Dec 31, 2013

Best electronica albums of 2013: live blog

Welcome

Welcome to my live posting of what I reckon is the best electronic music of 2013.

How this works

There will be about nine or ten updates of this one blog post during New Year's Eve 2013. We start now and I'll slowly reveal my top ten albums until we hit the number one some time in the afternoon. Keep checking back here or follow the progress on Twitter.

As with previous lists, there is no way my list is comprehensive. I may even miss some big albums because I am forgetful and slightly high on Windowlene. But any punk will tell you, daft or otherwise, that this has been a massive year for electronic music and I believe this list represents the most memorable, the most moving, the most affecting long-playing electronica of the year.


Apologies in advance if the amount of text is more paltry than in previous years. I usually write all this well in advance, but 2013 hasn't afforded me that luxury. The panic-buy Windowlene queues took weeks out of my life. Instead, I have my list and I am writing this 'live'.

Previous winners of my best album award have been Clark, Mount Kimbie (although it should have been Luke Abbott), Rustie, Andy Stott and Lone. Who will be this year's number one? Who cares? Where am I? What's that on my shoe? Who knows.
Edit: See also the best electronic music of January 2014.
10 - Factory Floor - Factory Floor (DFA)

Journalists practically milked themselved shrivelsome over the tense industrial swagger of Factory Floor. Its post-punk sensibilities, drenched as it is in analogue synthesisers, percussive stabs and detuned vocals, encourage you to wiggle your shoulder pads in robotic-style on the dancefloor.

The album probably reflects DFA Records maxim of "too old to be new, too new to be classic". It's written through with history and yet it's measured: it never lets its acid tweakery or drum foolery drown the memorable melodies throughout. LCD Soundsystem fans take note.

9 - Chvrches - Bones Of What You Believe (Virgin)

Such glorious, spangly 80s pop. You see, I never got on with Erasure. Too cold. But the moment I heard Lies for the first time, I understood that Chvrches was an electronic pop band that melded synthetic immediacy with emotion.

This Caledonian trio probably wooed the indie set more than the EDM kids, but the electronics spark from the speakers because, in the construction of the rhythms that punch and snap, Chvrches understood what to leave out. 'Do a Miley' and lick off the saccharine sugar to find something mesmerising. In fact, forget Miley: this is the pop sound of 2013.

Some also-rans (part one of four)

Sometimes in a litter, a puppy has to die. Here are several puppies, all neatly snuggled inside a bin bag. Let's take a trip to the incinerator. (Sorry. What? The RSPCA have been on the line. They would like a donation every time you gasp at a brilliant album included in these top ten rejects.)

I couldn't hook onto Oneohtrix Point Never’s Warp Records debut R Plus Seven enough (pictured) even though it's probably their most, er, immediate album yet. Maybe I wanted it to be more visceral, like Roly Porter’s brilliantly epic Life Cycle Of A Massive Star or intense and spiralling like Holden’s The Inheritors. None of these found space in my top ten.

Jamie Lidell's Jamie Lidell just left me wanting Frank Ocean. There was much to be said for Tim Hecker’s harmonic and ambient Virgins, and the clanks and clicks of Logos' Cold Mission, while The Haxan Cloak's Excavation was slooooow and daaaaark. Finally, two genuine contenders that fell at the last hurdle were Forest Swords’ outdoorsy Engravings and fun drum 'n' bass chart botherers Rudimental with Home.

8 - µ-Ziq – Chewed Corners (Planet Mu)

Perhaps it's a blindness. Perhaps I don't want to hear the mixed reviews. Perhaps I'm distracted by track titles like Twangle Melkas, Tickly Flanks and Mountain Island Boner. But I'm having µ-Ziq's first album for six years in my top ten, dammit, because it sounds like the entire history of IDM ozzing from the pulsing heart of Planet Mu.

It's a soft album in many ways, eschewing (sorry) hard-nosed posturing for warm textures and delicate yearning. Perhaps these are studio offcuts - chewed corners, indeed - but I like the taste because it's familiar. One for the IDM aficionado.

7 - Autechre - Exai


I wish I knew why they released this download on Valentine's Day. It would only be suited to a romantic dinner if the candles were made of, um, angles and that. And the napkins were made of, er, awkward complications.

Autechre's 11th album is hefty, with some long track times that allow for rhythmic and melodic developments missing from some of their other work. Dirty bass, nasty percussion and an over-arching feeling of being in another world; positively head-noddy in places. It's a kind of funk, but only if the funk is made of, er, um, napkins and candles. Wait. I've lost the metaphor. What?

Some also-rans (part two of four)

Here are some other albums that didn't make the top ten. M.I.A. was reliably electrotastic with Matangi (pictured), while Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus was suitably scuzzy. The bass music of Akkord's debut Akkord was in my top ten for most of the year, which is more than can be said for Raffertie's Sleep Of Reason, which was a little too hazy to grasp.

Also missing out is the countryside psychedelia of Darkstar's News From Nowhere, Gold Panda’s pleasant house album Half of Where You Live and Mount Kimbie's warm Cold Spring Fault Less Youth. Crikes, they're dropping like flies.

Also spat out from the final top ten is Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory's Elements of Light, which had far too many bells, Four Tet's Beautiful Rewind, which was enjoyable despite a lack of bells, and Omar Souleyman’s truly excellent, Four Tet-produced festival favourite Wenu Wenu. Sorry, Omar.

6 - Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)

Boards of Canada achieved two things in 2013. With their first studio album for many years, they avoided the pastoral bleaching-out that may come with age. I'd suggest that if this had been their debut album, it would have had enough crawling melancholia to mark it out as classic as Music Has The Right To Children.

And secondly, in the track Reach For The Dead, they provided me *the* spine-chilling musical moment of the year. This album reduced me to crumbs. That's not a sunrise on the cover. It's not a sunset. It's their music suffocating the world. If this is the sound of the post-apocalypse, the sound of tomorrow, then I welcome it with quivering arms.

5 - James Blake - Overgrown (Atlas)
This was the year in which James Blake shaved his head, got arrested for drugs and walked shirtless through airpor-- wait, no, I may be thinking of other people. Blake is in fact sensible. And he focuses on the music.

Which may be why he confounded my expectations with a stupendously catchy and memorable follow-up to his ever-so-slightly disappointing 2011 debut.

He has walked a fine line between singer-songwriter (yawn) and electronic innovator (yes). For Overgrown, he's drawn his own line by producing an inventive soul album that somehow puts the song and the electronics first. By jove, the Mercury judges got it right.

Some also-rans (part three of four)

Thundercat failed to rock my world with his Brainfeeder album Apocalypse (pictured). Heterotic's Love And Devotion had some amazing highlights but missed out on the final cut (but in all fairness, Paradinas was recording two albums at once - see number 8 in this list).

It's a shame not to include two of my favourites, but they're albums worth checking out anyway: Machinedrum's Vapor City, with Gunshotta being a blistering highlight of 2013, and FaltyDL's lush Hardcourage. Apparat's theatre project Krieg und Frieden was interesting, and DJ Rashad's Double Cup was a footwork banger and no mistake.

Karen Gwyer’s debut Needs Continuum was glistening, trippy experimentalism. And Samaris’s track Góða Tungl should turn the head of any James Blake fan, as should their beautiful album Samaris.

4 - RP Boo - Legacy (Planet Mu)

After all that cynical chin-scratching I did at my computer screen when Planet Mu threw their considerable weight behind footwork. What an idiot. In no way did I anticipate a footwork album that would entertain me from toe to toupee.

RP Boo's debut album (it stands for Record Player, before you ask) is unlike anything else in this top ten. Typical of the genre, you get minimal percussion, all those little trills, cut-and-paste, cut-and-paste and yet there is something extra. The way he works the vocals makes this quite addictive, and it spins from comical to clinical with deft precision. As Record will tell you himself, this is red, red hot.

3 - SCNTST - Self-Therapy (Boysnoize)

A compelling, complete techno masterpiece and SCNTST is only twenty years old. When I reviewed this for Electronic Sound magazine, I called it a "stupendously listenable debut" with "blistering control of the most basic of ideas". I was wrong. The number of times I have returned to this album since means it is something better than that.

Each track has its own character, whether its pulsing or thundering or skipping along cheerfully. It's techno to the core, and it's never far from a 4/4 beat, but Self-Therapy takes in jazz, hip-hop and ambience in a way that rarely wavers.

The sampled mechanics of Percee Scan makes it sound like a hymn to photocopiers, while the operatic drama of Murder delights. He does a decent Plaid on Loqui. Even low-key house numbers like Throwback claw under your skin as the themes filter in and out, buzz and pulse, heave and ho. A self-assured, self-therapeutic debut that, if it doesn't hit you at first, will grow and grow and grow.

Some also-rans (part four of four)

The final selection of complete losers too pathetic to grace my top ten are as follows. Disclosure tried hard to revive the 90s but Settle (pictured) settled for a place outside the list. I enjoyed Pet Shop Boys' mostly-successful Electric return to form, which is more than I can say for Karl Bartos' indulgent Off The Record.

Ikonika’s happy Aerotropolis was almost disco. Which brings me to, yes, disco. Oh boy. None of it made my top ten. Letherette's ace Letherette was as if Justice got good again while a lot of you loved Starcadian’s Sunset Blood (really?!) and Kavinsky’s Outrun. Which brings us to my biggest omission, 2013's king of disco...

...Random Access Memories. No, no, no, no, no. I suggested in May that Daft Punk's new-found success would come at a cost. I believe I was right. Shame. Let's move on.

2 - Special Request - Soul Music (Houndstooth)

Italian house. Brutal junglism. Drexciyan IDM. Rave breaks. Sirens. Techno. Grime. Buckets of dystopia and misery. Get all of that and stick it in your washing machine. No, I don't care if it's pants-wash day. Fast-cycle it. Now tip the result onto the kitchen lino. Have you made a mess? Good. Best get it cleared up before your New Year's party.

Bad bwoy samples and jungle breaks blend and break on Special Request's astonishing debut album. Vintage gear and pirate radio underpins this brutal assault of musical memories and tributes. Baselines fart, breakbeats disappear into the upper register, vinyl fuzz cracks warm into the album's veneer.

A breaks album that is interesting, innovative and exciting; both listenable and uncompromising. There are so many albums like this: the jungle truly is massive. But the Houndstooth label, brought to us by the Fabric nightclub and Rob Booth of Electronic Explorations, have the magic touch and this is possibly the strongest debut album of 2013 - and in a year as strong as 2013, that's saying something.

1 - Jon Hopkins - Immunity (Domino)

The best electronic album of 2013 comes from a classical pianist who played with Coldplay and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. I might as well award it to Michael Bublé.

Jon Hopkins set his sights on the dancefloor for this release and yet the rhythms seem constructed from the static between the beats. He grabs wafer-thin sounds and ideas and polishes them up so brightly, it dazzles from start to finish. That breath near the start of Collider. It floored you, didn't it? The production is mind-blowing.

And so emotive. The analogue yearning that made Luke Abbott's Holkham Drones so essential, or indeed Orbital's more ethereal moments, soars to new levels on Immunity. I know it's calculated and I suspect Hopkins has graphed this out to perfection, but energy and sadness and hope swell from every programmed moment of this album, from the thudding first half to the fragile second half. Played with precision. Paced to perfection.

This has been the strongest year for electronic music for a while, and yet Jon Hopkins still ended up leagues ahead with Immunity. It's one of the best electronica albums for years. Just let's not talk about the Coldplay thing, yeah? What Coldplay thing? That's right. That's exactly right.

Thank you for reading Fat Roland on Electronica. 

Edit: See also the best electronic music of January 2014.

4 comments:

1Superchops said...

Well, I'm contractually obliged to listen to everything you list as #1 (thanks for Totems Flare, my new favourite album by the way), so I guess I'll be buying Immunity sooner or later!

PS: I'LL GET TO LUXURY PROBLEMS SOONER OR LATER GOSH DON'T RUSH ME

1Superchops said...

On another note, I was absolutely predicting Shaking The Habitual to be #1. What d'ya think of The Knife?

Fat Roland said...

D'you know, The Knife keep passing me by. Hence the lack of mention. I have no idea why. But what I have heard, I like.

That's the worst answer ever.

Jon Birch said...

I've just had a read through this (as I do every year) and was pleasantly surprised that I had heard of quite a few of them.

I don't get on particularly well with Electronic music but two albums I've been quite taken with this year are Jagwa Ma's debut and Nine Inch Nails latest. Probably not strictly Electronica but would appreciate your thoughts on these.