something playful about it all, but there’s also something heavy, as if the gliding organ-like drones and the sweep of voice-collage were emerging directly from a murky dream. The “pink cloth” of the title is a mythical motif, an entryway into surreality, the connective tissue of a music that is more than just music: it feels portentous, primal, as ready to caress your ears as it is to bite them off. Listen – the new, the truly original, is born from unconscious rituals. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Meitei ~ Kofū (Kitchen)
The concluding piece of a triumphant triptych, Kofū bursts at the edges with exuberance.  Meitei’s deep delve into Japanese culture has stretched from folklore to nostalgia; here he turns his eye to idealized culture.  The distance traveled in these three releases has been incredible, but together they form a tapestry of history and culture.  This upbeat ending wraps a bow around the project, inviting listeners to start at the beginning and experience the journey again.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Nazar ~ Guerilla (Hyperdub)
Nazar is not an artist who runs before he can walk. At ACL, we’ve been patiently waiting for his full-length since he made our 2018 year-end lists. Now it’s here, and it swaggers with throbbing bass music. It jumps around with industrialised techno. It stands tall, narrating the legacy of violence in Angola, reimagining its cultural aftermath. This is an accomplished album, impeccably balancing darkness with optimism, and club energy with uneasy introspection. It tackles a serious and complex subject matter, crucial to the artist’s sense of self. But it is also a hard-hitting record on a purely sonic level. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

Ricardo Donoso ~ Content (Denovali)
Donoso’s multifaceted production finds in Content a sharp representative of the need to aurally account for contemporary states of being. The word is both an emotion and a term used to commoditize information – their overlap lies in our abdication of agency before the internet’s various designs. Musically speaking, this translates into vertiginous electronics, cut-up sound pieces whose droning paradoxically provide no sense of stability, but its other, a sense of rapid disorder. These sounds are being consumed as we listen, decaying in ways that seem to make them aimless, ephemeral, as if they were melting into air. This is perhaps Donoso’s most powerful statement yet, and that’s saying something. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Rival Consoles ~ Articulations (Erased Tapes)
A few years off the success of Persona, Ryan Lee West’s IDM outfit Rival Consoles returned in 2020 with a succinct record of exuberant techno. Articulation furthers the human-centered appeal of Rival Consoles with vibrant lead synths and sturdy, deep percussion. West found inspiration for the record through drawing geometric figures, manifesting sound out of the visual and finding meaning in free association. The resulting six tracks foreground the underlying organicism in mathematics, refracting light through the calculated thump of the club.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

Rone ~ Room With a View (InFiné)
The dancers of (LA) HORDE are the beating heart(s) of this release, and their presence is intuited throughout this positive, life-affirming set.  Climate change may be the subject, but the impression of community crosses all boundaries.  There are tracks here to make one smile, laugh, and yes ~ dance.  The glee of swearing in different languages ~ without enmity ~ makes “Babel” seem like catharsis.  Remixes and wild videos enhance the draw of this colorful project.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Sophia Loizou ~ Untold/A Tellurian Memorandum (Houndstooth)
These two recordings feed into a larger audio–visual–literary project by the erudite and interdisciplinary Sophia Loizou. We encourage readers to soak in all facets of the project. However, Untold and A Tellurian Memorandum are admirably good as standalone albums or as a duo. Beginning with the latter work, the listener finds undulating drones given dramatic structure by shifts in timbre and the interruption of pulses, rumbles, and struck surfaces. There is no black-clad doom here; the drones offer crisp and cold neutrality. As we segue into the showpiece of the project, new elements build on this foundation. Untold offers snippets of song, the rudiments of melody, gorgeously cerebral breakbeats underwritten in bassy reverberation. Towards the end of the album, Loizou paints with a fuller electronic palette, with junglist leanings. The standout track, “Bicameral”, brings it all together: beats, bass, song, ambience, and somewhere a hint of world-weary optimism. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

Zoe Reddy ~ Wavelength (Antilounge Records)
Wavelength walks the fine line between accessibility and invention and doesn’t put a foot wrong. Zoe Reddy takes her songs and unleashes all manner of trickery upon them – her vocals flip backward, fly up or down an octave, even appear to take on different persona – while the percussion and electronics flitter and clang, fizz and pulse with the joy of creation in the background. It would run the risk of collapsing in on itself if the songs themselves weren’t strong enough and thankfully they are, not-quite-pop from a new voice brimming with confidence. To echo the closing song, we’re on her side now. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

BONUS:  Christine Ott ~ Chimères (pour ondes Martenot) (Nahal)
Working on an instrument practically left behind by musical cultures and the industry, Christine Ott has crafted one of the year’s most compelling albums. Not only is the very sound of the ondes Martenot a sort of retrofuturistic signal from a lost place, its possibilities are revealed by Ott to be far, far from exhausted. Thanks to her compositions the device shines brilliantly, full of a depth that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in the history of electronic music, but that is now plain for us to hear. This is new in ways that only relatively forgotten things can be, a rediscovery that fills with wonder and awe. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

BONUS:  Xyla ~ Ways (Leaving Records)
Since it claimed my final review spot of 2020, my thoughts about this album still have the dew on them. However, it seems to be a case of saving the best until last. Xyla’s debut album combines choice elements of techno, IDM, house, footwork, and other electronic styles. But her music is not about restless eclecticism. Everything is here for a reason, controlled with a precise ear for quality and emotional impact. Its balancing act is summed up in the psychedelic cover artwork. Swirling ambient forms prompt introspection; the neon colours rejoice in the extrovert energy of the nightlife. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

BONUS: Aho Ssan ~ Simulacrum (Subtext)
Simulacrum
debuted at Berlin Atonal 2019, where Aho Ssan became that edition’s breakout star, but the record’s themes of hyperreality and racism hit different following botched pandemic response and a global uprising ignited by the police murder of George Floyd. Growing up Black in the banlieue of Paris belied the republic’s egalitarian promise, not unlike the United States’ own shameful contradictions. Dynamic bass and abrasive textures formulate a sonic critique, while the pummeling digital frequencies and arrhythmic blasts simulate the claustrophobic weight of this facade. Some form of catharsis comes in the final two tracks in the form of a speculative—but no less real—dialogue with the past, as Aho Ssan uses MAX/MSP to imagine the music of a grandfather he’d never met. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

2 comments

  1. It’s “Dancing With Myself”.

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