Dec 31, 2020

Best electronic albums of 2020: one

1 dj python fat roland electronic albums of 2020
1 – DJ Python – Mas Amable (Incienso)

I know what I want in a number one album. I want fat chunky chords dancing for my pleasure, or Aphexian ambience dripping over the sides, or drum machines that seem out of control, or cool samples that I can make into memes or...

I did not expect Mas Amable. Nobody expected Mas Amable.

What an astonishing piece of work. This is the second album produced for Anthony Naples' Incienso imprint by DJ Python, who is a person and not a snake. There's little in his techno discography that suggests that one day he'd come up with an album so beguiling, it renders any concept of track listing meaningless. 

It's like you're listening to a secret album beyond what's laid out in front of you.

Mas Amable is a reggaeton album (Python calls it "deep reggaeton"). The unmistakable rhythm conjures images of sunny beaches and palm trees, yet Python uses this as a basis for something quite unique. Is it eight tracks? Is it one long track? Is it three tracks if you squint your eyes hard enough? 

The beats occupy some ethereal moon, and your mind is a pebble being washed by the tide.

It starts in an ambient haze, until that ubiquitous rhythm tumbles in. The drums begin to morph, not that you notice. A third of the way into the album, wistful IDM chords appear. They rarely venture beyond variations of the same triptych, and indeed it's a three-chord structure that subtly begins and ends the album, albeit at different tempos.

When the spoken word comes, you're so deep in the Mas Amable spell, you don't notice the darkness of the lyrics: "It's okay to feel hopeless because the world is hopeless. It's okay to think about dying." I can feel the universe falling away around me.

She also says, "Where was the place where you felt okay? Go to this place."

Throughout this countdown, I've said that there isn't much that separates the the briefest of 'special mentions' and the top level of my list. Such was the quality of albums this year. But it was always going to be Mas Amable for the top spot. There's nothing else like it.

We are all unique snowflakes, and this is the snowflakest of them all.

I know what I want in a number one album, but I'm wrong. This album has shown me something different. I've gone to the restaurant expecting my usual hot-flagged chicken and fries. But the waiter has shown me a plate of delicious steaming fog that is on, but not quite on, the plate and I really want that fog, and now the fog is telling me to find my happy place because the world is a mess and is it one fog or three fogs and I squint my eyes and I wonder if it tastes like pea soup.

Addendum: I've just found out that Boomkat also selected this as their top album of 2020. They called it a "mutable organism imperceptibly transforming before our eyes". This is very okay, Boomers.

Congratulations to DJ Python. And thanks to you for reading my words in 2020.


Best electronic albums of 2020: two

2 kelly lee owens fat roland electronic albums of 2020
2 – Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound)

Ooo, it's a corker. If you've not fallen for Inner Song yet, do it now. Listen to it. Eat it. Bathe in it. Tattoo it on your face.

Previously, I've rather brashly compared Inner Song to Leftfield's Leftism, not because of its sound, but because of its eclectic approach to production. In the same way Leftfield embraced dub reggae shanties alongside hard house, Kelly Lee Owens' second album encompasses soulful vocals, wall-shaking club cuts, and every frequency inbetween. I have no doubt that if this album had been released in the mid-90s, it would have been a go-to coffee table album just like Leftism.

She uses this variation as structure. There's a pin-ball nature to the track listing, volleying between sugar soft vocals and aerobic techno workouts. It's like watching a tennis match between Betty Boop and Mr Motivator. And Owens nails every return because she's possibly the most talented producer in Britain at the moment.

There are two headline moments on Inner Song. The first is her buzzy Radiohead cover Arpeggi. The second is her collaboration with fellow Welsh musician John Cale, whose druggy drawl on Corner Of My Sky was described by James Spearing at Picky B*stards as "the best thing anyone from the Velvet Underground has done since 1972".

On any other album, those two remarkable moments would be the things you remember the most. Not here. Everything else is so dang brilliant. The descending synth on Melt! The euphoria of Jeanette. The the cheeky bass drum nudging its way into On

Whether it pounds or patters or pumps or purrs, each track has an, erm, inner song you'll want to play again and again.

Small print: please do not tattoo this album on your face.


Best electronic albums of 2020: three

3 mason bee fat roland electronic albums of 2020
3 – Mason Bee – Play Flights (Pollen Kit)

The popular techno band Plaid built up a formidable reputation over the years, playing cool beats on their disco machines to Orbital and The Black Dog fans. "That chord sequence sounds a bit off," we'd yell over the music, and we'd love it.

What many of their fans don't know is that throughout their career, they've been accompanied by a bee. It was often hard to see, what with the mirrorballs and dry ice, but the techno band Plaid wouldn't be seen anywhere without their busy little bee.

There have been a few close calls at their live gigs. The Southbank Centre has a particularly aggressive air conditioning system, and they nearly had their bee sucked off. There was also a near miss once, backstage with DJ Food and a rolled-up newspaper. But generally, their bee— oh hold on—

Apparently, it's a person. Not a bee. Sorry. Should have checked, I suppose. Please ignore everything I have written so far.

Benet 'Mason Bee' Walsh has been a key part of Plaid forever, with so much of their sound defined by his plaintive guitars. Now he has stepped into the solo spotlight for this delightful instrumental album. It's folky, it's gentle, it's quite 70s. But this is the guy from Plaid, and THOSE chords and THAT signature bite is present. There's so much going on. I fell for this album in a big way.

I've banged on about Play Flights for Electronic Sound, saying he's "taken the harmony from Plaid and drizzled it in honey" before dropping the necessary cheesy line that this was "the bee's knees". For Picky B*stards, I said it "evokes pastoral fields, sunny afternoons in the ‘70s, and picnics in slightly-alien forests" before going on about poop too much.

What I haven't explained is the emotional tug this album has for me. When Covid hit, my world turned briefly upside-down. I didn't cope with the stress, and although I was lucky enough to be able to pivot my job in events, things got very wonky quickly. 

Yes, I know, boo-hoo me, let's all get out our tiny violins! I do realise I've had things easy.

However, just before that hit, I was caning this album, Like, proper Spotify Wrapped caning. And that's relevant. Because when I think back to the "normal times", this album is the soundtrack. When I listen to Play Flights, I feel a mixture of comfort and grief. For that reason, and because of the cracking noises Mason Bee makes, this album makes me wibble when I listen to it.

Yep. Crying at a bee. This is what I have become.


Best electronic albums of 2020: a steady special mention, special mention, special mention

special mention moby fat roland electronic albums of 2020
Throughout this countdown, I have herded many albums into a pen labelled "special mentions". Here is the final lot of special mentions for you to ogle longingly at. Oh and my notebook tells me the following selections are labelled "pop / chart".

I've always had a soft spot for Moby, and although it got mixed reviews, I enjoyed All Visible Objects (Mute), especially its nod to his younger rave days. Speaking of feeling young, there was a fresh energy to Disclosure's third album Energy (Island), all chart-friendly and chirpy and cheesy smiles. 

I've never fully got Sparks: the quirkiness is lost on me. That said, there was a lot to admire in A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (BMG), with my Electronic Sound review praising their wryness, lyricism and "earworms with moustaches". Another duo I got to review in 2020 was Erasure. Their eighteenth (!) album The Neon (Mute) was a "glittery cannon of anthems", in which the "neon flickers with regret".

I always love a Pet Shop Boys album. Early in the year, they released Hotspot (x2), revisiting subtler melodies and giving us the prophetic stay-at-home anthem I Don't Wanna. Nice to see Years & Years making an appearance (the band not the television programme) (obviously) (duh).

Another bunch of old party-heads releasing an album in 2020 was The Orb. Abolition of the Royal Familia (Cooking Vinyl) was a likeable jumble of soulful pop and dubby ambience, and featured the usual gang (Eno! Youth! Hillage!) alongside tributes to Stephen Hawking and Jello from the Dead Kennedys. This was, by the way, only their seventeenth album. I can hear Erasure's mocking laughter.

Finally, pop-pickers, there's this wacky pairing. Eccentric knob-twiddler and Sigur Ros collaborator Dan Deacon gave us Mystic Familiar (Domino Recordings), his first album since 2015. It had DIY songwriting, crashing drums, wonky electronics, and an anthem or three. And eccentric sample-fiddlers The Avalanches were back with We Will Always Love You (Astralwerks), which they said was an “exploration of the vibrational relationship between light, sound and spirit” although was much more straight-laced than that.

I think that's it for my special mentions. I've probably missed something. Tom Vek did an album, didn't he? Too late. I need to publish this in about 60 seconds. I really am writing to deadline – cor blimey.


Best electronic albums of 2020: four

4 romare fat roland electronic albums of 2020
4 – Romare – Home (Ninja Tume)

I am a very chilled person. I once thwacked my head getting out of a car and didn't say "ouch" for about ten seconds. My friends who witnessed the incident mentioned that odd response gap for a while afterwards. Fat Roland: he's got lazy neurons.

Home is a stupendously relaxed album. These infectious mid-paced head-nodders lay out like origami unicorns being unfolded by a sloth. Even on bangers such as Sunshine, the lead melody lopes. Should music lope? It does here. At the album's most euphoric moment, the choppy chords of High, we're on an afternoon stroll of 90bpm.

That's not to say it's without its dramatic moments. That first sluggish piano drop. That first seismic bass drop. Often the lack of a drop. The detuned suspense of You See. The half-cooked vocal samples sprinkled throughout, climaxing with that amazing vocal grunt on Heaven. A hint of blues and soul flavouring everything. And wood blocks. Nice to hear some wood blocks.

I'm pretty sure a saxophone appears at one point, but it disappears after half a second: I'm not sure it's heard again. That's the key to Home: dropping in ideas, but holding them back. Creativity through restraint. Romare has taken primary colour tropes – over-simplistic melodies and obvious build-ups – and transformed it into casual tribal techno that I'll be listening to for years. Half the success was simply loading his workstation and mousing down that BPM count.

One positive side of 2020 is that it has been, for some, a year of slowing down. Destressing. Thwacking that head and not worrying about the pain for a while. There's no better accompanying soundtrack than Home.


Best electronic albums of 2020: five

5 rival consoles fat roland electronic albums of 2020
5 – Rival Consoles – Articulation (Erased Tapes)

Rumour has it Mr Consoles graphs out his tracks before composing them, like Charlie with his conspiracy theory board in It's Alway Sunny In Philadelphia. Apparently he's also scribbled ideas on napkins, like politicians trying to fix a vote.

However he preps, Articulation is more than just a carefully planned loud-quiet aesthetic. Listen to the sorrowful squawks of the melody in Still Here. The stretched saws of Vibrations On A String, all wistful and woebegone. Oh my heart.

This is probably his most soundtrack-y album yet: a snatch of harpsichord comes and goes, gentle strings ripple in the background, a light brush here, a ghostly woosh there. "Rival Consoles" suggests a battle, but this is more intimate than that: "Friendly Consoles" maybe, or "Hugging For A Little Bit Too Long Consoles".

We're in the final five of my countdown now, and honestly this album has been yo-yoing up and down my top ten like a trampolinist's testicles. But it was always going to be top ten because this is a sonic world I want to live in forever. It ticks my 'Jon Hopkins box'. And apparently, it's all planned out, like a terrorist attack or a day trip to Whitby.

Other possible names:
"Pen-Pal Consoles"
"Passive Aggressive Consoles"
"Only Speaking Through Lawyers Consoles"
"I Couldn't Have Partied Because I Medically Can't Sweat Consoles"
"Viral Consoles"


Best electronic albums of 2020: six

6 shinichi atobe fat roland electronic albums of 2020
6 – Shinichi Atobe – Yes (DDS)

Before we get stuck into this album, take a look at the photo at the bottom of this blog post.

Shinichi Atobe's new album arrived at Demdike Stare's Manchester headquarters on a CD-R, sent from Japan, accompanied by the track listing and this photograph. That's it. Nothing else.

He remains an international man of mystery. The music is easier to figure out: simplistic house tracks, ripples of rhythm, playfully basic melodies, structures that are stillwater-smooth, repetition that verges on mind control. Easy.

If I delivered these blog posts like Atobe delivers his albums, I'd be in trouble. "Fat Roland's shoving crayon-scrawled toilet roll through the letterbox again, and why's he included a photograph of his only nipple?"

But then, these blog posts are scrappy, first-drafty. Yes, however, is perfection. Every moment seems carefully tended, unhurried, unconcerned with trends, just pure harmonic hypnotism, pure Shinichi.

Atobe, possibly

Dec 30, 2020

Best electronic albums of 2020: these special mentions will not be intimidated by a mop

special mention cylob fat roland electronic albums of 2020
It's time for a penultimate set of special mentions, consisting of albums I flipping loved but couldn't find space for in my final Top 25.

This lot are filed in my notes as, and I quote, "jungle / dirty". As with previous notes, it's a misnomer. All of the "jungle" is drum 'n' bass. And it's hardly dirty: it's not as if I'm going to sloosh this lot with a mop to make them sound better.

Calibre rummaged in his archives yet again for Shelflife Six (Signature) a selection of sharp-suited soulful drum 'n' bass pleasers. Really good fun, and a superb entry album if you're investigating the busy beats of d&b music. On similar lines, the ever-reliable J Majik produced another corker in the form of Always Be (Infrared), his breezy Bukem sounds delivered with a warm hug (copyright Electronic Sound issue umpteen).

dgoHn's Undesignated Proximate (Love Love Records) was a darker drum 'n' bass listen, but no less liquid. It's just the liquid was a heavily fortified sherry rather than oil: just listen to that woozy swagger of Robin's Windmill. It was great to see the return of Krust, member of Roni Size’s Reprazent's back in the day. The Edge of Everything (Crosstown Rebels) was a thrilling listen: lots of robust rolling beats with synths so threatening, you half expect them to pounce on you the moment you drop your guard.

Moving away from drum 'n' bass now. I suppose this is the "dirty" stuff. Pinch's astonishing new album was, as I wrote in one review, "UK bass music with a nocturnal gloom": the wobbling basslines on Reality Tunnels (Tectonic) seemed to emanate from somewhere deep in our psyche. Gábor Lázár's more minimal Source (Planet Mu) was equally bassy and wobbly, his cut-down production style playing ping-pong with frequencies with skilful abandon.

Finally, Cylob was a busy bunny this year: one of the albums he put out was the squelchy One Less Pitch (Cylob Industries) with acid so corrugated, you could make it into a shed. It's a strangely tense listen, but then again everything's strangely tense, so I'm not complaining. *mops self*


Best electronic albums of 2020: seven

7 plone fat roland electronic albums of 2020
7 – Plone– Puzzlewood (Ghost Box)

hello my name is baby fat roland and i like pooping my pants and putting lego up my nose

i like the sounds of plone's puzzlewood because some of it sounds like children's television and some of it sounds like speak & spell and some of it sounds like a 1970s sitcom montage and some of it sounds like cats

apparently it has been two decades since plone did anything, not that i know what a decade is because am a baby and i've barely grasped the concept of time

plone has taken the naïve novelty of 1999's playschool-flavoured for beginner piano and bolstered it with some serious tunesmithery and library music nous, for example watson's telescope is such a cheery earworm (a "cheerworm" if you will)

with puzzlewood highlights like the proggy mini-disco of day trip or the chaotic mario-run that is sarcelle, the baby really has grown up

what do these words even mean? i have a limited concept of language


Best electronic albums of 2020: eight

8 the flashbulb fat roland electronic albums of 2020
8 – The Flashbulb ‎– Our Simulacra (Alphabasic)

The Flashbulb, or Flash to his friends, is a jazz composer, advert soundtracker, film scorer, martial arts practitioner, and an electronic music programmer who runs a neat line in squirrelly IDM. 

Catch him at a party and he'll probably bang on about all these things. Jeez, Mr Bulb, give it a BREAK.

I'm guilty of neglecting The Flashbulb's work for a long time. He last got a mention on this website in 2006. ‎So the cinematic, perfectly programmed and endlessly creative Our Simulacra came as something of a revelation. 

The sheer range of ideas wins the day. The choral and darkly comic Stabmyself is worth the album price alone. The title track sounds like recent Daft Punk caught in a malfunctioning Faraday cage. And he's not afraid of a bit of cheese either, as the liquid piano in Ez God Library shows. Very well played cheese.

Hi, I'm Flash. I fly helicopters, I can bench press 12 tonnes and I once liberated Milton Keynes. Yeah but can you write an end-of-year blog series under pressure while eating seven full Viennettas? Pfffrt.


Best electronic albums of 2020: nine

9 autechre fat roland electronic albums of 2020
9 – Autechre – Sign (Warp)

It was a shame to see Autechre throw away their credibility with an album comprising entirely of cover versions of Ace Of Bass's 1993 hit single The Sign. We forgave them their Nickelback phase, but this was too far.

See what I did there? I did a joke. I'll pause for a moment to leave you time to laugh... Right. Let's get on with it.

Autechre's 14th album Sign saw the duo on a lower burn than usual, their abstractions suspended in a lovely fuzz of ambience or, at the very least, confusing and scary reverberations. For me, playing this at home felt like casting a magical protection spell against the loneliness of autumn lockdowns.

It was certainly evocative. si00 sounded like Actress trapped in a hamster ball. Metaz form8 sounded like a church service populated entirely by bees. By the way, post-Covid, I am going to make both of these things happen.

Next up, I want to hear covers of Dr Alban's 1992 single It's My Life. No wait, this is Autechre, that's too on the nose. Next up, I want to hear covers of Dr Alban's 1991 Finnish hit single (Sing Shi-Wo-Wo) Stop the Pollution.


Best electronic albums of 2020: perky special mentions and a P45

special mention four tet fat roland electronic albums of 2020
*ring ring*
"It's Fat Roland here. There has been a terrible administration error."
Okay. How can I help fix it?
"Why have you left Four Tet out of the Top 25? Four Tet is meant to be in the Top 25."
It's not an error. It's just that there were so many good albums, and it got squeezed out.
"This is unacceptable. You cannot leave Four Tet out of the Top 25. You're sacked."
What? You can't...
"Clean out your desk. Gross dismissal. Never darken my doors again."
But I'm you. You're sacking yourself. You've just lost your own job working for you.
"Er... Forget I said that. Here, have a promotion. Excellent work, Fat Roland."
Thanks, Fat Roland.

I did feel bad for only including Four Tet's Sixteen Oceans (Text Records) in my special mentions section, but that's how my sorting hat sorted things when compiling my final list. I loved this album: so many zippy earworms and such glistening oomph. I've not had a chance to listen to the two (two!) albums he dropped over Christmas, Parallel (Text Records) and 871 (Text Records).

Here are even more special mentions, referred to as "perky" in my notebook. 

In Electronic Sound (yeah, I mention them a lot), I praised Moses Boyd for Dark Matter (Exodus Records) as he "pinballs around his ever-present drum kit like an oiled whippet". Kruder & Dorfmeister finally released their debut album 1995 (G-Stone Recordings), originally scheduled to be released in the year 1995 then, er, slightly delayed. The trip hop comeback you never knew you were waiting for.

You want the best? You want the pin-sharp house energy of Omar S's You Want (FXHE Records): sassy, straightforward, and superbly executed, despite that overused sample. Improvised in a cave, Capitol K's mini-album Birdtrapper (Faith And Industry) was a delightfully curious mix of driving organic rhythms and bamboo. Wajatta released second album Don't Let Get You Down (Brainfeeder), with the irrepressible Reggie Watts performing vocal acrobatics (and whistling) over John Tejada's fast and funky house.

Finally for this section, Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu), released under DeForrest Brown Jr's Speaker Music alias, sounded like the fierce heart of BlacKkKlansman pulsing to the rhythm of distended and shattered jazzy percussion experiments. An important album, but I've no idea why it's in this section: it's anything but "perky". Stupid notebook.


Best electronic albums of 2020: ten

10 ital tek fat roland electronic albums of 2020
10 – Ital Tek – Outland (Planet Mu)

We start the top ten an act I called "ambimum" in my 2016 top ten and compared to Stockport in my 2018 top ten. With yet another top ten entry, Ital Tek has done it again – and may well have scored higher than previous years if there hadn't been such competition in 2020. Not that this is a competition. Ahem.

Outland starts quietly, like a boxing match with a baby tiger. "This is easy," you think, as the baby fur flies. Soon the snarling begins; the muscles flex, and before long you have a furious tiger and/or pulsing analogue synths sitting on your face.

This is his most accessible album despite some naaaasty bass moments. Such is the analogue perfection, it really does feel like you're being destroyed by something cute. The apocalypse has never sounded so graceful.

Outland has the grimy thump of Clark cushioned by the murky otherworld of Stranger Things; it has the crowd-hyping drops of Jon Hopkins or Hudson Mohawke almost completely flattened into a biophilic Bjorkian fuzz. So good.

No baby tigers were hurt in the writing of this blog post, apart from the one I fired out of a cannon, but that was just for fun.


Best electronic albums of 2020: eleven

11 lorenzo senni fat roland electronic albums of 2020
11 – Lorenzo Senni – Scacco Matto (Warp)

There's a wonderful moment in The Queen's Gambit where Beth Harmon is chatting to Jolene in the orphanage, and suddenly Beth sees something on the ceiling. In the space above them, an apparition appears of a moustachioed Italian grinding the gears of a battered synthesiser while shouting "I'M DECONSTRUCTING RAVE!"

I may be getting my 2020 chess entertainments mixed up because, yes, this is an album themed on chess. Scacco Matto is 'checkmate' in Italian. Lorenzo Senni launched the album with a virtual chess meet-up. And it's as loud and as brilliantly garish as the wallpaper designs in The Queen's Gambit.

Senni eschews percussion, often reducing his tools to one single instrument. He's a man that loves a JP-8000, the synth I'm named after. However, that doesn't stop everything feeling maxed out. The cleaved EDM of Discipline of Enthusiasm punches hard. The single-finger melody of THINK BIG is as power pop as it gets.

As with chess, it's an acquired taste. But if you like your music "full of melodramatic bombast filtered through the smallest Gameboy in the world" (as I wrote in 2017), then make a move on Scacco Matto. As long as that move is two forwards and one across.


Best electronic albums of 2020: twelve

12 squarepusher fat roland electronic albums of 2020
12 – Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello (Warp)

At this stage of the countdown, the variation in quality is so small, you can pretty much consider the top 12 as one long Album Of The Year. Maybe it comes as one humongous CD that you have to roll into your living room, or a single cassette tape the size of a washing machine. That's how box sets work, right?

Be Up A Hello is one of Squarepusher's best albums. It's melodic yet acerbic, warming yet acerbic, thrilling yet acerbic. Detroit People Mover is a sweet moment of stillness in a storm of clattering dynamics, breathless melancholy, and really flipping good noises. I love it.

The album also came from a tough place: an accident nearly saw the end of Squarepusher's career, and he had to rebuild his process from the ground up. Read about this in my interview with Squarepusher in Electronic Sound issue 62. An interview conducted, by the way, after I'd suffered a similar accident. We were both smarting.

I enjoyed the 'Pusher's collaboration with Japanese speed robots, and the LED-bright prog funk as Shobaleader, but his move towards older synth kit really paid off here. Ole Squiggleplops has done good.


Best electronic albums of 2020: these thoughtful special mentions are a dream(ies)

special mention cabaret voltaire fat roland electronic albums of 2020
Let's look at some more "special mentions", that awkward category of album which I profess to love but I still excluded from my Top 25. It's like saying you love your cat, but you eat all the Dreamies yourself. Tasty.

Let's start with Shadow of Fear (Mute), the first album for 26 years from Cabaret Voltaire. This newly solo incarnation had corroded industrial teeth: apparently the H in Richard H Kirk stands for Hardcore. Incidentally, read me raving about Kirk's Virtual State album, although I make it sound much cuter than it is.

This clutch of albums is among notes labelled "thoughtful". I swear I was on meth when I made these lists. I suppose there was something thoughtful in the sound of Req, who made his comeback with Calypso Dark (Seagrave), spinning out deeply beaty trippy sound-soups. Even more introspective was the dub-heavy sound system vibes of Al Wootton's infectious Witness (TRULE). A wonderful listen. "Come!"

Robert Hood has been pumping out the tunes these past few years, and he outdid himself on the metronomic assault that was Mirror Man (Rekids). His muscular minimalism is always produced with thought, but there was an extra frisson of meaning in track titles like Nothing Stops Detroit, Fear Not and Ignite A War. Speaking of minimalism, The Black Dog never seem to stop producing, and it was nice to see them taking a more simplistic approach for their Patreon-produced Fragments (Dust Science). Ambient abstraction with a tonne of heart.

Roy Of The Ravers is usually know for his sprawling acid workouts, so the distinctly non-acid retrospective White Line Sunrise II (Emotional Response) was an atmospheric, reflective, ambient treat – Bounc Erec is the softest of anthems. And if you need even more atmosphere, Clark's Daniel Isn’t Real OST (Deutsche Grammophon) had sotto piano in severe distress alongside apocalyptic strings worthy of its horror film source material.

Is that the end of the special mentions? Nope. Loads more to come. Flipping loads, mate.



Dec 29, 2020

Best electronic albums of 2020: thirteen

13 luke vibert fat roland electronic albums of 2020
13 – Luke Vibert – Luke Vibert Presents Amen Andrews / Luke Vibert Presents Modern Rave / Luke Vibert Presents Rave Hop (Hypercolour)

When I pop to the shops to get my daily Sara Lee double-chocolate gateau, I like to buy three. That's in case I drop one on the way home, and another accidentally gets stolen by a wolf. Logical, when you think about it.

I can only assume that was Luke Vibert's logic when he released three albums, called Luke Vibert Presents Amen Andrews, Luke Vibert Presents Modern Rave and Luke Vibert Presents Rave Hop. This trio of treats were dedicated to, respectively, old school jungle, early rave, and hip hop / breakbeat. For the purposes of this albums countdown, I've mushed them into one.

Although Vibert goes for a particular palate in his music (day-glo rave cut and pasted for your dancefloor pleasure), this trilogy gave us three distinct flavours. Amen Andrews, heavily based on the famous drum sample, had a full-on hardcore edge. Modern Rave felt like Altern-8 having a stroke, in a good way.

It's perhaps the strollin' vibes of the more relaxed Rave Hop that wins the day: it's mangling of hip hop and r'n'b is a pleasure to behold, and there are techno tunes galore. But to be honest, if a wolf came for any of these, or indeed the Vibert album I featured at number eighteen, I would punch it on the nose. I WOULD PUNCH IT ON THE NOSE.


Best electronic albums of 2020: fourteen

14 against all logic fat roland electronic albums of 2020
14 – Against All Logic – 2017–2019 (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar, who has previously had two albums mentioned in this countdown, is already known for warping 1970s soul and disco into something thoroughly techno under this Against All Logic guise. 2017-2019, however, takes it to a new level.

He's taken all that lovely dance music you love, then shoved it through a waste disposal, attacked it with a sander, and bashed any remaining bits with a hammer. It distorts, it belches, it scrapes, it thrills. It's the red-peaking bit of early Daft Punk but, y'know, forever.

It's way rougher than you'd expect from a Jaar album. It's like your smooth Uncle Thackery, the one with the Lambo and the winning smile, turning up at your door in a half-open dressing gown, sweet wrappers stuck in his lockdown hair. Not the Thackery you expect, but certainly a Thackery you'll come to like.

2017-2019 also contains... and I'm going to whisper this because we don't want everyone knowing ... it also contains, in opening track Fantasy, the best Beyoncé song you'll hear in 2020. There, I said it. Uncle Thackery, can you please put on some pants? Jeez.


Best electronic albums of 2020: fifteen

15 daniel avery fat roland electronic albums of 2020
15 – Daniel Avery –  Love + Light (Phantasy Sound)

I was really looking forward to seeing Daniel Avery at the Orbit Stage at Bluedot Festival this year. I would be there with my little pink tent, Ugg boots, chocolate fountain, Scalextric set, a full-size Victorian wardrobe: all the camping essentials.

Instead, his third album Love + Light can only point towards the live experience incanted in its thrumming bass drums, electrostatic basslines and machine-smoked synths, then, later in the running order, the pastoral glows of a post-club sunrise.

The great thing about this album is that the loud, thumpy club tracks don't carry the album on their own, although we all love a pumping loop in the face. It needs the softer tracks, and there's a beautiful moment somewhere between A Story In E5 and One More Morning when the spirit of early Aphex lands on this album and gives it a blessing.

Incidentally, you can watch Avery's set from Bluedot's A Weekend in Outer Space. Which reminds me, I mustn't forget to take my 42-inch plasma screen next time I'm camping.


Best electronic albums of 2020: special mentions to make you go mmmm

special mention soft pink truth fat roland electronic albums of 2020
Alright. I can see that you're tense. There are even more special mentions on the way, but it's stressing you out. Here, lie on this sofa. Let me fluff up these cushions. Put on this soothing face cream. Let Igor give you one of his aggressive massages.

And now let's listen to the ambient-flecked sounds of some more albums that didn't quite make the final Top 25.

The Soft Pink Truth's Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey) had critics raving, and I can see why, with its ambient house tantalisingly preserved in amber then washed across a million tides. A less intense and more synthy version of this could be found with the hypnotic Erratics & Unconformities (The Leaf Label) from Craven Faults: its 17-minute opening loop Wacca Wall was a giddy trip.

Com Truise dug out a bunch of old, sepia-washed tracks for In Decay, Too (Ghostly International), a follow-up to a similar retrospective back in 2012: let that fuzzy neon tickle your analogue taste buds. If someone switched Com Truise off, and all we had was a momentary glow of what had been before, then we'd have The Spectral Isle (Castles in Space) by Field Lines Cartographer – an ambient masterpiece that had the best textures of 2020 and was also the year's best phantom island-themed album.

While we're in an ambient mood, it's worth listening to Eartheater's Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin (PAN), a gorgeous swell of classical ambience workshopped at an artistic residency in northeastern Spain. Or if you want to get really spaced out, then opt for the short choral apparitions of Healing Is a Miracle (Ninja Tune) by Julianna Barwick.

And finally let's lift things up again with John Beltran's brilliant The Season Series (Delsin Records), which takes ambience as its starting point but then spreads wings fashioned from shards of Detroit techno and crystalline percussion. Mmmm, feels relaxing. HARDER, Igor, HARDER.


Best electronic albums of 2020: sixteen

16 blizzards fat roland electronic albums of 2020
16 – Nathan Fake – Blizzards (Cambria Instruments)

For this entry in the 2020 album countdown, we go over to our reporter Fat Roland. Fats, can you hear us?
    "Yes, I can, Fat Roland."
Fat Roland, what can you tell us about Nathan Fake's fifth and best album?
    "Erm. Nothing much."
What? Oh. I thought you were going to tell us about Blizzards.
"Don't really like music, sorry."
Apologies, viewers, we seem to have a technical fault, in that Fat Roland is technically an idiot. Instead, we can cut to this piece Fat Roland wrote for the Picky B*stards website:
"The cracking thing about Nathan Fake’s Blizzards is that it does all the best albums at once. The breakbeats of Cry Me A Blizzard have the nostalgic giddiness of Octo Octa.... North Brink seems to blend the icy hi-hats of Shinichi Atobe’s Yes with the melted warmth of Khotin’s Finds You Well to make a temperature that’s, erm, just right.... Blizzards works on its own terms too, powered by a frustrated energy, its rhythms rising from the foundations of the clubs we no longer go to."
Even it did drop down my Best Of 2020 list since I wrote that piece (read it in full here), Nathan Fake is on his best form here.


Best electronic albums of 2020: seventeen

17 minor science fat roland electronic albums of 2020
17 –  Minor Science – Second Language (AD 93)

I love editing. I love manhandling a bulging mess of words then chopping until it's as good as it can be. These blog posts are not that: they are largely first draft. This countdown isn't just a mess: it's its own ecosystem of circuitously prolix overwriting and needlessly unnecessary adverbs.

However, there is something of the editor's eye in Minor Science's debut album. This former Resident Advisor writer has precision-cut every section of Second Language: each growl, each rolling chord, each echoing chime, each vocal grunt.

The sudden cough in the filmic intro gives us notice of what is to come. This is a hugely listenable melodic IDM album, dripping with atmosphere, and full of complex trills and stops. Equally beguiling yet immediate.

The album also gives us For Want Of Gelt, one of the best tunes of 2020. A slow build-up leads into pneumatic shimmers and finally the most furious – and funniest – drum-fills. You see: structured, like writing. That was a loop back to the opening paragraph, by the way. It's what proper writers do. I thank you. *takes a bow*


Best electronic albums of 2020: eat these special mention woozy foods

special mention actress fat roland electronic albums of 2020
Let's visit some more special mentions: albums which didn't make the top 25 but are well worth a listen. "But Fat Roland," you wibble, "I've not finished the special mentions from yesterday." Well, it's not MY fault you filled up on leftover mince pies instead, IS IT. Now eat your special mentions. No, you may not borrow the ketchup.

I had this bunch filed under "woozy", and although I don't think that's an accurate description, they certainly transport us somewhere interesting. 

Actress's Karma and Desire (Ninja Tune), featuring vocals from Mercury winner Sampha, saw the beat-wobbler in a more ambient mode: the smoke rising from the nightclub vents rather than the club itself. The return of Darkstar with Civic Jams (Warp) placed us squarely under the stage lights, their burning siren songs feeling as elemental as ever, thrumming with (Wu) life. 

The bouncing bass and smokin' electronics of Fritz von Runte's The Last Album (Marshall Records) brought a cracking space jam to 2020, so fresh and so clean: it had Graham Massey and Bill Drummond on audio and word duties respectively. An album with a similar quirky independent feel was Magic Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp) from, you guessed it, Oneohtrix Point Never. However, I was less convinced by the weird processed nature of Oneohtrix's ninth album, especially those vocals. One-y needs to borrow some guest vocalists from Fritz.

Speaking of vocals, Lyra Pramuk's voice on Fountain (Bedroom Community) was processed to heckery, and to tremendous effect. Comprising only her vocals, Fountain was an engrossing and unique work, and it feels like a crime to not include this in the Top 25. Seriously, give it a listen. Not so much in-the-club as outside the club listening to the queue chatter but slowed down a thousand times.

What's left in this little pile? Ah yes, there was Matmos's epic The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form (Thrill Jockey), which was three hours of bizarre 99bpm electronics with 99 collaborators, including Matthew Herbert, the aforemented Oneohtrix and Andi from Mouse on Mars. As PC Danny Butterman once said, this is "off the fricking chain". And finally, let's get back to woozy: Beatrice Dillon debut album Workaround (PAN) embraced the obscure, the minimal beats existing in some otherplace: not so much a nightclub as a cubist impression of a nightclub.

There are plenty more special mentions to come. Gobble them up. Gobble them right up.


Best electronic albums of 2020: eighteen

18 wagon christ fat roland electronic albums of 2020
18 – Wagon Christ – Recepticon (People of Rhythm Records)

Wagon Christ used to be everywhere. He'd spout his daft block-rockin' beats, and us disciples would follow in his sandals, witnessing his miracles, lapping up his communion wafers, er, nuzzling his Jesus beard, um, I think I've lost control of this metaphor.

Recepticon is the long-awaited return of Luke Vibert's experimental moniker, which was originally a Rising High ambient project but quickly became the go-to name for accessible experimental dance music. It gave me instant flashbacks to my DJing days in the 1990s: the speed breaks of 1998's Lovely were a delight to mix.

So we have wonky downbeat, loping grooves, fat acid, party samples ("Hello, everybody!") and self-referential track titles like Boogie Serious and Special Designer Song. He throws it all into the bag then empties out a rag-tag jumble of retro fun. It's Wagon Christ at his best.

Come O Wagon Christ. Fill us with your loaves and fish. Let us exalt you by, erm, signing up to the church newsletter. Let us do something with a hassock even though we're not quite sure what it is. Crikes, these Jesus metaphors really are adding nothing.


Best electronic albums of 2020: nineteen

19 dangerwnk fat roland electronic albums of 2020
19 – Dangerw*nk – Your Card Has Been Declined (Salmon Universe)

I've starred out part of Dangerw*nk's name because I'm pretty sure Blogger still has some unforgiving filters. Which is a shame, because the only danger here is listening to this album then exploding with sheer electronic joy.

Your Card Has Been Declined was the leftfield surprise of the year. In Electronic Sound magazine, I called this "Ulrich Schnauss for an Instagram generation". Bright electronic anthem after bright electronic anthem. I even liked the saxophone.

And what anthems. Woman Laughing Alone With Salad is a chocolate-sprinkled Sakamoto. An Attractively Priced Two Bedroom Flat In A Sought After Location is a new-born Plone, full of possibilities for the future. And yes, those are the real titles.

I do wonder if this album stayed under the radar for some people because of the ungoogleable name. Which would be a pity because this is an absolute d*light, a bright shining st*r in a dark year. Listen to it, you f*ckers.


Dec 28, 2020

Best electronic albums of 2020: welcome to my Special Mentions Block Party, whatever that is

special mention machinedrum fat roland electronic albums of 2020
Here are yet more special mentions, comprising albums I really liked but couldn't squeeze into my final top 25 despite purchasing several shoe horns.

This selection is themed along the lines of "albums I would play at a block party". 

I have no idea what a block party is. The only parties I've been to are children's, acid house, political and raiding. But let's imagine we're dropping some bangers and the people are going ham. Let's go.

People are arriving at the party: this DJ needs to press play on some tunes. Machinedrum's ninth album A View Of U (Ninja Tune) was one of his strongest, with slow jams and drum machine smashers galore. While the cloakroom cue is bopping to this, I've also popped on Hudson Mohawke's BBHE (Warp), a lively bag of unreleased works that serves as Machinedrum's wackier, dirtier cousin.

To add a unique party atmosphere, I'm now playing Arca's Kick i (XL Recordings), although in typical Arca fashion her work here is not so much bangers as scrapers and writhers and awkwardly diagonal wibblers. Maybe I can save the atmosphere with Tricky's Fall To Pieces (False Idols), his fourteenth album and a welcome return to form due in no small part to his brilliant vocalist Marta. Actually, probably a little dark for a party. Bad DJ choice, but good album.

The partiers are helping themselves to punch. Do they have punch at block parties? Anyway, I'm now spinning Two Fingers' Fight! Fight! Fight! (Nomark) with Amon Tobin in full corrugated-bass mode. Every track is a digitally-decayed dance-off: it's brilliant. Oh no. People are leaving. They want the new Steps album. How about Rian Treanor's second album File Under UK Metaplasm (Planet Mu), which sounds like a rave in the middle of Mike Teavee's fractal transfer in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory? No? Perhaps I can salvage things with upsammy's Zoom (Dekmantel) which takes a mirrorball to IDM and transforms it into an intricate alien sunrise.


Sigh. Stupid imaginary block party.


Best electronic albums of 2020: twenty

20 khotin fat roland electronic albums of 2020
20 – Khotin – Finds You Well (Ghostly International)

Do the Boards of Canada androids dream of electronic music? And when they do, does it sound like this Edmonton producer's super-hazy take on detuned downbeat? Or do they just have nightmares where they're in school assembly without their pants? 

Probably the latter.

Khotin's Finds You Well is possibly the most likeable album on my list. If it popped round for dinner, I'd let it beat me on the Playstation then let it into the garden to jump on my trampoline. It's a huggable nostalgic treat, and very much the opposite to a terrible 2020.

In once sense, you've heard this before: my opening reference was quite deliberate. Plaintive head-nodders meet pining analogue synths and scratchy vocal samples, all with a healthy element of fuzz. But it's incredibly well done.

During one moment of dying ambience, Khotin's kid sister appears, sing-songing "the world is wonderful".  I can't help feeling that Finds You Well doesn't sound like an album we want right now: it sounds like the album we need.


Best electronic albums of 2020: twenty-one

21 nthng fat roland electronic albums of 2020
21 – nthng – Hypnotherapy (Lobster Theremin)

"Yeah." Such a great start to Hypnotherapy. It starts with floating ambience, then suddenly from the heart of the Bronx some bad boy goes "yeah". It stops you in your tracks. nthng is going to be quite smthng, er I mean, something.

This Dutch producer's second album treads a delicate line between spacey trance and off-kilter ambience. Sonorous dub techno rises from unseen foundations, rattles the walls with thunderous echoes, raises the roof a thousand times over. And then it flattens out and lets the dubbiness take over.

Most remarkable is the album's climactic moment. It's not a warehouse banger, but instead is a slab of ocean-deep serenity called With You, constantly peppered with a fluttering "just want to be with you" vocal. So weird. And so good.

Incidentally, that cover image is a close-up of the right eye of a bee-fly. Thanks to this Twitter conversation for pointing me towards the photograph. And here's more about the fly if you're into that kind of thing. That's right: you're learning about albums and little flappy things.