From a personal standpoint, electronic music has made a huge impression on me in 2010. I’ve been obsessed with the genre through parts of the past year, due in no small part to the massive amount of great electronic albums released in 2010. From trip-hop to house to dance to downtempo to indie electronica, and even to minimalist techno, numerous subgenres of electronic had strong showings this year. It goes without saying that this is one of the strongest categories on this guide.
Blue Sky Black Death
An indie electronic album may not be what fans of Blue Sky Black Death were expecting with their latest album, but the production duo known mostly for trip-hop and hardcore hip-hop have teamed up with Boy in Static vocalist Alexander Chen to make such an album. It definitely takes some getting used to, and Chen’s vocals don’t always fit with the instrumentals, but Third Party is a surprisingly polished record. The beats are exceptionally well made, creating a psychedelic atmosphere that’s closer to dream pop than anything else in the electronic genre. There’s a lot of fuzzy distortion, although it probably would have been better with a more varied vocalist. The production is far too experimental to waste on such uninspired singing. As a fan of the duo, I hope Blue Sky Black Death return to hip-hop, as that’s clearly where their strength lies. However, as a one time thing, Third Party really is a great album.
For a collection of singles released throughout the year, the oddly titled 4x4=12 is surprisingly cohesive. Listening to it as a whole sounds like one epic song, although that that doesn’t mean that Deadmau5’s songs sound the same. Joel Zimmerman is an absolute master of building tension, and there’s a mind blowing moment when the last track, “Everything Before,” hits, showing just how Deadmau5 has far brought his music without ever stopping the beat. There are even a few instances of dubstep, such as on the masterful “Raise Your Weapon,” where a beautiful beat subtlety builds over guest vocals from Greta Svabo Bech until it turns into a version of dubstep only the mau5 could create. The songs with SOFI on vocals are somewhat of a misstep, however. She works relatively well on “Sofi Needs a Ladder,” but “One Trick Pony” is difficult to listen to a result of her voice. Still, there’s a lot to like here. The songs work as singles, are absolutely epic when played in a single session, and are incredibly accessible for music listeners who aren’t usually into dance music.
A Bright Cold Day
Liz Fullerton and Jedi Mind Tricks producer Stoupe are a match made in trip-hop heaven. Stoupe’s production fits perfectly in a trip-hop sound, but his variety and experimentation in Jedi Mind Tricks hasn’t quite made it over to Dutch. Stoupe will often return to territory he explored earlier in the record, and as such the album starts to run out of ideas towards the end. Still, the first half is incredible, and Fullerton is perfect match for Stoupe’s beats. A Bright Cold Day is hopefully only the start of Dutch, but even as a flawed debut there is a lot for trip-hop fans to like.
Safe in the Steep Clouds
The second solo album from the man behind most of the beats from Sadistik’s The Balancing Act (one of the best and most underappreciated hip-hop albums of the last decade), is one of the best trip-hop albums of 2010. Emancipator’s Safe in Steep Clouds is a gorgeous album. It can start to get a little repetitive towards the end, but there are enough beautiful soundscapes on the album’s first 45 minutes to make up for its weak ending. Emancipator’s style is almost minimalist in nature, as he tends to keep the same beat going throughout, only adding small elements to it when necessary. It actually works quite well most of the time, although it certainly won’t appeal to trip-hop fans used to catchier artists like Massive Attack and Portishead.
Cosmogramma is not only the best album so far from experimental producer Flying Lotus, but it’s his first album of actual art. While Flying Lotus has always shown a great deal of talent, his overly experimental approach has never really amounted to anything more than just that- an experiment. With two full length albums under his belt, Flying Lotus has learned from his mistakes and created an album that lives up to his enormous potential. Cosmogramma is as cohesive as an experimental electronic album can be, and the songs have a great deal of tension and build up. Be warned that this album still isn’t all that accessible, but anyone willing to embrace their avant-garde side will be rewarded with an ambitious and creative record that simply cannot be brushed aside.
Every year there seems to be at least one talented new producer who comes out of nowhere to take a trend and do something completely crazy with it. Nosaj Thing did it with glitch last year, and Deadmau5 did it with house the year before. With dubstep emerging as the new trend in underground dance music, Gold Panda has burst onto the scene to turn the growing genre on its head. Just to be clear, Lucky Shiner isn’t necessarily a dubstep album, but it does share a number of qualities with the genre. For one thing, Gold Panda doesn’t do a lot of building. His beats are chaotic, and while he changes things up frequently the chaos never really ends. However, Gold Panda takes the dubstep structure and puts some truly unique elements into it. There is a strong psychedelic atmosphere throughout Lucky Shiner, and there are even a few moments of glitch-hop thrown in for good measure. Panda puts a number of different sounds into his beats, but most of it works. Lucky Shiner is an impressive debut, and one that this talented producer will hopefully build on in the future.
This is Happening
As a fan of LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver, I was a little disappointed when I first heard This is Happening. It wasn’t that it was bad, but after hearing a highly artistic electronic album with emotional lyrics and hypnotizing beats, it felt a little strange to hear James Murphy go back to pure dance music. The more I listened to the album though, the more I realized that as far as dance music goes This Happening does just everything right. It’s catchy as hell, the beats change at just the right moments, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the most accessible dance albums out there. This is great dance music, highly original and very effective, and as long as you don’t expect another Sound of Silver it’s hard to image an electronic fan not being entertained by This is Happening.
Pantha du Prince
Approaching music from a minimalist style is one of the hardest things a musician can do. As an electronic artist, there is always a temptation to speed things up, adding in unnecessary sounds or removing others too early. However, if an artist can be patient and really explore the sounds they’ve created, the listener is forced to do the same. Pantha du Prince has achieved this on Black Noise, and listening to it can be a mind bending experience. It’s hard not to get lost in the downtempo beats, and even after numerous listens I still feel me eyes well up. Black Noise is a masterful album, and one that anyone with the patience for minimalist art should experience.
One of my personal favorite albums of 2010, Phantogram’s Eyelid Movies is a trippy, dreamy, and atmospheric album that takes Mezzanine-influenced trip-hop and combines it with elements of 80’s alternative rock. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter make for an excellent duo, both in terms of production and vocals. They both have their own styles that blend perfectly together, creating a multi-layered mesh of trip-hop that’s catchy and atmospheric in equal measure. Eyelid Movies is highly original and incredibly entertaining, and it’s an absolutely fantastic debut.
Susanne Sundfør’s The Brothel is a strikingly beautiful yet undeniably catchy album. Her brand of electronic art pop is somewhat similar to that of Imogen Heap, but The Brothel is more ambitious than anything else I’ve heard in that style. The beats are extremely varied, using violins, keyboards, pianos, and other instruments to create unique electro beats for Susanne Sundfør’s vocals. The vocals are beautiful and help make the melodies incredibly catchy, and it’s worth mentioning again that the beats are just incredible. There are moments where the electronic influences are completely removed and beautiful orchestral and piano parts take their place. The Brothel is a fantastic album from start to finish, and it’s the type of gorgeous accessible electronica that deserves a far larger audience than it will ultimately get.