Top 25 Electronic Albums
by Philip Sherburne | January 3, 2013
I'll admit it: This is a funny list. As much as I've pored and parsed, it still seems odd. But then, this was a weird year for electronic music. How could it not have been, when the genre's most visible representative -- and Grammy hat-tricker -- was a former screamo singer who collaborated with The Doors and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley? When Deadmau5 jammed with the Foo Fighters, and everyone from Muse to Taylor Swift flirted with dubstep breakdowns? When the Huffington Post suddenly got all breathless over A-Trak and Swedish House Mafia?
But it wasn't just the gossip-mongering and hand-wringing, the online beefs and barbs -- sure signs of a genre experiencing very public growing pains. Dance music (or electronic music, though the two aren't always the same) seemed curiously rudderless this year. And I don't just mean on the commercial overground, where the story of the music's success generally overshadowed any actual discussion of the music itself. Dance music, being a fundamentally collective enterprise -- fueled by technological change, dancefloor trends and grassroots tweaks to canonical tropes -- seemed at a loss for direction. Scenes soldiered on: Tech house, deep house, techno, trance, dubstep, the thing we've come to call "bass music," even though no one likes to -- they all packed clubs and festivals and produced plenty of fine, floor-filling fodder. But the bigger stories were hard to come by; there were no grand mutations or great migrations. The sense of a holding pattern prevailed.
You feel that the most when looking at the year's albums, but there's an important caveat here: electronic (dance) music has never been an albums-driven genre, not really. Club music lives and dies by its singles (though that's not to say that it doesn't also produce a classic long-player now and then). But electronic albums offer a chance to look at where things might be headed. They document the experiments that club producers might be making on the side; they present sounds might filter into dance music down the line, or spawn further offshoots of their own. But this year's best albums didn't feel connected to a larger enterprise or indicative of major shifts; they felt mostly like entities unto themselves.
Of course, rudderlessness can be a positive in and of itself. Some of my very favorite records this year were the most "outsider" in their relationship to genre. Daphni (Caribou's Dan Snaith) went back to basics -- funk samples, analog synthesizers -- and gave house and techno a joyful kick in the seat of their pants. Lukid, Container and the Dutch duo Juju & Jordash all opted to remake techno after their own, idiosyncratic blueprints. There are a few "proper" club records in the list -- particularly mixed albums from Maya Jane Coles and Levon Vincent, two of the most distinctive DJs working today. But for the most part, the year's best electronic albums created their own stories, having less to do with club convention than the messy, multidimensional kind of listening endangered by the internet. They're less about history or genre than they are expressions of the way we live music now.
Ultimately I put together this list based as much on what it says about electronic music's potential as its present. These are, for me, the best records because they're the most promising. They don't coast on a pro-forma rollercoaster of buildups and "drops" or end with a cake in the face; they open up to a future no one has imagined yet, just as electronic music has always attempted to do.
25) The 2 Bears, Be Strong
24) Simian Mobile Disco, Unpatterns
23) Ital, Dream On
22) Smallpeople, Salty Days
21) No UFO's, Soft Coast
20) Gatekeeper, Exo
19) Strategy, Strategy
18) Petar Dundov, Ideas from the Pond
17) Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Trouble
16) Emeralds, Just to Feel Anything
15) Container, LP
14) Bee Mask, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears
13) Lindstrom, Smalhans
12) Addison Groove, Transistor Rhythm
11) Hello Skinny, Hello Skinny
10) Lee Gamble, Diversions 1994-1996
09) Maya Jane Coles, DJ Kicks
08) Levon Vincent, Fabric 63
07) Traxman, Da Mind of Traxman
06) John Talabot, Fin
05) I:Cube, "M" Megamix
04) Laurie Spiegel, The Expanding Universe
03) Lukid, Lonely at the Top
02) Juju & Jordash, Techno Primitivism
01) Daphni, Jiaolong